Electra: Practice and Performance: II
The second panel on 'Electra: Practice and Performance' took place on Sunday morning as the final session of the symposium. Panellists were David Leveaux, who directed a highly successful Electra at Chichester/Donmar Warehouse and then in New York in 1997/8; Zoe Wanamaker, winner of the Olivier Best Actress award for her performance in that production; Graham McLaren, Artistic Director of theatre babel, Scotland's only Classical touring company, whose production of Electra was originally staged in Edinburgh in their acclaimed Greek trilogy in 2001; and Jane Montgomery, the Leventis Visiting Fellow in Greek Drama, who gave an award-winning portrayal of Electra in Compass Theatre Company's 1999 UK tour and directed the 2001 Cambridge Greek Play Electra. The panel was chaired by Professor Paul Cartledge, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge.
Paul Cartledge began by asking David and Graham to talk about their directorial experiences with the play.
David Leveaux: I was just thinking on the way here of the actual circumstances of how we arrived at doing our Electra. For myself, I had had a powerful theoretical interest in staging one of the Greeks for some time, not least because my earlier area of obsession had been Eugene O' Neill. I've also always had the feeling that if one could find a way of approaching one of these plays absolutely from the 20th Century, then this would be a very good piece to do. There were two key tests that I set for myself, which is why I didn't come to it until we did. One was obviously that we would need to be staging this play absolutely in the present tense, because that is the basic test of any theatre. It would therefore not be a 'reverential' production. The second is that we couldn't do it without an Electra.
Now, as these things happen, simultaneously a very dear friend of mine who was living in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the war sent me a video which basically followed a group of children from Sarajevo who formed a Saturday Club, put together by a rather avuncular teacher and amateur psychologist. They'd come to his house every Saturday morning and sit around his table and talk about their experiences of the war. To qualify for this Saturday club, you had to have lost someone of your family, and there was one particular strand of this video that was fascinating. It was about one boy who had been in his classroom one morning: as the teacher had been writing something on the blackboard, a mortar had come into the classroom and exploded. All the lights had gone out, and as he was going out of the room, he stepped over the body of his best friend. A little moment later, the video shows the dead boy's sister - she can't come to the Saturday club, because from that moment of the mortar, she has become completely silent. As she won't go out, they visit her, and there's an extraordinary scene as she is sitting on the sofa and her mother is explaining to these kids why she can't talk, why she can't go out, and why she's so concerned about how this girl is going to get to school. Somewhere in this segment you saw this girl's face, that up until then had been blank, literally crease with grief, and then, bang! - it was gone.
And then later in the video, you followed her up the path in the snow to where her brother was buried. And at his graveside, she took out a bar of chocolate and one of his racing cars and put them under the snow. The camera was at a discrete distance from this and it was quite clear that she was talking to him. When I saw this, apart from the other things you think, I thought 'Well, there you are, there she is, there's Electra, 11 years old maybe.' And not only Electra as a character, but Electra, socially, in a place, in Sarajevo, in the Balkans. And then I thought, now, this is an urgent reason to try to do Electra.
The second part of the problem was solved by meeting up with Zoe to have lunch to discuss a play that another producer wanted us to do, and thinking half-way through, I don't think we should do this play at all - we should do Electra. At that point, Zoe hadn't read the play, which I thought was fantastic, so we went out to a bookshop and got a copy and I said 'call me Sunday', and Zoe called me on Sunday and said, 'Well, this is completely terrifying but of course I'll do it.'
Paul Cartledge: You don't remember what translation?
David Leveaux: No, but I remember my heart being in my mouth, thinking we'd need to adapt the play. We had it retranslated by Frank McGuinness for our version.
Paul Cartledge: Graham?
Graham McLaren: In Scotland, there is no great tradition at all of the Classics. For the last three or four hundred years, you travel from Edinburgh or Glasgow, go a few hundred miles south, and every bugger seems to be doing Hamlet in their back room or in some courtyard or something. Up in Scotland, nothing. So I had this idea that we could do a Greek project. As you may know, there are some political changes in Scotland at the moment, and one of the questions that occurred to me is - 'how important are these plays in forming public opinion?' - so it was a kind of political act. I'd commissioned a version of Oedipus, and I'd got David Greg to have a look at that; Electra, Tom McGrath; and Medea, Liz Lochhead, (and for those of you who don't know, we've been hauling Medea around the country ever since).
The Electra we did for only two performances. We had twenty actors to do these three plays and about three months, and about nine months of me worrying about it beforehand. We presented them individually Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then on the Saturday we did all three, and in that I think I was rather naïve! It's not much more stage time than King Lear - so I thought, maybe I'll just do all three! Someone should have said...! But if they had, I wouldn't have listened... I was rather naïve in another way. I thought the critics wouldn't compare them...the buggers! So we had this Medea that was a runaway success and poor old Electra and Oedipus were really rather forgotten, and it was a shame, in a way... I'd like to revisit them, when we have more time and less worries about it.
There were political things that we were trying to say with this. There were problems - and if I'd presented the play on its own, perhaps I wouldn't have been so acutely aware of its problems - but when I think about the play, all I can see are the problems. I keep throwing them out to people, but I can never get any answers...so if anyone out there's got any suggestions... I feel Electra in the Sophocles is not challenged enough. Orestes doesn't say, 'No, let's talk about the politics', or Chrysothemis doesn't say, 'No, no, what about the Furies'. And the chorus - you might all disagree - just says 'Weeellll, you ought to be careful, you know...' and it doesn't really go beyond that! I longed for a real challenge to Electra, especially when you compare it to Oedipus or Medea, where you feel the playwrights really talked through the argument.
It was interesting to hear the papers yesterday, including a production which I thought incredible. We only did it twice and there were things I'd forgotten...this notion of comparing Electra to Hamlet, which was absolutely crucial to how we evolved the production. [Ruth Hazel, The Hamletification of Electra] It was important to me that she had a photograph of her father, like Hamlet, you know: 'Look here upon this picture and on this/The counterfeit presentment...'. It seemed important that she had the picture, and that mantle, or coat, or whatever it was: the weight of responsibility. Ultimately, the final image is for me the whole point of the play. What you want to say about revenge is decided by the expression on that character. If she's elated, it says something. If she's blank, it says something else. If she tidies up, something else.
I suppose for me it was a problem-solving exercise. I'd read all the books and thought - 'bugger that, I've no idea what that means!' You get into the rehearsal room and think, well, 'Oliver Taplin says you're not supposed to move...!' Then the chorus goes, 'Well, bugger that!' So it was a very sort of practical and honest way of evolving the production.
I've been here, unusually, for the last two days and one of the things I'm quite keen on is that we all, in the questions and answers, try to speak the same language. I'm aware that yesterday in the Deborah Warner/Fiona Shaw discussion, there were questions coming in this way and answers were going out that way...so we need to speak the same language....or maybe we just can't.
Paul Cartledge: I'm sure you weren't meaning to be provocative... [laughter from the audience] But you have been, so what do you think of that, David? Serious provocation?
David Leveaux: Serious provocation? Well, yes. I'm with Graham with a lot of that, because it is ultimately about trying to find practical solutions. But I would quite seriously contest the degree to which Electra is challenged. I wasn't here to hear that very interesting discussion about Hamlet, but to me, purely off the top of my head, my instinct is that we are dealing with two very, very different sensibilities, in the sense that Electra is challenged again and again and again by her mother's argument, that is truly breathtaking in its clarity and persuasiveness. And there is not an argument made in the play to Electra that is not seductively persuasive and also doesn't cause us to think and to begin to adjust our view of what it is to carry such a singularity of purpose in your heart and at what cost.
That takes me to what you said about the last image, why it is so fascinating. She does not speak for such a long time at the end of the play. It's such a significant length of time and it's fascinating that she doesn't speak. You have to find some way of answering that question. I think we just felt staggering closure (and I don't mean in the American sense of the word). When this terrifying thing had been done, what was left of Electra? In our production, it was the second time a mask was used: Zoe started the play with a mask and took it off before she spoke; at the end of the play, she just put it back on. I wanted us to avoid making a choice between 'is she happy, is she not?' The deep gesture of that moment is a very complex and very contradictory one. Part of the problem is to hold it in balance as opposed to insisting on an interpretation either way, which can limit it to a set of post-Freudian choices that are entirely inappropriate. For those of us who are deeply suspicious of the effect of Freud on the theatre, Sophocles is the place to go. There you are, that's me being provocative!
Jane Montgomery: The ending is a really fascinating moment, and it's something I'll throw back to Simon Goldhill. I remember sitting in a supervision with Simon many years ago, and him saying, 'What's the last image? What do you see?' Whenever I come to this play, that's the question I keep asking myself, and the answer keeps changing. In all the different associations I've had with the play, the ending has been different. In the production [of the Cambridge Greek play] last night, the specifics of the ending, of what Electra does, were pretty much left up to Marta Zlatic [Electra]. As a director, you hone what the actor comes up with, but I think there's something very interesting about letting the actor, who has lived through an hour and 40 minutes of hell playing this part, and knows the character intimately, just get on with it. As an actor, it's very difficult not having autonomy with something like that.
When I played her, I was directed in an ending that I hated. I had a great moment just before, that for me was like the ending of the play: the boys had just led Aegisthus off, I was alone with Clytemnestra's corpse, and I could just scratch my bum...I loved that moment...just scratching my bum...that bathos was, for me, a surreal version of that closure David was just talking about - or like the strange gentleness Fiona mentioned yesterday. But then I had to do all this faffing around with makeup and a veil and rubbish like that. Now as the actor, that seemed entirely wrong to me, but the director had a different vision of what the ending was for him. And the play, when you inhabit Electra, is a different one from the play when you direct Electra. I love the fact that everybody does it differently and I love the ambiguity of those final lines. What do they mean? I don't know...
Simon Goldhill (from the audience): The great thing is that Sophocles has got there first. The last word of the play mean 'fulfilled'. What a fantastic way to end a play. Everyone goes, 'No it's not!'
Paul Cartledge: Zoe, did you get to scratch any bodily parts?
Zoe Wanamaker: No, I didn't get time. I think the idea of the mask came through an improvisation we did and it seemed to be very apt that the mask went back on again in a sense that now at the end, there is nothing; she has nothing. Someone who has lived all this time with something so deep in her heart, which is the desire for revenge, or justice as she sees it, and then she gets it and where is she now? And so I thought that was very right. I think it was quite powerful in a sense because she is an anorexic person. That's how I came to think of her, because she always wants to control the situation, and it doesn't matter what Chrysothemis says or the chorus says. It is a single-minded perversion of thought that is happening with her. So it had a sense and it was absolutely logical. The mask is a protection, something you can go back into so that you don't have to deal with anyone.
David Leveaux: We did the mask improvisation because I felt quite strongly that since we were probably going to be having a production which didn't use masks, that we had to go through the process of seeing what masks could do for us. And it was a very important day. One of the immediate qualities the mask does have is that it is like a window, really. I know Zoe's just said it was like hiding, but it's also true that the minute a mask went on, because the machinery of intention is let go, an actor finds it very hard to hide. It's direct access into a person. So that in a way, we developed the idea of having the mask to try to create maximum access into what might best be described as 'innocence'.
I'm using that word 'innocence' because it seems to me that innocence is an absolutely fundamentally vital quality that has to be located in the core of the play. I'm not talking about moral innocence; it's the condition of innocence. And it seemed to us that when we get to the end of the play that, for all the reasons that Jane and Graham talked aboutbecause there are so many possible endings, and because the moral landscape of that huge moment at the end is such a vast moral questionthat in order to hold it as a moral gesture, we needed to actually maximise a moment at the end of the play of complete innocence. By which I mean something beyond intention: innocence is a condition. That's how we came back to the mask: not really as closure, strangely enough, but as the opposite. My feeling is that the play ends (if one can use the word) opening outwards, whereas the temptation with an awful lot of theatre is to end closing in. It's very hard to end outwardly without becoming abstract because, as Graham says, it's a practical business.
Jane Montgomery: So do you mean the energy of the ending of the play opening out?
David Leaveaux: Yes, it's like an opening. Instead of completing, it actually does the opposite.
Zoe Wanamaker (addressing Simon Goldhill): It's as you were saying.
Graham McLaren: And it throws it right out there to the audience...makes it so vivid.
David Leaveaux: Yes, totally. In fact as a consequence, we found it very hard, from a technical point of view, to know how to end after that moment. We had a drip that was actually dripping throughout the production (which, when it passed through the Theatre Royal Bath, produced a number of complaints from the audience to the theatre management about the state of the building's plumbing). So we just had this drip, for a hundred minutes, just falling on this table. And this drip, at the last moment, turned red, and Zoe was under it with the mask, and the drip just fell onto the mask. It's as practical as this: if we'd faded the lights on that moment, it would be potentially, a) mawkish; b) reeking of a certain kind of director's theatre; c) would have brought the wrong kind of closure.
I was left, strangely enough, in order to keep the energy open and reverberating out, concluding that we had to take the lights down with a snap, which did the opposite of ending it...in fact the production ended up starting like that as well - a change that happened when we got to Broadway. Lights on - you enter this world. Lights out - you come out of it. Very, very hard to do. It's a matter of rhythm. Rhythm is connected to morality in the theatre. Which moral gesture do you want to make? It's not just connected to concept.
Mary Jacobus (from the audience): I feel as though I'm going to have to say something about psychoanalysis, because obviously actors hate it, and what they think about Freud, when you read programme notes that talk about him. It's astonishing to me, because the interesting thing about psychoanalysis is not particularly Freudian; it's Kleinian, and Klein had an enormous amount to say about retaliation; about putting unwanted parts of yourself into other people in the most violent and concrete ways, about the moment of emptiness you've described so well after the manic moment of triumph in killing somebody.
I just wonder if we couldn't rethink for a while what we think about the meaning of psychoanalysis, because I think we are using the term as if it means one thing - Freud went to Hollywood - and there are other practices, which have an enormous amount to say about the theatricality of a kind that we saw even in the clips from the Deborah Warner Electra that we saw yesterday. Certainly in the sense that you apply psychoanalytic character studies to characters...well, what could be more boring? But since Klein came to England and had a struggle with the Freudians about the Oedipus Complex, people don't really think in those terms anyway.
David Leveaux: I'm actually talking about something that happens in the rehearsal room, rather than on the page. I absolutely take your point, but I'm talking about what the contemporary modern actor has to deal with in the rehearsal room. In that respect, I was, if you like, wilfully misusing the term in a slightly cheeky way. It's not in any way to suggest that psychoanalysis has no part in the theatre, because it absolutely does. For this play, I invented a totally spurious distinction between what I called 'mantelpiece plays' and 'non-mantelpiece plays'. What I mean by that is that you don't have a moment in Electra when you can actually wander over to the mantelpiece, light a cigarette In other words, it's not about the business of behaviour. It's fundamentally feeling, emotion. They actually come directly at you. It's a very important distinction to make in the play, because from that, certain types of movement come. If something becomes over-acted in the wrong sense, it becomes very hard to experience the play. But having made that distinction, I don't mean to say there's not an important role in what you're saying.
Mary Jacobus: Just to say something about the practice of psychoanalysis, the current thinking that goes on in that 50 minutes is minute attention to the very small shifts that happen within the consciousness and the unconsciousness of the interaction between two people. That's a kind of theatrical way of thinking about what's going on. It's absolutely in the moment.
Zoe Wanamaker: I know a lot about Melanie Klein: I've read her stuff and done a lot of research on her. I think a lot of actors look into and use the psychology and psyche of the character very deeply. Particularly with a character like Electra, it was something I did go into. She is a perfect case study.
Mary Jacobus: I would be reluctant to look at a dramatic character as a case study.
Zoe Wanamaker: But you could do it
Simon Goldhill (from the audience): But you wouldn't want to go on vacation with her.
Michael Walton (from the audience): Coming back to the idea of closure and why it is difficult in this particular play, there are two different Electra plays by two different authors. Because nobody knows which was written before the other, it is reasonably fair to assume that one was perhaps written in response to the other and maybe to the Aeschylus one as well. When Ruth [Hazel] was talking yesterday about the Euripides version, she described her as 'mad', and that's the one that actually looks like a case study. That's the one where she is so eaten up with the thought of getting her mother dead that nothing else exists for her, and nothing is therefore available for her, once she has done it. If you read the lines through there, and the way in which she is killed and the description that comes of that, this is someone who has finally accomplished something, and simply falls apart.
I don't see the same happening in Sophocles. I don't know what happens instead, but I think there must be something different. What I liked about Jane [Montgomery]'s production was that what we saw instead was not so much someone who was in the present, as a lot of people have been talking about, but someone who was rooted in the past. She was rooted in the moment when even her brother was taken away from her, and she's stayed there, looking for some way of trying to restore some of that. So I don't know what happens to her next: I think everyone has to resolve it in their own kind of way. I don't think there is a set way of doing it. But I think it is a different problem because of that other play.
Question: Fiona [Shaw] said yesterday that Electra has a gentleness and generosity, because she's so certain of something outside herself. I wanted to ask Zoe and Jane in relation to your own experience of playing Electra, what's your view of her? Do you have feelings for her? Zoe was talking about her being a controlling, anorexic character and that doesn't quite balance with what Fiona says.
Zoe Wanamaker: Well, I think anorexic in the sense that she has a single-mindedness, that will not allow any interference with her goal. The gentleness may have been part of her, but I felt in this play, in this production, in this way of seeing it, that there was one focus in mind, and that that was killing her, destroying her. You hear that she eats nothing, that she is just like a beggar. The only thing that is feeding her is her anger, the burning thing that keeps her alive. I think David suggested as we started the play that this should be the day that she could die, her last day. To keep kindness, gentleness in that situation - well, maybe it was there, but that's all gone, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe yes, it's there in residue. In the maelstrom of the play - and it is only an hour, an hour of a day - those other characteristics weren't there. Jane?
Jane Montgomery: Well, I love her. It's a very strange thing when you live with someone like that, playing her for six months. There's a degree of inhabiting, of possession - you of her, she of you. One of the strange things was the way she changed. Just as Zoe said to David, 'I'm terrified but I'll give it a bash', well I had wanted to play this part for so long, that when I was faced with actually playing this icon that I had wanted to do for 15 years, it was absolutely terrifying. It is a hugely daunting part and it takes a while to get into her. And you have to hurl yourself into playing her.
Actually, I don't think psychoanalysis and acting are so far apart. We use different vocabularies, but we are working in the same territory. We're all doing the same thing; except what we do is incarnate the process. Sure, I'd read around grief and trauma before doing the part, but when it comes to acting it, you find all that anyway as an instinctive decoding of the character. We mentioned anorexia. Well, yes, it is a very physical part, and I lost a lot of weight for her, and you can't really play her without getting the bruises and the odd wound. The completeness of the physical embodiment is one of the things that feels so strange: a real element of possession. I've acted a lot, but I've never before had that moment on stage when you are just completely taken off into a different zone, and are left thinking, 'Where did that come from? Who was that?'
Zoe Wanamaker: Yes, absolutely.
Jane Montgomery: It's a strange schizophrenia. Loving and hating this woman. And it is why it's been so strange and interesting directing Marta as Electra. Sure, I might have channelled her performance, but I never, or at least very rarely, asked her to do anything because that had been my acting choice. But time after time, Marta would come up with things, of her own accord, that I had done, but I'd never asked her to do. It was as though there was this essential, ideal form of Electra in the rehearsal room, and Marta and I would from time to time rub shoulders with her. And there she was. That's why I understand Fiona saying about the gentleness. There is a beauty to her, a real beauty in the extremity of her suffering.
Zoe Wanamaker: Absolutely. David said she was a meteoric soul, and avenging angel, which is quite poetic. I think there is something quite extraordinary about her.
Jane Montgomery: But she does get in the way of your life, doesn't she? My poor partner had to suffer this scaggy other woman in our lives for a months...
Would you mind telling the story of your doll?
Zoe Wanamaker: When I got to New York, I had problems with my back. As you say, it's a very physical part and this was a very physical production, in which I rolled around a lot. I went to see a chiropractor and after he'd had a look at my back, he said, I think there is something in the way. What you have to do is find something, some object, a doll or something. Call it Electra, and put it in your dressing room and don't take it out; after the show, just leave it there. He said that at the moment I was carrying her with me all the time. So that's what I did. I found this old photograph - it was given to me by the designer. It was an old photograph of a little girl, and I'd looked a bit like her. So I kept her with me. I called her Electra. When I'd finished the show, I'd put her in the draw, and when I came in to do a show, I'd bring her out. Whether it worked or not, I don't know. She did take over my life. It's a terrible part for what it does to you. I got eczema, I got terrible chest infections. You've got to keep the balance, and you're right, Jane, there are moments on stage when you think, 'where did that come from?'. But there's also a kind of elation when you've finished.
Question: I've heard it said that Sophocles' Electra is the part-of-choice for the actress, but I wonder how would you react to playing Euripides' Electra?
Zoe Wanamaker: I don't know it that well; I've only read it once, and I remember thinking it wasn't so to the point as Sophocles'. Sophocles' play is so sure, so direct. It has a compactness. And the translation/adaptation we had was just raw. He'd adapted down to the bare, raw bones, so that he'd cut out anything extra and his version just went straight for the jugular. I felt when I read the Euripides that it was a bit all over the place.
Adrian Poole (from the audience): I want to come back to a couple of things that have been said about confrontation: Graham's talking about confrontation and David's choice of the word 'innocence', although you qualified it. First of all, just a small question to Graham about the sequence in which you played this evidently calamitous trilogy! It relates to the Serban production that was mentioned yesterday that was put on in Edinburgh seven or eight years ago. That had Medea, then the Trojan Women and then ended with Electra. So I wondered what you thought about sequence and what it means to play it in a certain sequence.
When I was listening to David's wonderful and moving story before, although I knew it was going to end up with Electra, curiously I kept hearing in my head, Antigone. It seems that that is the shadow play to Electra - the other sister who faces confrontation after confrontation. But there the audience gets all the closure it wants. In Electra, that's not the case and it seems to me that there are just not enough corpses. Sure, we have Clytemnestra's corpse, (and Jane's production provided us with a corpse to contemplate throughout the production), but although this might have been the day Electra died, it wasn't. She is still alive, as is Orestes, as is the wretched Paidagogus! So no wonder it ends, as Simon said, as it does: 'teleothen? No!'.
So although I know what you were trying to do when you said 'innocence', David, I'm not sure whether that is the right word. Whether there is a word other than what Simon said: 'No'; whether there is a word against the terrible stories of injury. It goes back to what Mary Jacobus was saying yesterday about speaking of injury and desiring some theatre of justice, whether injury would be answered.
Graham McLaren: We did Oedipus, then Electra, then Medea, the reason being that when I got the versions through from the different playwrights, Liz Lochhead's Medea was clearly very robust, colloquial; it was going to be a crowd pleaser. We couldn't put that on early as the rest would simply suffer.
David Leveaux: 'Innocence' - yes, well it's a perilous word, and I was using it in the sense of its being germane to the theatre. There's the place where a production of Electra would invite judgement, and then there's a place beyond judgement, which is more the moral landscape of what it is to be alive. Electra is full of blame, accusation, counter accusation, but in the Sophocles' Electra, after each accusation, there is a period of wanting to support that accusation from a moral place, and also something else, something which struggles in an almost non-verbal space. When something goes beyond intention or opinion, or even, in the strictest sense, ego, the release is in considering from the entire moral universe rather than just one part of it. With revenge, you can never go back far enough to be able to say with absolute certainty, 'this person is to blame'. When Frank McGuinness came to me about this, he first said he wouldn't work on it because he couldn't do the pre-Catholic plays, but then he got it and thought 'this is a play I've got to work on'. It's that pre-lapsarian, post-lapsarian thing, just to talk in Christian terms for a minute. If you can't trace back to a place that confers guilt, you are ultimately left with innocence. I'm using innocence in that way, and I'm staggered at Sophocles' ability to put that on stage. It's so hard to do.
Simon Goldhill (from the audience): One of the interesting things about what Adrian just said about not having enough corpses is what that does to the audience, and there is a very strange mixture of felicity and alienation at that point. That's what makes it such a strange moment. As soon as you find yourself thinking, 'I want more corpses', who are you being complicit with on stage? Yet you can't help but feel alienated from Electra at that point. That's why I agree with Adrian that I can't see innocence there. If there is innocence, it's an innocence we can't touch. We are alienated from it in some way, or if we become complicit, it's just so upsetting that we just don't want to go there.
Thalia Valeta (from the audience): At the beginning of the Euripides, the peasant directly addresses the audience and says, 'What, do you think I have taken advantage of this young girl (meaning Electra). No, you have dirty minds!' And maybe it's the same with Sophocles. Maybe we misunderstand innocence. After all, Sophocles didn't know Freud.
Simon Goldhill : But Freud knew Sophocles.
Graham McLaren: No, I disagree. I think we do understand. What makes these plays vital is that we're just the same creatures. Yes, we have different terminology for these ideas, but we're the same people. That's the point in doing them. You believe we're different, Simon? Paul? Oh no, you all believe we're different!
Drew Milne (from the audience): I'd like to look at the play in a different way - through a Brechtian frame. Part of the problem of the way in which modern thinking looks at Electra is that we view the play in terms of individuals and their psychological framework. Perhaps we should look at her more like Mother Courage. We know that Electra is wrong, but she has a truth, and that generates both a pity and a horror of her. Now there is a way of doing psychological investigations into what sort of a person Mother Courage is, but that's the wrong thing to do. But there is a horror at how Mother Courage is a source for a certain kind of political catastrophe that she thinks she is surviving.
The interesting problem with a lot of Greek plays, which is shared by many of Brecht's, is that this is done through mothers, as a prompt for a certain kind of political solidarity. It seems to me crucial that Electra is not a mother, and that she is an aristocrat, a fallen aristocrat, and that it was an anxiety about what aristocratic society means, about what certain kinds of powerful women might be about. You assemble a patriarchal male audience to look at a woman who isn't really part of the polis in any really clear way, who is clearly a threat to the polis. (If everyone chooses to go back to their houses and behave like Electra, what's going to happen to Athens? It's a terrifying prospect.) But the anxiety about someone who is an unmarried and unmarriable aristocrat generating this truth that whatever happens pragmatically, there are important things that have been forgotten - I think you look at that without getting into how Electra is, as something more political and social about how we are as a group. With Electra, we know she has truth, but we are horrified by it.
Jane Montgomery: I take your point about her being a fallen aristocrat, but surely, she is one of the most 'right-wing' and conservative of all Greek heroines. She wants the re-establishment of the proper oikos, with the proper patriarchy. She's only 'transgressive' because she is forced to be by circumstances in her attempt to reinstate the appropriately patriarchal oikos.
Drew Milne: I'm not saying that she's transgressive. There is a truth to her, but that's what is horrific about her. You don't identify with her in the same way that audiences seem to with Mother Courage. That's the politics of Mother Courage - you're supposed to be horrified by her. This woman fuels the war - she's the source of it - but audiences love her. And there is something similar in the way in which political identification and emotional identification become confused in our response to Electra. Her aristocratic sense is part of what makes her horrific to a democratic audience.
Paul Cartledge: Would you wish a modern director to enforce in a modern production of Sophocles' Electra some of the significant elements of what your saying?
Drew Milne: One of the things I thought was beautiful about last night's production was that it wasn't about some sort of straightforward emotional identification. You were forced into her situation, her truth, but the other characters had their own different level of truth.
Paul Cartledge: What Euripides does is bring out explicitly the implications of virginity and virginity within marriage. Very interesting for him in his day, but for us, we can't quite get its importance now.
Drew Milne: It may also have something to do with not having masks. The loss of the masks alters our ability to understand the dynamics between these characters, and Brecht's attempts to alter identification was another means of reintroducing that space between characters.
David Wiles (from the audience): I agree with what Drew has been saying about the need for types, not individuals, and was struck by David's comments on the blank expression of the grieving girl, and what Zoe said about leaving the alter ego. When you used the mask, partly it was a signifier of antiquity, but do you see it also as something you could contemplate as a performance device rather than a rehearsal room tool?
Zoe Wanamaker: No, I think that would make it a completely different production. Whenever I've seen Greek plays, I've always thought it's just a lot of moaning: they go on and on... I just couldn't relate to it. Yes, it's fascinating up to a point, but after a while, I'd just be thinking 'What are they talking about? I don't understand'. It alienated me, so I thought that alienation was what it was all about. So, to have a mask all the way through would have to be done in a very special way to make it interesting.
David Leveaux: I think it would be possible. The rehearsal-room choices and the setting weren't attempts to find a contemporary metaphor for Electra. We needed to find the dialectic between the present and the past. And it's bigger, actually - something many of us have been touching upon - which is the distance between Classicism and Romanticism. Sophocles is short, it's urgent, it's subtle. Zoe and I were engaged in an experiment. What happens if you have an individual, with all the complex psychology you associate with modern acting, who also has to touch the edges of the world she is in; who becomes not just an individual but a participant in the world she is in, in a vast moral argument? That's why it's like touching the edges of Classicism. The mask had that effect. It made a direct conduit between everything we've been talking about in terms of psychology and the world. But I thought it would be clearer to see the power of the mask if we made a huge moment of her having the mask and then taking it off. It was a fantastic journey. To go from wearing the mask to speaking as herself just seemed huge. The reason it was so huge practically in the theatre was because we were staging the dialectic between Classicism and Romanticism. The mask is an incredibly exciting form, but you mustn't deny the theatre in which we are living.
Peter Stein the German director has a fantastic gift for collecting history and the present. He doesn't say - 'let's set it in this period.' I'll always remember seeing his Julius Caesar with the senators wearing Armani suits with sheets wrapped round them, and I thought, that's either a stupid idea or a brilliant idea - but it was brilliant because you went racing all the way through the doors of time. You're connected. That's why we do Electra - to be connected to each other and to our past.
The session concluded with Paul Cartledge thanking panellists and audience for their contributions.