Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mourning Becomes Electra

I caught the New Group's production of Mourning Becomes Electra last night, & I'll have a review up on Metromix tomorrow. For now, you can read my review of CSC's Uncle Vanya. You'll read me focusing on Maggie Gyllenhaal & her partner Peter Sarsgaard. Well, that's what gets the page-hits. And tomorrow's review of Mourning will also be frothier than I'd like. So here's a few thoughts about Eugene O'Neill's play.

One thing I enjoy about O'Neill is that he defined American drama as intrinsically experimental. Okay, the man's final works (esp. the great Long Day's Journey… & Iceman Cometh) are dramatically conservative. And arguably a lot of his experiments fail (see the '28 Pulitzer-winner Strange Interlude – or rather, don't). But he was always testing new dramatic forms and ideas. He gives me the impression of a man on a quest: “How can I make a truly American tragedy?” Even if he doesn't meet that goal in Mourning (first performed in 1931), what he does succeed at is thrilling.

This may be a great play because of its failures as well as despite them. In Mourning, O'Neill cribs from Greek tragedy, setting Aeschylus's Oresteia in Reconstruction-era New England. An adulterous matriarch murders her husband; in turn she's driven to suicide by her children Orin (who's plagued by a guilty conscience) and Lavinia (who isn't). O'Neill fills that Greek plot out with then-fashionable Freudianism. So when the play sees Orin expressing his desire to fuck Lavinia, it's painfully broad but so heady and fun!

Still, I admire what O'Neill's doing: appropriating Freud's theories to bring his characters as fully to life as he possibly can. I can almost see him striving to make these characters as deep, complex, and contradictory as real humans are. And to his credit, he eventually does. The first 150 minutes are exposition, exploration, and experiment. But slowly, the siblings break away from O'Neill and become autonomous. Not coincidentally, it's around the same time that the action frees itself from the Greek plot (there's no deus ex machina to protect this Orestes).

By the final part (Mourning is a three-part drama of five acts each!), Lavinia is a gorgon, driving first her mother then her brother to suicide, and beginning to corrupt her fiance too. She's a great role, due to this strange power. At her core is an ambiguous experience she has after their parents' deaths. Visiting a South Sea island with Orin, she witnessed an aboriginal ceremony. She later offers a few versions of what happened, including a claim, immediately disavowed, that she screwed one of the natives. She says that the event, whatever it was, emancipated her psyche, a statement that Orin (and, I think, O'Neill) believes and is horrified by. Whatever the actress makes of that moment is the key to her character.

Lavinia is O'Neill's major artistic success in Mourning Becomes Electra. Orin also has his moments though. He's a febrile worm at the mercy of his mother and sister, a bit of reductive Freudianism. But when Orin gets talking about his military service, sounding like a shell-shocked WW1 doughboy, he ironically comes to life. Over his father's bier, he describes his nightmare on the battlefield:

There was a thick mist and it was so still you could hear the fog seeping into the ground. I met a Reb crawling toward our lines. His face drifted out of the mist toward mine. I shortened my sword and let him have the point under the ear. He stared at me with an idiotic look as if he'd sat on a tack--and his eyes dimmed and went out … Before I'd gotten back I had to kill another in the same way. It was like murdering the same man twice. I had a queer feeling that war meant murdering the same man over and over, and that in the end I would discover the man was myself! Their faces keep coming back in dreams—and they change to Father's face—or to mine.

There's more neurosis in that speech than any of the Freudian schema that O'Neill grafts onto Greek tragedy.

But as I said, Mourning Becomes Electra is a failure as a tragedy. O'Neill is too pessimistic to find transcendence through suffering. To him, suffering, like death, is a curse. Lavinia and her mother are villains who deserve their fates; Orin and his father are their victims. And when you see the universe as rigidly moral like that, you're writing a melodrama. That's no knock on O'Neill though: it's great melodrama.

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