Study Guide

Mourning Becomes Electra

By Eugene O'Neill

Mourning Becomes Electra Introduction

There's nothing like a good, old-fashioned family reunion. And trust us when we say that this is absolutely nothing like a good, old-fashioned family reunion.

For starters, the family isn't planning a week-long trip to Disneyland or 3 days of fun at the Hard Rock Hotel and Resort in Vegas. We're going to be kicking back with Mom, Dad, Bro, and Sis in a creepy old mansion high on top of a hill in New England. And as for family fun and activities—we've got murder, madness, and acts of revenge that are so twisted and wrong they make The Godfather look like Mary Poppins. Don't forget to pack a towel. And maybe a new pair of shoes. Because in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, things are going to get pretty messy.

It's 1930, and O'Neill is sitting pretty. His play, Strange Interlude, was a smash hit. He's got plenty of money and time on his hands, so he decides to undertake a huge, maybe risky, project—to transform one of the most famous Greek tragic plays into a modern psychological drama. He thinks it could be the biggest thing to ever happen to American theater if he could only find the right way to write the dialogue.

He chooses The Oresteia, a trilogy by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, that also follows a wealthy family on that long, hard journey to Destructionville. A queen murders her husband, and her children, Orestes and Electra, take revenge by plotting her murder. O'Neill chose this play in part because he never felt that Electra got her due; he wanted to imagine a different fate for her.

In Mourning Becomes Electra, first performed in 1931, things are already pretty messy even before the bodies start dropping. For starters, you've got a mother who's crushing on a guy who's actually the bastard son of a long-lost disowned family relative while her husband is trying not to get his head crushed by a cannonball fighting in the Civil War. There's a super up-tight and paranoid daughter who you'd swear has a thing for her father; a weak and half-crazy son who's definitely got a thing for his mother; and a father who acts more like a robot than an actual human being.

What could possibly go wrong?

A trilogy of short, interconnected plays called Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted, Mourning Becomes Electra gives us an up-close and personal look at the not-exactly slow slide into complete destruction of the Mannon Family, a gaggle of American aristocrats who have more dirty secrets than they have money. Fortunately for us, that destruction is chronicled by a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Not too shabby.

So take a walk on inside the house that hate built, and say hello to the Mannons, everyone's favorite lethal leisure-class lunatics.

What is Mourning Becomes Electra About and Why Should I Care?

We think it's important to be up front with you on this one, especially because Mourning Becomes Electra has a lot to do with the bad stuff that happens when you aren't up front with people.

You all probably know families like the Mannons—respected fathers, beautiful mothers, big houses, wealthy ancestors. They seem like they have it all together. But here's what O'Neill tells us: they don't. There's always more to the story, and this one ain't pretty. What brings down the Mannon family, despite their wealth and social status, is deceit. They spend their lives lying to each other and lying to themselves in an effort to protect the family. They've all decided that the best way to deal with the past is to bury it. That way, no one will know and we'll all be fine.

Except nobody's fine in this family. There's no real emotional connection. Lying becomes so automatic that no one can trust those closest to them. Lies have a way of building on each other in the Mannon family until it's impossible to know what's true and what isn't. And the secrets and lies do the opposite of protecting; they eat away at the characters until all those simmering resentments and secrets finally boil over and take the family down.

Granted, the Mannon secrets and sins are a tad more serious than what you're keeping from your parents and sibs. Shmoop sincerely hopes that matricide and incest aren't on your personal list of worries, and that your biggest secrets are what you drank last Saturday or what your latest U.S. History exam grade really was. Still, the message is clear. Pretending that bad things never happened doesn't make them go away. It makes them worse. Pushing problems underground just makes it more likely that they'll come back to bite you.

So man up, scholars, and make family honesty your best policy. It might seem harder at first, but Shmoop promises that you'll sleep better in the long run when you deal with things before they get out of control. Just ask Lavinia Mannon.

Mourning Becomes Electra Resources

Websites

Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site
Reading his plays might not be a walk in the park, but you can stroll through the area surrounding O'Neill's home in Danville, California courtesy of the National Park Service

Everything Eugene
This website contains everything you could possibly want to know about O'Neill and includes productions and spoofs of many of his plays. You can even watch Mourning Becomes Electra in Japanese and still see why Christine is so hateable.

O'Neill on PBS
O'Neill rated a film on PBS's "American Experience." Here's a timeline of his life, including a couple of adorable baby pix and photos of his parents. You can get a good feel for how his own family's problems influenced his plays.

Movie or TV Productions

Mourning Becomes Electra on the Big Screen
The now extinct RKO Pictures, Inc. released a film version of O'Neill's tragedy in 1947. The complete film can't be found online—but you can pick up a copy on Amazon if you feel so inclined. But beware: it's not exactly cheap.

Articles and Interviews

A Not-So Great Review of O'Neill and His Work from Theatre Arts Magazine, 1922
There's no pleasing everyone—and this critic finds little if anything enjoyable about O'Neill's work. He's in the minority—ask the Nobel Prize committee.

A Super Awesome Review of O'Neill and His Work from Stage Magazine, 1935
What a difference more than a decade can make. This writer can't say enough great stuff about O'Neill.

Gone But Not Forgotten
Here's O'Neill's 1953 obituary from the New York Times.

Video

Part of The Haunted, Act 1 Scene 2 from the 1947 movie
Take a gander at Orin and Lavinia trying to act natural just a short while after Brant's murder and Christine's suicide.

Audio

"Shenandoah" Without the Whiskey
Give a listen to the constantly re-occurring song that both Seth and the Chantyman sing.

"Hanging Johnny"
For your listening pleasure, a bunch of old salts singing the tune that made Brant's skin crawl.

"John Brown's Body"
It might only be an instrumental version we hear at the start of Homecoming, but check out this version, complete with lyrics, of the song that would become "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Images

Nifty pics of from original performances of O'Neill's plays, including Mourning Becomes Electra
Dig these authentic photos of classic theatrical productions, courtesy of PBS

The Man, the Legend—the Complete Refusal to Smile
Here's an image of O'Neill himself, looking about as happy as most of his plays will make you feel. We like to think it's just all that genius fighting to get out.