Power of Music
The high frequency, of musical effects in O’Neill’s plays is, in part, due to the unusual power of music to speak directly to our emotions, Far from being an alienating effect, music is_ used by, O’Neill as an integral, mood-sustaining part of the plays. Behind his predilections for popular songs one divines the Romantic idea that folk song represents “original melody”, a musical mirroring, of the cosmos.
Singing and Life-Affirmation
In Mourning Becomes Electra singing is an expression of life affirmation. Marie Brantome used to be laughing and singing–– “frisky and full of life”. And her nature, tempered by puritanism is retained in the good, healthy Hazel, whose sweet and clear and pure singing––as reminisced by Orin in the battlefield––is like a hymn to life rising above the grim ‘music’ of war : “the screams of the dying”.
Dionysian Singing and Drinking
More discernibly Dionysian is the combined singing and drinking of Seth, the Chantyman and Joe Silva, a Portuguese fishing captain and member of the final chorus of old men. O’Neill carefully differentiates between their voices. The Chantyman’s is a good tenor, Silva’s a hoarse bass and Seth’s the wraith of what once must have been a good baritone. The pitch and quality of the voices seem to illustrate their different attitudes to life as symbolized by the sea, Obviously Silva is prosaically, the Chantyman poetically, related to it ; while Seth, too long under the influence of life-hostile ‘Mannonism’ to be able fully to keep up the Dionysian spirit, of music, is detached from it.
Opening With Music
Like the Greeks, O’Neill opens his play with music. In the distance, from the town, a band is heard playing “John Brown’s Body”. Borne on the light puffs of wind this music is at times quite loud, then sinks into faintness as the wind dies. From the left rear, a man’s voice is heard singing the chanty “Shenandoah” ––a song that more than any other holds in it the brooding rhythm of the sea. The voice grows quickly nearer. It is thin and aged, the wraith of what must once have been a good baritone. Just as the stage picture visually presents the theme and conflict of the trilogy, so the two intermingling tunes aurally suggest its combating forces land and sea, war and peace, death and life. For here regular-beat, martial brass music is pitted against a melodious sea chanty sung by a frail human voice.
The band-playing is motivated by the fact that Lee’s surrender is a matter of hours ; it is the music of the victorious Union Army. Although we do not hear the words of “John Brown’s Body”, the idea of slavery and the notion of souls who “go marching on” after death are relevant to the play, and O’Neill presumably took for granted that some of the most familiar lines were known to the audience. The foreground-background arrangement of the songs, has a counterpart in the presence-absence of the characters : while we associate the distant war music with Ezra and Orin, we connect the sea chanty with Christine’s primeval yearning for life in the full––represented by the “rolling river” of Shenandoah––a yearning which, to be sure, is shared by the Mannons, although it is repressed by their militant puritanism.
The Theme Song
“Shenandoah” is the theme song in the play. Occurring six times in the trilogy (twice in each part) and always at the beginning or end of the acts), interspersed with and commenting on the action, the chanty may be regarded as an equivalent of the choral songs in Greek tragedy. With the exception of the ship’s scene (Part II. IV), where it is sung by Chantyman, it is always Seth, the ‘chorus leader’ and therefore the proper commentator on the action, who intones the chanty.
The first time it is heard, its importance is largely atmospheric. By the third act, the sea longing seems especially relevant to Christine and Brant, who hope to be “bound away” for their Island of love and once Ezra is killed, whereas the two lines of the second stanza added here––
Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter
A-way, my rolling river.
––suggest not only Brand’s bud all the Mannons’ love for their life affirming women.
In the ship’s scene we have a division resemblant of the one in ‘the opening act of the trilogy. O’Neill’s phrasing helps to indicate this : “Borne on the wind the melancholy refrain of the capstan chanty “Shenandoah”, sung by a chantyman with the crew coming in on the chorus, drifts over the water from a ship that is weighing anchor in the harbour. Half in and half out of the shadow of the waterhouse, the chantyman lies sprawled on his back, snoring in a drunken slumber. The sound of the singing seems to strike a responsive chord in his brain……He begins to sing in a surprisingly good tenor voice, a bit blurry with booze now and sentimentally mournful to a degree, but still managing to get full value out of the chanty.”
Music in the Foreground
Again there is a house and a singer in the foreground and a chorus–rather than a band––in the background. But this time songs and characters do not noticeably clash. Yet there is a contrast in situation. For while one chanty is sung at sea in its completely appropriate context––is the sea made audible––the other comes, drunkenly, from land, where it does nod properly belong. Once we see that the Chantyman is not only resembling of Seth but also, and -much more so, of Brant, the meaning of this division becomes clear. After the cowardly murder of Ezra, Brant feels defiled and believes that a return to a meaningful life––life at sea––is impossible, that the sea, which “hates a coward”, is through with him. The Chantyman’s mournful singing and position on dry land bear out Brand’s feeling of death-in-life as a consequence of his separation from the sea as well his foreboding of death.
The Chantyman’s Singing and Adam
The Chantyman’s singing not only expresses Brant’s feelings of disloyalty to the sea, for which retribution awaits him ; it also establishes the nature of his disloyalty :
Oh, they call me Hanging Johnny
They says I hangs for money
Oh, hang, boys, hang !
They say I hanged my mother
Away––ay––i–– oh !
They say I hanged my mother
Oh, hang, boys, hang !
This is obviously a description of Brant, who was partially responsible for his mother’s death––a crime he has never been able to forget––and who was bribed into killing Ezra for the love of his wife and the ship.
When Seth intones “Shenandoah” in the following act, we know that death is near at hand. But O’Neill surprises us just the same by allowing no time lapse between the two : Christine’s suicide occurs even before Seth has finished the song ; the “sharp report” replaces the “
” of the chanty as death takes the place of life. But Seth, adding a new line to the song, takes away the grimness of death by assuring us that Christine is at peace “far across the stormy water” of life. Missouri
Death as Beautiful
As we approach the end of the trilogy, the tension between the two meanings of the key words of the chanty makes itself more strongly felt. When the chanty is first heard, Orin has just been buried ; he too is “bound away” for the mother in death. But Lavinia still hopes to be “bound away” for life. She believes she can escape the Mannons by marrying Peter––until, finally, she too is forced to face her fate : “I’m bound here––to the Mannon dead !” Although Lavinia alone has the strength to accept the punishment of staying alive, her tragic insight does not differ from that of the other Mannons. All of them discover that the only alternative to being bound here for the “stormy water” of life is to be bound away for death ; that they cannot get near the beautifully rolling Shenandoah river––cannot attain harmonious oneness with life––until they have crossed the Missouri ; that death will then––and this is their final, consoling faith––reveal itself as a beautiful mother island.