The House of Mannon

The House of Mannon

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The House of Mannon

Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is a play of revenge, sacrifice, and murder conveyed through visible references to Aeschylus' House of Atreus. O'Neill alludes to The House of Atreus in order to ground the play; attaching the plot to well-known aspects of history. As well, it brings a certain significance that otherwise would be neglected if their underlying manifestations went unnoticed. The most prominent of these allusions is that to Aeschylus' House of Atreus. O'Neill specifically modeled Mourning around Aeschylus' work, modernizing it, applying it to a new generation of readers. Agamemnon, a general in the Trojan War, becomes Ezra Mannon, a Civil War soldier of the same rank. Ezra "was a great man…he was a power for good" (323). He was well respected within the community – he was a Mannon. "They've been top dog around here for near on two hundred years and don't let folks ferget it" (265). A renowned man with a name that connotes wealth and power, comes home physically drained from battle, yet emotionally in touch with himself, to his wife, Christine, who shadows Aeschylus' Clytemnestra. The town perceived Christine negatively; "she ain't the Mannon kind" (265). She would come to conspire with Brant (Aegisthus), further tainting the Mannon name, in order to "bring you (Brant) my share of the Mannon estate" (294). Christine poisons her husband, both literally and figuratively, by not only disclosing her relationship with Adam Brant, but by administering poison in place of heart medicine to her enraged husband, thus killing him. Lavinia (Electra), rushes in when she hears her father's cries, only to have him say to her, "She's guilty – not medicine," (316) as he falls limply back onto the bed. It is at this juncture in the story that Lavinia hereby begins a vendetta with her mother, by saying "You murdered him just the same – by telling him! I suppose you think you'll be free to marry Adam now! But you wont'! Not while I'm alive! I'll make you pay for your crime! I'll find a way to punish you!" (317). Following the storyline of The House of Atreus, Orin, (Aeschylus' Orestes) arrives home from battle, finding a cold, dark house, one that he is not familiar with. In conversation with Peter, he asks, "Did the house always look so ghostly and dead?" (327), and continues to contrast it with a "tomb" (327).

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In actuality, the house is much like a tomb, a tomb for the poisoned Ezra Mannon who found his fate at the hand of his own wife. This parallels Clytemnestra's killing of Agamemnon in order to further explore her love interest, Aegisthus, as well as Orestes' homecoming. Orestes later takes his own life, escaping certain agony and torment. Prior to Orestes' suicide, however, he conspires with his sister, Electra, in attempt to prevent their mother from becoming romantically involved with Aegisthus. Ultimately, the only ample resolution to prevent such an event from transpiring is the murder of Aegisthus, which is executed by Electra and Orestes. This series of events directly parallels the actions of Lavinia and Orin in response to their mother's display of love for Captain Adam Brant. Christine, in a moment of loss and severe depression, commits suicide with a revolver; her son follow suit, leaving Lavinia alone in the Mannon estate. With Lavinia left to endure a lifetime of guilt stricken sorrow, the Mannon dead plague her continuously, much like when Orin was still alive. The Mannon dead serve the same purpose as Aeschylus' furies in that they "haunt" Lavinia and Orin, eventually leading to Orin's suicide and Lavinia's assumption of responsibility. There were no ghosts, spirits, or specters present, merely portraits that kept a vigil on the house and the Mannon name. O'Neill alludes to the House of Atreus with the intention of expressing the revenge, the hatred, the murderous contempt that threads itself throughout the play. Christine openly expresses her adulterous love for Brant when she spurts out Yes, I dared! And all my trips to New York weren't to visit Father but to be with Adam! He's gentle and tender, he's everything you've never been. He's what I've longed for all these years with you-a lover! I love him! So now you know the truth!"(315). O'Neill also mimics the characters' names as close as possible to that of Aeschylus' original work. By using these techniques, O'Neill pulls together the story of The House of Atreus with similar names for his characters, and masks it, modernizes it, adapts it. One concept that remains unmasked is that of the Oedipal and Electra complexes. The Oedipus complex concerns a male child's love for his mother, while the Electra complex is the exact sexual opposite. Throughout the play, Lavinia exhibits a strange attraction to her father; more emotionally involved then most father-daughter relationships. A connection between the two is found in the scene concerning Ezra's death where Lavinia blurts out, "Father! Don't leave me alone! Come back to me! Tell me what to do!"(317). These words express Lavinia's need for guidance from the "only man she could ever truly love" (294). Quite possibly this connection between Lavinia and Ezra was so strong that it continued from beyond the grave. Lavinia and Orin fell subject to this curse, and in attempt to rid themselves of it, left for an extended vacation. Upon their return, Lavinia has transformed into a different person, that person being her mother. Orin immediately picks up on this change and mentions, "I mean the change in your soul, too. I've watched it ever since we sailed for the East. Little by little it grew like Mother's soul-as if you were stealing hers-as if her death had set you free-to become her!"(388). Orin underwent the same change; "Can't you see I'm now in Father's place and you're Mother? That's the evil destiny out of the past I haven't dared predict! I'm the Mannon you're chained to!" (402). Here, Orin captures the essence of the "furies" and their respective tasks: to haunt until death. These furies, the Mannon dead, manifest themselves in Orin and Lavinia, slowly drawing them to complete mental collapse. Orin takes his own life in order to escape his destiny, while Lavinia is left to rot alone within the walls on the Mannon estate, devoid of any human contact. Incorporated within the play are O'Neill's own religious beliefs. He rejected traditional religions, substituting them with a unique concept of mother love. O'Neill believes that mother love is the source of all humans' needs and wants. He views the mother's womb as the point in life where one has no worries or cares, and can live completely free of any burden. O'Neill transfers this concept to paper, creating the Blessed Isles. It is here that Lavinia and Orin ventured attempting to escape the past and begin anew. However, this attempt fails miserably. Orin's connection with Christine is of such potency that he simply could not absolve his intense emotions for her. Orin expresses this love by saying, "No! I swear to you! Mother! Please! Don't cry! I do love you! I do!"(340). O'Neill utilizes this technique to facilitate the motivation behind the number of rash murders and suicides. By characterizing each figure in the play with such passionate emotions, O'Neill is building a foundation that in the end cracks and crumbles beyond repair. O'Neill's paralleling of The House of Atreus bestows upon the reader an understanding of the work, even before turning the first page. As well, through his own religious values, O'Neill conveys a unique message of serenity that can only serve to add to his work. The use of the Oedipal and Electra complexes provides the reader with the basis of Freudian psychology, while at the same time making the reader think back to his or her childhood years. All in all, this play deals out to the reader a slice of human nature. Amongst all the confusion, the hate, the contempt, O'Neill adds a touch of his own creativity to modernize this Ancient Greek tragedy, and make it enjoyable for a new crowd of readers.
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