"Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother ...": the Hamletization of Electra

by Ruth Hazel

Perhaps I should begin by explaining what I mean by 'Hamletization'. I am not attempting to prove a hard and fast case; I am not, of course, trying to force a correspondence at all points between Hamlet and Electra; and I am not saying that late twentieth-century theatre actually did turn Electra into a Hamlet equivalent. What I am going to offer are some suggestions, merely, about inter-textual resonances between the two characters, resonances which it is possible to see in comparison, either of texts, or of performance readings.

Reviewing David Leveaux's Donmar Warehouse production of Electra in 1997 [1], our convenor, Jane Montgomery, referred to the lament over the urn as 'acting's Everest' - the expression often used of the role of Hamlet. I want to touch on a number of features which I see as linking the two roles, with particular regard to appearances of Electra on stage (mostly in Britain, but also elsewhere) in the last half of the twentieth century. Briefly, these features are:

i) concept - the fictional character as source for secondary and related texts
ii) a 'great acting role'
iii) 'looking the part': performativity
iv) the Complex
v) gender confusion: what it is to be a man/woman
vi) political or domestic tragedy?

Every year since 1987 it has been possible for one to see, somewhere in Britain, a production of one of the Electra plays - either Choephoroi, or the Electras of Sophocles and Euripides. Some of these productions have been by foreign companies, some by students, some by small-scale professional touring companies, and some were major high-profile productions. It was as if, after the Bacchae versions of the 1960s, and the run of Medeas in the 1970s and '80s, British theatre's narrative of choice for the final decade of the millennium was the story of the young female victim distracted by grief, but still brooding on revenge for past injuries. The mourning dress of Electra became, as it were, in the words of that irritating fashion phrase, 'the new black'.

There are, as we know, at least three Electras - four, if you find the Electra of Euripides' Orestes substantively different from the one in his Electra. Broadly, we might describe Aeschylus's version as the Grieving Electra, Sophocles' as the vengeful Electra, and Euripides' as the mad Electra. (I shall not attempt to make a judgement about the chronological relationship of the latter two plays.) In a paper I gave in 1999 [2], I described how twentieth-century Western theatre found the means to combine all three versions in single productions. That it could do this is thanks largely to the discrediting of the concept of the Canon and to the emergence of the idea of 'the death of the author'. This notion sanctioned the proposition that it was no longer obligatory to attempt to preserve texts 'as the author wrote them'.

Of course, we have long known that texts of ancient theatre can undergo translation, not just of language and performance conditions, but of form (Richard Strauss's 1906-8 opera Elektra, Cacoyannis's film of 1961, and the Elektra Cabaret at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival spring to mind here). I don't wish to take too much time with information which you can access more fully on the Open University Reception Project database [3] or via the Oxford Archive, but I will give just a few examples of how Electra was reconstructed in the twentieth century. The most famous and substantial such reconstruction must be Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931, but that deserves to be designated an original work rather than a version. In 1969, J. Michael Walton set Aeschylus's and Euripides' versions of Electra as two parts of a production, using a different design and performance style for each half [4]. In 1987, Nancy Meckler produced Euripides' Electra and Orestes as a double bill at the Leicester Haymarket, and in 1995, McLeish's Agamemnon's Children at the Gate Theatre (directed by Laurence Boswell) was a compilation of Euripides' Electra, Orestes and Iphigenia in Tauris. In 1998, the University of Cape Town produced In the City of Angels, a compilation of part of the Agamemnon, Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Orestes. (I have, of course, left out of this list the many versions of the stories of Orestes, Clytemnestra or Agamemnon as distinct from that of Electra.) In this kind of synchretist reconstruction, it is possible to present the multiple faces of complex Electra in one production; like Shakespeare's Hamlet, she can be grief-stricken, vengeful, suicidal and mad.

The Sophocles version has most often been the Electra used in composite trilogies of Greek plays: Andrei Serban's An Ancient Trilogy (1992) combined this play with Medea and Trojan Women; Ellen McLaughlin's Iphigenia and Other Daughters (1995, New York) put it with Euripides' Iphigenia plays, and in 2000, theatre babel's Greeks presented it with Medea and Oedipus. Moreover, directors and dramaturgs in the last quarter of the millennium found that there were intertextual or cross-textual links to be made between the Electra plays and plays by modern playwrights. For example, in 1986 The Berlin Frei Volksbuhne played Euripides' Electra and Edward Bond's Saved (1965) as a double bill, and in 1992, University of Reading students of Theatre & Film played Beckett's short play Footfalls (1976) as a curtain-raiser to Sophocles' Electra.

Such cross-textual references indicate, it seems to me, that like Hamlet, Electra has become a concept: that is, a character (or story) has become the source for a number of derivative but independent texts - of a variety of genres. Electra has joined the number of those fictional characters around whom subsidiary or tangential accounts and commentaries cluster, and of whom it might be said that the role has become bigger than the sum of its individual parts. Heiner Müller produced models of how characters from canonical texts might serve radical theatrical invention, with his Hamlet Machine (1979) and Medea-Material (1983), and Suzuki and Mnouchkine did similar service for Clytemnestra in, respectively, Clytemnestra (1983) and Les Atrides (1990-3). Such commentaries are not confined to the medium of the original; the very fact that this symposium was punningly titled 'Complex Electra' is a reference to the place Electra has in Jungian psychology, balancing Freud's 'Oedipus Complex'.

'a great acting role'
In terms of being, like Hamlet, a great acting role (the second 'common feature' on my introductory list), it is Sophocles' Electra who is pre-eminent. Hers is a substantial female role (600+ lines) and she never leaves the stage, a fact which alone might endear the part to actresses. Moreover, Sophocles' character does seem to bring together the three separate Electras - Grieving, Vengeful, and Mad/Distraught. Early in the twentieth century, the plum ancient Greek tragedy role for a mature actress was Hecuba, and for a younger actress, Antigone - although, in fact, Sybil Thorndike played Hecuba at a ridiculously young age in 1919, with her own son as Hecuba's grandson, Astyanax. Sophocles' Antigone was read as the noble, heroic victim, and, in Anouilh's 1944 version, as the spirit of resistance against German domination. As late as 1986, Juliet Stevenson saw her as the equivalent of an anti-nuclear protester; a whistle-blower; a feminist [5]. However, by the end of the Eighties, Antigone had undergone re-assessment; it was no longer seen as a play exclusively about a heroine of resistance. Creon's tragedy was also recognised as a central concern of the play, and, since Antigone - an embodiment of intransigence, of dogmatism - no longer dominated, a new major Greek tragic role seemed to be required for young actresses.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, younger actresses in live theatre were no longer constrained by earlier conventions and were looking for roles which might previously have been deemed, by their agents, to be unwise. They were no longer afraid to appear on stage looking unattractive, playing violent, deranged, vicious, depraved characters. Where actors in the 1960s had exposed their own bare bodies on stage, actors toward the end of the millennium were required to reveal the raw nerves and dark minds of their assumed characters.

Electra, with her resistance against the dominant political rule, her retrospective focus and father-fixation, her acknowledgement of a need to gender-reverse, and her tightrope walk between sanity and madness, was a figure who epitomised fin-de-siècle anxiety and dislocation, just as, in 1600/1, Hamlet had for his age. Moreover, audiences attuned to the grim realities of inter-racial and often internecine war in Bosnia and Croatia might project onto Electra's need for revenge imagined feelings of the victims of such atrocities. As a role which offered potential to display technical ability, and as a role which reflected one 'form and pressure' of the age, Electra's time had come.

In terms of how a character relates to the plot and structure of his/her play, of course, Electra is not analogous to Hamlet. Thematically, however, modern actresses might make a good many intertextual links between Electra and Hamlet. Consider, first, the question of 'looking the part'.

'looking the part'
In reply to his mother's rather tart enquiry as to why his grief seems so 'particular' with him, Hamlet says:

Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not 'seems'.
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed 'seem',
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show -
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (1.2.76-86)

Hamlet is talking here about performativity, avant le mot. For him, he says, it is not a question of: 'I wear mourning and look miserable, therefore I am grieving'; he is grieving - he doesn't just represent it. However, whereas, in the Danish court, Hamlet alone embodies grief, Aeschylus's Electra is just one of a group of grieving women. It is they, the chorus, who describe what grief should look like: 'Our cheeks are torn, furrowed with crimson ... We beat our breasts/ Our clothes are shredded'. Nonetheless, Orestes has no trouble in identifying his sister among these women 'cloaked in black' - for him, she is personalised by her familiar face (even though it must be some years older than when he last saw it).

In neither of the later versions is Orestes so sure of her identity. This is partly because of a more realistic acknowledgement of the time gap since their last meeting, but partly because, in both Sophocles' and Euripides' versions, Electra has gone into performative mourning: she emblematises her grief in the way she looks - just as Hamlet does. She consequently presents a constant visual sign of rebellion against her mother, as Hamlet's mourning implicitly reproaches his mother. Sophocles' Electra talks of funerary self-mutilation - striking 'blows against my bleeding breast', although the slave's 'mean attire' which she is wearing she blames on her mother and Aegisthus. Clytemnestra reacts to this ever-present reproach with a response rather like Claudius's response to Hamlet's (in Claudius's eyes) immoderately prolonged manifestation of intense grief: 'You must know, your father lost a father;/That father lost lost his ... to persever/In obstinate condolement is a course/Of impious stubbornness ...' (1.2.89-94). As Electra reports it, Clytemnestra often upbraids her with: 'Are you the only one that has lost a father? Does no other mortal mourn a loss?' Even the generally sympathetic Chorus responds to Electra's suicidal inclinations at the close of the 'urn speech' (1126-70) with: 'You are the child of a mortal father, Electra, remember, and Orestes was mortal; so do not lament too much! This is a debt which all of us must pay' - which is like Gertrude's: 'thou know'st 'tis common; all that live must die ...'.

We can deduce from Electra's reply to Orestes' warning not to look too happy when she meets Clytemnestra that the character wore a weeping mask; don't worry, Electra says, she'll never see me smiling, because now I'm weeping for joy (1309-13). This 'trapping and suit of woe' will serve very well to help Electra maintain the deception she must now adopt, just as Hamlet has to assume a disguise - of madness - to protect his revenge plans.

In Euripides' play, Electra pursues a much more determined policy of performing protest through appearance. Here, because of her cropped head and, presumably, her poor dress, Orestes assumes she is a slave when he sees her approaching,. She too talks about self-mutilation ('tearing my own throat with my nails and striking my shorn head with my hand'). When the Choruswomen enter to invite her to the temple of Hera, Electra points out that (like Cinderella) she can't go because she simply has nothing decent to wear, and, moreover, her hair needs washing. She is, anyway, in an anomalous position - apparently a wife, she is, as the audience knows, still a virgin. What is more to the point, she refuses to go to the temple to honour the gods because they seem to have deserted the cause of just vengeance.

The contrast between Electra's close-cropped hair and ragged, even filthy, appearance, and Clytemnestra's oriental Trojan-loot glamour is a key polarity in this play. Unlike Sophocles, Euripides does not provide a 'normative' female character, one who (like Chrysothemis) expresses conventional wisdom about female roles. This Electra represents mourning, but she is actually unhinged and divorced from the realities of her society; without gender or social role (neither maid, wife, mother nor widow; although a princess by birth she is a peasant by status), she maintains a self-imposed exile from the real world, inhabiting an interior life of thwarted hatred.

It is Electra's physical, bodily, statement of rejection and rebellion against all her mother stands for that we find in Euripides which has influenced the costume design for productions of Sophocles' play. In the 1997 Donmar Warehouse production, Zoë Wanamaker's Electra had a shorn and bleeding scalp, as if she had torn her hair out in tufts; Jane Montgomery (Compass, 1999) was streaked with her own blood, and had bandaged wrists. Sophoclean Electras in recent productions all seem to have shorn hair, although in the text there is no mention of a cropped head. A shaven female head could indicate woman as soldier, as de-loused concentration-camp inmate; as shamed collaboratrice; woman de-feminised; woman as victim - even, post-punk, woman as fashion-victim. Perhaps, for modern audiences, this is rather too indeterminate (or clichéed) a signifier.

The Complex
The fourth feature on my list was 'the Complex'. Hamlet's supposed 'Oedipus complex' was particularly foregrounded in Laurence Olivier's film of 1948, and in the mid twentieth century, actors began to add psychoanalysis of their characters to rehearsal practice and preparation. Aeschylus's Electra shows least sign of suffering from her own complex, and Euripides', the most. Sophocles' Electra presents a variation; she transfers her filial love to her brother. That she needs to attempt some kind of continuing physical contact with her father has been indicated in, for example, productions in 1997 (Leveaux); 1999 (Compass); 1999 (Mitchell, RNT); and in 2000 (theatre babel) in which Electra wrapped herself in a greatcoat which we presume was her father's. In the Compass production, an army mess-tin and a shaving brush were among the small items Electra ranged, like totemic symbols, on her father's grave. In a number of productions, Electra has been seen to treasure a photograph of her father (in the theatre babel production, and in publicity for the 2001 Cambridge Greek Play) - a reminder of what she has lost. (An audience might also be reminded of other such totemic photographs, those of the so-called 'Disappeared', lost victims of South American tyranny.) At the close of the Compass production, having appropriated her mother's handbag and mirror, Electra began to make-up her face with bright red lipstick. Such details of staging seem to me to represent a particularly telling instance of one Electra play informing another, since it is in Euripides' play that Electra's feelings are described by Clytemnestra herself: 'My child, you have always been inclined to love your father. This is a fact of life: some children belong to the male side, others love their mothers more than their fathers'. (1101)

Gender confusion
Sophocles' Electra harangues her sister from the moral high ground, as she believes, about the need to behave like her father's, and not her mother's, daughter (341-68). The idea - fantasy, really - of being able to choose which parent one wishes to resemble suggests, it seems to me, a problem shared by Hamlet and Electra: the problem of confusion over gender roles, and constructed 'gendered minds'. Euripides' Electra actually puts her own hand to the sword, and executes the male duty of revenge. As a result, she recognises, she has created a gender confusion: 'What husband will receive me into a bridal bed?' she asks (1199-1200). She has become a kind of monster - neither man nor woman. Sophocles' Electra is absent from the execution, although an actress must make crucial decisions about the delivery of her line at 1415 ('Strike again/ strike twice as hard, if you have the strength'). There are two points to make here: first; that the audience will be always conscious, however much the Electra seems father-fixated, that she is a woman. As in the case of Hamlet, the character's problem is that he or she has to interrogate what it takes to be a man or a woman; Hamlet is required to do 'what a man's gotta do' (revenge his father) but his nature has too much of the 'woman' (in all its good senses) in it. Electra is indeed her father's daughter, and proud of it, but has the misfortune to have a woman's body. Productions such as the Warner/Shaw one of 1989/91, Theatre Cryptic's (1999), and Compass (1999) all stripped Electra down to minimal clothing - torn shift, petticoat, underclothes - so that the visible female body was a constant reminder of Electra's gender, and her internal conflict with regard to appropriate or necessary behaviour.

Political or domestic tragedy?
The other point which follows from Sophocles' decision to keep Electra on-stage (or off-stage, if you wish) during the execution of Clytemnestra and, at the end, of Aegisthus, is that the director may want to pre-empt an audience's questions: 'How should we feel about this ending? Is this a political or a domestic tragedy? Is it a tragedy at all, or, rather, a triumph?' In Strauss's opera (1906-8), Electra died dancing in the fire which consumed the House of Atreus - which made her a tragic heroine in modern terms. The Chorus applaud the execution of Clytemnestra and imminent killing of Aegisthus - from which, again, Electra is exempted. What can Electra do or be now? We know what becomes of Orestes, and in Euripides' version, we know that Electra will marry Pylades. How does Sophocles' Electra stand at the close of the play? Now that the revenge has been acted out, is she any more than a husk; a hollow mask? Is she at peace, or as good as dead? During the final scene, Zoë Wanamaker (1997) retrieved a blank-faced white mask from where she had buried it at the start of the play, and put it on, turning her face upwards to catch the slow drip, from above, of water now turning red. Fiona Shaw's Electra, on the other hand, started setting the stage courtyard to rights; a female re-assertion of order?

In Hamlet, it is possible to read the narrative as a domestic tragedy (although to secure this emphasis in Hamlet the director needs to cut Fortinbras). Equally, it is possible to read Electra's story as a case-study of a dysfunctional family - but this does gross disservice, at least to Aeschylus's and Sophocles's versions. How can we discount the political significance of the situation? The Oresteia, it seems to me, presents a model of a play about a politico-cultural shift - just such a shift as Shakespeare shows happening in the world of Claudius's Denmark. In Sophocles' play, revenge is applauded by the normative voice of the Chorus, who hail Orestes as a liberator - emerging into freedom from the constraints of revenge obligation. Productions such as David Leveaux' and theatre babel's give clear signals through programme notes that Electra's cause is to be seen as liberationist and recognisably 'modern'. (Leveaux talked of the traumatised children of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war, and Tom McGrath, of the female leader of opposition to the regime in Burma). The design scheme for Greek tragedy that seems to have been most favoured in the last quarter of the twentieth century made visual reference to the Balkan wars and consequent refugee movements (for example, theatre babel's 'refugee' Chorus). Purcarete's 1998 Oresteia had a programme note referring to: 'professional mourners such as one can still see in the Balkans'. In Katie Mitchell's RNT Oresteia (1999), the Clytemnestra/Aegisthus tyranny took place in an East European 1950s setting, but with Clytemnestra in an Eva Peron hairstyle and New Look full-skirted dress. Rarely did directors in that period use escapist 'ancient Greek' design [6]. This preference for contemporary costume had the effect of overtly politicizing the story, and may have owed something to the twentieth-century tradition (started in 1925 by Barry Jackson, and still going strong in 2001 in the RSC production) of 'modern dress' Hamlets. The use of on-stage monitors and video screens also allows the past's hold over the present to be stressed.

To sum up, then: Electra's story as recreated in the late twentieth century recalls, for me at least, aspects of Hamlet's. She too has become a subject for creative and radical re-reading in theatre; she too has a complex; she too is committed (but with no such compunctions as Hamlet has) to revenge; she too becomes distracted through a combination of grief and the demands of child-parent obligation. She too is at a pivotal point, living at a time of political change and upheaval, and is torn between imperatives of gender and personal and social necessity. And like Hamlet, Electra has to learn the difference between acting, doing, and performing. Emblematically, both might be represented confronting mortality, holding in their hands an 'object or token' [7] of death - an urn and a skull.

Women have played Hamlet in the past; Alice Marriott played him in 1864, and Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt played the role at the end of the nineteenth century - Bernhardt when she was 55 (1899); and Frances de la Tour played it in 1973. It must be, naturally, very vexing to see such a role played by other (male) actors, and played less well than one feels one could do it oneself, if only one had the necessary body part. No wonder, as actresses have gained more power in theatre, they ask why an audience shouldn't accept the actor as ungendered - just as Greeks and Elizabethans did. Hence, recently, King Lear, Richard II, and Prospero have all been played by women in major, prestigious theatre venues. We shall know that Electra really has attained the Everest heights of challenge when a male actor wants to play Electra in a male/female mixed cast.

Ruth Hazel
The Open University
October 2001

Ruth Hazel is an Associate Lecturer and Research Associate with The Open University. She holds an M.A. in Shakespeare Studies from the Shakespeare Institute, and a PhD on the impact on 20th-century English theatres of ancient Greek tragedies. She teaches and writes on Renaissance drama as well as on modern reception of ancient theatre.