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Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Reading Electra

April 15, 2002, saw the New York premiere of Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ Electra in a staged reading directed by Kathryn Walker, who also played the lead role. The performance took place at the 92nd Street Y as part of their Poets’ Theatre and was dedicated to a great supporter of and contributor to the Y, Irene Worth, who died earlier this year. Karl Kirchwey began the evening with a few words in memory and recognition of her involvement and inspiration.

Anne Carson’s translation of Electra was commissioned by Oxford’s Greek Tragedy in New Translations series. This series normally brings together a scholar and a poet for each translation in the hope that the former’s erudition and the latter’s talents can recreate the plays for modern audiences. In this case, however, although the scholar Michael Shaw wrote the introduction and some notes, Anne Carson is McNaughton professor of classics at McGill University as well as a modern poet, so there was no need for the collaboration to go further. Hers is a gripping translation, and a must-read for anyone who missed the event at the Y. Her language is poetic and modern, but also a reading of the original Greek. In her translator’s note, entitled “Screaming in Greek,” Carson not only catalogues all of Electra’s outcries, but also discusses their subtlety and how Sophocles makes them do much of the work of his characterization of her. Carson has kept the outcries in their original Greek in her translation. In the voice of Kathryn Walker, these primitive laments were haunting and chilling (in a way that “Alas!” or “Woe!” or even a more modern “Oh no!” can never be).

Taking her cue from Virginia Woolf, Carson talks also about the “stuckness” of Electra. A program note reiterates this problem: “One critic sums up the structure of the play as ‘a fifteen hundred line meditation on waste and death’ followed by ‘two scenes of rapid action in the last hundred lines and a three line choral statement of congratulation.’” This is a very difficult play to perform, but perhaps a reading of it like this one is the best way to overcome the problem of staging what is essentially a static monologue. Where other productions almost seem to try to distract the audience from realizing that they’re watching Electra lament for over an hour, this reading embraced her “stuckness.” Indeed, because the character in this case did not move – this was a reading, after all – the audience had to confront Electra and be stuck with her. We experienced what she experienced, which was a powerful feeling. One cannot help thinking that this static dramatization must have been close to the original Greek productions, which were, of course, extremely stylized, with their formal presentation of masks being just one example.

At the beginning, composer Robert Black took the stage alone with his bass, and proceeded to play his original score. As images of Greek tragic masks were projected, Black’s horror-movie-style music began. To a veteran of unsuccessful stagings of Greek drama, this was not an auspicious start. As the reading ensued, however, the music became more and more a part of the language of the play. The more it added atmosphere and rhythm, the more effective it became.

If Electra holds the stage for 1,500 lines, then the success or failure of any production must lie with Electra. Kathryn Walker gave a mesmerizing, lyrical, moving, visceral, guttural, and yet supremely intelligent performance as Electra. Her cries were real cries; her pain was palpable. She has a wonderful voice with a great range, and she needed it all for her Electra. She never shouted, she never peaked too soon, as I have seen other actresses do. In my experience, however, this is not enough to hold an audience.

The key was that she was a believable Electra. She was the recalcitrant teenager, living in extremes, and her self-absorption made perfect sense. She fought with her mother, Clytemnestra, and it felt like a real mother-daughter struggle. But she was also a Sophoclean hero as well. She was clearly closely related to all that is compelling and modern about Sophocles’ Antigone. Justice is very important to Electra, and the Y’s reading brought that across. Immorality is her enemy. She will not live with it. She cannot live with it, as Antigone cannot live without burying her brother. And since Electra will not live as she is told to, she allies herself with death. We are on her side because she has justice on her side. Taking her side makes her make sense.

The cast’s performances were uniformly good (with the exception of the odd choice of Peter Reigert as Paedogogus) and the actors’ understanding of the play was impressive. Clytemnestra (Zoe Caldwell), Chrysothemis (Kate Burton), and Orestes (David Strathairn) were notably good, as was the chorus, bedecked as nice Upper East Side housewives in scarves and headbands: all they can do is offer platitudes on how to live conventionally. Electra does not pay them any attention; they are on stage together, but inhabit parallel worlds. They do not understand her at all, and she knows it.

It is regrettable that this wonderful reading – which was both a treat and an education – was for one night only and will not be seen by more people. One can only look forward to anything else Kathryn Walker decides to stage, and get tickets as fast as one can.

Natasha Prenn teaches Latin at The Bronx High School of Science.
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