- “It’s Queer, It’s like Fate”1: Tracking Queer in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra
Set in New England just after the American Civil War, Mourning Becomes Electra (henceforth MBE) rewrites the Oresteia while strongly recalling the Oedipus Rex at the same time. In 1930, in a diary he kept during the writing process and one year before the premiere, Eugene O’Neill called the trilogy “a ‘psychological drama of lust’” and wondered whether it would be possible to achieve “a ‘modern psychological approximation of [the] Greek sense of fate’” when writing for an audience that had little belief in divine punishment for wrong-doers (Bogard 1972, 335–6 [cf. Alexander 1992, 149–50]). This questioning stance was certainly rhetorical as O’Neill already had something in mind: desire, both obvious and occluded, is a strong representative of fate in the trilogy. It is desire that leads inexorably to two murders, two suicides, and permanent self-imposed isolation from society for a fifth character.2 Indeed, and this is where the connection to the Oedipus Rex is abundantly in evidence, one might say that the trilogy evokes and stages in its plot the sexualized stages of maturation that Freud identifies through the spectacularized and heteronormative failures O’Neill puts on stage; the subjectivity of Orin (and, to a lesser extent, that of Lavinia) has failed to develop according to the popularized (and often misunderstood) notions of Freud3 and Jung.4 And it is not for lack of trying: both Orin (the Orestes figure) and Lavinia (the Electra figure) have ‘proper’ sexual attitudes toward their parents which they fail to give up as they should. The Oedipal rages against his father Ezra and love for his mother Christine on the part of Orin, and Lavinia’s hatred of her mother and love for her father, concretize the Oedipus and Electra complexes most handily.
O’Neill certainly saw the drama in psychological terms and even though it is set in the previous century, the words themselves and the concepts that will make the dramatic action meaningful were to be those of the present day:
[T]he dialogue is colloquial of today. The house, the period costumes, the Civil War surface stuff, these are masks for what is really a modern [End Page 131] psychological drama with no true connection with that period at all.(O’Neill in a letter to the Theatre Guild [7 April 1931], in Bogard 1972, 343 [cf. Pfister 1995, 93])
In O’Neill’s hands, the ever pliable story of the house of Atreus embodies on this occasion an externalization of the travails of early modern persons as they grope (unsuccessfully in this case) to come to terms with the demands of civilized personhood. The trilogy breathes the air pervaded by Freud’s recent theorizations and converses in Freud’s language metaphorically (i.e., through the plot itself) and, of course, with less sophistication. But such presentation and mirroring of intellectual ideas of the day have been the staple of the Western stage since its very beginnings. O’Neill stands squarely in this tradition of serious drama with this trilogy.5
Within this oppressively heteronormative milieu, it is intriguing—and this is the subject of this paper—that the word ‘queer’ occurs 31 times. It is odd that amid so much dreary misdirected and tragically stagey heterosexuality this word plays a prominent role. It is my belief that given O’Neill’s emphasis on up-to-date language this frequency allows us to consider anything these characters utter as potentially meaningful in the American context of the 1920s and 1930s—what queer might be doing in the trilogy especially should attract our attention, for it was rapidly acquiring a sexualized aura at this time. And even if O’Neill was not alert to all the valences that queer had acquired, they would have been known to at least some of his cosmopolitan Eastern seaboard audience (to say nothing of later audiences down to the present day). Furthermore, laying emphasis on the contemporary meaning of ‘queer’ would constitute a legitimate reading practice on the testimony of O’Neill himself. What I will be...