Thursday, September 24, 2009

16 Desire Under the Elms/Strange Interlude/Mourning Becomes Electra

Eugene O’Neill, Three Plays

1. Desire Under the Elms
An old miser brings his young bride home to his homestead and his three sons. Two give in to their desire of a new life in California and the third, Eben, falls in love – or lust – with the new wife with disastrous effects.

2. Strange Interlude
Charlie Marsden loves Nina. She loves a man named Gordon who died in war. Nina’s life flows through many transitions, introducing a lover, a husband and a son (named after Gordon) – until the end, when the second Gordon has grown up and the husband has passed away, and then she settles down with dear old Charlie and can look back on her dramatic, chaotic life as a strange interlude to the real life, childhood and old age, with Charlie. What other part of life is real anyway?

3. Mourning Becomes Electra
I think the title is very true – mourning does become Electra. She is at her very best bearing libations to her father’s grave. I’ve never liked Electra; she defended a father who was only so willing to sacrifice one of his daughters (Electra’s sister) in exchange for a fair wind to sail to Troy. I’m one of those people who sympathized with Becky Sharp more after her second appearance as Clytemnestra. It seems to me that these women, Clytemnestra and Becky, were only trying to make their own destiny – only to be thwarted by the Electras, who bear her family name, shame and duties so faithfully.
But nevertheless.
Like the Oresteia, after which it is modelled, this play is in three parts and is the most substantial play of this book. The story mirrors the story of the Oresteia. Christine decides to murder her husband upon his return from war. Her children, Lavinia and Orin, then murder Christine’s lover, as revenge for their father’s death, which then causes Christine’s suicide. Just like Electra of the Electra complex, Lavinia then takes her mother’s place, wears her mother’s colours and blooms forth in her mother’s beauty, which had previously not been apparent in her. But the previous events have been too much for Orin, who commits suicide due to his guilt over the past deaths and leaves Lavinia to mourn. Which she does very well.

These plays are so very engaging and I enjoyed reading them. I think the trend of reading these Nobel laureates is that after reading, I get the sense that my world has been shaken somehow. I feel unsettled. It’s as if I’ve been listening to Arnold Schoenberg. Some part of my worldview has had a gash in it and I’m not sure what has happened. And so then I need to think about what I’ve just read. I think this is a good kind of unsettledness; it doesn’t do for one’s worldview to be so set and unchangeable.

Authors are so brutal to barely conscious beings in their works. A child or a small animal is often used to reflect some aspect of the main characters. Just as Agamemnon dispatched Iphigenia to be sacrificed for the sake of the war, authors tend to dispatch little creatures in some prominent way, to represent and call to attention the demise of a main character or main subject.

Take, for example, Michael Henchard’s canaries. After his decline of fortune, he was completely cut off from his daughter. So, poor and miserable, he brings a cage of canaries for his daughter at her wedding. There, in the kitchen where he was received – for he was no longer the mayor of Casterbridge and not to be received in the upper rooms – the cage of poor little canaries sat forgotten, under its cover, amidst the happy marriage. It was not until a few weeks later that the poor daughter found a grizzly sight when she lifted the cover off of a cage that sat forgotten in the corner of the kitchen. Those poor little canaries are Michael Henchard – well-meaning and neglected until neglect and despair leave behind poor little corpses for Elizabeth Jane to cry over.

Here Eugene O’Neill goes even further than using poor little animals to illustrate a point. In Desire Under the Elms, he uses a baby in place of Michael Henchard’s canaries. Abbie and Eben’s child, which Abbie passed off as her husband’s, certainly wasn’t a character of its own right. It was more of a device for arousing sympathy and pathos.

It happens often that I read books and I don’t figure out, for a long time, why they made me feel a certain way. In the interval between the days of reading the book and finally understanding its impact on me, I sometimes come up with other, slightly laughable reasons for it. When I read Suite Francaise, I just loved it. There are so many things that are so good about that book that I still can’t pin-point why I loved it so much. The light-hearted response that I came up with was that the cat, that I wrote so much about in my post on Suite Francaise, was never heartlessly killed – nope, not for any irony or reflection of chaos did Nemirovky kill off the cat. So, I guess, analogously, for this set of three plays, the unnerving impact on me was due to the ease with which O’Neill expended human life – for tragedy, to mimic Greek tragedy, all sorts of reasons.

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