Mourning Becomes Electra

In English with English Captions

Long Story Short

Meet the Mannons, who put the “fun” in dysFUNctional family.

Who's Who?

Ezra Mannon, a brittle New Englander, is judge, mayor and, most recently, one of Grant’s generals in the Civil War. He has a bad heart and a hard time expressing love.

Christine Mannon, his vivacious wife, stopped loving him as soon as they were married.

Lavinia Mannon, their severe daughter, hates her mother and adores her father.

Orin Mannon, Lavinia’s weak-willed brother, hates his father and adores his mother.

Adam Brant is the bastard son of Ezra’s uncle by a servant. He is captain of a ship in the merchant marine, and romances both Christine and Lavinia.

Peter is Orin’s childhood friend and Lavinia’s fiancé.

Helen, Peter’s sister, is Lavinia’s childhood friend and Orin’s fiancée.

Where and When?

A house in a small Massachusetts town (and a ship in Boston harbor) in the summers of 1865 and 1866.

What's Going On?

The curse on the house of Mannon, a prominent New England family, goes back a generation to Ezra Mannon’s father Abe and uncle Ben. Ben was kicked out of the family when he impregnated a French Canadian serving girl named Marie Brantône. A gambler and a drunk, eventually he killed himself. Marie asked Ezra, now head of the family, to help her; but he ignored her, and she died. Thus her son, Adam Brant, has an understandable grudge against Cousin Ezra. While Ezra and his son Orin are off fighting in the Civil War, Adam Brant approaches the family as a suitor to Lavinia. The handsome captain ends up seducing Christine.

When the opera begins, the war has ended—President Lincoln has just been shot—and Ezra Mannon is on his way home. His wife Christine and his daughter Lavinia are both awaiting him: Lavinia is excited to see him, Christine is not. She never loved her husband, and having finally experienced love with Adam, cannot endure Ezra’s touch. The night of Ezra’s return, Christine gives him poison instead of his heart medicine; but before he dies, Ezra reveals to Lavinia what Christine and Adam have done.

A few days later, Orin returns home from the war. A new war is now raging, between Lavinia and Christine, and Orin becomes the battleground. Lavinia forces Orin to come with her as she follows Christine at dead of night to Adam’s ship. They spy on Christine and Adam, and when Orin sees the mother he loves so passionately in another man’s arms, he starts to unravel. He stabs Adam the instant his mother is gone. When Orin tells Christine what he has done, Christine shoots herself.

Lavinia and Orin travel to the South Seas for a year. When they return to Massachusetts, their friends Peter and Helen find them transformed. Lavinia has finally become a beautiful woman, the spitting image of her mother, and Orin has disintegrated. Orin writes a letter outlining the grisly history of his family and threatens Lavinia that he will give it to Peter if she tries to marry him. He tries to molest his sister, and when she runs from him, crying “Go and die!” he shoots himself. Lavinia, who seems eager to marry Peter, reveals when he embraces her that she still loves the dead Adam Brant. She dismisses Peter and instead embraces her lonely fate, shutting herself up forever in the house of Mannon.

The Greek Tragedy of Electra

If the story of the Mannon family seems familiar, you’ve either (a) been watching too many daytime television talk shows or (b) studied the Greek myth that inspired this story.

The myth has inspired dramatists, writers, and composers since the days of ancient Greece, and is one of the cornerstones of our culture. If you’re not familiar with the myth, here’s a brief refresher to bring you up to speed:

It all began with Tantalus, king of Phrygia, who wanted to show he could ridicule the gods. He invited them all to his house for a feast and served, as the main course, his son Pelops. When the gods found out what Tantalus had done, they punished him by placing him in hell, where he has been standing upright in a pool ever since. When he bends down to get a handful of water to drink, the pool dries up and all he gets is a handful of dirt; and every time he reaches up to get some of the grapes that are growing above his head, a gust of wind blows them out of reach. Thus the word tantalize.

The curse on the family continued down the generations. Tantalus’ grandson, Thyestes, ran off with the wife of his brother Atreus. In revenge, Atreus invited Thyestes over for dinner and fed the poor man his own children—all except his nephew Aegisthus, who avenged his father and brothers by killing Uncle Atreus. We’ll leave Aegisthus brooding for a while and follow the fortunes of his cousins, Atreus’s two sons Agamemnon and Menelaus.

These brothers married a pair of sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen. And when Helen left her husband Menelaus for the handsome Trojan prince Paris, the Trojan war began. On his way to Troy, Helen’s brother-in-law Agamemnon, commander in chief of the Greek armies, happened to shoot a stag that was sacred to Artemis. The goddess was so angry, she refused to let Agamemnon continue until he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon had his daughter killed and continued on to Troy, where he (eventually) won the war.

But Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, was furious with him on two counts: (a) he abandoned her for ten years to go fight a war; and (b) he killed her beloved daughter to buy himself smooth sailing. So re-enter Aegisthus! Agamemnon’s cousin, still mad that Uncle Atreus fed his brothers to his father, seduced Clytemnestra and became her lover. They got rid of Agamemnon’s son Orestes by shipping him off to boarding school. Orestes’ sister, Electra, hangs around the castle, hating her mother, yearning for her father, and getting more and more neurotic. Then, when the Trojan War is finally over, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra welcome Agamemnon home and kill him as he is taking a bath. Aegisthus takes his wife and his throne and treats Electra like a dog.

The story continues as Orestes returns home, and, aided by Electra, avenges his father’s murder. He kills Aegisthus, but has a much harder time killing his own mother. When he does so he is driven mad by the Furies (three demonic sisters who long ago sprang out of the blood spilling from the severed testicles of the sky-god Ouranos and now who rise up from the blood of Orestes’ murdered mother). In some versions of the story, Orestes finds a way to be free of the Furies. In real life, it would take an awfully good therapist.

You’ll notice that Eugene O’Neill even modeled the names of his characters in Mourning Becomes Electra on the names of their mythic ancestors illustrated here in a Mannon family tree

The Greek Tragedians

The Trojan War presumably happened about 2800 years ago; stories about the war and the people involved began to be told in the centuries that followed; and long after, during the Golden Age of Athens (around 550 B.C.E), the fortunes of Agamemnon and his family became the subject of plays by all three of the great Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy from the ancient Greek theater and the first play in recorded history. Because he wrote a trilogy, Aeschylus was able to give us more of the story than his followers, although his characterizations are less rich. The Oresteia begins the night of Agamemnon’s murder and stops when Athena pardons Orestes and placates the demonic Furies, turning them into the protective Eumenides. Aeschylus celebrates the origins of Athenian democracy and simultaneously founds the art form of drama.

Sophocles’ Electra. Sophocles, whose Oedipus Rex inspired Aristotle to acclaim him as the greatest of all tragedians, wrote a play that begins with the homecoming of Orestes and ends the moment he drags Aegisthus offstage to kill him. No Agamemnon, no Athena; Sophocles focuses on Electra and her inability to forgive or forget. She personifies the virtue of loyalty to one’s family, and is a beautiful and tender woman. Operagoers know Sophocles’ play as the source of Richard Strauss’s Elektra.

Euripides’ Electra. Euripides was the latest of the three tragedians. His wicked sense of humor and disrespect for tradition make him the prototypical modern artist. In his version, Clytemnestra has married Electra off to a peasant, and the girl resents the indignity of living on a farm much more than she does the fact that her mother killed her father. In Euripides, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are more interesting individuals, and the play closes with a deus ex machina: the Gemini twins appear and bring about a magical happy ending.

Eugene O’Neill

America’s first great playwright was born in New York City in 1888. His father was a famous actor, and as a child O’Neill traveled around the country with his parents. He went to Princeton, but was suspended for throwing a beer bottle through a window of the home of the then-college president, Woodrow Wilson. At the age of 21 he set off to see the world. First he went on a gold-prospecting expedition to Honduras; he didn’t find any gold, but did manage to catch malaria. Then he shipped as a seaman to Buenos Aires, worked at various occupations in Argentina, and tended mules on a cattle steamer to South Africa. He returned to New York destitute and found a job as a reporter on a newspaper in New London, Connecticut. But an attack of tuberculosis sent him to a sanitarium for six months, and by the time he recovered his health he had decided to become a playwright. He was 24 years old.

During the 1920s, O’Neill had a new play on the New York stage practically every year. His subjects included Marco Polo, the Ancient Mariner, Lazarus, Ponce de León, and more contemporary characters as well. He asked questions about faith and about fate; a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, O’Neill wrote about the dark forces that seem to compel human behavior; and his advanced dramatic techniques often left realistic theater far behind. O’Neill’s major works include: The Emperor Jones (1920), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Strange Interlude (1927), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Ah, Wilderness (1933), A Moon for the Misbegotten (1945), The Iceman Cometh (1946), and the posthumous Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He died in 1953 and was survived by his third wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill.

Play Becomes Opera

Mrs. O’Neill allowed Marvin David Levy to make an opera from Mourning Becomes Electra when it became clear that he was not planning on simply setting the play to music. For one thing, Mourning Becomes Electra is not one play, it is a trilogy of three plays, totalling thirteen acts. The play, which takes its structure from the Oresteia of Aeschylus, takes all day to perform, and setting it to music would slow that down considerably. That wasn’t what Levy had in mind: he wanted to build on O’Neill’s structure, but didn’t want to use the playwright’s exact words, which have in fact been criticized as overwritten. Instead, Levy and his librettist, Henry Butler, intended to create a libretto that replaced O’Neill’s excesses with simple, minimal language. Mrs. O’Neill saw the good sense of this.“If all you offered to do was cut and paste the plays,” she told him, “I would never have permitted you to touch them. I expect you to create something new.”

Levy explains what attracts him to O’Neill’s play: “I realized this harrowing picture of tormented lives is one of the few American contemporary tragedies that can evoke pity, fear, even awe, in today’s audiences. It deals with nothing less than the struggle between the life-force and death in our own age, when little gives life a satisfactory meaning. For O’Neill, there were no divinities to dispense absolution to a doomed house of Mannon; modern society lay victim to the pervasive curses that stemmed from the effects of materialism, Puritanism, alienation, and repression of all that is natural—a death-in-life, rendered in terms of Freudian psychology. Unlike that of Atreus, the Mannon curse could not be lifted. It could only be confirmed at the end.”

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