Historical Context

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Turn of the Century Vienna In the 1890s, the dominant mood in von Hofmannsthal’s hometown of Vienna, the capital of the great Habsburg Empire, was that of uncertainty. It was clear to many that the Habsburg monarchy, and the social, cultural and political order that it represented, was entering a crisis period and that its future could not be assured. The liberalism that had prevailed in the politics of the Habsburg Empire from the 1860s was virtually over by 1900. In its place arose reactionary and anti-Semitic forces—a development that worried von Hofmannsthal.

But, far from depressing the city’s literary and artistic culture, the coming political disintegration seemed, on the contrary, to encourage it. The period from 1890 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 produced an unprecedented flowering of Vienna’s artistic and intellectual life. There was a spirit of innovation and experiment in the air, of new ways of thinking and creating. This new spirit bore fruit in the music of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg; the poetry and drama of von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke (whom von Hofmannsthal met in 1899); the cultural criticism of Karl Kraus; the art of Gustav Klimt and the Secession movement; the Vienna Circle of the logical positivist philosophers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein; and the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, whose famous work, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published in 1900. (Von Hofmannsthal owned a copy of Freud’s book.)

This golden age of Viennese culture came to an abrupt end when war enveloped Europe. In the aftermath of World War I, the map of Europe was redrawn. The Habsburg Empire and the social order that it represented no longer existed. What was left was the small country of Austria. Von Hofmannsthal, who during the war had served in the Habsburg war ministry in Vienna, found himself having to adapt to a different world. He was deeply disappointed by the collapse of the old order.

Art for Art’s Sake The Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century, centered in France but had an influence throughout Europe, adopted the slogan, ‘‘art for art’s sake.’’ The idea was that the only purpose of art was to embody beauty and perfection, which was its own justification. Art needed to have no utilitarian or social value. It was enough that it existed. Many poets of the aesthetic movement, which included the young von Hofmannsthal in the 1890s, felt that their purpose in life was to pursue beauty in a life devoted to art.

The Aesthetic Movement also led to a movement known as the Decadence or the fin de siècle (end of the century). Decadent writers lauded art over nature, and explored in their works deviant or bizarre subject matter. They were opposed to accepted social standards in morality and sexual behavior. A typical work of the Decadence was Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé (1893), which is notable for its sexual perversity and lurid, violent climax. Von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra has some decadent elements in common with Wilde’s play.

The House of Atreus in Greek Mythology Agamemnon was a king of Mycenae. He was a son of Atreus, who had a long-running quarrel with Thyestes. Agamemnon killed a son of Thyestes who was married to Clytemnestra. He also killed their baby and took Clytemnestra as his wife. Clytemnestra bore Agamemnon four children: Iphigenia, Electra, Chrysothemis, and Orestes.

When Clytemnestra’s sister, Helen, was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris, Agamemnon raised a Greek force to win her back. But he angered the goddess Artemis, who used her power over the weather to prevent the departure of the Greek...

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fleet. The only way Artemis could be appeased was through the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Telling Clytemnestra that Iphigenia was to be married to Achilles, Agamemnon arranged for the girl to be sent to Aulis to be sacri- ficed. At the last moment, Artemis placed a stag on the altar instead of Iphigenia and took Iphigenia with her to be her priestess. Clytemnestra was told that Iphigenia had vanished, a story that she refused to believe. The incident aroused her undying hatred of Agamemnon.

When Agamemnon was fighting at Troy, Thyestes’ son Aegisthus seduced Clytemnestra. In addition to her distress over Iphigenia, Clytemnestra may have heard reports that Agamemnon was bringing home the Trojan princess Cassandra as a concubine.

When Agamemnon returned from Troy, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus killed him, as well as the two sons that Cassandra had born him. Clytemnestra also killed Cassandra. Orestes would also have been killed had not Electra or some other member of the house managed to send him away to the court of Strophius, king of Phocis.

After Orestes attained manhood, Apollo told him at Delphi that it was his duty to kill both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. With his friend Pylades, Orestes returned to his former home, made himself known to his sister Electra, and carried out his act of revenge. The Furies (spirits who punished those guilty of crimes against their own family) pursued Orestes and drove him mad. Orestes wandered to Delphi to consult Apollo, who had ordered him to commit the murders, and Apollo sent him to Athens, where he was tried and acquitted by a jury.

Orestes and Electra are principal characters in The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, two plays by the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus. They are also the subjects of Sophocles’s Electra and Euripides’s Electra and Orestes.

Literary Style

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Imagery There are a few recurring images or motifs in the play that vividly bring out its themes. The first set of images relates to animals. The images convey the idea that in the world of the play, human life has lost its dignity and has descended to an inferior level of creation. The light of reason and of love has been snuffed out.

The animal imagery appears throughout the play. On Electra’s first appearance, before she even speaks, the stage direction states that she ‘‘bounds back like an animal into its hiding place.’’ Other actions of Electra suggest that of an animal. A servant reports that she once broke into howls and threw herself into a corner. Late in the play, she digs in the ground ‘‘like an animal’’ to find the axe with which to kill Clytemnestra. The servants compare her to a wild cat; her fingers are likened to claws. Clytemnestra speaks of her, using the impersonal pronoun, in serpent imagery: ‘‘How it rears up with swelling neck / and darts its tongue at me!’’

Electra uses similar imagery herself. She refers to the servants as ‘‘flies,’’ and Clytemnestra’s attendants as ‘‘reptiles.’’ (The stage directions state that the trainbearer resembles an ‘‘upright snake.’’) She says that she is feeding a vulture in her body and she also compares herself to a dog snapping at the heels of its prey.

The same imagery is applied to other characters. Clytemnestra speaks of Chrysothemis as running away ‘‘like a frightened dog’’; Chrysothemis howls ‘‘loudly like a wounded animal’’; and Clytemnestra imagines Orestes sprawling in the yard with the dogs, unable to ‘‘tell man and beast apart.’’

There is one brief moment when the dramatist uses the same imagery to completely different effect, as when Orestes recalls his sister before the murder blighted their lives: ‘‘animals steal timidly around her dwelling / and nestle against her robe when she goes by.’’ This gentle, almost pastoral image suggests the former natural order of things, before murder disrupted it. But now humans have become like animals.

Another recurring batch of images centers around blood. This imagery reinforces the main theme of vengeance, since that can only be accomplished through the shedding of blood. Electra’s first speech, for example, is saturated with this kind of imagery. She addresses her dead father and envisions the moment when revenge has been accomplished by her and her two siblings:

we three, when all this is done and purple tents have been raised by the haze of the blood which the sun sucks upward to itself, then we, your blood, will dance around your grave.

The word blood in this passage has two meanings: the blood that is shed by Clytemnestra and the ties of kinship the three avengers have with their murdered father.

Blood and animal imagery combine in Electra’s words of scorn to the servants. The matron reports that Electra said nothing is as accursed ‘‘as children which, like animals, slithering about / in blood on the stairs, we have conceived and born / here in this house.’’

There are also recurring references to the eyes— the organ that can behold such terrible deeds as a wife’s murder of her husband, and that can communicate to another what lies in the depth of the soul. Linked to this are the many references to looking or gazing. This suggests the meeting of one pair of eyes with another, which for the principle characters may be almost impossible to endure. No one, not even Clytemnestra or Aegisthus, can endure the intense gaze of Electra, for example, and Orestes cannot bear to look into his mother’s eyes before he kills her.

Staging and Lighting The staging and lighting work to reinforce the themes of the play. According to von Hofmannsthal, the set should convey a sense of claustrophobia, narrowness, and enclosure, giving the feeling that there is no escape. In addition to the royal palace and the lowly buildings that house the servants, there is to the right an enormous fig tree. Its appearance may well be grotesque with gnarled, intertwined branches all twisted up and distorted. This well suggests the idea of a family bound together by blood but twisted into unnatural shapes and relationships. The fig tree also helps to create an atmosphere of gloom and foreboding. The stage direction when Electra is about to give her first speech reveals the symbolic importance of this element of the staging: ‘‘She is alone with the patches of red light which fall like bloodstains from the branches of the fig tree.’’ This shows that the drama begins in the early evening, as the sun sets.

In the lighting effects, light and dark alternate. When Clytemnestra enters, she is accompanied by glaring light from torches, but her confrontation with Electra takes place only by a faint light coming from the house, which from time to time falls on the two women. It is in a shadowy, dark world that they converse. Light returns when the false news is brought of Orestes’s death. The stage directions read: ‘‘the courtyard becomes bright with lights and a red-yellow glare floods the walls.’’ This conveys at once Clytemnestra’s moment of apparent triumph and the sinister nature of it.

Then, it is dark again until the arrival of Orestes, who enters from the courtyard door, ‘‘his figure set off in black against the last gleam of light.’’ In other words, Orestes is a ray of light from the outside world that has managed to penetrate the palace and can therefore resolve the situation. At the end of the play, the stage is lit up with torches—a thousand of them, according to Chrysothemis—to show that the dark evil has been exorcised.

Theatrical Conventions The play observes the three unities of time, place, and action. This was a concept of dramatic structure that derived in part from Aristotle and was completed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The unities require that the actions represented by the play take place over a period of not more than one day, at a single location, with all the action focusing on a single plot. There are no subplots, comic characters or other diversions. The play also observes the convention of Greek drama that violent acts are reported rather than being shown directly on stage. For this reason, the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is not shown directly.

Compare and Contrast

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1900s: In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg develops a new approach to composing classical music. He turns away from traditional harmony and melody and develops music that no longer functions in an identifiable key. It becomes known as atonal music. The nature of his work, being revolutionary, is often misunderstood by the public.

Today: Schoenberg’s music, along with that of his pupils Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, has long had a place in the contemporary classical repertoire. Atonal works are no longer as shocking to audiences as they were in Schoenberg’s early days. The ‘‘twelve tone’’ method that he invented continues to influence contemporary composers.

1900s: Sigmund Freud publishes his seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he applies the method of psychoanalysis to dreams. It becomes one of the most influential books of the century. Freud’s central ideas are that dreams express the disguised wishes of the subconscious. It is in this book that he first names and describes the Oedipus complex (the son’s desire to kill the father and marry the mother).

Today: Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is still valued as a pioneering work that opened up an entire new field of study. Freud’s thought has been modified and expanded by his followers and interpreters. However, he also has his critics. Many are skeptical that Freud did, in fact, explain the functioning of the unconscious. The argument is that he went too far in his generalizations, based on a small sample of patients and focused too much on repressed sexual desires as an explanation of the contents of the unconscious.

1900s: The Vienna Circle begins discussions in 1907. This is a group made up of sociologists, mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers. Their work proves central to the development of a philosophical approach known as logical positivism, which rejects traditional philosophy and metaphysics. Logical positivism is concerned with the analysis of scientific knowledge, according to the ‘‘verification principle.’’ This principle states that a non-analytic sentence must be empirically testable if it is to possess any meaning.

Today: Contemporary philosophy owes much to logical positivism, as can be seen in the attention given to the analysis of scientific thought. In the United States, much of this influence is due to the fact that many logical positivists emigrated from Europe to America during the middle of the twentieth century.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Aeschylus, Oresteia, translated and with an introduction by Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Broch, Hermann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1860–1920, translated, edited and with an introduction by Michael P. Steinberg, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Doswald, Herman K., ‘‘Nonverbal Expression in Hofmannsthal’s Elektra,’’ in the Germanic Review, Vol. 44, 1969, pp. 199–210.

Martens, Lorna, ‘‘The Theme of the Repressed Memory in Hofmannsthal’s Elektra,’’ in the German Quarterly, Vol. 60, No.1, Winter 1987, pp. 38–51.

Marx, Robert, ‘‘Act Two,’’ in Opera News, Vol. 63, No. 9, March 1999, p. 18.

McMullen, Sally, ‘‘From the Armchair to the Stage: Hofmannsthal’s Elektra in Its Theatrical Context,’’ in the Modern Language Review, Vol. 80, No. 3, July 1985, pp. 637–51.

Mueller, Martin, ‘‘Hofmannsthal’s Electra and Its Dramatic Models,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, March 1986, pp. 71–91.

Sophocles, Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, University of Chicago Press, 1957.

von Hofmannsthal, Hugo, Selected Plays and Libretti, edited and introduced by Michael Hamburger, Pantheon Books, 1963, p. xxxiii.

———, Three Plays: Death and the Fool, Electra, The Tower, translated and with an introduction by Alfred Schwarz, Wayne State University Press, 1966.

Further Reading Bangerter, Lowell, A., Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Frederick Ungar, 1977. This concise book is probably the best introduction in English to the entire range of Hofmannsthal’s work in all genres.

Bennet, Benjamin, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: The Theatres of Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, 1988. In this advanced study, Bennet focuses on von Hofmannsthal’s poetic, philosophical and ethical concerns. It includes discussion of the role of literature in society and von Hofmannsthal’s search for a response to the problem of the historical development of culture.

Bremer, Jan Maarten, ‘‘A Daughter Fatally Blocked: Von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra,’’ in Fathers and Mothers in Literature, edited by Henk Hillenaar and Walter Schonau, Rodopi, 1994, pp. 113–21. This brief article offers a comparison between the Electra of Sophocles and that of von Hofmannsthal. Bremer argues that von Hofmannsthal was more skilled in portraying the pathology of the human mind.

Michael, Nancy C., Elektra and Her Sisters: Three Female Characters in Schnitzler, Freud, and Hofmannsthal, Peter Lang, 2001. Michael explores the connections between literary censorship and the political repression of women in works by Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Electra), all written between 1900 and 1905.

Ward, Philip Marshall, ‘‘Hofmannsthal, Elektra and the Representation of Women’s Behaviour through Myth,’’ in German Life and Letters, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 2000, pp. 37–55. Ward suggests that Electra is von Hofmannsthal’s portrait of a woman who transgresses the socially acceptable bounds of female behavior. This is shown by her negative attitude to motherhood, inappropriate sexuality, free flow of words, and practice of staring (ladylike behavior demanded a lowering of the eyes and no inappropriate eye contact).


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Del Mar, Norman. Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works. 3 vols. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962. Includes a highly readable account of Hofmannsthal’s play and its transformation into an opera.

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

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

Hammelmann, Hanns, and Ewald Osers, trans. A Working Friendship: The Correspondence Between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. New York: Random House, 1961. Contains the twenty-one letters exchanged between Hofmannsthal and Strauss concerning the preparation of the libretto of Electra. Essential.

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


Critical Essays (Masterplots)


Teaching Guide