Mourning Becomes Electra
"Homecoming": Act I, Scene One, Part Two
Christine appears with a large bouquet of flowers. Mother and daughter stare at each other bitterly. Christine scornfully complains that their "sepulcher" of a house needs brightening. Only Abe Mannon could have built such a "temple to his hatred."
Turning toward the house, she mentions with studied casualness that she met Captain Brant in New York and invited him to dinner. Threateningly Lavinia observes that Father will be coming home soon and Christine withdraws.
Lavinia sits frozen on a bench and Seth approaches. Lavinia asks him to resume his story. Seth asks if she has not noticed that Brant looks just like her father, Orin, and all the other male Mannons. He believes that Brant is the child of David Mannon and Marie Brantôme, the Canuck nurse. Abe Mannon put them out of the house and tore it down afterward to conceal their illicit affair. To Seth, Brant looks like David's ghost returning home. Seth advises that she find the truth.
Suddenly the romantic-looking sea captain himself enters from the drive. Brant starts upon seeing Lavinia but immediately dons his most winning air. Lavinia recoils. She asks him what he thinks of her father's imminent return—he must know that she loves her father more than anyone.
A wary Brant replies that though daughters and sons usually love their fathers and mothers respectively, he had thought Lavinia might be different. She is like her mother; her face is the "dead image" of Christine's and they share the same hair. The only other woman with such hair was his mother.
Lavinia angrily protests. Uneasy, Brant resolves to establish himself on intimate footing with Lavinia again and recalls the night when they kissed on the beach and he told her of his clippers and voyages in the South Seas. Dryly Lavinia asks if he asked his mother permission to kiss her and if he spoke truly in declaring that he loved his tall, white clippers more than any woman. She recalls his admiration for the naked native women on his Eden-like "Blessed Islands," woman who had never known that love could be a sin.
When Brant persists, Lavinia refuses his embrace. Taking advance of his confusion, she deliberately derides the memory of his mother. Brant explodes: no Mannon has the right to insult her. He forces the story on Lavinia. Abe Mannon loved his mother and jealously cheated his brother out of the business they inherited. Their money ran out, and his father took to drinking and beating his mother. One night, David Mannon was found hanging in a barn. Brant's mother blamed him for the suicide and, bent on making him a gentleman, sent him to school.
Brant rebelled and fled to the sea, forgetting he had a mother. Years later, when he returned to New York, he found her dying of starvation. She had sunk so low that she had written Ezra Mannon for a loan. He denied it. Brant has sworn to revenge. Lavinia condemns his vile cowardice and wonders whether she is his only means of revenge. A stammering Brant professes ignorance and grotesquely resumes his lover's manner. Lavinia marches into the house.
The remainder of Act I charts the mythic origin of the Mannons' fate, staging the forceful unearthing of a history tenuously repressed. Tellingly the backdrop for this unearthing is one of Mourning's many scenes of botched and grotesque seductions.
As noted above, the Mannon house itself symbolizes this history's repression. As Seth relates, Abe Mannon build the house to cover over the founding rivalry and disgrace that sets the revenge tragedy in motion. This repressed past is the history of Abe and David Mannon's rivalry over the beautiful Marie Brantôme, David's ultimate victory, and the couple's expulsion from the house.
Set against the epic backdrop of the Civil War, the founding conflict in the Mannon household is a fraternal one. The conflict splits the Mannons into two "houses"—one legitimate and the other dispossessed. Brant and Ezra inherit this sibling rivalry, the ghost of the outcast returns to make his claim in the figure of the former. Christine functions here as Marie's double. As noted earlier, the relations of desire in Mourning are variations on an Oedipal theme, the doubling between its characters representing the Oedipal structure in various constellations. The story of Marie elaborates Oedipus in its classical form: the desire of the sons for the mother.
Brant makes this structure clear in his fascination with Lavinia's striking hair, the hair that, as a point of similarity, establishes the Mannon women as substitutes for his mother. For all the play's male lovers, the memory of this hair will consistently evoke the figure of the mother. This hair serves as the point around which the play's male lovers organize their fantasies. Tellingly Brant's mother is named Marie—that is, the virgin—and known to be a whore. As Freud famously observes, this fantasy of the hyper-idealized and denigrated woman characterizes the male child in the throes of Oedipus. Such a child imagines the mother as at once belonging to him alone. For example, a child imagines the mother as having produced him in Immaculate Conception and as being harlot in taking up with his rival.
Marie's sexual excess emerges because she is seen as being exotic, and exoticism that almost makes her of a different race. Seth, for example, imagines her in primitive terms: wild, animal-like, and laughing. Note also how characters will continually identify her as the "Canuck" nurse. We should keep Marie's exoticism in mind when considering the ways in which the "exotic," "primitive," and "native" figure as ciphers for sexual excess within the play's racial imaginary.
Already does Brant gesture toward the development of these motifs of the native in his reference to the Blessed Isles. Throughout the play, the Blessed Isles will figure as some utopian space, as home to those who can love without law, judgment, or guilt. As our discussion suggests, law here refers to the law of kinship—the law instituted by the father's name that would prohibit incest and determine the appropriate relations of desire in the household. By fleeing to the natives, the players would elude the disruption of the Mother-Son love affair.
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