Sophocles' Electra
McCarter Theatre, Department of Classics, Princeton University, Princeton
September 15 - October 4, 1998

Reviewed by Katharina Volk

The figure of Electra presents a unique case in the history of Greek drama in that we possess versions of her story by all three of the great Attic tragedians: Aeschylus' Choephori and Euripides' and Sophocles' Electra all treat the grief of Agamemnon's daughter for her murdered father, her hatred of her mother Clytemnestra, her painful waiting for her brother Orestes, and the siblings' final reunion and subsequent killing of both their mother and her lover Aegisthus. Of the three tragedies, Sophocles' Electra is the one that concentrates the most extensively on the title character, exploring in detail the psychology of a woman for whom life is nothing but suffering, a never-ending reliving of one traumatic experience. On stage from verse 85 until the very end of the play and more or less invariably engaged in lamenting, Sophocles' heroine poses a formidable challenge to an actress, who must be able to convey the raw grief of the character without falling into a routine of crying and screaming. Zoe Wanamaker, the magnificent Electra in David Leveaux's production at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, rises to the occasion, creating a character that is both realistic and haunting in its very realism.

As becomes clear from the program guide of the Princeton Electra (a re-staging of Leveaux's 1997 production at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London), the director regards Sophocles' play as an exploration of trauma, of the damage inflicted by violence and war. Black-and-white photographs of the war in Bosnia are juxtaposed with an image of Wanamaker, and in his short essay, Leveaux likens the predicament of Electra to the state of shock experienced by a girl from Sarajevo who had lost her brother in a mortar attack. The poster for the play shows Wanamaker in a childhood photograph cut to consist only of the defiant face of a little girl (in a well-done photomontage, her eyes have been made to reflect an image of her older self); the bright red title looks as though it was scribbled in crayon by a child. What this design does is draw attention to a fact that is not necessarily obvious, namely that Electra, the grown-up woman who in the play complains about her unmarried and childless status, must have been just a little girl at the time of her father's murder. As played by Wanamaker--who is physically extremely small and fragile-looking--Electra is still half a child, a girl who has not been allowed to grow up and leave her painful memories behind.

What makes Wanamaker's portrayal of Electra especially poignant is that she allows her character no dramatic outbreaks, none of the wild lamentations that people typically associate with Greek tragedy. Her Electra is so deeply traumatized that her voice is broken, so used to continuous suffering that all she has left is bitter sarcasm and an almost animal-like aggressiveness. Even when she receives the urn that contains the ashes of her supposedly dead brother, she does not cry out, but talks to it almost in a whisper. Given the fixed state of Electra's grief, the most moving moment in the production is when she is suddenly presented with a situation that marks an unexpected change from her routine of pain: faced by the living Orestes, Wanamaker's Electra is so stunned, so unsure how to react, so carried away by unknown emotion that the audience can feel that some long-lost faculty inside her has suddenly been brought back to life. It is a riveting experience.

Sophocles', and Leveaux's, interest in psychological realism extends to the other characters as well, and Claire Bloom as Clytemnestra and Marin Hinkle as Chrysothemis brilliantly contribute to the depiction of the patterns of interaction in that most dysfunctional family, the House of Atreus. Entering stage in a flaming red dress and high heels, Bloom is a strong woman who has made her bid for power and has no intention of giving it up; at the same time, she feels truly threatened by her obnoxious daughter and the prospect of Orestes' return. When she hears about her son's supposed death at the chariot race (Stephen Spinella as the paidagogos delivers the messenger speech with gusto), she is both relieved and, against her will, sad. Far from being a monster, this Clytemnestra is a wholly convincing character, a woman who has knowingly committed a crime and is trying hard to avoid the consequences. Hinkle's Chrysothemis, too, is just all-too-human: a sweet girl who loves her sister dearly, but who is simply too afraid, and too reasonable, to follow Electra's course of aggression.

With its concentration on the characters, the Princeton Electra gives the impression of being a thoroughly modern play; the director clearly has no intention of presenting a museum piece. As far as ancient stage conventions are concerned, it appears that he has taken what he could use and tacitly disposed of the rest. Thus, the action duly takes place in front of Agamemnon's palace, whose enormous steel door slides open at the end to reveal the dead body of Clytemnestra (the original production in Athens may have employed the ekkyklema for the same effect), and the characters enter and exit pretty much the way a classicist would expect (strangely enough, though, only one side of the stage is used for the entrances and exits of those characters who do not come from the palace). Apart from the modern set and costumes (created by Johan Engels in a rather aesthetic kind of ruin chic), there are no "modernizing" gimmicks. However, the director has no interest in the more ritual aspects of Greek tragedy, which, one assumes, would interfere with his realistic concept of the play. The only nod to ancient "theatricality" is the fact that Electra comes on stage wearing a mask, which she then takes off and puts on again only at the very end of the play--a gesture that seems wholly out of place in this production.

It is thus not surprising that Leveaux has wholly reinterpreted the role of the chorus, more or less transforming it into one single character. While three women come on stage to comfort Electra, only one of them (the terrific Pat Carroll) actually speaks, and one has the impression that the silent action of the other two (Mirjana Jokovic and Myra Lucretia Taylor), though well integrated, might have been left out without a loss. Carroll, by contrast, is a person as real as Electra or Chrysothemis, a tough old woman, both sympathetic to Electra's plight and utterly disillusioned as far as her interlocutor's situation is concerned. Needless to say, she does not sing or dance (the choral odes have been cut considerably in Frank McGuinness's version of the play, which is based on the Loeb translations of F. Storr and Hugh Lloyd-Jones), and her first exchange with Electra is not the lyric duet that Sophocles wrote, but a regular conversation.

Working with a convincing concept and superb actresses--Michael Cumpsty (Orestes), Ivan Stamenov (Pylades), and Daniel Oreskes (Aegisthus), too, are excellent, but it simply is a women's play--David Leveaux has succeeded in staging a gripping performance. During its three weeks in Princeton, Electra was an overwhelming success; it is likely that the production will soon move to Broadway.

Katharina Volk

This review was written in 1998, but publication here delayed due to Editorial change. The production did successfully move on to Broadway.