Fifteen years pass since the slaying of Agamemnon. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, arrives in Argos with his tutor. He travels under another name, for Aegistheus, who has ruled in Argos since killing Agamemnon, ordered him killed while he was still a child. Orestes, however, was saved and reared by wealthy Athenians. Orestes is eager to visit Argos, for his mother, Clytemnestra, now shares the throne with Aegistheus. His sister Electra is also still in Argos. Orestes arrives, not as one seeking vengeance but as a tourist. Young, rich, handsome, and well educated, he is free of obligations and commitments, light as air, and apparently reasonably happy to be so. He finds a city in which the atmosphere is leaden and oppressive. He receives no answer to his requests for directions, and the first person to address a word to him is an idiot. It is as though a conspiracy exists to exclude him from the affairs of the city.
The truth is that the people of Argos are so involved with their own problem that they are quite incapable of seeing beyond it. The problem from which they suffer is that they assumed a burden of collective guilt. Fifteen years before, they did nothing to prevent Agamemnon’s death; instead of admitting their responsibility, they wrapped themselves up in remorse. This uniform pattern of behavior suits the god Zeus, since it holds Aegistheus’s subjects in check and leaves little scope for personal initiative. Another sinister, persistent presence is swarms of flies, sent by the gods to plague the populace as a constant reminder of their guilt. Death seems to be curiously intermingled with life in this city of frightened people. Repentance is even institutionalized. Once a year, on the anniversary of Agamemnon’s death, the “day of the dead” is announced.
One person in Argos, however, remains independent and defiant. Electra, though treated as a slave by her mother and Aegistheus, is rebellious. Contemptuous of the general fear and superstition, she lets it be known to Orestes, who did not yet reveal his true identity, that she lives only for the day when her brother will come to seek vengeance. At the same time, however, Electra is pathetic and occasionally childlike. While she vilifies Zeus with all her might, she also betrays her longing for warmth and affection in her questions about other cities of Greece. When Orestes asks her if she ever thinks of fleeing, she answers that she lacks the courage to do so because she will be afraid on the roads by herself. Electra, however, also has a fixed attitude. She feels a thirst for vengeance that does not ring true or confident when set alongside her gentleness in other matters. As is foreseeable, Orestes becomes sufficiently curious about the city, or sufficiently interested in the plight of his sister, to decide to remain a little longer in Argos.
At the beginning of the second act, the scene changes from Argos to a mountain slope outside the city. The people are gathered for the rites of the “day of the dead” and for the release of the dead from the underworld, for it is made known that a rock on the mountainside conceals the entrance to the underworld. Once a year, this rock is rolled back, and dead acquaintances of the people of Argos come back to torture the city’s conscience. On this occasion, Aegistheus arrives late for the ceremonies, which he himself instituted. The solid, impenetrable fear of the crowd begins to give way to blind panic, as they feel quite helpless without some leadership when facing the presence of the dead. After Aegistheus appears and the stone is rolled back, the crowd—men, women, and even children—beg for pity and ask forgiveness for being alive.
Into this uncanny, grotesque, hysterical atmosphere steps Electra. Fired by what Orestes describes to her as happy, sunny towns elsewhere in Greece, she tells the crowd to throw off its burden of guilt. For a brief time, the assembled people listen hopefully. She, however, is no match for...
(The entire section is 1,076 words.)