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Who is Coming Home to Whom? An Examination of Eugene O’Neill’s “Homecoming” as a Retelling of Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon”

The central question of this essay is whether Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play “Homecoming”, the first play of O’Neill’s trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra, is a successful retelling of Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon”, the first play in his trilogy The Oresteia. This paper’s argument is that “Homecoming” does not hold up as a retelling of “Agamemnon”.

The primary reason that “Homecoming” is not a successful retelling[1] of Aeschylus’s “Agamemnon” is that the motivations and characterizations of the protagonists are not in sync with those of the Oresteia. Aeschylus’s plays rely on a circle of violence that is sufficiently changed within “The Homecoming” to make the works distinct from one another. While “Homecoming” and Mourning Becomes Electra as a whole contain a similar cycle of violence to the Oresteia, there is a major change in how and why that violence begins.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia is the act of violence that precedes the Oresteia and is the primary motivator for Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon: “By the child’s Rights I brought to birth/ by Ruin, by Fury – the three gods to whom I sacrifice this man,”[2][3] Thus the cycle of violence within the Oresteia starts due to malevolent actions on Agamemnon’s part. Conversely, the violence within Mourning Becomes Electra starts due to Christine’s actions. While Ezra was a cruel man, he did not kill his own child.

Although both women hate their husbands, Clytemnestra’s violence is motivated by motherly love, while Christine’s violence is motivated by adulterous love. While it is true that Clytemnestra is in love with Aegisthus, just as Christine is in love with Adam Brant, this is not Clytemnestra’s primary motivation. Clytemnestra is primarily motivated by the death of her daughter, and her hatred towards her husband for causing their daughter’s death is already established before she begins her affair with Aegisthus. Christine, by contrast, is primarily motivated by her love of Brant.

One might say that Christine is similar to Clytemnestra in that her love for Orin and Orin’s involvement with the Civil War against her wishes is a driving force in Christine’s hatred for Ezra, and one that parallels the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Even so, this comparison falls short because Orin does not actually die and Christine’s loathing of Ezra predates Orin’s birth. Christine says that she once loved Ezra, “[b]ut marriage soon turned his romance into–disgust!”[4] but does not actually state exactly why, though she alludes to violence done to her by Ezra.

Christine’s added animosity toward Lavinia is an additional factor in “Homecoming” that was not at all present within the Oresteia, especially since Electra does not at all appear in “Agamemnon”. In contrast, Christine tells Lavinia to her face that she never loved her:

I tried to love you. I told myself it wasn’t human not to love my own child, born of my body. But I never could make myself feel you were born of any body but his! You were always my wedding night to me–and my honeymoon![5]

O’Neill has inverted Christine’s motivations from Clytemnestra’s in removing Iphigenia, a daughter loved more than her husband, and causing adversity between Christine and Lavinia, resulting in a lover valued more than a child. Clytemnestra’s issues with Agamemnon are justified and laid out specifically, whereas Christine’s motivations are unexplained other than the uneasiness that she has around him.

I couldn’t fool him long. He’s a strange, hidden man. His silence always creeps into my thoughts. Even if he never spoke, I would feel what was in his mind and some night, lying beside him, it would drive me mad and I’d have to kill his silence by screaming out the truth![6]

Christine’s motivations are a large part of why “Homecoming” falls short as an adaptation of “Agamemnon”, yet the biggest change is not within Christine, but in Ezra. Part of why Christine’s hatred of Ezra is less justifiable than Clytemnestra’s hatred of Agamemnon is because while Ezra is a hard man, his actions are nowhere near as reprehensible as Agamemnon’s. This is seen most clearly through their behavior toward their wives when the actual homecoming takes place.

Upon returning from Troy Agamemnon brings with him Cassandra as his concubine, and insists that Clytemnestra take care of her: “Escort this stranger in, be gentle.” (Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”, trans. Fagles, p. 139, line 948).[7]  No wife would enjoy having her husband come home from a decade-long war and order her to take care of the personal sex slave he brought back. An audience member or reader, especially in the modern world, might find this incredibly distasteful and disrespectful. Ezra’s reaction to Christine could not be more different from Agamemnon’s to Clytemnestra. Rather than bringing home a sex slave and distancing himself from their marriage, Ezra makes a passionate plea for a new start with Christine:

I want to find what that wall is marriage put between us! You’ve got to help me smash it down! We have twenty good years still before us! I’ve been thinking of what we could do to get back to each other. I’ve a notion if we’d leave the children and go off on a voyage together–to the other side of the world–find some island where we could be alone a while. You’ll find I have changed, Christine. I’m sick of death! I want life! Maybe you could love me now! (in a note of final desperate pleading) I’ve got to make you love me![8]

The audience may sympathize with Christine and Brant’s distaste towards Ezra, but for the most part Ezra is genuine in wanting to reunite with Christine, even though his is both violent and jealous. When Ezra first greets Christine after coming home he is formal, but kind: “You have changed, somehow. You are prettier than ever–But you always were pretty.” (O’Neill, “The Homecoming,” Act III, Ezra to Christine while Lavinia watches).

In contrast, Agamemnon’s response to Clytemnestra is one of reproach from her having gone on too long in praising him and trying to make him more delicate and like a woman.

[T]he speech to suit my absence, much too long.

But the praise that does us justice,

let it come from others, then we prize it.

This –

you treat me like a woman.[9][10]

“Homecoming” succeeds in that it preserves the basic story structure of “Agamemnon”: a father who is loved by his children and hated by his wife comes home from war and is killed by his wife, who has been adulterous with his cousin. Nonetheless, the motivations of the characters are sufficiently distinct from the Oresteia that beyond the mirrored base structure, as an adaptation this retelling is not faithful enough to the original for comfortable endorsement as a good adaptation.

Written for CLAS 167B: Classical Myths Told and Retold, April 1st 2018


[1] Comment from my professor: “I don’t think we can be sure if O’Neill actually intended his play to be an exact retelling.  He had other motives in mind, and he used Aeschylus’s ‘Agamemnon’ for those motives.”

[2] Aeschylus, “Agamemnon,” trans. Fagles, New York, Penguin Books, 1984, page 163, lines 1459-1461

[3] Alternative Translation: “By my child’s Justice driven to fulfillment, by/ her Wrath and Fury, to whom I sacrificed this man,” (Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”, trans. Lattimore, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2013, page 70, lines 1432-1433).

[4] Eugene O’Neill, “Homecoming,” in Mourning Becomes Electra, play in four acts:,  Act II, scene 1, Christine to Lavinia

[5] Eugene O’Neill, “Homecoming,” Act II, scene 1, Christine to Lavinia

[6] O’Neill, “Homecoming,” Act II scene 2? Christine to Brant

[7] Alternative Translation: “Take this stranger girl within/ now, and be kind.” (Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”, trans. Lattimore, p. 52, lines 950-951).

[8] O’Neill, “Homecoming,” Act III, Ezra to Christine after Lavinia has gone to bed

[9] Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”, trans. Fagles, p. 139, line 948 [10] Alternative Translation: “You strained it to great length. Yet to properly praise/me thus belongs by right to other lips, not yours./ And all this – do not try in women’s ways to make/ me delicate,” (Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”, trans. Lattimore, p. 50, lines 916-919).

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