Concern With Physical Features
O’Neill’s concern with his characters’ outward appearance is quite noticeable throughout his work. From the beginning we find detailed character description, whose amplitude tends to increase in the late plays. Attention is paid to the characters’ age, constitution, complexion, facial traits, hair, costume, voice and manner. But in most cases all these characteristics are not discussed with regard to one and the same character––an indication, perhaps, that O’Neill was not thinking in terms of production when finally shaping the plays for the printers but rather took the approach of novelist, who is free to limit himself to those visual characteristics he finds important and illuminating and ignore the rest.A director of Interlude must obviously find costume for all the characters in all the acts. But O’Neill accepts for Marsden only incidentally––usually when he finds symbolically relevant––tells us what the characters wear. In the majority of cases, however, attention is paid to the hair and eyes of the characters. In agreement with traditional symbolism, the hair frequently has connotation of strength and sexuality, while the eyes mirror the souls of the characters.
Symbolism of Hair and Eyes
If the mask like faces in Mourning Becomes Electra establish the puritan male tradition, the woman’s hair and eyes symbolize the opposing ‘pagan’ one. The pallor and immobility of the death mask juxtaposed to the living colours of hair and eyes, represent the battle between the stern, life-denying Father God, Jehovah, and the soft, life-affirming Earth Mother. The significance of the hair was partly outlined in the “Working Notes” :
peculiar gold-brown hair exactly alike in Lavinia and her mother––same as hair of the dead woman, Adam’s mother, whom Ezra’s father and uncle had loved––who started the chain of recurrent love and hatred and revenge––emphasize this motivating fate out of past ... strange, hidden psychic identity of Christine with the dead woman and of Lavinia ... with her mother.
In the play, Christine has thick curly hair, partly a copper brown, partly a bronze gold, each shade distinct and yet blending with the other. Lavinia has the same peculiar shade of copper-gold hair. And both Adam and Seth verify that Marie Brantome had hair of the same unusual kind. The richness of the hair points to primitive, vigorous sensuality, the strength of which is further indicated by the metallic references. These also serve the purpose of raising the women above the common run of men, vaguely suggesting their kinship with the royal dynasty of golden
. But above all, the two colours of the women’s hair, distinct from each other yet harmoniously blending, suggest the warm sun and earth of the Mycenae South Sea Islands and the good spirit of love that reigns there.
Women’s Eyes and the
The eyes of the women further link them with the
Islands. O’Neill carefully distinguishes between them. We hear of Marie’s “big, deep, sad eyes that were as a Caribbean Sea.” There is no indication that Marie ever acquired the masklike appearance the Mannons have otherwise grown on their wives ; on the contrary, the sadness of her eyes suggests that she never hardened herself to life but remained open and vulnerable to it. In this respect she resembles the Chantyman, another former servant of the Mannons unaffected by their puritanism; his eyes, too, are the “big round blue” ones of the sea.
Symbolism of Colour of Eyes
While Christine and Lavinia retain the sea and sky colour of Marie’s eyes––a dark violet blue––they are somewhat further removed from its spiritual origin. Christine’s eyes are deep-set and alive but apparently not especially large ; Lavinia’s seems to have lost even their depth. The soul destroying puritan influence can be traced further to Seth and Borden––both long-time servants of the Mannons with their small, sharp eyes. The fact that Ezra’s eyes are never described seems significant in this context ; symbolically, his mask has grown so dominant that he has become virtually eyeless.
One more visual trait brings the three women and the islanders together. Christine, we learn, has a fine, voluptuous figure and she moves with a flowing animal grace. Marie, too, had something free and wild about her like an animal. She was pretty as well. And Lavinia, after her return from the
Islands, looks and moves like her mother and declares that the Islands have set her free
Variety of Longings
The symbolism resembles the one in The Hairy Ape. The naked islanders enjoy the freedom and harmony of animals, and the free women, especially Marie, have retained much, if not all, of their sense of belonging. But in Mourning Becomes Electra the women may also be said to represent man’s harmony with life preceding his Fall, while the Mannons, with their strong puritan sin consciousness, illustrate his state of mind after it. Apart from the Darwinian longing to return to animal status and the Christian-puritan yearning for a lost paradise of a sinlessness, there is the Freudian longing for the maternal womb. It is all these longings taken together that gives scope and significance to the Mannons’ love for their woman-islands.
The fated chain of hidden psychic identity is established by .means of a series of striking parallel situations. In Part II Adam tells Lavinia :
You won’t meet here like yours and hers again in a month of Sundays. I only know of other women who had it. You’ll think it strange when I tell you. It was my mother……Yes, she had beautiful hair like your mother’s, that hung down to her knees.
This should not be taken as calculating flattery. It is true that Adam’s quoting of Lavinia seems largely motivated by his need to keep appearances and divert suspicions from his adulterous relationship with Christine. Yet this does not explain why he has recently gone as far as kissing the young girl ; surely, this was not part of his scheme, far less of Christine’s. We must assume, that he simply could not resist it. Reminiscing their moonlight romance, Adam dreams :
Whenever I remember those
Islands now, I’ll always think of you as you walked beside me that night with your hair blowing in the sea wind and the moonlight in your eyes.
Puritanism Versus Paganism
The free-flowing hair and the eyes belong with the sea, the wind and the
Islands––especially with the one named Marie Brantome, the lost paradise which the mother-fixated, guilt-ridden Adam constantly longs for ; momentarily, in the dreamy light, she comes alive to him in Lavinia ; insofar as Lavinia recalls his mother, she is lovable. Adam would most certainly have fallen in love with her, had she not by the circumstances been an unfit love object and bad she not repressed her maternal nature in favour of her Mannon rigidity : she wears her hair pulled tightly back, as if to conceal its natural curliness. Lavinia, on her part, apparently agreed to Adam’s kissing her ; for all her puritanism, she is not insensitive to the ‘pagan’ values. Her negative reaction at this point is easily explained by the fact that since the moonlight romance, she has come to suspect that Adam is her mother’s lover. Basically, however, it is not Christine’s rivalry she fears but Marie’s ; her outbursts against the low Canadian girl reveal most of all her jealousy of the woman Adam truly loves, who partook of the affirmative qualities Lavinia secretly longs for. In this way, the scene demonstrates the power of the dead over the living.
In Part I. III there is a similar situation, this time between Ezra and Christine : Ezra leans towards her and touches her hair with an awkward caress. When he speaks his voice trembles with desire and a feeling of strangeness :
You’re beautiful ! You look more beautiful than ever––and strange to me. I don’t know you. You’re younger. I feel like an old man beside you. Only your hair is the same––your strange beautiful hair I always––.
Christine shrinks from his hand with a start of repulsion and says, “Don’t”. Adam might have uttered Ezra’s last words, a circumstance which in itself motivates Christine’s violent reaction. But there is a deeper reason for it. As Ezra’s words imply, the situation revives his father Abe’s love for the beautiful young stranger Marie Brantome, a relationship of which Christine undoubtedly is well aware. But Ezra, too, loved Marie. She gave him the maternal tenderness his own stern mother withheld from him; and as the woman of his childhood, she incarnates a lost paradise to him. To him, as to Adam, Christine is a mother substitute; their love for her is a love by proxy. Of these, too, Christine may intuitively be aware. Again the spirit of the dead woman is evoked.
The Ghost of Marie
Twice more the ghost of Marie is called forth. In Part II.II Orin tells Christine ;
And do you remember how you used to let me brush your hair and how I loved to ? He hated me doing that, too, you’ve still got the same beautiful hair, mother. That hasn’t changed.
Four identical situations are evoked here. There is Ezra’s gesture the night preceding the murder two days earlier. There is Adam’s concern with Christine’s hair. There is the Orin-Christine relationship of the past. And there is Ezra’s parallel relationship with Marie, which indicates that his hatred of Orin’s hair-brushing is motivated by jealousy at a blissful mother-son relationship he had once enjoyed himself but which ended when Marie left him for his uncle, just as, later, Christine turned away from him to his son. Ezra’s ghost now looms large beside that of Marie.
The Final Hair-Touching Scene
The final hair-touching scene occurs in Part III.III. Orin tells Lavinia :
There are times now when you don’t seem to be my sister, nor mother, but some stranger with the same beautiful hair–– (He touches her hair caressingly. She pulls violently away. He laughs wildly.) Perhaps you’re Marie Brantome, eh ?
Orin’s words hark back to the initial Abe-Marie relationship. Again Mannon love for ‘paganism’ is inextricably connected with sin ––adultery in Abe’s case, incest in Orin’s. The fated chain has come full circle ; the sin of the grandfather is visited upon the grandson. The scene also relates to the one between Ezra and Christine just dealt with, for Orin and Lavinia are now virtually identical with their parents. Like Ezra’s love for Christine, Orin’s love for Lavinia, his ‘wife’, is one by proxy, is a love for Marie or the other qualities she symbolizes.
Complex Psychological Pattern
The psychological pattern of the play has become ever more introverted and complex. From Abe’s fairly simple preference of the mistress to the wife, actively dramatized, we have moved to. Ezra’s inner conflict between too much less contrasting figures : the ‘mother’ (Marie) and the wife. Finally we reach Orin’s desperate. struggle with his inner furies, his attempt to reincarnate the mistress and mother qualities associated with the two dead women in his sister, thereby combining the love, freedom and protection. Ironically, this ideal combination can only be found in an incestuous relationship, which is especially abhorred by the puritan part of Orin. It is hard to imagine a more crushing and inevitable fate than the psychological one O’Neill has designed for Orin.
Strange and Beautiful
The attentive reader has noticed how, in all the faint-touching scenes, two words are constantly repeated : “strange” and “beautiful”. Verbal repetition thus is coordinated with the gestic one to bring out the “strange hidden identity” between the women and between the men. Moreover, both words are frequently used in connection with the
Islands. When Lavinia towards the end talks about the “mysterious and beautiful” good spirit of love belonging to the Islands, she points also to what the hair of the women and the whole figure of Marie Brantome ultimately represent : the life affirmation and love incarnate which oppose the spirit of hatred and death wish and therefore are worshipped by all the Mannons.