‘‘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 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...
(The entire section is 1858 words.)