Sophocles’ Electra, Alive and Well After 2,000 Years

The recent and sadly brief visit of Peter Stein’s wonderful Electra with the National Theater of Greece was a joy to me, if only because this supreme production returned the theater to its life source—namely the dramatist. Nothing, I believe, could be timelier or more important.

Contra our current avant-garde movement—as well as the Regietheater (director’s theater) of his German homeland, where classic texts are routinely deconstructed and modernized—Mr. Stein steadfastly believes in the primacy of words and therefore of the playwright. In the case of his staggeringly simple, frightening and unadorned Electra, the words belong to Sophocles.

How astonishing, how retro, to experience a 2,000-year-old story told as the dramatist wrote it—and be blown away by its eternal, ritual message of terrible grief and vengeance.

If arguing in favor of respect for the text makes Mr. Stein an old-fashioned traditionalist, I, for one, am glad to join him. In its unbearable, elemental force, his Electra is the finest production of a Greek tragedy I’ve ever seen. It left me literally shaking.

There will be other Electras, of course, that differ from Mr. Stein’s. But sometimes we’re lucky enough to see a show that appears so stunningly right we cannot imagine it being done any other way. Perhaps this feeling might last for an entire generation, and that could well be the glorious case here.

Yet this was Mr. Stein’s theatrical debut in New York (though he did stage Verdi’s Falstaff at B.A.M. in 1989). What took him so long—or was it us?


THE 70-YEAR-OLD PETER STEIN WAS THE junior member of an extraordinary group of European avant-garde directors: Ingmar Bergman, Giorgio Strehler, Peter Brook and Mr. Stein—the gang of four of their era, and arguably of many an era. Bergman and Strehler have died, leaving Mr. Brook (who’s still accused—wrongly—of wrecking sacred texts) and the masterly Mr. Stein.

I believe that in his Electra, he’s saying more with light and rhythm and unfiltered language and emotion than he could with a thousand technological effects. His is the true storyteller’s art.

Charles Mee of the recent, modish Iphigenia 2.0 argues in the name of contemporary relevance that Shakespeare and the Greeks ripped off and reimagined other people’s stories—so why not him? No reason. But I would respond that Shakespeare improved on the stories he lifted. With respect, for all Mr. Mee’s gifts, he’s no Euripides. He’s a lesser poet whose Paris Hilton version of the house of Iphigenia only brought the superficially blatant to the banquet table and dumbed down the message of a great play.

Trevor Nunn—a classicist by training—made the same reductive error of judgment by inserting two new scenes of his own into his Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King Lear and The Seagull. If these interpolations had worked—if they’d brought fresh meaning and insight to the well-known plays—it would have been a cause for celebration and delight. But each of Mr. Nunn’s contrived, simplistic scenes made the tragic within both the Shakespeare and the Chekhov merely, and cheaply, melodramatic. The director’s conceit went against the very intention of the plays.

Mr. Stein isn’t a purist, but in his fidelity to texts like Sophocles’ Electra he’s saying, in effect, that Sophocles knows a thing or two more than he does. Mr. Mee, Mr. Nunn and the Flemish avant-gardist Ivo van Hove would doubtless say the same about Euripides, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Molière.

It’s partly a question of degree, then. (And talent.) Mr. van Hove’s updated, garbage-strewn version of Molière’s The Misanthrope attempts to make the play new and contemporary via numerous technological effects. The sensationalist director remains true to Tony Harrison’s modern translation of the text—but turns the great play itself into his own video reality show with a mundane theme that has absolutely nothing to do with Molière: Technology isolates us all.

Sophocles’ Electra, Alive and Well After 2,000 Years