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Mourning Becomes Electra


Central to the musical plan of Mourning Becomes Electra, O'Neill's retelling of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, is "Shenandoah," the chanty which many collectors feel is the most beautiful and moving song to come from the seamen's work gangs. Originally it was probably a voyageur's song, a river song that perhaps encompassed elements of a folk ballad telling of the love of the singer for an Indian woman. Whatever its origin, it went to sea easily. Its melodic contour rises and falls like a slow breaking wave, emerging and returning from a placid sea. O'Neill wrote to his friend, the critic George Jean Nathan, that "It's the most haunting of all the old chanties a yearning melancholy tune with a beautiful sad sea rhythm to it a longing to escape." His first description of the song states that more than any other it "holds in it the brooding rhythm of the sea."

As a musical theme for the trilogy, the chanty served O'Neill's purpose well. The play begins with a view of the Mannon mansion, while from the distance, a band plays "John Brown's Body." "Borne on the light puffs of wind this music is at times quite loud, then sinks into faintness as the wind dies." The drift of far-off music sets the period and the relative isolation of the house, and as the play turns to its study of the Mannons in their isolation, Seth Beckwith, the hired man, is heard singing "Shenandoah" in a thin and aged voice, "the wraith of what must once have been a good baritone." He finishes the song as he enters, and the story begins.

The song frames the play. At the trilogy's end, as she deter-mines to punish herself, Lavinia Mannon hears Seth singing the chanty's refrain, "Way, I'm bound away." Picking up the significant word from the refrain, she says to Seth, "I'm not bound away not now, Seth. I'm bound here to the Mannon dead!" Shortly she turns and enters the house as Seth begins to nail up the shutters.

O'Neill thus makes the song the center of a melancholy pun on the word "bound": bound away to freedom as on a ship, or bound as with ropes. It is heard at crucial moments, punctuating the play with a quiet irony. Seth sings it just before Ezra Mannon returns to meet Agamemnon's fate in the confines of the house after his war service, and it is heard twice during the scene in act 5 of "The Hunted," when Christine Mannon, Ezra's wife, commits suicide, once to be interrupted by the sound of the shot, and a little later with a different verse, "She's far across the stormy water," a brief elegy for the dead woman.

In act 4 of "The Hunted," O'Neill uses it extensively. As the scene opens, a drunken chantyman appears along the dark wharf. He hears a ship departing, its chantyman singing "Shenandoah." The singing is not to his taste: "A hell of a chantyman that feller be!" he growls. "I'll give him a taste of how 'Shenandoah' ought t' be sung!" He has "a surprisingly good tenor voice, a bit blurry with booze now and sentimentally mournful to a degree, but still managing to get full value out of the chanty". As he sings it he adds a new line, "I love your daughter..." anticipating the scene to be played shortly between the frightened lovers, and calling to mind that Christine's lover, Adam Brant, made a pretense of courting Lavinia even as he carried on an affair with her mother. The chantyman, criticizing his own singing as being unworthy of "Shenandoah," changes his song to "A Bottle o' Wine and a Bottle o' Beer...." Adam Brant appears on the deck of his clipper ship, and the two join in expressing their love for sailing ships. The chantyman to demonstrate his prowess as a singer starts the melodramatic chanty, "Hanging Johnny" : "They say I hanged my mother, Oh hang, boys, hang!" Brant hears it with a premonition of his death to come: "Damn that chanty! It's sad as death! I've a foreboding I'll never take this ship to sea. She doesn't want me now a coward hiding behind a woman's skirts! The sea hates a coward!"

The dreams shared by Christine and her lover and by her daughter and son, Lavinia and Orin, for escape to some Blessed Isle where they may be free from the contentious hatred of the Mannon household, blend with the image of the sea that the chanties weave into the action. These are an ironic reminder of failed hope and of love turned to hatred and pain.

(In the distance from the town, a band is heard playing "John Brown's Body.")  [II, 893,898]

John Brown's Body - words traditionally, published 1861, Tune: "(Say) My Brother Will You Meet Me?", published 1858

(...a man's voice is heard singing the chanty "Shenandoah."... The voice grows quickly nearer. It is thin and aged, the wraith of what must once have been a good baritone.) [II, 893, 928, 985, 1002-3, 1045, 1053]

Shenandoah - traditional ca. 1826

Chantyman A hell of a chantyman that feller be! Screech owls is op'ry singers compared to him!... (He begins to sing...) [II, 984-5, 1007]

A Bottle o' Wine and a Bottle o' Beer - traditional

Chantyman All you need is a good chantyman to help ye. Her's "Hanging Johnny" fur ye!...
(harshly) Stop that damned dirge! And get out of here! Look lively now! [II, 988]

Hanging Johnny - traditional

Ames (derisively) You like your bottle 'ceptin' when your old woman's got her eye on ye!
She's visitin' her folks to New Beford. What the hell I care! (bursts into song...) "Hurrah! Hurrah! I sing the jubilee. Hurrah! Hurrah! Her folks has set me free!"
 (slapping him on the back) God damn you, Joe, you're gittin' to be a poet! (They all laugh.) [II, 1008]

Marching through Georgia - words and music by Henry Clay Work, published 1865


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