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Eugene O'Neill Mourning Becomes Electra
Where Love is No Sin: The Blessed Isles in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra
Proseminararbeit am Amerika-Institut, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
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The motif of the Blessed Isles
Dramatist Eugene O'Neill has absorbed the literary heritage of ancient Greek, modern Europe, and the United States alike. This is apparent in most of his plays. His early experience as a seaman supplies evidence for some other themes in his literary work. The sea and the South Sea Islands are among the wealth of his recurrent motifs. Another common pattern O'Neill uses and varies during his career is the pipe-dream, almost never to come true.
After a short walk through the South Sea in literature and an outlining of O'Neill's literary background this essay will concentrate on Mourning Becomes Electra. Throughout this monumental trilogy Eugene O'Neill has interwoven the Blessed Isles in the South Sea—influenced by Melville's Typee—as the motif of an unattainable pipe-dream. The Blessed Isles show the desire for love, harmony, and sexual freedom of all protagonists in Mourning Becomes Electra. They are the counterpart for puritanism and civilization. But—as will be shown—these islands do not really offer an escape. After the thirteen acts of Mourning Becomes Electra life of the Mannons is near to being destroyed. The acts take place just after the Civil War. The clash between cultures in the South Sea started almost one hundred years before.
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Literary paragons
The myth of the supposed "terra australis incognita" set the sails for the British voyager Samuel Wallis. Starting from Plymouth he landed on the shores of Tahiti in 1767. James Cook landed there for his first time one year later. Ever since the South Sea has been in the dreams of people in the western hemisphere. Consequently the South Sea is a popular theme in literature, too. The islands and its pagan inhabitants got an idealistic treatment by many authors. James Cook left journals of his three voyages and published compilations in various books. Lord Byron created the poem "The Island" in 1823 about the mutiny on the HMS Bounty. [1] The mutiny took place after that ship left Tahiti in 1789. In his poem, Byron described the island as an idyllic paradise. In 1846 a hitherto unknown author released his first book. In Typee Herman Melville told about his own stay on a South Sea island. The book was an immediate success and laid the foundation for Melville's fame. It was Melville's most popular novel during his lifetime and remained so until the rediscovery of Moby Dick.
Robert Louis Stevenson went to the South Sea in 1888 and eventually settled in Samoa. Many of his works take place on South Sea islands. He died on Samoa in 1894.
Jack London left San Francisco in 1906 and sailed via Hawaii to the South Sea. London's goal was the island of Melville's Typee. For nearly a year he stayed in the South Sea and travelled the Typee valley. Always in need of money, he wrote many novels about his time there and a volume of short stories, published as South Sea Tales in 1912. Of course, Jack London is to be found in the upcoming lists of O'Neill's reading.
Of all American authors Eugene O'Neill was mostly influenced by Melville. Both authors had similar experiences as sailors in their young days. Only weeks after his first marriage Eugene O'Neill fled from his pregnant wife Kathleen and spent his twenty-first birthday on the Pacific. More years on ships followed.
In Long Day's Journey into Night Edmund Tyrone's bookcase represents what O'Neill was reading.
Against the wall between the doorways is a small bookcase, with a picture of Shakespeare above it, containing novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Sterner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest, Dowson, Kipling, etc. (Schunck 8-9) [2]
Egil Törnquist remarks that a more authentic selection concerning O'Neill's readings in the above bookcase would have included London and Conrad instead of Marx, Engels, and Kropotkin (Törnquist 18).
Stephen A. Black gives a thorough account of O'Neill's readings in his adolescent years including Marx and Engels in first place.
Besides Shaw, he was reading Marx and Engels. He read the poems of Dowson, FitzGerald, Swinburne, Baudelaire, and Wilde. He read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky, Conrad, and London. Probably Conrad or London led him to Melville, decades before the author of Typee, Ommoo, and Moby-Dick would be rediscovered by scholars and publishers. Through Shaw he found Ibsen and heard of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner. (87) [3]
An even more precise list is found in Appendix I "O'Neill's literary biography" of Jean Chothia's Forging a Language (198-206). According to this list O'Neill had his first acquaintance with the Greek drama—another of his major sources for Mourning Becomes Electra—at his stay at the Gaylord Sanatorium in 1912. He was taught Latin and French in school but no Greek. In the mid 1920s he tried to learn Greek enough to read the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles (Black 83).
If O'Neill ever read the very successful novel The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham, published in 1919, can only be speculated about. Eugene O'Neill was a very avid theater-goer. About 1919 the plays of Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy were very popular in New York (Watermeier 41). But for instance Lady Frederick by Maugham hit the theaters of New York as early as in 1908 (Calder 101) and was put into an American movie the first time in 1918 as The Divorcée. Maugham travelled the South Sea in 1916 and was very fond of this exciting region. It became a common setting for his short stories. Especially the European fugitive, bored with civilization, caught his literary attention. In The Moon and Sixpence the protagonist Charles Strickland leaves his wife and children, abandons a good stock-market job in London, goes to Paris and Marseille and is found later on the isle of Tahiti in the South Sea. It is of course a lively portrait of the famous painter Paul Gauguin. In Europe—so Maugham—education and culture mask the natural personality. Only an escape unmasks the original traits of human nature (Calder 139). The mask of personality is also a frequent motif used by O'Neill. He planned for the actors in Mourning Becomes Electra to appear with masks. Later on he dropped this idea.
At least, Scott F. Fitzgerald was well aware of the influence of Joseph Conrad on both, O'Neill and Maugham. He writes in a letter to H. L. Mecken, an American journalist and critic in 1925:
By the way, you mention in your review of Sea Horses that Conrad had only two imitators. How about, O'Neill in The Emperor Jones (Heart of Darkness) Hergesheimer in Bright Shawl (Java Head) Me in Gatsby (God I've learned a lot from him) Maugham in The Moon and Sixpence (You mentioned it in your own review, five years ago). But his (Conrad's) approach and his prose is naturally more imitated than his material, tho' he did send at least Masefield and O'Neill to sea in ships. (qtd. in Chothia 44)
Maugham was personally acquainted with Eugene O'Neill. At the end of 1935 he spent a few days with O'Neill in Casa Genotta, on Sea Island, off the shore of Georgia (Calder 247). Again at the beginning of 1939 he visited the O'Neills in the Tao House, Danville, thirty-five miles from San Francisco (Calder 264). Even so, on the list of literature read by O'Neill (Chothia 198-206) William Somerset Maugham is not mentioned.
Herman Melville, however, is read by O'Neill—according to this list—already in his school-days. Melville's first novel Typee was published in 1846 and made him famous immediately. Typee or a Peep at Polynesian Life, the complete title, and Typee. A Real Romance of the South Seas, the complete title of a later edition, emphasize the realistic relevance. Indeed, Melville had been on one of the Marquesas-Islands in 1842. Typee tells the story about the stay of the narrator and his comrad Toby Greene among a cannibal tribe in a valley of a South Sea island. During the three months' adventure the narrator gets acquainted with Fayaway, a young native girl. The description of life upon the island is enriched with many anthropological details. Of all literary influences only Melville's Typee is discussed in an Eugene O'Neill play, namely in "The Hunted," the second play of the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra. Orin asks his mother Christine: "Have you ever read a book called 'Typee'—about the South Sea Islands?" Christine has not and Orin confesses that he had read and reread it during the war (O’Neill 443).
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The Blessed Isles as a pipe-dream
The motif of an island is by no means new to O'Neill's plays. He used many motifs repeatedly in his many plays before Mourning Becomes Electra and also in the coming great dramas; death, incest, heredity from generation to generation, allusions to colors, day and night cycles, sunsets and twilights, the moon, the fog, the sea, and islands are but a few. Mourning Becomes Electra abounds from motifs of Greek myth and Freudian psychology. The mention of Typee and the Blessed Isles in the South Sea often escapes the attention. The manifold of actions and ideas in this drama tend to diminish the importance of the motif of the Blessed Isles. But all major protagonists of Mourning Becomes Electra—as will be shown in this essay—are entangled with the Blessed Isles. The islands function as an important antipode to puritanism and civilization.
The traditional song "Oh, Shenandoah" is a kind of leitmotif throughout the trilogy. It declares that the singer is bound away across the wide Missouri. This reminds the people in the Mannon house in New England of the connection with the South Sea where there is warmth and peace.
All protagonists in Mourning Becomes Electra share a strong desire for peace, love, and harmony. The South Sea islands promise just that. In the first mentioning of an island Peter alludes it with romantic experience and Lavinia associates the trade of a seaman with being romantic (379).
Adam Brant, captain of the clipper Flying Trades, had told Lavinia of the Blessed Isles before the beginning of the play. They talk about them once more in the very first act (385). Besides the naked native women Lavinia remembers from their former talk: "You said they had found the secret of happiness because they never heard that love can be a sin." (385). Adam confirms "You can forget there all men's dirty dreams of greed and power!" (385). Whenever he thinks of these islands, Adam remembers his moonlight walk with Lavinia (385). He thinks of them "as near the Garden of Paradise before sin was discovered as you'll find on this earth!" (385).
Orin also associates with the island a woman. He even humanizes the island. Reading Typee during the war over and over again he dreamed of peace, warmth, and security. He dreamed he was there and compared the island with his mother Christine. "The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was like your skin. The whole island was you" (443).
Christine has heard about the islands twice before from Adam and Ezra. Gradually she starts liking this idea. In a scene with Orin she still has doubts and asks: "Islands! Where there is peace?" (443). But later in "The Hunted" she is infected and convinced that the islands offer a solution. She promises Adam: "And we will be happy—once we're safe on your Blessed Islands!" (460).
After coming back from the voyage into the South Sea Lavinia is enthusiastic about the Blessed Isles. She had felt a good spirit of love and she had forgotten about death (493). Usually O'Neill associates something cold or even death with the moonlight. But on the island Lavinia felt "the warm earth in the moonlight" (493). Exactly the same words Adam used in describing the Blessed Isles for Christine (461). Hoffmann sees in this scene dramatic irony because both Adam and Christine die in the moonlight (Hoffmann 69).
Surprisingly, Ezra proposes a voyage to an island, too. Obviously he and Christine failed to talk about their relationship in the past. Now, as Ezra comes home from war, their marriage being demolished, his proposal to find some island comes too late (O’Neill 411). A week earlier Adam made a similar proposal to Christine: to travel to the South Pacific Islands, because "there's the right place for love and a honeymoon!" (398). For this dream to come true they decided to murder Ezra.
As Ephraim Cabot in Desire under the Elms Ezra Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra represents puritanism, where love is considered sinful. The recurrent words in the play are justice, guilt, death, and sin. The puritan sense of guilt turns love to sin and finally to sexual frustration. At the end of the play Orin realizes: "The only love I can know now is the love of guilt for guilt which breeds more guilt..." (505). For the powerful Ezra life was dying and being born was the beginning of dying. After the war he wants to change this. "I've had my fill of death" (406). But it is too late.
The antipodes to New England and its rigid puritanism are the South Sea and the Blessed Isles. They offer freedom and uninhibited sexuality. However—Melville wrote nothing to conclude uninhibited sexuality in Typee. The repeatedly used words for the islands in O'Neill's trilogy are love, peace, purity, and innocence. Between the second and third play of the trilogy Lavinia and Orin had a one month stay on a South Pacific island. Orin left his "morbid spells" on the island (489) and Lavinia confesses dreamily: "I loved those Islands. They finished setting me free" (493).
The contrast between civilization and nature is exemplified by the contrast between land on the one side and sea and the islands on the other. Raleigh describes this contrast very explicitly: "Throughout the trilogy the sea is always 'the other', the place of freedom and beauty, opposed to the dark, prison-like existence of nineteenth-century New England Puritanism" (20). Raleigh continues "land meant the bloody Civil War, Lincoln's assassination, the nosy, gossipy neighbors of the Mannons, and, above all, the Mannon household and the Mannons themselves: doomed, cruel, puritanical, constricted, dark, sin-ridden, murderous, and suicidal" (23). The relationship of the Mannons with civilization is almost overstressed with Ezra's four professions. He has been in the shipping business, has been a judge, got elected as mayor, and is now a General of the Confederate Army. In all fields he has been very able and successful.
Civilization masks the true nature of people. They don't act naturally anymore. In O'Neill's stage instructions he often refers to the mask-like impressions of the acting people. On the Blessed Isles there are no masks; all is natural. Adam Brant accentuates the paradise-like nature of the Blesses Isles. "The warm earth in the moonlight, the trade winds rustling the coco palms, the surf on the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby!" (461). Herman Melville describes in Typee the Marquesas islands with similar words:
Naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoa-nut—coral reefs—tatooed chiefs—and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit-trees—carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters—savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—heathenish rites and human sacrifices. (4)
Altogether Melville concludes that the Polynesian savage enjoys a happier life than the self-complacent European (180).
Melville is very critical of the invasion of civilization on the islands.
Let the savages be civilised, but civilise them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilisation is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time the shrinking forms of its unhappy worshippers. (288)
As Typee was published in 1846, first in Great Britain and shortly after in New York, this criticism of the conquest of North America sounds rather harsh and bold. In fact, Harpers, New York, Melville’s American publishers, censored some attacks on imperialism and missionaries of the narration (Lauter 2399).
The Blessed Isles symbolize not only harmony and nature but also give hope for violation of taboos. Sigmund Freud, whose books on the primacy of sex influenced O'Neill's dramas significantly (Tuck 196), gives a thorough account of taboos and incest on the Polynesian isles in Totem und Tabu. The word "taboo" is of Polynesian origin (Freud 25). Melville describes many strange taboos he experiences in the valley on the island, but, nevertheless, the inhabitants perform a more uninhibited life compared with the one in New England. The taboos the Mannons are confined to are of puritanical origin and on an incestuous level.
The puritanical rigid and sinful sexuality gives way for an unknown freedom on the Blessed Isles. There is eternal sunshine and there love is no sin. Lavinia tells Peter about the natives dancing naked and innocent, with no knowledge of sin. She wants to feel the same with him: "Oh, Peter, hold me close to you! I want to feel love! Love is all beautiful! I never used to know that!" (493).
After reading the Greek dramas and works by Sigmund Freud O'Neill doesn't refrain from throwing in some incestuous relations. Orin loves Christine and Lavinia. He compares the islands to his mother and confesses his strange dreams (443). After his stay in the South Sea with Lavinia he envies her for the pleasures she had. He got jealous: "I had to get you away from the Islands. My brotherly duty! If you stayed there much longer—" (489). Puritanism triumphs in the end.
Adam Brant is a remote relative to Christine and Lavinia. Both are in love with him, so there is at the least an incestuous touch in their relationship. But their dreams of an escape to the Blessed Isles to overcome the taboos never realize.
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No escape possible
The retreat to the South Sea does not last. For most of the Mannons it never comes true. For Lavinia and Orin it is only a temporarily affair. As a substitution Lavinia proposes to Peter to make an island for themselves on land. But immediately she recognizes this cannot be possible (494). Orin resigns, too. The only way out of guilt for him is death: "Death is an Island of Peace, too" (509).
B. S. Field Jr. states that the characters in Mourning Becomes Electra reject the freedom and happiness they are looking for in faraway places in favor of life in New England. His only witness is Ephraim Cabot from Desire under the Elms, who gives up a farm in Iowa (Field 193). Granted, Christine and Orin commit suicide, but only to escape some other punishment, as Lavinia observes: "I'm not going the way Mother and Orin went. That's escaping punishment" (518). In Mourning Becomes Electra O'Neill shows that fate is inescapable. Always something stands between the pipe-dream of the Blessed Isles and reality. To make the dream come true people become guilty. Christine uses the dream for love on an island to convince Adam to murder Ezra. She tells him that their dream can become reality (398). They murder Ezra but nevertheless, their dreams vanish.
Susan Tuck states that O'Neill showed that the past is inescapable. It is a web that traps generation after generation. In this point of view Tuck compares Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! with Mourning Becomes Electra (204).
At the end of the Mannon dynasty there are two murders: Ezra and Adam and two suicides: Christine and Orin. The reader can decide where to place Lavinia's decision. There is no escape.
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Further investigations
O'Neill never hesitates to take motifs from other authors. But as with Electra he modified Melville's description of the Marquesas island in Typee. Melville only shows one viewpoint. Events are filtered through the narrator's consciousness. O'Neill shows various viewpoints, in fact, every Mannon picks up the pipe-dream, uses it, and modifies it. He presents us an exploded angle of vision (Maufort 93).
By illuminating the significance of the South Seas Islands from divergent perspectives, he indicates that they can only exist in the imagination of the protagonists and represent mere pipe-dreams, inefficient to liberate man from pressure of Puritanism. (Maufort 89)
O'Neill shows an immense range of views, for example in use of colors. For the tribe of the Typee colors also are important. This comparison leaves a field for further investigations in the influence of Typee on Mourning Becomes Electra. Another interesting area for further analysis—more concerning Typee than Mourning Becomes Electra—is the parallelism between the discovery and following conquest of North America and the Polynesian islands.
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Works Cited
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O'Neill. Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.
Byron, Lord. "The Island". The Complete Poetical Works. Volume VII. Edited by Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993. 26-74.
Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Mandarin, 1990.
Chothia, Jean. Forging a Language. A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1979.
Field, B. S. Jr. "Concrete Images of the Vague in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill." Martine. 188-196.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem und Tabu. Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1962.
Hoffmann, Gerhard . "O'Neill - Mourning Becomes Electra". Das amerikanische Drama. Goetsch, Paul, Hg., Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1974. 50-85.
Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Volume 1. Boston: Mifflin, 1998.
Manheim, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Martine, James J., ed. Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill. Boston: Hall, 1984.
Maufort, Marc, ed. Eugene O'Neill and the Emergence of American Drama. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.
Melville, Herman. Typee. A Real Romance of the South Seas. Boston: Page, 1950.
O'Neill, Eugene. Mourning Becomes Electra. Selected Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 363-518.
Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois UP, 1965.
Schunck, Ferdinand, ed. Eugene O'Neill. Long Day's Journey into Night. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1989.
Törnqvist, Egil. "O'Neill's philosophical and literary paragons". Manheim, ed. 18-32.
Tuck, Susan. "The O'Neill-Faulkner Connection." Martine. 196-206.
Watermeier, Daniel J. "O'Neill and the Theatre of his Time". Manheim, ed. 33-50.
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[1] John Byron, Grandfather to Lord Byron, sailed with two ships via the Atlantic to the waters of the South Sea in 1764-1766.
[2] „Max Sterner“ is of course Max Stirner, a German philosopher.
[3] „FitzGerald“ should be Fitzgerald, the well-known American writer.
O'Neill Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness [Herz der Finsternis]
Maugham William Somerset Maugham
O'Neill Herman Melville
O'Neill Robinsonaden. Kleine Auswahl zur Robinsonliteratur
O'Neill Oh, Shenandoah
O'Neill Anfang

Eugene O'Neill Mourning Becomes Electra
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© by Herbert Huber, Am Fröschlanger 15, 83512 Wasserburg, Germany, 27.7.2002