Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | Context


20th-Century Realistic Drama

Eugene O'Neill brought psychological and social realism to the American theater. Prior to O'Neill, this type of realistic drama had been seen in the plays of Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), considered the father of realism, is especially well-known for writing plays with realistic situations and penetrating dialogue.

Several factors distinguish realistic drama from the plays that came before. The characters in such works are ordinary people. Sets and costumes are ordinary and mundane. A box set with an interior setting is often used. The drama in such plays is psychologically driven, with the plot being secondary to the characters' inner lives. Audience members would relate to the characters' struggles, such as those of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879). Nora overcomes conflicts in her family life and challenges women's role in society, refusing to be "a doll" instead of a complex human being.

Eugene O'Neill was the first American playwright to use American vernacular, the language or dialect spoken by ordinary people. He focused on characters society had marginalized. American plays before O'Neill were usually melodrama or farce. O'Neill was praised for his tragic realism. He wrote plays that focused on such topics as prostitution, adultery, incest, alcoholism, and people clinging to hope for better lives.

O'Neill paved the way for realistic playwrights who came after him. Arthur Miller's (1915–2005) play Death of a Salesman (1948) was about the struggle of a working man. Tennessee Williams (1911–83) authored many plays about ordinary people. Most famous are The Glass Menagerie (1944), about a single mother of a painfully shy daughter, and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), about a mentally ill southern belle confronting her brutish brother-in-law. David Mamet (b. 1947) wrote American Buffalo (1975) about conspirators in a burglary of a coin collection.

Despite its mythical Greek origins, Mourning Becomes Electra falls into the category of realistic drama. Audience members can relate to the characters' desires to love and be loved and to avenge the murder and suicide of their parents. The characters are fighting a losing battle with cruel fate, which causes them to be tied to a house and family marked by death.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

The Oresteia (458 BCE) is a trilogy of tragic dramas by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BCE). It tells the story of the mythological House of Atreus. Like Mourning Becomes Electra, it comprises three plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides.

The first play, Agamemnon, begins with the king's triumphant return from the Trojan War, which is a legendary war between the Greeks and people of Troy that supposedly took place sometime in the 12th or 13th century BCE. This is paralleled by Ezra Mannon's return from the American Civil War (1861–65). In his absence, the king's wife, Clytemnestra, has taken a lover, Aegisthus. They plot to murder Agamemnon, just as Christine Mannon and Adam Brant murder Ezra. Aeschylus's play ends with Clytemnestra and her lover ruling Argos.

The second play, The Libation Bearers, is about Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes. Mourning Becomes Electra gets its title from Electra in the Oresteia, who parallels Lavinia. With the help of their dead father's ghost, the siblings seek revenge for Agamemnon's death. Orestes slays Aegisthus, just as Orin Mannon kills Brant. As in Mourning Becomes Electra, Orestes doesn't want to murder his mother. Rather, he is required to by the god Apollo and is subsequently punished by the Furies.

In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes is placed on trial. He is accused by the Furies but is eventually acquitted with the help of the goddess Athena. The Furies attempt to wreak revenge upon the entire city but are persuaded by Athena to seek peace. In O'Neill's third play, The Haunted, Orin Mannon commits suicide after he is unable to forgive himself for his part in his mother's suicide. His sister, Lavinia Mannon, tries to help Orin find peace but fails.

The Oresteia uses some conventions common to Greek tragedy. These include the use of masks as well as the use of a chorus. These conventions are also used in Mourning Becomes Electra, though to a lesser degree. In Greek dramas the chorus is a group of actors who respond to and comment on the main action of the play. In Aeschylus's plays the chorus has a large role in the play, telling most of the story. The reason the chorus's part is so significant is because ancient Greek dramas feature only one or two main actors who use many masks to perform the various roles. Aeschylus, in fact, is the playwright who added a second actor. Before Aeschylus, plays only had one, so it fell to the chorus to tell most of the story. After Aeschylus changed the convention to two actors, the chorus still had a large part in telling the story.

In Mourning Becomes Electra Eugene O'Neill uses several minor characters to fill the role of the chorus. Chief among these is Seth Beckwith, who not only comments but also moves the action along. Other characters simply comment or, as in the case of the chantyman in The Hunted, are used for exposition, or explanation. Most of the chorus characters in Mourning Becomes Electra appear infrequently and are present more for effect than out of necessity. Some productions of the play eliminate these characters, with the exception of Seth.

The actors in the Oresteia wore masks to portray several different characters. O'Neill considered having actors in masks in Mourning Becomes Electra. However, in the end he simply referred to the "masklike" appearance of the characters' faces.

Thus, O'Neill takes the old-fashioned conventions of Greek tragedy and brings them to modern theater in this trilogy.

Freudian Psychology

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), an Austrian neurologist, founded psychoanalysis. He is known for his theories about the interpretation of dreams and about sexual development. Some of these theories are applicable to the characters in Mourning Becomes Electra.

Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex gets its name from the hero Oedipus from Greek legend, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus complex is thus a desire for sexual involvement with the opposite-sex parent and a sense of rivalry with the same-sex one. Thus, boys may feel a desire for their mothers and rivalry with their fathers. This is a crucial stage in a normal developmental process, generally occurring from ages three to five. It ends when the child identifies with the same-sex parent and represses their desire for the opposite-sex one. Absent trauma, and in the presence of a loving relationship with their parents, the phase will be passed through peacefully.

In Mourning Becomes Electra the character Orin Mannon exhibits signs of Oedipus complex, continuing into adulthood. He is obsessed with his mother, Christine Mannon, and envious of men who love her, whether that is his father, Ezra Mannon, or Captain Adam Brant. Finding out about his mother's relationship with Brant throws him into a murderous rage. Although not stated, he seems to believe that by killing Brant he can have his mother for himself. When she dies, he turns his sights on his sister Lavinia Mannon, who resembles their mother.

The environment in which Orin was raised is just the traumatic kind Freud predicts will lead to an adult Oedipus complex. Orin does not have a normal relationship with either of his parents. His father is harsh and forbidding, the type of man who takes his son to war in order to make him a man. Christine Mannon, meanwhile, hates her husband, Ezra Mannon, and turns too closely to her son Orin to have someone to love.

Electra Complex

The Electra complex is the female equivalent of the Oedipus complex. It is named after Electra, a character in the Oresteia who helped slay her mother.

Lavinia Mannon has a poor relationship with her mother, Christine Mannon, who says Lavinia was born of her disgust with her husband, Ezra Mannon. Christine prefers Lavinia's brother, Orin, and thus, Lavinia has nowhere to turn for love other than to her father.

In the play Lavinia rejects marriage and love with eligible men, preferring to stay at home with her father. She tells Ezra Mannon, "You're the only man I'll ever love! I'm going to stay with you!" When he is killed, she finally comes into her own, dressing attractively and flirting with men. However, in the end she can think only of a man who resembles her father, Adam Brant. While kissing her fiancé, Peter Niles, she yells out, "Take me, Adam!" This shows that she is still seeing her father's face in her mind.

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