(Re)thinking about the House of Atreus

iphigenia_15729_lgI just read Leslie Barcza’s very thoughtful review of the current COC Elektra.  It’s an interesting take and, in it’s way, entirely reasonable and please do go and read the whole thing.  There was though one theme where I just couldn’t agree and it took me some thinking to figure out why.  Paraphrasing a bit brutally, Leslie yearns for an Aegisth and a Klytemnestra he can hate and, as part of that, an Elektra who is more obviously degraded.  This had me thinking about my recent experience with a retelling of the last stage of the whole saga; Saga Collectìf’s Iphigenia and the Furies (on Taurian Land) and how that had impacted how I reacted to Elektra.

I guess it’s led me, unconsciously until now perhaps, to come to a different view of the whole cycle that starts at Aulis (or in Sparta or even further back if you like).  People do things that are both horrible and perhaps necessary for reasons of state.  Each of these actions produces a new cycle of hatred, violence and revenge.  Agamemnon sacrifices (or at least appears to sacrifice) Iphigenia for reasons that, in their own terms, make sense.  In doing so he incurs the enmity of Klytemnestra and, through that, his own death.  Klytemnestra and Aegistheus are then forced to decide what to do with Agamemnon’s children.  It’s the classic “new dynasty” problem.  Ottoman emperors on succession used to have their own brothers executed.  Not because they were evil people but to secure the state.  Agamemnon’s children are not killed but they are removed from the royal milieu and married off to peasants or exiled or treated badly in the palace (it varies by version).  Chrysothemis’ desire for even a humble but normal life as a woman, rather than a barren life in the palace, is perhaps one of the least remarked aspects of von Hofmannsthal’s version.

Conveniently this leaves Elektra and Orestes alive to instigate the next cycle of murder and revenge with its own consequences; Orestes pursuit by the Furies, which leads him to Tauris.  In at least one version of the story he makes his peace with the Gods by stealing an artefact of Apollo’s (allegedly) and returning it to Greece.  The Saga Collectìf version sees this as a brutal act against the culture and identity of the Taurians and who knows whether that sparks off another and another round of death and revenge.  We don’t know because the Greek dramatists simply weren’t interested in what might have happened to the Taurians; a lesser race without the Law.

Which is a long winded way of saying that as I watched Elektra at the Four Seasons Centre I think I was watching two generations caught up in the same bloody cycle and therefore, more or less morally equivalent.  Sure I felt repulsion for Klytemnestra and Aegisth and sympathy for Elektra and Orest but I think I was also feeling the opposite simultaneously.  Sympathy for Klytemnestra at Aulis.  Revulsion at what Orest would later do.

I guess this is why the stories that the Athenians revisited and reinvented repeatedly 2,500 years ago still matter.  They still stir the deepest feelings and the deepest reflection.  And no two people will come to quite the same conclusions and each of us may evolve his or her conclusions.

3 thoughts on “(Re)thinking about the House of Atreus

  1. Fascinating thoughts! Please note, my reservations about Elektra refer to Strauss’s take only. There are other versions of the story too that I’ve seen. Elektra can be very hard to like (cf other classical heroines, some operatic, such as Medea or Antigone or Iphigenia).

    I took a short-cut really in what I wrote, because I saw all sorts of other ambiguities emerging via the COC (meaning James Robinson) production. I looked at the way Elektra was portrayed,
    1-where I saw the costuming of Elektra & Crysothemis as roughly equal whereas I thought she’s supposed to look so dreadful that Orest literally can’t recognize her in her degraded state, as though she’s the lowest of the serving wenches
    2-where CG’s movements (the axe business and her dance) suggesting hm has she gone mad?
    Those are all legitimate choices, naturally. They just defuse what Strauss /Hofmannsthal wrote, as far as I can tell. Is she dancing herself to death as a consummation of the joy of Orest’s avenging return, or as part of a pathology? Sorry but that’s a layer that mocks or at least undercuts what Strauss composed. It meant that when Orest returns… it’s very ambiguous, and so of course I tuned out while he was singing. The chorus and the 5th handmaid gave me the closest thing to the usual. NEXT time I see the production I will try harder to see what’s really there.

    THANKS John for your intriguing commentary.

    • The Fifth Maid sequence was another place I thought this production was a bit odd though I chose not to focus on it in the review. There’s usually a lot of violence; musically and dramatically, at that point but on Saturday it just seemed to come and go. Rather understated.

      • Indeed. The singing among the maids is wonderful, but I was trying to figure it out. The 5th, who seemed more comfortably moored at the dock of the score as written, didn’t confuse me as much.

        Sorry if I sound like a mother hen…!

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