It is not accidental that Electra permeates intensively the dramaturgy of the first half of the 20th century in the form of various reworks of the ancient plot. We could find the logic behind it in the stormy social and political changes, typical of the past century. Not accidentally among the social transformations and political radicalism, the image-symbol of the lacking justice – Electra, is turned into a key image of truth seeking (and truth unveiling) and mother’s revenge too. How these motifs are going to be configured, and the injustice paid, is a question of the writer’s imagination, of everyone who dares to deal with the problem. The transformational theme on the path to truth and the unredeemed patricide, crosses the minds of several dramaturges from the very beginning of the century to its middle point, such as Hugo von Hofmanthsal with his Electra (1903), Eugene O’Neil’s Electra in black (1931), Jean Giraudoux’s Electra (1937), Jean Paul Sartre’s The flies (1943) and, of course, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Electra, or the Fall of the Masks (1943, but first published in 1954).
Regardless of all the possible reasons for the emergence of so many dramaturgical samples with a focus on Electra, we cannot disregard particularly Youcenar’s play, which has been staged twice in Bulgaria. It was first directed by Zdravko Mitkov at Sofia Theatre in 2010, while in 2022, Vasilena Radeva presented her own reading of the play. From all of the above mentioned interpretations, the one by Yourcenar is the most remarkable and memorable one – Electra is freed from the chains of subjugation but she is sent both to a domestic misery and personal remorse, after she had been evicted from the palace due to a sly murder of her father Agamemnon (executed by Clytemnestra, her mother, and assisted by her lover Egisto)
In this dramaturgical version, the image-symbol of the leading character is deprived of a heroic pathos. Despite undergoing a traumatic experience due to the murder, Electra is given a real psychological dimension when she communicates with her brother Orestes. In the unfolding action, namely this precise character construction is filled with real contradictions, paradoxes and absurd aspects of personal experience. The world of Electra is polarized by the pain and that is why the revenge act (the coaxing of the mother to the house of Electra in order to perform the murder with the help of the brother) seems critical. The revenge act, though, takes a completely new dimension when Electra finds out that Orestes in not the son of Agamemnon but of Egisto. That is how she discovers that namely he belongs to the tribe of murderers.
Marguerite Yourcenar attributes a contemporary intrigue to the plot structure and a real psychological dimension of the characters loaded with existential problems. They have lost unity with their own being and hold hesitant, even double, attitude towards their decisions.
The given line of stage use is clearly outlined in the play text as a psychological texture to question the image truthfulness and the stage building of their motivation. In this train of thought, the play events should have been unfolded as a stage fact. In such a way, the playwright creates attractive dramaturgy, which despite being old-fashioned to today’s practices is vital enough to work on stage.
At a first glance, the play seems apocalyptic, but in every moment the themes about deceit, mistake, fate and salvation could take a political meaning without being intentionally identified as such. And the most important thing is that the tragic pathos is replaced with the tragicomic and grotesque, because the new human has demystified the divine and the revenge is intentionally stripped bare, it is even domestic. Of course, one can speak of identity too, but the identification here is an extreme question, thus, this duality could easily mislead those who take the challenge to put the play on stage and lead them to an abstract, rather than specific approach.
The staging of Vasilena Radeva, based on the play by Marguerite Yourcenar, takes a different direction, different from the playwright’s intention. The choice of the literary source raises respect and the invested public resource creates additional expectations. The director’s reading of the text though forces her to deprive the circumstances of situations. It seems she completely refuses to develop any sorts of situations. They have been marked, but it was not important or is to the extent that they do not prevent the unfolding of the rest of the intentions. The start of the play, and a few moments later, are marked with sharing of (probably) personal memories and experiences of the actors, who are expected to bring in the motifs about the traumatic experiences of the birth, growing up, emancipation, revenge and murder. Instead, they sprawl into personal melodrama without a borderline between the image of the actor and the play character. Does such borderline actually exist and is it necessary at all to have one?
Probably such strategy should ‘open’ the play to the public, but instead it capsulate it, because the spectators fail to connect, literally or allegorically, with the things said and happening on stage. Youcenar’s play text opposes this approach, because it was written for a different stage strategy as a theatre based on text which needs a clear stage narrative aimed at bringing clarity about the interconnections between the present play characters and address materiality (being abstract in general) mutually indifferent, a narrative which is not present in this stage version.
If we inspect the structure of the performance, we will find that the staging does not give significance to neither scene rhythm nor scene dynamics; it equally fails to build any of its characters as important for the play. Everyone utters the text of the play impassionedly and even idly. No one shows an outstanding personality, whereas the situations and their domestic dimension (stated by the dramatist of the original text) is categorically overlooked at the expense of ambiguous conditional medium and video images which correspond to the viewers’ free associations.
The additional ambiguity of the communication strategy of the performance brings Electra’s image to fall apart into three different entities (Maria Panayotova, Samuela-Ivana Tserovska and Bogdana Katareva), a decision which remains stage unjustified. The directing also does not give an answer and does not particularly support the actors’ play. Especially problematic is the murder scene by Clytemnestra, which is built untruthfully, life and stage wise, it inserts a comic feeling not because of the lack to meet intention and reality of actions but due to the direct untruthfulness (regardless of how questionable this statement is). Since the murder takes the central place in the play, is this the key to revealing the scene as a star moment in the plot of the play?
The project about the staging of this play attracted the public attention initially with two ambitious workshops and a seminar titled ‘The contemporary actor in the ancient character’, held in March 2022. Although the actor was included in the title of the event, very little was talked about how and in what way a contemporary theatre performer should think about the ancient character, very little was discussed also what performing approaches then and now should be applied and what the possibilities to work with this subject were. The final result too, the staged play, which also hesitantly justified the changed title of the original text from Electra, or the Fall of the Masks to Electra here and now. To what extent the staging approach is possible to work the way the performance demonstrated it namely with this kind of dramaturgy is a question which stayed open (and unanswered too). While the connection with the present, which could be realized on many layers with a more critical approach, should also stay and linger somewhere there – here and now.
Electra here and now
By Marguerite Yourcenar
Directed by Vasilena Radeva
Scenography: Ikiyana Kancheva
Music: Emilyan Gatsov-Elby, Georgi Georgiev-Antika
Light design: Ralitsa Toneva
Cast: Elena Dimitrova, Bogdana Katareva, Maria Panayotova, Samuela-Ivana Tserovska, Mario Vasilev, Vasil Chitanov, Ivan Stanchev
Topocentrala Centre for Contemporary Arts, Sofia