Mourning Becomes Electra, by Eugene O'Neill

Act One

SceneThe same as Acts One and Three of “Homecoming”— Exterior of the Mannon House.

It is a moonlight night two days after the murder of Ezra Mannon. The house has the same strange eerie appearance, its white portico like a mask in the moonlight, as it had on that night. All the shutters are closed. A funeral wreath is fixed to the column at the right of steps. Another wreath is on the door.

There is a sound of voices from inside the house, the front door is opened and Josiah Borden and his wife, Everett Hills, the Congregational minister, and his wife, and Doctor Joseph Blake, the Mannons’ family physician, come out. Christine can be seen in the hall just inside the door. There is a chorus of “Good night, Mrs. Mannon,” and they turn to the steps and the door is closed.

These people — the Bordens, Hills and his wife and Doctor Blake — are, as were the Ames of Act One of “Homecoming,” types of townsfolk, a chorus representing as those others had, but in a different stratum of society, the town as a human background for the drama of the Mannons.

Josiah Borden, the manager of the Mannon shipping company, is shrewd and competent. He is around sixty, small and wizened, white hair and beard, rasping nasal voice, and little sharp eyes. His wife, about ten years his junior, is a typical New England woman of pure English ancestry, with a horse face, buck teeth and big feet, her manner defensively sharp and assertive. Hills is the type of well-fed minister of a prosperous small-town congregation — stout and unctuous, snobbish and ingratiating, conscious of godliness, but timid and always feeling his way. He is in the fifties, as is his wife, a sallow, flabby, self-effacing minister’s wife. Doctor Blake is the old kindly best-family physician — a stout, self-important old man with a stubborn opinionated expression.

They come down the steps to the drive. Mrs. Borden and Mrs. Hills walk together toward left front until they are by the bench. There they stop to wait for the men who stand at the foot of the steps while Borden and Blake light cigars.

Mrs. Borden —(tartly) I can’t abide that woman!

Mrs. Hills — No. There’s something queer about her.

Mrs. Borden —(grudgingly honest) Still and all, I come nearer to liking her now than I ever did before when I see how broken down she is over her husband’s death.

Mrs. Hills — Yes. She looks terrible, doesn’t she? Doctor Blake says she will have herself in bed sick if she doesn’t look out.

Mrs. Borden — I’d never have suspected she had that much feeling in her. Not but what she hasn’t always been a dutiful wife, as far as anyone knows.

Mrs. Hills — Yes. She’s seemed to be.

Mrs. Borden — Well, it only goes to show how you can misjudge a person without meaning to — especially when that person is a Mannon. They’re not easy to make head or tail of. Queer, the difference in her and Lavinia — the way they take his death. Lavinia is cold and calm as an icicle.

Mrs. Hills — Yes. She doesn’t seem to feel as much sorrow as she ought.

Mrs. Borden — That’s where you’re wrong. She feels it as much as her mother. Only she’s too Mannon to let anyone see what she feels. But did you notice the look in her eyes?

Mrs. Hills — I noticed she never said a word to anyone. Where did she disappear to all of a sudden?

Mrs. Borden — Went to the train with Peter Niles to meet Orin. I overheard her mother talking to Lavinia in the hall. She was insisting Peter should escort her to meet the train. Lavinia must have been starting to go alone. Her mother seemed real angry about it. (then glancing toward the men who have moved a little away from the steps and are standing talking in low tones) Whatever are those men gossiping about? (She calls) Josiah! It’s time we were getting home.

Borden — I’m coming, Emma. (The three men join the women by the bench, Borden talking as they come.) It isn’t for me to question the arrangements she’s made, Joe, but it does seem as if Ezra should have been laid out in the town hall where the whole town could have paid their respects to him, and had a big public funeral tomorrow.

Hills — That’s my opinion. He was mayor of the town and a national war hero —

Blake — She says it was Ezra’s wish he’d often expressed that everything should be private and quiet. That’s just like Ezra. He never was one for show. He did the work and let others do the showing-off.

Hills —(unctuously) He was a great man. His death is a real loss to everyone in this community. He was a power for good.

Borden — Yes. He got things done.

Hills — What a tragedy to be taken his first night home after passing unharmed through the whole war!

Borden — I couldn’t believe the news. Who’d ever suspect — It’s queer. It’s like fate.

Mrs. Hills —(breaks in tactlessly) Maybe it is fate. You remember, Everett, you’ve always said about the Mannons that pride goeth before a fall and that some day God would humble them in their sinful pride. (Everyone stares at her, shocked and irritated.)

Hills —(flusteredly) I don’t remember ever saying —

Blake —(huffily) If you’ll excuse me, that’s darn nonsense! I’ve known Ezra Mannon all my life, and to those he wanted to know he was as plain and simple —

Hills —(hastily) Of course, Doctor. My wife entirely misunderstood me. I was, perhaps wrongly, referring to Mrs. Mannon.

Blake — She’s all right too — when you get to know her.

Hills —(dryly) I have no doubt.

Blake — And it’s a poor time, when this household is afflicted by sudden death, to be —

Hills — You are quite right, Doctor. My wife should have remembered —

Mrs. Hills —(crushed) I didn’t mean anything wrong, Doctor.

Blake —(mollifiedly) Let’s forget it then. (turning to Borden — with a self-satisfied, knowing air) As for your saying who’d ever expect it — well, you and Emma know I expected Ezra wouldn’t last long.

Borden — Yes. I remember you said you were afraid his heart was bad.

Mrs. Borden — I remember you did too.

Blake — From the symptoms Mrs. Mannon described from his letter to her, I was as certain as if I’d examined him he had angina. And I wasn’t surprised neither. I’d often told Ezra he was attempting more than one man could handle and if he didn’t rest he’d break down. The minute they sent for me I knew what’d happened. And what she told me about waking up to find him groaning and doubled with pain confirmed it. She’d given him his medicine — it was what I would have prescribed myself — but it was too late. And as for dying his first night home — well, the war was over, he was worn out, he’d had a long, hard trip home — and angina is no respecter of time and place. It strikes when it has a mind to.

Borden —(shaking his head) Too bad. Too durned bad. The town won’t find another as able as Ezra in a hurry. (They all shake their heads and look sad. A pause.)

Mrs. Borden — Well, we aren’t doing anyone any good standing here. We ought to get home, Josiah.

Mrs. Hills — Yes. We must, too, Everett. (They begin moving slowly off left, Hills going with the two women. Doctor Blake nudges Borden and motions him to stay behind. After the others disappear, he whispers with a meaning grin)

Blake — I’ll tell you a secret, Josiah — strictly between you and me.

Borden —(sensing something from his manner — eagerly) Of course. What is it, Joe?

Blake — I haven’t asked Christine Mannon any embarrassing questions, but I have a strong suspicion it was love killed Ezra!

Borden — Love?

Blake — That’s what! Leastways, love made angina kill him, if you take my meaning. She’s a damned handsome woman and he’d been away a long time. Only natural between man and wife — but not the treatment I’d recommend for angina. He should have known better, but — well — he was human.

Borden —(with a salacious smirk) Can’t say as I blame him! She’s a looker! I don’t like her and never did but I can imagine worse ways of dying! (They both chuckle.) Well, let’s catch up with the folks. (They go off, left. They have hardly disappeared before the door of the house is opened and Christine Mannon comes out and stands at the head of the steps a moment, then descends to the drive. She is obviously in a terrible state of strained nerves. Beneath the mask-like veneer of her face there are deep lines about her mouth, and her eyes burn with a feverish light. Feeling herself free from observation for a moment she lets go, her mouth twitches, her eyes look desperately on all sides, as if she longed to fly from something. Hazel Niles comes out of the house to the head of the steps. She is the same as in “Homecoming.” Christine at once senses her presence behind her and regains her tense control of herself.)

Hazel —(with a cheering, sympathetic air) So here you are. I looked everywhere around the house and couldn’t find you.

Christine —(tensely) I couldn’t stay in. I’m so nervous. It’s been a little harrowing — all these people coming to stand around and stare at the dead — and at me.

Hazel — I know. But there won’t be any more now. (then a tone of eagerness breaking through in spite of herself) Peter and Vinnie ought to be back soon, if the train isn’t late. Oh, I hope Orin will surely come!

Christine —(strangely) The same train! It was late that night he came! Only two days ago! It seems a lifetime! I’ve grown old.

Hazel —(gently) Try not to think of it.

Christine —(tensely) As if I hadn’t tried! But my brain keeps on — over and over and over!

Hazel — I’m so afraid you will make yourself sick.

Christine —(rallying herself and forcing a smile) There, I’m all right. I mustn’t appear too old and haggard when Orin comes, must I? He always liked me to be pretty.

Hazel — It will be so good to see him again! (then quickly) He ought to be such a comfort to you in your grief.

Christine — Yes. (then strangely) He used to be my baby, you know — before he left me. (suddenly staring at Hazel, as if struck by an idea) You love Orin, don’t you?

Hazel —(embarrassed — stammers shyly) I— I—

Christine — I am glad. I want you to. I want him to marry you. (putting an arm around her — in a strained tone) We’ll be secret conspirators, shall we, and I’ll help you and you’ll help me?

Hazel — I don’t understand.

Christine — You know how possessive Vinnie is with Orin. She’s always been jealous of you. I warn you she’ll do everything she can to keep him from marrying you.

Hazel —(shocked) Oh, Mrs. Mannon, I can’t believe Vinnie —!

Christine —(unheeding) So you must help me. We mustn’t let Orin come under her influence again. Especially now in the morbid, crazy state of grief she’s in! Haven’t you noticed how queer she’s become? She hasn’t spoken a single word since her father’s death! When I talk to her she won’t answer me. And yet she follows me around everywhere — she hardly leaves me alone a minute. (forcing a nervous laugh) It gets on my nerves until I could scream!

Hazel — Poor Vinnie! She was so fond of her father. I don’t wonder she —

Christine —(staring at her — strangely) You are genuinely good and pure of heart, aren’t you?

Hazel —(embarrassed) Oh no! I’m not at all —

Christine — I was like you once — long ago — before —(then with bitter longing) If I could only have stayed as I was then! Why can’t all of us remain innocent and loving and trusting? But God won’t leave us alone. He twists and wrings and tortures our lives with others’ lives until — we poison each other to death! (seeing Hazel’s look, catches herself — quickly) Don’t mind what I said! Let’s go in, shall we? I would rather wait for Orin inside. I couldn’t bear to wait and watch him coming up the drive — just like — he looks so much like his father at times — and like — but what nonsense I’m talking! Let’s go in. I hate moonlight. It makes everything so haunted. (She turns abruptly and goes into the house. Hazel follows her and shuts the door. There is a pause. Then footsteps and voices are heard from off right front and a moment later Orin Mannon enters with Peter and Lavinia. One is at once struck by his startling family resemblance to Ezra Mannon and Adam Brant [whose likeness to each other we have seen in “Homecoming”]. There is the same lifelike mask quality of his face in repose, the same aquiline nose, heavy eyebrows, swarthy complexion, thick straight black hair, light hazel eyes. His mouth and chin have the same general characteristics as his father’s had, but the expression of his mouth gives an impression of tense oversensitiveness quite foreign to the General’s, and his chin is a refined, weakened version of the dead man’s . He is about the same height as Mannon and Brant, but his body is thin and his swarthy complexion sallow. He wears a bandage around his head high up on his forehead. He carries himself by turns with a marked slouchiness or with a self-conscious square-shouldered stiffness that indicates a soldierly bearing is unnatural to him. When he speaks it is jerkily, with a strange, vague, preoccupied air. But when he smiles naturally his face has a gentle boyish charm which makes women immediately want to mother him. He wears a mustache similar to Brant’s which serves to increase their resemblance to each other. Although he is only twenty, he looks thirty. He is dressed in a baggy, ill-fitting uniform — that of a first lieutenant of infantry in the Union Army.)

Orin —(as they enter looks eagerly toward the house — then with bitter, hurt disappointment in his tone) Where’s Mother? I thought she’d surely be waiting for me. (He stands staring at the house.) God, how I’ve dreamed of coming home! I thought it would never end, that we’d go on murdering and being murdered until no one was left alive! Home at last! No, by God, I must be dreaming again! (then in an awed tone) But the house looks strange. Or is it something in me? I was out of my head so long, everything has seemed queer since I came back to earth. Did the house always look so ghostly and dead?

Peter — That’s only the moonlight, you chump.

Orin — Like a tomb. That’s what mother used to say it reminded her of, I remember.

Lavinia —(reproachfully) It is a tomb — just now, Orin.

Orin —(hurriedly — shamefacedly) I— I’d forgotten. I simply can’t realize he’s dead yet. I suppose I’d come to expect he would live forever. (A trace of resentment has crept into his tone.) Or, at least outlive me. I never thought his heart was weak. He told me the trouble he had wasn’t serious.

Lavinia —(quickly) Father told you that, too? I was hoping he had. (then turning to Peter) You go ahead in, Peter. Say we’re coming a little behind. I want to speak to Orin a moment.

Peter — Sure thing, Vinnie. (He goes in the front door, closing it behind him.)

Orin — I’m glad you got rid of him. Peter is all right but — I want to talk to you alone. (with a boyish brotherly air — putting an arm around her) You certainly are a sight for sore eyes, Vinnie! How are you, anyway, you old bossy fuss-buzzer! Gosh, it seems natural to hear myself calling you that old nickname again. Aren’t you glad to see me?

Lavinia —(affectionately) Of course I am!

Orin — I’d never guess it! You’ve hardly spoken a word since you met me. What’s happened to you? (Then, as she looks at him reproachfully, he takes away his arm — a bit impatiently) I told you I can’t get used to the idea of his being dead. Forgive me, Vinnie. I know what a shock it must be to you.

Lavinia — Isn’t it a shock to you, Orin?

Orin — Certainly! What do you think I am? But — oh, I can’t explain! You wouldn’t understand, unless you’d been at the front. I hardened myself to expect my own death and everyone else’s, and think nothing of it. I had to — to keep alive! It was part of my training as a soldier under him. He taught it to me, you might say! So when it’s his turn he can hardly expect —(He has talked with increasing bitterness. Lavinia interrupts him sharply.)

Lavinia — Orin! How can you be so unfeeling?

Orin —(again shamefaced) I didn’t mean that. My mind is still full of ghosts. I can’t grasp anything but war, in which he was so alive. He was the war to me — the war that would never end until I died. I can’t understand peace — his end! (then with exasperation) God damn it, Vinnie, give me a chance to get used to things!

Lavinia — Orin!

Orin —(resentfully) I’m sorry! Oh, I know what you’re thinking! I used to be such a nice gentlemanly cuss, didn’t I? — and now — Well, you wanted me to be a hero in blue, so you better be resigned! Murdering doesn’t improve one’s manners! (abruptly changing the subject) But what the devil are we talking about me for? Listen, Vinnie. There’s something I want to ask you before I see Mother.

Lavinia — Hurry then! She’ll be coming right out! I’ve got to tell you something too!

Orin — What was that stuff you wrote about some Captain Brant coming to see Mother? Do you mean to tell me there’s actually been gossip started about her? (then without waiting for a reply, bursting into jealous rage) By God, if he dares come here again, I’ll make him damned sorry he did!

Lavinia —(grimly) I’m glad you feel that way about him. But there’s no time to talk now. All I want to do is warn you to be on your guard. Don’t let her baby you the way she used to and get you under her thumb again. Don’t believe the lies she’ll tell you! Wait until you’ve talked to me! Will you promise me?

Orin —(staring at her bewilderedly) You mean — Mother? (then angrily) What the hell are you talking about, anyway? Are you loony? Honestly, Vinnie, I call that carrying your everlasting squabble with Mother a bit too far! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! (then suspiciously) What are you being so mysterious about? Is it Brant —?

Lavinia —(at a sound from inside the house) Ssshh! (The front door of the house is opened and Christine hurries out.)

Christine —(angrily to Peter who is in the hall) Why didn’t you call me, Peter? You shouldn’t have left him alone! (She calls uncertainly) Orin.

Orin — Mother! (She runs down the steps and flings her arms around him.)

Christine — My boy! My baby! (She kisses him.)

Orin —(melting, all his suspicion forgotten) Mother! God, it’s good to see you! (then almost roughly, pushing her back and staring at her) But you’re different! What’s happened to you?

Christine —(forcing a smile) I? Different? I don’t think so, dear. Certainly I hope not — to you! (touching the bandage on his head — tenderly) Your head! Does it pain dreadfully? You poor darling, how you must have suffered! (She kisses him.) But it’s all over now, thank God. I’ve got you back again! (Keeping her arm around him, she leads him up the steps.) Let’s go in. There’s someone else waiting who will be so glad to see you.

Lavinia —(who has come to the foot of the steps — harshly) Remember, Orin! (Christine turns around to look down at her. A look of hate flashes between mother and daughter. Orin glances at his mother suspiciously and draws away from her.)

Christine —(immediately recovers her poise — to Orin, as if Lavinia hadn’t spoken) Come on in, dear. It’s chilly. Your poor head —(She takes his hand and leads him through the door and closes it behind them. Lavinia remains by the foot of the steps, staring after them. Then the door is suddenly opened again and Christine comes out, closing it behind her, and walks to the head of the steps. For a moment mother and daughter stare into each other’s eyes. Then Christine begins haltingly in a tone she vainly tries to make kindly and persuasive.) Vinnie, I— I must speak with you a moment — now Orin is here. I appreciate your grief has made you — not quite normal — and I make allowances. But I cannot understand your attitude toward me. Why do you keep following me everywhere — and stare at me like that? I had been a good wife to him for twenty-three years — until I met Adam. I was guilty then, I admit. But I repented and put him out of my life. I would have been a good wife again as long as your father had lived. After all, Vinnie, I am your mother. I brought you into the world. You ought to have some feeling for me. (She pauses, waiting for some response, but Lavinia simply stares at her, frozen and silent. Fear creeps into Christine’s tone.) Don’t stare like that! What are you thinking? Surely you can’t still have that insane suspicion — that I—(then guiltily) What did you do that night after I fainted? I— I’ve missed something — some medicine I take to put me to sleep —(Something like a grim smile of satisfaction forms on Lavinia’s lips. Christine exclaims frightenedly) Oh, you did — you found — and I suppose you connect that — but don’t you see how insane — to suspect — when Doctor Blake knows he died of —! (then angrily) I know what you’ve been waiting for — to tell Orin your lies and get him to go to the police! You don’t dare do that on your own responsibility — but if you can make Orin — Isn’t that it? Isn’t that what you’ve been planning the last two days? Tell me! (Then, as Lavinia remains silent, Christine gives way to fury and rushes down the steps and grabs her by the arm and shakes her.) Answer me when I speak to you! What are you plotting? What are you going to do? Tell me! (Lavinia keeps her body rigid, her eyes staring into her mother’s . Christine lets go and steps away from her. Then Lavinia, turning her back, walks slowly and woodenly off left between the lilac clump and the house. Christine stares after her, her strength seems to leave her, she trembles with dread. From inside the house comes the sound of Orin’s voice calling sharply “Mother! Where are you?” Christine starts and immediately by an effort of will regains control over herself. She hurries up the steps and opens the door. She speaks to Orin and her voice is tensely quiet and normal.) Here I am, dear! (She shuts the door behind her.)

(Curtain)

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/oneill/eugene/o5m/act5.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06