8 February 2003: Sophocles, Electra

Hartford Stage. H. D. F Kitto translation. Directed by Jonathan Wilson

Kitto’s translation is fluid and playable. Two noticeable changes are that the chorus of young women of Mycenae in Argos has been replaced by an attendant to Electra, and Aegisthus is killed on stage, at the end, instead of inside the palace. The last lines of the chorus, which might have been spoken by Electra’s attendant, are omitted. And so, in the final sequence ending in a tableau, Orestes brings on the body of Clytemnestra, wrapped in a bloody shroud; Aegisthus thinks it is the body of the supposedly dead Orestes until at Orestes’ suggestion he draws back the part covering the face; Aegisthus resists going into the palace to be killed by Orestes and fights for his life on stage; he is killed, falls at the edge of the long ramp leading up to the palace doors; Orestes drags the body of Clytemnestra feet first down the platform to lie alongside the body of Aegisthus; Electra approaches Aegisthus and places one open hand and then the other on Aegisthus’s wounds, then washes her upper breast with them; she then goes up to the middle of the ramp, her right hand continuing to shake convul­sively; as the lights go down we see her face transfixed with horror and hear a visceral groan from her as the lights go black. All this, a wordless sequence, once Orestes has offered his final speech about retributive justice.

The distinct impression is that Electra’s towering rage over her mother’s murder of her father, sustained throughout the play, has been supplanted in these last moments by a new, uncomprehending horror over the reality of bloody death, twice over. And this is of a piece with the theme established by the various excerpts in the program from writings ranging from the Bible to a 2002 piece in the Palestine Chronicle on the inevitability of bloody revenge, once a chain of events has been started. The one exception is a longer excerpt from Rene Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred (1972) in which Girard explains that, because revenge once initiated has a perpetuating character to it, “that is why it is universally proscribed.” He adds, paradoxically, that it is in communities where the proscrip­tion is most rigorously enforced that “vengeance seems to hold sway.”

The director, Jonathan Wilson, has done what he can to make this classic story of a blood feud in an ancient royal house as lucidly pertinent to today’s world as he can. The reference is, of course, to the seemingly unending stream of retrib­utory killings that has characterized the Arab-Israeli conflict for some months. One comes away from this production with the strong feeling that the more the world changes the more it remains the same.

The performances in this production range from the merely competent to the extraordinary. Aegisthus and Orestes’s tutor are cast with black actors; the former is an extremely tall actor, Raphael Nash Thompson, who is forceful but has trouble with making his lines believable; the latter, Gustave Johnson, is better focused and right enough for the role to carry it, though I think the director might have let him show us that his tale to Clytemnestra about Orestes’s supposed death in a chariot race is a trumped-up story. Sheila McCarthy, stand­ing in for fifteen chorus members, does well with the task, personalizing her observations in a motherly way; but this choice results in a loss of the important Greek theatrical dimension of a representative body of the community, standing between us and the heroic action, some of whose functions, intercessionary in nature, are lost; and the resulting loss of distance on the heroic action is lost also. The Chrysothemis, Agnes Tsangaridon, is a competent actor, as is Carmen Roman, the Clytemnestra, but I thought the character developed by the director for Clytemnestra was too domesticated, more of a carping mother out of patience with a recalcitrant teen-age daughter than a major figure in a power struggle of epic scale and corresponding emotional depth.

But the Electra! Mirjana Jokovic is the most visceral, emotive actress I’ve seen in many a year. Her voice is a little hoarse, and it’s not hard to see why. She gives this role her all, vocally and physically, sustaining herself continuously — with one five-minute segment of off-stage time — throughout the hour and forty-five minutes of this performance. She has hardly a calm moment, and though this was a matinee she was clearly not saving herself for the evening repetition. Her face, her timing is beautifully worked out, and the extent of her wonderful physicality is indicated by the fact that she goes barefoot, except for some cloth thong-like ties around her ankle and instep, over this trap-rock-filled stage, punctuated only by a few large rocks, shiny black, like huge lumps of coal. She uses the entire stage, kneeling, squatting, and falling down on this rough surface as the need arises. Nothing is left to chance in this performance, everything is quite carefully rehearsed and decided upon. The production closes tomorrow after a month’s run (begun January 9), and it works smoothly and flawlessly. I should add that the Orestes, Stephen Barker Turner, was right for the role and played it with plenty of passion, though I heard some unconvincing line readings. He too, once his character has come back on stage after killing his mother, Clytemnestra, is stricken by the enormity of what he has done; and in killing Aegisthus, as he must, he is almost on automatic pilot. We hear his words about justice endorsed by the gods, and he seems wholehearted enough about it all, and yet there is a sense that larger forces are at play and he is more controlled by them than master of his own fate.

That is perhaps as it should be, in this grisly story of ancient wrongs hapless­ly perpetuated. Nothing good will come of this, that’s clear, and it takes an effort of imagination to remember that Aeschylus left us a trilogy in which the Furies that dog Orestes’s steps after he commits his two atrocious murders are set aside, in the last play, by the forces of civilization and civil law and enlightened deity. We have much need of such a third act in our own times.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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