Critical Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra

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” (127). 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 (Floyd 1983, 404,  Bogard 340). 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

Synopsis

General Scene of the Trilogy

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. The main entrance is at center, flanked by side lights and with a transom above  (2:890).

Part One: Homecoming: A Play in Four Acts

Act 1

The exterior of the Mannon house, just before sunset in April 1865. The sun’s rays highlight the white  portico and columns and reflect harshly off the windows. From the town in the distance, a band can  be heard playing “John Brown’s Body,” and from  the left rear of the house, a man’s voice is singing “Shenandoah”—“a song that more than any other  holds in it the brooding rhythm of the sea” (2:893). Seth Beckwith, the Mannons’ 75-year-old gardener, enters from left finishing the last line of the song. He is followed by the local carpenter, Amos Ames, a well-meaning gossip; his wife, Louisa, “a similar  scandal-bearing type”; and her cousin Minnie, a stupid, 40-year-old “eager-listener type” (2:894). Each  of these three are “types of townsfolk rather than individuals, a chorus representing the town come to look  and listen and spy on the rich and exclusive Mannons” (2:894). Confederate general Robert E. Lee has just surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, and the men are in a celebratory mood.

Seth proudly displays his knowledge of the Mannons over the 60 years he has worked as their gardener. Ezra Mannon, head of the Mannon clan,  is the first topic of discussion. Seth explains that  Abe Mannon, Ezra’s father, made the family fortune in the shipping industry. Ezra attended West  Point, fought in the Mexican War, and then rose to the rank of general in the Civil War—“The  finest fighter in the hull of Grant’s army!” according to Seth (2:895). Christine Mannon, Ezra’s wife,  comes from French and Dutch stock, but when her name comes up, Seth sourly changes the subject. Seth goes inside to find Lavinia Mannon, Ezra and  Christine’s daughter, who has granted him permission to show the others around the estate. The  others hide when Christine Mannon appears at the front door. She is a tall, statuesque woman of 40  who looks a good deal younger, with an expression “of being not living flesh but a wonderfully life-like mask.” She listens to the music in the distance  “defensively, as if the music held some meaning that threatened her” (2:896), then shrugs and walks off to the garden. Louisa whispers about skeletons in the Mannons’ closet, including a French Canadian nurse with whom Ezra’s uncle David had eloped, causing a tremendous scandal.

Seth returns without Lavinia, but she soon appears at the front door. Lavinia is 23 and holds a strong resemblance to her mother, down to the “same strange, life-like mask impression her face gives in repose” (2:897), though she tries to hide the resemblance. Lavinia listens intently to the band, as her mother had, but rather than feeling threatened by it like her mother, she wears an expression of “strange vindictive triumph” (2:898). Seth announces that the war is over, and her father will return soon. Lavinia hopes this to be true, then evades questions concerning her whereabouts over the last few days. Seth starts to warn her about Captain Adam Brant, a young, pretentiously romantic sea captain, but he stops as Captain Peter Niles and his sister Hazel Niles approach the house. Dressed in the uniform of the Union Army, Peter is an awkward but kind  22-year-old; Hazel is 19, pretty, and healthy-looking. Hazel asks about news from Lavinia’s brother  Orin Mannon, whom (it is hinted) she hopes to marry, but he has not written in some time. Lavinia has none. Hazel teases that Peter wants to ask her something, and exits.

Scornful of romantic love, Lavinia rejects Peter’s proposal of marriage but admits she loves him as a brother. Peter insinuates she might have  eyes for Captain Brant, “a darned romantic-looking cuss. Looks more like a gambler or a poet than  a ship captain” (2:902). Lavinia swears she hates the sight of him, and Christine appears from the garden carrying flowers. Peter exits. After some tense discussion, Christine announces that she saw Captain Brant in New York, and he was asking for her. Lavinia insinuates that the two are having an affair and that her father will surely find out. Christine looks at her with a “questioning dread,” but regains her poise. “You always make such a mystery of things, Vinnie,” she says and walks into the house (2:905). Seth returns and tells her that Brant has come to court her but also that he bears a striking resemblance to the Mannon men. He is sure Brant is the child of David Mannon and the Canadian nurse, which shocks Lavinia; he advises her to accuse Brant of it at her first opportunity and exits.

Adam Brant enters. As with all the Mannons, “One is struck at a glance by the peculiar quality his face in repose has of being a life-like mask rather than living flesh” (2:907). Though he is a ship’s captain, his clothing is self-consciously that of a romantic poet. After some polite talk, Brant asks if Lavinia holds something against him, given her icy tone, and mentions a romantic night they had shared  on a walk by the shore. She remembers him talking of the naked island women he encountered in  the South Seas, and he reminisces about the “Garden of Paradise” he found there, “before sin was  discovered” (2:909). She abruptly accuses him of being “the son of a low Canuck nurse girl” (2:910). Outraged by the insult to his mother, he spitefully confirms her suspicion. Brant has vowed revenge  against Lavinia’s father, Ezra Mannon, for abandoning his mother, the Mannon family’s French  Canadian nurse, Marie Brantôme, after Brant’s father, Ezra’s brother David, hanged himself over the affair. Brant changed his last name and ran away to sea at 17; he returned two years ago to find his mother dying of starvation. She had asked Ezra for a loan, and he never replied. Lavinia insinuates that Brant’s affair with her mother constitutes his revenge. As she heads inside to confront Christine, he insists there is nothing between them. She stares back with hate-filled eyes, then goes into the house as the curtain fall (2:913).

Still from Dudley Nichols’ Adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)

Act 2

Ezra Mannon’s study. No time has passed. It is a spacious room with a “stiff, austere atmosphere.” The  furniture is old colonial, and a large desk stands  between two windows at left; there is a table at center, and on the right wall hang portraits of George  Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall. A fireplace is at rear center, and to its left  are shelves filled with law books; above it hangs a 10-year-old portrait of Ezra Mannon in a judge’s black robe. There is a striking likeness between him  and Adam Brant, along with “the same strange semblance of a life-like mask” shared by all the Mannons. Lavinia is discovered standing beside the table, her expression that of extreme duress. She touches the painted hand of her father’s portrait lovingly and cries out, “Poor father!” (2:914).

Christine enters. Lavinia informs her mother that she followed her to New York and saw her meet Brant and go into a strange house. A woman living in the basement told her the two had met there often over the past year. Christine hedges at first, then defiantly admits she loves Brant. She confesses she fell out of love with Ezra early in their marriage and feels Lavinia is more his daughter than hers. Her son Orin was different, she says, because Ezra was fighting in the Mexican War (1846–48) when he was born; therefore, Orin is more her child than his. Lavinia threatens to tell her father if Christine continues her affair with Brant. Christine initially believes the threat is fueled by Lavinia’s own love for Brant. The argument becomes more heated, but Christine eventually capitulates, and Lavinia marches out of the study.

Christine’s expression becomes “like a sinister evil mask” (2:921). She writes two words on a slip of paper and calls out an open window for Brant. He enters, and the resemblance between him and Ezra’s portrait is pronounced. Christine relates what Lavinia told her. Brant admits he initially seduced her to avenge his mother, but he fell in love in spite of himself. Brant suggests he fight Ezra in a duel, but Christine convinces him that  as a former judge, Ezra would notify the authorities since dueling is illegal. Christine assures him  Ezra would never divorce her, so he must die. She  hands him the slip of paper and says she deliberately spread a rumor that Ezra suffers from heart  trouble. When she poisons him, he will have a heart attack, and no one will suspect that he has been murdered. Brant thinks of poisoning as a “coward’s trick,” but Christine convinces him it is the only sure way (2:926). He somberly accepts  the assignment. She tells him to mail her the poison, then they will meet at his ship, Flying Trades,  when Ezra is dead.

Cannon saluting Ezra’s “homecoming” are heard firing at intervals in the distance. Brant departs.  Watching his retreat through the window, Christine shouts triumphantly, “You’ll never dare leave  me now, Adam—for your ships or your sea or your naked Island girls—when I grow old and ugly!” (2:927). She shudders at the sight of her husband’s portrait, then exits.

Act 3

Same as act 1, around nine o’clock at night a week later. A half-moon illuminates the whiteness of the house, “giving it an unreal, detached, eerie quality,” and the “white temple front seems more than ever like an incongruous mask fixed on the somber, stone house.” Lavinia sits on the top step of the portico dressed  “severely in black” and stiffly erect like an “Egyptian statue” (2:928). She is awaiting her father, who  could arrive any day. Seth approaches the house, singing “Shenandoah.” He admits sheepishly that he has been drinking to mourn Abraham Lincoln’s  assassination, just as he drank to Lee’s surrender, and he will again to celebrate Ezra Mannon’s arrival. Lavinia inquires about Marie Brantôme, and Seth tells her everyone loved her, even Ezra, until discovering Marie and David Mannon were in love. The front door opens, and Christine, dressed in a green velvet gown, appears behind Lavinia. Seth exits, and Christine chides Lavinia for being an old maid. Lavinia says it is her duty to her father, then accuses her mother of plotting something. Christine denies it, but then laughs that Ezra is “the beau you’re waiting for in the spring moonlight!” (2:931). Lavinia informs her that he should arrive soon, then hears someone approaching.

Ezra Mannon enters from the left front. A largely  proportioned 50-year-old man in a brigadier general’s uniform, Ezra’s face betrays the same “mask-like  look on his face in repose,” though “more pronounced  than in the others” (2:931). He moves in a stiff military manner, and his voice has a “hollow repressed  quality” (2:931). He greets Lavinia and Christine with formal kisses, restraining himself from showing  too much emotion at his daughter’s adoring coddling. When asked about Orin, Ezra tells them a  bullet grazed his head in battle. The doctors have  kept him in their care for nerves (which Ezra gently blames on Christine’s influence), though he  fought bravely, particularly on one occasion that he mysteriously does not describe. Lavinia asks about  his heart, and Ezra confesses he experiences intermittent pain that hurts terribly. Lavinia mentions  Adam Brant, and Ezra inquires about him suspiciously. Lavinia and Christine accuse each other of  being the subject of local gossip, and Ezra silences their bickering. He sends Lavinia upstairs, and she obeys, reassuring him, “Don’t let anything worry you, Father. I’ll always take care of you,” and steps into the house (2:935).

Christine accuses Ezra of suspecting something, and he tells her she is allowing the town gossips to get the better of her. She informs him that she met Brant at her father’s in New York and allowed him to visit several times to get news about her  father. He scolds her for permitting Brant to tarnish Lavinia’s reputation. Over the course of the  dialogue, Ezra’s lust for her becomes strongly evident. He understands that she has not loved him  since their courtship, but he loves her desperately and would do anything for her to return that love. In a lengthy exposition, he tells her of the death he witnessed during the war and of a revelation that “death made me think of life. Before that life had  only made me think of death!” (2:937). The Mannons had always followed the church’s belief that  “life was a dying. Being born was starting to die. Death was being born” (2:937–938). He suggests they go off on a voyage to the East to resurrect their love, but she assures him she loves him and coaxes him inside to bed. Lavinia appears at the doorway and tells him she cannot sleep and will go for a walk.

Ezra and Christine enter the house, and Lavinia talks to herself of her terror that Christine will steal Ezra’s love from her. She shouts up to her father’s lighted window above. He pokes his head out and scolds her sharply. She tells him she forgot to say goodnight. Mollified, he bids her goodnight and disappears. Lavinia stares at the empty window, anxiously wringing her hands.

Act 4

Ezra Mannon’s bedroom, close to dawn the following morning. Mannon lies in a large four-poster bed  at center. A door at right leads to the hallway and another at left to Christine’s bedroom. Christine can just be made out in the darkness by the dim moonlight coming through the closed shutters. She tiptoes to a table at front right and starts when Ezra speaks her name. He asks her feebly whether she left his bed that night out of hatred of him. He lights a candle on his bedside table, and they continue their discussion from the last scene of the previous act. Believing she no longer loves him, Ezra insinuates that she slept with him the night before to cause a heart attack. She threatens to go, but he begs her to remain. With pitiful remorse, he says the house and bedroom no longer feel like  his own, and that she seems like a stranger “waiting for something” (2:944). He accuses her of false  passion when they made love, as if she were a “nigger slave [he’d] bought at auction” (2:944). His  taunting goads Christine into viciously admitting she and Brant are in love and that Brant is Marie Brantôme’s son. She apprehends that his heart is  weakening from the onslaught and continues mercilessly. When his heart seizes, and she runs to her  bedroom and returns with a box of poison. She helps him swallow it; in horror, he realizes it is not his heart medicine. He cries out for Lavinia’s help, then falls into a coma.

Lavinia appears in the doorway, believing she had a nightmare and heard her father call to her. Christine, hiding the box of poison behind her back, says that Ezra suffered a heart attack but will be all right. Ezra wakes for a brief moment, straightens up, and points at Christine, “She’s guilty—not medicine!” (2:946), then falls back and dies. Lavinia rushes to his bedside, feels his pulse, and proclaims him dead. Christine admits she told him about Brant. Her voice grows weaker as they argue over who was at fault, and she collapses to the floor. Lavinia realizes she has fainted, screams  that her mother is responsible, and then discovers the box on the floor. Understanding now that  it was actual murder, she throws her arms around her father, shouting in desperation, “Father! Don’t leave me alone! Come back to me! Tell me what to do!” (2:947).

Part Two: The Hunted: A Play in Five Acts

Act 1

Exterior of the Mannon house two nights later.  Moonlight illuminates the white portico and columns, and again they appear mask-like. Funeral  wreaths adorn the front door and the column at  right. The manager of the Mannons’ shipping company, Josiah Borden, and his wife, the Congregational minister, Everett Hills, and his wife, and the  family physician, Doctor Joseph Blake, all come out the front door. Christine is in the foyer. Like the townspeople in act 1 of The Homecoming, these  characters are “types of townsfolk, a chorus representing, as those others had, but in a different stratum of  society, the town as a human background for the drama of the Mannons” (2:951). The men light cigars and stand at the foot of the portico steps, while the women wait for them at left front. Mrs. Hills and Mrs. Borden believe Christine was more upset than they would have thought, but Lavinia was “cold and calm as an icicle” (2:952). Borden is surprised the Mannons did not arrange a public funeral for Ezra, considering he was a beloved citizen and a  former mayor. Mrs. Hills clumsily quotes her husband as having said of the Mannons that “pride  goeth before the fall and that some day God would humble them in their sinful pride” (2:953). The others voice disapproval of the poor taste of such a  remark, and Hills apologizes for his wife’s indiscretion. Blake discusses Ezra’s angina, considering it a  natural death. When the women and the minister move off left, the doctor nudges Josiah Borden to wait, whispering he is quite sure Ezra died making love to Christine, whom neither man likes but both find attractive. They share a chuckle, then follow the others offstage.

Christine appears at the doorway, “obviously in a strained state of nerves” (2:955), and Hazel Niles follows her out. Lavinia and Peter have gone to the train station to retrieve Orin, and Christine inquires whether Hazel wishes to marry him. Hazel shows some embarrassment, but Christine goes on that she applauds the match, and the two women must ally themselves against Lavinia, who cherishes her brother, to ensure the union. Christine muses that once she was “innocent and loving and trusting” like Hazel, but all that changed with the tortures of life. “Let’s go in,” she concludes. “I hate moonlight. It makes everything so haunted” (2:936). After the door shuts, Orin Mannon, a 22-year-old who appears 10 years older, enters from the right with  Lavinia and Peter. His face contains “the same life-like mask quality” as the other Mannons, though his  mouth “gives an impression of tense oversensitiveness”  (2:957). Wounded and dressed in an ill-fitting lieutenant’s uniform, Orin wonders where his mother  is, then inquires to himself whether the house had always looked “so ghostly and dead” (2:957).

Lavinia asks Peter to leave them and go inside, which he does. Orin mourns his father, but he has witnessed so much carnage that death seems almost meaningless to him. “Murdering doesn’t improve one’s manners,” he apologizes (2:958). He asks  about Brant, whom Lavinia had mentioned in letters. Lavinia warns him to stay on his guard against  their mother, and he takes that angrily as an implication that Christine and Brant are lovers. Christine  emerges from the house and throws her arms around him. Orin is overjoyed, but then he jerks away: “But you’re different! What’s happened to you?” She blames this on his head wound and leads him up the steps to the house. “Remember, Orin!” Lavinia shouts back to him, and she and Christine glare at each other in hatred (2:359). Christine returns from inside and, in a lengthy monologue, asks why  Lavinia would treat her own mother with such suspicious disdain. In the end, she demands to know what  Lavinia is planning to do, but Lavinia says nothing, turns away from her coldly, and marches into the house. Orin shouts for his mother from inside, and Christine instantly regains her composure. “Here I  am, dear!” she calls back in tense self-control, running up the steps (2:961). The door shuts behind  her.

Act 2

The Mannon sitting room. No time has elapsed. Similar in its cold austerity to Mannon’s study from act 2 of The Homecoming, the large space is “a  bleak room without intimacy.” At left front, a door-way leads to the dining room, and at center rear,  another door leads to the hallway and stairs. A fireplace is at right, with a window at either side.  Several portraits hang on the walls, mainly of Mannon ancestors dating back to the American Revolution; each shares “the same mask quality of those  of the living characters in the play”—including Abe Mannon, Ezra’s father, whose face “looks exactly like Ezra’s in the painting in the study” (2:962). Hazel sits on a chair at front center, and Peter sits on a sofa at right. Offstage, Orin is heard calling, “Mother! Where are you?” (2:962), while Peter and Hazel discuss Orin’s condition. Christine enters with Orin, who is wondering over her disappearance. She responds that she was so overwhelmed with happiness at his return that she needed a moment alone. Christine lavishly compliments Hazel, who appears embarrassed but delighted. Orin questions her about why she seems to have grown younger  and prettier. He coarsely remarks about the slaughter he witnessed and the naïveté of the local women  waving handkerchiefs patriotically to the men going off to war. Lavinia calls from the hallway for Orin to view their father’s body, but Christine begs him to stay for a bit longer.

Hazel and Peter exit, and Orin questions Christine about writing so few letters and her sudden  interest in Hazel, whom she had previously disdained as beneath him. Christine lies that her letters must not have been delivered and that Hazel  had been a source of foolish maternal jealousy. Orin turns the subject to Adam Brant. Christine warns him that Lavinia has been accusing her of “the vilest most horrible things” (2:967). She informs him of Lavinia’s accusations about her and Brant and that Christine poisoned Ezra. Orin admits he is relieved that his father is dead and agrees with her that Lavinia must be insane to believe such a thing. Christine insists that Brant entered the family circle to manipulate Ezra into buying him a better ship and scoffs at Lavinia’s assertion that Brant is the son of Marie Brantôme. Orin can forgive anything but an affair with Brant and threatens to kill him if it is true. Terrified for Brant, Christine screams at Orin to end such talk. He apologizes and seats himself on the floor below her, dreamily reflecting on the South Seas novel Typee [Herman Melville, 1846], which helped him survive the brutality of war. Placing his head on her knee, he muses that “those Islands came to mean everything that wasn’t war, everything that was peace and warmth and security” (2:972). He denounces Hazel as a potential wife, then touches  Christine’s hair admiringly, not noticing her shudder of disgust.

Lavinia returns to ask Orin to view their  father’s body, and though resentful of the intrusion, he obeys. Christine tells Lavinia that Orin  knows about her accusations and will never believe them. But she loses “all her defiant attitude” upon thinking that Orin might kill Brant and howls that she would kill herself if Brant died. Lavinia coldly exits the room “like some tragic mechanical doll,” and Christine cries out that she must warn Adam (2:974).

Act 3

Ezra Mannon’s study—same as part 1, act 2. The furniture has been moved to the sides, and Ezra Mannon’s corpse lies on a bier at center with a chair situated next to his head. Ezra is in uniform, and his face is “a startling reproduction of the face  in the portrait above him.” Orin is discovered rigidly standing over him, but staring forward rather  than down at the corpse; his face “bears a striking resemblance to that of the portrait above him and the dead man’s.” He shouts in bewilderment over his mother and sister’s behavior, as Lavinia silently steps into the room. “You never cared to know me in life,” he says to his father, “but I really think we might be friends now you are dead!” (2:975). Lavinia scolds him harshly, which startles him. She locks the door behind her, and he explains that laughing at death served as a psychological defense during the war. He describes the act of bravery Ezra mentioned to her in act 3 of The Homecoming. Orin learned to laugh at death so well that during the Battle of Petersburg, he ran out into a cross-fire laughing and was shot in the head; he then went berserk, rushed the enemy,  and “a lot of our fools went crazy, too, and followed me and we captured a part of their line we  hadn’t dared tackle before” (2:977).

At length, Lavinia convinces Orin to let her prove to him that Christine killed their father and has been conducting an affair with Brant. She knows Christine and Brant will meet that night,  and Orin reluctantly agrees to follow them. Christine knocks loudly on the door, the knocks becoming increasingly frenzied. Lavinia places the box of  poison on Ezra’s heart and tells Orin to watch their mother’s reaction to it. He unlocks the door, and Christine enters, panic-stricken, making him vow not to permit Lavinia to call the police. She looks down at the box, stifles a scream, and stares at it “with guilty fear” (2:982). Orin’s nerves snap, and he laughs at the irony of returning home to escape from death and longs for his “island of peace”; he then stares at his mother strangely and cries out, “But that’s lost now! You’re my lost island, aren’t you, Mother?”—upon which he “stumbles blindly from the room” (2:982). Lavinia takes up the box. She realizes that her mother had conspired with Brant, even though Christine denies it, and she stiffly exits the room. Christine begs Ezra not to let Orin harm Brant. She stares down at her husband’s face in horror as if he had responded and rushes terrified from the room.

Act 4

A wharf in East Boston, the day following Ezra Mannon’s funeral. The stern section of Flying Trades is visible alongside the wharf, and the end of a warehouse looms at front left. Portholes emit a dim light from oil lamps below the main deck. Moonlight accentuates the ship’s dark outlines. In the distance, sailors from another ship weighing anchor offshore sing in chorus in accompaniment to the ship’s chantyman, who sings the capstan shanty “Shenandoah.” The melancholy sound of the singing wakens a drunken chantyman on the pier. About 65, bleary-eyed from a night’s debauch but with a “queer troubadour-of-the-sea quality about  him,” the chantyman is lying against the ware-house’s outer wall (2:984). Rising to his feet, he  bitterly denounces the quality of the other singer, then breaks into his own rendition of the song. He curses the “yaller-haired pig” that stole his money that night and rants over the struggle of being an out-of-work seaman (2:985).

Adam Brant appears from the poop deck’s companionway door and peers into the darkness with  trepidation. The chantyman stumbles, and Brant draws his revolver, ordering him to reveal himself. After some words, Brant promises the chantyman work on Flying Trades if he needs a berth in a  month’s time. The chantyman mourns the imminent change in shipping. “Aye, but it ain’t fur long,  steam is comin’ in, the sea is full o’ smoky tea-kettles, the old days is dyin’, an’ where’ll you an’  me be then?” He startles Brant by remarking that “everything is dyin’,” including Abe Lincoln and Ezra Mannon, though he despised the latter as an “old skinflint” (2:987). Brant gives him a dollar for drink and sends him on his way with a skipper’s  authority. The chantyman exits singing the sorrowful dirge “Hanging Johnny,” which fills Brant with  self-loathing. Sure the ship will abandon him, he admits that “the sea hates a coward” (2:988).

Christine appears in the shadows at left. The lovers meet on the wharf, and Brant escorts her to the poop deck. Christine tells him that Lavinia knows about the murder and might convince Orin as well. When they descend into the cabin, Lavinia and Orin appear on the deck from left. In the moonlight, Orin’s face appears “distorted with jealous fury” (2:990). Lavinia restrains him from immediate action, and the scene goes dark. A few minutes have elapsed when the lights go on, and the interior of the cabin is now exposed. Brant and Christine are discovered seated at a table at center. Christine looks visibly aged and disheveled.  Lavinia and Brant listen intently to the conversation within the cabin. Brant tells Christine that he  has his father’s coward’s blood. She begs him not to despair but also warns him about Lavinia and Orin. Together they decide to sign on as passengers on another ship embarking for China that Friday; they plan to get married and live in Brant’s “Blessed Islands” in the South Seas.

Brant accompanies her off the boat, and Orin takes out his revolver. Lavinia restrains him again and convinces him that if they killed Brant and were caught, “he could die happy, knowing he’d revenged himself” with the scandal that would surely follow. Brant returns to the cabin, crying out to his ship, “I wasn’t man enough for you!”  (2:994). Orin enters the cabin and fires two shots into Brant, then gazes strangely at the corpse. Lavinia wonders how Brant could love “that vile  woman so,” and Orin notes his uncanny resemblance to their father. They ransack the cabin to  make it look like a break-in. Before leaving, Orin again brings up his thought that the men he killed in the war always seemed to transform into the face of his father, then his own. “He looks like me, too! Maybe I’ve committed suicide!” (2:996). He continues that he would have loved Christine as Brant had and killed his father for her too. Lavinia  urges him away. He shouts, “It’s queer! It’s a rotten dirty joke on someone!” as Lavinia rushes him  off (2:996).

Act 5

Exterior of the Mannon house the following night. Moonlight illuminates the left side of the house, and the right half is covered with shadow from the pine trees. Christine is discovered pacing back and forth “in a frightful state of tension” (2:997). Hazel appears from left. Christine expresses her fear of being alone in the house, and Hazel agrees to stay with her that night and goes off to inform her mother. Orin and Lavinia appear at left. Orin is in a “state of morbid  excitement,” and Lavinia stands “stiffly square-shouldered, her eyes hard, her mouth grim and set” (2:999).  Orin informs Christine what transpired the previous night—that he heard her conspiring with Brant and that he killed him as soon as she was gone. At the sight of her reaction, his anger turns to desperate longing, and he vows to take her to the South Seas in Brant’s stead. Christine moans, grief-stricken, throughout the confession.

Lavinia orders Orin military-style into the house, and he mechanically obeys. She coldly  informs Christine that Brant’s murder was justifiable revenge against the murder of her father. Christine says nothing, then jumps to her feet and glares at Lavinia “with a terrible look in which savage hatred fights with horror and fear” (2:1,001–1,002). Sensing her state of mind, Lavinia exclaims that Christine can still live. Christine mockingly cries out, “Live!” before rushing into the house. Lavinia stands before the entrance, square-shouldered and rigid “like a grim sentinel in black” (2:1,002). Seth can be heard approaching the house singing “Shenandoah” as the sound of a pistol’s report  comes from the house. Orin discovers his mother’s dead body and runs out to Lavinia, informing her that their mother has shot herself and that he is to blame. Lavinia silences him, afraid Seth might overhear. When Seth arrives, she orders him to inform Doctor Blake that Christine has shot herself out of remorse for Ezra’s death. He solemnly obeys and moves off left. Orin and Lavinia walk into the  house, Lavinia “stiffly erect, her face stern and mask-like” (2:1,003).

Part Three: The Haunted: A Play in Four Acts

Act 1, Scene 1

Exterior of the Mannon house just after sunset on a clear summer day one year later. Seth Beckwith and Amos Ames stand in front of the house with Abner Small, a 65-year-old hardware store clerk; Joe Silva, a 60-year-old Portuguese fishing captain; and Ira Mackel, an elderly local farmer. All of them are drunk. Again, they appear as “a chorus of types representing the town as a human background for the drama of the Mannons,” but they also resemble a group of “boys out on a forbidden lark” (2:1,007).  They squabble over a jug of whiskey in Seth’s possession, and Silva gleefully sings an Irish drinking  song. Lavinia and Orin are expected back from a voyage to China. Seth puts on a show of courage, but all of them, including him, believe the house is haunted by Christine’s ghost and the ghosts of all dead Mannons. Seth has wagered Abner Small 10 dollars and a gallon of whiskey that he could not remain in the house until moonrise. He escorts Small into the house and then returns, laughing that Small’s teeth were already chattering.

Peter and Hazel appear from the left. Peter informs them that Lavinia and Orin have arrived in New York, but he is interrupted by the sound of a terrified scream. Small crashes through the entrance, breathless with fear and insisting he saw Ezra Mannon’s ghost. The other men all roar with  laughter. Peter and Hazel scold Seth for the practical joke and for perpetuating the town’s superstition about the Mannon home. The other men  depart, and Seth explains that the joke will put an end to the superstition; he does believe the house is  haunted, however, and implores Peter to convince Lavinia and Orin not to move back in. Hazel shares Seth’s trepidation about the house, but all three go in to prepare for Lavinia and Orin’s arrival.

Lavinia and Orin enter from left. Lavinia exhibits “an extraordinary change”; her body is less thin  now, and she no longer walks with military stiffness. She now appears to embrace her resemblance  to Christine, to the point of wearing a green-colored dress. Orin’s resemblance to Ezra, particularly the military woodenness and the masklike  face “set in a blank lifeless expression,” is now “more  pronounced than ever” (2:1,015). Lavinia encourages him softly on as he averts his eyes from the  house, still traumatized by their mother’s suicide. Lavinia adopts her military role once more and orders him into the house. “That is all past and finished!” she shouts. “The dead have forgotten us! We’ve forgotten them! Come!” (2:1,015). He obeys with dull resignation, and they step into the house.

Act 1, Scene 2

The Mannon house sitting room, same as act 2 of The Hunted. Peter has lighted the room with two candles and a lantern, creating a shadowy gloom, and the furniture, covered with white sheets, “has a ghostly look.” “In the flickering candlelight the eyes of the Mannon portraits stare with a grim forbiddingness” (2:1,016). Lavinia, now looking nearly identical to her mother, enters from the doorway at rear. Her hair is styled as Christine’s was, and she wears a green dress identical to her mother’s in act 1 of The Homecoming. She stands before the portraits and shouts at them not to stare at her accusingly, as she has always been dutiful to the Mannons. Orin enters, looking timid and bewildered. He hoped he would find their mother’s ghost in the study so he might beg her forgiveness, but then he denounces her and shouts he is more Ezra’s than hers. Lavinia silences him harshly. Orin shrinks from her, and she soothes him affectionately. He wistfully remarks how closely she now resembles their mother in beauty and spirit. It is as though, he says, Lavinia has absorbed Christine’s soul. She insists he face his ghosts and accept the fact that their mother’s death was a just one for an “adulteress and murderess” (2:1,019). When he weeps on her breast with child-like devotion, she soothes him with maternal affection, then prompts him to help clean the room.

Peter enters. At first shocked by Lavinia’s resemblance to Christine, he goes on to moon adoringly  over her transformation. Orin stands dazed at the  window until, at Lavinia’s insistence, he halfheartedly welcomes Peter. Orin’s jealousy grows increasingly acute, and he alludes to a kind of sexual  awakening Lavinia experienced in the South Seas with a native man named Avahanni. She silences Orin angrily, then dispatches him to find Hazel. Lavinia assures Peter that Orin is not in his right mind. In stark contrast to their encounter in act 1 of The Homecoming, she expresses deep feelings for Peter, astonishing him with her forwardness and delighting him at the same time, and confesses that the islands freed her to embrace life and love. She kisses him passionately, and Peter is “aroused and at  the same time a little shocked by her boldness.” Fearfully remembering Orin, Lavinia stops and warns  Peter that Orin must be “well again” before they marry; he must also warn Hazel about Orin’s frame of mind (2:1,024). He promises to, and they kiss again just as Orin reenters with Hazel. Hazel looks delighted at the match, but Orin “glares at them with jealous rage and clenches his fists as if he were going to attack them” (2:1,024). He shouts at them in furious jealousy but then controls himself. Orin and Peter shake hands while Lavinia “stares at Orin with eyes full of dread” (2:1,025).

Act 2

One month later in Ezra Mannon’s study, same as act 3 of The Hunted. Ezra’s portrait is illuminated by candlelight as Orin, seated at the desk, looks  older and ever more like his father. Orin is writing with intense concentration. He pauses, looks  up above the fireplace, and sardonically addresses his father’s portrait: “What will the neighbors say if this whole truth is ever known?” Lavinia knocks at the door, and Orin hastily locks the manuscript in the desk drawer and takes up a random book. He unlocks the door, and Lavinia enters. Lavinia, “obviously concealing beneath a surface calm a sense of dread and desperation,” demands to know what he is doing. He responds that he is studying law  (2:1,026). Convinced his sister wants him out of the way, perhaps even dead, Orin demands to know why she refuses to leave him and Hazel alone together, but he already knows the answer: Given his recent behavior, she is worried he might confess their crime to Hazel. Orin feels he has “no right in the same world” with Hazel, but nevertheless he is drawn to her “purity.” Because her love for him makes him feel both finer as a human being and at the same time more despicable, he admits that he desperately longs to confess (2:1,028).

Lavinia derides Orin’s conscience and again  insists on knowing what he is writing. “A true history of all the family crimes,” he responds—a project attempting to expiate the Mannon curse by  tracing “its secret hiding place in the Mannon past the evil destiny behind our lives” (2:1,029). In the process, he has discovered that Lavinia is “the most interesting criminal” of all the Mannons (2:1,030). Orin accuses her of jealously coveting Adam Brant as she had a ship’s officer on their voyage and the native man Avahanni. Lavinia screams at him that she too has a “right to love.” Orin begs her to renounce her admission, then grabs her throat in a jealous rage and threatens to kill her. She appears “strangely shaken” and apologizes for the outburst, as if “something rose up in me—like an evil spirit!” (2:1,031). “You never,” he replies in shocked tones, “seemed so much like Mother as you did just then” (2:1,031). Lavinia’s anger piques once more with another accusation about Avahanni. Orin suggests  she kill him to rid her of suspicion and the Mannon she is chained to—himself—as their mother  had been to Ezra. Regardless of her assurances that she only desires peace, Orin blackmails her with the family history if she abandons him for Peter. “The damned don’t cry,” he says when she begins to weep (2:1,032). He asks her to leave, which she does in a daze, and he retrieves his manuscript from the drawer, takes up his pen, and resumes writing.

Act 3

The Mannon sitting room, same as act 1, scene 2. No time has elapsed. Candlelight again illuminates the portrait of Abe Mannon above the fireplace, along with those of the other Mannons. The eyes of the portraits glare, as Orin said of his father in act 2 of The Hunted, as if “looking over the head of life, cutting it dead for the impropriety of living.” Lavinia enters  “in a terrific state of tension,” wringing her hands as her mother had in the final act of The Hunted. She  pleads to the Mannons “as if they were the visible symbol of her God” to allow her to control her desire for  Orin’s death (2:1,034). Seth enters and complains about a black servant. Lavinia leaves with him, and the doorbell rings. Seth accompanies Peter and Hazel into the sitting room and exits. Hazel warns  Peter about Lavinia’s influence and voices her concern that she has become too bold. Hazel expresses  her wish to persuade Orin to live with them but knows Lavinia will put up a terrible fight.

Orin enters and frantically asks to speak to Hazel alone. Peter exits good-naturedly, and Orin  hands Hazel an envelope containing the family history, making her swear to open it only if he dies  or Lavinia tries to marry Peter. He agrees that he should move in with her family to get away from his sister. Lavinia enters, instantly aware they are conspiring against her. Hazel hides the envelope behind her back, and Lavinia demands to know what it is. They argue about Orin’s departure. Orin eventually tells Hazel to go home; before she does,  she denounces her friendship with Lavinia. Ignoring this, Lavinia demands again to know if Hazel is  hiding Orin’s history. She pleads with Orin not to  allow Hazel to leave with the manuscript, swearing to do anything he asks. He accepts her offer,  “laughs with a crazy triumph,” and takes the envelope from Hazel (2:1,040). He then tells Hazel to  forget him. “The Orin you loved was killed in the war. . . . Remember only that dead hero and not his rotting ghost!” (2:1,040). She rushes from the room in tears.

Orin tells Lavinia she must promise to give up Peter, and then “a distorted look of desire comes over his face.” “There are some times now,” he says, “when you don’t seem to be my sister, nor Mother, not some stranger with the same beautiful hair—” (2:1,041). When he begins to caress her hair, she pulls back violently, and he laughs. “Perhaps you’re Marie Brantôme, eh? And you say there are no  ghosts in this house?” (2:1,041). If they consummate their love sexually, he implies, they will feel  equal guilt, and she will never leave him.

Tortured now by what he is saying, Orin breaks down and pleads with her to permit him to confess to their crime. Lavinia, tempted at first, angrily responds that there is nothing to confess. When he addresses the Mannon portraits, telling them Lavinia will be harder to break than he, she shouts that she hates him, that he would kill himself if he had any courage. “Death is an Island of Peace, too,” he agrees. “Mother will be waiting for me there—” (2:1,042). He starts off, and Lavinia calls him back in horror.

Peter enters. Orin leaves them with the excuse that he needs to clean his pistol. Lavinia rushes into Peter’s arms and exclaims that “no price is too great” for love and peace. She muses passionately about their future in marriage, then a muffled shot can be heard from the study. Peter runs into the hall to investigate, and Lavinia pleads for Orin’s forgiveness. But then, “with a terrible effort of will,”  her dispassionate self returns, and she mechanically locks the Mannon history in a table drawer.  She shouts triumphantly at the Mannon portraits that she will live in spite of them and marches military-style from the room, “as if by the very act of disowning the Mannons she had returned to the fold” (2:1,044).

Act 4

Late afternoon three days later. The exterior of the Mannon house, same as act 1, scene 1. Seth  appears from right, chewing tobacco and singing “Shenandoah.” He expresses resentment over  Lavinia’s taking nearly all the flowers from his garden to beautify the house. The locals, he says, now  take the word Mannon to mean “sudden death” (2:1,045). Lavinia enters from the left dressed in  mourning black and carrying flowers. Another serious transformation is apparent: She looks older,  haggard, sleep-deprived, and the “mask-like resemblance of her face” has intensified further. Seth  offers to bring a sofa for her to lie on; thus he understands, she says, that the house is a “temple of Hate and Death” (2:1,046). She vows to marry Peter and rid herself of the Mannon legacy. Hazel enters, dressed in mourning and, though clearly  grief-stricken, has an expression of “stubborn resolution” (2:1,047). Once Seth exits, Hazel accuses Lavinia of driving Orin to suicide. She tells Lavinia she must not  marry Peter; whatever it is she had done that made Orin kill himself, Hazel insists, would somehow get between them. Peter has left their house and moved into a hotel, refusing to accept Hazel’s and their mother’s advice not to marry Lavinia. Lavinia explodes in anger and threatens to kill Hazel with Orin’s pistol. But her fury subsides, and Hazel, now certain Lavinia is “wicked” but sympathetic to her suffering, assures her that her conscience will force her away from Peter. “I hope there is a hell for the good somewhere!” Lavinia exclaims sardonically after Hazel has gone (2:1,049).

Peter enters, and Lavinia begs him to marry her without delay. They must move, she insists, as abandoning the Mannon house is the only way the dead Mannons will leave them in peace. She informs him that Hazel has just left, and he growls angrily about his family’s attempts to turn him against her. Lavinia pleads with him to marry her that evening. Suspicious himself now, Peter asks if there is anything he should know. Lavinia throws herself at him, kissing him passionately and begging him to “forget sin and see that all love is beautiful” and to make love to her then and there. “Want me!” she cries out frantically. “Take me, Adam!” (2:1,052). Realizing her mistake, she resigns herself to accept that the dead will not permit her to love in peace. Peter insists on knowing about Avahanni. She ferociously admits that she slept with him and that in his innocence and purity, he had shown  her that love was not a sin. Revolted by the admission, Peter declares that Hazel and his mother were  right and rushes off left. At first repentant, Lavinia squares her shoulders and coldly says goodbye.

Seth enters, again singing lines from “Shenandoah”—“Oh, Shenandoah, I can’t get near you  / Way-ay, I’m bound away—” (2:1,053). Lavinia responds that she is not “bound away” but bound now to the house forever. Nor does she plan to commit suicide like Orin and her mother. “That’s escaping punishment. And there’s no one left to punish me. I’m the last Mannon. I’ve got to punish myself! . . . I know they will see to it I live for a long time! It takes the Mannons to punish themselves for being born!” She orders Seth to nail the shutters  closed and throw out the flowers. Seth obeys, and  she remains on the portico, “stiff and square-shouldered” (2:1,053). Seth appears from the window at  right and pulls the shutters closed with a bang. As if obeying a command, Lavinia turns sharply on her heels, marches into the house, and shuts the door behind her. The curtain falls.

Commentary

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 (in  Bogard 340). 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” (370). 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 (2004, 182). (In 1926, O’Neill had indeed informed his friend Kenneth Macgowan that he had been diagnosed by his psychiatrist, Dr. G. V. Hamilton, as suffering from an Oedipus complex [Bogard 345]).

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” (quoted in Alexander 155). 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” (quoted in Sheaffer 357).

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” (quoted in Clark 128). 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” (quoted in  Alexander 152). 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 (Alexander 161). 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” (341).

“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 (quoted in Sheaffer 338).

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” (126). Not all critics lauded O’Neill’s use of the Greek myth, however. Novelist Gore Vidal recalled his indignant reaction to Mourning Becomes Electra while 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” (234). 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 (quoted in Atkinson 127).

Mourning Becomes Electra is a mask play without masks. After much consideration, O’Neill decided  to do without the actual masks he employed for symbolic effect in Lazarus Laughed and The Great God  Brown. Instead, he offered only the implication of masks as, according to O’Neill, “a visual symbol of [the Mannons’] separateness, the fated isolation of this family, the mark of their fate which makes them dramatically distinct from the rest of the world” (quoted in Sheaffer 363). “What I want from this mask concept,” he maintained, is to demonstrate visually how the “Mannon drama takes place on a  plane where outer reality is a mask of true fated reality—unreal realism” (quoted in Falk 130).

Each Mannon face in repose appears with the same “strange, life-like mask impression” (2:897), even the portraits of the ancestors. They reside in a mansion (the house of Atreus in Aeschylus) with a “white temple front . . . like an incongruous mask fixed on the somber, stone house” (2:928). O’Neill wishes  to convey the importance of “mourning” as a constant state of being with his dark costumes as well,  one that Stephen A. Black comprehensively analyzes as the principal mental state of the author in  his biography Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy (1999). “Mourning—the color of death— becomes her,” writes Doris Alexander of Lavinia, “fits her destiny, and her tragic struggle for life and love was O’Neill’s own” (1999, 156).

O’Neill’s intended stage set must be regarded  as a critical component to any successful production of the trilogy. By all accounts, O’Neill’s set  designer Robert Edmond Jones’s Mannon house was a magnificent realization of O’Neill’s stage directions; as O’Neill himself noted in his Work Diary—“marvelous stuff, all his work is, Best Designer finest in world today, beyond question—no one in Europe to touch him” (quoted in  Floyd 1981, 209). The Mannon house resembles the numerous Greek revival houses that adorn O’Neill’s hometown, New London, Connecticut (his notes called the town “N.L.”); specifically, the house (and its builder) were inspired by a row of four beautifully maintained Greek revival houses on Huntington Street in New London. Their original  owner was named Ezra Chappell, a wealthy merchant whose family O’Neill depicts in Long Day’s Journey into Night as the Chatfields and whom he once characterized as “big frogs in a small puddle” (quoted in Floyd 1985, 396n). As a product of New England, the structure was “built upon outraged pride and Puritanism,” as Doris Falk aptly phrases it (130). The house’s temple-like white columns,  before which Greek tragedies were generally performed, project black shadows against the front of  the house, suggesting prison bars that have locked up generations of Mannons and will incarcerate Lavinia to her death (Alexander 151).

The Mannon mansion’s gray stone behind the columns and white portico mask represents the granitelike temperament that characterizes New England culture, a stony deliberateness in thought and act that rejects any show of sentimentality  and weakness; it is a mindset O’Neill had previously explored in the figures of the whale captains  David Keeney in Ile and Isaiah Bartlett in Gold and the obstinate farmer Ephraim Cabot in Desire  under the Elms (a play that also treats oedipal conflict). Christine Mannon characterizes the mansion as the whited sepulchre of the Bible, a “pagan  temple front stuck like a mask on Puritan gray ugliness!” (2:903–904). Years before the action of the play, Ezra Mannon had destroyed the original edifice to blot out the stain of his brother David’s marriage to the French nurse Marie Brantôme—a marriage that spawns Adam Brant and begins a chain of events that culminates in two suicides and a murder—and foolishly built a new temple to be desecrated by innate Mannon impurity and hypocrisy. The painted backdrop showing the view of the house from the street symbolizes outsiders’ perceptions of wealth and nobility, but when we gaze inside, like the interloping townsfolk in the opening scene, we witness the brutal reality of the tragic Mannons.

Orin Mannon’s secret family history conjoins the sinful past of the Mannons with that of the United States, transgressions O’Neill persistently  railed against to the press, along with his own family’s sins and his sins against his second wife, Agnes  Boulton. Orin’s history attempts to exorcise the Mannon curse (America’s, his) by tracing “the evil destiny behind our lives” (2:1,029); this gives the work a strong emotional connection to O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, also a family exposé and one he did not want published until 25 years after his death and never wanted produced. As in Long Day’s Journey,  Orin’s history is a kind of therapeutic mental exercise to help its author work through the psychic  pain of his and his family’s past. Indeed, strong correlations exist between Mary Tyrone (O’Neill’s mother) and Christine (see Floyd 391), Edmund Tyrone (O’Neill’s autobiographical avatar) and Orin, and James Tyrone (O’Neill’s father) and Ezra Mannon. One exchange between Ezra, Christine,  and Lavinia in act 3 of The Homecoming demonstrates a clear parallel between the characters and  O’Neill’s life, when Ezra talks of Orin’s nerves as  James Tyrone talks of his son’s in Long Day’s Journey: “Nerves. I wouldn’t notice nerves. He’s always  been restless. (half turning to Christine) He gets that from you” (2:933). Doris Alexander also connects Orin’s history with O’Neill’s own personal fear that Agnes Boulton would exploit their relationship and  his private life as fodder for a book deal. He considered this “legalized blackmail” in the context  of their divorce. At the time of the settlement, he complained to George Jean Nathan that Agnes refused to accept a clause “specifying that  she should write no articles about me or our married life or thinly-disguised autobiographical fiction  exploiting me. Can you beat it?” (quoted in Alexander 165; she eventually did so with her memoir Part of a Long Story [1958]).

Furthermore, O’Neill mistakenly thought of  his former estate with Boulton, Spithead in Bermuda, as situated within “The Isles of Rest,” just  as Brant’s “Blessed Isles” in the South Seas never  helped relieve the character of his guilt and mourning over his mother’s death (in Alexander 163). Just  after Mourning Becomes Electra opened, he and Carlotta Monterey O’Neill revived his dream and  bought land on Sea Island off the coast of Georgia, naming their house there Casa Genotta (“Gene” +  “Carlotta”). South Sea island culture must therefore be read as an important leitmotif in the play,  signifying for O’Neill and his characters, in his words, “release, peace, security, beauty, freedom of  conscience, sinlessness, etc.—longing for the primitive—and mother-symbol—yearning for pre-natal,  non-competitive freedom from fear . . .” (quoted in Falk 131). Hence the playwright’s decision to situate the wharf scene at the exact center of the dramatic action, “emphasizing the sea background of family and symbolic motive of sea as a means of escape and release” (quoted in Bogard 337).

Life in Puritan New England was a “living death” for both the Mannons and the O’Neills, and Ezra realizes this too late. The Mannon family had always followed the Protestant church’s belief that, as Ezra puts it, “Life was a dying. Being born was starting to die. Death was being born” (2:937–938). But Ezra is too firmly associated in Christine’s eyes with the death of the living, from which only Brant can free her. To escape the tragic Puritan cycle and live, Ezra begs Christine to join him on a voyage to the South Seas. Lavinia describes Adam Brant’s description of the natives there in the way Captain Caleb Williams does in Diff’rent, as a people who had “found the secret of happiness because they had never heard that love can be a sin” (2:909). Those islands and their inhabitants answer several  important questions about the cloistered Mannon clan: Why Christine and Lavinia are drawn  to Adam Brant as an object of desire more than by his looks or romantic ways; why Orin clings to Herman Melville’s South Seas narrative Typee; why Seth, in the throes of Mannon suffocation and death, continually sings of being “bound away” in the sea shanty “Shenandoah,” with which O’Neill brackets the trilogy from the opening scene to just prior to the final curtain; and most important, why Orin falls in love with his sister after she adopts her mother’s fixation on life and love. As Lavinia describes the revelations she experienced there:

There was something there mysterious and beautiful—a good spirit—of love—coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death. There was no hereafter. There was only this world—the warm earth in the moonlight—the trade wind in the coco palms—the surf on the reef—the fires at night and the drum throbbing in my heart—the natives dancing and naked and innocent—without knowledge of sin! (2:1,023).

Hence, Lavinia’s self-exile from life and love in the final scene proves a more tragic fate than the suicide of her mother and brother. And as Virginia Floyd suggests, O’Neill’s play inverts the liberating finale of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the first major work of modern drama, in which the female protagonist, Nora Helmer, slams the front door shut behind her as the audience watches from the interior of the house. Lavinia, in contrast, shuts hers as we  watch her disappear into the house from the exterior. “Ibsen’s slamming door,” writes Floyd, “herald’s  a woman’s emancipation from the past, her entrance into the outside world. The closing door in O’Neill signal’s a woman’s enslavement to the past, her immuring in a tomb of death” (1985, 402).

Mourning Becomes Electra often lapses into what one critic, in backhanded praise, characterized as “good, old-fashioned, spine-curdling” melodrama in both dialogue and action (Benchley 129). But the play stands as O’Neill’s first mature blending of the gritty surface realities of naturalism with the European expressionism more evident in such earlier plays as The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, The Fountain, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, in which the inner psyches of the playwright and his characters are projected onto the stage in grotesque and exaggerated forms. But O’Neill deliberately avoided the “show shop” aspects of his earlier experimental plays. By artfully blending the two, Doris Alexander suggests, O’Neill “wanted to  show that the surfaces of life—which are taken for  reality—are meaningless and that the great realities, the ‘hidden life forces’ beneath the surface,  are so overwhelming when perceived, as to seem unreal” (151). The ineluctable forces of fate— psychological, historical, religious, and genetic—  that govern the Mannon clan can also be considered O’Neill’s modernist update of the mythic  Greek gods, fates, and furies that play disruptive  and controlling roles in the Electra myth. In Mourning, we can take O’Neill’s “hidden life forces” to be  New England Puritanism—a deterministic faith— in the form of suppressed sexuality and perpetual guilt, oedipal attractions, family heritage, and the mental ravages of war.

Characters

Ames, Amos

The town’s carpenter and Louisa Ames’s husband. Ames is a rotund man in his 50s, a “garrulous gossip-monger who is at the same time  devoid of evil intent.” One of the “types of towns-folk rather than individuals, a chorus representing the  town,” Ames appears at the Mannon home dressed  in his Sunday best in the first act of The Homecoming merely to “look and listen and spy on the rich and  exclusive Mannons” (2:894). In the opening scene of The Haunted, Ames is drunk, along with Seth Beckwith, Ira Mackel, Joe Silva, and Abner Small, and instigates the lark played on Abner Small, wherein Small must remain in the Mannon home, which they all believe is haunted, until the moon comes up.

Ames, Louisa

Amos Ames’s wife and Minnie’s cousin. Louisa is in her 50s, taller than Amos and  “of a similar scandal-bearing type, her tongue sharpened by malice.” Louisa is one of the townspeople  whom O’Neill describes as “types of townsfolk rather than individuals, a chorus representing the town” who appear in the first act of The Homecoming merely to  “look and listen and spy on the rich and exclusive Mannons” (2:894).

Beckwith, Seth

The Mannon family’s groundskeeper and “man of all work.” Seth is a tall, wiry,  white-haired 75-year-old with a charmingly loyal and practical, if somewhat impish, disposition (2:893). In several scenes, including the very first and one of the last, Seth sings the sea chanty “Shenandoah,” which brings the call of the sea and the urge to be  “bound away” from the claustrophobic, imprisoning atmosphere of the New England town and the  Mannon family home. Having worked under the Mannons for 60 years, Seth’s face in repose shares the Mannons’ “strange impression of a life-like mask”; at the same time, “his small, sharp eyes still peer at life with a shrewd prying avidity and his loose mouth has a strong impression of ribald humor” (2:894). In act 1 of The Haunted, Seth makes a wager with Abner Small that Small cannot remain in the Mannon house until the moon rises. Although he has a good laugh  when Small runs screaming from the house convinced he has seen a ghost (actually the faces of the  Mannon ancestors’ portraits), Seth, who knows the family’s sins and secrets, also believes the house is haunted. Having been with the family so long, Seth functions as the expositor of the family’s history, as told by him to the curious local townspeople, and  he will also act as Lavinia’s caretaker in her self-imposed exile from life.

Blake, Doctor Joseph

The Mannon family physician. Blake is one of many doctors in the  O’Neill canon, an “old kindly best-family physician—a stout self-important old man with a stubborn  opinionated expression” (2:951). He appears in the opening scene of The Hunted as one of the “types of townsfolk, a chorus representing as those others had, but in a different stratum of society” (2:951). Having diagnosed Ezra with angina, Blake does not question Christine Mannon’s story that Ezra Mannon died of a heart attack rather than being murdered with poison. He scolds Mrs. Hills for insensitively remarking that her husband, the preacher Everett Hills, said of Ezra that “pride goeth before a fall and that some day God would  humble them in their sinful pride” (2:953). However, he later shares a joke with Joseph Borden  that Ezra most probably died in bed with his wife, Christine Mannon.

Borden, Emma

Josiah Borden’s wife. Emma Borden is about 50 years old, “a typical New England  woman of pure English ancestry, with a horse face,  buck teeth and big feet, her manner defensively sharp and assertive” (2:951). Emma opens The Hunted by harshly judging Christine—“I can’t abide that  woman!” (2:951)—but then she adds sympathetically that having witnessed how distraught Christine looked at her husband, Ezra Mannon’s funeral,  she had “never suspected she had that much feeling in her;” she also observes that Christine and  Ezra’s daughter, Lavinia, appeared unaccountably “cold and calm as an icicle” (2:952). Her character  is one of the “types of townsfolk, a chorus representing as those others had, but in a different stratum of  society” (2:951).

Borden, Josiah

Manager of the Mannon Shipping Company and Emma Borden’s husband.  About 60 yedars old, Borden is “shrewd and competent . . . small and wizened, white hair and beard,  rasping nasal voice, and little sharp eyes” (2:951). In the opening scene of The Hunted, Borden questions the Mannons’ judgment for having Ezra Mannon’s dead body in view at the home rather than in a more public forum. Borden sincerely respected Ezra  but, unaware of his murder, shares a joke with Doctor Joseph Blake that he probably died in bed with  his wife, Christine Mannon. Similar to the townspeople in The Homecoming, Borden is one of the  “types of townsfolk, a chorus representing as those others had, but in a different stratum of society” (2:951).

Brant, Captain

Adam Skipper of the Trade Winds, Christine Mannon’s lover, David Mannon and Marie Brantôme’s son, and Ezra Mannon’s  nephew. Adam Brant, whose full name appropriately calls to mind the word adumbrate (to obscure  or only show the bare outlines of) has the least depth of any major character in the trilogy. His name also connotes the biblical “first man,” whose punishment for sin is brought on by the wiles of a woman, Eve (Alexander 162). Primarily a symbol of masculine romantic power, Brant is 36 years old, “tall, broad-shouldered and powerful,” with long black hair pushed back from his forehead “as a poet’s might be” (2:907). Brant dresses “with an almost foppish extravagance, with touches of studied carelessness, as if a romantic Byronic appearance were the ideal in mind” (2:907). In a jealous comment to Lavinia Mannon, who openly despises him but is secretly drawn to him, Peter Niles characterizes Brant as “such a darned romantic-looking cuss. Looks more like a gambler or a poet than a ship captain” (2:902).

Brant arrives at the Mannon home in act 1 of The Homecoming and halfheartedly attempts to woo  Lavinia Mannon to gain her trust. At first she acerbically reminds him of his time shipwrecked on a  South Pacific island and his “admiration for the naked native women” who had “found the secret of happiness because they had never heard that love can be a sin.” “Aye!” Brant heartily agrees. “And they live in as near the Garden of Paradise before sin was discovered as you’ll find on this earth!” (2:909). Lavinia then goads him into admitting a rumor that he is the product of her uncle David Mannon’s scandalous marriage with the French Canadian nurse Marie Brantôme; she has also heard rumors that he has been conducting an affair with her mother, Christine Mannon, in New York. The truth of his parentage out, Brant informs her of her father’s vicious jealousy of David and of leaving him and his mother penniless after David committed suicide. At age 17, Adam changed his last name to Brant (shortened from Brantôme) and  went to sea to escape the guilt following his mother’s assertion that he was responsible for his father’s  suicide. He found her years later in New York dying of starvation, after Ezra Mannon never replied to her plea for money. She died in Brant’s arms, and he has vowed revenge on the Mannons ever since.

In the following act, having witnessed her mother kissing and pledging her love to Brant,  Lavinia accuses Christine of conducting an adulterous affair with him. Christine admits it in a rage  and informs Lavinia that after 20 years married to the once-romantic Ezra Mannon, “marriage soon turned his romance into—disgust!” (2:917). Lavinia threatens to inform the local press of their  affair if Christine does not call it off. Christine subsequently convinces Brant to help her kill Ezra by  acquiring a prescription that would stop his heart. They might then marry without the stain of divorce on her name and live together on Brant’s “Blessed Isles” in the South Seas. Brant reluctantly agrees,  and in act 4 of The Homecoming, Christine successfully murders Ezra with the tincture. In act 4 of  The Hunted, Lavinia and her brother, Orin Mannon, who has returned from the war and refuses to  believe in the affair, follow Christine and Brant to a wharf in Boston where Brant’s ship, Trade Winds, is docked. There Orin witnesses a liaison between his mother and Brant and overhears them planning to sail for China together that week. When Christine leaves the ship, Brant bemoans the necessity of giving up his ship. “So it’s good-bye to you, ‘Flying Trades’! . . . I wasn’t man enough for you!” (2:994). Orin then kills Brant in a jealous rage. Christine, upon hearing the news, kills herself, ignoring her daughter’s entreaty for her to live on despite Brant.

Adam Brant corresponds to the Greek tragic character Aegisthus in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. He is the romantic stranger who conducts an affair with Clytemnestra (Christine) while her husband Agamemnon (Ezra) is fighting the Trojan War (the American Civil War). Like Aegisthus, Brant is killed by the absent warrior’s vengeful children,  Lavinia (Electra) and Orin (Orestes); Orin consciously experiences an incestuous jealousy over  the affair. Brant is primarily a symbol to the Mannon women of an alternative to their lives in Puritan New England and incarceration in the Mannon  clan: He is their only hope for romance, peace in life, and sinless love, none of which Christine or Lavinia are fated to enjoy.

Chantyman

A chantyman, or a singer skippers hire to boost the morale of working sailors on a ship with music. The chantyman is about 65, “thin, wiry . . . with a tussled mop of black hair, unkempt black beard and mustache.” His face looks dissipated, with a weak mouth and bloodshot blue eyes, but “there is something romantic, a queer troubadour-of-the-sea quality about him.” In the opening scene of act 4 of  The Hunted, the chantyman is awakened from sleeping off a drunk by the sound of another chantyman  singing “Shenandoah” to sailors docking in Boston harbor. Unimpressed, he strikes up the same song in “a surprisingly good tenor voice” (2:984). Alone on the dock, he exposits on the previous night, when  a “yaller-haired pig” in a pink dress stole 10 dollars from him (2:985). Captain Adam Brant arrives  at the dock to meet Christine Mannon, who just murdered her husband, Ezra Mannon, with poison Brant had acquired for the deed. After sizing each other up, Brant and the chantyman engage in a dialogue about work and women.

The chantyman recalls the character Paddy from O’Neill’s experimental play The Hairy Ape, who also mourns the transition from sail to steam power. “Steam is comin’,” the chantyman warns, “the sea is full o’ smoky teakettles, the old days is dyin’, an’ where’ll you an’ me be then?” (2:987). He brings up Ezra Mannon’s death; no love is lost for Ezra, as he considered Ezra a slave-driving, tightfisted ship  owner. He then calls to mind Brant’s fateful relationship with Christine and advises Brant to “steer  clear ’o gals or they’ll skin your hide off an’ use it fur a carpet. . . . They’re not fur sailormen like you an’ me, ’less we’re lookin’ fur sorrow!” (2:987). In the end, Brant gives him a dollar for drink and promises him a berth on his ship, the Flying Trades, to get rid of him before Christine arrives.

Of the two songs the chantyman sings, “Shenandoah” and “Hanging Johnny,” the first represents  freedom on the open sea in contrast to the imprisoning atmosphere of the puritanical Mannon home,  and the second Brant’s guilty role in the murder of Ezra Mannon. Hills, Everett, D.D. Mrs. Hills’s husband and the town minister who officiates at Ezra Mannon’s  funeral. Hills is “the type of well-fed minister of a prosperous small-town congregation—stout and unctuous,  snobbish and ingratiating, conscious of godliness, but timid and always feeling his way” (2:951). His wife  embarrasses him in front of the other townspeople in the opening scene of The Hunted by openly  reminding him that he had predicted Ezra’s demise, since “pride goeth before a fall and that some day God would humble them in their sinful pride” (2:953). After a moment of uneasy backpedaling, he scolds his wife and agrees with Doctor Joseph Blake that “it’s a poor time” to be making such  remarks (2:953). Hills is one of the “types of towns-folk, a chorus representing as those others had, but in a  different stratum of society” (2:951). Hills, Mrs. The wife of the Everett Hills, D.D. Mrs. Hills is a “sallow, flabby, self-effacing minister’s wife” (2:951) who embarrasses her husband in  the opening scene of The Hunted by insensitively remarking after Ezra Mannon’s funeral that her husband had said of Ezra, “pride goeth before a fall and that some day God would humble them in their sinful pride” (2:953). The minister scolds Mrs. Hills, agreeing with Doctor Joseph Blake that “it’s a poor time” to be making such remarks (2:953). Her character is one of the “types of townsfolk, a chorus  representing as those others had, but in a different stratum of society” (2:951).  Mackel, Ira A farmer. Mackel is a bald old man with a cane whose “yellowish eyes are sly” and who talks in a “drawling wheezy cackle.” In the opening scene of The Haunted, Mackel is drunk, along with Amos Ames, Seth Beckwith, Joe Silva, and Abner Small. A believer in ghosts and haunted houses and  expositor of local horror legends, Mackel encourages the lark played on Abner Small, wherein  Small must remain in the Mannon home, which they all believe is haunted, until the moon comes up. Mackel is one of “a chorus of types representing the town as a human background for the drama of the Mannons” (2:1,007). Mannon, Christine Brigadier General Ezra Mannon’s wife, Lavinia and Orin Mannon’s  mother, and Captain Adam Brant’s lover.

Christine is a tall, voluptuous 40-year-old woman who  looks younger and “moves with a flowing animal grace” (2:896). Like all the Mannons, her face gives the “strange impression . . . in repose of being not living flesh but a wonderfully life-like pale mask” (2:896). The people in her small New England port town accuse her of being “furrin’ lookin’ and queer,” descended as she is from French and Dutch heritage, rather than Anglo-Saxon (2:895). Before the trilogy’s action, Christine met Captain Adam  Brant, the son of her brother-in-law David Mannon and Marie Brantôme, the Mannon family’s French Canadian nurse, while visiting her father, a  doctor in New York City. Christine and Brant conducted an affair while her husband, Ezra Mannon,  was fighting as a brigadier general in the American Civil War. For Christine, Brant’s romantic allure stems from his experience in the South Seas, his “Blessed Isles,” where he found the natives living in a natural state that allows for love without the Puritan sense of guilt.

Christine and Ezra have two children, Lavinia and Orin Mannon, but she only loves Orin, as he was born when Ezra was away fighting the Mexican War. She therefore felt Orin to be her child and  Lavinia, who reminds her of her loveless honeymoon, exclusively Ezra’s. When pressed by Lavinia,  Christine admits of her husband, “I loved him once—before I married him—incredible as that seems now! He was handsome in his lieutenant’s  uniform! He was silent and mysterious and romantic! But marriage soon turned his romance into—  disgust!” (2:917). Lavinia, however, adores her  father with almost incestuous devotion and threatens to expose Christine if she does not end the  affair with Brant. Christine persuades Brant to get her a poison that would kill Ezra when he returned  from the war. When he does, in act 2 of The Homecoming, she makes love to Ezra one last time, but in  a passionless manner, as if, in his words, she were a “nigger slave [he’d] bought at auction” (2:944). She viciously informs him of her affair with Brant and says that Brant is Marie Brantôme’s daughter. This causes Ezra to have a heart attack, and rather than administering his proper heart medicine, she gives him the poison. Ezra realizes what she has done before dying and accuses her of murder. Lavinia is standing in the room, thus apprehending her mother’s guilt.

Orin Mannon returns home in act 1 of The Hunted and shows little grief over his father’s death,  appearing more concerned about the evident difference in his mother’s appearance. Lavinia warns him  not to trust her. “Don’t let her baby you the way she used to,” she says. “Don’t believe the lies she’ll tell you!” (2:959). At first Christine preempts Lavinia’s efforts to turn Orin against her by informing him  that Lavinia believes she killed Ezra. She successfully convinces him that Lavinia is “actually insane”  (2:969), until Lavinia leads him to a liaison Christine has with Brant at a wharf in Boston. On Brant’s  ship, Flying Trades, which is scheduled for departure in a month, Christine persuades Brant to go away with her on a different ship sailing for China. “And we will be happy,” she assures him, “once we’re safe  on your Blessed Islands!” (2:992). Soon after Christine leaves the wharf, Orin kills Brant. Back at the  house, Orin tells her he killed Brant. Lavinia, who sees the expression of utter despair in her mother’s face, pleads with her to forget Brant and live on. “Live!” Christine cries out in hysterical laughter. She goes inside and shoots herself, with Lavinia standing at the front door “square-shouldered and stiff like a grim sentinel” (2:1,002). Orin discovers her corpse and accuses himself of murdering Christine, the great love of his life.

Christine’s character corresponds to Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, the wife of  Agamemnon (Ezra Mannon), who returns home  from the Trojan War (the Civil War) to be murdered by his unfaithful wife. Orin is Orestes, who  kills the lover (Aegisthos/Brant) in a jealous rage, and Lavinia is the daughter (Electra), who avenges her father’s murder by goading her brother into killing their mother. Although O’Neill makes a  point to demonstrate Christine’s incestuous devotion to her son, her love for Brant, who represents  an escape from her imprisonment in puritanical New England, fatally overwhelms her oedipal love for her son.

Mannon, Ezra

Christine Mannon’s husband, Lavinia and Orin Mannon’s father, and a brigadier general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Ezra Mannon corresponds with King Agamemnon in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, in which a general/king returns from war—the Trojan War in Aeschylus—only to be murdered by his spiteful, unfaithful wife. O’Neill describes Ezra, an imposing  50-year-old patriarch, as having the same “mask-like look of his face in repose” as all members of  the Mannon clan. “His movements are exact and  wooden and he has a mannerism of standing and sitting in stiff, posed attitudes that suggests the statues of  military heroes” (2:931). Ezra’s father, Abe Mannon, founded one of the first Western Ocean packet lines and made a fortune that he passed on to his son. Ezra conducted his business wisely but also became a leading citizen in the New England port town. Ezra attended West Point, fought bravely in the Mexican War, and earned the rank of major. After his father died, he took charge of the family shipping concern but also received his law degree and became the town’s judge, then its mayor. Though he held that office when the Civil War broke out, he relinquished his post and signed on as a general in Ulysses S. Grant’s army.

The Homecoming, the title of the first play, refers to Ezra’s return home from the war. During his absence, his wife, Christine, has conducted an affair with a romantic sea captain four years her junior named Adam Brant, who is the son of Ezra’s brother David Mannon and Marie Brantôme, the family’s French Canadian nurse, whom Ezra also loved. David Mannon’s scandal compelled Ezra to destroy the original house and build a new one in  a failed attempt to expiate his brother’s transgression. He also refused Marie assistance after David  committed suicide, a heartless act that made Brant swear to avenge his mother. For Christine, Adam represents the freedom and guiltless existence of the open sea and the “Blessed Islands” in the South  Pacific—a stark contrast to Ezra’s stern, guilt-inducing puritanism and imprisoning Mannon heritage. Christine thus convinces Brant to conspire  with her to poison Ezra so they might marry and escape to the South Seas together.

Lavinia—Ezra and Christine’s daughter—adores her father with a near-incestuous passion, and she desperately attempts to seduce him away from her mother by informing him of the town gossip about Christine and Brant. Ezra instantly recognizes  Christine’s aloof behavior and attributes it to problems they have had in the past. But he begs her to  believe that the war has made him “sick of death” and the living death that had previously guided him in the puritanical Mannon way (2:939). His lust for Christine overcomes the suspicions brought on by his daughter, and they have sex on the first night. Afterward, he accuses her of making love in a passionless manner, as if she were a “nigger slave  I’d bought at auction” (2:944), to which she ferociously responds by telling of her affair with Brant,  Marie Brantôme’s son. This admittance causes his heart to fail, and instead of giving him his proper heart medicine, she gives him a poison that Brant had secured for the murder. Realizing too late what Christine has done, Ezra accuses her of murder.  Lavinia is standing within earshot and thus discovers her mother’s guilt and vows revenge.

Mannon, Lavinia

Ezra and Christine Mannon’s daughter, Orin Mannon’s sister, and later  Peter Niles’s fiancée. In act 1 of the Homecoming, O’Neill describes Lavinia, or “Vinnie,” as a  tall, flat-chested, very thin 23-year-old who looks  older, with an unattractively angular body accentuated by her stiff black dresses. She moves rigidly;  talks in clipped, aggressive, military-style tones; and holds herself “with a wooden, square-shouldered, military bearing” (2:897). Although Lavinia and her mother, Christine Mannon, are dissimilar in  most respects, they share the similar copper-colored hair, pale skin, dark violet-blue eyes, and “the  same sensual mouth, the same heavy jaw”; upon first seeing her, as it is with all the Mannons, “one is struck by the same strange, life-like mask impression her face gives in repose” (2:897). Lavinia has always been considered her father’s child, and she adores him with oedipal devotion. Her mother despises her daughter because Lavinia acts as a reminder of her loveless honeymoon, a portent of 20 sour years of marriage, during which Lavinia was conceived. Lavinia’s brother, Orin Mannon, loves Lavinia, but  primarily for her close approximation in appearance and occasional mannerism to their mother,  whom he adores with an unnatural, oedipal devotion, as Lavinia does Ezra.

In act 1 of The Homecoming, Lavinia has heard rumors that Christine has been conducting an affair with a romantic sea captain named Adam Brant, whom Lavinia subconsciously also finds attractive,  while her father, Ezra, is fighting as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the American Civil  War. Meanwhile, she deflects an offer of marriage from the local veteran Peter Niles, who has loved her since adolescence, with the excuse that she must care for her father. When Lavinia confronts her mother about her affair, Christine admits that she loves Brant but warns Lavinia not to inform Ezra, who will arrive back at the Mannon home soon. Seth Beckwith, the Mannons’ groundskeeper for 60 years, insinuates to Lavinia that Brant must be the son of Ezra’s brother David Mannon and his wife, Marie Brantôme, a French Canadian nurse  who caused a scandal by marrying David and bearing his child. When Brant arrives, Lavinia goads  him into admitting the truth, and he informs her in a rage that Ezra had cut his father out of the family fortune and refused his mother money when she  was starving. Marie died soon after, and he considers Ezra her murderer.

Ezra returns home in act 2 of The Homecoming. On the morning after his return, Lavinia hears him calling Christine a murderer: He suffered a heart attack after Christine admitted to her affair, then she administered a poison to him instead of his heart medicine. Discovering the vial in the room and realizing what her mother had done, Lavinia vows revenge. When Orin returns from the war to his father’s funeral in act 1 of The Hunted, Lavinia informs him of their mother’s pernicious role in their father’s death and of her affair with Brant. For a time, Christine convinces her heartsick son that Lavinia is “actually insane” (2:969), but when Lavinia places the vial of poison on their father’s dead chest while his body lies in its coffin, Orin  witnesses Christine’s shocked expression and realizes the truth. Convinced now of Christine’s role in  Ezra’s death, Orin still sides with his mother, whom he adores, until Lavinia proves that Christine has been having an affair. Overwhelmed with jealousy, Orin kills Brant on a Boston wharf after the siblings overhear the lovers’ plan to escape to the South Seas. News of Brant’s death drives Christine to suicide, and Orin believes he has murdered their mother. Lavinia then convinces him that the best thing for them to do is sail to the South Seas and try to forget.

After returning from the voyage in act 1 of The  Haunted, Lavinia has bizarrely adopted her mother’s sensuality, mannerisms, and bearing, even styling her hair in the same way and dressing in the  same green color her mother always wore, a stark contrast to Lavinia’s previous preference for black.  Orin mocks this change in his sister as the “influence of the ‘dark and deep blue ocean’—and of the  islands,” but he finds himself unnaturally attracted to her resemblance to Christine (2:1,021). She believes that they should now settle down to a normal life, he with Hazel Niles and she with Peter Niles. He cruelly insinuates to Peter that Lavinia had a sexual encounter with a native man named Avahanni. Once Orin departs, she tells Peter that Orin was lying about Avahanni (which he was  not), but that it is true the islands “finished setting me free. There was something there mysterious and beautiful—a good spirit—of love—coming out of the land and the sea” that made her accept love, forget death, and believe in innocence (2:1,023). She kisses Peter passionately, which both arouses him and makes him extremely uncomfortable.

Orin cloisters himself in their father’s study and composes a secret history of the sins of the Mannon clan, calling Lavinia “the most interesting criminal of all” (2:1,030). Her entreaties not to share the history lead her to speak to him with a “deliberately evil taunting” tone that reminds him again of their mother (2:1,031). Orin threatens to release the manuscript unless Lavinia agrees to do anything he wants, and she agrees. “That’s a large promise,” he says lustily, “anything!” (2:1,041). But then he pleads with her to let them confess to expiate their sins. At this display of weakness, she venomously  shouts, “You’d kill yourself if you weren’t a coward!” (2:1,042). Ultimately, he agrees that he will  only find peace in death. Peter enters, Orin exits, and soon after a muffled shot can be heard from the study across the hall.

Aware of the manuscript, if unsure of what it contains, Hazel tries to convince Lavinia either to let her brother read what it contains or leave him alone. But Lavinia frantically attempts to persuade Peter to marry her in spite of the suicide. “Take me, Adam!” (2:1,052) she shouts (in what can only be characterized as a Freudian slip). At this point, she resigns herself to her fate. “Love isn’t permitted to me,” she tells Peter coolly, “The dead are too strong!” (2:1,052). In the trilogy’s final scene, she  assures Seth Beckwith that she will not commit suicide as her mother and brother had done. “That’s  escaping punishment. And there’s no one left to punish me. I’m the last Mannon. I’ve got to punish myself!” (2:1,053). She orders Seth to nail tight the shutters and throw out all the flowers, then stands for a time at the mansion’s portico. At the sound of a shutter banging closed, she turns sharply to the door and marches inside.

Female Characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Plays

One of the most well-developed female characters in the O’Neill canon, Lavinia Mannon corresponds to the character Electra in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the daughter of Agamemnon (Ezra Mannon) and Clytemnestra (Christine) and sister of Orestes (Orin). But her oedipal love of her  father, which Electra shared, is compounded by her desire, like her mother, Christine, to rid herself of the Mannon curse and be free from puritanical notions of sin in love. As such, her mother’s death avenges, to Lavinia’s mind, both the murder of her father and Christine’s co-optation of the romantic sea captain Adam Brant (Aegisthus), who symbolizes that freedom.

Lavinia’s tragic fate demands that she be punished for her sins by eternal exile from those same  freedoms. Her acceptance in the final scene is that she cannot, and should not, escape from the past sins of herself and her family. Shutting herself into the Mannon mansion is, in Virginia Floyd’s words, “the supreme gesture of atonement” (1985, 403). Doomed to a life haunted by the Mannon past, a “living death,” Lavinia is one of the greatest tragic figures in the O’Neill canon. O’Neill, however, believed the play would be a failure if the final scene evoked pity of any kind, which brings to mind  the playwright’s exaltation over tragedy and struggle as the only available means to attain a fulfilling, meaningful existence. “No one,” he said of his  Electra, “should feel sorry for her” (quoted in Alexander 168). Indeed, biographer Stephen A. Black  draws a parallel—one “too intriguing to omit” from his discussion of the trilogy (2004, 186)—between the kind of clarity of mind Lavinia is destined to  achieve and that of an actual New England self-exile, the New England poet Emily Dickinson, who  locked herself away in her Amherst home with her sister, Lavinia. Dickinson went on to write some of the finest poems in American literature, works O’Neill, an avid reader of poetry, must have read in the 1920s (Black 2004, 188).

Mannon, Orin

Lavinia Mannon’s brother, Brigadier-General Ezra and Christine Mannon’s son,  Hazel Niles’s potential fiancé, and a first lieutenant of the infantry in the Union Army during the  American Civil War. Orin Mannon arrives at the Mannon home in The Hunted, though there is a  great anticipation of his return in The Homecoming, especially by Christine Mannon, who strongly,  almost incestuously, favors her son over her daughter, Lavinia. Orin was born while his father, Ezra,  was fighting in the Mexican War, and Christine considers him more her son than her husband’s, while Lavinia had always been more her father’s daughter. As a result, Christine has always coddled him and treated Lavinia with cold indifference. But her affections for him waned when she began an  affair with Captain Adam Brant, and she encourages him to pursue a marriage with the local girl  Hazel Niles, contradicting her earlier disapproval of the proposed union.

Orin shares the same “lifelike mask quality of his face in repose” as his father and the rest of the Mannons, though his mouth, reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical avatar in Long Day’s Journey into Night, “gives an impression of  tense oversensitiveness quite foreign to the General’s” (2:956–957). Orin returns home, embittered and war-weary, with no knowledge of his  father’s murder by Christine and Brant. Though  he received word of his father’s death, he exhibits little remorse; after the destruction he witnessed on the battlefield, he explains to Lavinia,  “I hardened myself to expect my own death and everyone else’s, and think nothing of it” (2:958). In The Homecoming, Ezra had referred to a brave act of Orin’s that Orin, in The Hunted, describes as “a joke” (2:977). He had wandered toward the enemy line during a trench fight at St. Petersburg with his hand outstretched to shake hands with  the enemy. He was shot in the head and went berserk with bloodlust. “Then a lot of our fools went  crazy, too,” he recounts sardonically, “and followed me and we captured a part of their line we  hadn’t dared tackle before” (2:977). During the  war, a fellow soldier lent him Typee (1846), Herman Melville’s novel of the South Seas, and the  islands Melville describes “came to mean everything that wasn’t war” to Orin, “everything that  was peace and warmth and security” (2:972).

Lavinia insinuates to Orin that their mother was responsible for their father’s death and that the rumors spreading in town about Christine’s relationship with Adam Brant have merit. When Christine tries to preempt Orin from believing it, she informs him that Lavinia thinks she poisoned Ezra. Orin at first agrees with his mother that his sister must be “actually insane” (2:969) and reassures her of his loyalty to her. “I don’t want Hazel  or anyone,” he says. “You’re my only girl!” (2:972). But Christine remains terrified that Lavinia will convince him of the truth, fearing the vengeance Orin would inflict on Brant more than anything else. Lavinia convinces Orin to follow their mother to a secret liaison between their mother and Brant on Brant’s ship, Trade Winds. When they witness Christine and Brant together on a wharf in Boston in act 4 of The Hunted, Orin waits until Christine has left, then shoots Brant dead in a jealous rage. Orin subsequently tells Christine he killed Brant and begs her to allow him to take Brant’s place on her voyage for peace to the South Seas. Christine  commits suicide soon after his admission. Emotionally crippled, Orin goes with his sister on a long  voyage to Asia and the South Seas to escape the horrors of the Mannon home.

Upon their return in The Haunted, Lavinia, who has replaced their mother in manner and dress, believes that she and Orin should embrace Peter  and Hazel Niles’s love for them and live a conventional married life with them in peace and security. But Orin, calling to mind Theodore “Hickey”  Hickman’s view of his wife in The Iceman Cometh, believes that Hazel’s “purity” makes him both “appear less vile to myself! . . . And, at the same time, a million times more vile” (2:1,028). Orin secretly writes a family history to expiate the crimes of the Mannon clan “to trace to its secret hiding place in the Mannon past the evil destiny behind our lives” (2:1,029), and he perceives in Lavinia “the most interesting criminal of us all” (2:1,030). Lavinia, horrified by what the manuscript might reveal, agrees to do anything Orin asks of her. He suggests they live together incestuously as lovers, saying, “I love you now with all the guilt in me— the guilt we share! Perhaps I love you too much,  Vinnie!” (2:1,041). But when he reads the revulsion in her face, he changes tone and begs her to  join him and confess to the murder. Lavinia shouts that she hates him and that if he were not such a coward, he would kill himself. Defeated by the rejection of both his mother and sister, Orin leaves the room as Peter enters and shoots himself with his pistol within their hearing.

Orin Mannon corresponds to the titular character Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the son of  Agamemnon (Ezra Mannon) and Clytemnestra (Christine) and brother to Electra (Lavinia). He is  largely distinguished from the mythic figure, however, by his apparent incapacity to comprehend  what is expected of him by the gods or fate (Black  2004, 176). Orin also represents the tragic character of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father,  King Laius, to marry his mother, Jocasta. The guilt Orin experiences from his killing in wartime and the horror Orin experiences at the betrayal of the most important women in his life—first Christine, then Lavinia—enables him to plumb the depths of the truth behind the Mannon facade, symbolized  by his family history, and apprehend the uselessness of attempting to find peace in life, symbolized by his obsessive reading of Melville’s South  Seas tale. His central tragic characteristic, one that  leads him to the brink of insanity, is his persistent soul-searching and conscious knowledge of the  impossibility of peace and happiness in the world he was given. In this way, he more fully resembles William Shakespeare’s tragic character Hamlet; as Stephen A. Black describes Orin’s character, he is  “deeply alienated from God, humanity and himself and seems at times paralyzed by knowing too  much” (2004, 176).

Minnie

Louisa Ames’s cousin. Minnie, “a plump little woman of forty, of the meek, eager-listener type, with a small round face, round stupid eyes, and a round mouth pursed out to drink in gossip,” is one of the townspeople whom O’Neill describes as “types  of townsfolk rather than individuals, a chorus representing the town”; she appears in the first act of The  Homecoming merely to “look and listen and spy on the rich and exclusive Mannons” (2:894).

Niles, Hazel

Captain Peter Niles’s sister and Orin Mannon’s potential fiancée in The Haunted. Hazel is a “pretty, healthy girl of nineteen.” O’Neill writes: “One gets a sure impression of her character at a glance—frank, innocent, amiable and good—not in a negative but in a positive, self-possessed way” (2:899).  Hazel has nurtured a desire to marry Orin Mannon since girlhood, but Christine Mannon, Orin’s mother, has persistently, and incongruously to her  children, spoken out against her and the ostensible union with her son. But once Christine begins  a secret love affair with Captain Adam Brant, she changes her mind and applauds Hazel’s character, unaccountably to Orin. In act 1 of The Hunted —in a scene suggestive of Mary Tyrone’s drugged confessions and reminiscences of her past to her maid Kathleen in Long Day’s Journey into Night— Christine encourages Hazel to marry Orin and admits she was once “innocent and loving and trusting” like Hazel, but all that changed after marrying Ezra Mannon (2:956).

In The Haunted, Orin returns with his sister, Lavinia Mannon, from a voyage in the South Seas and composes a secret history of the Mannon clan and its sinful past. He begs Hazel to hold it for him, never reading it unless Peter decides to marry Lavinia or Orin himself dies. He also agrees to move in with Hazel and her family, but he retracts the agreement once he coerces Lavinia not to marry  Peter and stay with him instead. After Orin commits suicide, Hazel begs Lavinia, whom she now  regards as an outright danger to her brother, to leave Peter alone, or at least tell him what Orin’s manuscript contained.

Hazel symbolizes, as does her brother, Peter, the  stark contrast between the wholesome New Englander—“the embodiment of simplicity, goodness,  and health” (Alexander 152)—and the darker nature of the haunted Mannon clan. Her character corresponds to Hermione, Orestes’ (Orin’s) fiancée  in the Oresteia. Her last name might be attributable to the fact that during the play’s composition,  O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey O’Neill were planning a trip to the Nile River in Egypt; in addition,  Carlotta’s given name was Hazel Tharsing (Alexander 163).

Niles, Captain Peter

Hazel Niles’s brother, Lavinia Mannon’s fiancé in The Haunted, and an artillery captain in the Union Army during the American Civil War, where he was wounded in battle. Peter is 22 years old when introduced in The  Homecoming, a “straightforward, guileless and good-natured” young New Englander who has timidly  courted Lavinia since adolescence (2:899). In the  first scene of The Homecoming, Peter proposes to her, but Lavinia rejects him with the excuse that she must tend to her father, Ezra Mannon.

In act 1, scene 2, of The Haunted, after Lavinia returns from her sexually liberating voyage to the South Seas, she passionately kisses Peter and insists  they marry immediately. Peter’s mother and sister have warned him against her, both considering  Lavinia’s recent behavior too bold. Hazel has also been made aware of a mysterious manuscript that Orin had asked her to hold and read only if Peter and Lavinia were ever to marry. Though he at first damns their interference, Peter comes to question  his judgment once Hazel informs him of Orin Mannon’s secretive manuscript, which Orin insists Peter  must read before marrying Lavinia. Peter ultimately rejects Lavinia’s excessive sexual advances and burning desire to marry after she coarsely admits the truth of her dalliance with a South Seas native  man named Arahanni. At one point, Lavinia accidentally shouts, “Take me, Adam!” (2:1,052), and  she resigns herself to her fate.

Peter symbolizes, as does his sister, Hazel, the  stark contrast between the wholesome New Englander—“the embodiment of simplicity, goodness,  and health” (Alexander 152)—and the darker nature of the haunted Mannon clan. His character corresponds to Pylades, Electra’s (Lavinia’s) fiancé in the Oresteia. His last name might be attributable to the fact that during the play’s composition, O’Neill and Carlotta Monterey O’Neill were planning a trip to the Nile River in Egypt (Alexander 163).

Silva, Joe

A Portuguese fishing captain. Silva is 60 years old, “a fat, boisterous man with a coarse bass voice. He has matted gray hair and a big grizzled mustache” (2:1,007). In the opening scene of The Haunted, Silva is drunk, along with Amos Ames, Seth Beckwith, Ira Mackel, and Abner Small, and  opens the scene singing a sea chanty. A wisecracking, foul-mouthed sailor, Silva encourages the lark  played on Abner Small, wherein Small must remain in the Mannon home, which they all believe is haunted, until the moon comes up. Like all the townspeople in the trilogy, Silva is one of “a chorus of types representing the town as a human background for the drama of the Mannons” (2:1,007).

Small, Abner

A hardware store clerk. Small is 65  years old, “a wiry little old man” with a white goatee, “bright inquisitive eyes, ruddy complexion, and a  shrill rasping voice” (2:1,007). In the opening scene of The Haunted, Small is drunk, along with Amos Ames, Seth Beckwith, Ira Mackel, and Joe Silva. Small accepts a bet with Seth for 10 dollars and a gallon of liquor to remain in the Mannon home, which they all believe is haunted, until the moon comes up. Small loses the bet and rushes out the front door in terror after mistaking the portrait of Ezra Mannon for a ghost. Like all the townspeople in the trilogy, Small is one of “a chorus of types representing the town as a human background for the drama of the Mannons” (2:1,007).

Bibliography 
Alexander, Doris. Eugene O’Neill’s Creative Struggle: The Decisive Decade, 1924–1933. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Atkinson, Brooks. “Tragedy Becomes Electra,” New York Times, November 1, 1931. Reprinted in Houchin, John H., ed. The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, 105–117, 126–129. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Benchley, Robert. “The Theatre: Top.” In The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H.  Houchin, 129–131. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993.
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.
———. “Mourning Becomes Electra as a Greek Tragedy.” Eugene O’Neill Review 26 (2004): 167–188.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1947.
Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretive Study of the Plays. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Ungar, 1985.
Floyd, Virginia, ed. Eugene O’Neill at Work: Newly Released Ideas for His Plays. New York: Ungar, 1981.
Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. Vidal, Gore. “Theatre.” Nation (October 25, 1958). Reprinted in The Critical Response to Eugene O’Neill, edited by John H. Houchin, 234–236.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Source: Dowling, R. M. (2009). Critical companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts On File.



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature, Theatre Studies

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