Central Problem of the Play
The central problem of Mourning Becomes Electra lies in O’Neill’s first note concerning the play : “Is it possible to get modern psychological approximation of Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of today, possessed by no belief in gods or moral retribution, could accept and be moved by ?”
The Difference of Audience
This must have given him no little trouble. After all, Aeschylus did write for an audience that accepted a set of more or less established moral, religious and political dogmas, and it was not necessary for him to answer such questions as modern American audience must have answered before they will accept the premises laid down in a play. And we must remember that the Oresteia was based upon legends as familiar to fifth-century
as the Bible stories were to puritan Athens New England. A Fundamentalist never thinks of asking about Adam’s parentage ; he knows.
O’Neill soon saw that he could not plan very well his story against a present-day background ; the time of the Civil War was just remote enough. “Civil War”, he noted, “is only possibility––fits into picture––Civil War as background for drama of murderous family love and hate.” Yet that epoch is far enough removed for us to accept certain conventions without demanding a meticulous explanation for every motive, but close enough to enable us to identify ourselves with the ideas and emotions of the characters. Aeschylus could take it for granted that his audience knew what the Trojan War was about, so O’Neill had only to suggest his time and place, knowing that he need not explain much about the Civil War or a New England city.
Similarity of Situations
The Agamemnon and Homecoming are concerned with situations that are fundamentally alike. In Aeschylus’ play, Agamemnon returns to his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been unfaithful to him with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin ; Clytemnestra murders him because he has sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, because he brings home with him a concubine, and because she wants Aegisthus to rule over the kingdom. In the O’Neill play, Ezra Mannon returns to his wife Christine, who has. been unfaithful to him with Captain Adam Brant, Ezra’s cousin ; Christine murders him because she has always hated him and wants to marry Adam.
The Counterparts of Electra and Orestes
Neither Electra nor Orestes has a place in the Greek play, and. Orestes is scarcely mentioned ; he is no more than an ominous note in a speech of Cassandra’s, and is one of the choral chant. In omitting Cassandra and the choruses (except for the modern counterpart of the townspeople, who are used chiefly as background), and in not suggesting a direct parallel to the , sacrifice of Iphigenia. O’Neill has to furnish some substitute for the material introduced into the ancient story by these means, not because he was trying to “modernize” Aeschylus, but because he was establishing a. dramatic embodiment of the fate that perceived the house of Mannon. The fact that Clytemnestra was jealous of Cassandra is of little importance, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia––for O’Neill’s purpose––is just as irrelevant. So, instead of making Orestes the chief instrument of vengeance, as Aeschylus did in the second part of his trilogy, he at once gave to Lavinia the combined dramatic function of the prophetess, the avenger Orestes and the choruses. It is she who learns the story of the feud between Ezra’s, grandfather, Abe, and his brother, David ; she learns that her mother’s lover Brant is the son of David and the servant girl Marie Brantome ; and because she is an inevitable product of the combined hatreds of her parents and their parents in turn, she cannot rest until she has perceived the guilty parties to their final punishment. She will see to it that they pay the price of sin.
The Greek legend tells that Atreus and Thyestes, sons of Pelops, “dwelt at
with Eurystheus the king ... and when he died, Atreus ruled in his place, and wedded his daughter. But Thyestes wronged his brother’s wife, and was banished from Argos . And after a while he returned again, and clung into the altar at Argos ; and Atreus, fearing to slay him, devised this deed. He slew certain of the children of Thyestes, and bade him to a banquet, and gave him to eat of his own children’s flesh ; and he ate, knowing not what it was. But when he knew what was done he spake a bitter curse upon children of Atreus, that they should all perish by a doom like that of his own children. And there befell these woes into that house, and for three generations the curse of murder departed not away.” Argos
Not for a moment does he Greek poet allow us to forget that because of the first Thyestes and Atreus the gods have decreed and sought retribution and suffering from the guilty. With occasionally tiresome insistence, chorus after chorus repeats the degree of that
From which that after-growth of ill doth rise.
Whereas with Aeschylus the first lay ends with the temporary with the temporary triumph of Clytemnestra, with O’Neill Christine stands already charged with murder by her daughter, a woman whom we feel once to be mistress of the situation.
Comparison Between the Second Parts
The Libation-Bearers, the second play of the Greek trilogy, introduces Orestes and Electra, but the woman soon fades into the background and Orestes undertakes alone to pursue his mother and her lover. He has consulted the Delphic oracle and is commanded by Apollo to punish the guilty pair, in accordance with the decree of Zeus ; he acts quickly, with the help of his friend Pylades, but almost immediately after the double murder he is beset by the avenging Furies, symbols of yet another power not under the control of Zeus and at variance with the laws of the Olympian hierarchy, and he is driven mad.
In O’Neill’s second play, The Hunted we follow up to a certain point the same broad course of events : Lavinia and her brother Orin together track down Christine and Adam, kill the man, and drive their mother to suicide. In the belief that her mission is ended Lavinia turns to her temporarily unbalanced brother, determined at last to find happiness, and ultimately to marry the normal and unimaginative Peter. But she has reckoned without the Furies, those powerful and as yet not fully understood forces within us that wreck mind and body when they are no longer under control. Orin, being the weaker, is the first to succumb. His case is complicated by a certain introspective malady that was unknown to or at least not touched upon by Aeschylus.
of the Greek Model Independence
At this point O’Neill declares his virtual independence of the Greek model. Aeschylus carried him as far as was necessary. It would have been useless and absurd to attempt to utilize to any great extent a modern counterpart to the Furies, the third part of the Greek trilogy. It is in some respects a political and patriotic document and in writing the last part of it the Greek poet sidestepped the moral and psychological problems he had raised and up, to that point developed. What, we wonder and demand to know, will Orestes do, torn between two opposed forces, the one a command from the chief of the gods, the other a personified urge from the irresistible goddesses of vengeance ? It was fated that such-and-such :events should come to pass, that the family of Atreus should suffer forte wrongs committed by certain of its members ; yet to make doubly sure that he was the instrument ordained to punish the guilty, Orestes had scrupulously performed his religious duties and consulted the oracle, presumably the highest source of religious authority. His God commanded him to do the deed; yet upon committing it he found he had transgressed another law, decreed by the Furies. For a man in such a dilemma the only wayout according to Aeschylus, was to appeal to the highest court in the most enlightened country : Aeschylus’ country, and the local court of the Areopagus at
Instead of facing the issue, or carrying it to some higher source of moral justice, or even leaving it unsolved among those problems that men simply cannot fathom, he shows us Orestes appealing to Athena, the patron goddess of the very city whose people made up Aeschylus’ audience :
I call Athena, lady of this land
To come, my champion.
Punishment For Matricide
But the Furies are no lest insistent upon their rights, Athena or no Athena ; for it is their claim that matricide is punishable by annihilation, no matter what the motive that prompted it. A jury of Athenian citizens is summoned by the goddess, court is held on the Areopagus and Orestes is tried. The goddess addresses the Furies “The form of justice, not its deed, thou wiliest.” The jury is divided, but Athena, who herself decreed that she should have the deciding vote in case of a tie, absolves her suppliant. The Furies complain :
Now are they all undone, the ancient laws
...New wrong for ancient right shall be
If matricide go free.
A long argument follows, and at last the Furies consent not only to accept the verdict, but to be friendly, for Athena promises them “great honour from the Athenians, and a sacred; dwelling in the land..., and they were appeased, and were called no’ more Furies, but gracious goddesses.” Orestes virtually disappears from the play at this point, as Aeschylus brings his trilogy to its wordy closing scene. The opposing parties are reconciled by acknowledging the supremacy of the Athenian tribunal in matters of religion and state. That this was propaganda to strengthen the prestige of the Athenian court at a moment when it was threatened by the popular party is well known. The father of drama has avoided the very issues he raised, either because he could not make up his mind as to whether Orestes was guilty or not, or because he cared more about the government of his own city than he did about his trilogy.
O’Neill’s Departures in “The Haunted”
In the third O’Neill’s play, The Haunted, the playwright parts company almost entirely from Aeschylus. He might, of course, ,y way of furnishing a counterpart to The Furies, have taken Lavinia and Orin before the Supreme Court at Washington and :introduced an archbishop instructing the nine justices as to what procedure they should adopt in dealing with the culprits. Further, the jury would have to be told it would remain forever, under proper religious guidance, the ultimate standard of all human conduct.
However, instead of avenging Furies, placated by a mere bribe (this at least is a modern touch), O’Neill gives us an exhibition of complexes, a picture of moral and mental struggle that, in its broad aspects, is acceptable to us today.
Focus on Lavinia and Orin
In addition to this, while Aeschylus conducted his matricide into the arms of a politically prejudiced goddess who tried him by unfair means and absolved him from guilt in order to glorify
, O’Neill focussed his attention on Lavinia, plus Orin (these two being. his Orestes). Lavinia, the product of those very forces in her family which precipitated its peculiar and inevitable fate, dicovers that she has at last become like her own mother, that in demanding payment for sin that grew out of lust and hatred she herself is inevitably drawn to her own brother and even to the naked savages, now that her father, towards whom she was also drawn by forces not exactly filial, is no longer alive. All her natural instincts, thwarted by a maniacal desire for vengeance, have turned in upon her. This is her fate, and she marches to a doom which is actually inescapable, from which no good-from-the-machine, no benign court, no accommodating dramatist, is able to save her. For such victims of the evil that seems inherent in life there is no salvation. Athens
No Use of Masks
Instead of using masks to show what has happened to Orin and Lavinia, O’Neill simply states in his stage directions that they have come to resemble their parents, a bit of symbolism more strikingly dramatic than he could have achieved if he had actually made the actor put on masks. “I’m now”, says Orin, “in Father’s place and you’re Mother That’s the evil destiny out of the past I haven’t dared to predict! I’m the Mannon you’re chained to !” Out of the mouth of this demented man has come the ultimate truth. Like the inspired Cassandra, he perceives through his disordered mind the: meaning of the curse.
Laurels For O’Neill
So, whatever may be thought of O’Neill’s purely literary achievement as compared with the poetry of Aeschylus, we should give the American the wreath of laurel or the cask of wine that goes to the victor, for working out his fate motif with greater skill and more courage and a deeper understanding of the human mind than the Greek had done. O’Neill was at least after the truth as he saw it, while Aeschylus sought the less honourable course of glorifying his state and its official religion.