Mourning Becomes Electra

Mourning Becomes Electra Study Guide

Eugene O’Neill’s famed Mourning Becomes Electra is a complex and tragic play in three parts. Set in New England at the close of the Civil War, it was first published and staged in 1931. The play is based off Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy The Oresteia and its three sections “Homecoming,” “The Hunted,” and “The Haunting” mirror Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. The townspeople in O’Neill’s work take the role of the Greek chorus. Regarding the title, O’Neill explained, “By the title Mourning Becomes Electra I sought to convey that mourning befits Electra; it becomes Electra to mourn; it is her fate; black is becoming to her and it is the color that becomes her destiny.”

As early as 1926, O’Neill wondered in his journal if it were possible to “get [a] modern psychological approximation of Greek sense of fate into such a play, which an intelligent audience of today, possessed by no belief in gods or supernatural retribution, could accept and be moved by.” In October 1928 he wrote in his work diary that he had an idea for a “Greek tragedy plot notion.” The next month he said the same thing but for “modern surroundings.” He was familiar with the Greeks, with Nietzsche, and psychoanalysis—all things he would incorporate into this new work. O’Neill called Mourning “the most ambitious thing I’ve tackled.”

Once he began writing, it took 533 days to complete; this is notable given the fact that Desire Under the Elms only took 62 days and Strange Interlude took 231. During the process of writing O’Neill also explored the idea of a play on Aeschylus’s life but eventually abandoned it. The six-hour play premiered at the Guild Theater on Broadway on October 29th, 1931 and ran for 150 performances. It was revived at the Alvin in May 1932 and the Circle in the Square in 1972.

Mourning Becomes Electra is considered an iconic work of American drama and was and is critically acclaimed. It was adapted into a 1947 film of the same name, which unfortunately did not see much box office success. It was also adapted into a TV miniseries that aired in 1978 on PBS.