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Freud in Tragedy

Adam Zakheim's picture

Adam Zakheim

May 15, 2009

Bio202 – Prof. Grobstein

Book Commentary

  Freud in Tragedy 

Published in 1930, Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Become Electra is a trilogy of psychological tragedies capturing the mythical themes of Aeschylus’ Oresteia  (originally performed in 458 BCE) and the infamous trials of Oedipus. The Oresteia series of myths are but a smaller set of chapters in a family history fraught with revenge, retribution and sadness.

            In the Oresteia, which is also a trilogy, the previous injustices committed by King Atreus doom the Atridae family to carry on a cursed tradition, driven by a retributive urge to a state of irredeemable pollution. Aeschylus’ work begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War, and his subsequent murder at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. The conflict between Aegisthus and Agamemnon reveals an aged hatred that, especially following the murder, shatters the family into factions. By the time of the events in Electra, the final play in the trilogy, this hatred develops into a power great enough to incite Orestes and Electra, the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, to commit an unfettered act of matricide.  Once they kill Clytemnestra, and the pressure of the desire to kill her is replaced with the miasma, or pollution, of having killed her, Orestes and Electra recognize the immensity of their actions and immediately lose control and become hysterical. O’Neill’s modern adaptation, which closely adheres to the Aeschylus’ mythical framework, echoes these tropes of justice, retribution and fate.

            O’Neill uses the relationships in the House of Atreus as the basis for the structure of the Mannon family. The Agamemnon of Mourning Becomes Electra, Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon, returns from the Civil War to learn that his wife, Christine, has been engaging in an adulterous affair with Captain Adam Brant. Lavinia and Orin, the children of Ezra and Christine, are akin to Electra and Orestes. After their father’s murder in the “Homecoming,” they seek to avenge his death, redress the evils committed by their mother and, ultimately, destroy the two lovers.

Moreover, the relationship between Orin and Christine evokes elements of the ancient tale of Oedipus. This ancient tragedy, as related by Sophocles in his famed trilogy, is defined by the immutability of fate, as Oedipus unknowingly kills his father, Laius, and marries his mother Jocasta. When Oedpius inherits the kingship of Thebes from his father, a terrible plague sweeps the land and Oedpius is forced to seek out the cause of this divine pestilence. Throughout the play, the prognostic, blind Tiresias explains to Oedpius he is doomed by his own ignorance and fate to live a life of destruction. Eventually, Oedipus learns of his part crimes and upon learning that he murdered his own father, he tears out his eyes and leaves Thebes to wander Greece in sorrow.

This mythic figure, as well as Electra, provides the basis for Freud’s Electra and Oedipal complexes. These complexes arise “when a child desires the parent of the opposite sex and possesses hatred for the parent of the same sex” (1). Given that Frued was alive when this play was written, and that his theories on psychoanalysis became widespread in Europe (O’Neill wrote his work in France) and led to the advent of “psychosomatic medicine” in the 1920’s. (1) These complexes are seen throughout O’Neill’s trilogy to define the relationships between Ezra and Lavinia, and Christine and Orin. The evident influence of the Oedipal myth in the play has attracted much scholarly attention, leading many  “psychoanalysis-oriented critics” to suggest “the play resembles a case-study rather than a powerful tragic drama” (2).

While reading this play, however, I was struck by the evident use of the Freudian conception of the human psyche. Freud thought much of human behavior was dominated by the cognitive unconscious. In order to refine his theory, Freud invented a conceptual framework of the “self” comprising the id, ego and super-ego. According to this model, the “uncoordinated instinctual trends are the ‘id;’ the organized realistic part of the psyche is the ‘ego,’ and the critical and moralizing function the ‘super-ego.’” (3) The ego comprises our cognitive conscious, and acts to mediate the interactions of our cognitive unconscious, which contain the “id” and the “superego.” The “id” is primitive, interchangeable and childlike, focusing on somatic pleasure and gratification (3).  And when the super-ego is unable to suppress these desires, the id dominates our conscious selves.

This idea is echoed in O’Neill’s work, where the main characters are driven by their primitive desires to pursue improper, familial relationships. Christine, for instance, engages in an adulterous affair with Adam Brant because he looks so much like her son, Orin. Her love for Orin arises out of motherly “instinct,” because “when [he] was born he seemed my child, only mine” (4). Orin’s romantic interests in his mother are rooted in his early psychosexual development. As a child, Orin also felt as if he had a stronger connection with his mother than his father, and although his mom deceives Orin by murdering his father, his love prevents him from committing matricide. When Christine commits suicide, however, Orin becomes hysterical and plagued with guilt. This eventually leads him to commit suicide.

In this way, O’Neill likens fate, the driving force of the narrative in the aforementioned ancient works, to the Freudian “id.” Frequently in the play, the characters explain how they feel an inner compulsion, inexplicably driving them to a given course of action. Christine, for instance, believes “some fate” in her mind “forced [her]” to look at medical book and discover the poison she would eventually use to murder her husband” (4). In this way, it seems the characters are doomed by their unconscious “id.” Their fate is sealed, and hence, the play exudes the same tragic atmosphere as the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus.

As a classical history major, it was interesting to see how O’Neill used contemporary psychoanalytical concepts to adapt and modernize these ancient myths. Using this psychological context, O’Neill re-imagines these ancient myths to reveal yet another aspect of the human condition. Literature, like science, entails the constant criticism of current assumptions to generate whole new assumptions. In this way, O’Neill uses the framework provided by the ancient myth to add a new literary element to his characters. We know now Freud’s concept of the tripartite brain doesn’t hold water because it doesn’t include genes and their role in shaping our behavior and psyche. Although Freud and O’Neill missed this part of the puzzle, their works sought to explain and adapt ancient conceptions of the human condition. In conclusion, I found Mourning to be a suitable choice for this review, since it illustrates the “loopy” nature of science and how neurobiological concepts are integrated into new mediums. 





(1) Harrington, Anne. The Cure Within; A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.


(2) Mitić, Petra. The Theme of Oresteia in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Become Electra. Linguistics and Literature Vol. 6, No 1, 2008, pp. 73 - 84


(3) Dahlgren, Carolyn. I am the “I” in Interaction between Instincts and Thought. On the serendip website, /bb/neuro/neuro06/web3/ ml, accessed 11, May 2009.


(4) O’Neill, Eugene. Mourning Become Electra. New York: Horace Liveright Inc., 1931.


Suggestion for further reading;

For a greater investigation of the Freudian concepts at work in this play, see Margaret Loftus Ranald, The Eugene O`Neill Companion, Greenwood Press, 1984