Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Eugene O'Neill's 1931 masterpiece, Mourning Becomes Electra, overtly works with thematic and structural elements of Aeschylus' Oresteia. Paradoxically, perhaps, students in the ClCv 241 course are not allowed to write Reception Papers about the trilogy. This is because all students in the class are expected to learn about O'Neill's usage.

O'Neill's career was such that, as a contemporary critic observed, each play seemed to eclipse all predecessors. MBE is followed in his opera only by 1945's The Iceman Cometh. And it may well be that MBE is the greatest surviving work of his entire output. It certainly manifests the author's attempt to equal what is arguably greatest monument of the Athenian tragic stage.

Aeschylus' 458 BC tragic trilogy assumed "universe as its stage" (Lesky), grappling before the audience with matters of blood-guilt, epic grandeur. human limitations against divine intervention, and big-J Justice. How could Apollo have ordered Orestes to matricide? How could Athena condone the murder? Who could settle after eons of gutwrenching duty the Erinyes, whose birth from the castration of Ouranos antedated the creation of humans? At Aeschylus' hands, the oresteia becomes much more than a story of human revenge. It is thrust into the central spotlight of humanity: settlement of blood-guilt by Athena's divine intervention.

O'Neill took on the themes inherent in Orestes's plight, but brought the situation into more plausible context. A 1931 audience could still look back to the return of an Ezra Mannon circa 1865, either in their own or their parents' immediate experience. And transporting the intrigue of the Argive murderess, Clytemnestra, to the Yankee seaboard in the form of Christine Mannon, or the sniveling Aegisthus into Adam Brandt, O'Neill cretes a play that really works in historical reality. Much more, his brilliant retention of the Oresteia's central them — deposing vengeance — becomes more accessible in a localized context.

Critics were aware of MBE's monumentality. O'Neill's own diaries admit to the overt undertaking.
Nearly a century later, readers and audiences ought still to consider the success of the dramatic project.

For links to contemporary reviews and secondary scholarship, click OGCMA0768Orestes_ONeill.htm

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