“Mourning Becomes Electra” – A Tragic Play in Greek Tradition with Freudian and Lacanian Underpinnings


Air Commodore (Retired) M Tariq Qureshi

American playwright Eugene O’ Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” is a continuation of the Greek tradition. It is rare to find two principal complexes “Electra” and “Oedipus” in one work of art. Here we have both as parallel themes. The tragic implications as will be observed are of the kind that generates emotions of purgation and emotional relief. However, it’s set in a modern (20th century) milieu. The characterization, the story line, the plot are all reflective of the ancient traditions. The names and sequence have been modified to serve the playwright’s intentionality. The substitution is shown with the main characters resembling the principal dramatis personae of the past: Lavinia Mannon – Electra; Christine Mannon – Clytemnestra; Ezra Mannon – Agamemnon; Captain Adam Brant – Aegisthus; Orin Mannon – Orestes; Captain Peter Niles – Pylades. Instead of the Trojan War, here in the background we have the American Civil War. Clytemnestra had waited for ten years for her husband to return from the conflict. Although she had governed well, she had committed the mistake of taking on a lover in the form of Aegisthus. With him she had conspired to put to death her hero husband. In the play under review, it is Christine who has cuckolded Ezra Mannon. Christine is far more venomous than Clytemnestra. Whereas the latter had some grievance because her spouse had sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia to please the gods; Christine had no such anger to be redressed. For her it was a simple case of husband change. Having got bored or fed up with one Patriarch, she wanted to experience the ecstasy of love. Up to this point the story may be taken as a recasting of the Greek myth. What happens ahead is O’Neill’s own interpretation. In this case the daughter Lavinia too is in love with the mother’s paramour and hence an opponent. There is a strong psychoanalytical stance as the daughter is expressively preoccupied with “Electra” complex. She is consumed by love for father and is obsessively involved in revenge for his death. Christine is sly and malicious and she plans the murder in a cunning manner. Knowing that the husband has a heart condition, she lets it be known in the public about the gravity of his ailment. Meanwhile she conspires with Brant to make sure that the plans do not prove abortive. She asks for poison with the stratagem being that on his return she would copulate with him and in a fit of frenzy make him suffer from an induced heart attack. It happens as planned and when Ezra asks for his medicine, she gives him the poison. Consequently he dies, only to give birth to a series of violent revenge killings. When the brother Orin returns from the war, the sister Lavinia manoeuvres him in a situation where he kills Brant. Before he does so, the reader/audience has to undergo the sordid experience of yet another psychological aberration, in the form of incestuous relationship between mother and son. Thus the killing of Brant serves three purposes; the father is avenged, the mother is punished and the rival is eliminated. The cursed house of Atreus (Mannon) suffers multiple moral lapses. There is incest between the brother and sister. In all the tragic happenings, it is Lavinia who is the prime factor of personality shortcomings. She would neither like her brother to have a normal relationship with Hazel nor allow herself to have ties with Captain Peter Niles. In the end, she drives Orin to madness and suicide just as she had driven her mother to frustration and suicide. Finally she draws the curtains on her own self and opts for the life of a recluse. A mood of tragedy prevails over the entire unfolding of the dramatic sequences. All the characters yearn for respite and redemption but there is none. The most pitiable individual is the mother Christine who one feels deserves a break from the monotony and misery of a star-crossed marriage. It is in her death that the audience reach the climax of tragic empathy. The therapeutic effect is felt as the viewer is shocked into a trance like state of cataclysm.

No play is ever written with a critical theory in mind. The creative writer doesn’t adopt a framework within which he has to put together his ideas. Such an attitude would place a severe restriction on his literary creation. Once the intended piece of literature takes a final shape and comes in the public domain, it is then that literary criticism and appreciation is applied. So is it with Mourning Becomes Electra. O’Neill is a master craftsman but in this play it so appears that he was writing within the psychological and psychoanalytical framework. The play opens with ordinary people gossiping about the extra marital affairs of Christine, wife of Ezra Mannon. This is a Freudian start as sex is the base of human emotions. We come across the servant/gardener Seth who has the role of chorus of the old Greek tragedy. His comments are in the psychoanalytical tradition as he gives a free narration of the past, present and the future of the Mannon family. The arrival of Ezra Mannon introduces Lacan’s concept of the “Law of the Father”. He is the perfect patriarch who has exhausted himself in the struggle for gender and phallic supremacy. He served in the army, then became the Mayor of the town, then a Brigadier-General in the civil war. On top of all he was a judge. When the head of the family is the be-all and end-all, it is natural that his offspring are likely to be stunted while growing in the shade of this majestic tree. This dwarfing of personality gives birth to castration complex of Lacan. The son feels obliged to love only one woman that is his mother. In the Freudian tradition this love to begin with may be innocent – the natural baby feeling for mother can get transformed into carnal emotion with clear physical characteristics. Same is the case with daughter Lavinia. She is in love with her father which Freud would interpret as a consequence of Electra complex. This is explained in the play by her obsession for Adam Brant – her mother’s lover. Instead of going for the more benign and gentle suitor Captain Peter Niles she is consumed by the passion for the look alike of her father – Adam Brant. The playwright tells us that the lover has all the features of Ezra Mannon. They look one and the same. Therefore, she becomes a natural enemy of her mother. When it becomes clear to her she cannot possess what she desires, she decides to put an end to the object of desire. The death of Ezra Mannon through a heart attack induced in a moment of extreme stress is both clinical and psychological in the Freudian context.

The theme of incest that runs through the play can be viewed in the background of Lacan’s Mirror Stage Theory. Incest is an extreme form of self love. Freud tells us that sex is the key to life as it builds new connections and bonds. When a boy meets an unknown girl the first attraction is physical and then gets converted into other forms. This is how human civilization has flourished. Sex is the driving force for the procreation of the species. The term that he gave for this was libido. No wonder the most successful people in the past were those who had the greatest number of sexual liaisons. They became the tribal chief with at times more than fifty wives. For Freud this libido was a tidal wave which once unleashed could not be stopped till its complete unfolding. In Mourning Becomes Electra the free flowing libido is represented in the dreams of south Pacific islands. The natives on the island would move without clothes, ever ready for mating. As opposed to this the Mannon mansion is restrictive and suffocating from sexual expression point of view. The two young offspring Lavinia and Orin are incapable of healthy bonding. Their sexual desire cannot find expression outside the concrete walls of their habitat. The brother is doomed to be a lover for his mother as well as his sister. In the same way Lavinia finds joy in love with Orin or with Ezra or with her father image Adam. These characters view their consummation in life through intercourse within their habitat. It is only Catherine who wishes to break herself free from the solitary confinement. She is ready to undertake the perilous sea journey with the naval captain Adam Brant. The sea in Freudian terms is collective unconscious. In the end it is significant that all main characters in the play have Lacanian death. In place of symbolic castration, they undergo physical and emotional extinction. Ezra Mannon and Adam Brant are murdered – one poisoned and the other shot dead. The brother Orin and mother Catherine commit suicide and the daughter Lavinia opts for slow suicide by entombing herself within the mansion. Thus castration is used as a symbol and tool for determining the destiny of dramatis personae. Slip of tongue is both Freudian and Lacanian. Whatever is deeply embedded in the unconscious will find outlet through an involuntary lingual slip. In a tense climax while Lavinia is offloading herself on Peter Niles she addresses him as “Adam” – the real love of her life. The truth dawns on the well meaning Peter that he was being used as a proxy for the real love. In psychoanalysis the analysand in the process of expression, can come out with the hidden truths of the unconscious. Unlike Freud for Lacan there was no need of a formal introspection in respect of time, place and duration. It could be short or long; flexible but genuine talking of the mind was the cure for deep rooted fears of the mind.

The play “Mourning Becomes Electra” has much in common with the grand style of ancient Greek tragedy. It is the suffering of human beings that results in an ennobling effect. The characters have complex psychological hang-ups which contribute towards their doom. On the Greek pattern we have a trilogy with three parts: The Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted. Whereas in the Greek cases, the psychological aspect is disguised and barely identifiable, in O’Neill it constitutes the essence of drama. Let’s see what the critics have to say about the play.

Bette Charlene Werner talks of the mother-son ties in “Eugene O’Neill’s Paradise Lost: The Theme of the Islands in Mourning Becomes Electro” (Forum, Winter, 1986, Vol.27, no.1, pp.46-52). According to Werner “In O’Neill’s vision, maternal abandonment is the original sin, and life is a series of necessary, but futile, attempts of men always to try to remake in some way the original closed pairing of mother and child.” The argument raised is to be heard in psychologists like Jacques Lacan. The drift starts with the child realising that the person who happens to be a mother is also a mistress to some one else. It doesn’t matter even if that some one is one’s own father (may be it is even worse). This sole monopoly over the woman who is variously viewed in the growth phase is the centre of controversy and debate. In terms of possession, the question is who has the proprietary rights, the young child or the grown up male? This sense of ownership starts with the physical and goes to the spiritual dimension. Whether it is the father Ezra, or the son Orin, or the lover Brant, they have one thing in common and that is a feeling of betrayal by the woman towards whom they are attracted. The remedy is to seek comfort in the pristine South Pacific islands. Supposedly the venue is free of sin, guilt and deception. This is at best a charade as the indigenous setting has been given an unrealistic sanctity. Lavinia is ecstatic of the moral laxity and throws herself into orgiastic pagan rituals of the islanders. The island is perceived in terms of a mother’s womb – all inclusive and hermetically sealed from external pollutants. In this quest for the “ideal”, Ezra Mannon tells Christine “You’ll find I’ve changed. I’m sick of death! I want life”. He further adds “I’ve got to make you love me!” (Homecoming, 111). The prenatal slumber is what the islands promise “…the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby!” (Homecoming 1).

Ronald T. Curran in “Insular Typees: Puritanism and Primitivism in Mourning Becomes Electro” in Revue Des Langues Vivantes, Summer, 1975, Vol.4, pp. 371-77, highlights the lure and fascination of South Pacific in the post Puritanical era. In the play almost all characters seek refuge and escape from the harsh reality by dreaming of starting a new life on a South Pacific island. In psychological terms an island is a symbol of womb – comfort and freedom from predatory forces. They are in search of eternal bliss, which is free from sin and its effects. The prelapsarian dream is forever the ideal of an individual who finds it difficult to negotiate the labyrinths and cul-de-sacs of life. More than anything else it is the promise of uninhibited sex which these islands apparently promised. The image of naked women completely devoid of guilt and the concept of sin for sexual indulgence had a magnetic pull for the white people caught in moral mores of Christianity. Here they could practise their sexual fantasies without the burden of morality. We find that Ezra, Christine, Brant, Orin, Lavinia as also the other members of the cast refer to the refuge from the misery of civilization. Orin refers to Herman Melville’s novel “Typee” as the escape from the hypocrisy and crippling moral taboos of New England. Although the characters have their own interpretation of what this refuge will be, there is a consensus on its viability. Maybe O’Neill was wrong because the islands were a false hope. There is no way to escape the rigours of history and time. Curran reminds the reader that Washington Irving in creating “Rip Van Winkle” tried to do so and failed. His character opts for amnesia by sleeping through the barbarity of war only to find him reduced to an anachronism. The many dimensions of sexual behaviour as propounded by Freud are portrayed by O’Neill in his plays. The psychological relief and therapeutic experience is manifestly felt in “Mourning Becomes Electra”.

An interesting and absorbing comparison with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is drawn by Horst Frenz and Martin Mueller “More Shakespeare and Less Aeschylus in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra” (American Literature, 1966, Vol.38,pp.85-100). The authors strive to show the “different concept of action that separates O’Neill’s trilogy from the Oresteia”. To begin with we have the same type of murder for the aging father – Hamlet’s father as well as Ezra Mannon, unlike Agamemnon both die of poison. The discovery of poison makes Lavinia sure of the guilt of mother just as the ghost drives home the truth for Hamlet. “Mannon’s dying words: she’s guilty not medicine (I,iv) are like ‘Remember Me’ of Hamlet’s father”. In response to the demand of filial commitment, Hamlet gives up the love of Ophelia and Lavinia says ‘no’ to Peter’s proposal. There is much in common between Shakespeare and O’Neill. Both seek inspiration from the Greek myths but grow out from the same to complement each other. In the final analysis O’Neill’s case is profoundly psychological, just as Hamlet is a drama of psychologically motivated characters.

Joseph Wood Krutch is of the opinion that “Mourning Becomes Electra” has all the “virtues… which one expects in the best contemporary writing”. It is a unique play as when staged the trilogy was of six hours’ duration. The audience sat through the lengthy exposure as if in search of the need for redemption. In O’Neill’s time much of the western world was still in the grip of Puritanism. His characters reflect “a conflict between Puritanism and healthy love. Its impact is immediate for “it means the same thing that “Oedipus” and “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” mean namely, that human beings are great and terrible creatures when they are in the grip of great passions and that the spectacle of them is not only absorbing but also at once horrible and cleansing”. It is the “cleansing” dimension that is of interest to us. No matter the language of O’Neill’s play is not as elevated as that of the referred Shakespearean dramas, it has the power to invoke the passion of pity and terror. Although written in the early 20th Century, the play is equally relevant in today’s environment of fast changing society in Africa, Middle East and Asia.

The relevance of the play is firstly in terms of cultural emancipation. In the third world (irrespective of the continent) we are still living in the Victorian Age. The excessive clothing worn by both male as well as female, which is typical to our current ethos, was the norm in Europe some two hundred years back. The desire to use a head scarf by Muslim women, which has become a serious problem in France and parts of the United Kingdom, can be understood in the context of social liberation. Like the west, we in the east may have absorbed the modern technology and may be using computers with equal proficiency but when it comes to culture, there is a yawning gap. Some scholars misinterpret this gap in ideological and religious terms. Actually there is nothing religious or ideological about it. It is a simple case of intellectual distancing. In the journey of civilization the third world has not reached the bridge of 21st century. It is not fair to expect them to adopt the characteristics of the west without leapfrogging them into 2010. Mourning Becomes Electra will forward fast the reader through exposure to themes and issues which are taboo in Asian and African societies. It will shock them and compel them to have a new look at their social behaviour. Some of the things that are presently pushed under the carpet or explained away as witch craft, possessed by the devil or black magic, would be understandable in psychological and psychoanalytical terms.

Puritanical attitude prevails in much of the Asian and African societies. Sex is the single biggest issue for the people. It is an obsession and a subject of discussion at social gatherings and wherever people assemble. The reason for it is that unlike the West which decided to raise the lid, the third world has kept the issue in sealed compartments. The need to demystify sex is profound. Mourning Becomes Electra is not a sex play but has profoundly dealt with sex issues. It has shown the complex nature of sexual drive and how it can influence relationships. In the process it has exposed the hitherto held false beliefs of sacrosanct relations. Human specie is unique in sexual behaviour which has a universal and global orientation. There is nothing like occidental and oriental sex; sex is sex and this is what the play conveys. Like the heavy coverings of Victorian clothing, there are layers and layers of masking which do not allow a realistic appraisal of a situation. Most sex transgressions are viewed as criminal behaviour and punished accordingly. A rapist or a homosexual could be stoned to death or hanged in public to satisfy the public wrath. The play will help in giving a new dimension to the thought process.

Psychology and psychoanalysis are two absent disciplines in Africa and Asia. Even when available, there is extreme reluctance to utilise the facility. This has given birth to malpractices quite often by charlatans who disguise as blessed with miracle cures. There is a flourishing trade of healers and charm possessors who exploit the simple country folk or urban middle class citizens. More than half of the population suffers from psychosomatic diseases but the treatment is either homeopathic or traditional or placebo allopathic. The true remedy is to be found in psychological and psychoanalytical experience. Mourning Becomes Electra is a play rich in this dimension. The audience will be encouraged to read Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. The direct and indirect references to sexual behaviour can only be appreciated if we delve deep into their works. Whereas Freud is available in many of his published works or the works of his daughter Anna Freud, Lacan can be traced to his lectures and the now famous “Seminars”. These seminars are a continuing tradition by his followers and his son-in-law. The play will be a catalyst to this pursuit of knowledge for it has within it the most direct psychic implications.

The fourth dimension of this play is in taking the audience/reader on a magic carpet journey of discovery. In Asia and Africa a common feature of curriculum limitation is absence of trends in philosophic development. Because most of the countries falling in the two continents were victims of the colonial heritage, there is natural distrust of disciplines falling in the domain of thought management. White philosophy is interpreted as hostile to the cultural/religious moorings. This is not only amongst the Muslim population where it is particularly strong but also in religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and the many versions of Christianity. The interesting point to note is that the pre colonial Hellenic philosophy is held in high esteem. Some Muslim scholars go to the extent of even claiming Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to be Muslims. Thus the real cleavage and bone of contention is political rather than intellectual. Africa and Asia stopped the movement of clock when it was enslaved and disowned as well as distanced itself from everything that was western. Thus students graduating from universities/colleges know at best the stated Greek philosophers. They are innocently unaware of the march of history and literary thought. For instance movements like Empiricism, Marxism, Feminism, Existentialism, Dadaism, Colonialism, Post Colonialism, Modernism, Post Modernism etc are not in the vocabulary of the average student. Mourning Becomes Electra is a multi era play and has within it some aspect of twentieth century thought. It is condensed philosophy and a plausible guide for an individual embarking on a scholastic venture. Before the curtains are drawn, it can be said that the play is highly recommended for the initiated and the neophyte.

(The writer is a PhD scholar at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad, Pakistan)