O’Neill experimented with different techniques of characterization in different plays. He was a restless experimenter and he tried to invent dramatic techniques that could faithfully project his vision of life. His art of characterization, therefore, depends upon what kind of theme he is handling in a particular play. It is the theme that primarily dictates the style of characterization.Since in Mourning Becomes Electra his theme is concerned with evil, death, war, puritanism, freedom and love etc., he resorts to a technique of characterization that brings out the hidden force of these powerful concepts. His characterization, therefore, is fundamentally thematic and meant to help in understanding the central idea of the play more clearly and easily.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, which O’Neill patterned on ‘Greek tragedy, he was determined to reduce his story to its barest outlines and characters to their quintessential selves, either divining -or having read in Aristotle that in tragedy “character comes in as subsidiary to the action”, since the “incidents and the plot are the end of tragedy ; and the end is the chief thing of all.” Precisely as in The Great God Brown he had avoided showing us the individual peculiarities of facial expression through the use of masks, and in Strange Interlude and Dynamo resorted to the aside and the soliloquy because he Wanted to get at the mental processes of his people without making every speech seem “natural”, so in Mourning Becomes Electra he used a ready-made story into all the details and motives and reasons of which it was cot necessary to go. If he had lived in Elizabethan England, he would probably have gone over to the Backside and written plays in blank verse.
Victims of Evil
O’Neill’s characters in Mourning Becomes Electra, particularly those belonging to the Mannon clan, are victims of evil. To stress this point, O’Neill has focused his attention on the character of Lavinia. Lavinia, the product of those very forces in her family which precipitated its peculiar and inevitable fate, discovers that she has at last become like her own mother, that in demanding payment for sin that grew out of lust and hatred she herself is inevitably, drawn to her own brother and even to the naked savages, now that her father, toward whom she was also drawn by forces not exactly filial, is no longer alive. All her natural instincts, thwarted by a maniacal desire for vengeance, have turned in upon her. This is her fate, and she marches to a doom which is actually inescapable, from which no god-from-the-machine, no benign court, no accommodating dramatist, is able to save her. For such victims of the evil that seems inherent in lice there is no salvation.
Instead of using masks to show what has happened to Orin and Lavinia, O’Neill simply states in his stage directions that they have come to resemble their parents, a bit of symbolism more strikingly dramatic than he could have achieved if he had actually made the actors put on masks. “I’m now”, says Orin, “in Father’s place and you’re Mother……That’s the evil destiny out of the past I haven’t dared predict! I’m the Mannon you’re chained to !” Out of the mouth of this demented man has come the ultimate truth. Like the inspired Cassandra; he perceives through his disordered mind the meaning of the curse.
Mannons as Mankind
The Mannon mansion is infected by the taint of mortality, representing in a way the fate of mankind. As Seth, the hired hand, says in the first scene of The Haunted : “There’s been evil in that house since it was first built in hate-and it’s kept growin’ there ever since, as what’s happened there has proved.” There is in the trilogy the usual hint, in the imagination of a woman, that some kind of evil and implacable deity is behind it all. This notion is given to Christine Mannon in Act I of The Hunted in a dialogue with Hazel, the ‘nice’ young lady of the play. Christine too had once been innocent and loving and trusting, like Hazel, but “god won’t leave us alone” ; He tortures and wrings and twists human lives with “Others’ lives until ––we poison each other to death !” But, as in most of O’Neill’s tragedies, no exact balance is ever struck between fate and free will. And the men, on their part, think, simply, that a Mannon is a Mannon and this signifies death. Thus Orin sets out to write a history of the Mannon family in order to trace out to its secret hiding place the evil destiny that has dominated the Mannon family. He finds no answer and can only make the observation to Lavinia that he finds her the “most interesting criminal” of them all. And he concludes too that the Mannons are not special in any way but are only mankind writ large. He thus takes himself, prematurely aged, guilt ridden,, sitting in a dark room and writing about sin and death by a dim, lamp, to be a symbol of man’s fate––”a lamp burning out in a room of waiting shadows !”
Psychological Motivation and Complexes
In Mourning Becomes Electra O’Neill appears to have made the psychological motivation too explicit and on much too a neat pattern. And although this motivation has seemed Freudian, it has exaggerated to the point of incredibility the fatal necessity of the Oedipus and Electra complexes. It has described the sinful love of the son for the mother and of the daughter for the father as a universal, compulsive pattern. These protagonists seem to have been born damned. Except for Electra, they do not achieve tragedy ; they become merely the helpless victims of their inherited natures. And this psychological equivalent of original sin, which motivates the action of the play but destroys the conviction of its tragedy, is further explained intellectually by references to the
New England puritanism of the Mannons. But clinical psychology and puritanism remain abstractions ; they do not produce the dramatic illusion of reality.
O’Neill seems to have been aware of this difficulty, and he attempted to meet it by introducing a “Chorus” of “townsfolk... as a human background for the drama of the Mannons.” Contrasting with the inhuman Mannons, he introduced these “types, together with two individual “normal” characters, Peter and Hazel Niles. This brother and sister are described as in love with Lavinia and Orin Mannon, but they seem so innocent as to be unreal. They woodenly persist in their love for the Mannons, despite repeated rejections, insults and desertions. And their total unreality makes the unrelieved depravity of the Mannons seem all the more incredible. A true Inferno must establish some dramatic relationship with the work-a-day world. But only Seth Beckwith, the caretaker for the Mannons, successfully relates them to the world of the living.
O’Neill relentlessly analyzes the lives of five persons at the centre of his drama. While Peter, Hazel and the townspeople are deliberately characterized by purely external means, and Seth is left on the edges of the action, Lavinia, Christine, Orin, Ezra and Adam are placed in a crucible. They are concerned with nothing but themselves, and even that concern is limited to the psycho-sexual problems which they all fatally share. The psychoanalytic approach makes such concentration possible, perhaps inevitable, and it is extraordinary that a play of this length, with so small a cast and so little variety of subject matter, can hold an audience for the length of such remorseless investigation. That it works is because, with the psychoanalytic lead, O’Neill provides an essentially purgative action. Whereas nothing happened to Nina Leeds (in Strange Interlude), much happens to the Mannons. They discover, they grow, and they change, and what happens to them is therapeutic as psychoanalysis is therapeutic.
Exchange of Roles
Characters in O’Neill’s plays often exchange roles at different points in the drama. This is particularly true of Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra. After Christine has killed herself’ and Lavinia becomes a fully developed woman, she takes Christine’s place in the play as a whole, but especially for Orin who was so close to his mother. Adam Brant includes the identity of Marie Brantome and takes her place from the beginning of the play, thus continuing her dramatic impact, even after her death, upon the Mannon family. When Lavinia returns with Orin from clipper ship in the fifth act of The Hunted, she represents all the Mannon harshness, stiffness, and formal ‘justice’. At that point, before her dramatic change in the last play, she has completely taken the place of Ezra. When Lavinia becomes feminine, and in the process “becomes” Christine, there is no one left to play Ezra, and to fill this character vacuum Orin becomes more and more like his father, obsessed with the idea of a special doom reserved for all the Mannons. We learn that in the
South Seas he had been jealous of Lavinia’s interest in other men, in exactly the same way that Ezra was jealous of Christine. What is in fact happening at this point in the play is that Orin and Lavinia are reliving their parents’ marriage and tragedy. Once Orin is dead, Lavinia loses her identification with Christine and once again assumes the stiff, repressed, and dead attitudes of a Mannon.
Characters substitute for each other in Mourning Becomes Electra because in spite of separate identities there are only two basic characters, the repressed, moralistic man dominated by a will to death, and the voluptuous, exotic, and sensual woman, dominated by a will to life through sex. All the characters in this play are variants of these two basic types. Character substitution, then is the strongest support for the idea that the play is dominated by the basic polarity’s or duality’s of life; and that these have to be resolved before the play can end.
The main burden of guilt in the play is borne by the male characters, despite the fact that Christine and Lavinia are more directly responsible for violence and death. Guilt is inevitably bound up with being born a man, for men grow up to be fathers. Fathers inevitably commit crimes against the women, both as wives and mothers. Men are by nature clumsy in expressing love, while women are, in themselves, love’s living expression. The men in the play regard women as goddesses, possessing the secret of happiness and peace, which can only be won by a man if he possesses the woman. Yet in possessing a woman, they destroy her capacity to love, and for this “murder” they must be punished. Their guilt is due to treason against the life-giving, love-affirming force represented by the female. The older men in the Mannon family are all guilty of loving Marie Brantome, Adam Brand’s mother selfishly and destructively. Ezra Mannon is guilty of letting Marie die unaided, and he repeats this crime when he kills Christine’s love for him during their marriage. Lavinia, while she is still part of the father force and not a woman herself, is guilty of helping Ezra tear Orin from his mother to go to war. The mother is left bereaved and alone, through the fault of others, and she is not to be judged harshly for taking another “son-lover” in her desperate need. Orin wishes to be faithful to all that his mother represents, but his male, Mannon heritage, plus the masculine heritage of war, overcomes him. He is guilty, like the other Mannon men, of desiring to possess and thus to destroy the mother and love itself. He results Lavinia’s effort to love and die fully, just as he did Christine’s. His guilt lies in his rejection of love and embrace of death.
Not Fully Rounded
The characters in Mourning Becomes Electra are not fully rounded. Because they are representatives of basic character types, which in turn are based upon the most elemental patterns of terrestrial life, they are dominated by a single motive, a single desire, and a single destiny. They are totally unlike, for example, the characters of Shakespeare, which are infinitely various. When Shakespeare created a character he did not look beyond the thing itself, except, perhaps, in his last plays, and even in those the matter is open to debate. Shakespeare gave us separate beings, diverse in their natures as people in reality are. That is because, to use Aristotelian language, he gave us true imitations of action, true imitations of life. O’Neill did not give us imitations of life, but rather projected upon life his intuition, often weird, often primitive, but always profound, of the underlying patterns of life.