'Electra traces: Beckett's critique of Sophoclean tragedy'

by Drew Milne

'WINNIE: One loses one's classics. [Pause] Oh not all. [Pause] A part. [Pause] A part remains. [Pause] That is what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one's classics, to help one through the day.' Samuel Beckett, Happy Days, [1]

After the initial cries of Electra before her entrance, the opening line of Sophocles's Electra is: 'o phaos agnon', an expression most often translated as 'O holy light'.[2] The first words of Winnie in the second act of Beckett's play Happy Days are 'Hail, holy light.' (CDW: 160) At the risk of too violently forcing this comparison, what would it mean to hear a trace of Sophocles's Electra in Winnie's salutation, and to perceive in this trace a reflection on light as one of theatre's historically mutable conditions of possibility? There are many ways in which a comparison of Beckett's Winnie and Sophocles's Electra asks too much of the fragile resources available. At first blush it seems likely that any similarity in their salutations to light is more coincidental than intended, even if mediating layers of literary and theatrical translation could be construed. There is only slender evidence to suggest that Beckett sought to provoke such a comparison. Such slender evidence includes stray remarks indicating Beckett's familiarity with Greek tragedy, such as Beckett's letters to Alan Schneider, which refer to Oedipus Tyrannus as 'Swollen Feet' and summarise Sophocles's Philoctetes as 'all wound and moan.' [3] Perhaps the most explicit evidence of Beckett's interest in suggesting a critique of classical tragedy is his early play Eleutheria, which, along with its Greek title, includes a number of allusions, direct and indirect, to Sophocles.[4] Nevertheless, the terms of this argument are more speculative than philological. The suggestion is that the trace of Electra in Winnie's speech can be heard as an indication of the way Beckett's work develops a critique of modern drama's conditions of possibility. Through Beckett's critique of pure drama it becomes possible to suggest an attenuated critique of Sophoclean tragedy informing Beckett's conception of theatre. Problems suggested by Beckett's understanding of theatre also inform modern productions, such as Jane Montgomery's production of Sophocles's Electra, which contrast the classical text with the modern stage technologies of lighting, video projection and English surtitles.

Some sense of the terms of historical resonance involved can be suggested by contrasting some remarks on the meaning of Electra and technology which pre-date Beckett. Theodor Adorno, in his book Quasi una Fantasia, recalls the associations aroused in his childhood by Richard Strauss: 'To me the name of Strauss suggested music that was loud, dangerous and generally bright, rather like industry, or rather what I then imagined factories to look like.' [5] Within this identification of Strauss with modernity, Adorno continues: 'But more than all this my imagination was kindled by the word Elektra. This word was explosive and full of artificial, seductively evil smells, like a large chemical works close to the town where we lived, whose name sounded very similar. The word glittered cold and white, like electricity, after which it appeared to have been named...' [6] Strauss's opera Elektra takes its title from the libretto by Hugo von Hofsmannsthal based on Sophocles's play. The title of Strauss's opera resonates in Adorno's imaginative childhood as a beguiling pun which somehow yokes together the ancient name and modern industrial electricity. The juxtaposition of classical antiquity with industrial modernity is reminiscent of comments made by Karl Marx in the introduction to the Grundrisse: 'Is the view of nature and social relations on which the Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] is based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts & Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Crédit Mobilier?' [7] The triumph of capitalist domination has been less one-sided than Marx imagines. Who now remembers Roberts & Co.? Indeed the roles are reversed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which Adorno and Horkheimer reconfigure the encounter between Odysseus and the sirens as an allegory for modernity. [8] Capitalist production has also been surprisingly eager to appropriate mythological names, from Ajax's reduction to a domestic cleaning agent and Clio's ignominy as an automobile, to Nike's embarrassment as a just-doing-it sort of shoe. Some purveyor of electricity or electrical goods may yet chance upon Electra as a post-modern brand name, but the omens are not favourable. The power of Electra's name seems instead to generate a disturbing challenge to modern ears, a disturbance felt as a trace by the young Adorno. How, then, to understand the speculative pun that links Electra with electrons and electricity? In Quasi una Fantasia Adorno goes on to comment on his childhood reverie that: 'Only much later did I notice that the images generated by my imagination in advance of any knowledge actually fitted the music far better than the verification procedures I subsequently conducted.' [9] Such claims for the truth of imaginative insight over knowledge provoke scepticism, but if Adorno was right to hear a coincidence of ancient names and modern electricity in Strauss's music, the historical conditions for this analogy point to the importance of electricity for modern opera more generally.

What, indeed, would be the fate of modern opera were it not for the power of electric light? The dimming of house lights to generate the pool of religiosity associated with post-Wagnerian opera can be understood as a homage to electricity. Understood speculatively, then, Electra's salutation to holy light in the theatre of Dionysus is transformed in the history of theatre by the power of candles, tapers and torches, before the subsequent impact of more elaborate lighting technologies, such as the stage chandeliers of seventeenth-century theatre. [10] As Glynne Wickham suggests, 'It can be argued that most of the major changes that overtook the theatre during the nineteenth century owed more to engineers - civil, mechanical and optical - than to actors or dramatists. If such a claim is thought to be perverse, it has to be remembered that the candles and oil-lamps, which had provided the sole form of lighting in every theatre until the end of the eighteenth century, were banished first in favour of gas and limelight and then in favour of electricity.' [11] To a degree rarely acknowledged, modern theatre is devoted to the worship of electric light, to the extent of competing with nature to represent the glittering ceilings of theatrical heavens and milky ways. If much of the lyric content of Greek tragedy can be read as a hymn to the powers of light that illuminate an outdoor theatre, there is something uncannily accurate about the suggestion that electricity has become the holy light of indoor theatre.

Some reflection on the historical conditions of possibility informing modern theatre is evidently at work in Beckett's use of electric light in his dramatic works, perhaps most notably in his later plays such as Play, Not I and Footfalls, which put new emphasis on the meaning of light as a theatrical agent. In contrast to the chiaroscuro effects of much of Beckett's work, the lighting for Happy Days is especially bright, colourful and over-powering, pushing the analogy between stage lighting and the fierce heat of the sun to palpable extremes. Winnie, however, is not over-powered. The perception of stage lighting as a form of divine torture informs a number of Beckett's plays, implicitly in Act Without Words - 'Desert. Dazzling light.' (CDW: 203) - and more explicitly in Play, whose stage directions refer to the source of light as an 'inquisitor' provoking speech from the victims on stage. (CDW: 318) Happy Days dramatises the struggle between Winnie's world of visibility and her powers of verbal and physical resistance. The conflict between Winnie's words and her actions is set against the power of stage technology to illuminate and emblazen Winnie's attempt to affirm the happiness of the day over the darkness surrounding her. In one of Beckett's most mythologically disturbing uses of modern stage technology, the power of light burning down on Winnie is sufficient to set her parasol on fire, as though spontaneous combustion might destroy any human barrier between the sun and the scorched earth. Where Electra's opening words speak of holy light and air that has an equal share of earth, Winnie has a rather less comfortable relation to the difference between light, air and earth, as though elements of nature and modern theatrical technology were closer to instruments of torture. There is evidently a joke at work in hailing the modern lighting rig as a source of holy light, but, as so often in Beckett's work, the metonymic relation of human agency to theatrical technology also affords a metaphor for the gulf between human physicality and the powers of nature and God.

The oscillation between imagining a divine audience torturing Winnie and recognising the physical conditions of modern theatrical lighting forms a central dynamic in Happy Days. How far might such conditions of theatrical possibility inform the way Sophocles dramatises the culture and nature of the Athenian stage through the relation of Electra to an imagined audience of divine lights and human eyes? The orientation of open-air theatres is necessarily closer to an awareness of the nature of light. The setting of a theatre in a particular landscape points to a relation to earth, air and light that is lost in the black boxes of modern theatricality. David Wiles argues that: 'The south-facing spectator in the Theatre of Dionysus experienced the sun moving from his left to his right in the course of his day in the theatre, and his vision and personal comfort were determined by the sun's position. This perceptible path of the sun suggests the presence of a transhuman force that humans can either go with or go against.' [12] Mark Ringer comments on the way the Paedagogus in Sophocles's Electra draws attention to light in lines 17-19, in Ringer's translation: 'For us already the bright flame of the sun / stirs the clear morning voices of the birds / and has eclipsed the dark "kindly time" of stars.' Ringer goes on to remark that: 'Sophocles will continue this strategy of uniting the stage action with the natural environment of the theatre. Electra's opening lines later in the prologue will be a salutation to the sun (86). Even Clytemnestra, after her terrible dream, will confide in the sun, which blazes above actors and audience alike (424-25).' [13]

This casts a different light on what it means to occupy the centre of the theatrical space, especially where, as with Sophocles's play, Electra refuses to take shelter from the sun inside the palace and is so visibly central, almost transfixed before the audience by her own will and situation. Wiles reproduces a photograph of K.Paxinou playing Electra in what he calls 'the command position in the centre of the circle' in the first modern production at Epidaurus. [14] The position of Electra at the centre of the theatrical space can be compared with Winnie's fixed position which Beckett's stage direction indicates as being 'in exact centre of mound' (CDW:138), where the mound is itself centre stage. But the respective orientations of Electra and Winnie to sources of light and to the audience are different, with very different conditions of visibility. Wiles points out, for example, that: 'in the classical period the actors in Athens stood in the circle of the orchestra with the sun behind them. To see the face in these silhouetted figures was almost impossible, and Greek theatre relied rather upon the patterns which bodies made on the ground.' [15] The roles in a modern theatre are reversed, a reversal made especially evident in Happy Days. A modern audience is often annoyed by light shining from the stage into the audience, and is usually quick to forget the discomfort of the actor staring through bright lights to address a darkened hall. The significance of theatre's embeddedness within the natural environment has also been lost to modern audiences. The historical significance of such different forms of lost awareness leaves traces in Winnie's experience of tortuous theatricality.

Another remark, predating Adorno's comments on the word Electra, brings some of these speculative resonances into a different focus. Virginia Woolf, in her essay 'On Not Knowing Greek' offers the following suggestive remarks on Sophocles's Electra: 'His Electra stands before us like a figure so tightly bound that she can only move an inch this way, an inch that. But each movement must tell to the utmost, or, bound as she is, denied the relief of all hints, repetitions, suggestions, she will be nothing but a dummy, tightly bound.' [16] In a comparison between Sophocles' Electra and Beckett's Happy Days, Woolf's commentary sounds like a prophetic description of Winnie's predicament. Indeed, although Woolf's remarks are impressionistic rather than grounded in Electra's articulation of theatrical space, they serve as an imaginative account of the dramatic restrictions which hold Electra on Sophocles' stage. Winnie's risk in Happy Days is that she will be nothing but a dummy, tightly bound. The constrictions of conversation available to her mean that her merest movements and slightest repetitions must tell to the utmost, for the day to be happy. If anything, Woolf's remarks are less accurate as a description of the stagecraft in Sophocles's play.

It is difficult to say how far the original Athenian conditions of performance required the actor playing Electra to stand before the audience as a figure tightly bound. This description seems more like a description of the theatrical condition of Prometheus in Aeschylus's play. To add to the emerging play of resemblances, one of the first reviews of Beckett's play Happy Days compared Oh les beaux jours to Aeschylus's Prometheus.[17] While Winnie's theatrical confinement bears comparison with that of Prometheus, there is a profound gulf between Prometheus's divine, masculine and prophetic powers of endurance, and the all too human femininity of Winnie. The gender difference between Prometheus and Electra, moreover, points to the harsh challenge posed by Sophocles regarding Electra's condition. Electra's position is constrained, imprisoned in a half-life in which her only resource is to throw words at the sky and at those who might listen to her. Unmarried, fatherless, unavenged, and inconsolable, Electra's loss of the right to become a woman, a mother or a sister, leaves her bound childishly to the hope that her brother might redeem the possibility of her identity and her estates.

It is hard to reconstruct the full force of Electra's role within the patriarchal anxieties of the Athenian polis, but it seems clear that Sophocles does not dramatise Electra to win audience sympathies, rather to engage the audience in critical judgment, awe-struck perhaps by her powers of autonomy and language amid so many trials, and yet also horrified by her as an image of a woman outside both the law of the oikos and of the polis. Mark Ringer points out that: 'Upon entering, Clytemnestra criticizes her daughter for being "an out-of-doors woman" (thuraianousan, 518). One is reminded of the extreme constraint put upon upper-class women in fifth-century Athens, when such an epithet would be regarded as an insult.' [18] The play emphasizes Electra's refusal to succumb to the social pressure to stay indoors, not just from Aegisthus but also from Chrysothemis and Clytemnestra. Her defiance is figured as a transgression of gender and social status. Electra's self-imposed deprivations also serve to keep alive the memory of unavenged injustice. Helene P.Foley offers persuasive arguments in this vein, noting the impact of Athenian funerary legislation which began as early as the sixth century, and the way in which plays of the later fifth century undermine the authority of lamenting women. In Foley's account of Sophocles's Electra, Electra's aggressive lamentation contrasts with Orestes's approach to revenge: 'the heroine - perhaps as a scapegoat - plays out the full range of female roles traditional in vendetta to the audience if not to her brother; she pays a great price to give the revenge emotional authority. In this play the female lamenting voice is restrained, brutalized (inadvertently by Orestes, and by the play deliberately), questioned, partially undercut, put in its place, but nevertheless takes on itself the role of articulating and engaging the audience in the complex ethics of lamentation and vendetta' [19]. Electra's invocation of light outside the palace and in the open air of the Athenian theatrical space plays out against social and theatrical codes of space which are intertwined rather than set up in some metatheatrical reflection.

Sophocles' dramatisation of Electra's outdoor defiance needs to be understood, accordingly, in terms of the liminality of indoor and outdoor locations as embodiments of conflicts in family behaviour, political justice, funerary legislation and 'public' lamentation. Virginia Woolf, perhaps mindful of Electra as an example of conditions closer to a modern sense of home, comments on Electra's constricted opportunity for movement: 'in the midst of all this sharpness and compression, Electra, as if she swept her veil over her face and forbade us to think of her any more, speaks of that very nightingale: "that bird distraught with grief, the messenger of Zeus. Ah, queen of sorrow, Niobe, thee I deem divine - thee; who evermore weepest in thy rocky tomb".' [20] The lines elaborated by Woolf's citation are from Electra's opening speech, which Hugh Lloyd-Jones translates as Electra saying, 'But I shall not cease from my dirges and miserable lamentations, so long as I look upon the sparkling of the bright stars, and upon this light of day, like the nightingale, slayer of her young, crying out loud and making loud proclamation to all before my father's doors.' [21] Stuck outside her true home, denied entrance into her unavenged father's oikos, Electra nevertheless imagines herself as both a lamenting daughter and as a mother capable of slaying her young, the terrible act of her father.

The identification of Electra with Niobe sheds some light on what it would mean to imagine Winnie as a latter-day Niobe constrained to weep in the rocky tomb of the earth, though Winnie herself is determined not to weep and prefers to perform in a manner more appropriate for a merry widow, chirping like a comic bird for whom the sadness of song is rather less plangent or tragic. As Winnie puts it, 'To sing too soon is fatal, I always find.' (CDW: 164) Indeed Winnie attempts to engage Willie in discussion of the sadness after song: 'Sadness after intimate sexual intercourse one is familiar with, of course. [Pause.] You would concur with Aristotle there, Willie, I fancy. [Pause.] Yes, that one knows and is prepared to face. [Pause.] But after song…' (CDW: 164) If tragic song is supposed to be cathartic, Winnie is more concerned to extract small and comic mercies from aesthetic play. While Winnie knows the sadness of sexual intercourse, her strange relation to Willie suggests the comically archetypal misrecognitions of the heterosexual couple. Winnie attempts to fight off sadness rather than indulging in the pleasures of lamentation, but her conditions could hardly be sadder, and sadness breaks through the gaps in one of her saddest narrative moments, her imaginary description of Mildred and Milly, and the child that comes from the mother's womb. It is as unclear whether Winnie has experienced the sadnesses of motherhood so poignantly dramatised in Beckett's ghost-plays of motherhood, such as Footfalls. The contrast of Winnie with Electra is pointed, because Electra's condition does not allow her to imagine the sadness of sexual intercourse or motherhood, either with regard to her own mother or as a mother-to-be. If Winnie appears to be a woman in the ruins of a half-life, she may nevertheless take some solace in experiences denied to Electra. What they nevertheless share is a resourceful relation to language. Winnie's curious imprisonment in the scorched earth is hard to place within the critique of theatrical femininity implied by Beckett. There is something closer to comic ambivalence at work in audience judgments of Winnie, but the play also hints at the tragic necessity of performance as an enforced condition of gendered identity. Understood as a critique of the association of women with tragic lamentation, the play foregrounds a different but no less heroically sustained affirmation, even if dramatic irony also allows this to be seen as a satire on the delusions and illusions of feminine naivety.

According to Thomas Woodard, a gendered difference between language and action, between logos and ergon forms the central thematic of Sophocles's play: 'The structure of the Electra makes the heroine stand on stage in the midst of an initially alien world, that of the men's plot, and play out her drama in relation to this, merging with it toward the end…. The men act in high melodrama, serious, suspenseful, noble, and successful; Electra lives in the agones, or conflicts and suffering, of the older tragedy.' [22] The actions of Willie in Happy Days hardly amount to a male plot, though there are vestiges of high melodramatic and murderous purposes in Willie's final actions, when he appears to move towards silencing Winnie. The similarities in dramatic structure are nevertheless intriguing, and these similarities are made more apparent in Woodard's description of the role of Electra: 'Electra dominates the Electra excessively: her speaking part is one of the longest in Greek tragedy; she remains in full view nine-tenths of the time; she includes the heights and depths of emotion in her range; she chants more lyrics than any other Sophoclean protagonist…. At the same time, we are struck by what would ordinarily be outright defects: her ignorance of Orestes' return and strategy; her physical inactivity; her wrangling and iteration; her mistaken opinions; her hate. Yet these too seem to contribute to her power in the theater…' [23] Mutatis mutandis, Winnie dominates the stage and while her emotional rage is more comic, the audience are struck by what would ordinarily be outright defects, her wrangling, iteration, and so forth. Woodard contrasts the laconic actions of Orestes and the other men on stage with the loquacious insistence on language performed by Electra. Helene P.Foley suggests that the action of lamentation is less passive, and needs to be understood as an active part of the production of juridical discourse. [24] Woodard's account puts more emphasis on a conflict of theatrical genres to generate an account of the play's structure: 'these contrasts re-enforce a distinction between a masculine world of erga, in which logoi are mere servants, and a feminine world of logoi, here laments, which preclude physical effectiveness but have another power all their own.' [25] If Electra, on this account, is all mouth and no action, Winnie's performance oscillates between actions and words, until the stage conditions of Act II reduce her ability to act to the barest minimum. Woodard's account of Sophocles's Electra finds a dramatic shift in which Electra learns a new relation between words and actions, responding to the calls of Orestes for silence to the point where Electra herself begs her brother for no more words and insists on the killing of Aegisthus. In this sense, the play shows a dynamic in which actions replace words. If this dialectic of logos and ergon is a central argument of Sophoclean tragedy, then it is comically reversed in Beckett's play Happy Days. Winnie's cheerfulness insists on a doctrine of positive inaction through the consolations of language. Her affirmative but interrupted refusal to concede to the logic of lamentation suggests a new comic logic of reconciliation, one in which conditions as extreme as those faced by Electra find a different kind of static electricity, a comedy of the most unlikely persistence in love. By Winnie's own lights, there are reasons to be cheerful, hard though they may be to see. Although sadness threatens to break in and ruin everything, her song is determined not to wallow in tragedy.

Against the grain of the comparison sketched here, it is more conventional among Beckett scholars to read Winnie's salutation 'Hail, holy light!' as a reference to the opening lines of Book III of Milton's Paradise Lost: 'Hail, holy Light, offspring of heaven first-born, / Or of the eternal co-eternal beam / May I express thee unblamed? since God is light'. [26] This makes some sense as Winnie's capacity to extract small mercies from her fading classics. Ruby Cohn comments, 'In view of her reduced circumstances, Winnie's opening words are even more ironic than "Another heavenly day" of Act I. Now she rises to the Miltonic height of "Hail, holy light," and like Milton, she implicitly links physical and spiritual light, with the traditional neo-Platonic associations between God, the sun, and the mind. However, in Act I Winnie has already amended "holy light" to "blaze of hellish light." [27] Winnie is not one of those mendacious victims of the classics in paraphrase. She reveals a capacity to reshape quotations to suit her present conditions. The contrast between hellish and holy light reflects her theatrical conditions of possibility. The French text of Winnie's exclamation - 'Salut, sainte lumiere!' - has a Racinian flavour, though the French is less explicitly inter-textual. Understood as a citation from Milton, there is a historical fulcrum linking Electra's invocation of divine light to Beckett via Milton. Read in this light, Milton's lines bear comparison with Electra's opening lines, translated by David Grene as 'O Holy Light, and air, copartner with light in earth's possession'. [28] Scholarship has preferred to search for Christian analogues to explain Milton's allusive gesture, but there are affinities with invocations of light in Greek tragedy, perhaps even with reference to Electra's invocation. Milton may owe nothing to Electra's electricity, but subsequent translations of Sophocles's Electra find it hard not to echo Milton such that Milton retrospectively informs the possibility of hearing 'Hail! Holy light!' as an allusion to Sophocles.

There is scholarly debate as to the exact meaning of the lines in both Milton and Sophocles, but perhaps Beckett was attracted to lines later in Milton's invocation, which speak of what it means to 'feel thy sovereign vital lamp', [29] the metaphysical lamp of light which allows us to imagine things invisible. This can also be read as a way of representing the physical condition of blindness when our light is spent or when blinded from staring into the sun or into theatre's rather less piercing bright lights. What seems inescapable, however, is the extent to which the claims of divine light and human logos which Christian thought attempts to triangulate are presented by Sophocles and Beckett without monotheistic consolation. There is a tension in Sophocles's dramatic poetry between the simplicity of the invocation 'o phaos agnon' and its metaphorical potentials. Within the polytheistic imaginary of the meaning of agnon here, it is possible to think of light as being holy in the sense that it is pure, chaste and unsullied. The virginity of light points to a possible critique of light as the pure condition of theatre's visibility in an open-air theatre. Electra is chaste, but according to the social imagination of Greek society, to be unsullied is closer to a fruitless condition of being unlived and unloved, a non-being. Even within Electra's own words, light shares with air and earth and can only be called upon against a background of darkness. There is, moreover, a powerful contrast in the opening words Euripides gives to Electra: 'o nux melaina, chruseon astron trophe', translated variously as 'O night, black night, whose breast nurses the golden stars', or 'Hail, black-winged Night, nurse of the golden stars'. [30] What seems at issue in Sophocles's version is the relation between the theatrical possibilities of holding the stage or being held on the stage, and what it means to be imprisoned or free in language and light.

Against the many subtle differences brought into play by Sophocles and Euripides, it remains hard to assess how far the name of Electra is significant. The etymological links between the Greek word electron and the modern scientific conception of the electron are perhaps too awkward to bring to bear on the name of this character. According to Liddell and Scott, the word 'elektron' appears in the Odyssey, apparently referring to a metallic substance such as amber or gold alloyed with silver that might be said to gleam or reflect light. The word 'elektro-phaes' compounding elektron and phaos means, apparently, 'amber-gleaming'. And the noun 'elektor' means 'beaming sun'. [31] There is a kind of Heideggerian pathos which could be drawn out: Electra would be a name for a mythic character who gleams metallically, casting the light of language out of her own dark substance. The Oxford Classical Dictionary suggests a different play of language at work in Electra's name, noting that Electra: 'does not appear in Epic, the first certain mention being in the Orestaia of Stesichorus…. Where Stesichorus, or his alleged predecessor Xanthus of Lydia, found the name is quite unknown; one or the other made a bad pun on it in defiance of quantity, interpreting the Doric form [Alektra], as meaning 'unwedded', as from a privative + lektrov.' [32] This 'bad pun' has become central to the reception of the Electra myth in Greek tragedy, putting emphasis on Electra's unwedded condition and on her inability, as an incomplete women, to live by her own lights. Ringer comments that: 'Electra's name, "unbedded" or "unmarried one," is a negation, a symbol of emptiness.' [33] In Happy Days, Winnie embodies a different kind of negativity and emptiness, dramatising a new sense of the emptiness words can muster against the light. The thematics of light recur throughout Beckett's work, from the opening of Murphy: 'The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.' [34] to the opening of Ill Seen Ill Said: 'From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life.' [35] The drama of agency and passivity in Electra and Happy Days is focussed with particular power by both Sophocles and Beckett, revealing in different ways the extent to which the theatrical conditions of spectatorship are not merely formal, but intertwined with the nature, culture and metaphysics of light. There is, then, a difficult relation between the personification of light, the invocation of light and the light cast on actors. The metaphysics of light, substance and wedded bodies, casts distant shadows on the theology of electricity according to modern physics. Adorno was right, then, to be excited by the prospect of hearing the music of ancient and modern electricities, just as Woolf was right to imagine Electra in a play more akin to Beckett's dramatic works than to the original conditions of the Athenian theatre. Beckett's contribution to this modernist reception of Electra is to offer an aesthetics of theatrical light that refuses to mourn the loss of theatre's open-air lamentations in favour of a comic determination to stare, like a cheerful rabbit, into the headlights of modern theatrical technology.

Dr Drew Milne
Trinity Hall

Drew Milne is the Judith E. Wilson Lecturer in Drama and Poetry at the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge. He has published several books of poetry and criticism, including Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader, co-edited with Terry Eagleton (Blackwell, 1996), and is the editor of Parataxis editions and its journal, Parataxis. Recent publications include The Damage: New and Selected Poems (Salt, 2002) and Mars Disarmed (The Figures, 2002). Further information:

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