• U.S.

The Theater: Day of Wild Wind

2 minute read
T.E. Kalem

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA

by EUGENE O’NEILL

Sometimes Eugene O’Neill seems like the Ancient Mariner of drama. He holds us with his glittering eye. He harangues us with his banal tongue and his repetitive nightmare about the cursed albatross that haunts his fevered imagination: his family, the restive dead. His soap-opera prose alone ought to chloroform any ghost. But somehow O’Neill slings the albatross round our necks and makes us grieve and attend to his tale of fearful woe.

Mourning Becomes Electra is like a day of wild wind and rain that finally reduces everyone and everything to a sodden, nerveless pulp. O’Neill transposed the Oresteia—the legend of the doomed Greek house of Atreus—to post-Civil War New England and laced it with Freudianism. O’Neill never achieves the catharsis of pity and terror, only the strangulated sob of a guilty Christian conscience: “I believed in heaven. Now I know there is only hell.”

The particular hell is this: while Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon) is away at war, his wife Christine (Clytemnestra) takes a lover, Adam Brant (Aegisthus). Daughter Lavinia (Electra) adores her father, hates her mother and is smitten with Adam. Ezra’s return results in homicide and suicide. When the killing ends, Lavinia locks herself in the ancestral mansion to placate the ghosts of her forebears in solitary, lifelong penance.

The lurid, lacerating story intimidates the cast, with the exception of Colleen Dewhurst as Christine. She has the sensual passion and bitter force of the Greek original. As Lavinia, Pamela Payton-Wright lacks the stiletto malice of Greek vengeance but remains a young actress to watch carefully. With this revival, Director Theodore Mann and his partner Paul Libin consecrate a handsome new mid-Manhattan play house, the Circle in the Square—Joseph E. Levine Theater. They merit an A+ for enterprise and a question mark for good judgment.

∎ T.E.K.

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