Electra Summary

Introduction

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 Summary

Electra begins in the inner courtyard of Clytemnestra’s palace. A group of women servants, with their matron overseers, are gathered...

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Electra Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

As the reddish glow of the setting sun floods the inner courtyard of the palace, five women servants come to fill their pitchers at the well. While they are speaking, Electra, Agamemnon’s eldest daughter, appears, dressed in ragged clothing. Startled by their presence, she quickly disappears like a frightened animal. Four of the women exchange contemptuous observations about the mourning rites that Electra practices each evening for her father, and they ridicule both her and the wretched conditions of life that her mother and Aegisthus impose upon her. Disdainfully, they mention that she prefers eating on the ground with the dogs to sharing the servants’ table, and that she insults all the servants of the house and stares at them fiercely like a wild cat. When the young fifth servant expresses her admiration for the abused princess, she is ordered inside, where she is promptly beaten for her insolence. Their pitchers filled, the servant women reenter the palace.

Electra returns and, speaking alone, reveals her secret thoughts and feelings. She recalls in vivid detail the murder of her father who, upon his return from the Trojan War, was at this very twilight hour slaughtered in his bath with an ax by his wife and her lover. She prays for her father’s spirit to appear to her again, promising that his blood will one day be avenged. She vows to sacrifice at his grave when that day comes and swears that she, along with her sister Chrysothemis and her brother Orestes, will dance around his tomb in royal pageantry to commemorate his greatness.

Chrysothemis appears in the doorway, interrupting Electra’s fantasy, to alert her that she overheard Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotting to imprison her in a dungeon. Electra replies contemptuously, which leads Chrysothemis to plead with her to understand her personal unhappiness. She explains that if they are to relinquish the hope of Orestes’ return and his subsequent revenge, they will both be able to lead relatively normal lives, to love and marry, to bear children, and to experience the joys of family life. She will quite willingly tolerate the injustice of...

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Electra Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Bottenberg, Joanna. Shared Creation: Words and Music in the Hofmannsthal-Strauss Operas. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Examines the collaboration of Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss that resulted in the creation of six operas, including Electra.

Hamburger, Michael. Hofmannsthal: Three Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. An excellent introduction to Hofmannsthal’s poems, plays, and libretti for English-speaking readers.

_______. A Proliferation of Prophets: Essays on German Writers from Nietzsche to Brecht. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1983. Contains a highly readable essay tracing Hofmannsthal’s poetic and artistic development, with advice for readers new to his work on how to approach his poetry. Includes a very good section on Electra.

Kovach, Thomas A., ed. A Companion to the Works of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 2002. Collection of essays analyzing Hofmannsthal’s works, including discussions of his lyric drama, collaborations with Richard Strauss, and his works’ reception in the twentieth century.

Puffett, Derrick, ed. Richard Strauss: “Elektra.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A collection of eight essays from renowned scholars that examine in depth all aspects of the opera based on Hofmannsthal’s drama.

Scott, Jill. “Beyond Tragic Catharsis: Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra.” In Electra After Freud: Myth and Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. Analyzes the depiction of Electra in Hofmannsthal’s play and other literary works in which writers transformed the ancient Greek myth.

Strathausen, Carsten. “Hofmannsthal and the Voice of Language.” In The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision Around 1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. A study of German poetry, philosophy, and visual media around 1900. Describes how Hofmannsthal and other writers used language as a means of competing with photography and film.

Ward, Philip. Hofmannsthal and Greek Myth: Expression and Performance. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Examines why and how Hoffmansthal adapted Greek mythology in his works. In one chapter, Ward focuses on how Hoffmansthal used myth to depict women’s behavior in Electra.