Mourning Becomes Electra

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From Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra: Text, Adaptation and Performance[1]

©Alison Burke, The Open University, UK

Introduction
The Royal National Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra at the Royal National Theatre (London 2003–4) downplayed the relationship between O’Neill’s trilogy and Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Rather than following the stage directions of O’Neill, which are evocative of classical staging conventions, the RNT production sought to foreground O’Neill’s theatrical legacy of nineteenth-century melodrama and fusion of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century realism and expressionism. Moreover, the director Howard Davies presented a political interpretation of O’Neill’s text that focused on changing political worlds. In so doing, the production offered an innovative view of O’Neill that located him within his theatrical context, rather than juxtaposing him with his classical source material. However, Davies’ directorial interpretation raises interesting questions about O’Neill’s relationship with his classical source material. The main aim of this article therefore is to re-examine the relationship between O’Neill (1888–1953) and Aeschylus. To this end, this article divides into three main parts: part one explores O’Neill’s understanding and use of classical material; part two examines O’Neill’s stagecraft in the light of his own theatrical context and his use of classical staging conventions; and part three forms a review of the RNT production. The critical argument in the final section is that O’Neill’s response to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and indeed all the classical House of Atreus plays,[2] is derived from an interpretation of the mythic material that is shaped by psychoanalytical factors. In particular, O’Neill’s interest and participation in psychoanalysis shapes his character-orientated response to the Atridae myth. Accordingly, O’Neill’s primary focus is seen to be domestic and results in a de-politicized interpretation of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Indeed, O’Neill’s thematic response to Aeschylus is concerned with the effect of fate and determinism on characters’ decisions, but he defines fate not as an autonomous agent or inherited propensity, but as a shared human condition that shapes and regulates sexual desire. Consequently, O’Neill suggests continuity of meaning through what are held to be the universal precepts on which desire is based. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly what O’Neill considers to be the ‘universal’ aspect of the Atridae myth that dates his interpretation and circumscribes its relevance. Therefore, it will be argued that O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra is in fact quite removed from Aeschylus’ Oresteia (and the Atridae plays of Sophocles and Euripides), and, as Davies’ production in part realized, is more suitably considered a product of its day, that is a realistic, domestic, melodrama with echoes of expressionism.

O’Neill’s understanding and use of classical material
Continuity of meaning
O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra transposes the mythic events of the House of Atreus to New England at the end of the American Civil War (1865–66); therefore, several historical filters determine and shape O’Neill’s vision of the classical past. O’Neill places the American Civil War as an intermediate location between his 1931 present and Aeschylus’ production in 458 bce. By setting the play in the nineteenth century, O’Neill utilizes the neo-classical sanitized and romanticized interpretation of the classical world to suggest equivalence with classical Athens. Yet, as will be discussed below, the extent to which this neo-classical, American Civil War background determines his thematic interpretation of the classical texts is minimal. Initially, it should be noted that the choice of an intermediate historical setting between Aeschylus’ and O’Neill’s own time suggests continuity of meaning between different...
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