The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: Mourning Becomes Electra

Rosalind Russell and Michael Redgrave in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)

The dead! Why can’t the dead die!

-Lavinia Mannon, The Haunted, Act Four (O’Neill 372)

After the 5-hour Strange Interlude, which was the height of his experimental phase, Eugene O’Neill wrote the three-play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra, which is the height of his Greek tragedy phrase (he wrote another, shorter play in-between, but Dynamo is considered a failed play in the O’Neill canon). In this case, he based his story on the Oresteia, and while it’s technically a trilogy (like the Oresteia) the three plays are often performed as one long play, with intermissions between each part.

Oresteia’s three plays are Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. In the first play, Agamemnon returns from The Trojan War and is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Clytemnestra is mad that he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenie to the gods. In the second play, he’s avenged by his son Orestes, who kills both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. In the third play, Orestes is pursued by the Furies for killing his mother, is tried by twelve Athenia citizens (supervised by the goddess Athena), and is allowed to live after Athena casts the tie-breaking vote.

Mourning Becomes Electra follows a similar patttern. The three plays are called Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted. The two outer plays are four acts long; the middle play is five. In these plays, we are introduced to the Mannons. In the first play, Ezra Mannon returns from the Civil War and is murdered by his wife Christine, with help from her lover, Adam Brant. Brant wants revenge against the Mannons because he is the product of a union between Ezra’s brother and a housemaid, who were turned out of the house by his father when it was discovered she was pregnant. He wants revenge against Ezra in particular because he refused aid to his mother when she petitioned him for help, leading to her death by starvation. Christine wants him dead because she’s been in a loveless marriage for decades and finally feels happiness with Brant.

In the second play, Ezra and Christine’s son Orin returns home from the war and is told by his sister Lavinia (Vinnie) about her suspicions. They secretly catch Christine with Brant in Boston and Orin kills him. He tells Christine this when they return home and she, in a fit of grief, finds Ezra’s old pistol and kills herself. Vinnie and Orin decide to go away for awhile to get over the twin griefs of their parents’ deaths.

In the third play, Vinnie and Orin return home. Orin has gone mad with grief, and instead of meeting justice through the Furies, he ends his own life. His sister tries to find happiness with her old sweetheart Peter (whose sister Hazel was going to marry Orin), but realizes that the “Mannon curse” has already started working on Peter. She tells him a lie to get him to break off the engagement. She then decides she must punish herself by locking herself in the house, and she has Seth, the groundskeeper, nail the shutters closed as she enters.

Like Strange Interlude, I found one movie adaptation and one TV adaptation (in this case, a five-part miniseries). The movie adaptation exists in three different versions: the original three-hour version (which is considered lost), a 105-minute version (cut after the movie bombed at the box office and won no Oscars, despite being nominated), and a 159-minute British cut, which is what Scarecrow Video has.

Like with Anna Christie and Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra features an outstanding performance from the lead actress. Rosalind Russell, in fact, was favored to win the Oscar (both she and Michael Redgrave, who played Orin, were nominated), but lost to Loretta Young. Like Desire Under the Elms, this movie features a great, non-American actress playing the matriach (the Italian Sophia Loren in the former, the Greek Katina Paxinou in the latter, though Paxinou’s thick accent sometimes makes the dialogue hard to understand, and her scenes with Russell don’t create the necessary sparks). While a deeper, richer film than Anna Christie, and a better film than Desire Under the Elms, it doesn’t catch fire in the way that Strange Interlude does, outside of Russell’s performance.

In its shortened version, Homecoming is 1 hour long, while The Hunted and The Haunted are each roughly 49 to 50 minutes long (I’m assuming that in the original cut, each section lasted an hour). Freudian psychology and clearly incestuous relationships between Lavinia and Ezra (Raymond Massey), and Orin and Christine, must’ve seemed quite shocking for 1947 (and still do today).

One odd thing about the movie (besides seeing Kirk Douglas – as Peter – in a Eugene O’Neill play) is its repeated use of the song “O Shenandoah.” O’Neill refers to it as “a song that more than any other holds in it the brooding rhythm of the sea” (227), but it’s sung on the soundtrack here, rather than by the characters in the play. It’s better integrated in the TV version, which follows the play in having it sung by by Seth (and sometimes Vinnie) at key moments. Another criticism is the image quality, which looks to be closer to Laserdisc quality than DVD. One wishes for a restoration.

A restoration, however, isn’t possible for the TV version, since it was shot on videotape. That feature, the odd splitting of plays (three plays split into five parts), and some padding (showing us Orin and Vinnie on their “vacation,” for example) are the only complaints I have of this version, however, which is superior to the movie version in almost every way. All of the actors are either the equals of their movie counterparts or better, and they also play off each other better, so that the scene where Orin tells Christine that he killed Brant plays as shocking as it should. Part of this is due to the added length, but also due to the nuanced acting that comes (especially) from Roberta Maxwell (Lavinia), Bruce Davison (Orin), and the incomparable Joan Hackett (Christine). Even the minor roles (fleshed out more in the almost-five-hour version), such as Ezra (Josep Sommer) and Hazel (Deborah Offner) are to be preferred here. Only Seth (Roberts Blossom) is a little generic, but I don’t remember Henry Hull wowing me in the movie-version, either. The music and mood help greatly, as director Nick Havinga understands how to use the spaces and lighting for maximum effect, and Maurice Jarre’s minimalist score is effective at heightening the mood at key moments.

Plus, after each episode, there’s an “After Word With Erich Segal” (yes, THAT Erich Segal), in which Segal helps give context to what we just saw, and Eugene O’Neill. For example, at the time he wrote this play, O’Neill’s mother, father, and older brother were dead, making him — like Vinnie — the last of his line. Segal also points out how often characters in the play reference islands, whether they want to escape to one, make one, or return from one.

Besides the length, there are a few key differences between the movie and the miniseries:

  • In the movie and play, Christine drops the case carrying the poison pills she used to kill Ezra on the floor, where Vinnie finds it. In the miniseries, Vinnie finds it still in her hand.
  • In the movie, Brant is shot in the back by Orin. In the miniseries, Brant sees Orin and Vinnie sitting in the cabin before Orin shoots him in the chest. In the play, “ORIN steps through the door and with the pistol almost against BRANT’S body fires twice.” (321)
  • In the movie, Vinnie burns the document Orin wrote that indicted the family for their crimes while thinking, “The dead! Why can’t the dead die!” In the miniseries and the play, she locks the manuscript in a drawer and says that line while Hazel is begging her not to marry Peter.

Ultimately, Mourning Becomes Electra is about a family whose secret shames, petty jealousies, and obsessive loves lead to tragic consequences. Death is a constant in the play, whether witnessed on the battlefields of the Civil War or hidden in the halls of the Mannon home. Unlike the Greek original, in O’Neill’s world, you can never get away from the Furies.

Works Cited

O’Neill, Eugene. Three Plays: Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra. New York, Vintage Books, 1959.