‘Elektra’and Richard Strauss

According to one authority on Strauss’s masterpiece, Hofmannsthal

drew largely from Sophocles…but deliberately chose details from the other two Greek tragedians whenever they strengthened his portrayal of the scenes or of the characterizations.1

This information is true2 but fails to mention that the librettist omitted the meaning of the play.

Hofmannsthal followed Sophocles’ story in broad outline and, knowing that to make a coherent amalgam of the different versions would be impossible, interpolated a few particulars from Aeschylus and Euripides. But what astonishes is that a writer of Hofmannsthal’s stature did not realize that the dramatic validity of any play about Elektra depends on the audience’s knowledge of the background, of Agamemnon’s sacrificial murder of his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigenia. Certainly Hofmannsthal understood that “the past must always be present,” as is shown when his Elektra answers Chrysothemis’ plea to forget: “I cannot, I am no beast.” Yet crucial as is the Iphigenia episode to the Aeschylean and Sophoclean interpretations of the Agamemnon tragedy, no reference is made to her either in Hofmannsthal’s play or in the libretto adapted from it. As a result, the behavior of his Clytemnestra is without ethical basis or even legal defense. She becomes simply another psychopathic murderess, slaughtering her husband upon his return from war so that she can continue her adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, committing one sin in order to continue in another.

A still larger error on Hofmannsthal’s part is his evident assumption that Greek tragedy can be secularized. But in the theological drama of Aeschylus—in parts one and two of the trilogy, that is—to avenge, in kind, a crime against a blood relative is a religious obligation. Clytemnestra proclaims this mandate in the very act of killing Agamemnon, and her ethical position is stronger than that of her victim who, in addition, is held responsible for the loss of Greek lives in his war of conquest—this being the reason for the goddess Artemis’ demand that he sacrifice Iphigenia. Obviously Clytemnestra’s revenge is part rationalization, since she resents the concubine Cassandra and has no feelings for Elektra or Orestes. Nevertheless, when Clytemnestra confronts her husband, intending to kill him, she is no mere garden variety mariticidal spouse, but, in part, a self-proclaimed instrument of divine retribution and an ostensible link in a chain of cosmic events.

Similarly, when Clytemnestra speaks of the murder of Agamemnon in Sophocles’ Elektra, she says that “Justice slew him and not I alone.” Hence it follows that a strictly human perspective is not only incomplete but ignores the philosophical dimension, with its principles of dikê and anankê, of law and justice. These, being eternal and “universally” understood, are higher than the gods, whose ways, on the contrary, are sometimes incomprehensible to the logical and rational minds of mortals. An immutable law of this kind is set forth in Agamemnon: “One act of hubris begets another until the day of reckoning comes.”

The deities are less prominent in Sophocles’ Elektra than they are…

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