Psychological Elements and Freudian Psychoanalysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

‘‘My main incentive is not to let bygone ages be wholly dead, and to make people feel that what is remote and alien is closely related to themselves.’’ So wrote von Hofmannsthal (quoted in Robert Mark’s article in Opera News) of his adaptations of Greek tragedies. He certainly set himself quite a task. Appreciating such a grim, bleak, violent play as Electra requires a leap of imagination into a world very different from our own. Perhaps a comparison with a more familiar revenge tragedy, Hamlet, might be helpful. There are many similarities between the two plays. Like Electra, Hamlet has had a dearly loved father murdered and must, by the code of his society, avenge his death. Like Electra, Hamlet must kill a relative (although Hamlet must kill his uncle, not his mother, to do so). Hamlet’s mind, like Electra’s, is placed under enormous strain by the Herculean task imposed upon him. And like Electra, Hamlet develops a revulsion against all sexuality because his mother is having sexual relations with a criminal usurper.

The ancient Greek tragedians who dramatized the Agamemnon-Orestes-Electra myth were deeply concerned with the question of justice. The final play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy entirely concerns Orestes’s guilt or innocence. After being pursued by the Furies, Orestes is finally acquitted by the goddess Athena, and the long cycle of violence is brought to an end. Sophocles also, in his play Electra, appears to have believed that the killing of Clytemnestra and her lover was justified, a view also emphatically presented by Homer in the Odyssey.

Von Hofmannsthal does not have the same interest as Aeschylus in examining the issue of justice from all sides. He does not seem to bring the justice of Electra’s vengeance into question, although it could be argued that the abrupt ending of the play is suggestive, as Chrysothemis bangs on the door calling for Orestes but receives no reply. Perhaps already the Furies are pursuing him.

Von Hofmannsthal’s approach to the myth is a different one entirely. As befits a man writing in Vienna at the time that Freud was delving into the uncharted waters of the subconscious, von Hofmannsthal is concerned more with psychology than ethics or morality. It is as if he takes the smooth textures of the ancient dramas and asks himself, what is really going on in the subconscious depths of these characters’ minds? What has been the psychological effect on them of the killing of Agamemnon?

That the effect has been traumatic and devastating on at least three of the main characters— Clytemnestra, Electra and Chrysothemis—is obvious. The one moment in which the terrible destructive act—the killing of Agamemnon—took place has in effect frozen time for Clytemnestra and Electra. They cannot get beyond that moment and its consequences. Their lives are like dammed up rivers where the pressure continues to build but there is no way of releasing it. They are locked in a deadly struggle that is destroying them both.

Interestingly, the few positive, life-affirming images in the play are of flowing water. These are supplied by Chrysothemis, who has reacted to the tragedy that has enveloped her family quite differently than Electra. That is not to say that she is not deeply distressed. She is. She tells Electra that she is terrified; she runs from room to room as if a voice were calling her; she cannot find relief even in tears. But unlike Electra, she is not fixated on the past. She wants to be part of the world of becoming, the natural cycle of growth and change. She wants...

(This entire section contains 1858 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

to fulfill her role as a woman and give birth to a child. She wants life to flow freely again, out of the deathgrip that holds her mother and sister immobile in a nightmare past that consumes their present and offers them no future. Chrysothemis uses the image of cleansing water to express her desire to be free of the past: ‘‘I will wash my body / in every water; I will plunge deep down / into every water; I will wash each part of me.’’

Disturbed, frightened and desperate she may be, but Chrysothemis represents the hope that whatever the past, life will flow once more and new births will ease the memory of old deaths. Electra herself, in her second long dialogue with her sister, recognizes that Chrysothemis is the one who still has energetic life flowing through her. She contrasts Chrysothemis’ youthfulness and physical strength, which ‘‘flows like cool / pent-up water from the rock’’ (the water image again) with her own wasted body, her ‘‘wretched withered arms.’’

Chrysothemis, of course, is unwilling to go along with what her sister wants her to do. She blames Electra for their joint imprisonment, and simply wants Electra to change her attitude. But that is like asking her to alter the laws of her being, to be a different person entirely. It is not going to happen. And Chrysothemis’ willingness to ‘‘move on with her life’’ (as the modern phrase has it), although attractive on the surface, is in fact not really a solution to the problem. It leaves the impasse between Clytemnestra and Electra in place.

How does von Hofmannsthal tackle this thorny situation? How can that moment of ‘‘frozen time’’ that holds Clytemnestra and Electra in its grip be melted? As Lorna Martens has pointed out in her article, ‘‘The Theme of the Repressed Memory in Hofmannsthal’s Elektra,’’ he turned for inspiration to Freud. In particular, he read Freud’s Studies in Hysteria (1895) and The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

Freud’s theory was that traumatic events are repressed by the conscious mind. The memories do not disappear but become lodged in the unconscious mind, from where they create neurotic symptoms in the personality. It is clear that Clytemnestra is suffering from repressed memory because she cannot recall the moment of the murder. This is how she describes that moment to Electra:

There he stood
of whom you always talk, there he stood
and here stood I and Aegisthus,
and from eye to eye our glances met:
so it had not happened yet! and then
your father’s dying look altered
so slowly and horribly, but still
fastened to mine—and then it had happened:
there is no space in between! Now it was
before, and then it was past—in between
I did nothing.

As Martens points out, it is Electra who represents the memory of the act of murder that Clytemnestra is repressing. Since the memory of this awful act is now stuck in Clytemnestra’s unconscious mind, it is having an insidious, poisonous effect on her whole being. She knows that something is wrong. ‘‘I rot inside,’’ says Clytemnestra, and this accounts for the symptoms of hysteria which she exhibits.

These symptoms include hallucinations— Clytemnestra has hallucinations of Electra as a snake—nightmares, and the loss of the ability to use language at vital moments. In Clytemnestra’s long speech to Electra when they are alone together, for example, Clytemnestra complains that she can find no words to answer Aegisthus when he mocks her. She reaches for the words, but they are not there. Also, according to Martens, Clytemnestra’s entry, in which she supports herself on a stick and can hardly keep her eyes open, suggests a condition of ‘‘hysterical paralysis.’’ Taken as a whole, Clytemnestra’s symptoms of hysteria, which also include confusion and dizziness, make her resemble one of Freud’s most famous patients, a woman named Anna O.

Martens notes that Electra also has symptoms of hysteria, and also resembles Anna O. This can be seen especially in her excessive attachment to a dead, beloved father, her preoccupation with reliving the past, and the fact that both the fictional character and real-life psychiatric patient experience symptoms of the disorder daily at sunset (this is the time each day when Electra mourns her father and relives the murder).

It is a sign of how von Hofmannsthal’s symbolic meanings overlap that Electra, herself resembling a hysteric, also resembles the psychoanalyst. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the analyst keeps probing and investigating the psyche of the patient until the memory of the original trauma is uncovered. This, in theory anyway, frees the patient from the trauma’s grip. This is why Clytemnestra senses that Electra, who keeps tormenting her, also has the ability to cure her. And Electra badgers her mother again and again about the original deed, trying like a psychoanalyst to get the buried memory to come to light. This is also symbolized both verbally and visually by Electra’s feverish digging for the axe that killed Agamemnon. Interestingly, Freud sometimes used the analogy of an archeological dig to convey the work of the psychoanalyst, who has to dig through all the layers of the mind to discover the basic structures that have made it what it is.

Such is the basic Freudian approach to the play, and there is no doubt that it digs deeply into von Hofmannsthal’s intended meanings. Whether, either in the early 1900s or now, a hundred years later, it fulfills von Hofmannsthal’s goal of making ‘‘people feel that what is remote and alien is closely related to themselves’’ is another matter. Perhaps the answer, in spite of the extreme nature of the subject matter, is yes. Methods of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy have proliferated since Freud’s day, but many of them still work on the same premise. The theory is that if some traumatic event or process that has been pushed back into the unconscious mind is brought to conscious awareness, it will automatically lose its power to produce neurosis in the personality. That which is known, and can be contemplated in the light of day, is less powerful than that which lurks undetected and unknown. The trauma can be anything from, say, sexual abuse as a child to something perhaps less serious, such as how the family dynamic—the relationship between the parents and their relationship with the children—operated to create the problem that is being addressed by the therapist.

This kind of intervention by a psychiatrist or psychotherapist might be thought of as the ‘‘Electra solution’’ to psychic disturbance, if Electra is viewed in her role as the preserver of memory. It is the solution she tries to force on Clytemnestra: face the monster and he will lose his fangs. An alternative, less attractive, attitude to inner turmoil might be Electra in her role as hysteric, endlessly and morbidly dwelling on the traumatic events of the past. A third possibility might be thought of as the ‘‘Chrysothemis solution’’: get immersed in life and make the best of things, perhaps with the attitude that ‘‘it all happened a long time ago.’’ A fourth possibility of course is Orestes’ solution. He wastes little time on words and simply takes action to get the job done. These four different approaches might be thought of as confront, brood, forget, act. Of such stuff is the drama of life made.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Electra, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Hofmannsthal’s Electra and Its Dramatic Models

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Electra was Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s first major success on the public stage. The play was first performed at Max Reinhardt’s Little Theatre in Berlin on October 30, 1903. On November 10, Hofmannsthal wrote to his brother-in-law that it had had a great success with three editions out of print, twenty-two adoptions by public stages, and a noisy reception from the press, partly enthusiastic, partly hostile. Electra kept its place in the repertoire. Some years later, Hofmannsthal authorized a Japanese club to perform it in Japanese and casually referred to performances of his play on ‘‘hundreds of stages.’’ Today, Electra survives chiefly in a cut and slightly altered form as the libretto of Strauss’s opera.

Electra was not Hofmannsthal’s first or only stab at Greek tragedy. A decade earlier, the nineteen- year-old student had tried his hand at Euripides’ Alcestis. A little more than a translation and a little less than a new version, this play presents a very lyrical and decorous Euripides, with the buffoonery of Heracles toned down, and some poetic fin-de-siècle additions about the deep relationships of life and death. Electra marked the beginning of several years’ preoccupation with Greek myths. It was followed by Oedipus and the Sphinx and a translation of Oedipus Rex, which Hofmannsthal at one time considered parts of a trilogy to be rounded off by a one-act play on the old Oedipus. There are quite systematic sketches for a drama on Pentheus, as well as less elaborate sketches for plays on Leda and the Swan, Jupiter and Semele, and King Kandaules. Hofmannsthal returned to Greek mythology again in two of his opera libretti: Ariadne auf Naxos and Die ägyptische Helena.

One should not, however, overestimate the rigor or coherence of Hofmannsthal’s interest in Greek tragedy and mythology. He learned Greek at the Gymnasium and was by all accounts a phenomenally gifted and precocious student. References to volumes of Pindar, Herodotus, and Sophocles in his correspondence show that he continued to read Greek literature in the original after leaving school. But he was not a Greek scholar like Milton or Racine. He was familiar with some of the fashionable scholarship and criticism of his day, notably Nietzsche, Erwin Rohde’s Psyche, and Bachofen’s work on matriarchy, and he associated this reading with the newfangled work of Freud and Breuer on repression, hysteria, and the unconscious. But the eighteen-year-old admitted in a charming letter to Marie Herzfeld: ‘‘meine Bildung ist ein bißchen dilettantenhaft unauseglichen’’ [my education is rather dilettantish and uneven]. Ten years later, this statement was probably even more accurate, at least as regards Hofmannsthal’s classical learning. And his reliance on standard translations is evident in his plays.

While Hofmannsthal was pursuing things Greek, he was also dabbling in several other traditions. Wolfgang Nehring has recently shown that in the early years of the twentieth century, Hofmannsthal tried to find his way as a dramatist by imitating whatever struck his fancy. Them were the Greek subjects, but there were also Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, the medieval Everyman, and Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. And Oedipus and the Sphinx, far from being an unmediated return to ancient myth, was inspired by a play on the same topic by Joséphin Peladan, a contemporary French writer.

The provenance of models suggests an eclectic and indeed haphazard procedure. On the other hand, all of Hofmannsthal’s plays from that period are dominated by an obsessive concern with the question of identity and its relationship to sexuality and action. In a letter to Hermann Bahr, he describes his current work on Calderón’s Life Is a Dream in a phrase that characterizes his entire work during that time: he is concerned ‘‘in die tiefsten Tiefen des zweifelhaften Höhlenkönigreiches ‘Ich’ hinabzusteigen und dort das Nicht-mehr-ich oder die Welt zu finden’’ [to descend into the lowest depths of the dubious cave kingdom ‘I’ and to find there the no-longer-I or the world].

The combination of narrow thematic range with a very eclectic choice of models raises some doubts about the usefulness of exploring the relationship of text and subtext in Hofmannsthal’s case. But a close examination reveals that Hofmannsthal was a very good reader and that he chose his models with a keen eye for resemblances between their thematic range and his interests.

The title page of Hofmannsthal’s Electra identifies the play as: ‘‘Tragódie in einem Aufzug frei nach Sophokles.’’ In a letter to Rudolf Alexander Schröder, Hofmannsthal called it ‘‘eine freie, sehr freie Bearbeitung der ‘Elektra’ des Sophokles’’ [a free, very free adaptation of Sophocles’ ‘Electra’]. The play, however, is more accurately seen as a version of three very different plays. Its immediate theatre history relates it closely to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. At the thematic level, the play is a polemical attack on Goethe’s Iphigenie. The relationship with Sophocles exist superficially at the level of action; the thematic relationship is mediated through both Salome and Iphigenie.

Electra was especially written for Gertrud Eysoldt, who had starred in over 200 performances of Oscar Wilde’s Salome in the same theatre and, according to the contemporary critic Paul Goldmann, ‘‘specialized in perverted women.’’ Hofmannsthal had seen Eysoldt in Gorky’s Lower Depths, and it was at her urging and Max Reinhardt’s that he sat down to carry out plans for the Electra drama that had been on his mind for some time.

The plan to write an Electra play dates to 1901: . . .

My point of departure was the character of Electra, as I well remember. I read the Sophoclean play in the garden and in the forest, in the fall of 1901. The line from ‘‘Iphigenia’’ came to mind where it says: ‘‘Electra with her fiery tongue,’’ and as I walked I fantasized about the figure of Electra, not without some pleasure in the contrast to the ‘‘devilishly humane’’ atmosphere of Iphigenia. The similarity and contrast with Hamlet also went through my mind.

In a diary entry of 17 July 1904, Hofmannsthal gave a very similar account: . . .

The first idea came in early September 1901. I was reading ‘‘Richard III’’ and Sophocles’ ‘‘Electra’’ in order to learn some things for ‘‘Pompilia.’’ Immediately the figure of Electra was transformed. The ending was also there at once: that she cannot go on living, that, once the blow has fallen, her life and entrails must rush from her, just as life and entrails together with the fertilizing sting rush from the drone once it has impregnated the queen. The resemblance and contrast to Hamlet were striking. As for style, I thought of doing something opposite from ‘‘Iphigenia,’’ something that would not fit the description: ‘‘this hellenizing product appeared to me on rereading devilishly humane.’’

Letters written in 1901 and 1902 continue to refer to plans for this drama, but it was not until the encounter with Eysoldt and Reinhardt that Hoffmansthal sat down to write the play.

Electra and SalomeSalome and Electra are now associated in our minds as Strauss operas. But Hofmannsthal was skittish about the relationship of his play to Wilde’s. Strauss apparently became interested in Hofmannsthal’s play after seeing a production of it at the Little Theatre in Berlin. When Strauss worried that the two plays might be too similar, Hofmannsthal in a letter disputed his argument: ‘‘Es sind zwei Einakter, jeder hat einen Frauennamen, beide spielen im Altertum und beide wurden in Berlin von der Eysoldt kreiert: ich glaube, darauf läuft die ganze Ähnlichkeit hinaus’’ [They are both one-act plays, each is named after a woman, both are set in antiquity, and both were premièred in Berlin by Eysoldt; I think that is all there is to the resemblances.] This statement clearly understates the similarities and the influence of Wilde’s play. Hofmannsthal wrote his play for the Little Theatre in full knowledge that Electra would be played by Gertrud Eysoldt, who was famous for her Salome, and he saw Eysoldt in Gorky’s Lower Depths while working on his play. The German theatrical history of Salome stands squarely behind Hofmannsthal’s play.

Wilde’s play changes the biblical narrative in important ways. First, Salome is motivated by her own passion for John and acts out of the love/hatred of a rejected woman. Second, Salome is killed at the end. Finally, Wilde elaborates the biblical motif of Salome’s dance and gives it an explicitly bloody setting:

HEROD Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet! ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well! Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees . . . No, no, she is going to dance on blood! There is blood spilt on the ground. She must not dance on blood. It were an evil omen.

HERODIAS What is it to thee if she dance on blood? Thou hast waded deep enough in it. . .

HEROD What is it to me? Ah! look at the moon! she has become red. She has become red as blood. Ah! the prophet prophesied truly. He prophesied that the moon would become as blood. Did he not prophesy it? All of ye heard him prophesying it. And now the moon has become as blood. Do ye not see it?

Thus, Wilde’s play places a heroine within a complex of themes and motifs that involves sexual frustration, blood, dance, and death. The crazed heroine’s fatal dance of death at the moment of triumph has no precedent in Sophocles’ play, but it is quite obvious that she conflates central motifs of Wilde’s play.

Electra and Iphigenie auf Tauris
For the German bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century, the exiled Iphigenia, ‘‘seeking the land of the Greeks with her soul,’’ was the great paradigm of neoclassical hellenism, and as such mediated the understanding of Greece as a vision of beauty and serenity. Goethe himself had his doubts about the play. In a letter to Schiller, he spoke of his ‘‘hellenizing drama’’ as ‘‘devilishly humane.’’ In his later autobiography, he drew attention to the ‘‘dark and terrifying elements’’ in the background of his play. Goethe’s younger contemporary Heinrich von Kleist had responded to these elements in a play modeled on the Bacchae, in which he opposed to Iphigenia’s Apollonian triumph the Dionysiac and destructive frenzy of Penthesilea.

A very similar protest motivates Hofmannsthal’s Electra. The deliberate and provocative contrast with Iphigenia was part of the original conception of his protagonist. The point is so obvious at critics have ignored it and have not traced the precise and detailed manner in which the contrast is developed. One might begin with Hofmannsthal’s memory of Goethe’s phrase about Electra with her fiery tongue, which occurs in Orestes’ narrative of the matricide: . . .

Orestes made himself known to Electra;
She fanned the fire of revenge in him
Which in his mother’s sacred presence had
Died down to embers. Silently she led
Him to the place at which his father died
And where an old, faint trace of wantonly
Spilled blood still stained the frequently washed floor
With ominous and palely faded streaks.
She there described for him with tongue of fire
Each circumstance of that outrageous deed,
She forced upon him there that ancient dagger
Which had in Tantalus’s house raged grimly,
And Clytemnestra died by her son’s hand.

The passage contains several motifs that Hofmannsthal develops in detail. None of the ancient versions specifies Orestes’ weapon. Goethe resorts to the Gothic motif of a cursed weapon that links the generational sequence of crimes. ‘‘[T]hat ancient dagger/Which had in Tantalus’s house raged grimly’’ becomes in Hofmannsthal’s drama Clytaemnestra’s ax, which Electra guards for her brother’s use. More interesting is the phrase:

And where an old, faint trace of wantonly
Spilled blood still stained the frequently washed floor
With ominous and palely faded streaks.

The faint trace of blood may be seen as an image of the distance between Goethe’s play and the violence of his sources. Hofmannsthal’s play, on the other hand, swims in blood. The deliberate contrast with Goethe is apparent in the opening scene, where a group of maidservants viciously gossip about Electra. They indignantly repeat her accusations, including this one: . . .

to wash with water and
with more and more fresh-drawn
water the everlasting blood of murder
off the floors—

That is a memory, via Macbeth, of the Goethean passage. It may also be seen as a return to the theme of blood in the Oresteia, especially to the carpet scene of the Agamemnon, in which the stage is metaphorically transformed into an ocean of blood. The distinctive aspect of blood in Electra, however, is its compulsive association with sexuality, and as we shall see, this association is part of Hofmannsthal’s provocative challenge to Goethe.

The opening scene of Electra shows us a group of women on a darkly lit stage. When Electra enters, the stage direction specifies: ‘‘sie ist allein mit den Flecken roten Lichtes, die aus den Zweigen des Feigenbaumes schräg über den Boden und auf die Mauern fallen, wie Blutflecke’’ [she is alone with the patches of red light which fall like bloodstains from the branches of the fig tree obliquely across the ground and upon the walls]. We see the courtyard of an oriental palace, but it is also a red-light district. Sex and violence come together in the image of the maidservants conceiving children on the blood-drenched steps of the palace, in the ambiguous groaning behind closed doors, and in Electra’s laconic description of the world around her: ‘‘sie kreißen oder sic morden’’ [they give birth or kill]. That such lurid color is part of fin-de-siècle decadence in the manner of Salome requires no further comment. But it is also the answer to Goethe’s explicitly asexual construction of classical Greece.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dramatists who wrote plays on subjects of Greek tragedy were usually dissatisfied with the limited and unsentimental treatment of love in their sources, and for this reason they would add erotic subplots. Opposition to the indiscriminate use of such subplots led to the demand for a ‘‘tragédie sans l’amour.’’ Racine, who in his Phèdre had given the great portrayal of a woman destroyed by passion, wrote such a play in his Athalie, a scriptural drama written for performance by girls in a convent school. The play was very famous in the eighteenth century because it employed ancient dramaturgy with a strict avoidance of any erotic motif. Goethe in his Iphigenie auf Tauris took the ideal of the ‘‘tragedy without love’’ one step farther and made it the subject of the play itself. In several eighteenthcentury versions of the subject, Iphigenia fends off the advances of unwelcome suitors. Goethe follows this motif when in the first act of his play Iphigenia turns down a marriage proposal from King Thoas. But in Goethe’s play alone, this denial is a rejection of marriage as such. To the great tragic heroines destroyed by passion in ancient tragedy, whether Phaedra, Medea, or Dido, Goethe opposed Iphigenia, the saint and sister who rescues Orestes from his madness. The madness of Orestes, however, had been reinterpreted by Racine in sexual terms: the Oreste of Andromaque is mad because Hermione does not return his passion. Thus, the psychological reintegration of Goethe’s Orestes through the healing power of his sister is itself a psychosexual drama, albeit of a peculiar kind. The saintly humanity of its moral vision rests on a vow of chastity.

The ancient playwrights derived the name ‘‘Electra’’ from ‘‘a-lektron,’’ ‘‘without bed.’’ The daughters of the ‘‘overbedded’’ Clytaemnestra are both unbedded, and in a peculiar fashion Electra, no less than Iphigenie auf Tauris, is a ‘‘tragédie sans l’amour.’’ But to the voluntary renunciation of Iphigenia, Hofmannsthal opposes the enforced frustration of Electra. The risqué elements of the play, including Electra’s lesbian attack on her sister and the memories of incestuous rape by the ghost of the father, directly parallel the relationship of Goethe’s Iphigenia with her father and brother. Iphigenia dwells on the memory of her happy childhood, at the center of which stands the identification of her father as a thoroughly good man. Electra is haunted by the overbearing presence and demand for revenge of a ghoulish father, who visits her at night and ‘‘der mich zwang alles zu wissen, wie es zwischen Mann und Weib zugeht’’ [forced me to know all that goes on between man and woman]— an anti-Goethean move by an inhabitant of turn-ofthe- century Vienna. The same is true of the relationship between Electra and Chrysothemis. The sister’s selfless and chaste love becomes the paradigm for the relationship of man and woman in Goethe’s play. Electra’s sisterly love is of a different kind, and surely we are meant to hear Goethe when Electra woos Chrysothemis with the words: . . .

From now on
I will be your sister as I have never
been your sister before!

The intensely and self-consciously claustrophobic atmosphere of Electra is also part of the attack on the neoclassical subtext. In his ‘‘Scenic Instructions,’’ Hofmannsthal gave ‘‘Enge, Unentfliehbarkeit, Abgeschlossenheit’’ [ narrowness, lack of escapes, enclosedness] as the characteristic features of the setting; and in a letter written shortly after the première, he complained of the play’s ‘‘compulsive claustrophobia and terrible lack of light.’’

Hofmannsthal’s claustrophobic spaces are generally metaphors of the womb. The cave is the favored image. In Oedipus and the Sphinx, the oracle warning Laius against a son takes this form:. . .

Let the king be on his guard
and stand at his wife’s bed
armed and with a naked sword
as if at the cave from which his worst enemy
is lurking to burst forth.

Images of this kind are obsessive during Hofmannsthal’s works of this period, and sometimes they are involuntarily funny, as in his sketches to a Pentheus drama: . . .

A symbolic motif: that Pentheus does not know his own palace; not the vault, not the grotto, not the subterranean ponds, not the shaft that leads into the mountain through a hatch door, (he stands over it and calls down: Mother, Mother!)—Cadmus scorns him for it.

In Electra, the cave image appears prominently in a passage in which Electra reacts with disgust to her sister’s desire for a normal life as wife and mother: . . .

the woman who thinks of it, who calls it by name!
To be the cave the murderer enjoys
after the murder; to play the beast giving,
pleasure to the fouler beast.

The setting of Electra in fact consists of a regress of claustrophobic spaces: the palace, the rooms within the palace, Clytaemnestra’s womb are arranged like a set of Chinese boxes. Movement within this space is never free of terror: the one servant who admires Electra is pushed through the door into the palace and whipped, and the sound of whips accompanies the procession that surrounds Clytaemnestra’s arrival. Flight and chase are also prominent motifs. Twice in the play, Electra envisages the circumstances of Clytaemnestra’s death, and on both occasions her death involves a chase. The first time, she thinks of Orestes chasing Clytaemnestra through the basement of the palace to the deepest pit where the ghost of Agamemnon resides. In the second vision, Electra tells Clytaemnestra how Orestes will chase her and how (in circumstances not unlike Pyrrhus’s hesitation) she will be suspended in nameless terror until Orestes drops his ax.

Although the association in Hofmannsthal’s Electra of claustrophobic fear with sexuality is well motivated in terms of his other works from that period, the systematic opposition to the spatial imagination of Iphigenie auf Tauris is highly signifi- cant. Goethe’s asexual drama occurs in a setting that stresses openness and release. The play’s opening lines establish the dominant sense of space:

Heraus in eure Schatten, rege Wipfel
Des alten, heilgen, dichtbelaubten Haines, . . .

Enclosure here is benign: moving out of the temple, Iphigenia enters not the open and sunny plain, but the shadowy space of a grove. The play is familiar with terrifying enclosure, the ‘‘iron band’’ that a god forged around the brows of the family of Atreus, the ‘‘klanglos-dumpfe Höhlenreich der Nacht’’ [the soundless dull cave kingdom of night], where Orestes stores the memories of his horrible deed, the prison of his madness. But when at the end of the third act he is cured by his sister, the world lies before him as an open and sunny plain after a thunderstorm, and claustrophobic spaces are evoked only to be banished: . . .

To Tartarus pass the Eumenides,
I hear their going, and they close behind them
The doors of bronze with far-receding thunder.

Iphigenia returns once more to the claustrophobic vision of bondage at the end of the fourth act, when in the Parzenlied she conjures up the world of past violence and dwells on the image of Tantalus as the ‘‘exiled ancestor in nocturnal caves’’. But the play moves away from this vision to end in release and liberation.

The sense of space that governs Goethe’s play appears in the stage directions of nineteenth-century versions of Greek tragedy with which Hofmannsthal was familiar. In his ‘‘Scenic Instructions,’’ Hofmannsthal expressly forbids ‘‘jene Sälen, jene breiten Treppenstufen, all jene antikisierenden Banalitäten, welche mehr geeignet sind, zu ernüchtern als suggestiv zul wirken’’ [those columns, those broad steps, all those hellenizing banalities more suited to sobering up the spectator than to having a suggestive effect]. The space of Electra is far from such visions of openness. Just as Hofmannsthal resexualized Goethe’s asexual drama, so he foregrounded the claustrophobic terror lurking in its background.

Hofmannsthal and the Sophoclean Electra
The Sophoclean Electra departs in significant ways from the versions of Aeschylus and Euripides, and as we shall see, it is precisely these departures that Hofmannsthal engages in his version. Although different in all other respects, Aeschylus and Euripides each place the matricide at the dramaturgical and moral center of the play. In both plays, Orestes pretends to be the messenger of his own death and gains entrance into the palace with this disguise. In both plays, the recognition between brother and sister occurs before Orestes carries out his plan. Recognition and disguise are subsidiary features in a plot that moves toward the realization of the horror of matricide as its central event.

At first sight, the Sophoclean play shows an almost perverse lack of interest in the problematical nature of matricide, as the playwright pursues the question: what would happen if Electra heard the false news of her brother’s death before learning the truth about him? The instrumental motifs of disguise and recognition catch the dramatist’s attention, and matricide is relegated to the status of a traditional and uncomplicated donnée.

This switch of priorities gives its distinctive shape to the Sophoclean drama, which unfolds as the fluctuating sequence of Electra’s hope and despair. When her sister, Chrysothemis, tells her about the mother’s ominous dreams, Electra is elated and gathers confidence for the ensuing confrontation with Clytaemnestra in which she savagely demolishes her mother’s claim to have killed Agamemnon out of just revenge. She triumphs, and a humiliated Clytaemnestra performs her rites and prayers culminating in an unspoken wish. As if in response to that silent prayer, the messenger arrives with the news of Orestes’ death. Through his psychologically intricate management of the triangular dialogue situation, Sophocles reinforces the effect of Electra’s disillusionment. The messenger addresses Clytaemnestra, but the dramatist wants the audience to attend to Electra’s response. Three times Electra seeks to establish herself as the proper audience; three times Clytaemnestra tells the messenger to ignore her. His elaborate account of Orestes’ death—much the longest messenger report in Greek tragedy—has, from the poet’s perspective, its proper listener in the forgotten Electra, the neglected mourner among an official audience who take little trouble to conceal their satisfaction.

With an almost sadistic pleasure in his dramaturgical skill, Sophocles adds three twists to the isolation of Electra. First, Chrysothemis returns from the father’s grave with the news of the signs of Orestes’ return that she found there. She is right but Electra now ‘‘knows better,’’ and the signs only deepen her despair. Second, Electra fails to persuade her sister to become an accomplice in carrying out Orestes’ task: when Chrysothemis leaves, Electra has lost her sister as well as her brother. Third, in the play’s most famous scene—an occasion for virtuoso display by Hellenistic actors—the disguised Orestes carries the urn with his own ashes to the palace, evidence of the truth of his story. He encounters Electra, and once agains she becomes the recipient of a message not intended for her. Slowly Orestes recognizes the identity of this halfcrazed woman, and the grief he has unwittingly inflicted on his sister begins to dawn on him. She asks to hold the urn, but when he sees the passionate devotion with which she clings to him in this residual form, he cannot continue in his course of deception. He takes the urn away from her in a moment that is for her the ultimate and most gratuitous form of deprivation. Out of this moment the recognition arises, and the play moves swiftly toward its conclusion.

From this description of the play, it may appear as if the drama of recognition had emancipated itself from the drama of matricide. But a moment late in the play reestablishes the connection. Electra, standing guard at the door to the palace, hears her mother’s death scream and exclaims: ‘‘Strike again if you have the strength.’’ The line is famous and problematical. Seventeenth-century critics found it difficult to reconcile this unrestrained outburst of fierce hatred with their notions of appropriate behavior for a princess. Corneille in his second Discours blamed Electra for ‘‘l’inhumanité dont elle encourage son frère à ce parricide’’ and considered it incompatible with her character as a ‘‘vertueuse opprimée’’; and Racine wrote in the margins of his copy of Sophocles: ‘‘Ce vers est un peu cruel pour une fille; mais c’est une fille depuis longtemps enragée contre sa mère.’’ Adapters of the play devised ingenious solutions, such as transferring the sentence to Clytaemnestra, in whose mouth it expresses the defiance of the hardened criminal even at the point of death.

The scandalized neoclassical critic is usually a good guide to interpretative cruxes, even though his own solutions may fail to persuade. The discrepancy between Electra’s unquestioned nobility and the ferocity of her ‘‘[s]trike again’’ is a cardinal fact about the Sophoclean play. Its plot makes visible the psychological cost of the protagonist’s dedication. Through the drama of recognition, the warped ruins of Electra’s noble self become starkly apparent. At the same time, it becomes evident that Sophocles’ drama has been all along the tragedy of a protagonist shaped and distorted by the burden of revenge on the mother.

Aeschylus’s Electra is forgotten after the recognition; the Euripidean character becomes an accessory to the matricide. The Sophoclean Electra is posted outside the palace and becomes a vicarious participant by witnessing the event in her imagination. In the context of available dramaturgical options, this Sophoclean decision is significant: the deed that Electra need not do because of Orestes’ timely arrival is also a deed that she cannot do. It is part of her fate to be incapacitated for action.

A look at Sophocles’earlier Antigone illustrates the point. Antigone is, like Electra, a play in which the heroine fulfills her destiny in unswerving devotion to a kinsman. In both plays, the heroine’s inflexible resolve is underscored through contrast with her sister’s pragmatic accommodation. But here the resemblances stop. Antigone does her deed and dies for it, but she suffers no diminution or distortion in her being. Within the narrow limits Greek tragedy establishes as the appropriate sphere of action for a woman, we are meant to think of her as going beyond a woman’s courage; but her act, far from unwomanly, is the very paradigm of sisterly devotion. And her suffering and isolation, however intense, are short in duration: she becomes Antigone and fulfills her fate in the short space between her brother’s death and her own suicide. Hence, the peculiar bloom or freshness of her tragedy to which Hegel responded so strongly. By contrast a savage deficiency marks Electra at the moment of her ‘‘[s]trike again.’’ She does not do the deed that she had long anticipated, but time has corroded and stunted her.

Although Hofmannsthal follows the skeletal action of the Sophoclean play, he has very little interest in the drama of recognition, which he manages in a much simpler fashion by introducing motifs from The Odyssey and the Euripidean version. But he is keenly interested in the theme of the protagonist’s incapacitation for action to which the drama of recognition leads in the Sophoclean version. His heroine utters the obligatory ‘‘[s]trike again,’’ but that moment is upstaged by an innovation in which the theme of her radical ability to act finds much more explicit expression. When after the recognition scene Orestes declares his intention to act speedily, she celebrates action as the ‘‘bed of rest for the soul’’ and contrasts the impotent and corrosive emotions of love and hatred with the fulfillment of those who act: . . .

only he is blessed
who is coming to do his deed! And blessed
who may touch him and who digs up the ax
for him out of the earth and who holds the torch
for him and who opens the door for him, blessed
is he who may listen at the door.

But when Orestes is summoned by his mentor to enter the palace, she forgets to give him the ax that she had preserved for him during her waiting, and she is overwhelmed by despair at the fact: . . .

ELECTRA alone, in terrible suspense. She runs to and fro in a single straight line in front of the door, with lowered head, like a captive animal in its cage. Suddenly she stands still and says

I could not give him the ax!
They have gone, and I could not
give him the ax. There are no gods
in heaven!

This emphatic moment of failure climaxes the play’s pervasive concern with distorted relationships between self and action. In one of his diary entries, Hofmannsthal lists action, work, and the child as instruments of social integration; speaks of ‘‘transformation’’ and ‘‘self-abandonment’’ in action and then alludes to his ‘‘ironic’’ treatment of the relationship of self and action in Electra. The three women in the play are differently crippled in their capacities for action as the result of Agamemnon’s murder. In the case of Chrysothemis, the maternal sense of time as growth and fulfillment has given way to barren waste, and she watches with fascinated horror the useless passage of her own life: . . .

For it is not water which is rushing by,
and it is not yarn which is rolling off,
rolling off the spool; it is I, I!

For Clytaemnestra, the finality of the crime has destroyed any relationship between self and action: . . .

And we, we ourselves! And our deeds!
Deeds! We and deeds! What odd words!
For am I still the same who has done the deed?
And if so! Done! Done! Done!

She is not hypocritical when she remembers nothing about the deed itself: . . .

Now it was
before, and then it was past—in between
I did nothing.

But she is terrified by the consequences of what she can no longer remember: . . .

Is it then possible
to perish, alive, like a rotting carcass?
Can one waste away and not be sick?
Go to wrack, with waking senses, like a robe
eaten up by moths?

In some respects, an even more powerful account of her dissolving self appears in the stage direction that describes the arrival of Clytaemnestra and her train: . . .

A hurried procession passes the glaringly litup windows, clanking and shuffling by: it is a tugging and dragging of animals, a muted scolding, a quickly stifled scream, the whistling sound of a whip, a recovering and staggering onward.

In her despair, she tries to establish herself through rituals: there is a right way of doing everything, and if everything is done rightly, the chaos at the center is overcome: . . .

There are
rites. There must be proper rites for everything.
How one pronounces a word, and a sentence,
much depends on that. Also on the hour.
And whether one is full, or fasting.

Compulsive repetition also governs the life of Electra. The worship of her father has become a ritual for her: in the very opening lines of the play, the time is given as ‘‘her hour, her time of day when she howls for her father.’’ She is fiercely absorbed by the memory of the past and her imaginary anticipation of revenge, thoughts which occupy a much greater proportion of the play than they do in the Sophoclean version. But if Hofmannsthal designs for Electra a special participation in the deed, the guardianship of the ax, he introduces the motif only to mark her failure: in the end she does not give her brother the ax that he does not, in any event, need.

Hofmannsthal’s disabled Electra is an interpretation of the Sophoclean character in light of Hamlet and Iphigenia. The Hamletesque dimensions of Electra’s failure to give Orestes her ax are obvious. But there is also a systematic opposition to Iphigenia. In her decisive soliloquy, Goethe’s heroine asks: ‘‘Hat denn zur unerhörten Tat der Mann allein das Recht?’’ [Do men alone, then, have the right to do unheard-of feats?]; and through her decision to tell the truth, she commits an act that defines her and integrates the society around her. Iphigenia acts and, no less than Antigone, does so in a manner peculiarly appropriate to her sense of self as a woman. Electra’s compulsive and futile activity of digging up the ax marks the distance from the achieved act celebrated at the crisis of Goethe’s play.

The heroine’s death is certainly in keeping with Hofmannsthal’s portrayal of Electra’s incapacitated self. What appears as a major departure from the traditional plot also renders explicit the problematical state of the heroine that is implicit in the Sophoclean version. One may well argue that Electra’s death is the most ‘‘Sophoclean’’ feature of Hofmannsthal’s version, and that it radicalized tendencies in the ancient version that its author was prevented from pursuing by the conventions of his craft. It was beyond the freedom of the ancient playwright to change outcomes dictated by tradition, and in the tradition Electra survived. But playwrights sometimes elaborated their plots in such a manner as to render the traditional outcome questionable or meaningless. The deus ex machina was the favorite device for turning a modernized plot to its preestablished ending. In a number of Euripidean plays, the discrepancy between plot and outcome becomes a source of ironic effect. What the deus ex machina establishes is so obviously not a solution that the audience are invited to envisage conclusions that follow more logically from the course of events.

A deus ex machina of this kind appears in Philoctetes, a play that has many affinities with the Sophoclean Electra. In both plays, time and hatred have violently twisted the noble but inflexible constitutions of the protagonists so violently that one may ask whether these figures are no longer or all too much themselves? Can one imagine a return to normal life for either of them? In the Philoctetes, the obstinate and self-absorbed protagonist refuses to travel the path that will bring victory to the Greeks and glory to himself because he cannot do so without benefiting his enemies. The satisfaction of his hatred has come to dominate everything else, and only the appearance of Heracles, once the hero’s mentor and now a paradigm of suffering and transfiguration, frees the hero from both physical and mental anguish. It takes a leap of faith to follow this ending. The Electra simply ends without saying anything whatever about the future of the heroine. To kill the heroine, as Hofmannsthal does, is to take the plot of the Sophoclean play to its radical conclusion and develop it in the other direction from that of the Philoctetes. Twentieth-century German scholars have promptly and with some justice read Hofmannsthal’s ending into Sophocles’ play Thus, Schadewaldt calls Electra’s ‘‘[s]trike again’’ ‘‘virtually her own death cry.’’

In the Ariadne letter, one of his most important interpretative statements about Electra, Hofmannsthal draws out the thematic implications of Electra’s death. He dwells on the paradox that one cannot live without changing and forgetting, but that all human dignity is inextricably linked to memory and loyalty. Electra is for him the paradigm of a figure identified, petrified, and destroyed by loyalty; and he compares the opposition of Electra and Chrysothemis with its gentler reenactment in the figures of Ariadne and Zerbinetta. The paradoxical nature of loyalty forms an important link between Hofmannsthal’s and Sophocles’ versions of the Electra myth. Dignity and nobility are defining features of the Sophoclean protagonist, as they are not of the Aeschylean and Euripidean Electra figures. Nobility is not the first thing that comes to mind in Hofmannsthal’s lurid portrayal of his heroine, whom he likes to show in the postures of a caged and wild animal. But in an important moment in the play’s opening scene, one of the maids defies the malicious gossip of the others and expresses her enthusiastic admiration for Electra: . . .

There is nothing in the world that is nobler
than she. She lies in rags stretched out
on the threshold, but there is no one,
there is no one in this house who can endure
her look!

The Sophoclean Electra sacrifices her life by transforming it into a stylized memorial for her murdered father. In her ignoble environment, such a memorial can only take the external form of humiliation— just as in Philoctetes, true nobility hides in the protagonist’s rags and cave rather than in the public world of the Trojan War. But Electra is not Cordelia, and the playwright dwells on the savage and self-enclosed aspect of nobility under such conditions. Hofmannsthal pushes this theme further. The death of his Electra resolves the final state of the protagonist in the opposite direction of the Philoctetes. The transfigured Heracles calls Philoctetes back to health, fame, and an active life. Electra’s death spells out the consequences of such a protagonist’s life in a world without miracles. As Hofmannsthal puts it in a late diary entry, she is destroyed by the content of her life, like a jar by the water that turns to ice inside it: ‘‘Electra is no longer Electra, because she dedicated herself to being only and nothing but Electra’’.

But ambiguities remain. Does Electra’s death confirm or transcend the destructive petrification of her all too loyal self? The text need not give a definitive answer to such a question. In fact, it does not, and Hofmannsthal’s own remarks about the play are also ambivalent. In the text of the play—as opposed to the libretto of the opera—Electra remains an outsider at the moment of triumph just as she had been at the moment of retribution. The parallels are precise. Electra fails to give Orestes the ax and is absent from the place of execution. After the death of Aegisthus, the inside of the house turns into a place of orgiastic celebration. Electra, however, remains outside. When Chrysothemis asks her whether she does not hear the music, Electra answers that she hears it because the music and entire festival emanate from inside her. But an ocean weighs on her limbs so that she cannot move. Implored again by Chrysothemis, she remains standing:

. . .stops, looks at her fixedly
Be silent and dance. All must
approach! Here join behind me! I bear the burden
of happiness, and I dance before you.
For him who is happy as we, it behooves him to do
only this: to be silent and dance!

She takes a few more steps of the tensest triumph and collapses.

Her words speak of happiness and dance, but the stage directions about her gesture and movements confirm self-enclosure and petrification. Moreover, her final moments are far from the triumphal dance she had envisaged in her opening soliloquy.

In the diary entry about the genesis of the play, Hofmannsthal compares the death of Electra to that of a drone. The comparison balances waste and destruction against fertilization, and it supports a positive reading of Electra’s death as a moment of fulfillment. On the other hand, in a letter written shortly after the première, Hofmannsthal distances himself from the play’s ‘‘intolerable’’ claustrophobia and looks forward to release in a projected but never written play about ‘‘Orestes in Delphi.’’ The ending of the opera partly resolves the ambiguities of the play in the direction of transfiguration or at least consolation. The change is largely governed by the conventions of the genre. The dramatic soprano cannot ‘‘[b]e silent and dance.’’ In the additional words that Hofmannsthal provided for the composer, the operatic Electra becomes a cousin of Isolde and Brünnhilde, and sings: . . .

Whoever looks at me
must receive death or expire in love.
Ai! Love kills, but nobody lives
without knowing love.

In the Ariadne letter, Hofmannsthal’s interpretation of his earlier work is shaped by his turn to comedy and the theme of transformation. Thus, Ariadne is an Electra who only appears to die, and in retrospect Electra becomes her forerunner:

The immeasurable depths of one’s own nature, our ties to something unnamable and eternal, so near us in our childhood or before our birth, can close up from the inside into a permanent painful rigor: shortly before death, we sense that they may open again; something of this kind, barely sayable, announces itself in the minutes that precede the death of Electra.

Whether this is the Electra of the play or of the opera remains unanswered.

Source: Martin Mueller, ‘‘Hofmannsthal’s Electra and Its Dramatic Models,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, March 1986, pp. 71–91.

Character as Destiny in Hofmannsthal’s Electra

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As an Artist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal was always violent in his reaction against materialism in philosophy and naturalism in art. Even as a young man, living in the morally debilitated pre-World War I city of Vienna, Hofmannsthal saw the limitations of an art which was committed to an external view of reality. Naturalism in the drama, with its convention of environmental credibility, from the time of Hebbel, Becque, Hauptmann, and Ibsen (up to The Wild Duck) had tended to show life as it existed on the surface; it was all too often sociological in its orientation and failed to capture the multiple complexities of man’s inner life. It was because of this very ordinariness, this exaction of truth to life, that Hofmannsthal turned to Symbolism, the shrine of all the disenchanted young poets and dramatists of his time.

The symbolists’ ideal at that time was a poetry of ‘‘Stimmung.’’ Their poetry was often exotic and usually esoteric, but so long as it was inward and cultured, and avoided contamination with the rawness and crudities of the external social milieu of the time, it served the symbolists’ purposes. Their aim was to recapture that musical intensity which is present to some degree in all art, but which was completely lost in the arid and sterile atmosphere of the sociological plays and novels. Walter Pater was the leading critic and spokesman of this movement in its rebellion against naturalism. His dictum about all the arts ‘‘aspiring towards the conditions of music’’ sprang from his sensitive diagnosis of the condition of art at that time, and it became the credo of many artists. Hofmannsthal was one of them. Like Strindberg, he was moved by the music of Debussy and influenced by the paintings of Gauguin and Van Gogh. In a similar way the symbolist poets, particularly Mallarmé, Valery, and Stefan George influenced the young Viennese playwright. Hofmannsthal came to believe, under these influ ences, that human experience is so complex that words can never express and explain it; that life can only be approached obliquely by the indirect method of symbols. As a result, Hofmannsthal rejected most of Ibsen’s drama as too exact and precise for symbols and sought in his own plays to achieve the lyrical suggestiveness of music.

Hofmannsthal’s early lyric dramas fit very well into this atmosphere of ‘‘Stimmung.’’ But all too often critics have mistakenly held that symbolism is the predominant characteristic of his drama and that his plays, therefore, are more lyrical than dramatic. This is a mistake, for Hofmannsthal thought of the theater primarily in dramatic and not symbolical terms. By the turn of the century he had realized that although symbols could be used to heighten and deepen the implications of naturalistic drama, they also led to an ambiguity, an abstractness, and an allusiveness which the theater could not control and express. In this connection one is reminded of Hedwig’s word to her mother at the end of the second act of The Wild Duck:

GINA: Wasn’t that queer talk about wanting to be a dog?

HEDWIG: Do you know, mother, I believe he [Gregers] meant something quite different by that.

GINA: Why, what should he mean?

HEDWIG: Oh, I don’t know; but it seemed to me he meant something different from what he said—all the time.

If what Hedwig says is true, if everything that is explicit really means something else, then the drama either loses touch with reality or it becomes so diffuse that it can communicate only in a private and personal way rather than in the communal way that the theater requires.

It is for this reason, despite his lyrical tendencies and the fact that he was strongly influenced by the symbolist ideals of verse, that Hofmannsthal ultimately broke with many writers of his generation who included a social art like the theater in the world they rejected. After Death and the Fool (1893), in which he repudiates the aestheticism of the symbolists, Hofmannsthal’s work is a continuing effort to achieve a theatrical form which would combine the symbolists’ rich and colorful language with an action that was dramatically rather than lyrically conceived.

In his quest for a new dramatic form Hofmannsthal was never attracted to naturalism. In fact, in his Book of Friends, a collection of aphorisms from his notebooks, he defined the weakness of naturalistic writers with great clarity. ‘‘Naturalism distorts Nature because by copying the surface it has to neglect the wealth of inner relatedness—Nature’s real mysterium.’’ Hofmannsthal more fully describes his attitude toward objective reality as it affects the theater in a brief essay entitled ‘‘The Theater as Illusion.’’ The principal thought expounded in this essay is not that the external world is ‘‘unreal’’ in any Platonic sense, but that it is, while real enough, too insipid, too uninspiring, too barren to be portrayed on the stage.

This attitude toward the theater had already been strongly advanced by Strindberg. The Swedish dramatist, in advocating ‘‘sensational naturalism,’’ believed the playwright should dramatize those moments of greatest crisis and tumult in people’s lives in order to see how such people really acted. In his Preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg writes: ‘‘Misunderstood naturalism believed that art consists in reproducing a piece of nature in a natural way. But, the greater naturalism seeks out the points where great battles take place.’’ By using only the moments of ‘‘crisis’’ in the lives of his characters as his dramatic material, Strindberg’s naturalistic plays were filled with sensational episodes. But this is a sensationalism of convention. Certainly, Strindberg and Hofmannsthal would be the first to admit that all the events which take place in The Father or Electra could never occur in the twenty-four hour period covered in each play. It is by packing in these events that the playwright is able to show that ‘‘inner relatedness’’ which is ‘‘Nature’s real mysterium.’’ Both Strindberg and Hofmannsthal were merely concerned with those mysterious forces which drive people, even to destruction, than they were with the events that these people experienced. The result is a drama of great concentration and apparent horror. But how else can the horror of dislocated people be shown? There may be other ways, certainly Chekhov used different but equally effective techniques, but none has had a greater effect on the modern theater than the technique of Strindberg and Hofmannsthal. Their influence is due to the fact that they expressed a reality which could not be denied.

With this concept of theater in general, Hofmannsthal, of necessity, manifests very definite views concerning the function of character in his drama. An understanding of this conception of character will help to untangle the complicated and tortured people of his first mature and probably finest play, Electra. In an essay written in the form of a conversation, entitled ‘‘On Characters in Novels and Plays’’ (1902), Hofmannsthal discussed the kind of characters he believed belonged in the drama. Since this essay was written shortly before he began the writing of Electra it provides many valuable insights to how we should understand the complex characters in that play. Some excerpts:

B. Characters in the theater are nothing but contrapuntal necessities. The stage character is a contraction of the real one . . . I don’t see people, I see destinies. The power of the erotic for him who is the slave of love. The power of weakness for the weak. The power of glory for the ambitious. No, not just love, just weakness, just glory; but the love by which man is enslaved, his individual weakness, his specific glory.

H. What! You want to set such narrow, such sad limits to your genius? The atmosphere of existences consuming themselves pathologically, the hideous, blind, devouring mania—are these the sinister and constricted subjects you want to choose instead of plunging into the colorful variety of human life.

B. I don’t know what you call ‘‘pathological’’; but I know that every human existence worthy of presentation consumes itself, and that to maintain this flame it absorbs out of the whole world nothing but the elements expedient to its burning. Yes, the world which I’ve fetched forth from my brain is peopled with madmen. . . My creatures are obsessed by their fixed ideas, are incapable of seeing anything in the world which they themselves do not project into it with their feverish eyes. But they are so, because they are human. For them experiences do not exist, because there is no such thing as experience; because the inner core of man is a fire consuming itself.

From this passage it is clear that Hofmannsthal conceived of character in drama as a complex of conflicting and contrapuntal foils which will reveal, in the midst of life’s greatest catastrophe, what its destiny, over and above the actions of the here and now, really is. Since Hofmannsthal was concerned with showing those passionate powers which are the greatest realities in human beings, he had to conceive a dramatic context in which his characters and their actions could collide in such a way as to reflect or express that power which motivates both the character and the action.

Thus, the function of the theater, Hofmannsthal believed, is to show that sublime and true moment in a man’s life when the motivating passion-power of his existence is expressed. To Hofmannsthal this moment is more real than any external reality. To many critics, including the imaginary critic in Hofmannsthal’s ‘‘Conversation,’’ this necessitates creating characters who appear to be pathological cases. The playwright agrees; for he knows that in life, although the process may be slower and less apparent, man is ultimately destroyed by that very passion which gives him the power to live. It is that moment when man’s motivating passion-power drives him to the conflict of life and death that must be captured in the drama.

When viewed in this way we see that Hofmannsthal’s Electra is more than a depraved and wild beast. In the conflict of what she says and what she does, the playwright is able to present that which is most real in Electra: her Destiny. He dramatizes that consuming and passionate power of vengeance which destroys every attribute of Electra’s womanhood, and, as the play ends, kills not only Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, but herself as well. We may complain that she is a mad woman, but she is real; and if, Hofmannsthal seems to say, we could each know our own reality, we too would be thought of as mad. Hofmannsthal’s plays may be filled with demons, but they are demons who reveal, at the moment they are consumed, man’s destiny.

It is this sensational quality inherent in Hofmannsthal’s conception of character together with the impact made on him by modern painting, especially the works of Van Gogh, which accounts for the stark theatricality of his work. Upon reading Electra, one discovers that Hofmannsthal has endowed each element of the dramatic production with rich and contrasting colors. Hofmannsthal helps us here, for not only has he given explicit stage directions, but he also published a fuller account of his ideas concerning the play’s production in a short essay published at the printing of the play. In the beginning of this essay entitled ‘‘Szenische Verschriften Elektra,’’ we find the following injunction:

Shun any suggestion of Hellenic architecture! This avoidance of classic Greek symmetry in theater design is then carried over and consistently applied to all the other stage properties, props, costumes, even affecting the attitude and behavior of the characters themselves. In place of the Attic peninsula, the stage represents an Oriental potentate’s back courtyard, where are located the hovels that house the slaves. One senses that within the enclosure an atmosphere of bleak despair prevails. It is like a cage with no possibility of flight.

Hofmannsthal is equally exact in his expressionistic description of the lighting. It is planned in such a way as to contrast the two predominant tones of the play: the black of the House of Atreus and the red of the blood which has flowed in the past and will flow again. Electra ‘‘comes out of the house. She is alone with the red flickerings of light which fall through the branches of the fig trees and drop like blood stains on the ground and on the dark walls.’’ The color of the light is used to symbolize the density of the play’s central character. It is like a Wagnerian motif; large patches of crimson are immediately associated with Electra; they grow more intense and actually glow when she makes her initial entrance and begins her monologue.

As the sun disappears from the horizon, Electra and her sister are in the shades of dusk. The pall-like quality of their existence is thus expressed and it becomes increasingly more painful as torch-lights within the palace shine out through the barred windows, casting flickering striped shadows across the girls’ prison.

As Clytemnestra enters, in a procession of a thousand lights, we are not only aware of Clytemnestra’s great need of light, but we are even more conscious of the great darkness that surrounds Electra. Clytemnestra, the queen with phantasmagoric nightmares, cannot stand the dark and, as Electra gradually forces her into a living nightmare the lights disappear until ‘‘only a faint light falls from inside the house across the inner court, and casts bars of shadow over the figures of the two women.’’ This is the only link to Clytemnestra’s protective yet destructive palace.

The powerful agon between Clytemnestra and Electra is played in the eerie shadows of this light. Just as Clytemnestra is about to go insane and that light is flickering out, she is saved and her first reaction is to call for ‘‘Lights!’’ Then:

Serving women with torches come out and station themselves behind Clytemnestra. She beckons more lights! More come out and station themselves behind her, so that the court is full of light, and a red-gold glare floods the walls. Now the features of Clytemnestra slowly change, and their shuddering tension relaxes in an evil triumph. She lets the message be whispered to her again, without taking her eyes off Electra. Then the Waiting Woman lifts her staff, and, leaning on both, hurriedly, eagerly, catching up her robe from the step, she runs into the house. The servant women with lights follow her, as if pursued.

Electra is left in a ‘‘Cimmerian gloom,’’ a portentous darkness.

Electra remains in this gloom until the revenge is completed. When all the women run out into the court with their bright torches, Electra begins her dance of death in this light of flickering red and gold. The lights symbolize net only the triumph of Electra’s vengeance, but in their burning heat they are expressive of that consuming fire within Electra which destroys her at the moment of victory.

Hofmannsthal describes the costumes with the same care. Electra and the slave women are miserably clad in the threadbare rags of the most menial slave. Clytemnestra wears a scarlet dress. Here is not the Queen of Argos, but a barbaric ruler from some oriental past. She is ‘‘bedecked all over with precious stones and talismans. Her arms are covered by bracelets, her fingers glitter with rings.’’ She leans on an ivory staff encrusted with precious stones. Her two ladies-in-waiting are no less striking in this procession of exotic grandeur. The one is dressed in dark violet; and the other, like a snake of the Nile, is clad in yellow, her hair pulled back in Egyptian style. As Hofmannsthal tells us: ‘‘These three women must be taken as a unit, a brilliant antithesis to the impoverished-appearing Princess.’’

The playwright has conceived of the play in theatrical terms. Coming as he did at the beginning of the Twentieth Century Hofmannsthal was faced with the problem of how to express and communicate his feelings about human destiny in a fragmented theater. His answer was two-fold: to return to Greek mythology in an attempt to find a universal situation (a method so often used in contemporary French drama); and to seek a theatrical unity by blending all of the elements of stage production into his dramatic conception. It is here that we see Van Gogh’s profound effect upon Hofmannsthal; not only visually, but structurally as well. We see in the Electra the intensity and contrast (the use of bright colors, particularly red and yellow, sharply contrasted with black) which characterizes Van Gogh’s painting. Hofmannsthal intends his play to be lighted and costumed in a very definite way and without these effects his play will suffer greatly.

To some literary purists this is the failure of the play; for it does not stand on its own feet. Hofmannsthal would admit that his drama needs the stage directions, but he would insist that only a total theatrical production can bring that unity of expression which, as Wagner advocated before him, the dramatist needs if he is to communicate in any meaningful way to his audience.

In short, Hofmannsthal’s theatrical sense is an essential element of his drama; he has made everyhing count: color, lighting, props, costuming. The very physical appearance of the characters is so deeply symbolic that every feature, each trait, the slightest gesture has its meaning, its relationship to all the other traits, features, and gestures. Nothing is wasted here; everything is utilized with the utmost economy, to heighten an effect here or diminish a detail there. Deliberately departing from the spirit of classical antiquity, the poet has in his profound attention to detail created so perfect and flawless a stage effect to harmonize with the characters and the plot that a definite harmony and unity almost in the Hellenic sense are the result.

A fuller understanding of how all of these elements of Hofmannsthal’s dramaturgy are fused can best be demonstrated by a more detailed analysis of the play. The opening scene of the play is one of indirect exposition. The setting is the courtyard of the palace, but it is suggestive of a cage for wild animals. From the slave-women we discover that this is the dwelling place of Electra and that her behavior is much like that of a wild cat. She ‘‘howls’’ nightly for her father and when we see her for the first time her actions are those of an animal. From the very beginning Hofmannsthal’s heroine is presented as a pathological case. Electra is left alone; but her loneliness is of a different kind than that found in Greek dramatizations of the myth. In her passion for a bloody revenge she is beyond the pale of human relationships. A wild animal cannot exist with people in society. Unlike Sophocles’ Electra, who is alone because she stands for a course of action which demands more than anyone else is capable of giving; unlike a Euripidean heroine, who is alone because she is not accepted, Hofmannsthal’s Electra is alone because her driving destiny for vengeance has destroyed all her humanity and the society which surrounds her cannot tolerate her.

Her monologue is a primitive ritual. This ceremonial invocation of her father occurs daily. We are reminded of those primitive savages who attempt to control reality by ritualistic means. She goes into her trance and the ghost of Agamemnon returns. The significance of the first part of the monologue is two-fold. Not only does Electra believe that she can control reality ritualistically, but as she calls for the bloody death of all those associated with the murderers in addition to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, we become aware that vengeance has taken such a hold on Electra that it is more real than she. It is not the revenge of a murdered father, but an all-consuming vengeance which includes everyone. The whole household is to be sacrificed so Agamemnon may resume his regal role in the other world.

The ceremony is about to end, and like the close of all primitive rites, the clairvoyant Electra breaks into a dance of death. She sees herself, Chrysothemis, and Orestes joyfully dancing in the bloody haze that exudes from the many corpses. Their horrible victory dance ironically prefigures her own dance of death.

Her sister enters calling for her. Chrysothemis’ reaction is one of fear; Electra has become a wild animal even to her own family. Hofmannsthal’s intention is greatly different than that of his Greek predecessors. Chrysothemis is not the weak-kneed sister; she sees that Electra has destroyed herself and would destroy all others about her because of something which has only dubious value. We learn in this scene that Hofmannsthal is not primarily interested in justice; he is showing what happens to people whose destiny is revenge. Agamemnon’s death and the need for revenge of that death has long since been forgotten except as the excuse which feeds Electra’s revengeful spirit.

Chrysothemis has discovered the plot to imprison Electra and has come to warn her sister. In Electra’s reply we learn why Hofmannsthal has introduced the warning. It is not to heighten our sympathy for Electra, nor is it to prompt Electra to action. In her rejection of Chrysothemis, she states her own position:

Do not prowl about.
Sit on the ground, like me, and wish for death.
And judgment upon her and upon him.

These lines are remarkable for they could only be spoken by someone in the witch-doctor era of humanity’s evolution. The dramatist has shown here an amazing familiarity with primitive thought and practice, for what most characterizes the savage mind is its unshakeable conviction that it can impose changes and modify phenomena in the concrete world through the exercise of will and the practice of magic ritual (mimicry). That this is what Hofmannsthal intended is made incontrovertible when Electra learns that Clytemnestra has had a horrible nightmare that Orestes had come and strangled her. Electra shouts:

It is I,
I, that have sent him to her. From my breast
I sent the dream to her.

As Electra goes on, trance-like, describing the ghastly dream that she has envisioned, it is realized with the entrance of Clytemnestra. With this entrance Hofmannsthal has pulled all of the theatrical stops: the colorful procession, the torches, the slashing whips, and the muffled cries of the slaves. He has used every theatrical technique available in order to create a peak of emotional tension which will control the mother-daughter scene. Clytemnestra’s opening speech shows in another way how different Hofmannsthal’s intentions are from those of his Greek predecessors. When Clytemnestra says:

What do you want? See it now, how it rears
Its swollen neck and darts its tongue at me!
See what I have let loose in my own house.
If she could only kill me with her eyes!

We see that Hofmannsthal has transferred the snake image of the Greek versions from Orestes to Electra, and as Electra writhes in the courtyard it becomes clear that the dream image has been given human embodiment. It is more evidence that Hofmannsthal was intent upon showing the animal destiny of his heroine who is consumed with the fire of revenge.

The witch-doctor quality of Electra’s character is further emphasized by the mystical cure which Clymnestra seeks, and which Electra offers. The importance of this scene is once again to contrast Hofmannsthal’s dramatic conception with that of his predecessors. In all of the Greek versions of the theme great pains are taken to show the similarity between Electra and her mother; that Electra, too, is capable of taking justice into her own hands and thus bring upon herself the same guilt and fear as that suffered by her mother. The purpose of this scene, the longest of the play, is also to show the similarity of the daughter to her mother; but it is a similarity of an entirely different nature. In terms of their outward actions and language the two women are different. They are alike in that they are driven to destruction by a great passion that is their destiny. Just as Electra’s humanity is destroyed by her passion for vengeance, so too has Clytemnestra, who is described as a walking corpse, been destroyed by her all-consuming guilt and fear. Hofmannsthal has realized his idea of character as destiny most clearly in this scene of paradoxically contrasting similarity.

As the scene develops, Electra’s destiny is seen to be the stronger of the two. With speeches of great rhetorical lyricism, Electra literally forces her mother up against the wall and is moving in, like the wild animal she has become, for the kill, when a messenger comes out to tell of Orestes’ feigned death. Clytemnestra is saved, for the moment, and in her salvation Hofmannsthal foreshadows the tragic irony of the play’s conclusion. Electra’s destiny will overcome that of her mother, as it has in this scene, but Electra will be deprived then as she is now, of joining in the final kill.

The next scene moves rapidly. The almost comic banter of the cook and the two servants is a much needed lessening of the tension which Hofmannsthal has created. Its purpose, however, is not totally comic, since even in their banter these servants give us another view of those conditions which have helped to mould Electra’s destiny.

The following scene between Chrysothemis and Electra is the second crucial scene in the play. Electra, determined to do the murder alone now that she believes Orestes is dead, asks her sister to help her. She is refused. The purpose of the scene is not to contrast Electra heroically determined to act for what she believes is more important than living, with Chrysothemis pathetically clinging to life at all costs (as in Sophocles). Rather Hofmannsthal uses it to show the effects of destiny upon Electra as it consumes her; this is best achieved by contrasting Electra with a girl who is not a coward, but who is repulsed by an existence which has no other aim than a constant brooding for revenge.

As the destiny of revenge consumes Electra it destroys her as a woman. Her attitude toward sex is distorted by her continuing belief that her mother’s relationship with Aegisthus is adulterous. As a result all normal sexuality is obscene and guiltridden. Yet her denial of sex as the result of this aversion has caused her to be obsessed with it. Her language is highly charged with sexual images and all that she does has a sexual referent. The effect of this sexual denial, combined with her perverted and obsessive attitude toward love, has been to create in her marked lesbian tendencies which become overt in this scene:

You! For you are strong. (Close to her.)
How strong you are! To you
Have virgin nights given strength. How lithe and slim
Your loins are. You can slip through every cranny,
Creep through the window. Let me feel your arms;
How cool and strong they are! What arms they are
I feel when thus you thrust me back with them.
Could you not stifle one with their embrace?
Could you not clasp one to your cool firm breast
With both your arms until one suffocated?
There is such strength about you everywhere.
It streams like cool close water from a rock,
It flows in a great flood with all your hair
Down your strong shoulders.

Hofmannsthal, a master in his use of primitive psychological phenomena, creates here a scene which vividly shows us how completely his heroine has been destroyed as a woman by her passion for vengeance.

Chrysothemis, as we have pointed out, cannot accept Electra’s endless cries for vengeance. She is aware, as the Sophoclean counterpart is not, that the destiny of revenge has had a dehumanizing effect upon her sister and she cannot accept it for herself. Chrysothemis is motivated by more normal human instincts; she desires marriage and the pleasures and fruits of such a union. She has the capacity to care and feel for others (most clearly seen, in contrast to her sister, in her reaction to the report of Orestes’ death) and must reject that destiny which withers all human feelings. But Hofmannsthal is not asking us to sympathize with Chrysothemis, attractive as she is. Hofmannsthal’s intention is to show the reality of Electra’s destiny and the destructive effects that it has on her humanity. The function of Chrysothemis in this scene is to put into sharper focus the dehumanizing process which is taking place in Electra’s character.

Left alone Electra plans to carry out the murders by herself. Like the wild animal which we know she is, she begins to dig in the earth, like a dog for a bone, for the battle-ax which had been used to murder her father. It is while she is digging for the means to achieve, almost ritualistically, the purifi- cation of the House of Atreus, that she is discovered by her brother. The recognition scene, although similar in construction to Sophocles’, has lost much of its traditional importance. Hofmannsthal stresses three elements. First, he heightens Orestes’ horror at what has happened to Electra over the years while he has been absent, in order to drive home with finality the process of dehumanization which has taken place in the heroine. Second, as Electra concludes her description of the horrors of being caged in the palace for years, she says: ‘‘Speak to me, speak! Why your whole body trembles.’’ Orestes replies:

My body? Let it tremble. Do you not think
That he would tremble otherwise than this
Could he but guess the way I mean to send him?

The significance of this speech (hardly noticed by most critics) is to state explicitly Hofmannsthal’s belief that one’s physical being is separate from that force which drives human action. Third, Hofmannsthal makes it clear that the gods do not demand vengeance. This radical change in the tradition underscores the fact that there is no motivation for the revenge except that Electra must have revenge. We really do not know why Orestes has come and what motivates his acceptance of the duty to wreak vengeance on the slayers of his father. There is only an intentional vagueness. Since Hofmannsthal is concerned with showing the destiny of revenge in Electra, and not with the ethical problems which result from matricide and murder, revenge for the sake of revenge is motivation enough for the play’s external action. It is only when we see the play as an expression of Hofmannsthal’s concept of the reality of destiny that this apparent ‘‘motiveless malignancy’’ dues not cause trouble in the interpretation of the play.

From this point on the play moves quickly to its conclusion. Orestes enters the house, and while he is preparing for the murders, Electra paces back and forth ‘‘before the door with bowed head, like a wild beast in its edge.’’ Suddenly she remembers the battle-ax. This is the final irony of her destiny. In her excitement at seeing her brother she forgot to give him the ax. Both murders are successfully accomplished without a struggle. At the moment of Aegisthus’ death there begins a gigantic demonstration in which the entire populace, Chrysothemis included, participates. The echoing noise from the demonstrators swells into a mighty roar and the flickering beams cast by a thousand torches accompany this crescendo. In the midst of all the commotion one person appears motionless, unable to join the throng: Electra. Then with superhuman effort she rises and plunges into a weird, unrestrained dance. But Electra is no longer of this world; her mission on earth is fulfilled, and she no longer has a will to live. She whirls on and on until exhausted, she falls into a lifeless heap. The prophetic vow to her mother has been consummated.

This final moment, one of great theatrical power, is symbolic of Hofmannsthal’s conception of the character of Electra. It is the dance that earlier in the play gave Electra ritual control over her hated captors; and yet, as the play ends, she is controlled by the dance to the point of death. The dance is symbolic of the victory of her destiny of vengeance; and yet it is her defeat. It is fulfillment which is empty. The dance, in its orgiastic quality, is symbolic of a kind of sexual realization, but the fruit of that realization is destruction. This is the ‘‘sublime and true moment’’ of Electra’s life; this is the moment when her destiny, that passion and power which has sustained her through all the years of hardship, destroys her. Electra is that incendiary figure whose spark ignites Orestes to action. But the fire, like the dance, her chief weapons against her enemies, could only be turned in upon herself once they have done their work and her enemies are no more. Hofmannsthal realizes his intention that the drama ‘‘must capture that moment when man is destroyed by the very passion which gives him life!’’

What is the tragedy? The more obvious answer is that Electra was engaged in a struggle that proved futile; Electra sacrificed all that she was as a human being for nothing. This futility is symbolized by the fact that Orestes succeeded without the aid of the battle-axe Electra had so carefully buried for this sacred moment. Electra failed to share even symbolically in the fulfillment of her life’s dream. These ironies, however, are but symbols of the greater tragedy. The tragedy of Hofmannsthal’s Electra is that men are destroyed by the very forces which give them life.

Hofmannsthal used the Electra theme in a new way. He was not concerned with justice, with selfrealization and rebirth through suffering, nor with the helplessness of the human situation. He gave this traditional theme new life, by using it to express the tortured reality of human existence in a time when man could not live by any other means than by those passions which so moulded his life as to become its destructive destiny.

Source: Robert W. Corrigan, ‘‘Character as Destiny in Hofmannsthal’s Electra,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 22, No. 1, May 1959, pp. 17–28.


Critical Evaluation