Mourning Becomes Electra is a tragic play set in New England in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is heavily interwoven with the common fixtures of Greek tragedy. A wealthy general is poisoned by his vicious and scheming wife, then avenged by his children Orin and Lavinia. When Orin kills himself out of grief, Lavinia is left in the shoes of Greek tragedy's Electra and struggles to find meaning in her bleak and solitary life.
Mourning Becomes Electra is divided into three plays with themes that correspond to the Oresteia trilogy. Much like Aeschylus' plays Agamemnon , The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, these three plays by O'Neil are titled Homecoming , The Hunted , and The Haunted . However, these plays are normally not produced individually, but only as part of the larger trilogy. Each of these plays contains four to five acts, with only the first act of The Haunted being divided into actual scenes, and so Mourning Becomes Electra
is extraordinarily lengthy for a drama. In production, it is often cut down. Also, because of the large cast size, it is not performed as often as some of O'Neill's other major plays.
Act I It is late spring in front of the Mannon house. The master of the house, Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon, is soon to return from war. Lavinia, Ezra's severe daughter, like her mother Christine, has just returned from a trip to New York. Seth, the gardener, takes Lavinia aside. He warns her against her would-be beau, Captain Brant. Before Seth can continue, however, Lavinia's friend Peter and his sister Hazel, arrive. Lavinia stiffens. If Peter is proposing marriage to her again, he must realize that she cannot marry anyone because Father needs her. Lavinia asks Seth to resume his story. Seth asks Lavinia if she has noticed that Brant resembles members of the Mannon family. Seth believes that Brant is the child of David Mannon (Ezra's uncle. Not in the play) and Marie Brantôme (a Canuck nurse), a couple expelled from the house for fear of public disgrace.
Suddenly Brant himself enters from the drive. Calculatingly, Lavinia derides the memory of Brant's mother. Brant explodes and reveals his heritage. He tells her Lavinia's grandfather (Ezra's father) also loved the Canuck nurse, and so jealously cast his brother out of the family. Brant has sworn vengeance.
Act II A moment later, Lavinia appears inside her father's study. Christine enters indignantly, wondering why Lavinia has summoned her. Lavinia reveals that she followed her to New York and saw her kissing Adam Brant. She accuses her mother of adultery. Christine defiantly tells Lavinia that she has long hated Ezra and that Lavinia was born of her disgust for him. She loves Lavinia's brother Orin because he always seemed to be hers alone, and never Ezra's. Lavinia coldly explains that she intends to keep her mother's adultery a secret for Ezra's sake. Christine must only promise to never see Brant again. Laughingly Christine accuses her daughter of wanting Brant for herself. She claims that Lavinia has always schemed to steal her place. However, Christine agrees to Lavinia's terms. Later Christine proposes to Adam Brant that they poison Ezra and attribute his death to his heart trouble.
Act III One week later, Lavinia stands stiffly at the top of the front stairs with Christine. Suddenly Ezra Mannon enters and stops stiffly before his house. Lavinia rushes forward and embraces him. Once she and her husband are alone, Christine assures him that he has nothing to suspect with regard to Brant. Ezra impulsively kisses her hand. The war has made him realize that they must overcome the wall between them. Calculatingly Christine assures him that all is well. They kiss.
Act IV Toward daybreak in Ezra's bedroom, Christine slips out from the bed. Mannon, waking, bitterly rebukes her. He knows the house is no longer his, and that Christine awaits his death to be free. He sees through her. Christine deliberately taunts that she has indeed become Brant's mistress. Mannon rises in fury, threatening her murder, and then falls back in agony, clutching his heart and begging for his medicine. Christine retrieves a box from her room and gives him poison instead of medicine. After taking the poison, Mannon realizes her treachery and calls out to Lavinia for help. Lavinia rushes into the room. With his dying breath, Ezra indicts his wife: "She's guilty—not medicine!" he gasps and then dies. Her strength gone, Christine collapses in a faint, and Lavinia falls to her knees in anguish.
Peter, Lavinia, and Orin arrive at the house. Orin disappointedly complains of his mother's absence. He jealously asks Lavinia about what she wrote him regarding Christine and Brant. Lavinia warns him against believing Christine's lies. Suddenly Christine hurries out, reproaching Peter for leaving Orin alone. Mother and son embrace jubilantly.
Act II Orin asks his mother about Brant. Christine explains that Lavinia has gone mad and begun to accuse her of the impossible. Orin sits at Christine's feet and recounts his wonderful dreams about the two of them in the South Sea Islands. The Islands represented everything the war was not: peace, warmth, and security, or Christine herself. Lavinia reappears in the room and coldly calls Orin to view their father's body.
Act III In the study, Orin tells Lavinia that Christine has already warned him of her madness. Calculatingly Lavinia insists that Orin certainly cannot let their mother's paramour escape. She convinces Orin of their mother's treachery, and proposes that they watch Christine until she goes to meet Brant herself. Orin agrees.
Act IV The night after Ezra's funeral, Brant's clipper ship appears at a wharf in East Boston. Christine sneaks out to meet Brant on the deck, and they retire to the cabin to speak in private. Lavinia and an enraged Orin (who followed their mother from the house) listen from the deck. The Brant and Christine decide to flee east and seek out their Blessed Islands. Fearing the hour, they painfully bid each other farewell. When Brant returns, Orin shoots him and ransacks the room to make it seem that Brant has been robbed.
Act V The following night Christine paces the drive before the Mannon house. Orin and Lavinia appear, revealing that they killed Brant. Christine collapses. Orin kneels beside her pleadingly, promising that he will make her happy, that they can leave Lavinia at home and go abroad together. Lavinia orders Orin into the house. He obeys. Christine glares at her daughter with savage hatred and marches into the house. Lavinia determinedly turns her back on the house, standing like a sentinel. A shot is heard from Ezra's study. Lavinia stammers: "It is justice!"
Act I, scene 1 A year later, Lavinia and Orin return from their trip East. Lavinia's body has lost its military stiffness and she resembles her mother perfectly. Orin has grown dreadfully thin and bears the statue-like attitude of his father.
Act I, scene 2 In the sitting room, Orin grimly remarks that Lavinia's has stolen Christine's soul. Death has set her free to become her. Peter enters from the rear and gasps, thinking he has seen Christine's ghost. Lavinia approaches him eagerly. Orin jealously mocks his sister's warmth toward Peter, accusing her of becoming a true romantic during their time in the Islands.
Act II A month later, Orin is working intently at a manuscript in the Mannon study. Lavinia enters, and with forced casualness, she asks him what he is doing. Orin insists that they must atone for Mother's death. As the last male Mannon, he has written a history of the family crimes, from Abe's onward. He then observes snidely that Lavinia is the most interesting criminal of all. She only became pretty like their Mother on Brant's Islands, with the natives staring at her with desire. When Orin angrily accuses her of sleeping with one of them, Lavinia assumes Christine's taunting voice. Reacting like Ezra, Orin grasps his sister's throat, threatening her murder. It becomes apparent that Orin has taken Father's place and Lavinia has taken Mother's.
Act III A moment later, the scene switches to Hazel and Peter in the sitting room. Orin enters, insisting that he see Hazel alone. He gives her a sealed envelope, warning her to keep it safely away from Lavinia. She should only open it (a) if something happens to him or (b) if Lavinia tries to marry Peter. Lavinia enters from the hall. Hazel tries to keep Orin's envelope hidden behind her back, but Lavinia rushes to Orin, beseeching him to make her surrender it. Orin complies, after Lavinia admits she loves him, and agrees to do whatever he wants. Orin then tells Hazel goodbye forever and tells her to leave. Orin then tells his sister she can never see Peter again. A "distorted look of desire" comes into his face and he tells her he loves her. Lavinia stares at him in horror, saying, "For God's sake—! No! You're insane! You can't mean—!" Lavinia wishes his death. Startled, Orin realizes that his death would be another act of justice. He thinks Christine is speaking through Lavinia. Peter appears in the doorway in the midst of the argument. Unnaturally casual, Orin remarks that he was aboutto go clean his pistol and exits. Lavinia throws herself into Peter's arms. A muffled shot is heard, as Orin commits suicide in the other room.
Act IV Three days later, Lavinia appears dressed in deep mourning. A resolute Hazel arrives and insists that Lavinia not marry Peter. The Mannon secrets will prevent their happiness. Hazel admits she has told Peter of Orin's envelope. Peter arrives, and he and Lavinia pledge their love anew. Surprised by the bitterness in his voice, Lavinia desperately flings herself into his arms crying, "Take me, Adam!" Then, horrified, by what she has become, Lavinia quickly breaks off their engagement and orders Peter home. Lavinia cackles that she is forever bound to the Mannon dead. Since there is no one left to punish her, she must punish herself—she must live alone in the old house with the ghosts of her ancestors. She orders Seth to board up the windows and throw out all the flowers – then she enters the dark house alone and shuts the door.