Eugene O’Neill denied the influence of psychoanalytic theory on his 1931 work Mourning Becomes Electra. He complained to the critic Barrett Clark that reviewers “read too damn much Freud into stuff. . . . I think I know enough about men and women to have written Mourning Becomes Electra almost exactly as it is if I had never heard of Freud.”
O’Neill protests too much. His trilogy—based on the Electras of Sophocles and Euripides, but particularly on Aeschylus’ Oresteia—heaves and pitches with a glut of Freudian material. As though ticking off a checklist, O’Neill compasses the Oedipus complex, the Electra complex, female sexuality, penis envy, castration anxiety, the uncanny, and the interpretation of dreams, and even goes way beyond the pleasure principle. (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious doesn’t apply—not a funny play, this.) At certain points, one almost expects O’Neill to abandon character and narrative altogether and allow Eros and Thanatos to duke it out, gloveless, on the steps of the play’s family manse.
With Freudian theories now outmoded—or at least rendered suspect by psychoanalytic advances—Mourning Becomes Electra can often seem ridiculous. Scott Elliott, who directs this revival for the New Group, doesn’t help matters. O’Neill already renders characters’ motivations and perversities obvious; Elliott makes them downright blatant. When Orin Mannon (Joseph Cross), the Orestes stand-in, confesses incestuous passion for his sister, Lavinia (Jena Malone), Elliott has him desperately stroke himself through his pants. The thematics are tired, the direction’s often vulgar, some of the actors seem dreadfully miscast, and, as to the words themselves, O’Neill admitted that the play “needed great language to lift it beyond itself. I haven’t got that.” (Consider Orin’s impassioned and enormously awkward declaration: “The only love I can know now is the love of guilt for guilt, which breeds more guilt.”) Yet despite these faults, and the four-hour-plus playing time, the New Group’s revival is often involving.
For all the play’s absurdities and inadequacies, O’Neill achieved something remarkable: an affecting domestication of Greek tragedy. He moved the action from a palace to a well-appointed home; from kings and queens to Protestant bourgeoisie; from the Trojan War to the Civil. The first portion, Homecoming, opens in 1865 as the Mannon household waits for patriarch Ezra (Mark Blum) to return from the war. His daughter, Lavinia, suspects her mother, Christine (Lili Taylor), of a dalliance with a handsome sea captain. Lavinia’s accusations and Christine’s alarm set in motion a series of tragedies. The subsequent sections, The Hunted and The Haunted, obliterate the family and wound several bystanders.
Throughout, the action is propulsive even when the staging is silly. (I can’t imagine O’Neill intended Ezra’s death throes to occasion chuckles.) Elliott is quite good with comedy, such as last season’s Rafta, Rafta and various Mike Leigh pieces, but this tragedy overwhelms him. He’s not alone. Taylor projects none of the seductiveness or “flowing animal grace” that Christine demands, nor is Anson Mount, as her lover, sufficiently charismatic. Malone, with her strong chin and pixie-cut hair, tries to invest Lavinia with all sorts of difficult emotions, but she and her stage sibling Cross struggle with the vocal demands of their roles, tightening their throats at any tense moment. At least the design is up to the task, though Jason Lyons’s lighting verges on the showy.
In a daring departure from the original, O’Neill decided to leave the supernatural out of his Electra, locating motive and revenge in the human realm. He’s successful—the gods aren’t missed. But as Elliott doesn’t do justice to O’Neill’s play, more than one disgruntled audience member might wish to summon those Furies.