An American Tragedy

Classic Arts Features   An American Tragedy
Martin David Levy's opera Mourning Becomes Electra takes some of the sting out of Eugene O'Neill's original.

Eugene O'Neill called his revision and updating of the dramatic trilogy The Oresteia by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus Mourning Becomes Electra (comprising Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted). And indeed we read O'Neill's title like a sentence by the gods. Lavinia Mannon, the Electra figure, shall wear mourning; the color black becomes her, both literally (she withdraws into darkness at the end of the trilogy) and metaphorically (it is a color which suits her), for all that she tries, briefly, to adopt the vernal green favored by the mother she hates and comes to resemble, and to escape the destiny of her family. There is no appealing the sentence delivered by this title: the gods have spoken, even if their judgment is whimsy, and Lavinia's portion is bitter suffering.

When Lavinia Mannon closes the door on the family mansion at the end of The Haunted, she is effectively burying herself alive, with the inevitability that is the quintessence of tragedy. Yet what moves us, in watching tragedy, is our own resistance to this inevitability, our own hope‹like that of the characters involved in the drama‹that there may be an outcome other than guilt, loneliness and death.

Part of O'Neill's genius was to realize the necessity of war as a background and catalyst for the personalities and motivations of his characters. So great is the distance in culture and time between us and the ancient Greeks that we sometimes feel we are watching characters carved in the low relief of a classical frieze in the old plays. Yet O'Neill's Ezra and Orin Mannon achieve rondure and dramatic verisimilitude, and it is the experience of war which shapes them and makes them plausible.

There can be few other instances in modern drama in which we are made so to despise a character before he even sets foot on stage as we do General Ezra Mannon in the first play of Mourning Becomes Electra. The "temple of Hate and Death" constructed by the Mannon family has been the setting, we gather, for the specifically sexual tyranny practiced by Ezra Mannon against his wife Christine since their wedding night. Our sympathies are instantly with Christine, and against the stiff and spiteful daughter Lavinia, who is clearly in the grip of an Electral fascination, first with her father and second with her brother Orin.

Not until Act III of Homecoming do we actually meet Ezra Mannon‹only to experience the first great reversal of this dramatic trilogy. For we find that Ezra Mannon's saturation in death on the battlefield during the Civil War has wrought a change in him of which Aeschylus' Agamemnon would have been quite incapable: He is now aware of his own earlier cruelty to Christine and of the Calvinist family preoccupation with mortality in which he has participated. And he wants to make amends. But it is too late, for Christine Mannon, adulterously in love with Adam Brant (himself a bastard cousin of Lavinia), has set her own plans in motion.

Yet even Christine's murder of Ezra Mannon does not divorce her from our sympathies. However, she herself accomplishes her own destruction, preyed upon by guilt and pursued by Lavinia, who uses Orin (shattered, like his father, by the war) as her tool. We despise Lavinia for her self-righteousness, her vengefulness, and perhaps most for her unevolved sexuality. But in the trilogy's other great reversal, we find, by Act I, Scene 2 of The Haunted, that we genuinely rejoice at Lavinia's physical and emotional blossoming, away from the baleful influence of the Mannon house, and we hope that she will be able to marry Peter Niles and find love‹even the love that she has denied her mother in Adam Brant. But some part of us already knows that she, too, will be denied this love; that the inexorable logic which has claimed the lives of Ezra and Christine Mannon has not yet worked itself out.

O'Neill's trilogy succeeds because of its epic ambition and because of the ruthlessness of the emotions it displays. (We are reminded of the remark by Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill's biographer, that the playwright was an "emotional hemophiliac whose family-inflicted wounds never healed.") And, as is often the case in O'Neill, the trilogy succeeds in spite of a dramatic heavy-handedness (one loses count of the number of times the stage directions call for a character to "start visibly" at the remarks of another). The sheer amount of material in O'Neill's trilogy, as well as its full-blown or even over-blown emotions, constitute a pair of hazards for anyone seeking to adapt the trilogy‹especially for someone seeking to adapt it to the medium of music, which by its nature conveys emotion more powerfully (because unmediated by meaning) than words can do.

In his libretto for Mourning Becomes Electra, composer Marvin David Levy skillfully avoids one of these hazards. His organizational principle is simple: each play in the O'Neill trilogy corresponds to an act of the opera, ably compressing the gigantic architecture of the playwright's trilogy. Another aspect of O'Neill's heavy-handedness‹or of his Shakespearean ambition to represent the full human range‹is his love of business involving "low" characters‹townspeople, sailors, and the like. Levy wisely dispenses with most of this. Also, the murder weapon becomes a knife rather than a gun, as it is in O'Neill.

Other changes in Levy's opera from O'Neill's original may seem more problematic. Phrases such as "Blot out the stars; they pierce the sky like flowers of death," or "He kills with the weapon of love," or "Let me go alone into a morningless and a never waking" (all uttered by Christine) are too "poetic" to have been allowed by O'Neill, as is Lavinia's declaration to the Mannon dead at the end of the opera: "I shall be companion to your grief, endure the monotony of tears." What Lavinia says in O'Neill is more chilling: "I'll live alone with the dead, and keep their secrets, and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!"

The turnaround in Ezra Mannon wrought by his experience in the Civil War and the pathos of the night of his return to Christine are also missing. One is furthermore struck, from the beginning of the opera, by the way the immediate and visceral hatred between Christine and Lavinia Mannon has been softened, compared with what we encounter in the play. Perhaps it is too vitriolic to be expressed musically. Levy's Lavinia sings to Christine, "…how can I pity what I do not understand?" and although Lavinia is certainly a priestess of understanding, pity does not form part of her vocabulary. Under no circumstances would she be "moved" (as Levy's stage directions say she is) by her mother's suffering.

There are, however, genuine felicities in Levy's opera. One thinks immediately of Helen's song, "Bring me the dress of bridal silk," in Act II, or of the plangent quartet between Lavinia, Christine, Orin, and Brant in Act II, or of the "catechism" in Act III by which Lavinia attempts to rebuild her brother's broken spirit. Lavinia's aria to Peter Niles in that same scene ("It is I who need to speak") is moving, and it seems she might "find a voice for pain" and a means of achieving freedom and love‹until she is inexorably checked by Orin. And the queasiness of the music in Orin's "incest" aria in Act III beautifully reinforces the trespass contained in the text. There is an aural sensibility, in fact, which permeates Levy's libretto. We find, for instance, that in the opera, Lavinia's wild appeal to Peter Niles is to make love to her in the Mannon house and "shame them [i.e., the Mannon ghosts] into silence." In O'Neill's original, however, we find that the line is "shame them back into death." Silence is, of course, the greater concern in an opera.

"We shall pay the price for being born," says Lavinia at the end of Levy's opera. But O'Neill's Vinnie declares, "It takes the Mannons to punish themselves for being born." Vengeance, in O'Neill, is all the more hideous for being self-derived as well as self-inflicted. No god is punishing these characters, no inscrutable force: they are punishing themselves. In the opera, Lavinia hints at this when she says to Helen Niles, "I do not ask God to forgive me. I forgive myself." Marvin David Levy's opera balances the harshness of O'Neill's haunted New England Calvinists with the sinuousness and sweetness of lyricism. Hewn from stone, these tormented figures are made to trample once again the avenue of blood-colored tapestries Clytemnestra prepared for Agamemnon twenty-five hundred years ago.

Karl Kirchwey, Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College, has published four books of poems. From 1987 to 2000, he was Director of the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center. He has taught creative writing and literature at Smith College, Yale, and Wesleyan Universities, and Columbia University.

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