R. D. Skinner rightly observes that “Mourning Becomes Electra is the drama of a soul at mortal grips with the love of self, the deadly poison of the spirit that denies all creation because it would be self-creative, self-sufficient, both creator and creature, man: coequal with God.”The House of Mannon in this play is the summation of man in which the multitudinous characters that have gone before are only. pale, premonitory shadows of the realities at last revealed––the false prides, the timid abasements, the yearning for childlike peace, the struggles for freedom, exultant discoveries and crests of hope and the heartrending plunges into renewed darkness. Each of the male Mannon himself must die if the soul is to live, killed by, dying to his old self in the mystic formula of the poets and saints, if he is to be reborn to life and love. In this struggle to the death, it is only the spirit of the woman which lives on in solitary expiation, “until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die.” Behind the closed doors of that house, the feminine soul, last to die to itself, must find the secret of purgation in silence and alone, beyond the gaze of men, in the sanctuary of the immortal inner will, where only the breath of God may touch its darkness.
Main Threads of Plot
In the first play entitled The Hunted General Ezra Mannon, one of a long line whose wealth and position have been gathered from the sea, returns from the war at a time when his partly foreign wife, Christine, has secretly been giving her love to a sea captain, Adam Brant. She knows him to be the son of another Mannon who “disgraced” his family by marrying a French-Canadian servant girl. Brant is genuinely in love with Christine, but in first seeking her out his sole purpose was revenge on the present head of the house of Mannon. Christine’s daughter Lavinia is devotee to her father with an almost fanatical attachment, and doubly resents her mother’s infidelity, partly because she herself is attracted to Brant, who resembles her father, and partly because she has always instinctively taken her father’s part against her mother, whom she hates and of whom she is inwardly jealous.
Sinister Cloud of Love-of-Self
In the first play, Lavinia’s brother, Orin, is still away in camp, recovering from a serious head wound which has weakened his whole nervous system. But we learn that Orin is as much devoted to his mother, of whom he constantly dreams in his illness, as Lavinia is devoted to her father. Yet between brother and sister there is a similar bond of deep attachment––part of that sinister cloud of love-of-self, as reflected in one’s own family, which hovers over the ill-fated house. Lavinia lets her mother know that she has discovered her infidelity, but instead of-threatening to tell her father, offers to keep silent if her mother will send Brant away forever. Christine is quick to strike at the truth of Lavinia’s action. “You wanted Adam Brant for yourself”, she says accusingly, “and now you know you can’t have him, you’re determined that at least you’ll take him from me! ...But if you told your father, I’d have to go away with Adam. He’d be mine still. You can’t bear that thought even at the price of my disgrace, can you ?...I know you, Vinnie ! I’ve watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you’re doing now ! ‘You’ve tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin ! You’ve always schemed to steal my place !” Of course Lavinia denies and resents these charges bitterly, but persists in her, determination until her mother, in desperation, promises to send Brant away.
A Strange Homecoming
The return of General Mannon is indeed a strange homecoming. In Lavinia alone he finds genuine pleasure and affection. But he has determined, during his long years of facing death, to rediscover the secret of life and to break down, if possible the barrier he has felt between himself and his wife, ever since the earliest days of their marriage. With great difficulty, he throws aside the reserve of years and tries to tell her of his loneliness and his love. But he faces only the mocking mask of a woman who has is already determined that the only way to free herself is to kill him. She has already arranged to have Brant send her some poisonous, tablets which she plans to give her husband instead of the medicine his doctor has prescribed for an increasing trouble of the heart. His heart disease will explain his death to world at large. She and Adam will be free.
In the intimacy of their first night together, when Ezra Mannon feels the false atmosphere of her pretended affection, she suddenly goads him with an open statement of her love for Brant, and tells him, moreover, Brant’s true identity as one of the “outlawed” Mannons. The emotional strain brings on as she has planned, a severe heart attack. She substitutes for his medicine the poison Brant has sent her. But in his death agony, Ezra Mannon calls out for Lavinia who reaches his room just in time to see him point an accusing finger at Christine and cry out “She’s guilty––not medicine !” This miscarriage of her plans is too much for Christine. She faints before she can conceal the package containing the poisonous tablets. Lavinia finds them, and at last, like the children of the House of Atreus, knows the full measure of her mother’s guilt. The play ends with Lavinia’s cry to the dead man, “Father ! Don’t leave me alone ! Come back to me! Tell me what to do!”
O’Neill’s Long Journey
In even the first part of this trilogy, one finds, of course, innumerable links to the struggle of the past which have beset O’Neill’s imagination. The strength of the Mannon family, for example, has’ come from the sea. But it is also the sea, in the person of Captain Brant, which helps to kill Ezra Mannon. Ezra, in his great loneliness of soul, is not unlike any number of the lonely souls, old and young, who wander through the stages of the O’Neill’s long journey, seeking but never finding understanding and completion.
Redemption From Self-Love
Christine herself is not of the Mannons. She is the unattainable “outsider” to those who love only themselves or the image of themselves. She can love Brant but only because, though, part Mannon, he is the son of another stock and, like herself, part outsider, “foreigner”. He is despised of the proud Mannons, because he comes of a servant stock, and the Mannons cannot serve others, being without humility. Outsiders are poisoned to the self-love of the Mannons. Yet Christine is the mother of the Mannon children, of those who are destined to expiate the primal sin of the house. That which kills is also fated to be that which will bring new life, because it comes from without the charmed and deadly circle of self-love. In this, the playwright touches instinctively upon that astounding paradox of mankind’s experience, that the redemption from man’s self-love can be found only through the death of man himself at the hands of what is itself evil––the outsider, the Caligula, the Pompeia, evil, in spite of itself, serving the ends of good.
Subtle and Terrific Struggle
The second part of the trilogy, The Hunted, comprises the revenge of Lavinia and Orin for their father’s murder. Orin returns from the hospital camp two days after the tragedy while the body of Ezra is still laid out in his study. There is a subtle and terrific struggle between Lavinia and Christine for the control of Orin’s weak will. Christine tries to mother him as of old, to play on his deep affection for her, and to warn him of the terrible charges he may hear from Lavinia. Christine tells him that Lavinia is really out of her mind. Intuitively, Orin feels a deep suspicion of his mother, but emotionally he cannot bear to think any evil of her. Deep in his heart, he is almost relieved at his father’s death, as he can now have his mother entirely to himself, and be as a child completely immersed in her love. During the long and murderous days of the war, he has often had the vision, as he killed men, that it was “like murdering the same man over and over” and as if “the man was myself!” Their faces, be says, “keep coming back in dreams––and they change to father’s face––or to mine.” To be rid of his father, and also of the man in himself, so that he could return to childhood in his mother’s arms had become his half conscious obsession. He wants to be alone with his mother in the enchanted
Islands of his dreams, with the whole world apart from them. Christine encourages this mood in the hope that it will make Orin her champion against Lavinia.
Old Image of Death
But Lavinia, with something of the severity of her dead father, holds him grimly to a realization of the truth. She makes him, in spite of himself, acknowledge his mother’s guilt, and then, finding that alone might not be enough to move him to vengeance, plays upon his instant jealousy of Brant. The thought of another man claiming his mother’s love is too much for him. He and Lavinia secretly follow their mother to her rendezvous with Brant on his ship, in
harbour, and overhear her plans to escape. When Christine has left, Orin enters Brant’s cabin and kills him. As he does so, the same old image of death comes before him. It is as if he had again killed his father ! Boston
Lavinia’s Assumption of Her Mother’s Role
Orin and Lavinia return to the ancient house of Mannon to tell Christine what they have done. Orin, immediately under her spell again, now that Brant is dead, begs for her forgiveness. But it is too late. Christine goes into the house and shoots herself. Orin remains to the last under the cloud of desire to have her protecting arms about him. And then the new and final theme appears––the assumption by Lavinia of her mother’s role. She takes the bewildered Orin in her arms and whispers soothingly to him, “You have me, have’nt you ? I love you. I’ll help you to forget.” Thus Christine’s accusation is justified, that Lavinia wished to take her place.
The Ghosts of Parents
The third play, The Haunted, begins a year later, after Lavinia and Orin have completed a year’s voyage to
and the China Far East. In the far and the Princess Kukachin, a great change has taken place. Lavinia has lost the stern angularity of former days, in which she closely resembled her father, and has become strikingly like her mother. She even wears a dress of the same green colour her mother used to wear, instead of the black she once affected. Orin, on the other hand, who was formerly unable to hold the bearing of a soldier, now carries woodenly erect. “His movements and attitudes have the statue-like quality that was so marked in his father. He now wears a close-cropped beard in addition to his moustache, and this accentuates his resemblance to his father.” The children are now living in the ghost of their parents. land of Kublai Kaan
Both Orin and Lavinia are aware of the change. In his moments of morbid bitterness, Orin even boasts of having become a Mannon and accuses Lavinia of having acquired a soul like his mother’s “as if you were stealing her––as if her death had set you free––to become her!” But Lavinia, in spite of welcoming the change in herself, cries out “What we need most is to get back to simple normal things and begin a new, life.” Lavinia tries sternly to make Orin face his hunting ghost, to acknowledge fully to himself his mother’s double guilt and her free choice of suicide. But the attempt is only partly successful.
Fresh Touch of Reality
A fresh touch of reality also comes into Lavinia’s life through her friendship for Peter Niles, whom she has known since childhood. The thought of him has been growing, in her mind during the long months of her voyage. The sea has had a cleansing effect upon her. “The ship and the sea––everything that was honest and clean” has reminded her of Peter. And another thought has come to her, too. “Remember I’m only Mannon”, she reminds Peter when they are at last together. The blood of the “outsider has been doing its work, to give her a new strength to face life. She now wants to marry Peter. But the spectre of Orin comes between them––Orin who is still sick with the old guilt of the Mannons, “possessed by the hate and death”. Orin discovers Lavinia kissing. Peter, and jealousy seizes him. The woman who has taken the place of his mother cannot be permitted to love another man !
A Living Tenor For Lavinia
Orin becomes a living terror for Lavinia. His increasing sense of guilt makes him want to confess everything. He has allowed himself to become engaged to Peter’s sister, Hazel Niles, but he is afraid to be alone with her and Lavinia is afraid to have them alone together. His guilty conscience might make him confess. He is secretly preparing a written confession of his crime––and this Lavinia suspects rather than knows. She at last forces an admission from him, and then brother and sister lacerate each other with accusation. It is again as if the ghosts of Christine and Ezra were walking in the house. And then a deeper terror than the dread of Orin’s confessing intervenes. In his growing insanity and in his jealous determination to present Lavinia from marrying Peter, Orin sees Lavinia as neither mother nor sister but a woman, like the French––Canadian servant girl who was the mother of Brant. In an agony of revulsion and rage at _ this crowning revelation, Lavinia turns on Orin. “I wish you were dead !”, she cries, “you’re too vile to live ! You’d kill yourself if you. weren’t a coward !”
Orin’s Suicide and Lavinia’s Self-Punishment
Slowly the idea takes possession of Orin’s deranged mind. In death he can join his mother. He will be able to ask her forgiveness. He will find peace. He starts to rush from the room. Lavinia makes an attempt to stop him, but at that moment Peter comes in and Orin escapes to his father’s study. Lavinia throws herself hysterically into Peter’s arms, murmuring “no one has the right to keep anyone from peace !” Peter, alarmed, starts to go after Orin, but Lavinia holds him tightly to her and talks against time. There is the sound of a shot. Orin has killed himself. Lavinia is the last of the Mannons. In the closing scene of the tragedy, after Orin’s funeral, Lavinia is again in black. The resemblance to her mother has disappeared. She is filling the house with flowers for Peter, whom she feels she must marry. She must escape forever from the house of Mannon. But Hazel, to whom Orin has hinted just enough to make her feel the terror of the Mannon story, comes to accuse Lavinia of the guilt of Orin’s death and to plead with her to give up Peter. Lavinia is steadfast in her determination to marry him. But when he comes to her, she finds a growing suspicion and bitterness in his eyes. The dead are already standing between them. Almost in a frenzy, she asks him for his love, but even as she does so, the name of Adam, like the ghost of Adam Brant, escapes her lips. “I can’t marry you, Peter”, she cries in sudden defeat, “the dead are too strong !” And then, to drive him from her, she lies about herself. She takes a jealous word that Orin has dropped about a native in the far-off
Islands they had visited and pretends the charge was true. As Peter loves her, horror-struck, she calls after him that it was a lie. But her cry is too feeble, too defeated. He does not hear. Lavinia is alone again with the Mannon dead.
Lavinia as Victim of Orin’s Self-Love
To Seth, the old gardener, Lavinia confides her last resolve. There is nothing left to do but return into the house. “Don’t go in then, Vinnie !” he exclaims in superstitious fright. But she is grimly determined now. “Don’t be afraid”, she says, “I’m not going the way Mother and Orin went. That’s escaping punishment. And there’s no one left to punish me. I’m the last Mannon. I’ve got to punish myself ! Living alone here with the dead is a worst act of justice than death or prison ! I’ll never go out or see anyone ! I’ll have the shutters nailed closed so no sunlight can ever get in. I’ll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die.” As she enters the house, to remain there in lifelong expiation, her movements become the wooden, angular embodiment of the Mannons.
Lavinia’s Strange Cruel Smile
There is still pride left in the soul of Lavinia, and a “strange cruel smile of gloating over the years of self-torture” on her face as she begins her penance. But above and beyond the words of the playwright’s description, there is feeling of deepest introversion, of the turning back of the feminine soul into its innermost depths, as if to discover, in death to herself, the one last chance of a new life. Beneath the Mannon mask of utter love of self flows the blood of the “outsider”, that which brought death to all the males of the fated line, but may still find in the woman a chance for rebirth... “What we need most is to get back to simple normal things and begin a new life.” That was Lavinia’s cry after feeling the cleansing of the sea. One feels that in the deliberate, purposeful turning back into her past, Lavinia, the woman unlike the frightened childman who turned back to the maternal past, may discover the secret of living with fears until they are tamed, of opening her eyes to truth instead of mocking shadows, of finding tenderness in place of the sinister giants that seemed to block the agonizing path to maturity and peace.