The title of the play itself suggests the relation of the play 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 atHis wife, Clytemnestra, the sister of Helen, during her husband’s absence takes for her paramour Aegisthus and shares the government of
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 surrender 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 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 maidservant 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
, where Christine has pretended to go because of her own father’s illness, but has in fact been meeting Adam Brant. Lavinia has written to her father and brother, hinting at the town gossip about her mother. We learn that Captain Brant 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 Brant 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 Brant’s ship, where she has gone to warn him against Orin. Orin shoots Brant. Christine next day kills herself. Brother and sister take a long voyage to New York , a 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. China
The Essential Pattern
Thus it is clear that Mourning Becomes Electra follows the pattern of the Greek trilogy in the essentials. The first play, entitled the Homecoming is closest to its original. It tells of the return of General Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon) from the Civil War, and of his murder by his wife, Christine (Clytemnestra), at the urging of her lover, Adam Brant (Aegisthus). And it ends with the confrontation of the mother by her daughter, Lavinia Mannon (Electra).
Difference Between the Two Plays
Physically, the chief difference of the modern play from its original is that Christine and her lover do not stab the husband in his bath ; she administers poison to him instead of the medicine he expects. But, if this difference of action seems minor, it points to a major difference of character, neither Ezra nor Christine Mannon shares the heroic stature of the Greek Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Ezra seems less the conquering hero than the lonely old man, and his guilt is disproportionally small––it is not the cruelty and self-willed pride of the Greek ; it is only a puritanical failure to satisfy his wife in their love-relationship. And Christine shares neither the passionate hatred of Clytemnestra for her husband; nor her passionate love for Aegisthus. Rather she seems a neurotic, vindictive woman whose nature is poisonous rather than heroic. Although the first play explains the actions of the classical Agamemnon in modern psychological terms, it substitutes neurotic hatred for the full-blooded passion and violence of the original.
The Essential Outlines
The second play of the trilogy, entitled The Hunted also follows, the essential outlines of its Greek original. It centres upon the character of Orestes––now Orin Mannon, who has just returned from the war as this play begins. Confronted with the proof of his mother’s guilt, Orin hunts down her lover and shoots him. But he does not murder his mother, as in the original Greek. Instead he tells her of her lover’s death and confronts her with her guilt and with his own confused hatred of it, so that she is driven to commit suicide. The substitution of this suicide for the murder of the Greek original again emphasizes the anti-heroic nature of the modern protagonist. Nevertheless, in the case of Orin (Orestes), “the Furies” which were externalized in the Greek myth, now have been realized more dramatically in the tortured conscience of the modern “hero” and in the psychological confusions of his mind. And these psychological Furies have been motivated more fully by the modern incident of Orin’s mad laughter and wounding in the war. Therefore Orin seems to be driven by the tortured conscience of all modern man, in their realization of the evil of world war.
Departures From the Greek Originals
The third play of the trilogy entitled The Haunted departs more radically and purposefully from the Greek originals. It centres upon the character of Electra rather than that of Orestes, and it ascribes to this new Electra the only heroism––and the only true tragedy––of the three plays. In the Greek, Electra had been married to a peasant farmer and had remained subordinate to her brother. But, in his earliest note for the future plays, O’Neill directed : “Give modern Electra “gure in play tragic ending worthy of character. In Greek story she peters out into undramatic married banality.” And throughout the planning and writing the trilogy he consistently developed this new conception until “Electra” became the title figure.
The Change of Action
Moreover, in changing the character of Electra from the Greek original, O’Neill also changed the action and the dramatic conception of the final play. Now, Orestes can no longer find absolution from the Furies which drive him (as he does in the Greek) ; he accepts damnation for the evil of his nature, and commits suicide, concluding : “The damned don’t cry !” But Electra triumphs over the evil of her heritage by recognizing it clearly, and by determining to live with it to the end : “I’m the last Mannon. I’ve got to punish myself.” And she begins her penance by telling Hannah “to throw out all the flowers”. She locks herself in with her memories : she will escape damnation by learning fully to understand her own past and how to “cry” or “mourn” for it. At the end the modern heroine regains her humanity by undertaking a tragedy greater than that of her ancestors. She, like her creator, begins her “long day’s journey into night”.