Electra – 4th and Last Day of Lenaia 2020

Electra by Sophocles is the last text chosen for the fourth day of the Lenaia. I couldn’t avoid ending with one of the traditional winners of an original Lenaia’s prize. The daughter of the murdered king Agamemnon is kept hopeless in Mycenae. She’s however waiting for the return of her brother Orestes who would provide the revenge she is seeking. While the brother wanted to hide his return by pretending to be dead, Electra is first mistaken. But when she realises that he’s still alive and back to Mycenae, her dark hope of revenge is born again.

Wrath of life? Light of revenge? This strange circle of pleasing violence is not stranger to us, since love and hate grow up as siblings.

After this meditation, the Lenaia naturally end. There is no specific ceremony but as they are supposed to be a contest, we are left free to choose for our own favourite play. Before having been moved to the temple of Dionysus (Ληναῖος), the Lenaia could have been acted at the lenaion, the wine-press area. Lenaios, demon of theatre, is also demon who crushes grapes for the new blood. Whence here, Electra’s wrath of life.


The urn is placed in Electra’s hands.

ELECTRA

Ah, memorial of him whom I loved best on earth! Ah, Orestes, whose life hath no relic left save this,—how far from the hopes with which I sent thee forth is the manner in which I receive thee back! Now I carry thy poor dust in my hands; but thou wert radiant, my child, when I sped thee forth from home! Would that I had yielded up my breath, ere, with these hands, I stole thee away, and sent thee to a strange land, and rescued thee from death; that so thou mightest have been stricken down on that self-same day, and had thy portion in the tomb of thy sire!

But now, an exile from home and fatherland, thou hast perished miserably, far from thy sister; woe is me, these loving hands have not washed or decked thy corpse, nor taken up, as was meet, their sad burden from the flaming pyre. No! at the hands of strangers, hapless one, thou hast had those rites, and so art come to us, a little dust in a narrow urn.

Ah, woe is me for my nursing long ago, so vain, that I oft bestowed on thee with loving toil! For thou wast never thy mother’s darling so much as mine; nor was any in the house thy nurse but I; and by thee I was ever called ‘sister.’ But now all this hath vanished in a day, with thy death; like a whirlwind, thou hast swept all away with thee. Our father is gone; I am dead in regard to thee; thou thyself hast perished: our foes exult; that mother, who is none, is mad with joy,—she of whom thou didst oft send me secret messages, thy heralds, saying that thou thyself wouldst appear as an avenger. But our evil fortune, thine and mine, hath reft all that away, and hath sent thee forth unto me thus,—no more the form that I loved so well, but ashes and an idle shade.

Ah me, ah me! O piteous dust! Alas, thou dear one, sent on a dire journey, how hast undone me,—undone me indeed, O brother mine!

Therefore take me to this thy home, me who am as nothing, to thy nothingness, that I may dwell with thee henceforth below; for when thou wert on earth, we shared alike; and now I fain would die, that I may not be parted from thee in the grave. For I see that the dead have rest from pain.

CHORUS

Bethink thee, Electra, thou art the child of mortal sire, and mortal was Orestes; therefore grieve not too much. This is a debt which all of us must pay.

ORESTES

Alas, what shall I say? What words can serve me at this pass? I can restrain my lips no longer!

ELECTRA

What hath troubled thee? Why didst thou say that?

ORESTES

Is this the form of the illustrious Electra that I behold?

ELECTRA

It is; and very grievous is her plight.

ORESTES

Alas, then, for this miserable fortune!

ELECTRA

Surely, sir, thy lament is not for me?

ORESTES

O form cruelly, godlessly misused!

ELECTRA

Those ill-omened words, sir, fit no one better than me.

ORESTES

Alas for thy life, unwedded and all unblest!

ELECTRA

Why this steadfast gaze, stranger, and these laments?

ORESTES

How ignorant was I, then, of mine own sorrows!

ELECTRA

By what that hath been said hast thou perceived this?

ORESTES

By seeing thy sufferings, so many and so great.

ELECTRA

And yet thou seest but a few of my woes.

ORESTES

Could any be more painful to behold?

ELECTRA

This, that I share the dwelling of the murderers.

ORESTES

Whose murderers? Where lies the guilt at which thou hintest?

ELECTRA

My father’s;—and then I am their slave perforce.

ORESTES

Who is it that subjects thee to this constraint?

ELECTRA

A mother—in name, but no mother in her deeds.

ORESTES

How doth she oppress thee? With violence or with hardship?

ELECTRA

With violence, and hardships, and all manner of ill.

ORESTES

And is there none to succour, or to hinder?

ELECTRA

None. I had one; and thou hast shown me his ashes.

ORESTES

Hapless girl, how this sight hath stirred my pity!

ELECTRA

Know, then, that thou art the first who ever pitied me.

ORESTES

No other visitor hath ever shared thy pain.

ELECTRA

Surely thou art not some unknown kinsman?

ORESTES

I would answer, if these were friends who hear us.

ELECTRA

Oh, they are friends; thou canst speak without mistrust.

ORESTES

Give up this urn, then, and thou shalt be told all.

ELECTRA

Nay, I beseech thee be not so cruel to me, sir!

ORESTES

Do as I say, and never fear to do amiss.

ELECTRA

I conjure thee, rob me not of my chief treasure!

ORESTES

Thou must not keep it.

ELECTRA

Ah woe is me for thee, Orestes, if I am not to give thee burial!

ORESTES

Hush!—no such word!—Thou hast no right to lament.

ELECTRA

No right to lament for my dead brother?

ORESTES

It is not meet for thee to speak of him thus.

ELECTRA

Am I so dishonoured of the dead?

ORESTES

Dishonoured of none:—but this is not thy part.

ELECTRA

Yes, if these are the ashes of Orestes that I hold.

ORESTES

They are not; a fiction clothed them with his name.

He gently takes the urn from her.

ELECTRA

And where is that unhappy one’s tomb?

ORESTES

There is none; the living have no tomb.

ELECTRA

What sayest thou, boy? Or. Nothing that is not true.

ELECTRA

The man is alive? Or. If there be life in me.

ELECTRA

What? Art thou he? Or. Look at this signet, once our father’s, and judge if I speak truth.

ELECTRA

O blissful day! Or. Blissful, in very deed!

ELECTRA

Is this thy voice? Or. Let no other voice reply.

ELECTRA

Do I hold thee in my arms?

ORESTES

As mayest thou hold me always!

ELECTRA

Ah, dear friends and fellow-citizens, behold Orestes here, who was feigned dead, and now, by that feigning hath come safely home!

CHORUS

We see him, daughter; and for this happy fortune a tear of joy trickles from our eyes.

ELECTRA

Offspring of him whom I loved best, thou hast come even now, thou hast come, and found and seen her whom thy heart desired!

ORESTES

I am with thee;—but keep silence for a while.

ELECTRA

What meanest thou?

ORESTES

‘Tis better to be silent, lest some one within should hear.

ELECTRA

Nay, by ever-virgin Artemis, I will never stoop to fear women, stay-at-homes, vain burdens of the ground!

ORESTES

Yet remember that in women, too, dwells the spirit of battle; thou hast had good proof of that I ween.

ELECTRA

Alas! ah me! Thou hast reminded me of my sorrow, one which, from its nature, cannot be veiled, cannot be done away with, cannot forget!

ORESTES

I know this also; but when occasion prompts, then will be the moment to recall those deeds.

ELECTRA

Each moment of all time, as it comes, would be meet occasion for these my just complaints; scarcely now have I had my lips set free.

ORESTES

I grant it; therefore guard thy freedom.

ELECTRA

What must I do?

ORESTES

When the season serves not, do not wish to speak too much.

ELECTRA

Nay, who could fitly exchange speech for such silence, when thou hast appeared? For now I have seen thy face, beyond all thought and hope!

ORESTES

Thou sawest it, when the gods moved me to come.…


Electra, by Sophocles

Translated by Richard Claverhouse Jebb


Picture Credits: Arthur Boyd 〈Electra〉

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