Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s poetic tragedy Electra is an adaptation of Sophocles’ drama Élektra (418-410 b.c.e.; Electra, 1649). The work adheres closely to the structure and dramatic organization of the original but omits the chorus of women of Mycenae and develops and interprets the poetic materials in an entirely original fashion. In some instances, Hofmannsthal also drew on Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777) and Euripides’ Élektra (413 b.c.e.; Electra, 1782) for promptings pertaining to diction and poetic imagery.
Hofmannsthal added no new twists to the plot of his Greek sources, but his conception of the characters differs radically from theirs. In Sophocles’ play, Electra is overwhelmed by grief and sorrow, and Clytemnestra seeks to justify her crimes with rational explanations. Orestes returns wielding a sword of justice with which to reestablish order within the corrupted kingdom, and he is not tormented by the Furies, as in Aeschylus and Euripides. Hofmannsthal created an Electra possessed by an insane, all-consuming hatred and sustained by the expectation of eventual revenge; his superstitious Clytemnestra is tormented by insomnia produced by a guilty conscience; his Orestes (Hofmannsthal had at one time considered omitting him entirely from the play) is merely an agent of revenge, a character who lacks any strong personal definition. The secondary characters of Aegisthus and Chrysothemis are retained relatively unchanged, though the latter appears somewhat less sympathetic and more willing to serve as a partner in evil in the modern work.
Hofmannsthal’s decision to omit the chorus found in all the Greek versions resulted in substantial shifts in the meaning and emotional tone of the drama. In Sophocles, the chorus functioned as sensible representatives of a traditional moral order. There, Electra found the chorus sympathetic to her sorrowful laments, and their...
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