Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mourning Becomes Electra : Adaptation of the Oresteia

O’Neill’s Debt to Aeschylus
One of O’Neill’s most interesting and most important experiments is his adaptation of the Oresteia of Aeschylus to an American situation. In the light of his search for form, it is understood that O’Neill should be attracted to Greek tragedy. After a century of puritanism, sentimentality and scientific attack, the Christian tradition that had served Renaissance drama so well was defunct.
Greek tragedy dealt with the Mystery within a conventional structure ; it came out of a relatively homogeneous culture and was well supplied with legendary themes. In short, the Greek playwrights had a form at hand ; they needed only to shape their material to it. O’Neill set : out to borrow both form and content from Aeschylus. In 1925 he noted in his work diary hiss intention to create a modern psychological drama based on Greek legend. This entry began a five-year progress toward the Broadway production of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Modification of Aeschylus’ Plot
Because O’Neill followed the plot of the Oresteia so closely, his modifications of Aeschylus’ plot stand out very clearly. He used the sequence of events point for point ; he adopted character-types and relationships that the plot required. In borrowing these components from the Greek play, he perforce accepted the conventional ritual structure of conflict (agon), suffering (pathos), and revelation (epiphany) that influenced the Greek tragedian in the construction of his plot. What O’Neill could not adapt from the Greek play were the culturally determined attitudes that the Oresteia expressed, the view of history as a providential development from a code of private vengeance to a system of trial by jury. By changing the situation of the drama from Athens to New England, O’Neill changed the cultural milieu and so had to find a comparable set of American cultural attitudes with which to motivate his personae. By looking at the Greek model and studying O’Neill’s version, we can determine the contributions of American situation and motivation to the over-all meaning of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Cultural Background- of the Oresteia
In his treatment of the legend of the House of Atreus, Aeschylus is drawing on, the resources the culture offers him. The legend hat provides the 1 se for the trilogy is a traditional story that expresses the experience of the people on three levels : the individual, the societal, the transcendental. These levels are presented by the playwright as interpenetrating so that the history of the House becomes the history of the tribe and ultimately part of the history of the human race and its relationship with the gods. The action dramatizes the family curse that follows the Atreides like Fate, the effect of the code of blood-revenge on the city of Argos, and the gradual evolution of the institution of civilized justice. The legendary sources, the plot incidents and the structural elements all conspire toward the reconciliation of the individual with a reconstituted society under the guidance of divine providence.
Texture of the Oresteia
Aeschylus establishes the legendary backdrop of his drama by weaving the relevant details into the texture of the play. These details include a record of the crimes of the House of Atreus beginning with the struggle of the sons of Pelops, Atreus and Thyestes, over their father’s throne and the seduction of Atreus’ wife by Thyestes. Atreus drove his brother out of the country and brought him back only to feed him the flesh of his children at the infamous banquet. In this context, the conflict is not merely a personal feud––accompanied by deeds however blood-curdling––between two brothers ; its repercussions extend to the whole society and into the dimension of the gods. The family vendetta is an affair of state, a dynastic struggle. Moreover, the Thyestian banquet recalls an earlier banquet, child-eating, by the divine ancestors of the sons of Pelops. In order to protect his throne, Chronos swallowed up his children as soon as they were born. Though there is no description of child-eating by Chronos’ son Zeus, the father of the gods, the “Dithyrambos” is reborn from Zeus’ “male womb”. The traditional significance of the cannibalistic banquet relates to all three levels of the action in the Oresteia the legendary motive of personal revenge is linked to the dynastic fear of being superseded as King ; both these motifs recall the ritualistic entry of the young god Dionysus into Zeus’ “male womb” in order to be reborn. This series of associations situates the action in a broad perspective relevant to the audience, reaching back into their tribal legends and up into the dimension of the Olympian gods.
Motifs of the Oresteia
The main incidents of the plot-dramatize these same motifs of blood-guilt, dynastic struggle and the persistent working of the curse through the generations of the House of Atreus. Clytemnestra’s motive for murdering her husband, King Agamemnon, is twofold : to avenge the ritual murder of their child, slain by Agamemnon to obtain favourable winds for the Argive war-fleet, and to retain the regency of Argos for herself and her lover. Sexual intrigue and kinsman-murder are the continuing fruits of the Thyestian curse on the house of Atreus. Orestes, the third generation Atreides whose hands are yet unstained, faces the dilemma central to the action : he too must avenge a kinsman, his father, according to the tribal code. He can accomplish this only by violating the taboo against matricide and so perpetuating the curse. The cosmic powers of Earth and Sky are engaged in the action when Apollo, Zeus’ messenger, orders Clytemnestra’s death and, after Orestes carries out his command, the Furies––dark, maternal Earth-spirits––pursue him. Aeschylus solves this dilemma and reconciles the polarities inherent in the tribal code by abrogating it in favour of the juridical and social system of the polis. Orestes is brought to trial for, his “crime” before the goddess Athena and a jury of Athenian elders. When the jury of citizens split their votes, Athena casts the deciding ballot for acquittal. The Furies are pacified by Athena’s arguments and transformed into guardians of the city. This conclusion draws explicitly on Athenian history, and celebrates the intuition of democratic processes––­symbolized by the Areopagus, the ancient court for the adjudication of murder cases. The common law of the community is no longer the tribal code that sets kinsman against kinsman, but trial by a jury of citizen peers. The cosmic antagonism between the patriarchial Olympians and the defenders of matriarchy is reconciled by the transformation of the Furies into the gentle Semae who bless the city from their caves on the Areopagus and lend their name to the oaths in the law courts. It is clear that Aeschylus is drawing here on materials that are part of his audience’s cultural heritage.
Structural Pattern of the Oresteia
The structural pattern, too, which undergirds the action fulfils audience expectation, though perhaps a less precise and conscious one. The legendary plot fills out ritual categories with which the audience would be familiar : agog, pathos, and epiphany. In the Oresteia the agog can be reduced to the struggle between polarities in the tribal code : filial piety and blood-revenge. From this springs the pathos, the suffering of generations of Atreides, culminating the dilemma which faces Orestes. The epiphany reveals the divine teleology that dissolves the old system and creates a new, more enlightened one. On the level of the ritualistic pattern, the hero’s experience culminates in rebirth. He passes from guilt to suffering and then to purgation and emerges a new man. This pattern is an analogue of the rebirth of the god. The legend as dramatized, then, includes both the historical resolution of a cultural dilemma and the ritual pattern that gives this resolution a cosmic dimension.
Unity of Concept in the Oresteia
Even in this summary treatment of the trilogy its unity of concept and execution is evident. We see how this unity flows from the dramatist’s ability to shape the cultural components with which he works. Aeschylus inherited the ritual structure, the legend of the House of Atreus, the tradition of Athenian democracy. That he was able to forge these elements into a dramatic unity is testimony to his artistry ; that the elements were available to him is testimony to the homogeneity of Greek culture. These components point to an organic complex of attitudes in the fifth-century Athenian mind which could view the development of civilization as a providential progress and the individual as a member of the community, governed by divinely sanctified laws. Thus Orestes, caught in the web of circumstance, can be redeemed by the same forces that produced his guilt. In the concluding movement of the drama, the hero is purged of all guilt and “reborn”, a new society is initiated and the cosmos is ordered on all levels.
O’Neill’s Adoption of General Plan
Mourning Becomes Electra follows the general outlines of the Aeschylean trilogy very closely. The playwright borrows the three­ play division, the sequence of events and the climactic order. In Homecoming, Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon) returns from war and is poisoned by his _wife Christine (Clytemnestra) who is carrying on an affair with Adam Brant (Aegisthus). In the second play The Hunted, Orin (Orestes) and Lavinia (Electra) avenge their father’s death by murdering Brant and driving Christine to suicide. The Haunted culminated with a judgment on Orin and Lavinia for their part in the destruction of their mother.
O’Neill’s Conclusion Different
The point-for-point parallelism in he plots makes the divergence in the conclusions more striking. O’Neill and Aeschylus both include a “judgment” in the last play. But O’Neill’s does not open out into a social revolution and a theophany. He concludes with a self-judgment by the two remaining members of the House of Mannon. Lavinia immures herself in the sepulchral family mansion; she punishes herself with a living death. Orin is not vindicated and absolved of his mother’s “murder” he commits suicide. The difference between Aeschylus’ ending and O’Neill’s is all the more important because the American playwright borrows his structure from the Greek. The epiphany of the Oresteia vindicates on three levels those teleological processes by which suffering leads to a new life for the individual and the community. The epiphany of Mourning Becomes Electra depicts an isolation imposed by self-judgment that leads to death. Mourning becomes Electra ; death becomes the Mannons.
Cultural Determinants
This epiphany, however, is not a simple, disconnected cry of despair ; it proceeds from the cultural determinants with which O’Neill situates and motivates his action : the Puritan heritage and Freudian psychology. The cultural attitudes that are formulated under these headings are as definite and describable as the dictates of tribal custom in the Oresteia. Each supplies a set of motivations for the personae, and together they constitute an agon like the filial-piety and blood-revenge components in Aeschylus. They function in Mourning Becomes Electra to determine the direction of the action and the overall meaning of the play.
Similarity of Plots
The plot of Mourning Becomes Electra is remarkably faithful to the Oresteia. Its characterization, symbolism and tone, however, are determined by O’Neill’s interpretation of the puritan heritage, by Freudian psychology, and by the corollary motif of salvation by spatial remove. The effect of these non-Hellenic elements is a shift of focus so radical as to produce a complete inversion of the play’s meaning. The Oresteia proclaims a constant relationship between the individual and society. Orestes’ crime does not isolate him from the community––he flees to Delphi, the communal shrine; he is Judged by a jury of citizens; his personal fate changes the structure of society from clan-centred to city-centred. Conversely, the Mannons become progressively more isolated from the community. The townsfolk attend the funeral in the second act, but in the third they shrink from entering the “haunted house”. The familial society contracts until only Orin and Lavinia are left ; finally Lavinia shuts out all society.
Code of Blood Vengeance
Secondly, in the Oresteia the Greek code of blood vengeance provides the motivation for Orestes’ crime and defines the nature of, and sets limits to, his guilt. He must murder his mother to avenge his father. The dilemma is perfect. In O’Neill’s play, on the other hand, “the crimes are rooted in the characters” subconscious, and the feeling of guilt is unlimited because it proceeds from the Puritan sense of damnation. Finally, the solution to Orestes’ dilemma in the Oresteia is rooted in the popular history of the Athenian nation. The establishment of the jury-trial system makes the conclusion inevitable because it actually happened. Because the historical event is presented as the result of a providential process, Orestes’ purgation is complete; it is sanctioned by the gods. O’Neill’s solution to the Mannon curse is not purgation, but death. Orin “returns to Mother” by committing suicide ; Lavinia’s self-immurement is merely a surrogate for suicide. No Providence, benign or malicious, it invoked, and even the sense of inevitability is contingent on acceptance of O’Neill’s Freudian coordinates.

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