Monday, December 26, 2016

Electra by Sophocles

Electra spends her life lamenting the murder of her father

Electra mourns her wasted life, as her murderous mother and stepfather do not allow her to marry and have a family. Her sister and her mother do not understand why she keeps carrying on like this. Two young men approach – they bring news of the death of Electra’s brother Orestes in a chariot accident – a noble death. They carry an urn containing his bones. Electra mourns over the bones, but then one of the young men has a message: He’s Orestes, alive, and the news of his death is a ruse to allow him to kill the usurpers. His mother the queen arrives, the young man lies to her, brings her inside, then, with Electra urging him on, kills her. Another ruse follows. The king arrives – the fake news of Orestes's death makes him happy. A covered body is presented. The king lifts the veil to discover his dead wife. Orestes leads him into the house to kill him in the spot his father was murdered. The play abruptly ends.

This Electra is embittered, deranged by hatred. She certainly isn’t the instrument of blind justice getting its just due. I love how Orestes himself isn’t that much of a gung ho avenger – he’s only here because the oracle told him too. He is more disturbed than Electra with the fact that, in order to avenge the murder of their father, they must break an even bigger taboo and kill their mother. Also, I love the interplay between Electra and her younger sister Chrysothemis, who doesn’t want to rock the boat. Besides, as women, what can they do? Better to go along and not be on the outside looking in.

I read an old fashioned translation. I am coming around to the idea that the reader will get much more out of a modern translation.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Electra by Euripides

Electra can’t get over the murder of her father

Electra, daughter of the murdered Agamemnon and the murderous Clytemnestra, has been exiled to the countryside and marriage to a impoverished farmer, the premise being that any child of such an ignoble union could never consider avenging the death of his grandfather. Luckily for Electra her poor farmer is a gentleman and won’t take advantage of Electra, either for sex or for labor. Electra understands that, and appreciates it, but still goes about the village dressed in rags with a shaven head, bemoaning her inability to seek revenge. Meanwhile, her exiled brother Orestes, after consulting with Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, has journeyed to Argos, to exact the family revenge.  He is tasked with killing not only the hated usurper Aegisthus, but someone else: the woman who suckled him, Clytemnestra. Orestes is a little reluctant, but once he eventually makes his presence known to Electra, she devises a scheme for murder.

This Electra is young and sulky- she won’t conform, she won’t give up her hatred of her mother. Clytemnestra and even Aegisthus are presented at least a little bit sympathetically. Clytemnestra is killed when she believes she is going to see her infant grandson. Orestes stabs Aegisthus in the back. Yet what else do they deserve? The murder of the mother is presented very dramatically – Orestes is highly conflicted. Not Electra. Although directly afterwards, the siblings realize that they actually do love their mother, even while hating her and now must live with the fact of her murder. The play ends with two gods flying over the stage on a crane to wrap up the loose ends of the plot.

This play isn’t just stick characters bouncing along on a string, enacting the plot.  The family's actions are motivated and conflicted.  Orestes, especially, understand the unpleasant consequences of doing his duty. Electra is absolved from the duty of revenge, as she is a woman. She won't accept that, however, and is obsessed by thoughts of revenge.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Young women try to figure out where they fit in

These eight stories provide a glimpse of young characters moving into the larger alien world and then trying to reconcile their reality with this larger world. From Brownies molded to excel, but then quite publicly not excelling, to a nerdy girl attempting her own lunch counter sit in, the characters are surprised by how the world actually works. A number of the stories deal with the structure and vocabulary of the African American church. The characters in one story, “Geeses,” are all underemployed young people scrounging for food and shelter in alien Japan. The insecure young high teacher in “Our Lady of Peace” has trouble controlling her class of urban youth until Sheba, a statuesque young girl, a leader who lives in a shelter, joins the class.

When I started this collection, I was expecting the expected. And that was not the case. The stories were surprising. The prose was quietly satirical, the dialogue deadpan. I’m not sure this completely worked as a collection, however; there was a certain sameness to the stories, and I didn’t feel that the collection had an arc. The final story, Doris is Coming, did end on a punch to the gut.