Euripides' Electra In the original Greek, Directed by Leigh James, King's College, London, 24 July 1993. Sallie R. Goetsch, Department of Classical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, U.S.A. e-mail: Sallie.R.Goetsch@um.cc.umich.edu
Some years ago Michael Silk brought the KCL Frogs to Brown University, where I was an undergraduate. Professor Silk gave us a lecture about producing ancient theater which emphasised the play's impact on its audience, an impact which a production in classical Greek has to work particularly hard to create. Aristophanes is always difficult to present to a modern audience, because the humor is so closely tied to the poet's own environment, and Frogs features literary criticism of a detailed, even esoteric nature. In a foreign language, one might think it would be impossibly soporific. Yet the KCL Frogs worked. The chorus of frogs was enchanting, and waved pennants to support Euripides and Aeschylus in alternation as the dead poets contended for the favor of Dionysus, enlisting those same choreuts to demonstrate their points. Silk introduced Beatles songs as background music in order to provide a subliminal explication of the contents of particular passages. The actors were constantly in motion, the costumes vivid, the pace lively.
Not so with the KCL Electra: in its command performance for the Tragedy and 'the Tragic' conference delegates on 24th July. Electra appeared to perpetuate a tradition for its own sake, without understanding its reasons for doing so and without making up its mind to be one thing or the other. The production was subdued, static, and undramatic, more walked-through than acted. Costume and delivery both brushed the surface of the play without penetrating its complexities. Electra's husband was appropriately rustic, but without much depth. Electra herself had the look of a Midwestern farm girl suffering through the Dust Bowl years, poor but honest and rather touching in her sadness. This is not Euripides' Electra, who is filthy, ragged, martyred - to represent her accurately in modern dress one would do better to dress her as a street person than to put her in blue jeans. She was entirely too sympathetic.
And not very interesting, for though her singing was lovely, her acting consisted primarily of some moments of obvious mime, cowering from Orestes or placing her foot alongside the Old Man's to show their lack of similarity. Most of the time she was restricted to a few halfhearted gestures suitable for real-life conversation but not for the stage, even had the play been done in English. Even naturalistic acting is acting, and requires focus and direction - and energy. Acting communicates, using face, voice, stance, gesture, and movement to reinforce - or subvert - dialogue. The KCL actors did not so much act as go through the motions, as if they were part of an experiment in blocking, a pedagogical exercise: Orestes and Pylades crouch on this line, stand on that one, cross here, exit there.
More imagination went into handling those who had to be on stage without speaking than those who spoke. In some ways Pylades was the most interesting character, because he had to find something appropriate to do with himself without ever saying a word. All things considered, he managed commendably.
There were some good moments. The messengers who brought the news of Aegisthus' death were departures from the norm of speaking without acting. Spurred perhaps by the fear that messenger's speeches are not dramatically interesting, they re- enacted the death scene, one wielding an imaginary axe while the other knelt to sacrifice. Klytaimnestra had a seductive presence which, while baffling when directed at her daughter, and rather discrediting to her sincerity, was at least not dull. Castor and Pollux, descending through the audience in their tuxedos to speak antiphonally at the play's close and redeem the (remarkably calm) Electra and Orestes, presented us with a nice sense of the abruptness of an ex machina intrusion.
The chorus was successful enough, if not likely to provoke a revolution in stage practice. Limited to four women, it treated its odes properly as music and sang quite beautifully, accompanied by occasional flute music and simple choreography. Their high voices and extreme femininity, appropriate enough to their choral identity as young virgins, invited speculation as to how these odes might have been sung by young men without becoming travestied.
The performance was, ultimately, educational: it reminded us of the effect which bodies on a stage have on the interpretation of a text. But too little interpretation went into directing those bodies on that stage, and Electra was more an elocution exercise (which sometimes failed as the actors' English accents intruded to unintentionally humorous effect) than a dramatic presentation. The actors claimed to have been confused by their experience, and not surprisingly. On the eve of its fortieth play, the KCL Greek production needs to think about why it is there.
Sallie R. Goetsch
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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 5 - October 1993 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1320-3606