First performed in 1931 on Broadway and still performed occasionally, Mourning Becomes Electra
, a play cycle by Eugene Gladstone O’Neill, retells the famous Greek tragedy, Oresteia
. Although Mourning Becomes Electra
is typically considered a three-play cycle, it is better described as one very long drama split into three parts for performance purposes. An American playwright, O’Neill won the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature; he heavily influenced the American adoption of dramatic realism
. His plays center on tragedy, personal suffering, and cynicism.
The three plays in the collection are Homecoming, The Hunted,
and The Haunted
. The plays follow the sharp decline of one American aristocratic family, the Mannons, as they struggle with internal drama, incest, and violent crime. The story is told in chronological order, and so the plays should be read in this sequence.Homecoming
begins as Mrs. Christine Mannon and her daughter, Lavinia, return home from a New York shopping trip. Once she unpacks, Lavinia plans to confront her mother about her adultery on the trip. She is sick of her mother cuckolding her father. Before she can even unpack, the family gardener, Seth, demands to speak with her. He asks if she still plans to marry Captain Brant, a young local man. When Lavinia says that she does, Seth says Captain Brant is probably related to her and that she can’t marry him.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ezra Mannon returns home. He knows that Christine does not love him anymore. She refuses to sleep with him. He doesn’t know that Christine is sleeping with another man. When she later tells him the truth, he has an angina attack. Christine withholds his medicine, letting him die. Lavinia mourns her dead father.The Hunted
begins as Orin Mannon, Lavinia’s brother, comes home to handle the funeral arrangements. Orin also wants to know if Lavinia plans to marry Captain Brant. Lavinia says no—not because he is her cousin, but because she has recently found out that Captain Brant loves Christine. Orin thinks this is preposterous, though he knows Christine liked to cheat on Ezra; reluctantly, he believes Lavinia.
One night, Christine sneaks out of the house. Lavinia convinces Orin to follow her. They see Christine boarding Captain Brant’s ship, presumably to sleep with him. Orin is disgusted because now he knows the truth about his mother. Lavinia, on the other hand, loves the drama. She can’t wait to see everyone rebuke Christine.
Christine leaves the ship. Orin boards it and shoots Captain Brant, killing him. Orin tells Christine that Captain Brant is dead. He confesses that he loves Christine, and he wants them to run away together. Horrified, Lavinia tells Orin to calm down before he shames himself. In the chaos, Christine dies. Lavinia is secretly thrilled to see the last of Christine. Orin knows that he will never be the same. He never speaks about his startling confession to Christine again because he is ashamed of his incestuous feelings.The Haunted
picks up a year after The Hunted
. Orin and Lavinia had retired to an island retreat for many months, and now they are home. Orin’s friend Peter arrives to welcome them back. When Peter sees Lavinia, he notes how much she resembles Christine. Lavinia hates Peter for saying such a thing and she leaves the room.
Orin later confronts Lavinia for her rude behavior. He says that she acts more like their mother every day. Lavinia accuses Orin of acting like their father. Orin claims that Lavinia slept with men on the island and now she is a fallen woman. Lavinia thinks that Orin is jealous because she didn’t sleep with him instead. Their relationship deteriorates.
In the meantime, Orin writes a book. He wants to tell the family story from the very beginning, incest, and all. Lavinia warns him against dragging any names through the mud, but Orin insists it is the right thing to do. Lavinia considers whether to kill Orin before he finishes his book. She cannot bring herself to murder Orin, and she lets him finish the manuscript. She doesn’t, however, plan to let him publish it. She will burn it first.
Orin sinks deeper into despair. He realizes that he fancies Lavinia, his own sister, and he hates himself for it. He considers marrying another girl, but he can’t bring himself to love anyone else. He tells Lavinia how he feels. Lavinia says she will marry Peter because then Orin cannot have her. She thinks Orin is disgusting for loving her.
While Lavinia tells Peter everything that has happened, Orin locks himself in the study. He shoots himself in the head because he cannot live with Lavinia’s disgust. After Orin’s funeral, Peter asks Lavinia to marry him. She declines because she cannot leave the family home. She feels responsible for every recent tragedy. Trapping herself inside the house is her self-inflicted punishment. Peter laments the family’s destruction before moving on with his life.