Eugene O’Neill is a significant figure in the history of the tragic theatre. To a remarkable degree he represents a major shift of emphasis from a fatalistic, supernatural view of destiny to a naturalistic and humanistic view. The intellectual milieu of the twentieth century which was primed for a philosophy of concrete things rather than abstract ideas had prepared an audience for his tragedies whose philosophic tragic tone is distinctly modern. For, man in relation to a destiny uniquely his own,–not mythical gods arbitrarily ordaining human destiny now occupies the centre of the sombre arena.
The mediaeval mind, in the tradition of mythology, conceived tragic conflict in terms of the devil and the angel contending for the possession of the human soul. This mythical “motif” has its modern counterpart in the psychoanalytic picture of the human mind as an ambivalent entity of the conscious and the unconscious. Man’s unconscious is a primordial reservoir of instincts and racial tendencies and is an inextricable mixture of good and evil. Man’s Ego tries to reconcile the demands of the socialised urges of the super ego with those of the Id which is a complex of unsocialised tendencies. This psychological background is essential for an understanding of O’Neill.
O’Neill recognised the basic irrationality of man’s unconscious; but he, nevertheless, averred man’s free will and judgment. Man must assert his essential humanity by the moral exercise of his judgment. Otherwise he will become a victim of the drives and fantasies of his unconscious. Philosophically speaking, he will become an easy prey of his own Fate. This view is the very antithesis of the Greek fatalistic view. O’Neill holds in steady balance the view of man as he is with the ideal view if only man would act in accordance with his free will. His answer to the enigma of human mind is the classic one. Man must find self-knowledge and a middle way by reconciling the unconscious and the conscious tendencies.
Running as a leitmotiv in Mourning Becomes Electra is the idea of pride and humility. A lofty sense of pride can inspire man to ideals greater than the self; an overweening pride will be his nemesis. Humility should be an innate quality and not a self- abasing servility. O’Neill seems to say that man must achieve a middle way between pride and humility and is thus significantly restating the theme of an oedipus, a Satan or a Faustus.
The pride which traps the protagonists of Strange Interlude, Dynamo, and Mourning Becomes Electra, wears the mask of father. The father is the symbol of racial tyranny; and represents the super ego which forbids the individual’s expression of the drives of the Id–the libido. Now, this repression creates a state of violent tension between the ambivalent states of the individual’s mind. Hence when the censoring threshold of consciousness is lowered the influx of the instinctual drives of the unconscious begins. Lavinia and Orin in Mourning Becomes Electra are torn by the basic divergence towards the father and mother images within themselves.
The overweening pride of the elder Mannons continues to haunt the younger generation; “the biological past creates the present.” In Greek dramas the curse is pronounced by a supernatural power. In O’Neill’s drama the curse is the creation of the Mannons themselves who unleash the dark forces of their soul. After the suicide of Christine, Orin is seized with a neurotic mania and suggests that Lavinia should kill him; “Can’t you see I’m now in Father’s place and you’re Mother? That’s the evil destiny out of the past I haven’t dared to predict.” It is the ghost of the Mannons again who appears in Act III of The Haunted. Orin tells Lavinia that they should confess and pay the penalty for their Mother’s murder and find peace together. Lavinia supresses a momentary temptation to make penance and cries: “No! You coward! There is nothing to confess! There was only justice!” Orin turns and addresses the portraits of the Mannons on the wall; “You hear her? You’ll find Lavinia Mannon harder to break than me! You’ll have to haunt and hound her for a lifetime!”
O’Neill’s characters at the peak of their passions achieve a sheer mythical grandeur. It is not fanciful to see in Christie a reincarnated clytaemenestra or in Lavina a modern Electra. The characters of Mourning Becomes Electra do not have an immediate psychological reality. Their reality depends on our recognition in them, of some of our own impulses straining at the leash.
In writing the play O’Neill faced a searching question: How to achieve an approximation of the Greek idea of tragedy that could be made convincing to a modem audience having no belief in the supernatural? It is true that the tragic art form co-exists with a certain naivete in the mind of a race of people, that is, when there is a prevalent belief in rituals, in a realm of invisible powers controlling or influencing human life. But Mr. Krutch’s view that there has been a decline in the tragic ideal is too facile and fails to take note of the inevitable shift of emphasis in the philosophic view of tragedy. O’Neill’s play, for all its psychological interest, is not a theatre for a mere psychoanalytic dissection of the human personality. The play ultimately, though impliedly, raises the very question of existence and answers that if life is to have significance man must be able to assert his essential humanity and nobility over the atavistic instincts of his unconscious which threaten to overwhelm reason. The final value that emerges from his play is the imperative need for man to regain the dimension of depth, that is, to recover the religious consciousness. The history of the characters in Mourning Becomes Electra dramatically exemplifies Carl Jung’s significant observation: “The modem man is so perilously one-sided, so certain of his conscious control of himself and events, that his mind, no longer fortified by symbols of religion, is almost entirely at the mercy of his unconscious drives and fantasies. O’Neill has confronted us with the religious problem by dramatising the psychological tensions of his protagonists. In spite of the general loss of dimension, of depth, in the modern consciousness, its power is present in the sensitive souls of the artists and philosophers who are aware of the loss, and are striving to regain it with ultimate seriousness. O’Neill’s play makes a significant return to the sole and highest function of the theatre as “a temple where the religion of a poetical and symbolic celebration of life is communicated to human beings, starved in the spirit by their soul-stifling daily struggle to exist, as masks among the masks of the living.”
To O’Neill the order of existence which he refers to as “Fate” “Mystery”, the biological past” is to be sought in the forces at work in the human psyche. The O’Neillean protagonists are aware of the sense of struggle between the ambivalent planes of their personality. The tragic sublimity of Lavinia, Orin and Christine lies in the dynamism of tension of their inner conflict. It is true that they fail to assert themselves and become victims of their own Fate. But the ultimale result of their spiritual struggle is of secondary significance to the struggle itself. The tragic sublimity of Hardy’s Tess is not detracted by the fact that she is conquered by the inscrutable forces of destiny. For, even at the threshold of death there is a magnificent triumph because ‘man may be defeated but never destroyed.’ In the magnificent futility of the struggle of O’Neill’s protagonists is a fragment, at least, of the history of humanity. In a strictly objective view the story of the Mannons concerns a family of Schizophrenic neurotics involved in an obsessional self-struggle. But singled out against the background of destiny it is elevated as the very paradigm of human life.
Mourning Becomes Electra reclaims a dark region of the human soul and restores a necessary dimension to our concept of reality. In implicitly raising a central problem of humanity (to regain the religious consciousness) the play refers to a realm of values in which the mere psychological significance is transcended. In short, the drama gives us a meaning to live by.