It must have come as something of a shock for the original audience of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931 to take their seats, open their programs, and discover that this extremely lengthy trilogy of plays does not actually contain a character named "Electra." This may seem like an obvious point, but it is one worth considering as we approach O'Neill's American analogue to the Oresteia of Aeschylus -- the title essentially gives away the plot. Yet this would have been precisely the case with the original audience in fifth century Athens for a Greek tragedy: they arrived already knowing the myth of Electra or Oedipus or Medea, and so therefore what was being witnessed was, in some sense, a ritual re-enactment rather than a plot-driven narrative. Even the rare Greek tragedy that does introduce surprise into its plot, like the Orestes of Euripides, does so precisely because the audience is expected to know the normative version of the mythic story. So in some sense, O'Neill's self-awareness that Mourning Becomes Electra is a re-telling or a ritual re-enactment is almost the most authentic thing about its status as an imitation of Greek tragedy -- as with the original audience for a Greek tragedy, O'Neill's audience can more or less guess what will happen in the drama simply by hearing the title. In O'Neill's case, however, I would like to suggest that the drama acquires its resonance less from the Electra and more from the mourning, as it were: the play's status as a re-telling is actually intended to use myth in order to understand history. In some sense, Mourning Becomes Electra relies on its mythic re-enactment to speak to its original audience: based on a play about the aftermath of the ten-year-long Trojan War, it is set in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, and written a little over ten years after the conclusion of World War One. In some sense, then, what O'Neill's play is about these rituals of mourning as a form of compulsive re-enactment: if his play is a re-enactment of Aeschylus, it is also inviting us to imagine every war as a re-enactment of the Trojan War.
O'Neill follows Aeschylus in beginning the drama with a highly ambiguous image, one that suggests that the conclusion of a war is not the conclusion of its aftereffects. In the Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia, this opening image is of the night-watchman who has been waiting to see the signal-fire indicating that Troy has been taken by the Greeks. This is, of course, the occasion when he sees it:
Oh welcome, you blaze in the night, a light as if of day, you harbinger of many a choral dance in Argos in thanksgiving for this glad event! What ho! What ho! To Agamemnon's queen I thus cry aloud the signal to rise from her bed, and as quickly as she can to lift up in her palace halls a shout of joy in welcome of this fire, if the city of Ilium truly is taken, as this beacon unmistakably announces. (Agamemnon l.22ff.)
However, just to clarify Aeschylus' image here, we must imagine how precisely this works -- and what it is that we are intended to envision. Troy (in present-day Turkey) is a long way from Agamemnon's Mycenae (in present-day Greece). We are not supposed to imagine that someone light a bonfire on the other side of the Aegean and it has been lit. Instead, we must imagine that many miles away, Troy has been sacked and set on fire -- and a chain of beacon fires to indicate this news has been lit all down the coast, traveling until it reaches Agamenon's home province. In some sense, the fires that destroy Troy are being relayed back to Mycenae -- and the action of the Aeschylus' trilogy demonstrates that the bloodshed is being carried back to the home front. The destruction of Troy (and the sacrifice of Iphigenia) calls forth the destruction of Agamemnon and Cassandra, their deaths necessitate the deaths of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and their deaths become a curse that hovers about Orestes until divine intervention stops the cycle of the lex talionis and replaces it with trial by jury.
This suggestion at the opening of the Oresteia -- that the end of a long and bloody war may, in fact, be only the beginning of the tragedy -- is precisely captured by O'Neill, in two ways. The first is relatively simple imitation: the booming cannon at the end of Act III that fires as "salute to his homecoming," which likewise suggests that the warfare and death have not ended but have followed Mannon to Connecticut. But the second way that O'Neill captures the Aeschylean sense of a fatalistic chain of repeated events is far more subtle and complicated: it is achieved by the precise historical moment of the play's setting, which is April 1865. If ever there were a historical moment with the significance for America that the fall of Troy would have had for the Greeks, it is April 1865, even if O'Neill does not actually refer to the precise timeframe directly in dialogue until Act III, where it comes into the audience's consciousness more or less at the same moment when General Ezra Mannon (i.e. General Agamemnon) walks onstage. Mannon has only announced his presence ("It's I") and barely spoken three more lines when the significance becomes apparent, and April 1865 is actually referenced:
MANNON -- (really revelling in his daughter's coddling but embarrassed before his wife -- pulling his arm back -- brusquely) No, thanks! I would rather rest here for a spell. Sit down, Vinnie. (Christine sits on the top step at center; he sits on the middle step at right; Lavinia on the lowest step at left. While they are doing this he keeps on talking in his abrupt sentences, as if he were trying to cover up some hidden uneasiness.) I've got leave for a few days. Then I must go back and disband my brigade. Peace ought to be signed soon. The President's assassination is a frightful calamity. But it can't change the course of events.
LAVINIA -- Poor man! It's dreadful he should die just at his moment of victory.
MANNON -- Yes! (then after a pause -- somberly) All victory ends in the defeat of death. That's sure. But does defeat end in the victory of death? That's what I wonder!
O'Neill ensures that Ezra Mannon's homecoming occurs at the precise moment when Lincoln's assassination is fresh in the public mind, and joy over victory was replaced by mourning over the death of a hero. It is clear, however, that O'Neill has picked the precise moment carefully to begin his trilogy -- not only do the opening stage directions reference "April 1865" as the setting of Act One, but the first descriptive paragraph of stage directions offers a pretty clear allusion (not lost on the attentive reader if perhaps not obvious for a theatergoer) in describing the Mannon's Connecticut home as a "white Grecian temple portico with its six tall columns" (thus linking New England's Greek revival architecture with the actual Greek past) but also mentioning "by the edge of the drive, left front, is a thick clump of lilacs and syringas" (Homecoming Act I). For any American writer, placing lilacs at the front of the stage in April 1865 cannot help but recall Walt Whitman's elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd." In other words, we are not only invited to see Mannon's death at the end of Act Four as not only a ritual re-enactment of the death of Agamemnon, but also as a ritual re-enactment of the death of Abe Lincoln. After all, the audience is watching this drama in a darkened theatre, and may very well have some fleeting sense that it was in precisely such circumstances that Lincoln himself died. Obviously Mannon's death (by poisoning) is very different from Agamemnon's (by axe-blow) or Lincoln's (by gunshot) -- but in each, a conquering hero of a long and bloody war is brought down in sordid and strangely intimate circumstances, and the thrill of victory is immediately undercut by mourning. And in each case, we are led to believe that the cycle of retribution will take a long while to conclude.
In some sense, then, what both Aeschylus and O'Neill are keen to capture in their tragic trilogies is the sense of history, or even the fatalism of history. Ultimately the myth that undergirds the Oresteia is a civic founding myth of the Athenian state -- the trilogy cannot conclude without divine intervention from Athena, the patron goddess after whom Athens is named, and the whole of the Eumenides is intended as a sort of origin myth of the Athenian political process, with its central institution of trial by jury. By having the death of his Agamemnon character so…