Mourning Becomes Electra

by Eugene O’Neill

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Places Discussed

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Mannon mansion

Mannon mansion. Home of the Mannon family, on the outskirts of a small, unnamed New England village near the sea, that is the setting for twelve of the thirteen acts of the trilogy. As each of the three plays progresses from act to act, the settings move from the mansion’s exterior to its interior. Gradually, the house’s study, Ezra’s bedroom, and the sitting room are revealed. O’Neill’s description of the surrounding area, with its woods, orchard, garden, lawn, and greenhouse, are carefully detailed. The position of the mansion on a hill above the town suggests the assumed power and assumed superiority of the Mannon family. O’Neill describes the house in such detail that it is clear he considers it integral to the action of his plot.

Clipper ship

Clipper ship. The only setting other than the exterior and interior of the Mannon mansion is the stern of a ship and the wharf to which it is moored. This is used only in the fourth act of The Hunter, the second play in O’Neill’s trilogy, when General Mannon’s son, Orin, kills the ship’s captain.

Historical Context

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Born in 1888, Eugene O'Neill's life spanned some of the most important events of contemporary history. While he played no actual role in the events themselves, the issues involved—particularly those related to democracy and materialism—figure prominently in his plays.

O'Neill came of age during America's Progressive Era. Interested in politics and political philosophy, the young playwright associated with the radicals and reformers who comprised his Greenwich Village and Provincetown circle of Bohemian friends.

A close friend of John Reed, the journalist known for his book about the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, O'Neill had a longtime affair with Reed's wife, the journalist Louise Bryant. Many critics believe that O'Neill based Strange Interlude's love triangle on this experience. O'Neill's writings explore the problems confronting American society, particularly rampant materialism, loss of individuality, and lack of spiritual values.

During the first twenty years of the twentieth century, more than ten million European immigrants arrived in America. O'Neill's father and his family had come to America during an earlier wave of immigration, arriving from Ireland in 1850. Factory jobs and mass transit drew millions of people to the cities, and America became an increasingly urban nation. Many immigrants brought with them a tradition of union activity and joined the American labor movement.

During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to regulate large corporate interests and enforce anti-trust statutes. In 1902, he forced an arbitrated settlement during a major coal strike. President William Howard Taft, though less aggressive than Roosevelt, generally continued his predecessor's progressive policies, breaking up the Standard Oil Company's monopoly, and establishing a Children's Bureau and Department of Labor.

President Woodrow Wilson urged banking reform and anti-trust actions, supported farm loans and a ban on labor by children under fourteen— though the Supreme Court deemed this later action unconstitutional. In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the constitution gave women the right to vote.

Domestically, politicians did little to end segregation, halt the rising influence of the Klu Klux Klan, or curb the practices that prevented many African Americans from voting. In two plays, O'Neill created a leading role for a black man: The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924). Both plays appeared as productions of the Provincetown Theatre.

This was also an era of American imperialism. Overseas, the United States fought a war with Spain in 1898 and gained colonial influence in places like Cuba and the Philippines. In 1903,...

(This entire section contains 592 words.)

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American gained dominance over Panama and began the construction of the Panama Canal.

In Europe, industrialization, colonialism, and militarism resulted in World War I. Wilson tried to maintain American neutrality, restricting trade with the warring parties. However, the United States entered the war in 1917. After the war ended in 1919, Wilson worked for the formation of the League of Nations precursor to today's United Nations.

Declining wages, farm economy problems, protectionist tariffs, and overproduction of manufactured goods contributed to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which threw millions of people out of work. While President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies of government spending to stimulate employment did improve conditions somewhat, the American economy did not fully recover until the Second World War.

In Mourning Becomes Electra, O'Neill's symbolic use of the post-Civil War setting reveals his understanding of American history and ideology, raising parallels between an earlier war fought for firm ideological beliefs and WWI, which was fought in large measure over colonial issues. He also compares New England's nineteenth-century Puritan heritage with contemporary America, in which conformity and materialism contribute to cultural relativism and the lack of a moral compass.

Literary Style

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Traditionally in Greek tragedies, the chorus consists of masked actors who dance and chant. Generally, they do not participate in the action itself, which allows them to remain objective and offer advice or commentary. They often present background information and represent the community' s position or traditional values. In the Mourning Becomes Electra trilogy, the groups of local people whose conversations and actions open the plays serve as the chorus.

Expressionism is a style of art that expresses internal experiences and psychological truth. Such art does not present a realistic image of world, but instead tries to create in the viewer a powerful "true" experience of a particular emotion, feeling, or state of mind.

Many of O'Neill's plays have expressionistic elements: masks, which conceal the actor's faces; and asides, in which actors address the audience without others on stage hearing. Expressionistic elements in Mourning Becomes Electra include the pairing of characters (Lavinia resembles Christine and Orin resembles Ezra) and the symbolism of the Mannon house, which resembles a Greek temple.

Naturalism is a nineteenth-century theory that developed in the wake of Darwin's theory of evolution. Naturalists perceived people as products of their heredity and environment. Naturalistic drama presents a vision of human life as akin to that of animal nature, in which these Darwinian drives motivate people. In many ways, these forces of nature minimize or even eliminate the individual's free will.

Naturalistic elements in Mourning Becomes Electra include the ways the characters' personal histories and environments determine their actions and motivations.

Realistic theater attempts to present realistic character actions, situations, and motivations. Furthermore, the stage recreates the experience of a real situation. Realistic drama avoids melodramatic acting, stagy effects, and dramatic conventions like a deus ex machina, character asides, and soliloquies.

The setting refers to the place in which the play's actions take place. Settings often have a symbolic value. For example, the neoclassical architecture of the Mannon mansion in Mourning Becomes Electra resembles a Greek temple, so the setting reminds us that the play itself offers a retelling of a cycle of Greek tragedies.

Compare and Contrast

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1931: America is in the midst of a severe economic depression, known as the Great Depression. Led by President Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government proposes and implements a series of social programs known as ‘‘The New Deal.’’

Today: The country benefits from a robust and growing economy. Although there is still a wide chasm between the well-off and poor segments of society, most people enjoy low interest rates, low unemployment, a booming stock market, and cheap and accessible sources of fuel.

1931: Most Americans travel by train or ship. Commercial aviation is very limited, and cars are becoming more popular and financially viable for the middle classes. This improved mobility allows people to move from the cities into surrounding suburbs.

Today: Most Americans travel by car and airplane. Airline price wars decrease airline fares, allowing many Americans to travel frequently and cheaply.

1931: Robert Frost's Collected Poems wins a Pulitzer Prize, philanthropist Albert Schweitzer publishes My Life and Thoughts, Disney releases its first color film, Flowers and Trees, and the "Star-Spangled Banner" becomes America's National Anthem.

Today: Frost remains a popular and influential poet. Schweitzer's ideal of dedicating one's life to serving others inspired many, as seen in Mother Theresa's work with the sick and Jimmy Carter's work for Habitat for Humanity. Today, most films we see on television and in theaters are in color.

Media Adaptations

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In 1947, RKO Pictures released an adaptation of the play, which starred Raymond Massey, Rosalind Russell, and Michael Redgrave. The film compresses the play's six hours of action into three.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brustein, Robert. "Eugene O'Neill," in The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama, Little, Brown, & Co. 1964, pp. 329-59.

Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill, Twayne Publishers, 1979.

Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays, Dover, 1947.

De Voto, Bernard. "Minority Report," in Playwright's Progress: O'Neill and the Critics, edited by Jordan Miller, Scott, Foresman, & Co., 1965, pp. 108-12.

Jensen, George H. "Eugene O'Neill," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 141-63.

Further Reading
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O'Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, Yale University Press, 1999, 480 p.

A comprehensive, well-documented biography of O'Neill.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O'Neill, Chelsea House, 1988, 183 p.

Collection of critical essays on O'Neill's work.

Bogart, Travis, ed. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill, Yale University Press, 1988, 602 p.

O'Neill's collected letters provide insight into his life and work.

Stroupe, John H., ed. Critical Approaches to O'Neill, AMS Press, 1988.

Comprised of critical essays on O'Neill's work.


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Berlin, Normand, ed. Eugene O’Neill, Three Plays: “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night”: A Casebook. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989. A good introduction. Includes excerpts from O’Neill’s working diary, tracing the play’s development from inception to second galleys. Contains four reviews of the original production, and seven critical studies dealing with character, theme, and style.

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Provides detailed comparison between Mourning Becomes Electra and Euripides and Aeschylus, noting the shift from theological to psychological emphasis. Discusses importance as historical drama, focusing on Calvinist tradition and Puritan repression in New England.

Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. An excellent introduction. Includes brief biography and interpretive analysis of each play, identifying themes, key words, and ideas. Relates Mourning Becomes Electra to its Greek source and to O’Neill’s life.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Comprehensive study of O’Neill’s life and work based on his writings and over four hundred interviews with family members, friends, and critics. Begins with his ancestors and traces his growth as a man and an artist. Follows the development of Mourning Becomes Electra from idea to production.

Moorton, Richard F., ed. Eugene O’Neill’s Century: Centennial Views on America’s Foremost Tragic Dramatist. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Presents essays from a variety of perspectives, theatrical arts, psychology, philosophy, classics, which analyze and psychoanalyze character and theme in O’Neill. Includes detailed comparison between The Haunted and Eumenides.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide