Mourning Becomes Electra is a psychological dramatization of the evils of puritanism. The puritan heritage of the personae in the play is established in a way by the setting. O’Neill situates the action in
New England. The locale––in literary convention at least––is rugged, cold, sea-bound. The thin-soiled, rock-strewn countryside with small, barren mountain-ranges and rivers running down to the gray Atlantic creates an atmosphere of severity, inflexity, firmness. The people are like the landscape-tight, thrifty, joyless, merchantclass puritans, descendants of Anglo-Saxon nonconformists. The Mannons live in this setting ; their attitudes are defined by the locale.
O’Neill’s Version of Puritanism
Within this general situation O’Neill specifies, his puritanism. It is not a careful historical approximation of
New England attitudes vintage 1865 ; it is puritanism as O’Neill understood it through the eyes of his own generation. And, in the early twentieth century, among the avant-garde of the literary world, it was the sum total’ of everything that was wrong with American society. No matter what the private views of individuals, the official American posture was a hypocritical, righteously irreligious (or a-religious) puritanism.
The Voice of Mencken
The puritan background of Mourning Becomes Electra comprises, along with broader classical elements, that complex of attitudes described and decried by Mencken and his associates. O’Neill weaves these attitudes into the background of his action. As the locale calls puritanism to mind; O’Neill visualizes the tradition in his stage setting. The Mannon house characterizes the family. The facade of the mansion is fronted by a white Grecian temple portico with six tall columns and a gray stone wall behind. This portico is like an incongruous white mask fixed on the house to hide its sombre gray ugliness. If the audience fails to mark the significance of the setting, early in the first act it is called to their attention. In the words of Christine :
Every time I come back after being away it (the house) appears more like a sepulchre ! The “whited” one of the Bible––pagan temple front stuck like a mask on Puritan gray, ugliness ! It was just like old Abe Mannon to build such a monstrosity––as a temple for his hatred.
It is highly unlikely that a New Englander of 1865 would see the family home in this light ; the voice is the voice of Mencken. The action is played against this parisaical facade as the house of the Mannons visualizes for the audience the traditional attitudes of the “House of Mannon”.
Cultural Base of the Mannon Heritage
This interpretation of the puritan heritage rests on a broad cultural base; the Mannon background also includes those features characteristic of the nineteenth-century New Englander. Grandfather Abe, whose Biblical name has dynastic implications, established a shipping business that made the family fortune. (The name Mannon, with resonances of Agamemnon, also has an appropriate resemblance to “Mannon”.) As a result of their dedication to business, the Mannons are the most prosperous family in the community. After learning law, he became judge and mayor of the town. Devotion to business is part of the traditional Protestant mystique. Diligence and industry lead to financial success––and this success carries with it a debt to society.
The Mannons its “The Elect”
To all outward appearances, the Mannons are “the elect”. Their prominence in the community and the lavishness of the mansion testify to their probity, according to the orthodox standard. Christine, whose adulterous union would hardly be explicable in a rigid puritan, is set apart from the real Mannons ; her ancestry is not new England or even Anglo-Saxon. She is “furring lookin’ and queer, French and Dutch descended.” Her -family has not been financially successful––“She didn’t bring no money when Ezra married her.” “She ain’t the Mannon kind” sums up the xenophobic reaction of the townspeople This background is contrasted with the family’s––Anglo-Saxon stock, old settlers, successful merchants, in short, puritan “elect”.
No Relish of Salvation
Though the family has all the visible earmarks of the predestined, these are simply outward show. Like the mansion, their puritanism is full of dead men’s bones, and their theology has no relish of salvation in it. “The Mannon way” is a preoccupation with death, the cold remnant of Calvinistic dogma. For example, Ezra says, “Life ‘had only made me think of death...That’s always been the Mannon way of thinking. They went to the white meeting-house on Sabbaths and meditated on death. Life was a dying. Being born was starting to die. Death was being born…That white meetinghouse. It stuck in my mind––clean scrubbed and white––washed a temple of death.” According to the cultural analyses of historians ;like Weber, the virtues of the puritan––industry, thrift, social responsibility, regular habits, careful avoidance of sensuality, all stemmed from a search for certainty about election. Somewhat oversimplifying Calvin’s theology they depended on cautious organization and a clock-like regularity as protection against an irretreivable lapse––a fall whose implications extended out of time into the illud tempus of predestined election, that “moment” which melds the beginning with the end of time, the arche with the eschaton. No redemption is possible for the sinner within this system ; once fallen, he is forever reprobate. The Mannon concern with death, however, does not relate it to grace, election and afterlife. There is no theological foundation to the puritan code in Mourning Becomes Electra. Like the puritanism that Mencken describes, it is an appearance without substance, an ethic without a dogma. These attitudes provide a basis for the motivation of the personae, but, unlike the tribal code of the Oresteia, they do not include an Olympian dimension.
Sex and Puritanism
Another prominent feature of the Mannons’ puritanism is their attitude towards sex. For O’Neill’s generation, puritanism was .associated, first and foremost, with a repressive attitude towards sexual impulses. This appetite posed the greatest problem for the Calvinist; it exercised the strongest pull and thus had to be most zealously guarded against. The “fall from grace” gradually assimilated sexual overtones ; the fallen woman fell only in one direction.
Sex and the Family Curse
O’Neill’s characters are caught between this revulsion and fascination. The origin of the family curse is, in the first instance, Abe Mannon’s hatred towards his brother David because of David’s seduction of, and subsequent marriage to, Marie Brantome. He went so far as to destroy the house in which the seduction took place. This hatred has implicit approval in the puritan way––no association of the elect with the reprobate. By sustaining the orthodox position on sexual errance, Grandfather Mannon––who, it turns out, was in love with. Marie himself––bequeathed his righteous hatred to the family. In the play this strain in the Mannon ethos finds full expression in the; reactions of Lavinia and Orin. In her first conversation with Captain Brant, Lavinia declares that she “hates love”, and equates it with “naked women and sin”. “Love” means the physical act of love ; the Captain, like all men, dreams dirty dreams––of love. Christine, whose descent explains her liberal attitude––the French are traditionally a passionate people––derides her daughter for prudishness : “Puritan maidens should not peer too inquisitively into spring ! Isn’t beauty an abomination and love a vile thing ?” Love is sometimes vile also for Christine ; her own marriage soon turned “romance into disgust”. She made her husband feel the burden of her distaste, and he expresses his reaction in good puritan style : “What are bodies to me? ...Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt ! Is that your notion of love ? Do you think I married a body ?...You made me appear a lustful beast in my own eyes––as you’ve done since our first marriage night.” For the Mannons, dirt and animality and abomination spell out the implications of sex.
The Fascination-Revulsion Syndrome
The obverse of the coin is depicted also ; their revulsion is. attended by a fascination. Though bodies are only bodies, when Ezra sets out to effect a reconciliation with his wife, he becomes passionate. Christine allays his suspicion about her affair with Brant by kissing him and allowing him to press her “fiercely in his arms”. Lavinia’s repugnance for mother’s sensuality is flavoured with jealousy, especially about her father’s affection. Of all the Mannons, Orin reveals this fascination-revulsion syndrome most. His passionate attachment to his mother, rife with sexual overtones, has kept him from marrying Hazel, but he is drawn by the girl’s purity, and he sees her passionless love for him as cleansing. On their return from the
Islands, he finds Lavinia’s blossoming attractiveness repulsive––because he sees her now as desirable. The climax of the brother-sister relationship is Orin’s proposal that they have incestuous relations ; this would both satisfy his desire and cement their mutual guilt. From the puritan point of view, the physical act of love between brother and sister is the fullest expression of their mutual damnation. The “curse” which began with David’s seduction of Marie Brantome spirals down to an incestuous proposal. No seventeenth-century divine would conceive in more suitable symbol for the ultimate reprobation of the Mannons ; no libertarian would devise a clearer picture of the fascination-revulsion combination that Mencken and his school saw in puritanism.
The attitudes of the townspeople-chorus underscore the conventionality of the play’s puritanism. The middle-class conspiracy which aspires to Babylonian practices while proclaiming Christian values weds hypocrisy with a practical view of sex. The women gossip in orthodox fashion ; coming away from Ezra’s wake, Mrs. Hills blurts out : “You remember,
, you’ve always said about the Mannons that pride goeth before a fall and that someday God would humble them in their sinful pride.” This version embarrasses the company ; afterward the mew draw aside for a less pious assessment. They make sniggering references to the General’s love-making as the probable cause of his angina. The lower classes are even blunter about their sexual preoccupation. Before the climax of the second play, the murder of Adam by Orin, the drunken sailor who serves as chorus complains about the “yaller-haired pig who put her arm around me so lovin’ ” and then cleaned his pockets. Similarly, in the knocking-on-the-gate episode which opens The Hunted, the crones who gather round the gardener allow that Christine was a “looker”. Owe offers to let her ghost sit on his lap if “ghosts look like the living”. The middle-class and the proletariat fill out the picture ; they reflect Menckew’s contention that the puritan sexual code does not really present the aspirations of the society. And, while practice and appearances may differ among the classes, their attitudes with regards to sex have a common root ; sex is animal, and degrading, not to be associated with “pure” love. Everett
Limitations of Puritanism
O’Neill’s understanding, of puritanism provides conscious motivation for the personae. The Mannons think in puritan categories.; they see their plight in these terms. But the playwright and the audience see their actions in a wider context that conflicts with but also in some sense explains, the puritan mentality. Puritanism does not clarify the darker matters that make the action, inevitable, that link crime to crime in necessary progress.