History of Literature










Eugene O'Neill





 

 



Eugene O'Neill




 

 

Eugene O’Neill

American dramatist
in full Eugene Gladstone O’Neill

born Oct. 16, 1888, New York, N.Y., U.S.
died Nov. 27, 1953, Boston, Mass.

Main
foremost American dramatist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. His masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night (produced posthumously 1956), is at the apex of a long string of great plays, including Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), Ah! Wilderness (1933), and The Iceman Cometh (1946).

Early life
O’Neill was born into the theatre. His father, James O’Neill, was a successful touring actor in the last quarter of the 19th century whose most famous role was that of the Count of Monte Cristo in a stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas père novel. His mother, Ella, accompanied her husband back and forth across the country, settling down only briefly for the birth of her first son, James, Jr., and of Eugene.

Eugene, who was born in a hotel, spent his early childhood in hotel rooms, on trains, and backstage. Although he later deplored the nightmare insecurity of his early years and blamed his father for the difficult, rough-and-tumble life the family led—a life that resulted in his mother’s drug addiction—Eugene had the theatre in his blood. He was also, as a child, steeped in the peasant Irish Catholicism of his father and the more genteel, mystical piety of his mother, two influences, often in dramatic conflict, which account for the high sense of drama and the struggle with God and religion that distinguish O’Neill’s plays.

O’Neill was educated at boarding schools—Mt. St. Vincent in the Bronx and Betts Academy in Stamford, Conn. His summers were spent at the family’s only permanent home, a modest house overlooking the Thames River in New London, Conn. He attended Princeton University for one year (1906–07), after which he left school to begin what he later regarded as his real education in “life experience.” The next six years very nearly ended his life. He shipped to sea, lived a derelict’s existence on the waterfronts of Buenos Aires, Liverpool, and New York City, submerged himself in alcohol, and attempted suicide. Recovering briefly at the age of 24, he held a job for a few months as a reporter and contributor to the poetry column of the New London Telegraph but soon came down with tuberculosis. Confined to the Gaylord Farm Sanitarium in Wallingford, Conn., for six months (1912–13), he confronted himself soberly and nakedly for the first time and seized the chance for what he later called his “rebirth.” He began to write plays.


Entry into theatre
O’Neill’s first efforts were awkward melodramas, but they were about people and subjects—prostitutes, derelicts, lonely sailors, God’s injustice to man—that had, up to that time, been in the province of serious novels and were not considered fit subjects for presentation on the American stage. A theatre critic persuaded his father to send him to Harvard to study with George Pierce Baker in his famous playwriting course. Although what O’Neill produced during that year (1914–15) owed little to Baker’s academic instruction, the chance to work steadily at writing set him firmly on his chosen path.

O’Neill’s first appearance as a playwright came in the summer of 1916, in the quiet fishing village of Provincetown, Mass., where a group of young writers and painters had launched an experimental theatre. In their tiny, ramshackle playhouse on a wharf, they produced his one-act sea play Bound East for Cardiff. The talent inherent in the play was immediately evident to the group, which that fall formed the Playwrights’ Theater in Greenwich Village. Their first bill, on Nov. 3, 1916, included Bound East for Cardiff—O’Neill’s New York debut. Although he was only one of several writers whose plays were produced by the Playwrights’ Theater, his contribution within the next few years made the group’s reputation. Between 1916 and 1920, the group produced all of O’Neill’s one-act sea plays, along with a number of his lesser efforts. By the time his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was produced on Broadway, Feb. 2, 1920, at the Morosco Theater, the young playwright already had a small reputation.

Beyond the Horizon impressed the critics with its tragic realism, won for O’Neill the first of four Pulitzer prizes in drama—others were for Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, and Long Day’s Journey into Night—and brought him to the attention of a wider theatre public. For the next 20 years his reputation grew steadily, both in the United States and abroad; after Shakespeare and Shaw, O’Neill became the most widely translated and produced dramatist.


Period of the major works
O’Neill’s capacity for and commitment to work were staggering. Between 1920 and 1943 he completed 20 long plays—several of them double and triple length—and a number of shorter ones. He wrote and rewrote many of his manuscripts half a dozen times before he was satisfied, and he filled shelves of notebooks with research notes, outlines, play ideas, and other memoranda. His most-distinguished short plays include the four early sea plays, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, The Long Voyage Home, and The Moon of the Caribbees, which were written between 1913 and 1917 and produced in 1924 under the overall title S.S. Glencairn; The Emperor Jones (about the disintegration of a Pullman porter turned tropical-island dictator); and The Hairy Ape (about the disintegration of a displaced steamship coal stoker).

O’Neill’s plays were written from an intensely personal point of view, deriving directly from the scarring effects of his family’s tragic relationships—his mother and father, who loved and tormented each other; his older brother, who loved and corrupted him and died of alcoholism in middle age; and O’Neill himself, caught and torn between love for and rage at all three.

Among his most-celebrated long plays is Anna Christie, perhaps the classic American example of the ancient “harlot with a heart of gold” theme; it became an instant popular success. O’Neill’s serious, almost solemn treatment of the struggle of a poor Swedish-American girl to live down her early, enforced life of prostitution and to find happiness with a likable but unimaginative young sailor is his least-complicated tragedy. He himself disliked it from the moment he finished it, for, in his words, it had been “too easy.”

The first full-length play in which O’Neill successfully evoked the starkness and inevitability of Greek tragedy that he felt in his own life was Desire Under the Elms (1924). Drawing on Greek themes of incest, infanticide, and fateful retribution, he framed his story in the context of his own family’s conflicts. This story of a lustful father, a weak son, and an adulterous wife who murders her infant son was told with a fine disregard for the conventions of the contemporary Broadway theatre. Because of the sparseness of its style, its avoidance of melodrama, and its total honesty of emotion, the play was acclaimed immediately as a powerful tragedy and has continued to rank among the great American plays of the 20th century.

In The Great God Brown, O’Neill dealt with a major theme that he expressed more effectively in later plays—the conflict between idealism and materialism. Although the play was too metaphysically intricate to be staged successfully when it was first produced, in 1926, it was significant for its symbolic use of masks and for the experimentation with expressionistic dialogue and action—devices that since have become commonly accepted both on the stage and in motion pictures. In spite of its confusing structure, the play is rich in symbolism and poetry, as well as in daring technique, and it became a forerunner of avant-garde movements in American theatre.

O’Neill’s innovative writing continued with Strange Interlude. This play was revolutionary in style and length: when first produced, it opened in late afternoon, broke for a dinner intermission, and ended at the conventional hour. Techniques new to the modern theatre included spoken asides or soliloquies to express the characters’ hidden thoughts. The play is the saga of Everywoman, who ritualistically acts out her roles as daughter, wife, mistress, mother, and platonic friend. Although it was innovative and startling in 1928, its obvious Freudian overtones have rapidly dated the work.

One of O’Neill’s enduring masterpieces, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), represents the playwright’s most complete use of Greek forms, themes, and characters. Based on the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus, it was itself three plays in one. To give the story contemporary credibility, O’Neill set the play in the New England of the Civil War period, yet he retained the forms and the conflicts of the Greek characters: the heroic leader returning from war; his adulterous wife, who murders him; his jealous, repressed daughter, who avenges him through the murder of her mother; and his weak, incestuous son, who is goaded by his sister first to matricide and then to suicide.

Following a long succession of tragic visions, O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, appeared on Broadway in 1933. Written in a lighthearted, nostalgic mood, the work was inspired in part by the playwright’s mischievous desire to demonstrate that he could portray the comic as well as the tragic side of life. Significantly, the play is set in the same place and period, a small New England town in the early 1900s, as his later tragic masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Dealing with the growing pains of a sensitive, adolescent boy, Ah, Wilderness! was characterized by O’Neill as “the other side of the coin,” meaning that it represented his fantasy of what his own youth might have been, rather than what he believed it to have been (as dramatized later in Long Day’s Journey into Night).

The Iceman Cometh, the most complex and perhaps the finest of the O’Neill tragedies, followed in 1939, although it did not appear on Broadway until 1946. Laced with subtle religious symbolism, the play is a study of man’s need to cling to his hope for a better life, even if he must delude himself to do so.

Even in his last writings, O’Neill’s youth continued to absorb his attention. The posthumous production of Long Day’s Journey into Night brought to light an agonizingly autobiographical play, one of O’Neill’s greatest. It is straightforward in style but shattering in its depiction of the agonized relations between father, mother, and two sons. Spanning one day in the life of a family, the play strips away layer after layer from each of the four central figures, revealing the mother as a defeated drug addict, the father as a man frustrated in his career and failed as a husband and father, the older son as a bitter alcoholic, and the younger son as a tubercular, disillusioned youth with only the slenderest chance for physical and spiritual survival.

O’Neill’s tragic view of life was perpetuated in his relationships with the three women he married—two of whom he divorced—and with his three children. His elder son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr. (by his first wife, Kathleen Jenkins), committed suicide at 40, while his younger son, Shane (by his second wife, Agnes Boulton), drifted into a life of emotional instability. His daughter, Oona (also by Agnes Boulton), was cut out of his life when, at 18, she infuriated him by marrying Charlie Chaplin, who was O’Neill’s age.

Until some years after his death in 1953, O’Neill, although respected in the United States, was more highly regarded abroad. Sweden, in particular, always held him in high esteem, partly because of his publicly acknowledged debt to the influence of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, whose tragic themes often echo in O’Neill’s plays. In 1936 the Swedish Academy gave O’Neill the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first time the award had been conferred on an American playwright.

O’Neill’s most ambitious project for the theatre was one that he never completed. In the late 1930s he conceived of a cycle of 11 plays, to be performed on 11 consecutive nights, tracing the lives of an American family from the early 1800s to modern times. He wrote scenarios and outlines for several of the plays and drafts of others but completed only one in the cycle—A Touch of the Poet—before a crippling illness ended his ability to hold a pencil. An unfinished rough draft of another of the cycle plays, More Stately Mansions, was published in 1964 and produced three years later on Broadway, in spite of written instructions left by O’Neill that the incomplete manuscript be destroyed after his death.

O’Neill’s final years were spent in grim frustration. Unable to work, he longed for his death and sat waiting for it in a Boston hotel, seeing no one except his doctor, a nurse, and his third wife, Carlotta Monterey. O’Neill died as broken and tragic a figure as any he had created for the stage.


Assessment
O’Neill was the first American dramatist to regard the stage as a literary medium and the only American playwright ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through his efforts, the American theatre grew up during the 1920s, developing into a cultural medium that could take its place with the best in American fiction, painting, and music. Until his Beyond the Horizon was produced, in 1920, Broadway theatrical fare, apart from musicals and an occasional European import of quality, had consisted largely of contrived melodrama and farce. O’Neill saw the theatre as a valid forum for the presentation of serious ideas. Imbued with the tragic sense of life, he aimed for a contemporary drama that had its roots in the most powerful of ancient Greek tragedies—a drama that could rise to the emotional heights of Shakespeare. For more than 20 years, both with such masterpieces as Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh and by his inspiration to other serious dramatists, O’Neill set the pace for the blossoming of the Broadway theatre.

Barbara Gelb
Arthur Gelb

 

 

O'NEILL



Son of an actor, Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), as with so many American writers, knocked about in various colourful jobs (gold prospector, seaman, etc.) before beginning to write plays, mainly naturalistic dramas based on his maritime experience, while confined in a tuberculosis sanatorium. He became involved with the Provincetow n Players, a group of actors and writers who founded an art theatre in a converted New England fishing shack in 1915, and the company produced his early plays. With Beyond the Horizon, a full-length realistic drama, and the Expressionist The Emperor Jones (both 1920), about the rise and fall of a black adventurer, he achieved national recognition. Although O'Neill is generally known for only a handful of plays, he was at this time extremely prolific: between 1920-22 he produced nine plays. He was widely recognized as America's first great playwright, and became a major influence on later American drama.
Influenced by Ibsen, Strindberg and Greek tragedy, O'Neill was an experimental dramatist who did not find his true voice until comparatively late. The New England tragedy Desire under the Elms (1924) is naturalistic in form. Strange Interlude (1928) is an experiment in the dramatic use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) is O'Neill's rewriting of Aeschylus set in the American Cavil War. After Ah, Wilderness! (1933), uncharacteristically a nostalgic comedy, and the unsuccessful Days Without End (1934), no new play appeared for twelve years, due largely to ill health, although he did not stop writing. His final period began with The Iceman Cometh (1946), a long, naturalistic tragedy of the pipe-dreaming no-hopers in a saloon on New York's Bowery. His masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night (1956) was written in the early 1940s and first performed posthumously. It recounts a day in the lives of the troubled, mutually destructive Tyrone family, based on his own. A Moon for the Misbegotten (1957) concerns the self-destruction of the elder brother of the family after the mother's death.

 

 



MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA
 

Type of work: Drama
Author: Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: Shortly after the Civil War
Locale: New England
First presented: 1931

 

In Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy ("Homecoming, The Hunted, The Haunted,) loosely based on Aeschylus' Oresteia, O'Neill dramatizes his conviction that the Greek concept of fate could be replaced by the modern notion of psychological—especially Freudian—determination. The Mannons are driven to their self-destructive behavior by inner needs and compulsions they can neither understand nor control. Such, O'Neill believed, was the material of contemporary tragedy.

 

Principal Characters

Lavinia Mannon, daughter of Christine and Ezra Mannon. Tall, flat-breasted, angular, and imperious in manner. Lavinia is fond of her father and fiercely jealous of her mother. While Ezra was fighting in the Civil War Christine had been having an affair with Captain Adam Brant. Unconscious desire to have Adam for herself leads Lavinia to demand that Christine give up Brant or face a scandal which would ruin the family name. Unable to go on living with a husband she despises, Christine plots with Adam to poison Ezra when he returns. Ezra is murdered and Lavinia discovers her mother's guilt. When her brother Orin returns, wounded and distraught, from the war, Lavinia tries to enlist his aid in avenging their father's death. Orin refuses until Lavinia proves Christine's guilt by a ruse. Blaming Adam for the murder, Orin goes to Adam's ship and shoots him. When Orin reveals to Christine what he has done, she kills herself. Orin and Lavinia then close the Mannon house and voyage to the South Seas. Symbolically liberated from the repressiveness of the New England Puritan tradition, Lavinia blossoms into a duplicate of her voluptuous mother. She plans to marry and start a new life. But Orin, hounded by his guilt and going mad, threatens to reveal the Mannons' misdeeds and tries to extort from Lavinia a lover's promise never to leave him. Lavinia agrees but ruthlessly drives Orin to suicide. Now convinced that the Mannon blood is tainted with evil, she resolves to punish herself for the Mannons' guilt. She orders the house shuttered and withdraws into it forever.
Christine Mannon, Lavinia's mother, tall, beautiful, and sensual. Fearing that she will be killed or arrested for her husband's murder, she makes plans with Adam Brant to flee the country and sail for a "happy island." Orin kills Brant. When Orin taunts her with his deed, Christine goes into the Mannon house and shoots herself.
Orin Mannon, Lavinia's brother, a young idealist who has been spiritually destroyed by the war. Progressively degenerating under the burden of his guilt, Orin conceives that Lavinia has taken the place of his beloved mother. Resolved that Lavinia shall never forget what they have done, Orin writes a history of the Mannon family and uses the manuscript to force Lavinia to promise never to leave him.
General Ezra Mannon, Christine's husband, a tall, big-boned, curt, and authoritative aristocrat. Cold, proud, and unconsciously cruel, Ezra always favored Lavinia over Christine and Orin. When he returns from the war, he tries desperately to make Christine love him, but too late. She reveals her infidelity, causing Ezra to have a heart attack. When he asks for medicine, she gives him poison.
Captain Adam Brant, Christine's lover, the captain of a clipper ship. The son of Ezra Mannon's uncle and a servant girl, Marie Brantome, Adam has sworn to revenge himself on the Mannons, who had allowed his mother to die of poverty and neglect. His first approaches to the Mannon house were motivated by this desire for revenge, but he falls deeply in love with Christine.
Captain Peter Niles, of the U.S. Artillery, a neighbor, Lavinia's intended. Lavinia is forced by Orin to give up her plans to marry Peter and leave behind her the collective guilt of the Mannon family.
Hazel Niles, Peter's sister and Orin's fiancee. She persists in trying to help the erratic Orin lead a normal life. As she becomes aware that Lavinia and Orin share some deep secret, she fears Lavinia will ruin Peter's life and demands of Lavinia that she not marry him.
Seth Beckwith, the Mannon's gardener, a stooped but hearty old man of seventy-five. Seth serves as commentator and chorus throughout the play.
Amos Ames, Louisa, his wife, and Minnie, Louisa's cousin, townsfolk who act as the chorus in Homecoming.
Josiah Borden, manager of the shipping company, Emma, his wife, and Everett Hills, D. D., Congregational minister, the chorus in The Hunted.
The Chantyman, a drunken sailor who carries on a suspense-building conversation with Adam Brant as Brant waits for Christine to join him on his ship.
Joe Silva, Ira Mackel, and Abner Small, the chorus in The Haunted.
Avahanni, a Polynesian native with whom Lavinia carried on a flirtation. Lavinia's falsely telling Orin that Avahanni had been her lover helps drive Orin to suicide.

 



 

The Story

The Civil War was over, and in their New England home Christine and Lavinia Mannon awaited the homecoming of old Ezra Mannon and his son Orin. Lavinia, who adored her father, detested Christine because of Ezra's love for his wife. Christine, on the other hand, jealously guarded Orin's love because she hated her husband and her daughter. In this house of hidden hatred, Seth, the gardener, watched the old mansion and saw that Lavinia also despised Captain Brant, who was a steady caller at the Mannon home.
The Mannons, descended from old New England stock, had their family skeleton. Dave Mannon, Ezra's brother, had run off with an Indian woman named Marie Bran-tome. Seth, seeing the antagonism between Lavinia and her mother, disclosed to Lavinia that Captain Brant was the son of Marie and Dave Mannon.
Embittered by her mother's illicit romance with Brant and jealous of Christine's hold on Ezra, Lavinia forced Christine to send her lover away. But Christine was too powerful a woman to succumb to her daughter's dominance. She urged the grudge-bearing Brant to send her some poison. It was common knowledge that Ezra had heart trouble, and Christine was planning to rid herself of the husband whom she hated so that she would be free to marry Brant. Lavinia cruelly reminded her mother that her favorite offspring was Orin, who was born while Ezra had been away during the Mexican War.
The family jealousies were obvious by the time Ezra came home. Ezra, a kind, just man, realized that Christine shrank from him while she attempted to pretend concern for his health. That night in their bedroom Ezra and Christine quarreled over their failing marriage. Ezra had a heart attack, and when he gasped for his medicine Christine gave him the poison instead. As he lay dying in Lavinia's arms, the helpless man feebly but incoherently accused Christine of guilt in his murder. Lavinia had no proof, but she did suspect her mother's part in Ezra's death.
Peter and Hazel Niles, cousins of the Mannons, came to the mansion after Ezra's death. Peter was a rejected suitor of Lavinia, and Hazel was in love with Orin. Lavinia spied upon her mother constantly. When Orin came home, the two women vied for his trust, Lavinia trying to create suspicion against her mother and Christine attempting to regain her son's close affection. Uncomfortable under her daughter's look of silent, sneering accusation, Christine finally realized that Lavinia had found the box of poison. While Hazel, Peter, and Christine tried to make a warm welcome for Orin, Lavinia hovered over the group like a specter of gloom and fatality. Able to get Orin alone before Lavinia could speak to him, Christine told her son about Lavinia's suspicions concerning Captain Brant and Ezra's death, and she tried to convince Orin that Lavinia's distraction over Ezra's death had warped her mind.
Orin, whose affection for his mother had made him dislike Ezra, believed Christine, but the returned soldier swore that if he ever discovered that the story about Captain Brant were true, he would kill Brant. Desperately, Christine told Lavinia that Orin's trust had been won, that Lavinia need not try to take advantage of his credulity; but Lavinia stared at her mother in silent defiance. Under her daughter's cold stare Christine's triumphant manner collapsed into a pathetic plea that Lavinia should not endanger Brant's life, for Orin had threatened to kill him.
Lavinia slyly hinted the truth to Orin, and his old childhood trust in his sister led him to believe her story in part, unwillingly however, for he was still influenced by love for his mother. Lavinia hinted that Christine might run to Brant at the first opportunity. Orin agreed to wait for proof, and if sufficient proof were offered, then to kill Brant. Lavinia instructed Orin to maintain his pretense that he believed her to be mad.
Shortly after Ezra's funeral, Christine did go to Brant. Orin and Lavinia had pretended to be paying a call on a nearby estate, but they followed their mother to Brant's ship, where they overheard the lovers planning to run off together. Although Orin was consumed with jealous hatred of Brant, Lavinia restrained him from impulsive action. When Christine had gone, Orin went into the cabin and shot Brant. Then the brother and sister rifled the ship's cabin and Brant's pockets to make the death appear to have been a robbery and murder.
Orin and Lavinia returned to the Mannon mansion and told Christine what they had done. At the sight of his mother's grief Orin fell to his knees, pleading with her to forgive him and to give him her love. Fearing he had lost his mother's affection, the bewildered boy rushed from the room, but Lavinia faced her mother victoriously. Christine went into the house and shot herself. Orin, in a frenzy of grief, accused himself of his mother's murder.
Lavinia took her brother on a long sea trip to help him overcome his feeling of guilt. When they returned, Orin was completely under Lavinia's control, reciting in toneless speech the fact that Christine had been an adulteress and a murderess and that Orin had saved his mother from public hanging. He was changed in appearance and spirit; it was plain that strange thoughts of grief and guilt preyed on his mind. During the trip Lavinia had grown to look and behave like Christine.
Lavinia was now able to accept Peter's love, but when Orin saw his sister in Peter's embrace, he became angered for a brief moment before he congratulated Peter and Lavinia. When Orin became engaged to Hazel, Lavinia was afraid to leave Orin alone with the girl for fear he would say too much about the past.
Orin began to write a family history, urged by a remorseful desire to leave a record of the family crimes. Becoming jealous of Lavinia's engagement to Peter, he threatened to expose her if she married him. Orin kept hinting to Lavinia that, like Christine, she was planning to poison him as Christine had poisoned the man who held her in bondage. Finally, driven to distraction by Orin's morbid possessive attitude toward her and by his incessant reminding of their guilt, Lavinia suggested to the crazed mind that he kill himself. As Peter held Lavinia in his arms, Orin went to the library to clean his pistol. His death was assumed to have been an accident. Hazel suspected some vile and sinister fact hidden in Orin's accidental death. She went to Lavinia and pleaded with her not to ruin Peter by marrying him, but Lavinia denied that there was any reason to put off the marriage. While she spoke, however, Lavinia realized that the dead Mannons would always rule her life. The others had been cowards, and had died. She would live. She sent Peter away. Then she ordered Seth the gardener to board up the windows of the mansion. Alone, the last surviving Mannon, Lavinia entered the old house to spend the rest of her life with the dead.
 



 

Critical Evaluation

Eugene O'Neill, America's first dramatist to win international recognition, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936. One of the most ambitious playwrights since Aeschylus and Shakespeare, he introduced the European movements of realism, naturalism, and expressionism to the American stage as devices to express his comprehensive interest in all of life. His plays often make stringent demands on the actors and audience: the long monologues of The Iceman Cometh and Strange Interlude, the unrelenting despair of Long Day's Journey into Night, and the five-hour production length of Mourning Becomes Electra.
O'Neill, of Irish Catholic stock, literally grew up in the theater. He was born in a New York hotel while his father, the famous actor, James O'Neill, was starring in The Count of Monte Cristo. His mother, suffering from the pains of Eugene's birth, began taking morphine and soon became an addict. Many of O'Neill's plays deal with the intense love-hate relationships and tensions of his mother, father, brother, and himself. The most intensive and explicit of these is the powerful Long Day's Journey into Night, published posthumously in 1956. Before becoming a playwright, he briefly attended Princeton, worked as a sailor, and had a bout with tuberculosis. While in the sanatorium, he decided to become a playwright.
O'NeuTs plays are bound together by consistent concerns. Embedded in them the reader will find a rejection of Victorian gentility, of materialism and opportunism, and of Puritan beliefs. He shared the postwar disillusionment with others of his generation who discovered that the Great War to end all wars had been a death trap for young men. His plays exhibit a keen sense of loss of the individual's relationship with his family, his nation, his society's values, nature, and God. Science, materialism, religion all fail to give O'Neill's heroes a satisfying meaning for life, or comfort from the fear of death. Still, they engage in often heroic struggles against total alienation. Many of O'Neill's strongest plays center on the question of whether illusions are, after all, the only thing that make reality bearable. He also consistently incorporated popular Freudian psychology in an attempt to project the subconscious levels of his characters. Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy consisting of Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted, although set at the end of the American Civil War, is an adaptation of the greatest of Aeschylus' trilogies, the Oresteia.
Mourning Becomes Electra illustrates the struggle between the life-force and death, in which attempts to express natural sensual desires and love of others or even of life itself are overcome by the many forms of death: repression derived from the Puritan religion, death-in-life engendered by society's values, isolation, war, and actual physical death. This struggle is present not only in the plot structure, where each play culminates in actual death, but also in the setting, the actors' faces, stances, and costumes, and repetitive refrains. Darkness, associated with death, pervades the plays: Homecoming, for instance, begins with the sunset, moves into twilight, and ends in the dark of night; The Hunted takes place during night; The Haunted spans two evenings and a late afternoon, indicating the inevitable coming of night, darkness, and death as Lavinia retreats to rejoin the host of dead Mannons.
The Mannon house itself, seen by the audience at the beginning of each play, stands amid the beauty and abundance of nature. It has a white Greek temple portico which, O'Neill directs, should resemble "an incongruous white mask fixed on the house to hide its somber grey ugliness." That the house is an ironic inversion of the affirmation and love of this life associated with the Greeks is soon obvious. Christine thinks of the house as a tomb of cold gray stone, and even Ezra compares it to a "white meeting house" of the Puritans, a temple dedicated to duty, denial of the beauty of life and love—to death. The house itself is not only alienated from nature but also isolated from the community, built on the foundations of pride and hatred and Puritan beliefs. Its cold fažade and isolation symbolize the family which lives within it, whose name indicates their spiritual relationship to Satan's chief helper, Mammon. The "curse" of this house stems from the effects of materialism, Puritanism, alienation, and repression of all that is natural—a death-in-life.
The stiff, unnatural bearing of the Mannons and the look of their faces are further evidence that the family is dead in the midst of life. Even the townspeople comment on the Mannons' "secret look." Their dead, masklike faces—in portraits of Orin and Ezra, on Christine's face when she is about to commit suicide, on Lavinia's face after Orin's death—all indicate the Mannons' denial of life, their repression of their sensual natures, and then-refusal or inability to communicate with others. The dark costumes of all the family also indicate the hold that death has on them and accentuates the green satin worn first by Christine and later by Lavinia as they struggle to break out of their tomb and reach life.
The instinct of love and life survives strongest in the women, but even they are defeated. The search for pure love through a mother-son relationship is futile, for the Oedipal complex leads beyond the bounds of a pure relationship, as Orin finally realizes. Family love, too, fails, as is evident in the relationships between Christine and Lavinia and Ezra and Orin. Even love between men and women fails—as in the cases of Christine and Ezra and Lavinia and Peter—to triumph over the alienation and loneliness of the Mannon world.
The leitmotif of the South Sea islands, symbols of escape from the death cycle of heredity and environment of New England society, is present throughout the three plays. The islands represent a return to mother earth, a hope of belonging in an environment far removed from Puritan guilt and materialism. Brant has been to these islands; Ezra wishes for one; Orin dreams of being on one with Christine; Christine wants to go to an island; Orin and Lavinia do finally travel to the islands. However, they come to realize that they cannot become a permanent part of the island culture, but must return to the society to which they belong by birth and upbringing. As symbols of escape, then, the islands, too, finally fail.
The Mannons try all avenues of escape from their deathly isolation. David Mannon attempted to escape with Marie Brantome, but finally turned to drinking and suicide. Ezra "escaped" through concentrating on his business and then on the business of death—war—before he realized the trap of death. Christine focuses her attempts to escape first on her son and then on Brant. Orin tries to escape through his mother's love, then through Hazel's, and finally, in desperation, suggests an incestuous relationship with Lavinia. Lavinia does not see the dimensions of the death trap and does not desire escape until her trip to the islands, where she experiences the abundance of guilt-free life. After her return, she is willing to let Orin die, just as Christine let Ezra die, in order to be free to love and live. But then, too late, she feels the curse of the guilt associated with the Puritan beliefs and realizes that she cannot escape. Lavinia learns that Orin was right: the killer kills part of himself each time he kills until finally nothing alive is left in him. She underscores this in her last conversation with Peter, remarking, "Always the dead between [us]. . . . The dead are too strong." Death itself is the only real escape for the alienated, guilt-ridden Mannons.
Compared to its source, Aeschylus' Oresteia, O'Neill's themes and characterization seem shallow. Christine, who goads Ezra into a heart attack because of her hatred of his attitude toward their sexual relationship and her love of Brant, is no match for Clytemnestra, who revenges the death of her daughter, her insulted pride, and hatred of Agamemnon with a bloody knife. The weak, neurotic Orin is likewise a lesser character than Orestes, whose strong speech of triumphant justice over his mother's slain body breaks only with his horrified vision of the Furies. Yet Ezra is more human than Agamemnon, and Lavinia's complexities far outstrip Electra's: her recognition and acceptance of her fate is in the noble tradition of the tragic hero.
The radical difference in the intentions of the two playwrights accounts for some of these disparities. Aeschylus, whose major themes are concerned with the victory of man's and the gods' laws, concludes his trilogy with the establishment of justice on earth and the reconciliation of Orestes with society and the gods, affirming that good has come out of evil, order from chaos, and wisdom from suffering. In Mourning Becomes Electra, however, the curse is not lifted, but confirmed at the end, as Lavinia gives up her futile struggle against the psychological effects of Puritanical guilt. O'Neill's major concerns are with the detrimental effects of the materialism; the alienation of man from meaningful relationships with others, nature, and God; the death heritage of Puritanical beliefs; and the psychological "furies" that drive us all. Although the psychological analysis of these representative members of American society may be oversimplified occasionally, in the hands of a good director and cast Mourning Becomes Electra is one of the few works by an American dramatist that can truly be said to evoke the tragic emotions of pity, fear, and perhaps even awe in a modern audience.

 

 
     
         
 

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