Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

The initial production of Electra, which premiered on October 30, 1903, in Berlin, was von Hofmannsthal’s first major theatrical success. Within four days, three editions of the book were sold out, and twenty-two German theaters expressed an interest in producing the play.

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Critics were divided, however. Von Hofmannsthal wrote in a letter to his brother-in-law that some were enthusiastic, others hostile. Those who passed negative judgments thought that the play did not measure up to the dignified calm that they believed was part of the ancient Greek spirit. They argued that the modernization of Sophocles’ play to incorporate psychological theories had made Electra into a savage character. In addition, Electra’s relationship with her sister was condemned because of its erotic, lesbian overtones.

Other critics thought that the modernization was legitimate, given the popularity and importance of Freud’s psychological theories. These critics tended to focus on the concept of ‘‘hysteria,’’ as defined by Freud, and as seen in the characters Electra and Clytemnestra.

For some years, Electra continued to be regularly performed by many theater companies. It was even performed in Japanese. Today, however, performances of the play are rare events. It is now known chiefly as the libretto of Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra (1909), which is part of the standard operatic repertoire. Strauss had seen the original production of the play in Berlin and asked von Hofmannsthal to create a libretto from it that he could set to music. Von Hofmannsthal made some changes to the original play to fit the demands of the operatic form. He reduced the length of the monologues and expanded the scene between Electra and Orestes. He also gave Electra an ecstatic duet with Chrysothemis, after Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are killed in which Electra sings that she is the fire of life. Von Hofmannsthal is today recognized as one of the finest librettists in operatic history.

The play, however, still continues to occupy the attention of scholars, whose arguments tend to reflect the same critical debate that was sparked by the play’s first production. In 1938, E. M. Butler wrote that the Freudian elements seriously damaged the play, which she referred to as ‘‘turgid spiritual melodrama’’ (quoted in Michael Hamburger’s introduction to von Hofmannsthal’s Selected Plays and Libretti). But other modern critics have found the Freudian elements in the play, such as Electra’s fixation on her father and the idea of repressed memory as applied to Clytemnestra, to be fruitful ground for examination. Critics have also contrasted von Hofmannsthal’s play with the play by Sophocles on which it is loosely based.

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