Thursday, 6 September 2018

Mourning Becomes Electra - Eugene O'Neill

Mourning Becomes Electra dates from 1932 when O'Neill was at the pinnacle of his powers and only a couple of years before he won the Nobel Prize.

Dramatically, it is a colossal enterprise: three full-length plays harking back to the very earliest surviving drama whilst remaining ostensibly naturalistic, and characters brimming over with (then) ultra-modern Freudian complexes. Because it is set in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War, there is also an element of historicity.

The fundamental model is the Oresteia of Aeschylus (458BC), the only surviving Greek trilogy albeit it lacks his satyr play, which we know was called Proteus. In the original, Agamemnon returns from Troy to find that his family has turned in on itself in his absence. His wife is unfaithful, his children too emotionally entangled with each other to relate normally to the greater world. It's all to do with the curse that fell upon the House of Atreus (Agamemnon's father), who cheated the goddess Artemis of a golden lamb. I think...

In New England in the 1860s the Judge's wife Christine Mannon and her daughter Lavinia await the return of husband Ezra, a brigadier general in the victorious Union army, and brother/son Orin, who has been wounded in the head. Christine and Vinnie are at daggers drawn over sea captain Adam Brant, who Christine is sleeping with, who Vinnie might or might not have taken a shine to, and who is anyway the illegitimate son of Ezra's late brother, disowned for his lack of decorum by their father Abe. Ezra finally arrives home - the first play in the trilogy is 'Homecoming' - and Christine kills him with poison obtained by Brant.

'The Hunted' opens with the funeral of Ezra. Vinnie knows what her mother did and is more than half unhinged. Orin arrives, already knocked loopy by his head wound, and is driven properly off his head by shock. He and Vinnie follow their mother to Brant's ship - a ship owned, of course, by the Mannon family - and hear her plan to elope with him. Once Christine has gone, Orin kills Adam. They return home to gleefully break the news to Christine, and Orin, who has had an Oedipus complex all his life, kills her too.

The third play is 'The Haunted'. Vinnie and Orin are living together at the family mansion. There is gossip in the village about the sudden deaths of their parents, but locals maintain the Mannons have always been unlucky and console themselves with the notion that there is always payback for wealth and privilege. Vinnie is planning to marry her longstanding beau Peter Niles; Orin is supposed to marry Peter's sister Hazel. But Orin is haunted, not by guilt (he is proud of safeguarding the family reputation) but by the thought of losing Vinnie, whom he is now unnaturally attached to. Vinnie promises to forget Peter and stay with Orin forever, if only he will stop writing his account of what happened to their parents. Satisfied, Orin kills himself. The play and the trilogy ends with Hazel persuading Vinnie not to marry Peter because she's ruining him, and Vinnie resolving perforce to keep her promise to Orin.

I'm not going the way Mother and Orin went. That's escaping punishment. And there's no one left to punish me. I'm the last Mannon. I've got to punish myself! Living alone here with the dead is a worse act of justice than death or prison! I'll never go out or see anyone! I'll have the shutters nailed close so no sunlight can ever get in. I'll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!"
The exclamation marks speak for themselves. There are hundreds of them across the three plays in thirteen acts. They suggest, I believe rightly, that this borders on expressionism, which would have been heightened by the implied use of masks - the Mannons are always described as having faces like masks. For example Lavinia:
Above all, one is struck by the same, life-like mask impression [like her mother Christine] her face gives in repose.
Masks is one of the elements O'Neill took from the drama of ancient Athens. The other is the chorus - made up of various gossiping locals under the leadership  of the koryphiaos, the Mannon handyman Seth Beckwith. I'm not sure O'Neill really got the purpose of the Greek chorus, which was to provide the main characters with insight into their actions. Here they just gawk and gossip and provide much needed comic relief.

O'Neill also to an extent mirrors Greek staging. There is a dwelling - the Mannon house - and we can be either inside or outside. There are various rooms we can visit when we are indoors. He cannot help but break away in the later part of 'The Hunted' though. He takes us to a wharf in Boston and Brant's ship, of which we can see the quayside, the deck (from which Adam conducts an exchange with the Chantyman, a stand-in chorus-leader, who might well be played by the same actor who usually plays Seth), and Adam's cabin within, where he and Christine plan their elopement while Orin and Vinnie listen in from above on the deck. Were this performed in a Greek amphitheatre it is easy to see how this could be accommodated on the platform stage with the single structure on it - but I would love to see it done as described by O'Neill here.

O'Neill, like Bernard Shaw, provides novelistic description. There can be no question it makes the scripts easier to read. For me as a multi-graduate in drama it's a problem because I'm always thinking how could this be done in reality?

I had a whale of a time reading it though. It's fantastic stuff - such ambition, such dramatic skill, such characters - I'm almost tempted to add an exclamation mark of my own. I wish somebody would put it on today. An American production, perhaps, touring to the National or Stratford? Now, where did I put my copy of Strange Interlude?

This by the way is edition you want if you can get it. This Cape paperback reproduces the text as they first published it in 1966 and it might even be a reproduction of the 1932 original. No guff, no notes, just a master and his masterpiece.

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