Great Dramatic Achievement
The symbolic setting of Mourning Becomes Electra is a great achievement in dramatic craftsmanship. It suggests the inherent conflict in the Mannon family and the attraction and repulsion regulating the lives of its members.
Symbolism of Vegetation
When we take in the “special curtain” at the beginning of the play; we see the extensive Mannon estate which offers us a background story of sorts and introduces it to the major conflict in the trilogy, that between green paganism and gray puritanism. “As seen from the street” implies from the perspective of the town-dwellers (the world outside including the audience), the estate with its “extensive grounds” is most impressive. From a distance it appears “purty” to us as it does to the town chorus.
Symbolism of Colours
Once inside the estate we can better see what the house is like : at front is the driveway which leads up to the house from the two entrances on the street. Behind the, driveway the white Grecian temple portico with its six tall columns extends across the stage. A big pine tree is on the lawn at the edge of the drive’ before the right corner of the house. Its trunk is a black column in striking contrast to the white columns of the portico…… It is shortly before sunset and the soft light of the declining sun shines directly on the front of the house, shimmering in a luminous mist on the white portico and the grey stone wall behind, intensifying the whiteness of the columns, the sombre grayness of the wall, the green of the open shutters, the green of the lawn and the shrubbery, the black and green of the pine tree. The white columns cast, black bars of shadow on the gray wall behind them. The windows of the lower floor reflect the sun’s ray in a resentful glare. The temple portico is like an incongruous white mask fixed on the house to hide its sombre gray ugliness. Surrounded by “the green beauty of their land”, the Mannons––so the curtain told us––“live in as near the
……as you’ll find on this earth”, to quote Adam’s description of the Garden of Paradise South Sea Islands. Or so they would if it was not for the house. After generations of nature trimming puritanism Abe Mannon, out of revenge on the love he was incapable of himself and which was therefore denied to him by Marie Brantome, tore down the old mansion and built his monstrous “temple of Hate and Death”. Yet the vegetation that still surrounds the Mannon estate indicates that nature and the spirit of love, if repressed, are not extinguished. The white portico, like the puritan version of the story, which is the one offered to the world, is a false facade hiding the grim truth visualized in the house itself, the truth, which says that hatred rather than righteousness and, revenge rather than justice, motivated Abe’s destruction of the old house and erection of the present one. Visualizing modern man’s dilemma, the Mannon house is fittingly a “grotesque perversion of everything Greek temple expressed of meaning of life”. In its imitation of pagan love of life, beauty, and purity, the portico is incongruously a’ part of the puritan house built in hatred of life and love ; it is itself a perversion of the pagan spirit, for its whiteness is biblical and sepulchral rather than Greek.
Inescapability of Fate
The inescapability of the fate is underlined by the static setting the house––exterior or interior is nearly always before our eyes. Only once–in the ship scene close to the middle of the trilogy––do the Mannons get away from it. Here for a brief moment, the sea promises “escape and release”, but the escape is illusory and the main effect of this futile attempt at breakthrough is, in fact, a strengthening of the feeling that the characters are, chained to the house, doomed to spend their lives in it. Fittingly, Ezra, Christine, Orin, and eventually, we must assume, Lavinia, all die, in the house which symbolizes the Mannon way of life, in the house which has worked their destruction : Ezra in the matrimonial bed which he had abused by his inability to love his wife naturally ; Christine in the room where she succumbed to the evil Mannon spirit the moment she decided to murder her husband Orin in the room where his mother committed suicide, partly due to his Mannon harshness.
The house is like a monster swallowing its own breed its windows are “revengeful eyes”, rejecting rather than accepting the warm sunlight, and the shutters are like eyelids. The play begins with open windows and shutters, but when Ezra returns the windows and shutters are closed the house front becomes a death mask expressive both of Ezra’s life-denying puritanism and Christine’s evil Spirit. When Ezra tells her about the Mannon death worship, she keeps her eyes closed, her face resembling a death mask, indicating that she is a victim of the very tradition he is commenting on and which is expressed in the house front. He asks her to open her eyes, but almost immediately entreats her to close them again––an illustration, it seems of Ezra’s willingness but utter inability to free Christine of her death mask. The shutters remain closed also after Ezra’s death, for which his corpse in it, the house is literally a tomb and besides it is now Lavinia who rules the house.
The Mannon House
In the third part Lavinia’s attitude has changed. It is now Orin who locks himself up, behind closed blinds on the study, hiding from the world with his guilt. Lavinia, on the other hand, is firmly determined to drive the ghosts away. She has strength enough to open the shutters in the study, claiming that the air in it is suffocating for Orin––as indeed it will shortly prove to be : soon he is to kill himself in the study. It is, also due to her that he shutters are fastened back and that the windows are open in the final act With Orin dead and escape from the Mannons imminent, Lavinia repeats her repeats her mother’s worship of light and air. Then, in a crushing anagnorisis, she discovers that she can rid herself of the evil Mannon spirit only by living with it. She closes her eyes, that is she ‘dies’. And, without opening her eyes she says strangely as if to herself : “Why can’t the dead die !” She is not merely thinking of the Mannon ghosts ; she is also addressing herself, wishing her own death. ‘Dead’ herself now, it only remains for her, the last Mannon to prepare her own tomb. She orders the shutters nailed tight and buries herself in the darkened house which seems to be her tomb.
Symbolism of the Shrubbery
Of the rich vegetation revealed in the special curtain, the stage picture shows only the blooming lilac shrubbery on the left and one of the pine trees on the right. Christine is linked with the shrubbery ; she appears close to it twice on her way to and back from the flower garden, the second time carrying a bunch of flowers. The pine-tee is visually linked with the house, the dark green of its needles matching the dark green shutters, its column-like trunk in form resembling the house columns and in colour the black bars they cast on the house, turning it, as it were, into, a prison. As an evergreen never visibly in bloom (and in this respect contrasting with the rest surrounding vegetation) and mournful in colour, it adequately expresses the Mannon sterility and hatefulness. When O’Neill at one point makes Ezra appear close to and turned towards the pine tree, he may wish to underline the fact that the man’s feelings of hatred and jealousy do not merely concern the present situation but also a traumatic experience in the past. Christine’s rejection of him (in favour of Adam) reminds him of Marie Brantome who similarly rejected him and his father Abe, in favour of David.
Lavinia And the Pine Tree
More obviously, Lavinia is connected with the, pine tree, her black costume in colour resembling the trunk of the tree. We are reminded of that especially towards the very end when Lavinia like an ebony pillar–O’Neill’s description of the pine tree––woodenly pisses between the white columns of the house on her way into its gloomy darkness. Six unnatural deaths––those of David, Marie, Ezra, Adam, Christine and Orin––have occurred in the family since Abe’ Mannon built his
and Death ; there are six puritan columns in front of the tomb-like house. Differing from the other Mannons––except Abe––both by her excessive guilt and by her decision to punish herself to death-in-fife, Lavinia is like a seventh ‘black’ column matching the tree, symbol of the Mannons’, especially Abe’s, life hatred. As hateful as the grandfather, she has no Mannon to punish––but herself. temple of Hate
The Light Green Vegetation
Unlike the pine trees the rest of the vegetation is light green––it is either spring or summer––and subordinated to the seasonal and lifelike rhythm of budding, blooming, decay, death. As we have noted, it links the estate with the
Islands. This is especially true of the flowers, worn by the natives in Dionysian fashion, “stuck over their ears”, symbols of youthful innocence, happiness and love. Thus Christine’s brightening up of the Mannon “tomb” with flowers is not merely a sign of her joyous acceptance of Adam, her lover, or even of her attempt to transform the deadly house into a temple of love. As an unhappy, ageing and guilt-ridden woman––she is already planning to murder her husband––Christine longs for all the values represented by the flowers. Her act is one of, exorcism.
A Life Without Flowers
This is even more true of Lavinia in the final act. Repeating her mother’s flower-picking, she is much more desperate. Filling every room in the house with flowers, she frankly tells Peter : “Take me in this house of the dead and love me ! Our love will drive the dead away!” But her black costume, unlike her mother’s green, harmonizes, not with the flowers, but with the dark pine tree. At last she realizes : and accepts her Mannon nature. Her final words are : “……tell Hannah to throw out all the flowers”. Innocence, happiness and love are incompatible with the Mannon house and do not become Lavinia. It adds considerably to her tragic stature that despite the intense love for flowers she has just demonstrated, she has the strength to condemn herself to a lift without them.