Electra in Greece
by Thalia Valeta
As an actor I feel honoured to speak about this great play by Sophocles and the character of Electra. My experience of Electra was when I played her mother Clytemnesta in the Libation Bearers by Aeschylus (Turtle Key Arts Center London, October 1997), her aunt Helen of Troy in Orestes by Euripides, and the chorus in Electra by the same (Agamemnon's Children Gate Theatre, April 1995). Strangely enough, in the Libation Bearers, I didn't think of Electra at all. My attention and concentration playing Clytemnestra was how to save my life from Orestes' knife. It was a gun in that particular production. Only in a flashback she was coming into my thoughts, together with other people, when I had to say - in the Ken McLeish translation - 'Now is my ruin quite complete. Oh curse that haunts this house never to be layed, how well you spy us out.' As her aunt. I somehow cared for her, pitying her: 'Electra virgin still virgin, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra poor soul, how are you?' And as the chorus in the Euripides play, I was supporting her: 'Electra, it's happening. Things are on the mend, bad times are over, soon misery will end.'
As a researcher I feel like a triple-agent. In1999 I was invited by Desmi in Greece to speak about ancient Greek plays in England. Last year I was in Egypt looking for performances of ancient Greek plays. I haven't found very much, as Professor Oliver Taplin warned me, but I brought what I found and made a short film. Now here I am in Cambridge, the peak of English Theatre, to speak about Electra in Greece.
My presentation is based on information I found in books, newspapers, reviews and interviews. All the material is translated from the Greek. I tried to convey the intention and the values of the writers in my translation. According to a selective list of performances by a Greek university team under the supervision of Prof Mavromoustakos, published by Epikerotita publishers in 1997, there have been 21 professional and significant performances of Electra by Sophocles from 1899 to 1991 in Greece. To talk about each one of these performances, and some more that I have found, I would need a very long time. Because of time restriction I'm afraid I will have to leave out a lot of important material but everything is important in research. I decided to present to you the work of directors who have created performances of Sophocles' Electra in Greece, bringing, in the interpretation of the play, their own understanding of the play, their own understanding of Ancient Greece and the sense they made of the circumstances and texture of the world that surrounded them in the particular time when the play was produced.
I believe that to bring a play into life is the last stage of creation. Desire and emergency preceed it. I sense that for the directors I am going to present to you it was absolutely crucial to produce Electra because that play, as well as being a challenge, was also going to give them the opportunity to make a point. Aesthetic, or moral, or both.
We will look into performances of the 1930s, the '60s and '70s, and the '90s. I have divided my material into three periods. I call the '30s the years of 'setting the scene', the '70s the years of 'maturity', and the '90s the years of 'creation'. From the translated reviews and interviews, you will experience what was going on in the minds and the lives of the people in Greece in those times and how this has affected the work of the directors, actors and production teams to create these moments of theatre that we will examine. Hopefully together we will also have the opportunity to enjoy the handing down the techniques of performance from one generation of directors to the next. And so to work.
The 1930s: the years of setting the scene
Electra is a cornerstone in establishing the performances of ancient Greek plays in modern Greece. The play was used to open two theatres that had not been in use for professional performances for a long time: the Herodius Atticus Theatre under the Acropolis and the Ancient Theatre in Epidauros. In 1936 Electra was performed in the Herodius Atticus Theatre in a production by the Royal National Theatre directed by Dimitris Rondiris. Electra was played by the actress Katina Paxinou. It was the first time that this open-air theatre had been used since a successful performance of Antigone in 1864. The play inaugurated a week of performances of Ancient Greek Drama. With the support of Costis Bastias, the director of the National Theatre at the time, a festival of Greek drama has taken place every summer since then. It is now called the Athens Festival at the Herodius Atticus Theatre
Dimitris Rondiris follows the tradition of Angelos and Ourania Sikelianos-Eva Palmer (American choreographer) who started performing ancient Greek plays in the open-air theatre in Delphi in the 1920s, under the concept of bringing Ancient Greek Drama back to its natural space. In a review of 15th October 1936, Alkis Thrilos wrote on this performance:
It is difficult to be kind on this production. The chorus was very well trained to move and to speak in discipline. Congratulations on succeeding this considering that Greek men and women do not obey easily. But discipline on its own does not create art. The voice was monotonous. The choice of soft light during the performance was disastrous. The play according to Sophocles takes place in the day. Finally there was no unity. The chorus was making formations and the actors played naturalistically. Mrs Paxinou who is a conscientious actress has given us Electra the distressed but not Electra the princess. Mrs Papadaki as Clytemnestra and Mrs Manolidou as Chrysothemis played with an elevation and poetry. The Royal National Theatre has shown that it is not ready yet to give aesthetic solutions to the difficulties of staging ancient Greek drama.
Dimitris Rondiris had developed a poetic impressionist style of performance. He drew elements from ancient Greek Culture and Byzantium and used them 'to suit the spirit of the tragedy', as he said in an interview he gave in New York in 1967. He studied with Max Reinhart and had become his assistant. He was criticized of being influenced by him in using a large number of actors in the chorus and dim light in the performance. He was the director of the Royal National Theatre from 1934 to 1942 and again from 1946 to 1950. In 1957 he created Peraiko Theater, his own company with which he toured in Greece to perform tragedy in the open-air ancient theatres. He also toured in Europe, the United States and in Egypt. He came to London in 1939 with the National Theatre and performed Electra by Sophocles with Catina Paxinou and again in 1961 he performed Electra with Aspasia Papathanasiou. His work impressed the English audiences .
In 1938 the Royal National Theatre, in collaboration with a travel agency, organised a performance of Electra by Sophocles in the ancient theatre in Epidaurus. It was the first time after 2,500 years that a performance had taken place in that beautiful theatre with the best acoustics in the world. Dimitris Rondiris was the director; Catina Paxinou played Electra, with Eleni Papadaki as Clytemnestra and Thanos Kotsopoulos as Orestes. 3,500 people watched this performance on the 11th of September 1938, bewildered from the magic of the environment and the performance. In the newspaper Vradini, on 12th September 1938, we read: 'The movement, the dramatic expression, the synchronicity of 60 women in the chorus was admirable'. Rondiris started the performance at 5:15 pm and they played in the daylight. Mr Costas Georgousopoulos, critic, teacher and translator of many ancient Greek plays, recounts that, with the performance of Electra in Epidaurus in 1938, Rondiris established a style of performance based on theory and practice, which marked the development of the performances of ancient Greek plays for many years. Rondiris also established a code of acting known as the National Theatre style of acting which has been used by directors such as Alexis Minotis, Takis Mouzenidis, Costis Michailidis and Alexis Solomos. Rondiris, however, has been criticised for imposing discipline upon the actors and a style to the performance
Now I am going to present you another performance of Electra by Sophocles in1939, directed by Carolos Coun and performed by Marika Kotopouli in a 'human, very human' way as it has been described by the press maybe to emphasise the difference. On 4th November 1939, the great actress Marica Kotopouli celebrated 30 years of work in her theatre named after her by playing Electra in Sophocles' play. In the audience was the king of Greece, the prime minister Mr Metaxas, writers, actors and the best of the Athenian society. I translate from the newspaper Acropolis of 4th of November 1939:
The director Carolos Coun created with all the meaning of the word an entirely new way of performance of ancient Greek drama. The painter Nicolaos Egonopoulos who did the design and Antioxos Evagelatos who did the music for the production proved worthy collaborators. Mrs Kotopouli was pure confident and courageous. She filled the stage with her grace. Her Electra was human, very human.
In the newspaper, Greek Future November 1939, we read: 'There were moments, unique in the whole of the theatre history, when she was so genuine and moving that everyone including the important people were in tears'.
Comparing the two productions of Electra in the '30s, we find that the two directors Dimitris Rodiris and Carolos Coun gave two different interpretations of the play and introduced two different styles of performing within the Ancient Greek theatre tradition, and that while discipline characterised Mr Rondiris's work, humanity and interaction characterised Mr.Coun's work .
During the Second World War and the civil war that followed, theatre life was quiet in Greece. On 1st July 1961, Electra by Sophocles was presented in the Ancient Theatre in Epidaurus by the National Theatre and directed by Takis Mouzenidis. Electra was played by Anna Sinodinou. The form of this performance was completely different to the performances of Electra by D.Rondiris. We read in the press of July 1961:
Mr. Mouzenidis achieved something unique. He moved the chorus out of the orchestra and gave the orchestra to the actors to perform. The chorus moved gracefully. They looked and sounded good without giving the impression that they do some kind of exercise in gymnastics. All the actors performed beautifully. Mrs. Sinodinou has succeeded a balance in playing Electra the distressed and Electra the princess.
That performance was a turning point.
The 1970s: the years of maturity
From 1967 to 1974, Greece suffered a military regime. Censorship was imposed in theatre productions, to the extent that directors and the producers were not free to choose the plays they wanted to produce. This created a lot of frustration in the theatre world. Even at the risk of being arrested, taken to the military court and imprisoned, they stuck together and reacted. In the newspaper, To Vima, on 1st July 1972, in an article entitled 'To stop or reduce censorship in the theatre', the journalist Costas Parlas interviewed theatre directors on the subject. Alexis Minotis, director of the National Theatre, who has directed many ancient Greek plays, said:
True theatre and art is created by people who are proud of Antigone when she pits the moral law that sprang from inside her against the law of the state. Intellectuals in Greece need the freedom to choose. The Greeks are, by tradition and nature, theatre goers; they deserve to be informed by plays of the problems of their time without restrictions.
And Dimitris Myrat, actor, said: 'Do you prefer people to watch football instead?' Electra by Sophocles became a battlefield to project needs and ideas that could not be expressed openly. On 9th July 1972, the National Theatre produced Electra by Sophocles under the direction of Spyros Evangelatos in the Ancient Theatre in Epidaurus. Electra was played by Antigoni Valakou. One week before the performance the press described the production as 'innovative', a risky word to choose in a dictatorship. Mr.Evangalatos didn't waste time and replied to explain and secure the performance. I translate from the newspaper To Vima, 2July 1972:
We collectively, not just me, tried to present a 'correct' interpretation of Electra by Sophocles. Correct is personal for me. It is a theatre production that projects the theatrical, philosophical, social and aesthetic issues of the play as seen with the eyes of the time in which the production is attempted. By doing that I don't mean that these issues will lose their timelessness. I mean that we put the light on these issues in a way that the spectator will sympathise with and make their own. This is why I concentrate on the characters. If this is innovative I accept the characterisation.
On 18th July 1972, Hro Lambrou wrote in the newspaper To Vima about Electra by Sophocles and the problems of interpretation: 'We must see Electra's character in the light of the time it was written. Athens in 410AD was still fighting against oligarchy. Sophocles knew very well what he wanted to say to the Athenians and as a poet how to say it. Electra is not haunted, as Mr. Evagelatos wants to present her, but a fighter.'
In 1974 democracy was restored in Greece. In August 1975 the National Theatre of North Greece celebrated their first performance in the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus with a production of Electra directed and translated by Minos Volanakis. Electra was played by Anna Sinodinou. Minos Volanakis had directed ancient Greek plays mainly in the United States in indoor theatres. His Oresteia, performed at the Old Vic in London in 1967, had had very good reviews . It was the first time that he was going to direct a play by Sophocles in an open-air ancient theatre. 'In this production', he said, 'we hope we will speak to the audience in a direct dramatic way' (Ta Nea 6 August 1975). On 13th August, Stathis Dromazos wrote about this production in the newspaper Kathimerini:
Mr.Volanakis has taken Electra out of the house of Atreus and made her a symbol of a person who fights for her freedom against tyranny and violence. Anna Sinodinou under the direction of Mr. Volanakis has given the best Electra she has ever played. The translation by the director was one of the best. As the lights went down the audience breathed an air of freedom. We experienced catharsis from the tyranny we as a nation have suffered too and we have applauded a new approach of the ancient Greek drama
The 1990s: the years of creation
Electra was presented by the National Theatre in the summer of 1996 directed by Lydia Koniordou who also played Electra. Clytemnestra was played by Aspasia Papathanasiou. In a review in the newspaper Free Press, entitled 'Tragedy of Nothing', Vaios Pagourelis wrote that there was nothing in this performance to see and learn except maybe some remote and dated reminiscences of the performances of Electra in the '60s. According to the newspaper New World and the critic Minas Christidis: 'There was nothing new in this performance except the design by Dionysis Fotopoulos'.
It looked as if the audience was expecting to see something new in the performances of ancient Greek drama, so in 1998, in the Festival of Epidaurus, two performances of Electra shook the Greek audiences and aroused discussions about how far a director can go in staging ancient Greek drama. The first was a production by the National Theatre directed by Dimitris Mavrikios who also did the translation. Mr.Mavrikios is a filmmaker. Electra involved video production, an electronic table for mixing sound which was transformed into an altar when needed, TV screens and a computer where Orestes and Pylades were looking at the beginning of the show as if they were going to find information about what they had to do in the internet. The critic Stella Loizou wrote about Kariofilias Karabeti Electra in the newspaper To Vima on 30th August 1998: 'Tragedy does not mean hysteria'. (In Greek it rhymes very well). Eleni Hadginicoli writes in Ta Nea newspaper on 24th August: 'This performance was traditional in form but spoken with pictures and has offered a spectacular show'. The Festival in Epidaurus in the summer of '98 was Electric.
Another Electra by Sophocles was presented by the experimental theatre group Diplous Eros under the direction of Michael Marmarinos. Electra was played by Amalia Moutousi. The director provocatively employed ideas that are used in rehearsal to help the actors understand or 'be' their part but are not necessarily kept in performance. For example, Electra had her feet tied around the ankles with a rope and we see her suffering because of this and not as Electra; Aegisthus falls on all fours to escape etc. The translation by Minos Volanakis was well spoken. Eleni Hadginicoli wrote in the newspaper Ta Nea on 10th August 1998: 'This performance worked as modern art. Everyone is interested but just a few decide to buy it'.
There will be many more Electras to come. Many of us here today saw one last night: the Cambridge Greek Play directed by Jane Montgomery. For me it has been a great pleasure to look into performances of Electra by Sophocles in Greece. Everything makes much more sense now and I have certainly become an expert in translation from the Greek language to the English. I hope that I have succeeded in giving you an idea of Electra in the 20th century, from her home, in Greece and her adventures. Thank you.
London and Athens
Thalia Valeta is an actress and has an extensive dance training. She has performed in theatre, film and television. She has a degree in Media and Cultural Studies and has written a dissertation on performances of ancient Greek plays in England. As a researcher she has built up her own archive with material from performances of Ancient Greek Plays and she is associated with the Archives of Performances in Oxford. She has recently developed 'Metamyth', her own technique of teaching movement and text in Ancient Greek Tragedy, and works in England and abroad.
This paper was slightly modified in November 2002.