Stanford Summer Theater’s Electra Festival explores memory, forgetting and justice

Courtesy of Stanford Drama Department Electra Festival dramatic scene

Stanford Summer Theater presents the Electra Festival, July 13-August 27, 2009. The Festival website is

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Ancient Greece. Two royal princesses, two different choices. Their father had been murdered years before by their mother, who now reigns with her lover. One daughter complies unwillingly with the new regime; the other is punished for resisting. Life, as they say, “moves on” for the rest of the populace.

But the story of the rebellious daughter Electra—featured in Stanford Summer Theater’s July 13-Aug. 15 Electra Festival—raises uneasy questions: How do you remember when everyone around you is rewarded for forgetting? How do you remember without the memories twisting and distorting you? Is there any justice without memory?

Rush Rehm, artistic director for Stanford Summer Theater, is intrigued by the troubled heroine, who will be spotlighted in a number of stagings and films during the festival. She is “damaged goods,” he said, who “clings to the evil deeds of the past.” On the other hand, Queen Clytemnestra raises disturbing questions for each of us about “the horrible thing we did that we built our life on, and built our life on forgetting it.”

Rehm, also professor of drama and classics, was fascinated by the “the political side—the problem of memory in relationship to history and political action.”

Schedule of events

The Electra Festival includes a range of events:

A full production of Sophocles’ Electra at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, July 23 to Aug. 15 (Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Aug. 9), in Memorial Auditorium. Ticket prices range from $10 to $20.

Staged readings in Pigott Theater of Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, and Euripides’ Electra at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 12. Admission to both is free.

A free Monday night film series July 13-Aug. 10 in Annenberg Auditorium.

An all-day Aug. 1 symposium titled Public and Private Vengeance—Electra and the Trojan War in Pigott Theater; fee is $80.

A companion course, Heroines of Greek Tragedy, taught by Rehm, began last month through the Continuing Studies Program.

Visit the Stanford Summer Theater website for details and ticket information for festival events.

The Sophocles play uses the translation of MacArthur Award-winner Anne Carson. The Aeschylus and Euripides plays use Rehm’s own translations, published in the 1970s. (They are theatrically stronger than many others, he said, because they were developed in a theater as part of a production.)

Who controls the memories?

The three plays have this backstory in common: Agamemnon, king of Argos and commander of the Greek troops, returns from the Trojan War to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, sister to Helen of Troy, and her lover Aegisthus.

The royal son Orestes is whisked away to safety; Electra is left to mourn. As the Chorus tells her in Sophocles’ version of the play: “Why let grief eat you alive? … Why are you so in love/with the unbearable?”

In the plays, the king’s murder is avenged years later by Electra and Orestes, who slay their own mother.  The remaining sibling, Chrysothemis, remains a bystander, insisting, “At times justice is too big a risk.”

This could be Electra’s vision of events. But where does the story, actually, begin? Every story depends on who does the telling, and at what point you begin the narrative. Who controls the memories, and whose interests are served in a particular telling?

For example, the Greek troops were successfully launched at sea only after Agamemnon agreed to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia—a murder that turns Clytemnestra from wife to foe. Aegisthus, also, has a generations-long vendetta with Agamemnon’s clan: Agamemnon’s father had massacred his siblings. Why not begin the stories there?

Everyone’s story is different; everyone justifies his or her behavior a different way, citing a “primal sin to justify acting immorally,” said Rehm.

Three plays, three stories

Hence, the idea behind the festival: The story told by three playwrights juxtaposes three different variations on the tale, Rashomon-style. It’s rare to get all three plays together. (Columbian actress Valentina Condé is Electra, Courtney Walsh is Clytemnestra and Francesca McKenzie is Chrysothemis in the full production of Sophocles’ Electra.)

“That’s one of the cool things about this festival,” said Rehm. “You can see around the plays—playing off each other, building on and undermining each other with extraordinary verve.”

In the Aeschylus version, the murder of Clytemnestra by her children is an unspeakable crime that must be avenged; Aeschylus emphasizes the “objective world out there—that this has to be punished,” said Rehm. In the Sophocles version, we are left with a cliffhanging ending, as Orestes hustles Aegisthus into the house to murder him on the spot where Agamemnon was slain. The Sophocles play is “dark, not a celebration of these murders,” though Rehm noted that scholarly opinion is not united on the matter, with some seeing the revenge murder as “joyful.”

In the Euripides version, “They are simply blood-besotted kids who kill the mother who gave them birth,” said Rehm. Deus ex machina intervention pretty much exonerates the murder in Euripides. “The gods come in and say, ‘What’s the problem? You did what we told you to do.’”

“The job of the play is to throw the problem at the audience and say, ‘Do you see any problem here?’” said Rehm. “The Greeks were aware of something, but not willing to give an easy answer.”

Memory and justice

The relationship of memory and justice has particular relevance in the United States, he said, where memory is “problematic.” Think Vietnam. Think American Indians. Think slavery.

“We’re absolutely discouraged from remembering. We’re encouraged to forget. It’s better for shopping,” said Rehm, recalling President Bush’s exhortation to go shopping in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “It’s stupid, but it isn’t ridiculous.”

But what of “the guys who don’t forget”?

“How do you remedy injustice—without it warping you?” asked Rehm. In the case of Electra, married off (in Euripides’ version of the story) to an obscure farmer who wisely refuses to consummate the marriage, she is in “perpetual virginity, caught permanently in adolescence—a horrible liminal state.”

“I am interested in memory—it’s something we need to cultivate,” said Rehm. “The truth will out. Certainly that is what Electra is standing for.”

Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Aisha Wells, Drama Department: (773) 680-2233,