Electra Reborn

A vase with a painting on itDescription automatically generated with medium confidence

Orestes, right, Electra, center, and Hermes, left, at the tomb of Agamemnon. Pelike, c. 380 – 370 BCE. Louvre. Public Domain.

Electra by Cacoyannis, 1962

Last night, January 30, 2023, Turner Classical Movies Channel showed Electra, the tragic play of Euripides from the 1962 black and white film production by the Greek filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis. The first time I saw this unforgettable film-play was at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, on December 11, 1999.

Elektra, daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra of the Bronze Age kingdom of Mycenae , is an icon of Greek theater. I have read the plays of Sophocles and Euripides on Electra and even seen theatrical performances of Electra. But the 1962 play directed by Cacoyannis was close to the original plays performed in the theater of Dionysos in late fifth century BCE Athens.

This film-story of Electra sparked my lament and confrontation with my Hellenic culture. How could the Greeks, I kept asking myself, ever create such masterpieces like Electra? This play and other tragic plays allow us to see so much of the vitality and workings of Greek culture. They are also telling of the human condition. They are so much about freedom and democracy that take one’s breath away.

In Euripides’ Electra nothing intervened between the dramatic story and me. There was no English speech, no confined theater stage. And Irene Papas, the young, beautiful Greek star personifying Electra, was Electra reborn — passionate, powerful, eloquent — so good and perfect did she understand the daughter of Agamemnon — her passion and love for her father Agamemnon and brother Orestes, her hatred for her mother Clytemnestra were like shearing winds that allowed nothing in their way. She captured Euripides and the tragic element in Greek culture as nothing else could. The gods were everywhere. Her language was angry, economical, lyrical, and philosophical.

Both Sophocles and Euripides painted pretty much the same Electra during the dreadful Peloponnesian War. Their plays of Electra appeared in the Athenian theater around 414-413 BCE. Their message was that fratricide was an abomination. Greeks hurting and savaging each other was diminishing their freedom and civilization — Aeschylos’ urgent appeal, except now the Athenians were in the midst of a deadly contest with the Spartans over the future of Hellas. The entire Greek world was being torn apart.

Time of hope and despair behind the tragic poets

Aeschylos (525-456 BCE) wrote at a time of hope and pride of being Greek. He fought in the very wars that humbled the Persians. His tragedies reflect the most powerful elements of Greek culture — enormous respect for the gods, veneration for Homer and ancient Greek history and traditions, determination to die for the preservation of Greek freedom. This was a vision of democratic life and confidence in Greek power and civilization. But Sophocles (495-406 BCE) and Euripides (480-406 BCE) were caught in the greatest vortex and tragedy in Greek history, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). That conflict lowered their ambition, expectation, and sense of what it meant to be Greek. A doubt colored all they wrote. In addition, and despite the wounds of the Peloponnesian War, they wanted the Athenians to know that breaking divine and human laws was most unwise. The justice of Zeus would deliver its verdict. And the retribution would be swift and unforgiving.

The abyss of Electra

Electra dropped to the abyss with her convincing Orestes to murder their mother. No one could conceive of a more heinous crime. The Erinyes — the avenging deities — were flying all over Orestes and Electra to take their pound of flesh. Yes, we sided with Electra and Orestes for their misfortunes. But the moment they defiled the divine edict prohibiting children to ever lift a finger against their parents, Orestes and Electra were doomed. For that alone, for making it possible for us to witness the naked human soul — unleashing the secret passions and hopes and dark thoughts of people like us, making it possible for us to live through the pain and transformation of the life and death struggles of the protagonists, Cacoyannis deserves our eternal gratitude. He, very much like Euripides, created Greek tragedy — not exactly a small achievement. Even the Electra film of Cacoyannis is convincing proof that, with Christianity largely out of the way, modern Greeks can go straight into ancient Greek culture and feel at home precisely because it’s their culture. Nobody can have greater access to Greek tragedy than the Greeks themselves. It was this invisible reality that inspired Cacoyannis to do such a masterful recreation of the drama of Euripides, and not only Electra, but also Iphigeneia in Aulis and the Trojan Women.

Electra of Euripides and Cacoyannis

In Electra, Cacoyannis filmed the play right in the ruins of Agamemnon’s palace in Mycenae and in the countryside of Argos in Peloponnesos. This was most appropriate as Euripides has Electra — after years of confinement at the palace — being given to a peasant for his wife. In contrast, Sophocles played out the drama in the palace and its immediate environs. Electra made no secret of her hatred for her mother and her mother’s new husband Aegisthos. But with Euripides, more than Sophocles, Electra becomes Athens and Hellas — the entire country, as in fact the country was matricidal at that moment in the killing fields of the Peloponnesian War. That’s why Electra and all of Greek tragedy were such a psychological and philosophical mirror of Greek culture. They were born out of necessity for the worship of the gods. But just as fundamental, they were self-knowledge, public education, a check on tyranny, and the merging of the most intimate religious experience with their passionate defense of freedom.

Electra lives in a peasant’s Spartan home in the constant company of young village women in rural Argos. We see, rather intimately, the austere life of Greek peasants, their working of the land bound up with the constant worship of the gods. Moreover, Electra’s tragedy, her boiling passion for revenge, her thinking to kill both Aegisthos and Clytemnestra, mature in rural Argos. And when her brother Orestes finds her coming home after drawing water from a fountain, he hides his identity and comes across to her and to the women of the chorus who surround her — from Electra’s neighborhood also carrying their jars of water home — as a friend of her brother. From that moment on the drama unfolds like a thunderbolt.

Electra and Orestes

The very mention of the name Orestes brings Elektra to life. She looks at the stranger like a friend she had not seen for years. Yet her voice, face, body, hands give her away. She is like a torch burning to learn all about Orestes. Her passion is so infectious that only tears allow us — just like the ancient Greeks — in the theater to grasp the enormity of what is happening just in front of us. Here’s where both theory and praxis of what it is to be a free citizen become indistinguishable. Here’s where we discover something about the Greeks and about ourselves. We love and we hate in secret with the joys and pain of the protagonists. We see ourselves as being Greek and the Greeks being us. And even though our non-Greek religion (Christianity or Islam or Judaism) is a perpetual fog through which we see things Greek, their values often become our values. The gods, we know, are watching. And with the tears from the life of the protagonists comes suffering, and with suffering comes the exquisite pleasure of the discovery of truth — the hidden but marvelous didactic and dialectic lesson of tragedy in Greek culture.

Orestes, meanwhile, probably fearing that one of Electra’s women friends may be spying for Aegisthos, is careful but not so careful in probing Electra’s explosive character and condition. He wants to know what her brother should expect to do in coming back to see her. Help me kill Aegisthos and Clytemnestra, she says. It’s that simple. They murdered our father, they must die. But Orestes does not find anything simple about killing his own mother. His agony becomes chocking when, finally, he admits to Electra his true identity. The very man, who saved his life when Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon, now almost blind and very old shepherd, discovers Orestes from touching his face and sword.

Euripides no doubt imitated Homer in the identification of Odysseus by an old woman nurse remembering a wound in his leg. But the effect on Electra is the fire of the thunderbolt. The children of Agamemnon hug and kiss and talk and treasure silence with each other. Nevertheless, Electra tells Orestes he has to kill Aegisthos and Clytemnestra.

Killing Aegisthos in a religious festival was easy. But plotting and actually stabbing Clytemnestra to death was jumping into Hades — the pain was so intense that Orestes was trying to disappear, forcing himself to be one with the stone wall of the peasant house his mother came to find her bitter end at his hands. He said that Clytemnestra recognized him and, even dying, she touched his face in love while beseeching him not to kill her. Yet he did. Electra’s wish was done. Murder answered murder (Electra 1094). And in that hateful act, no doubt the result of anger and madness — and no different than the anger and madness of the Peloponnesian War — all society and heavens dissolve. The avenging Erinyes come storming out of heavens to punish the matricidal son and daughter. Even the peasant women — in Michael Cacoyannis’ film but not in Euripides’ text — who loved Electra stoned the cursed home that became the site for such an abominable crime.

A far more serious lapse in Cacoyannis’ presentation of Euripides’ Electra was his premature ending of the play — at the most hopeless time immediately after the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes and Electra. But at that dark moment, Euripides, much like Aeschylos, brings the gods to find a way out of that darkness, which Cacoyannis accepted as inevitable. Or, perhaps, Cacoyannis gave in to his or possibly the Christian Greeks’ fear of the Greek gods? Or, just as likely, he deleted the important part of the gods from his Electra in order not to offend the Orthodox Church (and political) authorities?

It matters, yet I am grateful for his great play, which, like a time machine, transported me to Mycenae and passionate Electra. Irene Papas resurrected Electra, earning for herself the great virtue of uniting us to such a glorious tradition of theater, enabling us to clearly see the truth.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.