Electra and the Theatre of Affliction: towards a textual turn?

by Lorna Hardwick

In the text of John Barton's anthology-cum-narrative play cycle Tantalus (Barton, 2000) Electra appears in two of the plays - number 2, Telephus and number 3, Iphigenia. In Telephus, she competes with her sister Iphigenia for the attention of her father Agamemnon and is represented as the rejector of Achilles and an outspoken anti-social who disrupts her father's departure for Troy. In Iphigenia, she nevertheless covets her sister's 'wedding dress' (on the grounds that Iphigenia is too cowardly to wear it). She boasts that her father is the only man she will love, rejects Clytemnestra as unmaternal and devotes her future to nurturing Orestes (Barton, 2000, 173) with an ironic reference to 'all the high things/that a brave boy must know'. Barton gives to Electra the narrative of the sacrifice of Iphigenia and her replacement by a deer. She uses it to imply that Agamemnon had an incestuous desire for Iphigenia.

In the staged version (USA 2000 and UK 2001) directed by Peter Hall and Edward Hall, the figure of Electra was dramatically defined by her dress. She wore a child's white dress (for a party / for a wedding?) with flowers in her hair, rather reminiscent of Ophelia. This was overlaid by the accoutrements of a guerilla soldier, complete with soldier's boots. The effect was grotesque and raised a laugh from the audience. Characteristically for this production's undermining of apparent narrative simplicity, her appearance made a somewhat crude metatheatrical allusion to some of the ways in which Electra has recently been interpreted for the stage - either as a psychologically dysfunctional individual or as player and victim in war, usually with Balkanised undertones (on narratology in Tantalus, see further Hardwick, 2002).

In contrast with the lampoon in Tantalus, recent stagings of Sophocles' Electra have been deeply serious and powerful in their treatment of suffering and affliction. They have included acclaimed and influential productions, notably the Deborah Warner/Fiona Shaw staging in Kenneth McLeish's translation (1988 and 1991/2) which has attained iconic status. Chantal Aubry wrote of the performance at Bobigny Theatre, France that 'La mise-en scène de Deborah Warner est au reste si physique, si directe, si puissament mobilisatrice, que l'émotion pulverise vite toutes les barrières. Libre enfant de Peter Brook, elle [Warner] malaxe comme lui la matière du texte classique et des grands mythes fondateurs, ignorant superbement le domaine contemporaine' (La Croix, January 8, 1992). Mathilde La Bardonnie commented 'Fiona Shaw habite si intensement son personnage qu'elle repousse les limites de la tragédie' (Libération, January 14, 1992).

In a similar tradition of exploration of Electra's psychological state was the Compass Theatre Company's touring production (1999), directed by Neil Sissons with award-winning Jane Montgomery in the title role. As Electra's torment intensified she tore off her clothes, except for a ragged slip. Her face and arms were raw from self mutilation. The reactions of critics bear witness to the intensity of the audience's experience - 'We left the theatre stung by the raw emotion, the spiralling madness of this electric Electra' (Ian Skidmore, Daily Star, 12 July, 1999); 'to judge by the deathly hush in the theatre everyone found it as gripping and gut-wrenching as I did. At the end you didn't want to clap…because applause somehow seemed so trite and inappropriate' (Margaret Williams reviewing the performance of 25 February 1999 at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Scotland); 'With Sophocles there is no need to be either self-consciously ancient or modern. The intensive study of a helpless individual's suffering is at once alienating and absorbing', Shomit Dutta, Times Literary Supplement, 4 April 1999).

Nevertheless there has been a strong tendency for modern resonances to be developed in the play's exploration of suffering. Productions which have related the play to broader socio-cultural patterns of revenge include David Leveaux's 1997 direction of Zoë Wannamaker in Frank McGuiness's translation. This reflected the director's sensitivity to a documentary film from Sarajevo which explored the reaction of a young girl rendered mute by the death of her brother in a mortar attack on his school. Leveaux saw the staging as connecting Electra, weeping over Orestes' supposed ashes, to a young girl whispering to her dead brother in the snow two millennia later and in a place just a few hundred miles from where the play was first performed and wrote - 'Electra is not an obscure classic, a strange story of distant time and place and people. It is in every sense, our story. [It is a ] ..prophecy that has to be learned time and time again' (Programme Notes).

Two other productions are of particular interest, especially for the staging effects which were used to shape perceptions of the play. Graham McLaren's production for theatre babel (Glasgow, Scotland, 2000) took Tom McGrath's version and addressed the relationship between the domestic and the political resonances of Sophocles' play by the use of non-verbal sound to convey the emotional registers of the characters. Music was integrated as a commentary on the underlying emotional mood and dramatic tensions as in the dark register of the cello accompanying Chrysothemis' narrative of Clytemnestra's dream. The cello, this time with quiet percussion, sounded like mounting waves of the sea as it interwove with Clytemnestra's narrative of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The Chorus' vocal strategies (including whispers and slipping tongues combined with an energetic driving rhythm) hinted at the Furies and their costume and movement represented them as refugees, while Electra's dress and bearing (military greatcoat and dusty boots) also belied the domestic contest. In this production the infantile aspects were located not in Electra but in Chrysothemis, with her floral summer frock and bracelets. The overall effect of the staging was to hold in tension the domestic and political aspects of the author's response to Sophocles' play - 'I have four daughters, so I'm acutely aware of things that women have to face up to in society. I think Electra's defiance is amazing…when I think about Electra I think of Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman leading the opposition to the regime in Burma…This is the kind of woman Electra is, although Electra is more motivated by revenge' (Tom McGrath, Interview with Steve Cramer, Programme Notes).

The Cathy Boyd production for Theatre Cryptic of Clare Venables' version with Kate Dickie in the title role took this point further, subtitling the play 'A Queen of Revenge' (Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 1999). Electra wore scanty, dirty, torn rags which were progressively removed. In some performances she wore a spiky cropped wig but photographs in the Programme and Press (e.g. The Scotsman 19 August 1999) show her with a shaven head and the word 'revenge' written on her skull. The director aimed to create different levels of intimacy and distance, both visual and aural. The production was based on the interdependence of media and was striking for the way in which technology was integrated into the performance, especially in the recognition scene in which the use of reflective screens to represent memory and returning awareness without eye or body contact between Electra and Orestes succeeding in evoking breathtaking tenderness.

The productions I have mentioned seem, in one way or other, to be part of a trend which has attracted the name 'the performative turn'. In other words, the emphasis in discussions of the productions has not been on the text or translation of the play but on the elements of performance. This includes the ways in which the production seeks to involve the audience, either by seeking to recreate an experience equivalent to that which the ancient audience is supposed to have had or by taking the play to the site of the modern audience's experiences, whether in dysfunctional families or in the Balkans or both. Its almost as though modern understanding wants to deflect the revenge culture treated in the play into areas with which it can more easily cope - the shattered personality and psychological trauma of the individual or a socio-political context for revenge as part of power relations.

In a recent companion paper to this one, 'Staging Agamemnon: the languages of translation' (Oxford, September 2001), I began to explore the way in which recent emphases in performance have led translators and directors to move the text, through verbal adaptation in conjunction with the non-verbal languages of theatre, onto the site occupied by the audience. I call this feature 'the performative slide'. This 'slide' implies that concepts of what is involved in translation have been revised and broadened (even when the translator is working closely with the Greek text); that interest in Greek drama is no longer confined to specialist audiences but is fully integrated into the modern theatrical repertoire (classical, commercial, experimental); that the focus of production has shifted towards the creation of production dynamics which both make it appear that the performance has been created in the language in which it is spoken and acted and which seeks through verbal and non-verbal means to communicate to the audience (which may well not be familiar in detail with the source text) an intellectual and emotional experience which corresponds to but cannot recreate that associated (perhaps speculatively) with the ancient play.

Now, I do not wish for one moment to suggest that staging is not integral to interpreting the plays nor do I deny the importance of the work done by Oliver Taplin and others to bring performance issues to the forefront of critical notice (though it is relevant to note that the pioneering work in the field was done from the texts themselves, subsequently enhanced by the importance of material evidence from the archaeology of theatre space and from vase paintings). Rather its time, I suggest, that Kropotkin's pendulum be allowed to swing. Reception critics need to take a 'textual turn' and look again at the coherence or otherwise with which modern correspondences to the ancient text can be communicated. Electra is a particularly interesting case in this respect and I want to raise briefly three areas of debate which seem to me to be especially relevant:

1) The first, particularly in our minds currently, is the cultural status of performances in the original language. By this, I don't mean the status of the Cambridge Greek Play as a cultural landmark, important though that it (as is the Oxford Greek Play or the Bradfield Greek Play). I mean rather the relationship between performances in a language of which the audience is (mainly) ignorant and the privileging of performance as a means of liberation from the cultural isolation caused by the limited reach of the verbal language. An example is Japanese in which Suzuki and Ninagawa, like Mnouchkine, Grotowski and Purcarete in other languages have created an 'inter-cultural' theatre. Recent examples of Japanese performance include Company East's Medea which used the Noh tradition (including a male Medea) to communicate Medea's revenge on Jason. Then, using performance very differently in the tradition of Stanislavski, there was the Georgian version of Anouilh's Antigone. (Both these plays were staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2001). The direction in which the performance takes the audience - towards self-referential languages, probably non-verbal, in the staging or towards the text is, it seems to me as much of an issue for performances in Greek as it is for those in Japanese or Georgian - or indeed English where that is the barely known language.

2) Arising from this potential for critical distance and critical rapprochement is an issue connected with the lack of 'messages' in a particular play. This enables a play such as Electra to be regarded as a fragment of the past which might still be received in a way which bears on issues of political power or colonialism, for instance, but from which it is difficult to draw an obvious 'message' - unlike, for example, Antigone. Electra seems to lack a clear emotional resolution let alone a clear statement about the future direction of the problems with which it deals. R.P. Winnington-Ingram made this point slightly differently in an influential article -

'The greatest divergence of opinion is about the attitude of Sophocles to matricidal vengeance. At one extreme, we have a robust Homeric Sophocles, untroubled by the squeamishness of Aeschylus; at the other, an Aeschylean sensitiveness to the moral implications of the vengeance and a presumption that the Furies are only waiting for the play to end to begin their pursuit of Orestes' (Winnington-Ingram, 1954, 20).

A percieved lack of clear 'resolution' leaves the Director either to supply it and even to direct response or to choose to risk the audience sinking into bleakness. However the audience, too, can function as alternative 'translators' (Hardwick, 2001). Here are two examples:

i) Antoine Vitez has written of the 1966 production in the Roman Theatre in newly-independent Algeria - 'The whole audience recognised in the Electra their nation humiliated for 25 years, subjected to colonial rule, restored to life when hope seemed lost' (Vitez, 1991, 15-16). This kind of audience response leaves open for the future the crucial problem associated with the theatre and poetry of Affliction when suffering and the desire for revenge is active in on-going 'real' situations; that is, whether it can then stand aside and allow some kind of engagement with the future (literary and political) which is purged of negative feelings and vindictive actions focused on Affliction and looks forward to something relatively autonomous and creative, no longer shaped and shackled by oppressors. (See J Ramazani, 1997, 405-415 and, in a different kind of post-colonial context, the critical reaction to Seamus Heaney's attempts in A Cure at Troy, 1990, to use Sophocles' dramatisation of the story of Philoctetes to move on from sectarian impasse in the north of Ireland, Hardwick 2000, chapter 5.) Interestingly, Vitez' subsequent productions of the play provide, as Wiles points out, a social and theatrical history of cultural reception (Wiles, 2000, 189-196). In 1971 his production wove poems by Yannis Ritsos into a performance redolent of the conflicts surrounding the regime of the Colonels in Greece. In 1986 radical psycho-analysis underlay the parallels drawn between the Electra myth and the Hamlet story - as lampooned in Tantalus.

(ii) My second example of audience resolution of the ' message' of the play is the production in Derry in 1992 (as part of the 1991/2 revival of the 1988 production) of the Deborah Warner / Fiona Shaw version in Kenneth McLeish's translation. Warner is on record for her intention to probe the text - 'I suppose that what I try to do in my work is allow a finished production to speak for itself in the way that the text would speak for itself on a shelf…I see my job as releasing the text to the audience, to people who will respond differently' (Interview with Mary Blume for The International Herald Tribune, January 20, 1992).

And this is what the audience did. This was a production which had started in Hammersmith, moved on to tour in France and then played in Derry just after nine people were gunned down in sectarian revenge for the recent killing of eight others. At the end of the first night of the play the audience stood in silence; no-one clapped and the cast did not bow (Shaw in (ed.) Dunn, 1996, 133) This is another example of how a production conceived on a searing psychological basis was also drawn into contemporary events through the force of the performance although this was not anticipated in the mise-en-scène. Yet it is also significant that Shaw's own experience of bereavement and her feeling that the grieving process was stolen from her underlay her performance (ibid 133). Furthermore, this emphasis on Affliction has been thought by some critics to detract from the revenge theme of the play - 'She belittles the status of Electra and also her grief and joy so that she seems simply broken and hysterical - and finally completely mad. C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas Sofocle' (March in ed. Dunn, 1996, 67).
3) In the light of the issues summarised above, what then are the aspects of the text to which we might 'turn' in order to see how the play can in Warner's words 'speak for itself' to audiences, whether in translation or in the original Greek?

Anne Carson (in ed. Dunn, 1996, 5-11) has written of her experiences of working on the play as 'Screaming in Translation'. She says 'Translating is a task of deep imitation that faces in two directions at once, for it must line itself up with the solid body of the original text and at the same time with the shadow of that text where it falls across another language. Shadows fall and move (5, italics added). Carson identifies two main kinds of moving shadows cast by the play:

(i) Screaming
The presence in Greek drama of these bursts of sound expressing strong emotion (eg oimoi, pheu pheu or o talonaina) is a major problem for the translator into English (shades of 'O woe is me' etc.) Carson argues that these are not meaningless sounds nor formulaic utterances and that they contribute to the characterisation of Electra as much as do other aspects of her speech. Here, she follows Virginia Woolf who argues that Electra is so tightly bound with her movements restricted so that each movement must 'tell to the utmost or she will be a dummy' (Woolf, 1925, 26). According to Carson, movement can be in sounds as well as in body. Carson maintains that 'in range and diversity of aural construction Electra surpasses all the other screamers in Sophocles, even Philoctetes and Herakles'. She comments on how Electra herself refers (lines 242-3) to her own language of lament as 'wings of sharp-stretched laments' or 'wings of screamings that are strained to sharp points. Carson renders this as 'My cries are wings, they pierce the cage'. The gendered importance of the Greek function and sound of lament of course adds another dimension to Electra's use of it to escape confinement here. The female voice in lament can be both personal and social. In the social sphere it is one of the rare occasions when women may legitimately have a voice. Lament is also a female duty.

(ii) Diction
The second aspect stressed by Carson is Electra's diction, especially her verbs and in particular the variations on the verb which signifies to cause or to feel pain, whether of body or mind (lupein is repeated 7 times in the play) and its cognates. The noun is appropriated by Clytemnestra to denote the pain of childbirth (532-33) which is, as Carson points out, one category of pain that Electra is not to know. Carson argues that Electra's statements about pain have the same X-Ray quality as some of her screams.

This verbal approach to the play is developed in a different way by Shirley Darcus Sullivan. Sullivan's conclusions are perhaps unsurprising. She shows from a comparative analysis of psychological terms in the tragedy that psychic factors have an important place in the behaviour of Electra but are much less important for the other characters (Sullivan, 1999). It is also worth pointing out that R.P. Winnington-Ingram (1954, 23 fn 1) noted 17 terms in the exchange between Electra and Chrysothemis in lines 1013-1057 which could imply more or less rational consideration and that these are picked up by the Chorus when Electra is at her most despairing (in the kommos). Winnington-Ingram uses this analysis for his argument that Sophocles was writing with Aeschylus in mind (for argument against this, Stinton, 1986). Winnington-Ingram points out that the absence of pursuit of Orestes by the Furies by no means suggests an unproblematic 'happy ending' but rather a lack of resolution (in contrast to Aeschylus) and instead a focus on the present as produced by the past, a situation in which only deplorable alternatives seem open. This accounts for the silent audience in Derry.

It is tempting to linger on other relevant aspects of the play such as the image of the urn and Sophocles' handling of the recognition scene between Electra and Orestes but time presses and instead I would like to finish by looking at some possible aspects of the relationship between the 'textual turn' and the staging in the Cambridge performance of the play.

My final source is an interview which I recorded with Jane Montgomery at the Open University for the Reception of Classical Texts Research Project on 22 May, 2001 when she was at an early stage in her thinking about the production. To this interview was subsequently added a post-production response which documented Montgomery's reflections on the experience (21 February 2002). In the 2001 interview she spoke about her long-standing interest in the Electra. In pointing out the vital difference between doing the play in the original Greek and doing an 'archaeological'production (in terms of set, staging, acting styles etc) she spoke of her aim as - 'to try to find a coherent theatrical vocabulary for the production - I'm interested in making it a memory play, almost a dream play. So maybe we will lose some of the political content of the play and its possible we might lose some of the gender content'.

How then was memory to be conveyed? Mongomery and the designer, Michael Spencer, envisaged certain scenes or memories which repeated endlessly in Electra's head. Their 'gnawing presence' (Montgomery's phrase) seemed to sum up her predicament. In order to avoid distracting use of multi-media, these glimpses from Electra's memory were shown on video screens situated towards the rear and sides of the stage. The Chorus was grouped round them, developing a metatheatrical extension to their 'Job's Comforter role' and preserving what Montgomery regarded as the internal logic for the use of the video sequences - 'they can only be used when there is a specific manipulatory reason for the Chorus to show Electra the image', 2002 interview). The choice of scenes represented what Electra actually described in her lines - 'So we have Agamemnon as the best of fathers (waltzing with the little girl Electra on the beach), Orestes 'blazing like a star' (i.e. as a small boy playing the hero), the night of Agamemnon's murder, images of Clytemnestra the whore/mother - no-mother'.If the core of the play, as Carson found it, is one woman's suffering, does this become in Montgomery's words - 'a woman being vivisected for our pleasure'? Hence Montgomery's image, not of the bell-jar but of the Petrie dish, in which the main action took place.

Montgomery also commented directly on the implications of performing the play in a language which is no longer spoken or widely understood but from which the reverberations are still within the cultural horizons of many (2001 interview). She spoke of the need to find new ways (including music) of decoding the sign system so that the play is accessible to non-classicists. She aimed to 'show that ancient Greek is a theatrical liberation for all of us, not a divisive deterrent'.

In this respect an innovatory feature of the production was the use of surtitles. What would be the effect on the audience if surtitles were used above the proscenium? Would the audience gradually ignore them (just as they had turned off their headsets in the State Academic Theatre of Georgia's recent Edinburgh production of the Anouilh's Antigone)? On reflection Montgomery said 'I'm still unsure about the surtitles. They are a massive boon/safety net for the audience who don't know the play (we were sold out 6 out of 8 performances and many audience members said that the surtitles were a crucial factor in their deciding to book) but I do feel that some of the immediacy, viscerality, sheer theatrical force of the Greek, the play, the experience is lost by having the extra framing device to hurdle….do you as an audience member, allow yourself to surmise meaning and thereby develop a new form of theatrical perception and understanding when you have the easiness and security of a simultaneous translation offered? We didn't translate Trojan Women [Cambridge Greek Play, October 1998] and the audience response was more immediate - they were forced to connect to the internal rhythms of meaning, conveyed purely by sounds and gesture'.

Decisions about staging for performances in the original have to address the potentially isolating aspects of the language of performance. Montgomery's ways of doing this will, I suspect, refocus our attention on the words, not perhaps in the literal sense, but in presenting an anatomy of the text and especially of Electra's Affliction.

A crucial question remains, however. If the 'textual turn' refocuses our attention on the rationale and nature of Electra's revenge, will a future (and post-September 11th) Electra be able to break away from appropriation by western psychological interpretations? In that sense the story of Electra still remains 'unresolved'.


Lorna Hardwick
Department of Classical studies
The Open University, UK

Lorna Hardwick is in the Department of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK where she is Director of the Reception of Classical Texts and Images research project and also covenes an annual international electronic seminar on the reception of Greek drama. In 2000 she published Translating Words, Translating Cultures (London, Duckworth) and she is currently working on the relationships between Greek drama and anti-colonialism.
copyright © Didaskalia 2002