Friday, January 15, 2021

The disconcerting manner of Euripides' Electra

Due to an unusually busy season there's been no time to talk about Euripides' Electra, which has been leading our group into a fascinating series of discussions on the strangeness of this take on the Oresteian myth over the past several months.

Still short on time, I just want to put a couple of observations here, possibly for future elaboration.

First, our group did not find reason to agree with the dim view of Electra and Orestes that major interpreters such as Kitto and Goldhill have presented. This is not to say we didn't see certain blots, or at least curiously unprepossessing features of the siblings. 

Orestes and Electra
Euripides clearly has set out to jostle our settled ideas about all of the major characters. Some note that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have what appear to be positive traits unknown to Aeschylus and Sophocles, while Electra and Orestes have weak if not ignoble moments. This has led to a reading of the play as a melodrama, a kind of degenerate"film noir" offspring of properly tragic nobility. Euripides according to this view becomes a kind of psychological observer who moves from the model of divine mythos toward a close-up look (in Chuck Close detail) at the all too human tendencies of beings subject to time and misfortune.

While there certainly are grounds for seeing a kind of fall from the tragic sublime, it's also true that Electra seems to take sudden, unexpected shifts of perspective, beginning with the leap from the level of the plot to the magnificent choral lyrics, and again at the end, with the deus ex machina of Castor and Polydeuces.

One might look at this play as experimenting with the competing claims of high tragedy and low melodrama - as if these genres were jostling each other for dominance in tone and expressive power.

Quick note on three aspects of this curious mix:

First, the play never lets us forget that time has passed from the astonishing action of the Agamemnon. Instead of seeing Clytemnestra at the pinnacle of her treachery, we see her and Aegisthus as happily bourgeoisified upper middle class folks enjoying their prosperity. When confronted boldly by Electra, Clytemnestra is even willing to concede that she might have been out of line. Yet this very admission is so paltry, so inadequate, that it brings to mind the cliches about time's healing powers. Those who have seized power with violence and treachery are often doting grandparents -- people who seem to themselves to be basically good, beneficently meeting social obligations with hearty good will. In fact they are too degraded to comprehend their own reality.

Second, the psychological verisimilitude that makes Electra browbeat Clytemnestra about primping before the mirror might seem beneath a character who intends to kill her mother, but realistically suggestive of years of wasted, stunted life, feeding on a diet of hopeless drudgery.

The Dioscuri

What's equally striking, though, is that these emotional scenes aren't the be-all of the drama. The scene when Orestes and Electra hold each other close - as the realization of what they've done in all its hideousness sinks in - would be the perfect end to a play interested in the grim psychologization of tragic figures, but in fact it's not the end. This moment of emotional truth is abruptly truncated by the appearance of the Dioscuri, who bring a totally other level of concern into the proceedings. With broad temporal awareness Castor tells each character what they must do - and does so with a divine detachment that is light years away from the intensity of the siblings' feelings. As the audience, we experience this less as a transition than as a radically discontinuous shock -  not unlike the appearance of Medea in her chariot, above the human plane. 

As Castor ranges over the entire Trojan War, assuring us that it was all fought in error as the real Helen was never possessed by Paris in Troy, the basic effect is to put in question a full range of readerly perspectives. Electra ends with no one returning home. More than these characters is displaced -- it's the possibility of "place" itself. Instead of the instantaneous impact of recognition and catharsis, we have a kind of frothy dissipation, if not decomposition. 

The tragic heroes of Aeschylus and Sophocles arrive at truth that has some cosmic explanatory power. But what truth are we given by Castor? That the war that fathered the Oresteia was triggered by an eidolon of Helen? 

The mutual brotherly love of the Dioscuri offers a contrasting model to that of Atreus and Thyestes. After all, Castor and Polydeuces are granted eternal life, only they are trapped in a mutual exchange of perfect symmetry: each lives thanks to the other, but never do they live in the same moment.*  Electra and her brother cling together only to be irrevocably separated from each other and from Argos at the command of Castor. Does his intervention reflect cosmic order, or is it merely an arbitrary means to conclude the play?

The Dioscuri are a working model of the specular symmetry of image and reality, repeated eternally and without alteration. Their repetitive intersubstitution differs from the temporal degradation we find in Electra and other human characters. Suddenly appearing here, the Dioscuri foreground the literariness of not just this tale, but of any tale, no matter how "realistic" or "historical." Theater's powerful illusion reaches its apogee even as it jettisons its claim to authority. The shock of this decoupling is nothing like catharsis, but the loss of catharsis in this manner is nonetheless quite shocking.

*Curiously the relation of Electra and Aegisthus is similar. She and he are never together in the play, except after his death - when she addresses him at length, berating him for his unreal sense of himself.

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