Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

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6 responses to this post.

  1. A recent review of an O’Neill biography in the NY Review of Books called him one of literature’s greatest bad writers, or something like that. The author argued that the bad plays were an essential part of the creative process that produced the good ones. I was convinced. But it did not make me want to read the bad plays!

    Reply

    • If this is true of O’Neill – i.e. that his creative process was such that he needed to write plays like Mourning Becomes Electra in order to write Long Day’s Journey Into Night – then that makes him, I think, more or less unique: I cannot off the top of my head any other author who needed to write bad works I order to write a great one. But then again, not being blessed myself with creativity, I have no idea how creative minds work. No doubt each creative mind is as different from each other as are non-creative minds!

      Reply

  2. Here it is: Fintan O’Toole, “Our Worst Great Playwright.” Unfortunately mostly paywalled, but the bit available is good. The excerpt from Days Without End, written a couple of years after Mourning, is magnificently wretched.

    O’Neill does not seem at all unique to me. He is a classic example of the writer who has to write to know what he is writing. He is thus like Dickens, James, and many others, although kind of an extreme case in the badness of what he declared finished. But like them, he fixes problems not in the work on the paper in front of him, but in the next thing he writes.

    Did you think I meant that he, I don’t know, had to write two plays he knew were bad in order to be able, psychologically, to write a good one? No, neither I nor O’Toole meant that. The bad and the good are all coming from the same place, is what he and I meant. They are all part of how O’Neill worked out his ideas.

    Reply

    • Oh, I see what you mean. But it must be conceded, though, that O’Neill’s good to crap ratio isn’t that high.

      I’d guess he really just one very great work in him, and everything else is really in preparation for that great work. He didn’t allow publication or performance of that work within his own lifetime: no doubt he felt it was too personal; but significantly, he didn’t destroy the manuscript either. He must have known it’s value.

      But yes, Long Days Journey & Mourning very probably did, indeed, as you say, come from the same place.

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  3. I saw The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey performing brilliantly in the lead role. It was an extraordinary moment of theatre with a solid cast throughout. Based on that production I would call it a great work, though whether it is such when simply on the page I leave to others. I’ve seen other O’Neill since and am something of a fan.

    I’ve never read him though. The plays need to be staged, acted, spoken. Without that they are just the seed of an artwork. The work itself lives only a while on the stage.

    Reply

    • Hello Max, I haven’t seen The Iceman Cometh, but I have a DVD of a quite superb production from the early ’70s directed by John Frankenheimer, and featuring Robert Ryan, Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Jeff Bridges. However, I admired the play even before I saw this, and I share your admiration for the play.

      Similarly with Long Day’s Journey Into Night: I read it before seeing it, and the reading moved me to tears. Any shortlist I may produce of works of literature that have meant the most to me over the years would certainly include Long Day’s Journey Into Night. (Indeed, I included it here.)

      I am a great fan of reading plays. Once you have some experience of reading plays, and have developed the ability to perform it, as it were, in the internal theatre of your mind, then the reading of a play can be as powerful an experience as seeing it. (A different experience, naturally, but equally powerful, and equally valid. There are a great many plays I have admired before seeing it. Indeed, there are some plays I admire greatly that I haven’t seen at all. In short, I have never bought into the mantra of “A play is to be seen, not read”: to me, a play is to be seen and read.

      On Mourning Becomes Electra, I can, of course, only really report on my experience of reading it, and – unlike the experience of reading The Iceman Cometh or Long Day’s Journey Into Night – that experience wasn’t impressive. No doubt a good performance can infuse the thing with theatricality and vigour, but I don’t think it can impart depth or poetic resonance where there isn’t any in the text.

      Reply

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