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It is late afternoon in front of the Mannon house. The house is in the style of a Greek temple style, featuring a white, columned portico that stands like an "incongruous white mask." From the town, a band is heard playing "John Brown's Body." From the rear, the gardener Seth Beckwith is heard singing "Shenandoah" in the wraith of a baritone. Amos Ames, a garrulous and gossipy carpenter, his wife Louisa, and her cousin Minnie follow. They have come to spy on the Mannons.
Seth proclaims that if the news of Ezra Mannon's return is true, they will all be celebrating tonight. He praises Mannon as uniquely able, having taken over the shipping business upon his father Abe's death and become a judge, a mayor, and then brigadier-general for the Union. Louisa remarks that while the town may be proud of Ezra, it has little love for his "furrin lookin' and queer" wife Christine.
Changing the subject, Seth goes off to meet Mannon's daughter, Lavinia. Suddenly Christine appears and the trespassers hide. Christine is a distinctly handsome woman of copper and bronze hair: her face gives the impression of a "wonderfully life-like pale mask." She pauses and listens to the distant music defensively and then passes without having noticed the trio. Ames remarks upon how like all Mannons, Christine is "secret lookin'." Louisa urges him to tell Minnie about one of the Mannon's most scandalous secrets, the story of Abe Mannon's brother David marrying that "French Canuck nurse girl" he got pregnant.
Seth returns and then Lavinia appears. She looks strikingly like her mother, bearing the same mask-like countenance, but does all she can to emphasize their difference. Dressed in somber black, Lavinia moves in a wooden, square- shouldered, and militaristic manner. She pauses to listen to the music with vindictive satisfaction.
Seth tells her that the war is certainly over and her father coming home. He asks where she was last night, forcing her to admit, as if admitting a secret understanding between them, that she was in New York. Immediately, however, Lavinia stiffens, claiming to not know what Seth is talking about. He concedes but wonders if he should warn her against Captain Brant.
Before Seth can continue, however, Lavinia's guileless childhood friends, Peter and Hazel, arrive. Hazel worries if Lavinia's brother and her would-be sweetheart, Orin, has been wounded. Impulsively she takes off, teasingly ordering Lavinia to treat her brother kindly.
Horribly embarrassed, Peter fidgets and asks if Orin truly loves Hazel. Lavinia stiffens and declares that she hates love and wants to know nothing of it. If Peter is proposing to her again, he must realize that she cannot marry anyone, since her father needs her.
Peter insists that he will not lose hope, unless she has fallen for another. The townsfolk have been saying a mysterious and romantic-looking clipper captain has been courting her. Lavinia declares her hate for him. Peter muses that the captain reminds of someone.
As Travis Bogard notes, O'Neill wrote Mourning Becomes Electra as an attempt to convince modern audiences of the persistent of Fate. The sense of Fate the trilogy inspires principally lies in its staging the repetition of a myth that, within Western myths of origin, appears to haunt us from its inception. Though Mourning Becomes Electra presents itself as a rewriting of Aeschylus's Oresteia, the primary myth rehearsed here is that of Oedipus.
Oedipus was the Theban king who unwittingly killed his father and murdered his mother, bringing ruin to the land. Famously, Freud elaborated this myth into his Oedipus complex, the structure through which children are conventionally introduced into the social order and normative sexual relations. At the center of this complex in what Freud defined as its positive form is the child's incestuous desire for the parent of the opposite sex, a desire possibly surmounted in the course of the child's development or else subject to repression. Already take note of Lavinia's rather unnerving response to Peter's second proposal, that her Father needs her.
In Mourning Becomes Electra, Oedipus provides the foundational narrative of rivalries, jealousies, and revenges that determines the cast's destiny. What figures as the "Fate" is the compulsive repetition of this drama, the return of a repressed structure of desire across the generations. Notably O'Neill eliminates the more explicit supernatural elements of Fate the Oresteia, be they the gods or spirits. As he notes in his work diary, "[Mourning Becomes Electra] must, before everything, remain modern psychological play-fate springing out of the family."
This story of this fate is a repressed one. The play underscores the repression of the Mannon family history from the outset, such as the townspeople's gossip over the Mannon family secrets. The most important symbol of repression is certainly the house, the mise-en-scène of the house recurring throughout the trilogy. As we will learn in the following act, the house is literally built to cover over the family's disgraces. Moreover, it is constructed through a number of metaphors that make a symbol of its residents, its role as a marker of or monument to repression symbolizing the repressions staged by the players themselves.
The house primarily comes to symbolize its residents through the trope of the mask, its façade evoking the "life-like masks" the Mannons wear as their faces. For O'Neill, the mask most explicitly functions as a symbol of duplicity. As the stage notes indicate, the house wears its most striking feature, the columned portico, like an "incongruous white mask" that hides its ugliness. Similarly, in the following scene, Christine describes the house as a "whited sepulcher." Certainly this metaphor foreshadows the house's ultimate transformation into a family crypt. Here Christine also alludes, however, to a similes Jesus deploys in Matthew 23:27 in condemning hypocrites exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees. In common usage, the metaphor refers to an evil person who hypocritically pretends to be holy or good.
The Mannon mask is not only one of duplicity. Throughout the play, the stage notes underline the function of the mask, carefully describing the characters' various poses, how they assume them, their manipulation, and those poses' disintegration. As they make clear, these sepulchral masks do not only conceal evil but often involve a mortification—a congealing, stiffening, and hardening—of the flesh. Lavinia and Christine, for example, will continually start and then stiffen, regaining their scornful composure. Such mortification is mapped in turn onto the repression of affect and desire. As we will see, these repressions will culminate in the assumption of death masks or a character's entombment in their various personas. Thus the mask of "whited sepulcher" will become his own crypt. As Orin later remarks: "Death becomes the Mannons."
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mourning Becomes Electra!