Orestes and Oedipus, White and Black: Greek Tragedy and the U.S. Civil War


This essay addresses the question of whether the use of Greek tragedy as model necessarily leads to a conservative work in modern times, through a consideration of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and, to a lesser extent, Rita Dove’s Darker Face of the Earth. Though set immediately after the American Civil War, O’Neill’s play only subtly addressed racial issues. O’Neill was criticized for his approach, and the play is most frequently interpreted as the psychological drama that he asserted it was. O’Neill’s radical politics can be seen in this play, but in his treatment of class/status, not in his treatment of race. Rita Dove has also been criticized for abandoning her responsibilities to her race, but in fact she is addressing race relations in a time of globalism. Putting Mourning Becomes Electra in the context of Dove’s play makes it clear that the turn to antiquity does not itself determine the effect of a modern production.