Michael Redgrave played Harry, Lord Monchensey in the first production of T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Curiously, a few years later, he would be cast as Orin Mannon in the film adaptation (1947) of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Both roles are transpositions of Aeschylus’ Orestes: Eliot’s drama is set in the north of England in the 1930s, O’Neill’s in New England as the Civil War comes to an end. Like Harry, Orin and his sister Lavinia (Electra) carry the weight of a family curse on their shoulders.
In criticising The Family Reunion (an adaptation of The Furies, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy) in “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot admitted to a “failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”; he also regretted not having “taken a great deal more liberty with his [Aeschylus’] myth”. The two most unsatisfactory elements of the play, according to its author, were the incongruity of the chorus and the interference of the Furies.
Eliot’s chorus is made up of Harry’s uncles and aunts. Their speech as individual characters is rife with platitudes and clichés, but when they speak together as a chorus, their tone becomes enigmatic, even oracular. The members of the chorus in Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, are “types of townsfolk […] representing the town,” “a human background for the drama of the Mannons” [*]. They are more distant from the action than Harry’s relatives, but their demeanour and conversation are always realistic.
Like the chorus in The Family Reunion, who may speak poetically “beyond character,” the appearance of the Furies also compromises the play’s realism. O’Neill found a subtle yet effective equivalence for the Furies in his setting: Orin and Lavinia’s guilt for their mother’s suicide and her lover’s murder is symbolised by the staring ghostly portraits of their ancestors in the sitting-room, including “one of a grim-visaged minister of the witch-burning era” (131). The two Mannon children react to the threatening presence of these ghosts, even confront them. Like the portraits, the windows on the façade of the symbolic family house “reflect the sun in a smouldering stare, as of brooding, revengeful eyes” (273). Interestingly, the Furies are first seen in Eliot’s play through a drawing-room window.
Aspects of The Family Reunion that Eliot considered to be errors (poetic language without a clear dramatic purpose, mythological figures at odds with a modern setting) are ironically among the most attractive features of the play. And it is interesting to compare Eliot’s “flaws” with the dramatic solutions reached by O’Neill, the more confident playwright.
[*] Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 17, 113. All quotes from this edition.