In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill exemplified what Schopenhauer declared to be the “true sense of tragedy”, namely “that it is not his own individual sins the hero atones for, but original -sin, i.e., the crime of existence itself.” So devoted was he to this .conception, that he permitted it to inform the entire trilogy.The pessimism of the Greeks may have been equally black, their tragedies just as aware of the crime of existence, still “they would have despised”, as William James observed, “a life set wholly in a minor key, and summoned it to keep within the proper bounds of lachrymosity”. The unfulfilment, exhaustion, and apathy which O’Neill’s tragedy increasingly reflected were conditions completely foreign to Greek tragedy. The Greeks were never so contemptuous of life as to seek consolation in death, nor so afraid of death as t( calm their fears by promising themselves the fulfilment after death o .all that they had vainly yearned for in life. O’Neill is not to be censured for the predicament in which he found himself, or for the fashion in which he chose to extricate himself, but rather f misinterpreting his dream. For however ingeniously he substituted the premises of a rationalistic psychology, however adeptly h interpolated his allegory, however glibly he spoke of fate and destiny crime and retribution, guilt and atonement, his dream in tragedy was not the Greek dream.
It Reconciles to Death
The appearance of Mourning Becomes Electra subsequent to Krutch’s estimate in 1929 of modern tragedy gave Crutch no cause to revise his assertion that the “tragic solution of the problem o existence, the reconciliation to life by means of the tragic spirit is… only a fiction surviving in art.” Indeed, O’Neill’s play bears out the statement by achieving precisely the opposite results : Electra offers a solution not to the problem of existence but to that o nonexistence ; it reconciles not to life, but to death. Nor did O’Neil invoke that Tragic Spirit which Krutch regarded as the produce either of a “religious faith in the greatness of God” or of “faith in the greatness of man” although by 1932 it seemed to Krutch that he had satisfied this demand, that he had, in short, succeeded it investing man “once more with the dignity he has lost”. “The greatness of the plays”, he insisted, begging the question, “lies it the fact that they achieve a grandeur which their rational framework is impotent even to suggest.”
Horrible and Cleansing
In Mourning Becomes Electra, he was convinced that “once more we have a great play which does not ‘mean’ anything in the sense that the plays of Ibsen or Shaw mean something, but one which does, on the contrary, mean the same thing that ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’ mean––namely, that human beings are great and terrible creatures when they are in the grip of great passions, and that the spectacle of them is not only absorbing but also and at once horrible and cleansing.” Here, it seems Krutch is entirely wrong. Not only has he missed the “meaning” of O’Neill’s trilogy, he has discerned in O’Neill’s characters qualities that are mostly nonexistent. They are characters, moreover, whose passions are infantile rather than great, are a spectacle that is horrible but scarcely cleansing. Catharsis is a condition which O’Neill seldom achieved, preferring, as he did, narcosis or necrosis. That the deficiencies of Mourning Becomes Electra, when it is compared “with the very greatest works of dramatic literature”, are limited only to its language, is an opinion which, if our judgments have been even moderately sound, has little to be said in its support. There is equally little to be said for Krutch’s contrast of Ibsen and O’Neill and, wherein he finds that O’Neill avoided the central fault of Ibsen’s tragedies, namely, that they are “too thoroughly pervaded by a sense of human littleness to be other than melancholy and dispiriting.”
Instinctive Perception of Tragedy
Having defined “true tragedy...as a dramatic work in which the outward failure of the principle personage is compensated for by the dignity and greatness of his character”, Krutch concludes that “O’Neill is almost alone among modern dramatic writers in possessing what appears to be an instinctive perception of what a modern tragedy would have to be.” Yet one has only to strip Mourning Becomes Electra of its spiritual malaise, its Freudian machinery, its self-conscious symbolism, its Gothic properties, its turgid style, is see how little better O’Neill has succeeded than Ibsen in satisfying Krutch’s definition of “true tragedy”. Ghosts, too, was a tragedy of family guilt in which the original scene is traced to the life-denying impulse. One side is happiness, on the other is “the source of the misery in the world” : law, order, duty. Living in the house polluted by her husband’s profligacy, Mrs. Alving, the counterpart of Christine, revolts against the restrictive virtues which society has imposed upon her and which prevented Alving from finding “any outlet for the overmastering joy of life that was in him”. Oswald, haunted by his father’s sin, suffers not only physical consequences thereof, but repeats––like Orin––the parents’ behaviour. Where Orin is afflicted with a stubborn case of Weltschmerz, and. complications induced by a wound in the head––the dowry of the Mannons in general, Ezra in particular––Oswald suffers from congenital syphilis––the indirect inheritance of the Mannons’ way of like, but the direct consequence of his father’s dissolute actions. When, at the conclusion of the tragedy, Oswald locks himself and his mother inside their haunted house for paying out the family curse much as Lavinia is. Surely the madness of a paretic is not more melancholy and dispiriting than the masochism of a woman who denies herself the pleasure of dying.
The Emotional Dynamics
More restrained than Krutch, George Jean Nathan never, compared Mourning Becomes Electra “with the very greatest works of dramatic literature”, but he did declare it to be “indubitably one of the finest plays that the American theatre has known”. Like Krutch, he mistook Weltschmerz for tragedy and ascribed purgative powers to hyper-emotionalism and to the manifestations of a neurotic sensibility. But Nathan came closer to the truth when he observed that O’Neill’s “passionate inspiration “the sweep and size of his emotional equipment and emotional dynamics” transcended the characters and the play., This is a euphemistic way of saying that Mourning Becomes Electra contains no adequate equivalent for the playwright’s excess of feeling. It is a fault that is present in most of O’Neill’s plays, and O’Neill himself was apparently aware of it when in Mourning Becomes Electra he consciously shunned “the many opportunities for effusions of personal writing about life and fate.” If the trilogy is less effusive than some of the preceding plays, it’s grandiosity lots threefold greater than most. If it contains less “personal writing”, it is far from reticent concerning the author’s conception of life and fate, a conception which suggests that the glow felt by Nathan to be spreading over all–– “the glow that is O’Neill” ––is less “luminous and radiant” than feverish.