Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 17.
Jill Scott, Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005. Pp. viii + 200. ISBN 0-8014-4261-3. US$39.95.
Claudia Gründig, Elektra durch die Jahrhunderte: Ein antiker Mythos in Dramen der Moderne. München: Martin Meidenbauer, 2005. Pp. 177. ISBN 3-89975-482-4. Euro36.90.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
The end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries have witnessed a boom in the phenomenon traditionally called 'The Classical Tradition' and more recently known as 'Reception Studies'. Equipped with the tools of literary theory, post-colonial studies, gender studies, and communication studies -- among others -- a new generation of scholars has started to re-investigate the influence of ancient cultures on modern times from this new perspective. Within the wide array of topics in the field, one trend proves to be of major attraction for researchers: the study of one specific myth or mythological character through the centuries. Since 1995 the German publishing company Reclam has started to publish a series called 'Mythos'. Each volume in the series is dedicated to one ancient classical myth (although discussion is not restricted to classical myth) and comprises a compilation of texts representing a fairly comprehensive selection of ancient and modern adaptations. Up to now, no less than thirteen volumes have dealt with a broad spectrum of more or less well-known myths, the latter being probably one of the greatest merits of this series.[] It provides easy access to sometimes rather remote texts and is a welcome complement to a similar long-established series published by another German publisher, Albert Langen-Georg Müller, whose volumes follow basically the same pattern, but focus very strongly on drama -- the Reclam series does not restrict itself to any particular literary genre.[] In addition, numerous monographs account for the growing interest in (re-)visiting the different adaptations of one single myth down the ages, just to mention Oedipus and Iphigeneia as two significant examples.[] Now two books have appeared, one in English and one in German, dealing with the same myth, Electra, in an identical context, the twentieth century, and both written by non-Classicists within the last two years. They provide welcome additions to the current trend in scholarship, especially because a new study of the Electra myth is long overdue.
Jill Scott is assistant professor of German at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and her book is part of the series Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry, which in itself indicates a strong emphasis on the psychological aspect of the myth. The book consists of an introduction and a conclusion and seven chapters in which Scott discusses the adaptations of six authors / composers: Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Chapters 1 and 3), Richard Strauss' operatic adaptation of Hofmannsthal's libretto (Chapter 4), Heiner Müller (Chapter 2), Robert Musil (Chapter 5), H.D. (Chapter 6), and Sylvia Plath (Chapter 7). We therefore have a selection of genres, three literary and one musical: on the one hand, drama (Hofmannsthal and Müller), novel (Musil), and poetry (H.D. and Plath), on the other, opera (Strauss). The book is rounded off by a short index (pp. 191-200), and a very impressive bibliography (pp. 173-90), including publications in English, German, French, and Spanish, and covering research from 1921-2003.
In her introduction (pp. 1-24), Scott very clearly outlines her goals, approach, and methodology. She thinks that the dominant role which the Oedipus myth played in Western culture in the past has been taken over by the Electra myth in the twentieth century and underpins this hypothesis with the famous quotation from Heiner Müller '[i]n the century of Orestes and Electra that is unfolding, Oedipus will be a comedy' (p. 6).[] She sees some possible reasons for this shift. One might be that 'the twentieth century embraced her [Electra's] capacity for cruelty and naked pain, perhaps in an effort to come to terms with the appalling violence in the world around us' (p. 7), which certainly makes sense for the several Electra adaptations produced around the time of World War II. Another might be that the frequently used term 'Electra-complex', coined by C. G. Jung in 1913 as a counterpart to Sigmund Freud's Oedipus-complex and 'often described as penis envy' (p. 8), has actually never been deeply researched by either of these pioneers in psychoanalysis, and therefore invites further exploration. The justification for the selection of texts lies in Scott's 'interest in tracing a particular Germanic and Anglo-American reception of psychoanalysis in the myth of Electra' (p. 2). Consequently other adaptations of the myth which deal with other (for example, political) issues have been left out. In order to achieve her goal she wants to 'engage with Freud's early works on hysteria and sexuality but also with the cultural theories of Johann Jacob Bachofen and Walter Benjamin, the philosophy of Ernst Mach, and the feminist psychoanalytic theories of Julia Kristeva and Melanie Klein' (p. 3) 'within a theoretical and cultural framework of psychoanalysis, medicine and performing art (opera and dance)' (p. 4).
There is still more to come in this very complex introduction. Before turning to the ancient sources of the Electra myth, Scott inserts a short paragraph on the notion of myth starting with the French classicism in the seventeenth century and going on to the German romantics, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, and George Steiner in the 1980s. After this very informative, but slightly unmotivated tour de force and tour d'horizon, she starts to discuss the Attic tragedies. Here one can see that Scott is not a classical philologist, because she brushes over the texts prior to the fifth century very quickly and therefore misses out on the etymology of the name Electra given by the lyric poet Xanthos in the sixth century BC, which would have been of particular interest for her psychoanalytic approach. According to Xanthos (fr. 700 [PMG]), the name Electra, spelled with an eta in Greek, H)LE/KTRA, is the Dorian dialect form of the Attic word A)/LEKTRA which means (with alpha privative) 'un-bedded'. Although this is probably a popular etymology, it is interesting to observe that the problem of Electra's virginity and sexuality has not escaped the attention of the ancient authors, but has been connected with the myth for 2700 years. For a more detailed overview of the pre-dramatic sources the reader might be better off by consulting for example the introduction of the most recent commentary on Sophocles' Electra by Jenny March,[] who also includes older scholarship and a list of more 'philological' publications. Still, Scott comes up with some intriguing ideas about the function of tragedy. In her view tragedy was used as a vehicle to 'demythologize' myths and to illustrate the growing power of the rational logos over the irrational mythos. This can be seen in Aeschylus' Choephoroi where Electra has 'the role of the confidante, not the accomplice; she is the sounding board for what is essentially Orestes' mission' (p. 18). But in the later plays of Euripides and Sophocles,[] Electra has become more emotional and unpredictable. The determined character of Electra in contrast to the weak and hesitant Orestes in Euripides poses a threat to the 'social hierarchy of the sexes' (p. 19) and their reaction after the matricide reveals their conscience of the deed. In Sophocles, on the other hand, both siblings are very calculating and without remorse at the end. The brutality of their revenge is in fact embedded in the human nature and serves as 're-mythification' (p. 22).[] In her study of the myth Scott sides with Jacques Derrida and against the structuralists, when she says: 'Instead of viewing myth as having a hard kernel or mythologeme, we might envision it as a perpetually deferred signifier, never fully determined' (p. 23).
Having laid out the foundation for her study, Scott embarks on an investigation of the first adaptation of the Electra myth, the drama of the Austrian author Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which she considers as 'an important catalyst for the Freudian reception of the myth in subsequent adaptations' (p. 13). She deals with myth in two chapters (1 and 3) separated by a chapter on Heiner Müller's Hamletmaschine (pp. 44-56). The first chapter (pp. 25-43) investigates the function of Electra's death dance (Totentanz). Electra's death has been an invention by Hofmannsthal, since it does not feature in Sophocles' drama, Hofmannsthal's source text. Scott suggests that we should interpret the phenomenon of dance within its cultural context of the fin-de-siècle in Europe, when it was associated with 'disease, morbidity and sexuality' (p. 27), but also with irrationality and madness. Thus Elektra's maenad-like dance at the end of the play expresses a sort of relief from her possessed state and 'ultimately . . . a moment of triumphant liberation' (p. 28). On the other hand, Scott reminds us not to underestimate the influence of Johann Jakob Bachofen's Mother Right on Hofmannsthal's drama. In this context, Elektra's chthonian, dark nature is closely linked with the feminine and matriarchy, supported by the gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere in the play, and her death at the end represents 'the neat transition from the subterranean, material right of the mother to the celestial, Olympian right of the father' (p. 38).[] Finally, Scott applies Walter Benjamin's concept of allegory to Elektra's death: 'the allegorical aesthetic of tragic drama . . . illustrates the horrid, corrupt, and transitory condition of those who inhabit the earth' (p. 42); therefore 'Elektra's corpse highlights the transient nature of organic matter and the inevitability of decay' (p. 42), but at the same time 'the celebration of death as dance' (p. 42). In the third chapter (pp. 57-80), Scott tackles Elektra's femininity from another angle. She challenges the long established view that Hofmannsthal's Elektra is a hysteric, but postulates that Elektra deliberately stages the symptoms of hysteria as a theatrical performance in order to demonstrate her 'radical otherness . . . as woman' (p. 58) and to 'parody the discourse of hysteria' (p. 59). This is what Elektra has in common with Anna O., the famous case study of Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer in their book Studies in Hysteria, whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim. The majority of scholars are convinced that Anna O. served as a model for Hofmannsthal's Elektra due to the many similarities between these two women, which Scott discusses at great length (pp. 63-69), but I disagree with one of Scott's perceptions of Elektra as being 'highly eroticized' (p. 65) and the epitome of a 'femme fatale' (p. 66), since throughout the whole drama, Elektra, although being sexually charged, is depicted as a physically repulsive, dirty, and badly-groomed woman, who has lost her former attractiveness over the years, as she states herself in the dialogue with Orestes after the recognition scene. The most important of these similarities might be the fact that neither Elektra at the end of the play nor Anna O. at the end of her therapy are cured. By focusing on one symptom of hysteria, the speech or aphasic disorder, Scott develops a very interesting hypothesis. Elektra not only serves as analyst to her mother, but also cures the author Hofmannsthal himself from his 'writer's block' (p. 61), because the play Elektra is his first work after his crisis documented in the famous 'Chandos Letter' of 1901 in which Hofmannsthal under the guise of Lord Chandos expressed his struggle about 'the failure of language' (p. 75). The aspect of performance combines the earlier discussion of Elektra's dance and hysteria into one single 'dancing cure' (p. 80).
Scott takes up the idea of 'choreographing a cure ' (p. 81) in her interpretation of Richard Strauss's subsequent operatic adaptation of Hofmannsthal's drama in the fourth chapter (pp. 81-94). Elektra's 'dancing cure' (pp. 81 and 85) is performed through a 'manipulative dialogue with the waltz' (p. 85), the most popular dance in Vienna at the time. Scott applies Carolyn Abbate's theory that music expresses on multiple levels a polyphony or plurality of voices which can signal individual or even contradictory messages and can therefore create tensions for the listener in Richard Strauss' musical score. By careful examination she extracts that the musical motives often undermine the words in the libretto and she uses Strauss's ironic use of the waltz motive as the most prominent example. It reveals 'the decadence of the waning Habsburg Empire' (p. 81) and Vienna as a 'neurotic city' (p. 90). Following the example of Anna O.'s 'talking cure' and Elektra's 'dancing cure', the composer himself performs here a 'musical cure' (pp. 81 and 94) as the climax of the tricolon.
Scott uses Robert Musil's novel The Man without Qualities (pp. 95-119) as another proof of her underlying hypothesis that the myth of Elektra has displaced the one of Oedipus in the twentieth century. There is actually no mention of the name Elektra in the text, but in Scott's opinion the myth of Elektra 'permeates the novel like a musical leitmotiv' (p. 96). Musil explores the motif of the 'sibling incest' between Ulrich and Agathe (p. 96) -- which, by the way, never features explicitly in the ancient sources -- in order 'to complete his vision of an alternative relational ethics' (p. 117). Agathe represents the 'new woman' (pp. 97 and 107), a new ideal of femininity, characterised by being 'hard, tight, boyish' (p. 113) and 'androgynous . . . even asexual' (p. 115) which replaces the traditional 'round, soft, maternal woman' (p. 113). This shift symbolises the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy (another illustration of Bachofen's Mother Right as discussed above) and can be considered therefore as a 'figurative matricide' (p. 116). Ulrich, one the other hand, rejects his father's traditional masculinity and adopts a very feminized gender-orientation to the extent that he wants to be a woman, he wants to become his sister and to melt with her into one being. Their relationship, never sexually consumed, moves into from the feeling of being Siamese twins or Doppelgänger into a realm of hermaphroditism and a complete, somehow mystical, union, where 'the two have practically fused into one' (p. 115).
The GDR writer Heiner Müller wrote a piece entitled Hamletmaschine (1997) in which he combines the myth of Oedipus and of Electra with the story of Hamlet and Ophelia. It is a short, very enigmatic text of approximately eight pages that can hardly be described as drama because of its unconventional form. The text is written in a telegraphic, very condensed style, with a brutal, cruel manner of expression, making extensive use of quotations from other texts. It has often been seen as 'Müller's thinly veiled critique of the GDR's ahistoric and simplistic approach to Vergangenheitsbewältigung ('coming to terms with the past'), its problematic anti-fascist rhetoric, and its totalizing politics' (p. 47). Müller here fuses the characters of Oedipus and Hamlet 'by fashioning a feeble Oedipus in form of an insipid Shakespearean Hamlet' (p. 46) and their female counterparts, 'a suicidal Ophelia, who is then transformed into an assertive and vengeful Elektra' (p. 46). Müller's Elektra incorporates three historical female figures, who have been killed or killed themselves: Rosa Luxemburg, Ulrike Meinhof, and Müller's wife Inge. Elektra threatens to commit suicide and has mutilated her body already to such an extent that '[s]he is disabled to the point that she remains confined to a wheelchair from beginning to end' (p. 53). This physical shortcoming, however, does not prevent her from being full of hatred and self-destructiveness. She has to step in where Hamlet fails. She has taken over the leading role, while Hamlet/Oedipus has quite simply disappeared from stage and thus illustrates very well Scott's underlying argument that the Elektra figure has replaced the one of Oedipus, 'a dispensable, outdated, and problematic ideal' (p. 56) in the twentieth century. Müller's play is full of autobiographical elements, one of them being the desire to destroy Hamlet, who was an obsession for him for thirty years (p. 49). But he leaves us also with a strange legacy. After having declared that Oedipus will be a comedy, he says 'If you don't understand Hamletmaschine as a comedy, the play will be a failure' (pp. 5 and n. 42). For Müller, Greek myths seem to express a very dark sense of humour. Just why this chapter had to be inserted in between the two Hofmannsthal chapters is unclear.
In contrast to the adaptations discussed so far, where the myth of Electra plays a very prominent role, it features only in a single poem cycle within the oeuvre of the American poet H.D. with the title 'A Dead Priestess Speaks'. In this work, however, H.D. introduces some new and important innovations. H.D. was inspired by Euripides' Electra and Orestes, but also by the 'hermaphroditic sexuality' (p. 120) and the idea of Siamese twins of Musil's novel. There is an encounter between Electra and Orestes after the matricide in which they reason over the violence of the act. They symbolise 'the decadent and neo-Romantic image of the androgynous and hermaphroditic Greek youth' (p. 134). Brother and sister complement each other as 'a complete sex' (p. 134) as in the Platonic myth narrated by Aristophanes in the Symposium. But there is also an encounter between Electra, alias the dead priestess, and the dead Clytemnestra in the underworld, through which Electra finally learns to understand and respect her mother. They both represent the two complementing halves of femininity, 'the pre-pubescent girl and mature womanhood' (p. 135), and Electra emerges from this transitional encounter as mature woman who embraces a new form of female sexuality coupled with maternity and fertility.
The Electra poems of the English poetess Sylvia Plath ('Electra on Azalea Path', 'Colossus' and 'Daddy') illustrate a similar transition of Electra into a new form of femininity as in H.D.'s poems. Plath has herself confirmed that she is dealing in these poems with the autobiographical loss of her father and describes herself as a girl suffering from the Electra complex (p. 143). By applying a whole set of post-Freudian theories by Melanie Klein, Julia Kristeva, and others, Scott tries to prove that by the extensive use of cannibalistic images Plath undergoes a figurative process of mourning for the dead father by trying to incorporate in various ways the lost object. Cannibalistic elements were already predominant in the earlier myths of Atreus, Thyestes, and Tantalus, described in great detail in the plays of Aeschylus' Oresteia, Plath's intertext, especially the Choephoroi where Electra is as sidelined as Plath feels at the visit of her father's grave which forms the background of her poem 'Electra on Azalea Path'. As the next step Plath negates the former father image, falsifying it by turning him into a monster. After the act of incorporation, Plath undergoes now the opposite process 'reversed incorporation' (pp. 152, 153, 160) by expelling him from her poetry and life. The last step of the transition 'away from the mourning daughter toward the fertile, creative, and nurturing mother, from Electra to Clytemnestra' (p. 161) completes the process. Like H.D.'s Electra, Plath has also succeeded in identifying with a new form of femininity.
In her conclusion, Scott states -- besides a very useful listing of other Electra adaptations not discussed in her book -- that it is very difficult to explain the popularity of the Electra myth. The fact that Electra is fully conscious of her decision to commit matricide and takes responsibility for it distinguishes her from Oedipus and ensures the future for more adaptations, since 'we cannot fathom a hatred so intense' (p. 171).
I turn now to Claudia Gründig, who studied German literature, linguistics, and education at the Technical University in Dresden and is currently working in the publishing industry. The book is the revised version of her thesis. Although covering a similar time frame to that of Scott, Gründig's book has hardly anything in common with it. Scott does not mention Gründig's book -- it might have been too late to still include it at the time. Both books overlap only in one aspect -- both authors start their respective selection with Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Elektra. For the rest, Gründig's book has a different selection of texts and a different approach. Her book consists of three main parts: 'Tradition und Rezpetion' (pp. 26-45), 'Transformation und Innovation' (pp. 46-129), and 'Vergleichende Betrachtungen' (pp. 130-47), framed by a preface (pp. 7-9), an introduction (pp. 11-25), and a short conclusion (pp. 148f.). The book is rounded off by an appendix (p. 150), a comprehensive bibliography with strong emphasis on German scholarship (pp. 155-72), and an index (pp. 173-77). The appendix is of particular interest. Gründig has here compiled an extremely useful chronological list of all Electra and Orestes adaptations she could find (including a puppet play or 'Kaspertheater' by Gottfried Reinhardt from 1970), an updated version to the one in Pierre Brunel's monograph.[] It seems, however, that a complete list of all adaptations of the myth does not exist. Each scholar working on the reception of the Electra myth enlists authors who obviously escaped the attention of their colleagues -- and the lists get very thin from the 1970s onwards.
In her introduction, Gründig states the goal of her thesis -- to investigate the transformations the myth of Electra and Orestes has undergone in the last century (although her book is entitled Electra through the Centuries, Gründig actually restricts herself to the twentieth century). She uses a multitude of terms to describe its reception: 'Metamorphosen' (p. 17), 'Reinkarnationen' (p. 17), 'Mythenadaptation' (p. 18), 'moderne Reprisen' (p. 18), and lists her four key questions (p. 19): (a) In what ways do the modern adaptations differ from their classical models?; (b) What do the modern adaptations have in common with each other and where do they differ?; (c) Can we trace any specific influences from the authors in these adaptations?; (d) In what respects has the myth been adapted?[] It should be mentioned that Gründig distinguishes very clearly between 'Mythos' and 'Stoff' (pp. 20f.) using the theories of Elisabeth Frenzel, according to which 'Stoff' is a pre-literary fable which exists already before and outside poetry, while 'Mythos' is 'the foundation for' (p. 21) and 'the sum of all available' (p. 22) literary 'Stoffe' in the individual poems.[] Gründig is aware of the fact that her selection of five texts for this book is problematic, but she explains the criteria for her choice; each text represents a specific culture and a specific epoch and therefore represents the position of the author towards the historical-political or philosophical-theoretical background of its time (p. 19). Like Scott, Gründig also touches upon the ancient sources very cursorily, drawing heavily on Karl Kerényi's preface to the volume Elektra in the Langen-Müller series. There are a few minor glitches in the introduction: in the table of contents the introduction is correctly listed as section II, while in the text it is numbered as section I (pp. 5 and 11); Sylvia Plath appears among a group of prose writers, but is correctly identified as a poet in the appendix (pp. 12 and 153); and finally Pierre Brunel's monograph Le Mythe d'Électre appeared in 1971 and was only reprinted in 1995 (pp. 24 and 161).
Before turning to the actual texts of the adaptations, Gründig inserts a brief chapter (pp. 26-45) in which she tries to define the term 'Mythos' and 'Mythenrenaissance'. Given the fact that she is a scholar of German language and literature, and intends to write for a predominantly German readership, Classicists will not gain many new insights, since she covers much familiar ground, using mainly the definitions provided by the standard handbooks. More interesting is her attempt to link 'her' authors to the intellectual movements of their respective times. According to her (p. 40), Hofmannsthal's new adaptation is influenced by Impressionism and characterised by suffering and death, Eliot's by 'Humanästhetik', Sartre's by Existentialism, O'Neill's by 'Psycho-Realismus', and finally Hauptmann's by Neo-Classicism, and she elaborates on these terms in greater detail later (pp. 42f.). This useful classification allows the reader to put her interpretations in a broader framework and provides a helpful tool for the non-specialist in modern philologies.
Gründig has selected the following five pieces for her study: Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Elektra (pp. 46-64); Eugene O'Neill's Mourning becomes Electra (pp. 65-84); T. S. Eliot's The family reunion (pp. 84-100); Jean-Paul Sartres' Les mouches (pp. 100-16) and Gerhart Hauptmann's Atriden-Tetralogie: Elektra (pp. 116-29). From the way Gründig approaches the interpretation of the texts, one can see the fundamental difference between scholarship in English and in German. While Scott applied the same hypothesis to each text and drew the results consequently into a coherent line of argument, with a substantial theoretical underpinning, Gründig uses a more traditional, inductive method (p. 19), providing a sort of a commented reading of each text individually (plus some background information) and comes up with a much more text-immanent interpretation. The chapters about the different texts are only loosely linked with each other and cross-references occur seldom. This does not mean that the one method is better or worse than the other -- it is just that the outcome for the reader is different. Gründig requires much less knowledge of the texts, while a good command of the texts is very helpful for the understanding of Scott's book. Gründig's book is probably more profitable for a wider general audience, while Scott's book aims at the more specialised reader.
Gründig starts each chapter with a brief overview about the sources used by the author, some biographical information, the circumstances that led the author to writing his adaptation (all of which offers a solid background for the subsequent reading), and a detailed summary with explanatory and interpretative comments. In the concluding part of the chapter, Gründig extracts several motifs from the text which she analyses with the help of a discussion of the relevant scholarship and, if possible, with quotations from the authors themselves, and offers some valuable insights. The main motifs in Hofmannsthal's play are the constant tension between being and becoming, faithfulness and transformation, and Electra's death as a logical consequence of this conflict; the observation that none of the three female characters is living in the present; the deliberate doing away with the Sophoclean theology; and the importance of psycho-pathology.
O'Neill's trilogy Mourning becomes Electra has a plot which is very similar to its main source text, Aeschylus' Oresteia, but is dominated by Realism, Puritanism, and Calvinism. There is no god, no Christian mercy, only retribution; the destiny of the characters lies in their emotions and the fatal network of these emotions among the family members. Most of their names are derived from the Old Testament. Gründig points out how important the motif of the masks is in the play. By keeping a modern version of the ancient chorus, O'Neill pays tribute to Greek tragedy. Two interesting facts are mentioned in passing: O'Neill knew Hofmannsthal's play in translation and also his own drama was adapted into an opera with the same name by the composer Marvin David Levy in 1967. It is more difficult to trace the ancient Electra theme in T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, because all the ancient names have been replaced by modern ones and the family constellation is different. Orestes is Harry, while the ancient mother figure has been split into two opposite female characters: Harry's mother Amy (= Clytemnestra), and his aunt, his mother's sister, Agatha (= Electra).[] Agatha had an emotional relationship with Harry's father, who hated his wife and was pushed into suicide by her. Amy has never forgiven her sister for her close relationship with her husband. She is the matriarch of the family and controls the estate. Harry comes back eight years after he left home for his mother's birthday. He was married, but lost his wife under unclear circumstances. At the end, he will leave again and therefore cause his mother's death. All the characters behave in a somehow lifeless manner. The underlying existential question is similar to that posed by Hofmannsthal (whose play Eliot had seen on stage in London) -- birth and death as the pillars of the human existence. If we focus on death, there will be change, but if we downplay death, we affirm life and development. Eliot has also introduced a strong Christian element, the search for redemption, which can be achieved only by the protagonist. In addition Eliot has invented a new metre for the modern drama, more appropriate for the rhythm of modern language (p. 95), and uses it in The Family Reunion.
Jean-Paul Sartre's Les mouches can be seen both as a drama of Resistance and a drama of Existentialism. It mirrors the occupation of France by Germany in World War II and the French résistance on the one hand, but also the question of freedom, particularly in Orestes, on the other. There are references to the earlier drama Électre by the French author Jean Giraudoux. The flies symbolise the remorse and bad conscience of the inhabitants of Argos, who suffer from collective guilt over the murder of Agamemnon, because they kept silent about it. The flies grow up into the Erinnyes after the matricide. Electra gives up her freedom and subjects herself to the god Jupiter, who is depicted as a sort of devil, while Orestes makes his choice freely and autonomously. He leaves Argos and take all the flies with him (some scholars describe him as a blasphemed anti-Christ, p. 114); he is condemned to total freedom and isolation. This illustrates Sartre's existentialist philosophy. The individual makes his/her decisions freely, because there are no higher instances (such as God) and people are therefore fully responsible for their actions and at the same time also for the actions of others. This responsibility leads the individual into total isolation. Orestes embodies this philosophy, while Electra has become the opposite, the coward, who does not dare to take responsibility. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra act as henchmen of Jupiter, who is dethroned by Orestes. In a more political context, one can also interpret Orestes as a (French) freedom-fighter at war with the dictatorship of (German) Aegisthus and the collaborators with the Vichy regime in France 1943 (Clytemnestra).
Gerhart Hauptmann's Elektra is the third piece in his Atridentetralogie, and Hauptmann wrote it only after having finalised the three other parts before. Although we know that he knew Hofmannsthal's and O'Neill's adaptations, it is very difficult to decipher any precise influence. He uses the myth in order to illustrate his idea of an archaic and barbaric Hellenism, where the characters are again determined by divine forces. He has emphasised the role of Pylades, who kills Aegisthus, and changed the matricide into an act of self-defence; Orestes longs for maternal love, but his mother attacks him physically and forces him to defend his own life. Elektra took over Cassandra's prophetic powers after her murder. She seems to be very remote from human emotions; so Clytemnestra's death does not bring her any relief. It is not her hatred anymore which is the main reason for the matricide, but it is the archaic law of blood-retribution which demands it. Many scholars have seen the Atridentetralogie as Hauptmann's attempt to come to terms with the disaster around him towards the end of World War II.
In the last chapter, Gründig presents some comparative observations, pointing out the similarities and differences between the five texts. She reaches a final, and for me quite unexpected, conclusion that despite the innovations and changes introduced by the modern authors, there has been no real change, just an external metamorphosis of the ancient myth, because the basic elements of the plot have remained the same in all versions.[] Although I appreciate Gründig's often fine and sensitive readings of the modern authors, I disagree with this final conclusion. A basic plot-structure is indispensable in order to identify the story as the one of Electra; if these elements fall away, the myth itself collapses.
As the summa summarum it can be said the two books under discussion both have their individual merits on different levels. I personally had the feeling that Scott has the tendency to slightly over-interpret the texts, while Gründig does not explore their full potential. Both offer an up-to-date discussion of the reception of the Electra myth and will form the basis for further scholarship. They are well-informed (although both ignore the recent chapter on Richard Strauss' Elektra by Simon Goldhill),[] clear and precise, and pleasant to read. Both authors point out that their respective work is not the final word about Electra in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A follow-up on the development of the myth in the more recent decades would be indeed a welcome sequel.
[] So far the following titles have appeared: Prometheus (1995), Orpheus (1997), Ikarus (1998), Narziß (1999), Salome (2000), Aphrodite (2000), Sisyphos (2001), Medea (2001), Pandora (2002), Europa (2003), Pygmalion (2003), Odysseus (2004) and Antigone (2004).
[] There are ten volumes dealing with classical myths: Medea (1963), Orpheus und Eurydike (1963), Iphigenie (1966), Ödipus (1968), Alkestis (1969), Elektra (1971), Antigone (1974), Orest 1983, and one volume each on Amphitryon and Herakles. There is also an English series by Canongate which so far comprises three volumes: Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (London 2005). Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (London 2005). Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles (London 2005).
[] Thomas Halter (ed.), König Oedipus. Von Sophokles zu Cocteau (Stuttgart 1998) and Susanne Aretz (ed.), Die Opferung der Iphigeneia in Aulis: Die Rezeption des Mythos in antiken und modernen Dramen (Stuttgart / Leipzig 1999).
[] 'Im Jahrhundert des Orest und der Elektra, das heraufkommt, wird Ödipus eine Komödie sein.'
[] Jenny March (ed.), Sophocles' Electra (Warminster 2001). See particularly pp. 1-11 and for the reference to Xanthos the commentary on lines 164f.
[] Scott adopts the position of the group of scholars who claim Euripides' version is earlier than Sophocles' one (p. 19, n. 23)
[] I personally do not agree with all of Scott's findings (especially on Sophocles), but cannot engage in a more detailed discussion in the framework of this article.
[] According to Bachofen, also Aeschylus' Oresteia illustrates 'the transition from matriarchal law to the role of patriarchy' (p. 37)
[] Le Mythe d'Électre (Paris 1971) 381-83.
[] 'Worin differieren die modernen Adaptationen von ihren klassischen Vorlagen? Was ist den Neubearbeitungen des Themas bei den besprochenen Poeten gemein bzw. welche Unterschiede bestehen? Sind autorspezifische Einflüsse im Gebrauch des Sujets festellbar? Und schließlich: Unter welchen Aspekten ist das mythische Material bearbeitet worden?' (p. 19).
[] '. . . dass die Mythologie ein Fundament für literarische Stoffe bildet' (p. 21) and 'die Summe aller mir zugänglichen Stoffe der einzelnen Dichtungen' (p. 22).
[] In this context, we should remember that in Robert Musil's novel The Man without Qualities, the modern counterpart of Electra is also called Agathe.
[] 'Der Mythos von den Atriden hat sich demanch . . . keinem echten Wandel unterworfen, sondern nur einer äußeren Metamorphose' (p. 147).
[] 'Blood from the Shadows: Strauss' Disgusting, Degenerate Electra' in Simon Goldhill, Who needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (Cambridge 2002) 108-77.