The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of all:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and churns and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly too.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many years has melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depict humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!

12 responses to this post.

  1. I have heard of this opera but never watched it. I’m not sure I’ve read the Greek tragedies about it. However, your review has inspired me to see if I don’t have the story somewhere.
    I completely agree with you that culture is cultivated. I like to think in terms of chocolate. One is satisfied with a tootsie roll until one has eaten a French truffle. Then the tootsie roll is unsatisfying and only a French truffle will do. Maybe a cheap analogy but I really love chocolate.
    Likewise with music, art and literature, one has to listen, see and read good quality. It does require developing an attention span but it’s worth it.


    • Hello Sharon, it’s one of my great regrets that I haven’t had a classical education. And even with a classical education, i am told that these Greek tragedies are particularly difficult. We have much to be grateful for to the translators. It is extraordinary that in good productions, these plays, written about two and a half thousand years ago with dramatic traditions completely alien to our own, can still hold the stage and capture the imagination.


  2. I’ve started to learn Ancient Greek in the last year exactly so I can read some of these texts in the original and it’s already clear to me that there are enormous difficulties with translation. Greek has an enormous and subtle vocabulary that English struggles to match, and a different system of indicating time and aspect. But the other thing that occurred to me when I read the first Bagg and Ewan translations you’ve given is that the translator is influenced also by his own leanings in contemporary poetic style. The contrast in that first pairing (‘so how can I be calm/and rational’ vs ‘in such a situation it’s impossible/to be modest and reverent’) is the contrast between contemporary poets who favour fragmented, dramatic rhythms and poets who favour a more even, conversational style.


    • Absolutely! – the translations of these plays, and of Homer, or Virgil or Ovid etc., reflect the poetic sensibilities of the age, and also of the translator. This is why it is so fascinating comparing different translations: each translation is a sort of re-creation of the original. And the poetic & dramatic sensibilities of Bagg and of Ewans really couldn’t be further apart. It really is a privilege to have available these translations of these imperishable masterpieces.


  3. Posted by alan on September 14, 2014 at 7:28 am

    “one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it,”. I wish you would, because I notice that you don’t use the word ‘catharsis’ – is that because of disagreement about the meaning of the word, or because of its ignorant overuse?
    I must admit the word ‘purge’ makes me think of things other than art.


    • I tried to avoid using the word “catharsis” because, when I read Aristotle’s Poetics in the translation by Kenneth Mcleish, the translator in his notes gave a long and complex definition of what the word means in Greek, and that definition appears to me to have little relationship to the way the word is normally used in English. Given the different understanding different readers are likely to have of the word, I felt it best not to use it at all. Aristotle’s Poetics is one of those works more talked about than read, and what it says isn’t quite what it is generally reckoned to say.


  4. I enjoy your comments on the plays, but have not seen the opera. I tried to read Greek tragedy in my early 20s and just didn’t get it at that time. Now, with each one, I see many layers of meaning that continue to impress me. Living a few years can actually help you to understand literature better. And that’s in translation. I wasted some of my years of formal education — I should have used them to learn Greek.

    In the Eumenides, the Furies pursue justice, but it is in accordance with set rules, no mitigating circumstances allowed. Orestes killed his mother and therefore must be punished. Of course he is punished by their very pursuit of him, and theirs is an emotional as well as physical pursuit. What Athena argues for is the human element. Let his fellow humans judge the perpetrator rather than leaving it entirely to the gods. On the other hand, when the jury is split, Athena resorts to very legalistic, nit-picking arguments which are not really worthy of her, that is, that Orestes did not really kill a parent because the mother is only an incubator (my term), while the father is the real parent.


    • Hello Nancy, I really need to immerse myself in Greek tragedies – even in translation. And I too wish i knew Greek – and knew it well enough to read these works.

      I think it is the god Apollo – who defends Orestes in The Eumenides – who advances the argument that the mother has no part in the creation of the child other than acting as a sort of “incubator”. This is, apparently, what the Greeks believed at the time, but this play can still work on stage because Apollo is generally presented as none too bright. But whatever the advances in our understanding of biology since the days of Aeschylus, the nature of the ties between mother and child is never in any doubt: if it were, the story of Oedipus would generate little horror.


  5. Interesting piece (as always). Elektra grabbed me right away, on account of its music. From the hair-raising ascending trombone chords which herald Elektra’s opening monologue, through her statement of intent to Klytaemnestra, all the way to the final crunch, I had never heard music as exciting as this. Strauss mercifully throws in the Recognition scene to calm our nerves, but otherwise this opera comes at you like a ten-ton truck from start to finish. I was 16 or so when I first heard it, a time when I was attracted to all things noisy and brassy in the classical repertoire, and I still love it now. It’s like Wagner on steroids – in fact it makes Wagner’s noisiest bits sound like gentle chamber music! I got the Solti recording as soon as I could, and this is a piece with Solti written all over it. In his hands this really is the musical equivalent of Friday the 13th!

    I bow to your erudition regarding the Greek plays, of which I have only scant knowledge. I commented on here once before that I almost always put the music first in opera (I know and respect that you have a different view) and Elektra was a case in point – when I first fell for this piece I had little idea what the story was about. Now I have of course, and I have to say that I do sympathise with Elektra’s plight, and see the avenging Orestes as the “good guy” in all of this, even if their actions wouldn’t look too good in a court of law. Elektra is of course the most fleshed-out character by far, although Klytaemnestra’s long monologue about her dreams does save her from being a pantomime villain (actually I’ve met a few people in real life who remind me of her!).

    You were lucky to see the performance, which by all accounts was excellent. As ever, keep up the good work!


    • Hello Neil, good to hear from you again!

      Elektra is sort of Heavy metal of classical music, isn’t it? In Solti’s recording especially – and with Birgit Nilsson absolutely in her element – you just end up bruised and battered by the end of it. In its own way, it’s as savage as is The Rite of Spring.

      Klytemnestra is a terrifying figure, I find. the opera presents her purely as an evil woman – a woman steeped utterly in depravity. But then again, Elektra is barely human either, I find. I don’t, as I sai, claim to know the opera well, but if one is to classify it into some genre, “horror” seems the obvious candidate.

      All the best,


  6. Regarding the final line in the two translations:

    With what little Greek I have and with help from Perseus, it seems the first translation takes the phrase:

    εἴργασαι δέ μ᾽ ἄσκοπα

    (for which Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s more literal translation in Loeb has “Your effect on me has been amazing”) and translates it directly, while the second combines it with the following two lines about seeing the father return from the dead, to produce an equivalent sense for the whole. So it appears as though the last two lines in the original are not directly translated in either version.

    I have the Solti Elektra sitting in a box somewhere in storage, still in its shrinkwrap, so that’s as far as that one goes…


    • Thanks for that, Chris. I really do wish I had a classical education!

      The Solti recording is brutal and violent, and leaves you punch-drunk by the end. But that’s probably right for this opera; it really is a savage work, and Solti (and Birgit Nilsson) really do relish its savagery. Regina Resnik is a tremendous Klytemnestra as well.


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