Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Introduction to Mourning Becomes Electra

Greek Sources
The title of the play suggests its relation to the Greek drama. The story of the house of Atreus was set down by Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and diverse other Greek writers whose works are not extant. From this house shadowed by an ancient curse, Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, goes forth to the war at Troy.
His wife, Clytemnestra, the sister of Helen, during: her husband’s absence takes for her paramour Aegisthus and shares the government of
Argos with him. In due time Agamemnon, having at the God’s behest sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia and bringing with him Cassandra, Priam’s daughter, returns and is murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover. Electra, her daughter, is shamed and degraded and prays for the return of her brother Orestes, long ago sent out of the country by his mother and now become a man. Orestes returns, kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Hey is pursued by the Erinyes, and only after wandering and agony and a vindication of himself before the tribunal of Athena’s Areophagus is he cleansed of his sin.
Narrative Pattern
Mourning Becomes Electra begins with the mother and daughter, Christine and Lavinia, waiting there in the house of the Mannons, the return of Ezra Mannon ‘from the war, which with Lee’s surrernder is about over. A thread of romance is introduced between. Lavinia and Peter, and between Lavinia’s brother, Orin and Hazel, Peter’s sister. Meanwhile, Captain Adam Brant comes to call ; he pays a certain court to Lavinia, and she, acting on a cue from the hired man, who has been on the place sixty years, traps him into admitting that he is the son of one of the Mannons who had seduced a Canadian maid servant and been driven from home by his father, Lavinia’s grandfather. She has all her data straight now. She has suspected her mother, followed her to New York, where ­Christine has pretended to go because of her own father’s illness, but has in fact been meeting Adam. Lavinia has written to her father and to her brother, hinting at the town gossip about her mother. We learn that Adam had returned to avenge his mother but instead had fallen passionately in love with Christine, who loves him as passionately as she hates her husband. From this point the play moves on, with the father’s hatred of the son, who returns it, the son’s adoration of his mother, the daughter’s and the mother’s antagonism, the daughter’s and father’s devotion, to Christine’s murder of her husband with the poison sent by Adam and substituted for the medicine prescribed against his heart trouble. Orin returns, after an illness from a wound in the head. Christine tries to protect herself in her son’s mind against the plots of Lavinia. Lavinia, in the room where her father’s body lies, convinces, him with the facts ; they trail Christine to Adam’s ship, where she has gone to warn him against Orin. Orin shoots Adam. Christine next day kills herself. Brother and sister take a long voyage to China, stop at the Southern Isles, come home again. Substitutions have taken place, Lavinia has grown like her Mother, Orin more like his father. Meanwhile, his old affair with Hazel, encouraged at last by Lavinia, who now wants to marry Peter, is cancelled he finds himself making an incestuous proposal to Lavinia and is repulsed by her. He shoots himself. In the end, Lavinia, speaking words of love to Peter, finds Adam’s name on her lips. She breaks with Peter, orders the blinds of her house nailed shut, and goes into the house, to live there till her death. Justice has been done, the Mannon dead will be there and she will be there.
Parallel Characters
It is now obvious that the American dramatist, as the Greek did, used a well known outline which he could fill in to his purpose. Obviously, too, Ezra Mannon is Agamemnon, Captain Brant is Aegisthus, Christine Clytemnestra, Lavinia Electra, and Orin Orestes. But to dismiss the matter by saying that O’Neill has merely repeated the classic story in modern terms is off the track. Let it go at that and you will miss even the really classic element in the play and get only the Greek side of it that is self-evident and that would be easy for any dramatist to imitate.
Departures From the Greek Play
The story itself follows the Greeks up to the middle of the third division of the play, and here the incest motive, the death of Orin and the transference of the whole situation and the dramatic conclusion from the mother to the sister depart from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Adam’s relation to the family adds to the role of the lover the motif of a blood relationship. The old hired man, the confidant, parallels to some extent a Greek device, familiar to us in countless plays. The townspeople and workmen are now and again a kind of chorus. Many of the shadings and themes are from the older plays ; for a good example, the servant’s line in Aeschylus about the dead killing one who lives, which underlies one of the new play’s main themes. The death of the lover, as in Aeschylus and Euripides, not as in Sophocles, comes before that of the mother, which throws the stress where the O’Neill play needs it. The division of the play into three parts is, of course, like the trilogy of the Greek dramatist. On the other hand, the dividing line is much less distinct in Mourning Becomes Electra ; the final curtain of the first part, for example falls, it is true, on Mannon’s death, as in Aeschylus it does on Agamemnon’s, but there is not the same effect of totality because of the stress put on Lavinia ; in Agamemnon Electra does not even appear.
Magnificent Theme
The magnificent theme that there is something in the dead that we cannot placate falsely is there in the Greek plays and in, the O’Neill play as well. The end of the play is by imaginative insight Greek in spirit Lavinia goes into the house, the blinds are closed for ever, the stage is silent, the doors shut, the exaltation is there, the completion, the tragic certainty.

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