This 1978 production of Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra," is not to be missed. Inspired by Aeschylus' 5th-century BC "Oresteia" trilogy, O'Neill's tragedy, written in 1931, likewise consists of three dramas: "Homecoming," "The Hunted," and "The Haunted." These have been divided into several episodes on two discs. The production is so well done that I watched it straight through from beginning to end.
The actors, the settings, and the costumes are of such outstanding quality that one soon forgets the annoying colorisation of the era. Joan Hackett, surely one of the underrated actresses of the 20th century, infuses the character of Christine Mannon--the Clytemnestra of the drama--with an understated vulnerability that wins her the understanding, if not the sympathy, of the audience. Roberta Maxwell is Hackett's equal in her role as Christine's warped daughter Lavinia--the Electra surrogate--in whom smolder fires of jealousy against her mother and overwrought love for her father. It is fascinating to see Lavinia gradually evolve into the persona of her hated mother as the play progresses. Eugene O'Neill, in fact, has performed a remarkable reversal on the Aeschylean original, which moves from a situation in which the characters, bound by fate at the beginning of the drama, are eventually released as the plot unfolds. O'Neill's drama works from the opposite perspective. Instead of unfolding, the events of the tragedy spiral in ever-narrowing circles around Lavinia, until she is bound inextricably in a net of her own weaving.
Erich Segal's commentary at the end of each episode is especially enlightening, both in respect to O'Neill as a playwright and his concentration on Electra [Lavinia] whom, Segal notes, O'Neill considered a character that Aeschylus relegated to the sidelines in the "Oresteia". Those who remember Erich Segal only as the author who struck it rich with the Hollywood tearjerker "Love Story," need to be reminded that he had a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard and was a professor of Latin and Greek at Yale. He is therefore qualified to present an informed commentary on the play. Despite the rather stilted camera work [i.e., look into camera A; now look into camera B] Segal's comments are both interesting and insightful.
Much effort and money went into this production for Connecticut Public Television, as is evident in the exquisite 1860's costumes and the elegant detail of the interior of the Mannon household. As in Aeschylus' "Agamemnon," the first play of his trilogy, the house itself is central to the tragedy. A Greek revival antebellum structure, its high porch, complete with fluted ionic columns and double doors, becomes a stage for the drama, and the black wreaths of mourning periodically hung on its white walls lend stark emphasis to the tragedy. O'Neill's ending to his trilogy makes Aeschylus' metaphor of the "witnessing walls" devastatingly explicit. Composer Maurice Jarre sets the mood with music which, in its subtle creepiness, is as unlike his opulent melodic scores for "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago" as it is possible to be.
Eugene O'Neill's trilogy may be from the previous century, but with the superb realization of his characters as performed by Hackett and Maxwell, it withstands the test of time.