Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play Electra, which was first performed in Germany in 1903 (German title, Elektra) and published in English translation in 1908, is available in the volume, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Three Plays, translated by Alfred Schwartz (Wayne State University Press, 1966). This volume is currently out of print.
Electra is a free adaptation of the play of the same name by the ancient Greek dramatist, Sophocles. The story focuses on the consequences of the murder of Agamemnon. Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus upon his return from the Trojan War. The play takes place ten years after the slaying. Agamemnon’s daughter Electra still mourns her beloved father’s death and obsessively anticipates the moment when she will avenge him by killing her mother. The revenge comes when Electra’s brother Orestes returns from exile and kills both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Electra is a study in mental disturbance and obsession. It uses the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, which had been published only a few years before von Hofmannsthal wrote the play. Electra also employs powerful, lurid imagery that gives vivid insight into the disturbed minds of Electra and Clytemnestra, and it moves singlemindedly to its violent conclusion. Although rarely performed today, the play has become famous be cause von Hofmannsthal adapted it as the libretto for German composer Richard Strauss’s thrilling opera, Elektra (1909).
Electra begins in the inner courtyard of Clytemnestra’s palace. A group of women servants, with their matron overseers, are gathered around a well. As the servants draw water, they discuss what has become of Electra, and one says that it is the time of day when she howls loudly for her dead father.
Electra appears. As all the servants turn to look at her, she goes back into hiding, holding one arm in front of her face. The servants discuss how Electra has been abusive towards them and one servant describes how she answered Electra back with insults of her own. It also transpires from the servants’ talk that Electra is ill-treated in the house. She is beaten and made to eat with the dogs. No one in the house can endure the terrible look on her face. But the fifth servant, a young girl, speaks up in support of Electra as a royal princess.
As the servants and matrons go inside, Electra reappears. She is still grieving for her father, Agamemnon. She describes how Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus killed him while he was in the bath. Crying out that she wants to see him, she appeals to him not to leave her alone. She tells him that his day of vengeance will come. His murderers and all their servants, even their horses and dogs, will be slaughtered. When this is done, she, Orestes, and Chrysothemis will dance around their father’s grave.
Chrysothemis enters. She tells Electra that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are planning to throw her, Electra, into a dark dungeon. Electra responds by telling her sister not to listen in on Clytemnestra’s conversations. She should just sit and wait for judgment to come upon the murderers. Chrysothemis responds that she is frightened and cannot sit still. She wants to get out of the house, live a normal life and bear children. She says that no one profits from their continuing anguish and Orestes will not return. She just wants to forget the past and feels that she could do so if only she could escape from the palace. But Electra says she cannot forget and is scornful of her sister’s words. Chrysothemis bursts into tears. Then she tells Electra that she should hide because Clytemnestra is coming and she has been complaining of bad dreams. Electra boasts that it is she who has sent the nightmare, which is of her mother’s own death at the hands of Orestes.
Chrysothemis rushes out and Clytemnestra enters. She is pale and trembles with anger, and her clothing is covered with jewels and charms. Electra gives her mother the impression that she is in a pleasant mood, so Clytemnestra says she wishes to speak to her. Electra reproaches her angrily and says it grieves her to see Aegisthus wearing the robes of her dead father. Clytemnestra retorts that she will not listen, but then she seems to have a change of heart and tells her confidante and trainbearer to leave. Clytemnestra then asks her daughter if she knows how she could be relieved of her bad dreams— by performance of a ritual sacrifice, for example. Clytemnestra declares that she is rotting inside. Her torment is so great that she no longer knows who she is. Electra gives broad hints about who the victim of the sacrifice should be, but Clytemnestra does not understand what...