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Two days after Ezra's death, a group of townspeople appear on the front steps bidding Christine goodnight. A funeral wreath hangs on the door. Lavinia has gone to meet Orin at the train station, accompanied, at her mother's insistence, by Peter.
Mrs. Borden, the wife of the manager of the Mannon shipping company, remarks that, strangely, Christine appears utterly grief-stricken at Ezra's death while and Lavinia calm as an icicle. Mrs. Hills then tactlessly ruminates that, as her husband the local minister once said, that fate brought Ezra down. The others chastise her. Dr. Blake smugly remarks that, from the symptoms he supposedly described to Christine, he knew his heart would give out. As the group disperses, he smirks to Mr. Borden that lovemaking probably killed him.
Christine emerges from the house. Alone for a moment, she relaxes her mask, letting her eyes and mouth twitch in terror. Hazel joins her on the porch and offers her sympathy and Christine stiffens. When Hazel looks forward to Orin's arrival, Christine declares that she wants Hazel to become Orin's wife, she invites Hazel to become her "secret conspirator" and keep him from Lavinia's crazy fantasies. Lavinia has been following her since Ezra's death, refusing to speak a word. Christine invites an embarrassed Hazel back into the house. At times Orin resembles his father so much that she could not bear to him come up the drive.
As soon they shut the door, Peter, Lavinia, and Orin arrive, all of whom startlingly resemble both Ezra and Brant. Orin is wearing a head-bandage. Peter leaves them alone to catch up. Orin disappointedly complains of Christine's absence. He is awed by the house's tomb-like appearance. When Lavinia reproaches him for his insensitivity, Orin hurriedly and somewhat resentfully replies that he cannot believe Ezra is dead, as he was sure he would outlive him. The war, moreover, has long inured him to death. To him, Ezra was the war, the war that would not end until Orin died.
Abruptly changing the subject, he jealously asks Lavinia about what she wrote him regarding Brant and Christine. Lavinia replies that they have no time to speak now but warns him against believing Christine and letting her baby him again. Suddenly Christine hurries out, reproaching Peter for leaving Orin alone.
Mother and son embrace jubilantly. Noting that his mother has changed, Peter thrusts Christine back and asks what has happened to her. Lavinia warns Orin anew. Christine leads Orin into the house and then suddenly reappears, winningly asking Lavinia to stop tormenting her. She asks if she happened to find her pillbox. When Lavinia does not respond, Christine becomes desperate, insisting that she tell her what she plans to do. Lavinia stalks off. Orin calls Christine from inside, and she tensely re-enters.
As O'Neill repeatedly indicates in the stage notes, the townsfolk function in Mourning Becomes Electra as a chorus of sorts, serving as human backdrop to the major players.
Unlike O'Neill's other choruses, those in Mourning Becomes Electra are not, as Bogard notes, "diagrammatically conceived" as a "symbolic unit." A good example of what Bogard considers O'Neill's "diagrammatically conceived" choruses are the bar patrons in The Iceman Cometh, all of whom are driven by the major thematic conflict over the "pipe dream."
Here, the chorus largely only sets the scene for the events that follow. The gossipy choruses of Mourning Becomes Electra, filled with what Travis Bogard describes as "small town civic type" like carpenters, sailors, clerks, doctors, gossips, visiting cousins, business men, ministers, are peripherally aware of what transpires in the Mannon household. From the chorus, for example, we learn of Lavinia and Christine's response to Ezra's death, Orin's imminent arrival, and that fate is driving this tragedy forward.
Two major scenes follow the exchange between the townspeople, one involving a private conversation between Christine and Hazel and another involving Orin's return. Here the frantic Christine invites Hazel to become her co-conspirator against the Lavinia, a Lavinia who persecutes her with her constant, silent, and sentry-like surveillance. Christine imagines the somewhat one-dimensionally virtuous Hazel as that which she once was: young, innocent, loving, and trusting.
As noted above, the aging Christine is obsessed with the fantasy of a time prior to the father intervention into the mother-son dyad. In this act, Ezra's call to war stands in for this paternal intervention, tearing Orin from Christine's embrace. Christine projects this innocence of the pre-war past onto Hazel and entrusts her with Orin. Certainly, as Orin will observe in the following act, this stratagem is calculated to free herself of her son. More importantly, Christine can brook giving Orin to Hazel as she narcissistically imagines Hazel as a version of herself.
Orin, however, returns from the war in hopes of establishing paradise with his mother anew. Thus Orin pouts with disappointment when Christine is not there to meet him. His resentment for his father is clear and jealously over Brant is readily clear. As we will see, the recreation of Orin and Christine's "secret world" will quickly prove impossible. Orin returns from his father's war a changed man: he is no longer his mother's little boy. The war tears him from the universe of peace, life, and security he shares with Christine, plunging him into a struggle to the death with his fellow men. As discussed above, this struggle, a struggle that makes Orin capable of murder, allegorizes the rivalries the male players stage over the beloved Mother.
Act I ends with a scene that closes two more acts in "The Hunted," in which the desperate Christine prostrates herself before the daughter who hunts her. Whereas Christine has apparently no longer been able to maintain her mask-like composure since her fainting spell, Lavinia is more inflexible than ever, assuming her father's ominous rigidity. As Christine knows all too well, Lavinia's stony silence—reminiscent of her father's judging portrait and accusing corpse—spells her doom.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mourning Becomes Electra!