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Mourning Becomes Electra

O’Neill is a voluminous writer who has left behind him a large body of One-Act plays, as well as a large number of full length plays. Of his longer plays, Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, are the greatest.

When O’Neill took to writing plays, the American drama was sickly, suffering from the disease of romance, sentimentality and melodrama. Much that is commonplace and melodramatic persists in his later plays, but from the first, his plays reveal better and truer understanding of man and his life. From the beginning he saw life, “as something not to be neatly arranged in a study, but as terrifying, magnificent and often quite horrible, a thing akin to a tornado, an earthquake, or a devastating fire. ” (Lewis, 142)

Throughout his career, from the very beginning to the end, realism, fidelity to human life and nature, was O’Neill’s concern, and he uses asides, masks, symbolism, expressionism, and other techniques, generally considered poetic, to convey his own understanding of life to his audience. Fidelity to the truth of human nature and life is the basis of O’Neill’s dramatic art, and ever changing techniques are used to communicate these truths. The themes, the setting, the characters and the language of his early plays are realistic. In his early plays we find a realistic representation of the sea-life and sea-characters.

He had himself been a sailor and his representation of sailors and sea-life derives force and reality from his personal experiences. In the early plays like Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Straw, The Web, etc. , the features of his characters have been realistically described and even their intonation, their peculiar ways of expressing themselves, can be heard and distinguished. The language they use is the typical language of sea-men. O’Neill was a tireless experimenter, ever seeking new techniques of expression and communication. He began as a realist, but soon he fused realism with symbolic and suggestive modes.

In order to communicate inner reality he used expressionistic techniques. He also used such poetic devices as aside, soliloquy, mask, etc. , with the same end in view. In his later plays, he used myth and legend and resorted to epic-dimensions in order to convey the sense of overhanging fate driving men to their doom. He always showed splendid artistic courage. He dared to try to do new things, and to do old things in new ways, and in this way greatly widened the scope and range of the American theatre. The openings of O’Neill’s plays are superb.

Every opening scene of O’Neill appeals primarily to the sense of hearing, but hearing is aided and intensified by visual imagery. Instead of opening his scenes with a conversation which is likely to be mixed by the spectators, who have not yet settled down and who are constantly disturbed by latecomers, he begins with some form of pantomime that is vital to the story, symbolic of the theme, and impressive in itself. This technique, combines action and interpretation, at the same time unifying and interesting the audience while it wastes no time in starting the serious business of revealing the theme of the play.

The Emperor Jones is an apt example for the above mentioned feature. Typical of O’Neill’s opening technique is the use of song and music to accompany the pantomime. This is very effectively used in such plays as The Moon of the Caribbees, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and Mourning Becomes Electra. In the last two, particularly, it serves a double purpose, of drawing the attention of the audience and, at the same tome, of lending the atmosphere that is appropriate to the play. An important aspect of O’Neill’s technique is his conscious and studied use of symbolism.

It is done with care and designed to extend the scope and meaning of the play beyond the limited boundary of straightforward realism. Moreover, this technique enables him to suggest the deeper reality and the profounder significance of his theme. It imparts depth and richness of texture to his plays. In Beyond the Horizon, he alternates the scenes – one inside and one outside scene for each act – by this device suggesting the conflict between the fixed prison and the yearning for freedom.

In his Fog, “the use of the fog as symbolic of a state of mind that is rather trite, but serves to indicate that impatient and passionate quality of O’Neill’s imagination which has made it possible for him to push his play out beyond the limitation of the boards on which it is acted. ”(Winther, 87) At other times he uses certain aspects of nature, as in Anna Christie, where “dat ole devil, sea” in combination, at times, with the fog, lending a symbolic meaning to the play. Another example is All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Here he definitely violates strict realism in order to give immediate symbolic meaning to his play.

When the curtains part the scene revealed is of three narrow streets that converge, suggesting the struggle of race conflicts that were centered in this little corner of the world. In The Great God Brown O’Neill’s symbolism took the form of masks, a technique that was pushed to its utmost limits in Lazarus Laughed. In this play the masks are made to bear a heavy load, for each individual mask represents both age and quality. He uses poetic devices as asides and soliloquies to impart psychological realism to his play, to portray effectively the soul of his characters.

It has been most effectively used in The Strange Interlude and Dynamo. It is for him a kind of symbolism which enlarges the scope of the play. In Mourning Becomes Electra, he has used myth and legend as symbols to give a broad and universal significance to his theme, to make the particular dramatization of the human predicament general. All O’Neill’s plays are great tragedies but they are not tragedies of the conventional sort. Their themes and subject matter may be the same, but their form is different.

They are modern tragedies which strike at the very root of the sickness of the present day. The different causes of tragedies dealt with by him include loss of religious faith (The Hairy Ape), impersonal or mechanical nature of modern life (Anna Christie, Dynamo, Mourning Becomes Electra), romantic illusions (Iceman Cometh, Strange Interlude) and social environment (Beyond the Horizon, Desire Under the Elms). O’Neill’s tragic heroes are neither kings nor princes, nor great military generals. They are all ordinary men and women, suffering and down-trodden.

Yank is a stocker, Brutus Jones is a poor negro, and the people who frequent Harry hope’s bar are pimps, prostitutes, bankrupts, bartenders, etc. his characters are ineffectual egotists, whining for opportunities they are incapable of using. As regarding his pessimism, “O’Neill is not concerned about man’s ultimate destiny; he is not disturbed by the fact that man and all his works may some day drift into the darkness of space, a frozen and unseen monument to the vagaries of the creative process. His pessimism is of man in this world in which he must live and justify himself, if life is to have a meaning.

” (Winther, 103) He repeatedly suggests that if man wants to be happy in this life, he must reconcile himself to his limitations. He is against all kinds of escape from the reality of life. In one play after another, he exposes the destructive possibilities of he romantic ideal. Man moves across the stage of an O’Neill play not as a free and detached individual, not merely as an individual in relation to a few characters who are associated with him in the immediate drama which makes the play, but treats man against a rich background of social forces.

In his Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, The Hairy Ape and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the modern social order is directly, and in some cases, bitterly criticized. As Issac Goldberg puts it, “O’Neill has yielded to neither the formlessness nor the incoherence of the more extreme expressionists; even when his contact with external reality seems least firm; he yet maintains his grip upon the root of things.

” (Goldberg, 269) indeed, the greatness of O’Neill as a dramatist, to a great extent, lies in his perfect and harmonious blending of realism and expressionism. Works cited Alexander, Doris. The Tempering of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Harcourt, Brace &World. 1962 Goldberg, Issac. The Drama of Transition. London: Stewart Kidd Company. 1922. Lewis, Sinclair. The American Fear of Literature. London: Elsevier Science and Technology Publications, 1969. Winther, S. K. Eugene O’Neill: A Critical Study. London: Russell &Russell Publishers, 1961. .

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