Back story first. The popular king goes off to war leaving his wife and three kids behind. Halfway there he finds out the gods need a virgin sacrifice from him. Not just any virgin, his eldest daughter. He tricks his wife and kid into joining him and then has the daughter hauled away for slaughter. The grieving wife is sent home and the now mighty army goes off to fight. It takes ten years, but they win. The triumphant king heads home with a new mistress, a war prize. The wife in the meantime has taken a lover. When the king comes home he is killed by the new couple. The son is exiled and the youngest girl is married off and disinherited. The wife and the new husband live sumptuously and are hated by the people they rule.
The king is Agamemnon and the wife is Clytemnestra. Their kids are Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra. The murderous husband is Aegisthus. The myth is Greek and follows events after the Trojan War.
In Euripides’ Electra we meet this unlucky youngest child in front of her hovel where she lives a peasant’s life. She is old enough to be a bride but too young to remember her father or her brother. She is consumed with hatred for her mother and step-father and thinks of almost nothing else but wreaking vengeance upon them. Her peasant husband lives apart from her yet treats her kindly. He had been ordered by Aegisthus to marry Electra so that her children would be too low-born to be considered heirs and threats to the throne. Their marriage is chaste though as the peasant is unwilling to have sex with a king’s daughter as he feels unworthy of her. He had been a loyal subject of Agamemnon and reveres his memory. They keep this fact secret, especially from Clytemnestra.
The only other thought that enters Electra’s mind is that of her brother Orestes. The uncertainty of his fate gnaws at her, and she feels powerless to seek revenge without the help of someone stronger and more cunning than her. Alas, Orestes arrives, at first hiding his identity, but recognized later by an old servant of the king’s. The siblings are re-united and they plot together, aided and abetted by the servant as well as Orestes’ companion Pylades. Killing the step-father turns out to be easy for Orestes and when the word gets to Electra she is emboldened to finish their grisly task.
The tortured daughter, denied all these years her birthright as a princess, her youth and beauty wasted in a sexless union, lures her mother to her with a fake report of a newborn. Clytemnestra, despite the estrangement, hurries unsuspecting to see her grandchild. At the moment of crisis, Orestes has his doubts, but the determined Electra urges him to finish the job. They kill their mother, but the joy they had hoped to feel leads to despair. Clytemnestra was not the monster they’d imagined and was as imprisoned in her rage as they were. She had never forgiven Agamemnon for sacrificing their first-born, Iphigenia.
In typically Greek fashion, the gods arrive at the end to sort things out. Castor and Pollux show up and cast some of the blame on Apollo for messing up things early on. They admonish the children for the crime of matricide, but they recognize the justice for Clytemnestra’s treachery in killing Agamemnon and abandoning her remaining children. Electra and Orestes are given their penance, but live on.
The deus ex machina aside it seems to me this would make a pretty damn good noir melodrama. Blood ties are the toughest and open up the oldest and ugliest wounds. And murder for good old-fashioned reasons like greed, lust, and revenge is always preferred. Statecraft, politics, and palace intrigue can’t compare to family dynamics for supplying motives! A 21st century version won’t have kings as today’s royalty will be CEOs, but there will still be plenty of peasants. They’ll be people like you and me. The gods won’t show up and put things right at the end, but the lawyers might work out a settlement.
I don’t read Greek so I’ve been experiencing the wonder of these plays in translation. That’s a funny thing, translating a work from one language to another. So often there are no word-for-word equivalents and liberties have to be taken, especially with ancient tongues. The Greek originals are in verse, but the meter and rhyme can’t always be captured. As much of the translator’s voice comes through along with the author’s. Here’s a passage, the first from Elizabeth Seydel Morgan (verse) and the second from E.P. Coleridge (prose):
Electra, Agamemnon’s child,/ I have come to your farmhouse/ to tell the message from Mycenae/ brought down today from one/ who drinks milk on the vineless mountain . . .
O Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, to thy rustic cot I come, for a messenger hath arrived, a highlander from Mycenae, one who lives on milk . . .
I wind up having to read at least two versions of these old things. The modern versions tend to be more accessible, and the older ones filled with more colorful language. Think of the King James Bible, and all that baroque phrasing, compared to contemporary translations in American English. I think that the interpreter of the play might color the characterizations a little if they had feelings about them. If you think Electra is a whiny brat instead of a heroic survivor that would affect the final product, don’t you think?
Regardless, translations are what I have to settle for. I’ve read six different Odysseys. I like Robert Fitzgerald’s the best, if that means anything. It could be that it’s just a nice paperback with a pleasing typeface. Plus my edition has line drawings that are pretty cool as well as a thoughtful, in-depth, and illuminating postscript by the translator. Stuff written more than two thousand years ago in a very different culture thousands of miles away is still interesting! Times change, but people don’t.