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Theatre / Mourning Becomes Electra

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Mourning Becomes Electra is a play written by Eugene O'Neill.

The story is a retelling of The Oresteia by Aeschylus, consisting of three parts called "Homecoming," "The Hunted" and "The Haunted." Set in 1865 New England following The American Civil War, it centers around the Mannon family, who have to face their turbulent destiny in middle of a puritan society. The story narrates the return from the war of the patriarch, Ezra, to the family's enormous mansion, only to find a totally different world from the one he left behind marching into the conflict. The other members of the household are Ezra's wife, Christine, and their children— their daughter, Lavinia, and their son, First Lieutenant of Infantry Orin.

The play premiered on Broadway at the Guild Theatre, where it ran for 150 performances from October 1931 to March 1932. Lee Baker starred as Ezra, with Alla Nazimova as Christine, Earle Larimore as Orin, and Alice Brady as Lavinia. In 1947, Dudley Nichols wrote and directed a film adaptation, featuring Rosalind Russell as Christine, Raymond Massey as Ezra, Michael Redgrave as Orin, Katina Paxinou as Lavinia, and Kirk Douglas in an early role as Lavinia's suitor Peter Niles. For their performances in the film, Redgrave and Russell earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively.

This play and its adaptations feature examples of:

  • Adapted Out: The Furies. Not just due to the updated setting, but also because Orin doesn't actually kill his mother. She commits suicide. Though Orin's own guilt does some of their job.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: The play itself being a modernized (circa The American Civil War) adaptation of Aeschylus's The Oresteia, it is swarming with Freudianism. Just for starters, Lavinia (the modern equivalent of Electra) won't shut up about how much she loves her father, and won't hear anything against him. Orin is the same, but for his mother.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Orin initially attempts to blackmail Lavinia into not marrying Peter by giving Peter's sister Hazel an envelope with information to only be opened if Orin dies or Peter and Lavinia try to marry. Lavinia then subverts things by getting Orin to hand her the envelope instead, but Hazel still tells Peter about the envelope and warns Lavinia off herself.
  • Composite Character: Orin is a combination of Orestes and Iphegenia—like the latter, he is part but not all of his mother's reason for revenge (Christine resents Ezra for sending him to war), and then must avenge his father's death.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Adam and Christine kill Ezra, each for their own reasons. Lavinia and Orin therefore murder Brant and tell their mother what they've done. Christine then kills herself despite Orin's attempts at placation, which later leads to Orin's death.
  • Driven to Suicide: Christine, after her children kill Brant. Orin as well when the guilt catches up to him and he realizes he and Lavinia are becoming their parents.
  • Everyone Is Related: Adam Brant is actually the child of Ezra's uncle and a French woman, who were exiled from the house due to the scandal. Brant therefore hates Ezra because not only did his mother die when Ezra did not respond to a letter from her begging for aid, but he claims Ezra's father also lusted after her and that's the real reason his parents were exiled.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Ezra's death, since he is Agamemnon's parallel. However, the story plays with the other deaths, while Adam is murdered to avenge Ezra, Christine commits suicide instead, against the wishes of Orin (the Orestes parallel). Orin also commits suicide, rather than being absolved of his guilt by the gods, leaving Lavinia alone to mourn.
  • Greek Chorus: Being an adaptation of an actual Ancient Greek play, the various townsfolk fill the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the play and the main characters' behavior.However they are twelve individually named characters as opposed to a faceless mass.
  • Hysterical Woman: Christine uses this trope against Lavinia, claiming the loss of Ezra has driven her mad and therefore Orin should not listen to anything his sister says. Lavinia eventually has to just have Orin stalk Christine until Christine meets up with Brant to prove her side.
  • Love Triangle: Christine implies there is one because Lavinia actually wants Brant for herself. Comes to nothing after Ezra's death, as by then Lavinia wants her mother and Brant both dead for the deed...until the final scene of the play, where Lavinia accidentally calls Peter "Adam" and realizes she's as tainted as the rest of her family.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: After killing Brant, Lavinia and Orin mess up his room so it will be mistaken that he died during a robbery.
  • Medication Tampering: How Christine kills Ezra. She withholds his heart medication when he's having an episode, instead giving him poison. Lavinia learns of it with Ezra's dying words: "She's guilty—not medicine!"
  • Old, Dark House: Subverted with the Mannon home. It's actually the second home, as late grandfather Abe Mannon destroyed the first one after his brother's scandalous marriage. Enforced by Lavinia in the end, ordering Seth to board up the windows and throw out the flowers as she enters alone and shuts the door on the world.
  • Old Retainer: Seth. Old enough to know that when David married a French woman, his father Abe not only disowned him but destroyed the house and build a new one "out of pure hate." He's also the first to suspect that Adam is related to the Mannons.
  • Parental Incest: There are no actual cases on incest in Mourning Becomes Electra (note the name) but the female lead character and the male (who are siblings) have serious cases of Elektra and Oedipus complexes, respectively, leading to the murders of both of their parents.
  • Secret-Keeper: Lavinia initially offers to be this to her mother about her mother's adultery with Adam Brant, not telling Ezra so long as Christine never sees Brant again. Christine decides to Take a Third Option and just kill Ezra instead.
  • Setting Update: Went from Ancient Greece in The Oresteia to 1860s New England (specifically 1865, immediately post-Civil War) in the play.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Adam only wants revenge because of what Ezra and (allegedly) Ezra's father did to his mother. Christine wants revenge because she loves Adam and resents Ezra for sending Orin to war. Lavinia convinces Orin they have to kill Christine because she killed Ezra on Adam's behalf.
  • Sole Survivor: Lavinia is the only Mannon alive at the end.
  • Turning Into Your Parent: While the transformation mainly happens offstage between Part 2 and Part 3, Lavinia and Orin return from the South Seas the spitting images of their parents—Orin thin and stony like Ezra, and Lavinia wearing a dress the same color of green as Christine wore in the first part of the play. This horrifies Orin, who, after writing down the family's sins, commits suicide.