Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Themes of Mourning Becomes Electra

The Inner Conflict
In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill leaves for a while the war between God and science and returns to the more limited conflict within the ‘suffering’ individual. But the conflict and the suffering are traceable more specifically than ever to the fixations upon father and mother, to the tension between puritanism and freedom, pride and love, death and life. As before, in most of the plays since Desire Under the Elms all other masks and values stem from the power of the father-and-mother-images, the Oedipus and Electra complexes.
In his detailed “Working Notes and Extracts, froth a Fragmentary Work Diary”, O’Neill outlines his purpose and method in Mourning Becomes Electra, emphasizing repeatedly his equation of the complexes with destiny. They are “a modern tragic interpretation of classic fate without benefit of Gods––for it (the play), must before everything remain (a) modern psychological play––fate springing out of the family.”
Working oat of the Family Fate
As with the original Atreidae, the family fate of the New England Mannons is ancestral, not limited to one generation. It has been set in motion before the opening of the play by Abe Mannon, father of Ezra (Agamemnon) and grandfather of Lavinia and Orin (Electra and Orestes). Abe’s younger brother, David, had been involved in a liaison with a French-Canadian governess, Marie Brantome, resulting in her pregnancy. David married her, but Abe (in Lavinia’s words) put them both out of the house and then afterwards tore it down and built this one because he wouldn’t live where his brother had disgraced the family. The child of David and Marie is Adam Brant, the Aegisthus of the play, who returns to avenge his parents death in poverty and misery after their exile.
Pride as a Source of Death
The house of Mannon, therefore, was built upon outranged
pride and puritanism, leading inevitably to death for the Mannon
line. For them pride is the source of death, and love is the source
of life. Existence for the Mannons is life-in-death from which love,
represented by Marie Brantome, has been shut out. In their longing
to escape the ugly reality of their actual lives the Mannons yearn
for release in love untainted by pride and sin, and in death itself.
Christine’s acceptance of sexuality, has been embittered by Ezra’s
Puritanism––distorted into a possessive passion ; but to her husband,
lover, and children, she still represents release and spinelessness. Even
to Lavinia, who hates her because she “stole all love from me when I was born”, Christine is still the longed-for mother, as well as the image of herself, Lavinia, as giver and lover.
Shift of Emphasis
Since O’Neill has shifted the emphasis of the trilogy from Orestes to Electra, the changes which take place in the character of Lavinia provide a new dimension to the theme of the play. Caught like Nina Leeds in the father-complex, she struggles at once to realize and to escape from a self-image which is only a reflection of her soldier father. Her physical appearance tells the story : tail like her mother, her body is thin, flat-breasted and angular, and its unattractiveness is accentuated by her plain black dress. Her movements are stiff and she carries herself with a wooden, square­ shouldered, military bearing. She has a flat dry voice and a habit of snapping out her words like an officer giving orders. But in spite of these dissimilarities one is immediately struck by her facial resemblance to her mother. This facial resemblance, the mask of the mother in Lavinia, will have its moment of fulfilment, but only briefly, until God the Father’s lightning strikes again.
Pride, Puritanism and Vindictive Justice
The father, Ezra, embodies the characteristics of the family which constitute their fate––pride, puritanism, and a strong sense of vindictive justice. Because of his ingrown egotism and his guilty attitude towards sex, Ezra does not, at the beginning of the play, know how to love. Desire for his wife takes the form of brutal and clumsy lust. Not until he has known the comradeship of other men on the battlefield and has seen death, does he become aware of the significance of love and life ; “Death made me think of life. Before that life had only made me think of death……That’s always been the Mannons’ way of thinking. They went to the white meeting-house on Sabbaths and meditated on death. Life was a dying. Being born was starting to die Death was being born.” Ironically, his ability to love and his insight into life come to Ezra only when he returns home to Christine’s hatred and his own death.
Suicidal Frustrations
Christine has fallen in love with Adam Brant, the son of Marie Brantome. When Ezra is in the throes of a heart attack, Christine deliberately withholds his medicine. To the outside world, Ezra appears to have died from natural causes ; Lavinia however, discovers her mother’s guilt. She plans her vengeance––driven, not only by the Mannon sense of justice and her love for her father, but by her frustrated love for Adam and hatred and jealousy of her mother. Since Christine has ‘stolen’ the love of both men from Lavinia, the fitting relation for Lavinia is not to take her mother’s life, but to take from her the love which is her life. At Lavinia’s instigation, Orin murders Adam Brant. Christine takes her own life, and after Christine’s suicide the spirit of vindictiveness and death in the Mannons seems to be temporarily satisfied, and Lavinia can come to life. She takes on all the attributes of, her mother ; “She seems a mature woman, sure of her feminine attractiveness. Her brown-gold hair is arranged as her mother’s had been ... The movements of her body now have the feminine grace her mother had possessed.” Now, at perhaps her guiltiest, she has lost her, sense of sin and death. Her father’s ghost in Lavinia has now been placated ; like him, she could find life only after experience of death.
Chained to Mannons
And as Lavinia assumes the characteristics of the mother, Orin takes on those of his father. He even wears a beard and walks like a “tin soldier”. Together they take a trip to the East, stopping at the South Sea Islands. Orin watches Lavinia’s new sexuality with puritanical disapproval and jealousy. He feels that he and Lavinia have actually become their father and mother ; “Can’t you see I’m now in Father’s place and you’re mother ?...I’m the Mannon you’re chained to !”
Symbolic Incest Pattern
To complete the symbolic incest pattern representing the lonely Mannons’ introversion and their narcissistic inability to love any but another Mannon, Orin falls in love with his sister. The same duality of love and loathing for oneself and its reflection in another which has always dominated Mannon relationships now governs this one. Orin hates Lavinia as much as he desires her ; she has become to him what the Furies were to Orestes, a constant reminder of guilt, driving him towards madness. He wants to become her, lover in order to force her to share his guilt. “How else can I be sure you won’t leave me ? You would never dare to leave me––­then ! You would feel as guilty then as I do……” Lavinia, both fascinated and repelled, shouts her hatred at him: “I hate you You’re too vile to live ! You’d kill yourself if you weren’t such a coward.”
Crumbling of the Illusion
With these words Lavinia has committed her last murder. When Orin shoots himself Lavinia’s, last illusion of her own innocence begins to crumble. The puritan conscience (or superego or father-god), from which she has found release in identification with the mother, now reasserts itself. She shouts defiance at the portraits of her ancestors, “I’m Mother’s daughter––not one of you……!” but even as she does so, the Mannon pride claims its own. The feminine Lavinia now “squares her shoulders, with a return––of the abrupt military movement copied from her father which she had of old-as if by the very act of disowning the Mannons she had returned to the fold––and marches stiffly from the room.”
Last Effort to Reach For Life
Lavinia takes one more desperate effort to reach from behind her mask of death toward life. She begs her childhood sweetheart, the innocent, untempted, and unsuspicious Peter, to marry her. Even as she pleads with him, however, she knows that the dead have not forgotten, and, will not rest until justice has been performed. She must pay. for their lives with her own, not in the easy expiation of actual death––that would be the release for which,’ she has always longed––but in a return to the living death which is the Mannon fate, and which, as always, is to be accomplished by Mannon pride. She tells Peter goodbye, as Seth, the gardener, sings the refrain of his “Shenandoah”.
The Trap of Self Claims Its Prey
When Lavinia “pivots sharply on her heel and marches woodenly into the house, closing the door behind her”, the tension between love and pride, life and death, is dissolved ; only, pride and death remain. Violated order has been restored the trap of self has finally and with finality claimed its inevitable prey.

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