Imminence of Death
Beyond the stereotyped message that “adjustment is all”, and in ironic contrast to it, there is in Mourning Becomes Electra an overwhelming, unrelenting sense of the imminence of Death. The events of the plot––murder, murder-suicide, immurement––objectify this sense of death as does the sepulchral facade of the Mannon house. Death is the goal of O’Neill’s Puritan ; he meditates on it, he walks in its shadow, he lives for it. Since this Puritanism does not include a theological dimension, Death is an end in itself, not a passage to another world.
Death as Epiphany
Thus Death is not merely a thematic image in the play or simply a way of dispatching the personae and cleaning up the stage. It is the Epiphany that concludes the action, the vision to which the plot progresses. If Greek tragedy included the death of the hero, it also provided a means of encompassing the idea of death in a framework of death-and-rebirth. O’Neill’s modifications, however, result in a hopeless reiteration that death is final, absolutely conclusive, the end. In addition to the agon and the pathos, the conflict and the suffering, the Oresteia includes a “rebirth” or epiphany, in which the hero is purified by both society and the gods. In Mourning Becomes Electra however, the epiphany is a vision of Death, of existential nothingness, the individual confronted by the void. “Rebirth” and purgation become simple release from suffering through suicide or self-immurement.
The Ubiquity of Death
John Henry Raleigh says : “Underneath the play’s Freudianism ; its analogizing to Greek myth ; its recurrent incest motifs generation after ; its contrast between the uninhibited sexuality. of the South Seas and the rigid prudery of New England and the accompanying contrast between the freedom, rhythm, brightness, and beauty of life at sea and the restrictions, mechanizations, darkness, and dreariness of life on land ; underneath all these devices and themes is the ubiquity of death.” Yes, it is true. It is not only a question of the two murders (those of Ezra Mannon and Adam Brant) and the two suicides (Christine Mannon and Orin Mannon), but of the very fabric of the thought of the play, wherein the characters are not only trapped by their own dead but are also continually, tortuously meditating upon death. No one ever reaches a conclusion ; all they know, with any certainty, is that death is surely, inexorably devouring the Mannons, their power, and their way of life. In act third of Homecoming the newly returned Ezra Mannon, back home from the war, cannot stop talking about death, despite his wife’s plea that he cease : “That’s always been the Mannons’ way of thinking. They went to the white meeting-house on Sabbaths and meditated on death. Life was a dying. Being barn was starting to die. Death was being.” But the war, seeing too many white walls splattered with blood “that counted no more than dirty water”, made all this seem meaningless, ‘‘so much solemn fuss over death !” Real death has thought him the meaninglessness of imagined death, the Mannon obsession. But by dawn he will be death’s victim, murdered by his wife. Ironically, he had earlier observed to his wife : “All victory ends in the defeat of death.”
Death Symbols and Themes
Death symbols and themes are woven into the play in all kinds of ways. For example, the ancestral Mannons, whose portraits glare down from the walls of the house, were “witch-burners”. Again, the black-white symbolism that is endemic in O’Neill’s plays, and in American literature generally, is pervasive in Mourning Becomes Electra : the white faces set off by black clothing ; the white porticos of the house dimming into darkness ; and so on. And as in Melville, white does not signify purity ; rather it means the charnel house. The sound effects concur. The first song heard is “John Brown’s Body”. The theme song of the play, “Shenandoah”, is meant to signify the more sombre aspects of the sea (“a song that more than any other holds in it the brooding rhythm of the sea”). The drunken chantyman of the fourth act of The Hunted staggers off singing “Hanging Johnny”. Even American history plays a role in generating this aura of the charnel house, for the seminal national events in the background of the play are the Civil War, the greatest carnage experienced on American soil, and the assassination of
, its greatest single political tragedy. Moreover, beautiful, rhythmic ways of life are dying too, with the clipper giving way . to the steamer. As the chantyman drunkenly and lugubriously laments to Adam Brant, the owner of a beautiful clipper : “Aye, but it ain’t fur long, steam is comin’ in, the sea is full smoky tea-kettles, the old days is dyin’, and where’ll you an’ me be then ? (Lugubriously drunken again) Everything is dyin’ ! Abe Lincoln is dead.” Lincoln