Three Plays: Desire Under The Elms / Strange Interlude / Mourning Becomes Electra, by Eugene O’Neill
At least one of these plays is good, because it redeems this lengthy (more than 400 page) collection of drama by a lamentably overrated playwright. And as someone who has read a great deal of the author’s plays, the recipes for failure on the part of the author are definitely here in the first two plays. Does he view most of his female characters as sluts? Absolutely–that is the whole thrust of the first two of the plays in this collection, neither of which work particularly well. Does he use terrible dialogue patterns as a way of making fun of others? Yes, that is certainly the case in the first play included here, which seems to be intended as a comedy, but only if you like laughing at rural Americans, and that is not something I am particularly inclined to do. If you like laughing at beautiful women who lead on a string of guys and who suffer mightily as a result of the strain of doing so, then at least one of these plays will be of interest. There is, thankfully, one great play here, and it is a play where the author is inspired to write from his own New England Yankee tradition as well as reach towards the greatness of the Greek Orestia trilogy in making a classic tragedy of his own that works particularly well. At least there is that to keep this from being a terrible collection of forgettable plays.
The first play in this collection is “Desire Under The Elms,” and it tells the story of a love triangle of sorts between an old man who gets a mail order bride who ends up getting pregnant with a child by the old man’s son, who is initially hostile to her in defense of his mother. Eventually the son and the father’s wife fall in love, until a truth is revealed by the father that leaves the mother to smother her young baby and face the penalty of the law along with her lover. Here the author seems to be playing for laughs when the proper response would be one of horror. In “Strange Interlude,” we have nine scenes of drama involving a small set of characters, centered on an attractive but cold woman who marries for convenience, carries on a friendship with a confirmed bachelor who loves her but is repelled by her promiscuity, and has a long affair and bears the child of a lover who gives up a career as a doctor because of his dalliances with her and becomes a biologist in Antigua. The play consists of interior monologues that are very fragmentary and that seek to convey the psychological state of the characters, which only makes the play more loathsome than it would have been as a mere domestic melodrama. Fortunately, the tree plays that make up the Mourning Become Electra trilogy are a compelling tale of revenge in post-Civil War New England, and plays that deserve to be remembered as examples of O’Neill rising to the challenge of creating a compelling American tragedy to approach the heights of Greek drama.
If these plays, at least the first two, show some of the more problematic aspects of O’Neill’s portrayal of characters he lacked understanding and empathy towards, there are at least a few demonstrations that at times he could be ambitious in his dramatic approach. “Strange Interlude” is ambitious in seeking to convey fragmentary feelings and thoughts of characters which are often in conflict with what they are saying, but this was an experiment that did not work very well and the result is nowhere near as dramatically convincing as Shakespeare’s use of interior monologues, for example, which are much more elevated and dignified than the panicky thoughts and fragmentary statements included in this strange play. In the three plays, “Homecoming,” “The Hunted,” and “The Haunted” that make up “Mourning Becomes Electra,” though, O’Neill’s ambition pays off because he portrays the characters in all their pride and misery and ancestral troubles, and because the author is writing about something he knows very well–a cursed New England family that broods over the past but cannot escape it. These plays demonstrate the way that one’s own experience and the appreciation of great literature can combine into a work of great accomplishment and soaring ambition, rarely to be repeated in the author’s or anyone else’s writing.