Modern (1931) trilogy of plays (The Homecoming, The Hunted, The Haunted) written by American playwright Eugene O'Neill, based more or less directly on the Oresteia by the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus. Centering on the tragic consequences of passion-driven acts within the confines of execessively stringent and strait-laced society, O'Neill set his action in post Civil War New England, where psychological pathologies and Puritan repression take the place of the Greeks' Fates and Furies in driving men's deeds and then punishing them.

Ezra Mannon has been away at war, leaving his wife, Christina, and daughter, Lavinia, at home. Their son Orin has been fighting in the war also, and is deeply troubled by his experiences. Captain Adam Brant has sworn revenge on the Mannon family - his mother was a servant girl, his father a Mannon, related to Ezra; the Mannons let her die sick and destitute. In the course of exploring how to exact his revenge Brant has fallen in love with Christine and she with him. Meanwhile, Lavinia has become infatuated with Brant. Lavinia has threatened to expose Christine and Adam when Ezra returns unless they break it off, which she imagines will leave Captain Brant for her. Christine persuades Brant to help her poison Ezra, whom she despises, before Lavinia can act.

Lavinia learns of the crime and torments her mother; the two vie for Orin's trust when he returns, broken, from the war. Orin, deeply devoted to his mother, refuses to believe Lavinia, and Christine tries to portray Lavinia as addled. Lavinia and Orin follow their mother to Brant's ship after Ezra's funeral, where they hear the murderers planning their new lives. Orin soon shoots Brant dead, believing him responsible for Ezra's death and for despoiling his mother. When he and Lavinia reveal his deed to Christine, she kills herself.

Lavinia and Orin sail to the decidedly un-Puritanical South Seas, leaving their past behind, and for a time enjoy freedom and liberation. The now comely Lavinia looks forward to conventional domestic bliss, but Orin slowly goes mad from guilt. Lavinia convinces Orin that in a way they had saved their mother from public humiliation and execution that would have been the consequences of her crime. The sister-brother relationship devolves into one where Orin is acutely dependent on Lavinia and she feels the need to control the ever more erratic Orin. On their return to New England Lavinia renews her relationship with previously rejected suitor Peter Niles; Orin takes up with Peter's sister Hazel after having reacted with a sort of jealousy over Lavinia and Peter. Orin starts writing an account of all the sordid events to assuage his guilt, but becomes more jealous of Peter and distrustful of Lavinia, who he knows fears he will expose her and ruin everything. Lavinia finally uses her emotional power and a few choice words to drive Orin to suicide. In the middle of protesting her innocence to Hazel, Lavinia understands that there is no escape from the twisted past of her family. She renounces everything and goes to live in the shuttered Mannon home, to suffer in dark solitude for the rest of her life.


The Freudian complexities of the relationships within the plays are no accident - O'Neill put great stock in them and used them extensively. The Electra Complex, a sort of female counterpart to Freud's famous Oedipus Complex, gets its name from the female role corresponding to Lavinia in Aeschylus' original work. O'Neill is brilliant at showing the variety of ways love and life get misdirected in the course of trying to mold ourselves to commonly held views of propriety and productivity. Each of the plays culminates in an actual death, but the characters are essentailly dead already, since they have chosen to deny life and love, sinking into isolation that breeds madness. A key difference between O'Neill's denouement and that of Aeschylus is that, in the latter, things are resolved by events coming into line with the laws of the Gods and Man - Orestes (Orin) survives and becomes sane and so forth. The conclusion of The Haunted leaves us with the confirmation of the power of the curse, the inescapability of the sentence.

It would seem that O'Neill's message was that we're all doomed to such fates so long as societal restraints and approval systems lead us to choose isolation and mis-directed passions over community, fraternity, and love for all. Maybe society will eventually change and show that he's right.

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