Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | Homecoming, Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

The play takes place in New England in 1865, just as the American Civil War (1861–65) has ended. The setting is the Mannon house, which O'Neill describes as having a Greek temple portico with several white columns at the front. This hides the somber, gray ugliness of the rest of the house behind it. Additionally, there is one black pine tree, which looks like an additional column, sticking out among the white ones.

As the play begins, Seth Beckwith, the Mannon family gardener, can be heard, singing the American folk song "Shenandoah" (mid-19th century). His voice is "thin and aged, the wraith of what must once have been a good baritone." He enters along with Amos Ames; Amos's wife, Louisa; and her cousin Minnie. These last three characters, all dressed in their Sunday best, are typical townspeople. They are meant to function as a Greek chorus, commenting on the play's action. The four gossip about the Mannons, who have secrets. They speak disapprovingly of Ezra Mannon's wife, Christine Mannon, who is foreign looking and didn't bring much money to the marriage.

Christine enters. Then Lavinia Mannon—called Vinnie—enters. Christine is described as a handsome woman, though her face is more like a mask. She leaves. Lavinia looks much like her mother, with the same masklike face, but she is awkward looking and tries to deemphasize the resemblance. She walks with military bearing and tends to bark out orders. She wears black. Neither woman appears to notice the chorus. The chorus exits.

Seth tells Lavinia her father is coming back. He asks Lavinia where she's been. At first, she lies, but then she admits she's been to New York. Seth says he wants to warn Lavinia about something to do with Captain Adam Brant. However, before he can, Peter and Hazel Niles enter. They are Lavinia's friends, with whom she and her brother played when they were children. Lavinia says she'll speak to Seth later.

Lavinia lies to Peter and Hazel, saying she hasn't been around because she's had a cold. They discuss Lavinia's brother, Orin Mannon, Hazel's beau, who's been away, fighting in the war. Hazel leaves Peter and Lavinia alone.

Peter asks Lavinia if she thinks Orin really loves Hazel. Lavinia says she doesn't know anything about love. She hates love! Peter says he planned on proposing to her, since she'd said she'd consider marrying him after the war. Lavinia says she has to stay with her father. He needs her. Peter is upset, but Lavinia says she loves him as a brother and doesn't love anyone else. She'd hate to lose him. She particularly has no interest in Brant. Peter says Brant seems very romantic. Lavinia admits he has told romantic stories, but she seems resentful of this. Christine enters, carrying flowers, and Peter leaves.

The stage notes say that the resentment between the two women is obvious. Mother and daughter argue about whether Lavinia is avoiding Christine and discuss the ugliness of the house, which Christine calls a tomb. She says that Ezra's father built "such a monstrosity—as a temple for his hatred." Lavinia implies that Christine lied about going to New York to visit Lavinia's grandfather. Christine mentions that Brant will be coming to see Lavinia, and Lavinia asks if that's why Christine picked the flowers. She warns Christine that Ezra will soon be home. Christine seems alarmed and says that's not definite. Lavinia says she and her mother need to talk soon but won't say about what.

Seth returns, and Lavinia asks what he has to warn her about, since Captain Brant seems to want to court her. Seth doesn't believe this. He says that Captain Brant resembles Lavinia's father and others in the Mannon family. Ezra once had a brother, David Mannon, who fell in love with a Canuck, meaning Canadian, nurse and ran off with her, disgracing the family. Seth believes that Brant is the son of that union, particularly since the nurse's name is Marie Brantôme, which is similar to the last name Brant. Seth advises her to try to trick Brant into saying something.

Captain Adam Brant himself enters to visit Lavinia. She seems uneasy in his presence, trying to avoid holding his hand. They discuss how happy she is that her father is returning and how much closer she is to him than to her mother. Brant thinks this is unusual because of their resemblance. When it seems he is about to kiss her, Lavinia asks if her mother said he could. Surprised, Brant tries to speak romantically of tall ships, but Lavinia chides him for something he said in the past about seeing naked native women in his travels. She accuses him of having some dirty dreams of love. He tries to kiss her, but she yells at him to stop. She says she would expect such "cheap romantic lies from the son of a low Canuck nurse girl!"

Brant flies into a rage and accuses Lavinia of not wanting him because he was the son of a servant. She says that isn't the case. She only pretended in order to find out things. Brant tells Lavinia that his grandfather, Abe Mannon, loved the nurse and was envious when David married her. Abe forced him out of the family business. David became drunk and violent and eventually killed himself. Brant's mother always blamed Brant for that, and finally, he left home to go to sea, taking the name Brant. He sent money home to his mother, but it wasn't enough. Brant came home, and his mother died. He blames Ezra, who could have saved her.

Lavinia begs him to stop telling her all this. Brant says he has vowed revenge on Ezra. Lavinia says he is getting it "in the vilest, most cowardly way—like the son of a servant you are!" Brant asks what she means, and Lavinia says he used "her," meaning Christine. Brant tries to deny this, but Lavinia refuses to hear it, saying she will write to her father and tell him. She leaves as Brant tries to stop her.

Analysis

The famous folk song, "Shenandoah," is heard as the play begins and will be heard later, too. In the stage directions O'Neill says that the song resembles the rhythm of the sea. The lyrics include the phrase, "I'm bound away." In the context of the song this means "I'm leaving" or "I'm going away." However, bound is a word with several definitions, including to be tied to something as in predestined (e.g., It is bound to happen). This meaning, thus, refers to fate—one of the principle themes of the play. All meanings of bound will be significant in the play as the Mannons rail against fate, and eventually, Lavinia Mannon becomes bound to the Mannon house. Later in the act Brant says he ran away to sea and eventually came home. Thus, he was also bound away.

O'Neill describes the house as having a Greek portico, a kind of patio or porte-cochère, supported by columns. This reminds the audience of the play's Greek roots. However, the grand-looking portico hides a plain or even ugly gray structure. As such, the house is an overarching symbol of the family within it. At first glance it is beautiful and grand on the outside, the perfect fashionable house of that era, much like Tara, the grand plantation at the center of American novelist Margaret Mitchell's (1900–49) Gone with the Wind (1936). However, the beauty is just a façade to hide the ugliness within. Christine refers to the ugliness of the family home and compares it to a tomb. She, an outsider who came to the family, hates the house. By contrast, Lavinia, who was born into the family, loves it. Christine's referring to the house as a tomb foreshadows the deaths to come.

Christine also says the house is a temple to Abe's hatred. Lavinia does not seem to know anything ill of her grandfather. The audience soon finds that Christine has been discussing him with Brant, and this is where she is getting this idea.

The animosity between Christine and Lavinia is felt throughout the play. There are many reasons for this, including Christine's supposed coldness to her daughter. However, the main reason is that Lavinia is in love with her father, and her mother is her rival for his affections. Later, the audience will learn that Lavinia's brother Orin has a similar love for his mother and hatred for his father.

The major characters in the play are similar to characters in the Oresteia (458 BCE) by Greek dramatist Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BCE), and O'Neill chose similar names. The name Lavinia is similar to Levina, which means "lightning bolt"—thus, electricity or Electra. Similarly, Christine Mannon is parallel to Clytemnestra, while Ezra Mannon alludes to Agamemnon. Orin Mannon, who doesn't appear in this act, is parallel to Orestes.

The play follows the conventions of Greek drama in other ways. The portico of the house resembles Greek columns. The major characters—Christine, Lavinia, and Brant—are all described as looking like they are wearing masks like those worn by the main actors in Greek drama. Meanwhile, the minor characters are described as being interchangeable townspeople, like a Greek chorus. Their purpose in the drama is to comment on the lives of the Mannons. Seth, whom O'Neill does not explicitly state as a member of the chorus, arguably serves the function of chorus in a different way. The townspeople comment on the action. Seth actually moves it forward by telling Lavinia about Brant's origins.

Lavinia, throughout, is afraid of men and of love. She tells her friend Peter, "I hate love!" and refuses his heartfelt proposal even though she says she loves him. She says she has to stay with her father. Later, when she is speaking about Brant, she seems disgusted with his romantic behavior. This is truer still when the man actually shows up. She is disgusted at his attempt to kiss her. She is likewise disgusted at his talk of love and that he saw naked island women in his travels. While her attitude toward Brant may be born of his attentions to her mother, her attitude toward Peter is not. Rather, she seems repulsed by the idea of romantic contact with any man.

Lavinia is described as being very plain and awkward. She wears black even though she is not in mourning. As the play wears on, her appearance will change. However, she will continue to wear black, symbolic of the turmoil and death in her family, for much of the play. Hazel is presented as a physical contrast to Lavinia and is described as a pretty, healthy girl.

Indeed, the only man with whom Lavinia appears to have an emotional attachment is her father. She eagerly awaits his return and refuses what seems like a desirable marriage proposal in order to care for him. This is true even though he has a wife. When Brant says he is surprised that she prefers her father to her mother, since she and her mother seem so similar, she is shocked. She says they're nothing alike even though, by O'Neill's description, they strongly resemble one another.

Revenge will be one of the main themes of the play, and it begins here with Brant's declaration of revenge upon Ezra. While the audience does not yet know, they will shortly find out that Brant and Christine have been having an affair. This is why Christine went to New York. Lavinia knows about it. The audience may wonder if Brant's courtship of the less attractive Lavinia is also meant to be a form of revenge upon her father.

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