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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Arts & Letters


Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Howard Davies, with Eve Best, Paul Hilton, Paul McGann, Helen Mirren, and Tim Pigott-Smith, Lyttleton Theatre at the Royal National Theatre, November 17, 2003-January 31, 2004.

Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra was given a triumphant production at the Lyttleton Theatre in London’s National Theatre complex, where it closed yesterday. While it doesn’t equal O’Neill’s later Long Day’s Journey Into Night (produced after his death in 1953 and against his expressed last wishes), Mourning was certainly the basis for the playwright’s Nobel Prize, awarded in 1936, five years after the play opened on October 26, 1931.

The play is creaky in so many ways, its language stiff and clumsy, yet the present production easily holds its audience through four and a half hours of performance and two intermissions. While Long Day’s Journey ranks in the general critical consensus with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire as one of the great American tragic dramas, O’Neill’s earlier plays reveal his self-conscious efforts at trying out the model of ancient Athenian tragic drama. O’Neill — whose childhood and early adulthood were shattered and riven by the horrors of death, alcoholism, drug addiction, and separations — possibly looked to the ancient model to make sense of his own experience; this is the argument of Stephen A. Black, whose psychiatrically oriented biography of O’Neill has interesting things to say about the healing and maturing process of mourning. In any case, there is an urge in most playwrights of the Western world that sets them to try out ancient Athenian drama. Desire Under the Elms (1924) is O’Neill’s American version of Euripides’ Hippolytus. Mourning Becomes Electra is his Oresteia, with considerable additions from the Sophoclean and Euripidean versions of the story. Setting the action of Mourning in the aftermath of the Civil War, O’Neill brilliantly plays to the Greeks’ fascination with the Trojan War, from which so much later action in their myth cycles springs.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy dramatizes events in Argos after the leader of the Greek forces, King Agamemnon, returns home from victory over the Trojans and is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been sleeping during Agamemnon’s absence with his cousin, Aegisthus. In the previous generation, Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) was cuckolded by his brother, Thyestes; in revenge, Atreus killed and barbecued Thyestes’ children, and served them up to the unsuspecting father (the well-known “Banquet of Thyestes”). Baby Aegisthus escaped the butcher’s knife, to grow up as an instrument of revenge, fate’s way of restoring the balance. Years after Aegisthus’ seduction of Clytemnestra and their murder of Agamemnon, the dead king’s son, Orestes, who had been spirited away as a baby when his mother’s yen for Aegisthus became too threateningly apparent to loyal palace retainers, returns from exile and, egged on by his sister, Electra — whose jealousy of her mother has turned to murderous rage — kills the adulterous pair. The murder of his mother drives the son mad.

No, this is not a pilot for a show to replace Dynasty; it just seems that familiar. And maybe that is because in some way or another it is everyone’s family memory. Nowadays, when the phrase “family values” is a staple of every politician’s discourse — though no one can define it beyond an unconscious nod to the vague image of Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver — it’s worth remembering that the ancient Athenian dramatists found the material for their most enduring tragedies in the fundamental horror which is the family. Yet the Greeks knew perfectly well the value of the family: it was an institution designed to create and raise a new generation of humans who would tend crops on the land, protect it from intruders, and care for the increasingly enfeebled previous generation. Personal choice was not to interfere in the strenuous arrangements to secure these goals. Patriarchal control left junior males with minimal power, females with almost none, slaves with still less; female virginity was guarded, marriage was arranged, divorce was impossible. Personal happiness was not a concern; security and prosperity were the values to which the family catered. Because the ownership of land resided in the extended family, and building materials made housing less generous, people lived in a proximity unimaginable to the contemporary American suburban nuclear family. It was an arena in which power struggles and sexual desire created whirlwinds of emotion, sometimes if only imagined in a child’s observation of his seniors. The family existed before city or state came into being; living outside of it was unthinkable. The family then was a stark necessity and, as such, inherently tragic precisely because there were no alternatives to it. No wonder the ancient Athenian dramatists were drawn to family narratives, such as the history of the House of Atreus, to illustrate the inevitability of human affairs.

From this story, O’Neill created a New England family, the Mannons, whose fortunes not only mimic the Aeschylean exemplar but also reflect some of the horrible events in the playwright’s own life. For the tragic inevitability of the ancient divine order, O’Neill turned to Freudian theory, which had established the predictable and thus inescapable process of human psychic growth and development. The tragedy of the Mannon family (and one has to somehow imagine the O’Neill family as well) is that this development is arrested. In Mourning Becomes Electra, Christine Mannon murders her husband, Ezra, when he returns from the war because she has fallen in love with his cousin, Adam Brant. The cousin, a ship captain, uses this adulterous relationship to avenge the Mannon family’s cruel treatment of his mother, formerly a French Canadian servant in the Mannon household, whose affair with Ezra’s uncle caused him to be cast out. So much for the generation of Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Aegisthus. Lavinia Mannon, whose excessive love for her father has always made her hate her mother, discovers the murder and determines to avenge her father. She enlists the aid of her brother, Orin, who is at first reluctant because of his own excessive love of their mother. In this, the most heavy-handed part of the play, Lavinia plays out being Electra, Orin Oedipus. O’Neill’s brilliant invention is to end the play with the eruption of sexuality and sexual jealousy in this younger generation, culminating in Lavinia’s heated insistence on an incestuous relationship with her brother. In one stroke, the underlying truth of the ancient Electra-Oedipus relationship is revealed, as well as the desperate idea that families bearing so ugly a legacy should commit the suicide of intermarriage rather than spread their genes further into the population. It’s a great concept.

The set designer, Bob Crowley, whose numerous Tony nominations stand alongside his Tony Award for Carousel at New York City’s Lincoln Center, has made unusual choices. O’Neill indicated in the script that the Mannon house should be a Greek revival mansion with a large central porch supported by columns. He was clearly alluding to the palace of ancient Greek tragic theater, before which the action of the royals — always the royals in ancient tragedy, the only people to have a public life — took place, witnessed by the chorus that functioned as a kind of representation of the general public. Crowley has created the facade of a grand mansion, and it runs the entire (audience’s) right side of the stage. A porch, punctuated by massive columns, sweeps to the back of the stage, receding slantwise to audience-right in an exaggerated perspective — growing smaller and smaller even as its ceiling descends to some imagined vanishing-point. The porch-front extends to the apron and covers more than half the forward stage. A few pieces of wicker furniture on it indicate that it is meant for the family’s living arrangements, while the exaggerated scale of the porch reflects the looming presence of the Mannon family’s devastating history.

Details add political perspective to the drama. The space opened up by the exaggerated narrowing of the porch is given over to a group of miniature structures, a kind of three-dimensional scene from one of Mathew Brady’s most famous Civil War photographs, that of a city destroyed by General Sherman on his march to the sea. The porch’s ceiling is covered with an immense, frayed, mid-nineteenth-century American flag. The caretaker on the Mannon estate and some of his buddies from the town are African Americans, men born free or fugitives from the slaveowning states of the South. What did O’Neill make of the Civil War in this play?

General Ezra Mannon, the Agamemnon figure, is returning from a command position in the Union army. As we are told, he and his family are the wealthiest figures in the town, engaged in commerce — shipping — for two generations (shipping in New England was as respectable an “aristocratic” activity as farming). Ezra has also taken up law, gone into politics, and was a judge before he went to war. The two halves of the stage seem to express the power of the North — commercial, military, and political — over the other half of the country, now lying stunted in ruins. The columns, the flag, and General Mannon (arriving on a late train) in his uniform, complete with the ceremonial saber at his thigh, perhaps suggest the imperial victorious North, perhaps represent the inherently dangerous hubris, the overwhelming sense of prosperity, success, and ambitious capability that leaves mortals so vulnerable to the accidents of choice and goals. Mannon’s son, Orin, who eventually dominates the action in the latter half of this trilogy, comes home wounded, still shocked by the horrors he has encountered in battle. O’Neill began to write this play just under seventy years after the war, which was the single most devastating event in American history. People at the time could still sing out confidently, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/He is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored,” and O’Neill’s play tells the price to be paid for that zeal.

The set is a clever use of materials: the house facade can be moved forward into the center of the stage, to the long receding edge of the porch, so as to create one or more rooms for the interior scenes; and the flag-draped ceiling can be partially lowered to create a ship’s deck with a cabin underneath, for the one act that takes place on Adam Brant’s ship. What is lost, however, is the formal stage of the porch seen head-on, which, together with O’Neill’s frequent references to mask-like facial expressions, would better indicate the archetypal, quasi-ritualistic, formal behavior of the characters as they act out what they believe are individualized behaviors. Ancient Greek tragic characters imagined they were proceeding from personal design and ambition until they realized that, all along, it was destiny and the gods that brought them to their doom. (“Now I understand” is an often-heard line in ancient tragedy.) Here, Freudian psychology and anthropology are the inevitable forces that bring these people to their tragic doom.

The director, Howard Davies, has assembled a strong cast for this difficult play. O’Neill experimented with the idea of masked actors to convey the monumental aspect of ancient tragic theater; he tried writing dialogue in an exalted, artificial style to evoke the special tragic diction the Athenian playwrights had created. He eventually discarded these strategies, insisting instead in his copious stage directions on something of the ancient theater’s formality by calling upon the actors to project a sense of the mask through the composure of their features and movements. O’Neill proceeded to write in what he thought was an easy, unpretentious style; this comes out, as critics often remark, as dull, wooden, banal — ineptly slangy. It is the miracle of this cast that their emotional intensity, their honesty, lifts the language off the page, driving it with such force into their audiences that the hours go by unnoticed. Occasionally the heavy, and thus tragic, irony O’Neill writes into the lines will cause a contemporary audience to laugh, habituated as it is by laughtracks on television to think there must be something funny in everything. This has long marred audience response in the States, and it now seems to be infecting the British. No doubt there will be giggles and laughs at Oberammergau before too long.

For an American audience, the remarkable mélange of dialects spoken by the actors is unsettling. These things are always problematic, and English audiences routinely and rightly laugh at American actors attempting to sound English. It is extraordinary, however, that Joan Washington, the dialect coach, was unable to discipline the cast’s speaking of the American language(s). One wonders why there is no dialect rehearsal, similar to a tech rehearsal, wherein a chosen audience of Americans can listen to and criticize English actors. As it is, Helen Mirren sounded like a cross between Olympia Dukakis in Tales of the City and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. Eve Best, by contrast, could not get her mouth to utter a single flat American vowel and otherwise sank into something like Southern gentility; as a result, she sounded like a pretentious social-climber from South Boston’s Irish immigrant ghetto. I guess once those two women got out onto that giant porch they thought they were back at Tara.

As Adam Brant, Paul McGann had the most consistent accent, seemingly having modeled himself on the speaking manner of John F. Kennedy. Tim Pigott-Smith (as Ezra Mannon) alone of the principal players sounded like what he was meant to be, an upper-class, small-town, New Englander. Mirren and McGann brought great depths of emotion to their parts, she hard in her hatred of her oppressive husband, fearful of losing her lover, desperate to establish her emotional rights as a woman to gain her disapproving daughter’s understanding, and finally loving and empathetic as she commiserated with Brant over the prospective loss of his ship. He, in turn, so proud that his adulterous relationship with Christine would avenge the family’s cruel treatment of his mother, when confronted with the loss of his career as ship captain, dropped his exultant mask to insist that loving and living with Christine was the just price for whatever he had to give up.

As Lavinia, Eve Best — whose three roles in Tom Stoppard’s Voyage To Utopia two seasons back established her as a rising young star at the National — had the difficult task of transforming what O’Neill presented as her Freudian-like Electra complex into something credible, and found it in a kind of infantilism that was eventually dispelled when she determined at the end to live alone in the house with the ghosts of her family, learning, as it were, how to mourn, and thus get beyond being a child. Similarly, Paul Hilton as Orin Mannon had to convey the intense sexual excitement that O’Neill’s notion of the Freudian Oedipus-complex created for the young man, and to do this without Orin seeming to be a nut case; eventually Orin goes mad, and Hilton makes him a casualty of war, not neuroses.

Freudian theory having fallen by the boards in the twenty-first century, these two actors had the hardest time making their characters credible. Where they succeeded brilliantly was at the very end, when Lavinia and Orin argue over sexual freedom and she offers herself to him as the final and logical act of destruction in this family. He, cowardly in his need to repress such desires, chooses suicide. Lavinia, the last great hero, chooses life in isolation, grieving — and, one hopes, eventually freeing herself from the family’s demons.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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