Riveting If Not Complex: Sophocles’s Elektra At Stratford
Sophocles has long been my least-favorite of the major Greek tragedians, and Antigone and Elektra are two major reasons why. I have never been able to get close to these sexless worshippers of the dead father.
Part of the difficulty I have with Elektra specifically is that the family tragedy at the heart feels too familiar. We don’t, these days, go around sacrificing our daughters to gain a favorable wind, or butchering our husbands when they return from ten years waging war across the sea. But our families do tear themselves asunder, leaving children as partisans in the post-divorce war of recriminations. I can’t help but read a tragedy like Elektra’s in these terms, and so can’t help but want to shake her and say: there’s no honor in winning vindication for the father you see as more truly wronged, in defeating the mother you see as his murderess. Just get out of her house!
It follows that I have never been able to reconcile myself to the playwright’s apparent identification of Elektra’s (and Antigone’s) absolute demands with some abstract conception of justice. I understand, of course, that Sophoclean tragedy stems from the opposition of two principles that hold themselves out as absolute – like justice and authority. That’s his great insight, that good things, even absolutely good things, not only don’t always go together but stand unalterably opposed to one another, and it’s an insight we still have a great deal of difficulty accepting, in drama and in life. But I prefer a Sophocles infused with a Euripidean spirit. I yearn for some kind of resolution, even if farcical. The greatest lineal descendent of Elektra on the English-language stage is Isabella, from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and if you look at her extraordinary and, in many ways, absurd journey back to life and love, you get some idea of what I yearn for when I meet her Sophoclean forebear.
So I went to the Patterson theatre last night in a state both of excitement and of trepidation. Stratford’s current production of Elektra (the Germanic spelling is their choice), directed by Thomas Moschopoulos, was rumored to be an exceptionally faithful updating of the tragedy – faithful to Sophocles’s own conception of the theatre, that is, updated in order to bring that conception home to a modern audience rather than to conform to our own prejudices. Could such an approach win me over to a playwright, and a character, I often find myself avoiding?
It just about did.
Before the show begins, the chorus roams the audience, chatting with the patrons, filling them in on the background of the tragedy. The stage is dominated by a table covered with a diaphanous sheet. Then, the play begins, the sheet is pulled off, to reveal that the table is in three parts, each section dominated by a dismembered hunk of a statue of Apollo, and curled up fetally against the god’s broken torso, infantile in white underwear, is Orestes (Ian Lake).
It’s an arresting image of the birth of vengeance, and, as his companion, Pylades (E.B. Smith), lifts him from his stony bed, his tutor (Peter Hutt) announces that very theme: he was reared to avenge is father’ death, and now the time has come. Orestes swoons, and Pylades bears him up – the two do a kind of dance around the stage as the tutor intones his obligations. Finally, Orestes comes to himself, and makes a plan (one that Pylades looks skeptical of): he will counterfeit his death, to lull any possible suspicions on the part of his mother or her husband, and then he will come and kill them stealthily. It’s not the most honorable way to kill, perhaps, but the honor, Orestes explains, is in the action itself, the righting of an ancient wrong; the how is secondary to the why. Orestes is already the synthesis of opposites, marrying cunning to high principle, marrying words (the province of his tutor) to action (the mute physicality of Pylades).
Hearing Elektra coming, Orestes leaves, rather than be discovered – but the way this is presented is to have Orestes seize the face from the statue of Apollo’s head, use it for a mask, and bury himself in dirt in a box at the foot of the stage. It’s a marvelous moment, merging so many meanings. The statue of the god is also his broken father, who, it appears, gave him birth, like Zeus, without requiring a woman’s assistance; assuming the mask is assuming his father’s face; his burial is a further identification, as well as a signifier of his apparent death.
This opening sets the tone for the rest of the play. Ritualized, highly symbolic actions and behaviors, are married to a text that is exceptionally direct, even brutal, and written in an accessibly modern idiom. But that text itself is delivered in a fashion that accentuates the ritual quality of speech. Sophocles specified that certain speeches were to be accompanied by music; Moschopoulos has his actors chant these, accompanied by the thumping of hands on tables, or on the actors’ chests, or the drumming of staves on the floor. The chant is at its most effective when the tutor recounts the death of Orestes in a chariot race – the audience is on the edge of its seat, the first time, in my experience, that the Greek convention of reciting action that has taken place off-stage has actually worked, successfully conjured up the scene retold. (The irony being, of course, that the scene is entirely fabricated – a critique of drama itself, that.) But the chant works wonderfully throughout the play, making the un-chanted speeches seem all the more conversational and, as a consequence, persuasively real.
So we are given a theatrical context in which to understand the character of Elektra (Yanna McIntosh). This highly ritualized space is precisely the world she is comfortable in, conforms to her notion of absolute justice. But the order of her world is broken, and all she can do is call attention, over and over, to that brokenness. McIntosh comes onstage, her beauty smothered in a baggy, moth-eaten black sweater, black Frankenstein boots and square glasses. She would make herself a weapon, against the falseness of beauty, and having done with remaking herself she has set to work on the rest of the world, defacing it furiously with a black sharpie. The chorus of women who follow her are acutely sensitive to the harm she’s done herself in pursuing her monomania, but she scoffs at their comforts. What do they want her to do, become like her weak and cowardly sister, Chrysothemis (Laura Condlln)?
Condlln provides McIntosh with her first antagonist, and it’s a decidedly unequal match. Condlln plays Chrysothemis as very much the woman Elektra imagines her to be – shallow, vain, and most of all, cowardly. She says that she’s only being sensible, making the best of a bad situation and bowing to an authority too powerful to oppose, but Elektra cuts through this easily, using her own words against her (reading them off the table where she scrawled them moments before – a fine working of the otherwise ritualized sharpie into the action of the drama). If Chrysothemis hates her murderous mother and stepfather as much as she claims to, then her “sensible” behavior is built on shame, on belying those very feelings, being false to herself. How can she find comfort in comforts bought at the price of sacrificing her own truest feelings, unless she is as shallow as Elektra thinks she is? To this, Chrysothemis has no real answer, and she is won, provisionally, to Elektra’s cause.
Her next, and principal antagonist, is a far greater opponent. Clytemestra (Seana McKenna – again, the spelling is the one Stratford chose) emerges from between the massive double doors at the top of the long Patterson runway like Madonna in her maturity: blonde coiffe, dark glasses, head scarf, born aloft by two long-haired hunks in what look like giant aprons. McKenna has excelled in the Greeks over the years – I recall in particular her Andromache from four years ago and her Medea from years before that – and the moving case she makes for the righteousness of her execution of her husband initially wins the audience (and the table-thumping chorus) to her side. This, indeed, is the original Aeschylean perspective on the tragedy – that Agamemnon got what he deserved, and then his murdering wife got what she deserved in turn, and now her murdering son is pursued by the Furies and how are we going to break the cycle of vengeance? But that’s not where Sophocles is coming from. Clytemestra’s confrontation with her daughter is interrupted by the arrival of Orestes’s tutor in disguise, bearing his gripping tale of Orestes’s death. The news poleaxes Elektra, who rolls under the table moaning her new and final grief, but Clytemestra’s reaction is more complex. Initially, she, too, expresses grief. Yes, Orestes was her sworn enemy – but she was still his mother, she can’t hear of his death with gladness. But she quickly gets over this feeling, and rejoices that her daughter will now no longer pose any threat, and she dances off stage with her hunky helpers singing, “now things are different.”
For me, this was the first false note in the play. I completely believe that Clytemestra would exult that her daughter had been so thoroughly defeated. But that dance was simply a bridge too far, and belied that moment of lingering maternal affection that initially greeted Orestes’s death. I can’t say that the choice is false to Sophocles’s vision, because Sophocles wants us to see Elektra as wholly righteous, precisely so that we see how ugly we can be made by utter righteousness, by the exclusion of other values, and to bring that point home Clytemestra must be irredeemably evil. But it’s one moment where I have trouble accepting Sophocles’s vision, precisely because of its abstraction and inhumanity, too close to Elektra’s own. I prefer the spirit of that moment at the end of “The Grifters” when Anjelica Huston first seduces and then (accidentally) kills her son so as to assure her own survival. Huston’s sobbing as she gathers up the money over her son’s dying body struck me as true to the character of a mother who would kill her child to save herself – the sorrow remains real even if it fails to deter. But that’s a Euripidean, not a Sophoclean, bit of cinema.
The remainder of the play concerns the return of Orestes, and the great recognition scene between brother and sister. McIntosh and Moschopoulos opt against playing up the incestuous overtones of the brother-sister relationship, which is in keeping with this production more generally and therefore a good choice. We are left with Orestes’s pure pity for the wreck of his sister, and Pylades’s mute exasperation that Orestes would let that pity potentially undermine their entire enterprise. Clytemestra’s death off-stage is unfortunately rendered less-visceral by her amplified voice, but we quickly forget this when her blood-drenched body is brought onstage by Orestes to confront her husband, Aigisthos (played with exquisite smarminess by Graham Abbey). Aigisthos is dragged bodily offstage to meet his own doom, and the final image is Elektra, alone with the fruit of her long labor, the corpse of her mother.
It’s an enormously powerful production, and true, as I say, to Sophocles’s vision. So why do I say it “nearly” won me over? Because I don’t know, in the end, what Elektra is thinking in those final moments. In the end, she is still closed to me, which no doubt is just how she would wish it.