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Gerald Carpenter: Westmont Theatre Arts Offering ‘Electra’ in the Open Air

Westmont Theatre Arts will mount a new production of Sophocles' immortal tragedy Electra, with Christine Nathanson in the title role, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and again Feb. 6-8 at an outdoor location northeast of Westmont’s Van Kampen Hall.

"Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon" by Frederic Leighton (circa 1869).

The acting translation by the young British playwright Nick Payne will be directed by Mitchell Thomas, and will also star Paige Tautz, Chris Wagstaffe, Lauren White, Becky Jacks, Ben Offringa, Connor Bush and Chloe Burns.

Since the classical Greek dramatic venues were all outdoor amphitheaters, this production will re-create some of the original experience of the audience at the premiere. Wooden benches provide seating, and we are invited to "feel free to bring your own seat cushion for comfort."

Until her name was appropriated by a comic book action heroine, the character Electra has survived in modern memory mainly as the brand name of a neurotic syndrome, the Electra complex, which we of the psycho-analytic laity tend to take as the distaff version of the Oedipus complex. The label was coined not by Sigmund Freud, but by his erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, who thus displayed an imperfect grasp of Greek tragedies.

It may or may not be relevant that Freud was a Viennese Jew, while Jung was a Swiss Calvinist; it is certainly relevant that Freud had a profound knowledge of classical literature (for two or three years as a teenager, he kept a diary in ancient Greek). When he wanted a name for the condition of men who are consumed by sexual jealousy of their fathers and sexual desire for their mothers, he naturally turned to Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, whose protagonist actually killed his father and married his mother, fathering two children by her.

He did it unwittingly — he had never met his father until the day he killed him — but, as T.H. White observed in The Once and Future King, "It seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough."

Jung was being very lazy to hang this kind of criminality on Electra. She is a character in plays Aeschylus and Euripides, as well as this one by Sophocles, and her story is completely different. She was, for one thing, Helen of Troy's niece by marriage. Her father, King Agamemnon of Argos, was the brother of Helen's abandoned husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. When Helen and Paris absconded, Agamemnon immediately proposed an armed expedition to Troy, appointed himself the head of it, and raised a large army and fleet from several different Greek sovereignties.

None of the accounts of Agamemnon, from Homer on down, portray him as a sympathetic figure. He was poised to embark, when the prophet Calchas announced that if he did not sacrifice his oldest daughter, Iphigenia, to them, the gods would see to it that he never reached Troy, that he would never depart for the place. Iphigenia was sacrificed, the fleet sailed, Troy fell and Agamemnon came home in triumph, after an absence of 10 years, dragging along the Trojan Princess Cassandra as his sex slave. In the meanwhile, his wife, Queen Clytemnestra — who hated her husband for killing their daughter, and for making her a party to it — had taken a lover, Aegisthus, and together they made a plan to kill Agamemnon when he returned, then rule Argos as king and queen. So that's what happened.

The surviving daughters, Electra and Chrysothemis, lived on in the palace with their mother and stepfather, but Electra arranged for their younger brother, Orestes, to be taken out of the kingdom by a trusted friend, who then raised the young man with only one goal: to avenge his father's death. When Sophocles' play opens, Orestes has come home to fulfill his destiny.

Electra is never depicted as being motivated by incestuous desires, still less tormented by the memory of incestuos acts. The member of Oedipus's family that Electra most resembles is that other immortal Sophoclean female, Antigone, the dutiful daughter. Electra hates Clytemnestra for the same reason Clytemnestra hated Agamemnon: murder of a loved one. Though Orestes does the deed, the play is named for her because her will is the source of all the action.

Director Thomas says: “Our production is rooted in an ancient/modern aesthetic and performance style that features choral movement and singing, an outdoor performance in a Mediterranean oak grove, and a fresh new version of the text that honors the original story but feels absolutely in the here and now ...”

Tickets to Electra are $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. They can be purchased by calling 805.565-7140 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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