Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.31

Symposium on Sophocles' Electra, Northwestern University, May 27-30, 1993.

Commentary by Dale Grote, UNC Charlotte1

This unique symposium had a clear and defensible enough premise: because Greek tragedy was conceived and first realized as performance, classicists and performance professionals should be talking with each other. Classicists need to be shown that Greek tragedy is not just a curious sub-genre of poetry, and theater professionals need to be shown the deep and peculiar history of their scripts. To that end, the symposium nicely mixed the practical and the theoretical dimensions in a well coordinated series of panels and demonstrations with two tragedies, Iphigenia at Aulis and Sophocles' Electra, performed by Northwestern's Theater Department. (It also included what should become a standard feature of conferences: a Sunday morning event, to accommodate those of us staying over Saturday night to save on airfare.) In the dialogue between classics and theater, this symposium was an important and successful beginning.


Keynote Address by Bernard Knox; Northwestern performance of Iphigenia at Aulis (Dirs: Ann Woodworth, Dawn Mora)


(1) WORDS: FROM GREEK TEXT TO ACTING SCRIPT (Anne Carson, Don Taylor, Robert Auletta; Respondent: Diane Rayor)

(2) PLACE: FROM ANCIENT ARGOS TO CONTEMPORARY STAGE (Michael Walton, Ming Cho Lee; Respondent: Herbert Golder)

(3) ACTION: THE EXPERIENCE OF PERFORMANCE (Oliver Taplin, Rush Rehm, Fiona Shaw; Respondent: Mary-Kay Gamel)

(4) PERFORMANCE OF SOPHOCLES' ELECTRA (Dir: David Downs; the premiere of Anne Carson's translation)


WORKSHOP 1: THE RECOGNITION SCENE -- to explore restaging possibilities (Peter Meineck, Karelisa Hartigan, David Downs, Francis Dunn, Mary Poole)

WORKSHOP 2: THE CHORUS (Jennifer March, Michael Cacoyannis, David Downs, Dawn Mora, Ann Woodworth)



Despite the plausibility of the premise of the conference, Knox's opening remarks implicitly raised a strong qualification. Among a few other topics he touched on, Knox said a probable reason Sophocles did not add a fourth, fifth or sixth actor was that an audience would have had great difficulty telling which of the tiny masked figures on the stage was speaking. In fact, most of the three-cornered scenes are in reality two-sided dialogues, with ample textual pointers included to cue the audience as to which of them is speaking. The conclusion is unavoidable: the words of the texts we have were written for, and anticipate, a particular kind of physical theater. "Theater" may be a kind of artistic activity, but a theater is a space and a consequent set of conventions and technical possibilities, all of which impose a certain control on the texts produced for it. A key assumption of modern stagings is that the text contains at its core a map to the human psychic landscape, which can be extracted, reworked, and set in the physical space of a modern theater which allows and demands a substantially different set of conventions for staging and acting.

The enormous difference between the ancient and modern theater was made explicit by Fiona Shaw's presentation on Friday afternoon. At one point, while trying to remember a moment in the play, she stepped around the podium, assumed the character of Electra, and delivered several lines. Shaw is a remarkably talented actress of the modern stage, and her method reflects its technical possibilities. Her gestures, facial expressions, the moderation of tone, pitch, and volume of her voice are all features of modern theatrical acting. The subtleties of her method simply would not have been possible in the Theater of Dionysus, and since they were not possible, the original Electra could not have been expressed in this manner, nor written for such an interpretation. In what, then, can classicists and performance professionals ground their communication? This is precisely the question the symposium was designed to explore.

Oliver Taplin, introduced as the "father of performance criticism," turned a phrase that was echoed by many other presenters in the conference. Arguing that classicists abdicate their role in this dialogue if they continue insisting on the unalterable purity of the original dramas, Taplin encouraged us to be willing to accommodate a wider range of performance possibilities and to "scatter ideas" that grow out of our own scholarship on the plays. For example, in the Electra, classicists could expose the constant interplay between interior and exterior, which then could find some theatrical elaboration. In any case, it is better to have collaboration with living classicists than to rely on hopelessly out-dated or oddly idiosyncratic handbooks, to which performance professionals often turn if they find living classicists only frowning on them for their deviations.

To improve the communication between classics and theater, Taplin proposed a newsletter -- "Angellos," he suggested -- on contemporary productions of Greek dramas all over the world. The newsletter would be a who, what, where, and when of modern performances, with non-academic reviews and descriptions, which could be assembled e-mail, like our BMCR, and distributed frequently. He recommended twice a month, since there is an upsurge of interest in Greek tragedy in the West.

Why this sudden interest? A number of possibilities were suggested. Perhaps the collapse of the totalitarian East needs an emotional articulation, which many are finding in Greek tragedy. Or perhaps the intellectual void left by the crumbling of Marxist aspirations is triggering a spiritual emptiness that needs to be formally expressed and explored. Or perhaps we need to be taught how to scream our grief.

The assembly spent some time on this possibility. The West has no culturally accepted way grieving people are supposed to behave; we have no ritualistic set of gesticulations, no formal patterns of behavior to experience and share our grief. That is, we do not know how to wail, which is why it is so difficult to stage Electra's opening cry in the modern theater. We simply don't understand "oimoi talaina," or "alas," or "woe is me." These expressions simply don't mean anything to us, as we are taught to contain our pain, and any manifestation of it is shamed and described as a loss of control. At this point someone interjected that perhaps northern Europeans do not know how to yell, but southern Europeans are quite skilled at it.

Still, this idea that as a culture we lack grieving was illustrated by a heart-rending story Fiona Shaw shared with the conference. After a performance of the Electra in Ireland, just a few days after several local people had been killed in an IRA bombing, the audience simply rose to its feet -- no applause, not a sound. The actors were absolutely dumbfounded as this continued for several minutes. Finally the actors and the audience began to talk. Some thanked the company for the play, but others were angry, saying they had no right to subject them to so much pain. Multiply this event by several hundred, and we might get a sense of just how powerful these dramas must have been in war-time Athens: tapping into and releasing such enormous grief.

This incident in Ireland might throw some interesting light on Aristotle's identification of katharsis as the purpose of tragedy -- precisely the effect Plato denounced (Rep. 606a-b: "If you would reflect that the part of the soul that in the former case, in our own misfortunes, was forcibly restrained, and that has hungered for tears and a good cry and satisfaction, because it is its nature to desire these things, is the element in us that the poets satisfy and delight..."). The experience of katharsis might be just this release of grief in a city almost constantly at war since its birth.

The Iphigenia at Aulis

The directors Ann Woodworth and Dawn Mora used two semi-choruses: a chorus of U.S. marines dressed in Desert Storm camouflage, and the traditional chorus of lithe females, who movingly expressed their emotions in a complicated repertoire of gestures. The chorus of soldiers corresponded nicely with Cacoyannis' remarks on Saturday (he was not at Friday's play) that the real chorus of the play is the camp of soldiers that never comes on the stage, but which surrounds and imprisons the action of the play. Someone did reasonably object, however, that bringing the soldiers on the stage "lets Agamemnon off the hook." Agamemnon's responsibility must not be diluted by making his appeal to necessity forced on him by his troops a plausible motive for his decision. The two choruses, moreover, were engaged in a relationship outside the text of the play; in a few skillfully choreographed dances, the two explored an erotic theme, which always ended with the soldier aroused for war. The coupling of sexual passion and blood-lust finally results in gang rape of several girls of the chorus to the accompaniment of an obscene marching doggerel.

The play was magnificent theater, full of action, movement and a constant sense of urgency which the semi-chorus of soldiers brought directly onto the stage. The characterization was also quite brilliant. Clytemnestra strode on as a preening First Lady, which made her even more pitiful when she learned the truth of Iphigenia's "wedding" and desperately sought a way out. The loving tenderness between Agamemnon and Iphigenia was fully played out, as was also Agamemnon's intense suffering and feeling of helplessness, while the female chorus vainly reached toward him in supplication, pleading silently that he change his mind. Another stroke of genius was the runtish, tough guy Menelaos, always sharp in officer's dress, in contrast to Agamemnon's field fatigues. In a sense, the Pentagon official, dreaming of wars for hardened soldiers like Agamemnon to die in. (A vast simplification of military affairs past or present, but an effective simplification.) At the end, Iphigenia was openly mowed down by machine- gun fire. Greek theater preferred to keep actual killing off stage.

The Electra

The production of the Electra was consensu omnium more conventional. The chorus spoke in unison; Electra in rags was contrasted with the beauty queen Chrysothemis and the elegant Clytemnestra; Orestes was the gallant, uncomplicated hero; Aigisthos was a pompous rat; and finally the faithful Paedagogos was ever obedient, ever anxious to serve. (As theater, his lengthy false tale does not seem so lengthy after all.) The matricide was good, the murder of Aigisthos even better. Electra was freed, justice restored. In sum, the play followed step by step the genre of interpretation Kells called "justificatory." There was no shading, no dark corners; Electra's cry -- hit her again etc. etc. -- stablished unassailably the justice of her moral absolutism. All in all, it was an evening of "good cheer and matricide."

This is a defensible way of understanding the play and of staging it. Many professional scholars see (or saw) it just this way. Over the past thirty years, however, there has been a comprehensive rethinking of the play, leading toward the conclusion that something is very wrong with the way the matricide is carried out and/or with what has happened in the soul of Electra during her long years of suffering and her rhetorical revenge. Even T.B.L. Webster, squarely in the justificatory camp, confessed some increasing sympathy with the "ironic" interpretation late in his life (reported by J.H. Kells "Sophocles Electra Revisited," in Studies in Honour of T.B.L. Webster Vol. 1, p. 153).

Perhaps the Electra is just melodrama. Waldock agrees with Murray that this is precisely what it is. Waldock says the only reason to read the play is to see a genius when he is not a genius; Murray denounces the whole thing as a backward step in the history of moral when heroes killed in the good old-fashioned way. But if it is just melodrama, it does Sophocles little credit and it makes pretty thin theater -- unless, as Tycho Wilamowitz would have it, the heart of Sophoclean drama is not to be found at the level of the plot, but at the level of the scenes. If the dramatic center of the play is the kathartic experience, then the pitiful figure of Electra, which dominates the stage, would successfully effect this release, regardless of the resolution of the plot.

But the question for classicists is what additional insight into the nature of Greek tragedies can be gained by seeing them produced in the modern theater? This is a question surely that will forever elude definitive answer. But perhaps I may be allowed to "scatter" one idea. Seeing the Iphigenia at Aulis as a play, I was entirely convinced that peripeteia is not the reversal in the play, the Reversal of Fortune, nor is it as narrow as the Reversal of Intention. Peripeteiai are the twisting moments of the audience's expectation. At several points in the Iphigenia at Aulis, I found myself hoping and almost expecting that Iphigenia would be spared in the end. The play seems to be a series of peripeteiai, written to convince the audience that something unbelievable, something impossible is about to happen: (1) Agamemnon sends the letter telling Clytemnestra not to come; (2) Menelaos also seems to change his tune after convincing Agamemnon to go through with it (although in the play Menelaos delivered the lines as a dissembling speech -- wrongly, I now believe); (3) Achilles firmly swears his resolve to save Iphigenia (if anyone could save her, surely it would be Achilles); and (4) Iphigenia's pitiful fear has an obvious, almost decisive, effect on Agamemnon. The play is a tightly coiled snake. It seems Euripides is protesting the logic of the myth itself and punishing the audience for anticipating and needing the sacrifice of Iphigenia at the end of the play. The play's ineluctable end, dictated by the myth, is all the more crushing, the play all the more oppressive. Ming Cho Lee described the physical setting for these plays perfectly when he compared it to a boxing ring -- no escape. Though in this case, the audience itself is brought into the fight.


  • [1] With thanks to Kirk Ormand of Loyola University for his valuable suggestions.