Eugene O’Neill began writing Mourning Becomes Electra, one of his most revered dramas, in France at Chateau du Plessis near Tours in the Loire Valley. Recovering from the debacle of Dynamo, which O’Neill believed failed critically because he released it too soon, he kept this project close to the vest, telling virtually no one about the story until it was completed. He did correspond for advice and support in the late stages of the writing process with the Pulitzer Prize–winning theater critic Brooks Atkinson, who referred to Mourning Becomes Electra when it finally appeared as “Mr. O’Neill’s single clear-cut masterpiece”. Working through six drafts from August 15, 1929, to March 27, 1931, O’Neill experimented with masks, soliloquies, and asides for the 14-act trilogy, but he ultimately abandoned the “show shop” stage tricks of his experimental plays from the 1920s. He copyrighted the trilogy on May 12, 1931, and the Theatre Guild enthusiastically accepted it for their fall season. O’Neill returned to New York to oversee rehearsals for the production, which opened on October 26, 1931, to enormous critical acclaim.
Mourning Becomes Electra consists of three plays—The Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted—that together borrow from Greek tragedy, specifically Aeschylus’s Oresteia, also a trilogy. Generally performed as one play, with a six-hour playing time for its first run, the trilogy charts the tragic decline of a prominent New England family named the Mannons just after the American Civil War. O’Neill was convinced, and rightly so, that this play won him his 1936 Nobel Prize in literature, making him the only American dramatist to win the coveted award. Mourning Becomes Electra had opened in the United States five years before, but the drama was still fresh in the minds of European audiences and ran triumphantly in theaters across the continent well into the 1940s. No O’Neill play achieves the level of tragic power we find in this work until his late masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Either spring or summer, 1865–66, at the Mannon house, located “on the outskirts of one of the smaller New England seaport towns.” A “special curtain” reveals the house as it appears from the street; it also shows an extensive property of around 30 acres, with woods in the background, an orchard at right, and a large greenhouse and flower garden at left. The street is at the foreground, lined with locust and elm trees, and a white picket fence and tall hedges surround the property. A rounded driveway reaches the street by two white-gated entrances, with its apex at the front door. The house itself is “of the Greek temple type” built from gray cut stone, and four steps lead up to a white portico with six tall columns; there are five windows on the second floor and four on the first with dark green shutters.
Mourning Becomes Electra, up to that point the greatest accomplishment of Eugene O’Neill’s career, powerfully combines ancient Greek tragedy, modern theories of psychoanalysis, New England Puritan culture, and American history. In effect, O’Neill recast Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude, and Desire under the Elms, respectively, but without, as he put it, the “show shop” theatricals of these experimental plays of the 1920s. Mourning is gripping in plot and powerfully situated in time and place, and its characters’ histories and personalities are well-developed and troublingly clear. “From the first showdown between Lavinia and Christine,” says O’Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer in praise of the play, “the narrative starts to coil and tighten like a huge python that will devour all members of the doomed house of Mannon, and it rarely eases its grip during most of its thirteen acts of murder, suicide, near-madness and haunting”. Audiences would have quickly read the incestuous relations among the Mannons as derived from Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, which in turn was borrowed from Greek tragedy; O’Neill’s psychoanalytic biographer Stephen A. Black suggests the story reflected O’Neill’s own incestuous feelings toward his mother, Mary Ellen “Ella” O’Neill.
O’Neill always insisted, however, that he would “have written Mourning Becomes Electra almost exactly as it is if I had never heard of Freud or Jung or the others”. While composing drafts of the play in France, he complained that the problem he had posed for himself was nearly insurmountable: “The unavoidable entire melodramatic action,” he wrote, “must be felt as working out of psychic fate from the past— thereby attaining tragic significance—or else!—a hell of a problem, a modern tragic interpretation of classic fate without benefit of gods . . . fate springing out of the family”.
O’Neill conceived the idea in 1926, during his voyage to China with Carlotta Monterey, to write a “modern psychological drama using one of the old legend plots of Greek tragedy”. At that time, he mused over the repressive atmosphere of a puritanical New England small town in contrast to the freedom of the open sea, represented in the play by Adam Brant’s reveries over his “Blessed Isles” and Christine, Lavinia, Orin, and even Ezra Mannon’s attempt at purification and liberation by voyaging to the South Seas and Asia. Overtly borrowing from the mythic world of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, also adapted later by Sophocles and Euripides, O’Neill admitted that he was interested only in the “general spirit” of the ancient plays, not the “details of legend”. Nevertheless, Aeschylus’s characters, King Agamemnon and his wife, Clytemnestra, (Ezra and Christine Mannon) and their children Electra and Orestes (Lavinia and Orin), violently striving against one another among the chanting chorus of the New England townspeople (the chorus), all appear as representative characters in O’Neill’s first true tour de force.
Mourning Becomes Electra and the Oresteia’s shared plot lines are unmistakable to anyone with a cursory knowledge of Greek tragedy: A general/king returns from war—the Trojan War in the Greek myth, the American Civil War in O’Neill—only to be murdered by spiteful wives, each of whom have been conducting an affair with a romantic stranger (Aegisthus, Adam Brant) in their husbands’ absence; the strangers are in turn murdered by the couples’ progeny. In both, daughters and sons seek revenge for their fathers’ murders, though revenge intensifies rather than alleviates their suffering. In Euripides’ version of the tale, Orestes succumbs to insanity after having been an accomplice to his mother’s murder, as Orin does in O’Neill’s. But Mourning offers a sequel to the Oresteia in that it shows us the life of Electra after the murder of her mother, Clytemnestra. As Travis Bogard phrases it, the Oresteia is “the source of all tragedy,” and thus “from that primal fountain, he took new life”.
“Mannon” phonetically brings to mind the Greek king “Agamemnon”; the word also connotes, from the Bible and elsewhere, the wickedness that often accompanies great wealth. Combine that with a Puritan New England setting and O’Neill’s lifelong conviction that family consists, in Louis Sheaffer’s words, of “a deadly struggle” (336), and the Oresteia provided O’Neill with the ideal framework for a modern psychological tragedy. O’Neill consciously grappled with the oedipal family aspect in his April 1929 Work Diary notes:
Electra . . . adores father, [is] devoted to brother (who resembles father), hates mother—Orestes adores mother, [is] devoted to sister (whose face resembles mother’s) so hates his father— Agamemnon, frustrated in love for Clytemnestra, adores daughter, Electra, who resembles her, hates and is jealous of his son—work out this symbol of family resemblances and identifications (as visible sign of family fate) still further.
O’Neill’s conjoining of Greek mythology and modern psychology finally proved his status as a major world dramatist. “Although most of us have been brought up to bow and genuflect before the majesty of Greek tragedy,” theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of the trilogy, “it has remained for Mr. O’Neill to show us why”. Not all critics lauded O’Neill’s use of the Greek myth, however. Novelist Gore Vidal recalled his indignant reaction to Mourning Becomes Electrawhile waiting for the curtain to rise at the premiere of A Touch of the Poet(which he adored) as a “misuse of the Oresteia when, having crudely borrowed the relationship, the melodrama, the portentousness of Aeschylus, he blithely left out the whole idea of justice which was, to say the least, the point of that tragedy”. O’Neill preempted such a reading in an early statement about the final act of The Haunted:
The Electra figure in the Greek legend and plays fades out into a vague and undramatic future. She stops, as if after the revenge on her mother all was well. The Furies take after Orestes, but she is left alone. I never could swallow that. It seemed to me that by having her disappear in nice conventionally content future (married to Pylades, according to one version of the legend) the Greeks were dodging the implication of their own belief in the chain of fate. In our modern psychological chain of fate certainly we cannot let her make her exit like that. She is so inevitably worthy of a better tragic fate! I have tried to give my Yankee Electra an end tragically worthy of herself. The end, to me, is the most inevitable thing in the trilogy. She is broken and not broken. By her way of yielding to the Mannon fate she overcomes it
Here is the entire 1947 Movie!