O’Neill’s Misunderstanding of Freud’s Psychoanalysis

Ramón Paredes
(Major American Playwrights)


         Mourning Becomes Electra is certainly—structurally, in construc­tion— Eugene O’Neill’s best work. It’s also true that it follows Aeschy­lus’ Oresteia patterns. But it’s in Morning Becomes Electra also where Mr. O’Neill’s inter­pretation of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis is a to­tally disaster.
          It’s true that Ezra and Orin are away, an element that Freud fol­lowers have seen as a turning point in the development of the Oedi­pus/Electra complex. In the play, Christine longs for her son Orin, and Lavinia longs for her father. “A parent may try to curb the child’s moves away,” writes Hamilton, “because unwittingly he or she equates turning away with rejection” (223). “I loved [Orin]”, Christine says, “until he let you and your father nag him into the war, in spite of my begging him not leave me alone” (O’Neill: I.2, 250).
         It’s also true that Lavinia was born an unwanted child, as Oedipus, according to the Euripidus’ version. “I never could make myself feel you were born of any body but his,” Christine tells Lavinia. “You were al­ways my wedding night to me—and my honeymoon!” (I.2, 251).
         But it’s not true, as Fritz Wittels writes, that O’Neill constructed his play “with a profound knowledge of Freud’s incest complex” (379). On the contrary, the play shows how much did O’Neill misunderstand Freud: O’Neill not only ignored Freud’s theory of the unconscious (his charac­ters, after all, do not “make a secret of their [Oedipus complex] for a moment; they all wear their subconscious on their sleeves,” as Laszlo puts it [127]), but he also ignored Aeschylus’ characters’ uncon­scious and conscious motives to do what they did. At the end, his char­acters are false, and the Oedipus complex itself is forced.

Freud’s Influence, and Theory.
         Probably Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis didn’t have such an enormous effect in any other country as the one it had in the United States. In effect, Freud’s psychoanalysis was welcomed by the American “souls that had been withered by puritanism,” as writes B. Nagy Lasz­lo. “The American citizen seemed to recognize his own reality” in Freud’s theory (124).
         Certainly, the American writers during the late twenties and thirties tried to incorporate Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis into their litera­ture. Freud’s theory was, as writes Maurice Le Bre­ton, “fashionable” (65) in the United States. Among those writers, William Faulkner (1897-1962), in narrative, and Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), in the theater, are pro­bably the most important. The best examples are, per­haps, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and O’Neill’s Dynamo (1924-28), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Strange Inter­lude (1928), Mourn­ing Becomes Electra (1929-30), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1941-43).
         In effect, even though O’Neill was heavily influenced by Scho­penhauer, Nietzsche, Inge and Jung, in philosophy, and Ibsen, Shaw, Strind­berg, Aeschylus and Sophocles, in drama (Martine: 19, 24, 196), O’Neill’s major influence—especially in Mourning Becomes Electra— was Freud.But if it’s well true that O’Neill was heavily influenced by Freud in Mourning Becomes Electra, it’s also true that O’Neill did not under­stand Freud at all. Even in his most successful dramas (i.e. Strange Inter­lude, Mourning Becomes Electra), to use Ervine’s words, “psycho­analysis... plays havoc with Mr. O’Neill’s thought” (87).
         As it’s well known, Freud borrowed the Oedipal [1] legend to point out that all children, normal and neurotic, have an affective fixation toward their parent of the opposite sex. The myth of King Oedipus, Freud wrote, “is only the slightly altered presentation of the infantile wish” (Rickman: 28). But, as we know, Oedipus married Jocaste, “unaware that she was his mother” (Hamilton: 209). For Freud, however, there’s what he calls unconscious motivation—“actions which, though not intended (consciously), nevertheless were compulsive enactments of inner latent wishes” (Hamilton: 210).
         According to Freud, “the mind could be considered to consist of three systems—the Conscious, the Preconscious and the Unconscious” (Isbister: 168). Graphically, Freud’s system would look like this: [2]

         The unconscious, Freud says, is “something that could never fully be understood,” but that it contains basic instincts and drives which are “primarily sexual—he called the energy behind the drives the ‘libido’.” These drives “were constantly seeking discharge” and they “included infantile bisexual impulses, sexual longings and jealousies di­rected at and against parents (the Oedipal desires).” Those drives, though, are most of the times diverted—they are “prevented from reaching consciousness by repression or censorship.” [3]
         Freud’s theory, however, was misunderstood for years, not only in psyc­ho­logy, but also in literature, and other sciences.
         In psychology, for example, in 1923, A. Wohlgemuth in his “examin­ation” of Freud’s psychoanalysis, writes that Freud’s use of Oedipus was “inappropriate, for Oedipus had no such desires [killing his father]. He slew a man in combat without knowing who he was, and it was not found out until years afterwards that he had killed his father” (147). He goes on, saying that other ex­amples were “more appropriate” to illus­trate Freud’s theory. For exam­ple, in the Bible, Lot and his daughter; in mytho­logy, Jupiter’s incest with his mother Ceres, and his daughter Liberia or Proserpina, and Myrrha and Cinyras; in history, “Marozia, or Mariuc­cia, and her two sons, the elder, Arberic, and the younger, who be­came Pope John XI,” and “Neross intercourse with his mother Agrip­pina and that of Ninias with his mother Semiramis” (147). As it may be noticed, Mr. Wohlgemuth didn’t understand that his examples were use­less—they represent ac­tions taken consciously, while Freud was thinking of “actions not intended consciously” (Hamilton: 210).
         Similar misunderstanding is found on Eugene O’Neill’s play, Mourning Becomes Electra. When he wrote the play, Sophus Kieth Winther tells us, he was trying “to make the Electra story convincing to a contemporary audience” (183)—he was re-writing Aeschylus’ Oresteia Trilogy, in which we find the other side of the Oedipus complex, the Electra complex. But Mr. O’Neill not only failed to really understand Aeschylus’ play, he also failed to understand Freud’s theory.

O’Neill’s Works, and Freud’s Influences.
         Basically, O’Neill’s plays can be divided into four stages: by their, (a) structure, and (b) themes. Peter Egry divides them struc­turally in­to, (1) “condensed” one-act plays (i.e. A Wife for Life and Warning, 1913; Fog and Abortion,  1914; The Sniper, 1915; Before Break­fast, 1916-17; Shell-shock, The Rope, The Dreamy Kid and Where the Cross is Made, 1918-1919); (2) the four Glen­cairn plays, “conceived as one-acters” but with more coherence in “concept, theme, character, and method”; (3) “a series of scenes, ar­ranged in a cascade-connection with a mounting ten­sion,” with an ex­pressionist tendency (The Emperor Jones, 1920; The Hairy Ape, 1921), and (4) “structural reintegration”: plays di­vided into acts, or scenes and acts, where he combines expressionist and realistic elements (i.e. Anna Christie, 1921; Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Be­comes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, Long Journey Into Night, 1935-1941; A Moon for the Misbegotten; A Touch of the Poet, 1935-42; More Stately Mansions, 1939-41) (102-103).
         Leon Mirlas, meanwhile, divided them by theme: (1) “humanity dreams” (The Straw, Beyond the Horizon, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings; (2) “human personality, vacillating and un­formed” (The Hairy Ape) and “contradictory, disintegrated, multifaceted” (The Great God Brown); (3) “dramas of love” (Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Diff’rent, and Mourning Becomes Electra); and (4) the dramas in which God is debated (Days Without End, Dynamo) (102-103).
         Moreover, Desire, Strange and Mourning  are not only connected by the “structural reintegration” and the use of expressionist and realistic elements, or by being “dramas of love,” but they are also connected thematically by Freud’s psychoanalysis: they examine, together with Dy­namo and A Moon for the Misbegotten, the Oedipus complex—or the de­sire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex. But as the complex itself, it did work better when O’Neill dealt with it uncon­sciously.
         In those plays where O’Neill used unconsciously Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, he was far more successful. Desire Under the Elms is probably the best example. When Peter says, Ephraim is “our Paw,” Eben says violently, “Not mine!” (O’Neill: 1.2, 6). Later, Simeon asks Eben if he’s going to see his lover Minnie—who is much older than him, and he says they are Ephraim’s “heirs in everythin’!—implying that Minnie was their father’s lover. “I’ll go smash my fist in her face!,” he says, but soon he admits he may go and rather “kiss her” (1.2, 9-10). When the brother mention their father’s new lover, it’s clear Eben is going to try to make her his, too (1.3, 12). Immediately Abbie arrives, she tells Eben “I’m yer new Maw” and when Eben stares at her, he’s “physically at­tracted to her” (1.4, 21). As we know, Abbie and Eben end up sleeping together and having a child.
         A Moon for the Misbegotten is another play where O’Neill was uncon­sciously influenced by Freud. The play centers upon the dilemma of James Tyrone, Jr., drunk almost into unconsciousness, while bringing his mother’s body back East for burial. He’s “involved” with Josie, a twenty-eight, oversized Irish woman who has been deceived by the fa­ther. At the end of the play, Tyrone, drunk, lies on Josie’s breast while she comforts him as a mother. Josie, as noticed Laszlo, becomes “for a moment the mother of” James. Unlike Mourning Becomes Electra, however, its characters are not false. “The longing here for the mother’s lap and the longing to be a mother are so more real, so much more true,” adds Laszlo, “than the false and decadent incest complex of the Electra” (131).
         In Dynamo, the Oedipus complex “in a sense wrecked the play,” as writes Winther (39). In Strange Interlude, “ideas on neurology are as far removed from fact as Ibsen’s idea of inherited taint in Ghosts” (Ervine: 87).  In it, Professor Leeds is consciously in love with his daughter Nina (“I was jealous of Gordon,” he says; “I wanted to keep your love... I did my best to prevent your marriage”), and he uses Charlie Marsden as a foil, for Marsden was consciously in love with his mother; Nina’s son, Gordon consciously hates his actual father, Edmund Darrell.

Mourning Becomes Electra.
         The major active and passive characters in Mourning Becomes Elec­tra, are:

         However, behind those characters, there’s a set of relations so com­plicated and unbelievable that only O’Neill could understand—and be­lieve.
         Adam Brant (Aegisthus), a blood relative to the Mannons, resem­bles Ezra (Agamemnon) and Ezra’s son, Orin (Orestes). O’Neill forces Seth to say to Lavinia —who, consciously know— how much Brant looks like Ezra. “He ain’t only like your Paw,” he says. “He’s like Orin, too” (I.1, 239). When we see Ezra’s portrait, “one is at once struck by the startling likeness between him and Adam Brant” (I.2, 247). When we meet Orin, O’Neill over-emphasizes, again, Brant, Ezra and Orin’s resem­blances. “Although [Orin] is only twenty,” O’Neill writes, “he looks thirty” (II.1, 287).
         Christine (Clytemnestra), Ezra’s wife, resembles Marie Brantome, Brant’s mother, with whom Ezra was in love as a child. Lavinia, Ezra and Chris­tine’s daughter, resembles Christine. Christine is forty, says O’Neill, but “she appears younger” (I.1, 230). Lavinia “is twenty-three but looks considerably older” (I.1, 231). “One is immediately struck,” O’Neill adds, “by [Lavinia] facial resemblances to [Christine]” (I.1, 231).
         As a result, the graphic now would look like this:

         (a) Ezra (1) married Christine because she resembles his first love, Marie Brantome. “O’Neill makes it clear,” writes Winther, “that it was Christine’s likeness to Marie that determined Ezra’s falling in love [with Christine]” (181). He (2) loves his daughter because she resembles Marie, and Christine. When you turned to Orin, Ezra says to Christine, “I turned to Vinnie, but a daughter’s not a wife” (I.3, 270).
         (b) Brant consciously loves Christine and Lavinia, because they re­semble his mother. “You’re so like your mother,” Brant says to Lavinia. “Your face is the dead image of hers. And look at your hair... I only know of one other woman who had [Christine and Lavinia’s hair]... It was my mother” (I.1, 24).
         (c) Lavinia is (1) consciously in love with her father. When Peter asks indirectly Lavinia for marriage, she says, “I can’t marry anyone, Peter... Father needs me.” “He’s got your mother,” Peter says. “He needs me more” (I.1, 235), Lavinia answers. “You’ve tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin!” Christine tells her (I.2, 251). When Ezra comes home, Lavinia says to him, “You’re the only man I’ll ever love!” (I.3, 266).
         Lavinia is (2) also consciously in love with her brother Orin, because he resembles her father. “I love [Orin] better than you!” Lavinia tells Christine (I.2, 250).
         She is (3) also in love with Brant because he resembles her father and her brother. “You wanted Adam Brant for your­self!” Christine yells at Lavinia (I.2, 251).
         (d) Christine (1) consciously loves her son Orin. Ezra hated him, Christine tells her son, “because he knew I loved you better than any­thing in the world!” (II.2, 297). She had loved Orin, she admits to Lavinia, “Until he let you and your father nag him into the war, in spite of my beg­ging him not leave me alone” (I.2, 251).
         Christine falls in love (2) with Brant, because he resembles her son Orin. “I never would have fallen in love with Adam,” Christine says to Lavinia, “if I’d had Orin with me... When he had gone there was nothing left... [but] a longing for love!” (I.2, 250). When Brant sees the resem­bles between him and Ezra, he says to Christine, “It would be dammed queer if you fell in love with me because I recalled Ezra Mannon to you.“ “No, no, I tell you!” says Christine. “It was Orin you made me think of! It was Orin!” (I.2, 254).
         (e) Orin (1) consciously loves his mother. “We had a secret little world of our own in the old days, didn’t we?” Christine asks Orin. “Which no one but we knew about” (II.2, 296). “I’ll tell you the truth, Mother!” Orin says to Christine, “I won’t pretend to you I’m sorry [Ezra] is dead!” (II.2, 297). “There was no one there but you and me,” Orin says to her (II.2, 300).
         Orin kills (2) Brant because, (a) his mother loves him, and (c) he re­sembles his father. When he kills Brant, he says “By God, he does look like Father.” “I’ve killed him before [in my dream] —over and over” (II.4, 322).
         Finally, Orin falls consciously in love with (3) Lavinia because she resembles his mother, and unconsciously, because she resembles Marie. In the last part, Lavinia has “become” Christine. “She now bears a striking resemblance to her mother in every respect” (III.1, 340). “You don’t know how like Mother you’ve become, Vinnie,” Orin says to Lavinia. “I don’t mean only how pretty you’ve gotten” (III.2, 343). Later, Lavinia “kisses” and “soothes” him. Talking to Peter, Orin resents Lavinia’s behavior with men in the Islands (III.2, 346-7), and when he sees her kissing Peter, he “glares at them with jealous rage” (III.3, 349). While talking to Hazel, Orin says, “Don’t ask me. I love [Lavinia]” (III.3, 361). When Lavinia promises Orin she’ll do anything he wants her to, she discov­ers he has been wanting to sleep with her. “I love you now with all the guilt on me,” he says. “Perhaps I love you too much, Vinnie!” (III.3, 364). To conclude the circle, before his suicide, he says to Lavinia, “Perhaps you’re Marie Brantome, eh?” (III.3, 365).
         Evidently, as Laszlo points out, those characters do not make a se­cret of their Oedipal complex for a moment: “they all wear their subcon­scious on their sleeves” (127).
         As for Aeschylus’ Oresteia, even though O’Neill “proudly and openly reveals” the trilogy was his model (Wittels: 378), “how different are the tragic heroes!” (Laszlo: 127), and how uneven are “the spiritual values” (Ervine: 86) in both plays.
         It’s true that O’Neill successfully turned, (a) Aeschylus’ ancient hu­manism into decadent self-destruction (Laszlo: 127); (b) Aeschylus’ sense of fate into philosophical determinism (Winther: 178); and (c) Aeschylus’ “feminine characters in conformity with the changed social status of women since the days of antiquity” (Wittels: 378-9).
         However, since O’Neill —to begin with— misunderstood Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, he also misunderstood Aeschylus’ characters’ un­cons­cious and conscious motives to do what they did.
         Since Clytemnestra, in Aeschylus, and Christine, in O’Neill, are in the center of both plays, let’s compare them.
         As St. John Ervine rightly put it, “Clytemnestra had... substantial reasons for murdering Agamemnon, apart from any over-ruling power may have compelled her to commit the crime.” For example, when warned that the Trojans could be defeated only if Iphigenia, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s older daughter, were offered to the gods, Agamemnon reluctantly consents to her sacrifice. Christine, meanwhile, “make a vague complain against Mannon’s behavior on her weeding night”! (86-87).
         In Aeschylus, the house of Atreus is possessed of a religious evil (Ervine: 87); in O’Neill, the Mannon house is possessed by the Mannon spirit!
         In Oresteia, Clytemnestra is one of Agamemnon’s spoils of the ten-year siege of Troy (Ervine: 87), but what is Christine spoiled of? We don’t know —only O’Neill seemed to know.
         “Compared with Clytemnestra,” writes Ervine, “Christine is motive­less; a mawkish schoolgirl with a crude, novelettish mind. Psychoanaly­sis, as it is understood in Greenwich Village, plays havoc with Mr O’Neill’s thought in this play, as it does in a badly bungled piece, Strange Interlude, where ideas on neurology are as far removed from fact as Ibsen’s idea of inherited taint in Ghosts” (87).
         But if Mourning Becomes Electra doesn’t measure to Aeschylus’ Oresteia —the trilogy O’Neill used as his model—, and it does fail to fol­low any convincing understanding of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis —which was O’Neill’s major influence—, does the play have any literary values? Certainly: Mourning Becomes Electra is a well-structured play. Even the critics who have pointed out the play’s major flaws recognize it’s “theatrically effective” (Laszlo: 127), and “superbly constructed” (Ervine: 86). Mourning Becomes Electra is, indeed, Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece.

Works Cited

Egry, Peter. “`Belonging’ Lost: Alienation and Dramatic Form in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape,” in James J. Martine’s Critical Essays on Eu­gene O’Neill, pp. 77-106.

Ervine, St. John. “Counsels of Despair,” in Horst Frenz and Susan Tuck’s Eugene O’Neill’s Critics: Voice from Abroad, pp. 78-90.

Frenz, Horst and Tuck, Susan. Editors. Eugene O’Neill’s Critics. Voices from Abroad. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Hamilton, Victoria. Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanaly­sis. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.)

Isbister, J. N. Freud: An Introduction to His Life and Work. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985.)

Laszlo, B. Nagy. “The O’Neill Legend,” published in Horst Frenz and Su­san Tuck’s Eugene O’Neill’s Critics, pp. 122-133.

Le Breton, Maurice. “Eugene O’Neill and the American Theatre,” in Horst Frenz and Susan Tuck’s Eugene O’Neill’s Critics, 64-69.

Lorand, Sandor. Editor. Psychoanalysis Today. New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1948.

Martine, James J., Editor. Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill. Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984.

Mirlas, Leon. “The Scope of O’Neill’s Drama,” in Eugene O’Neill’s Critics: Voices from Abroad, 101-109.

O’Neill, Eugene. Three Plays. (Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra.) New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Olsen, Ole Andkjaer, and Koppe, Simo. Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis. Translated from the Danish by Jean-Christian Delay and Carl Peder­sen, with the assistance of Patricia Knudsen. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

Rickman, John. Editor. General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1957.

Winther, Sophus Keith. Eugene O’Neill. A Critical Study. New York: Rus­sell & Russell, 1961.

Wittels, Fritz. “Psychoanalysis and Literature,” in Sandor Lorand’s Psy­choanalysis Today, pp. 371-380.

Wohlgemuth, A. A Critical Examination of Psycho-Analysis. (London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1923.)


[1] As for the term complex, as Olsen and Koppe suggest, it’s “normally attributed to Jung.” Freud began to use it in 1910, but for him, complex "means almost the same as structure” of “ideas, fantasies, emotional ties” (192).

[2]Adapted from Isbister.

[3] Later on, Freud introduced two new forms of censorship. “He intro­duced a second category of instincts—the self preservative drives (or ‘ego drives’) to account for the aggression; he introduced the concept of narcissism (self-love)” (Isbister: 170). In 1923, he introduced a new model, the structural mode. “The Super-ego,” Freud wrote in 1925, “is the heir of the Oedipus complex and represents the ethical standards of mankind” (Isbister: 170). But, as writes Isbister, Freud never really abandoned completely his first the­ory—he always insisted the Oedipus complex was the fundamental structure of the unconscious.



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