Midtown Tragedy

Those of you who just tuned in probably think my headline alludes to Sophocles's play. On the other hand, my regular readers—all junior partners with the fine old firm of Hypocrite Lecteur, Semblable & Frere—probably assume it's a setup for rude remarks to come about David Leveaux's production. Well, the rude remarks are justified, and will be served in due course, but the real tragedy at issue has nothing to do with either the power of this ancient masterpiece, or my low opinion of its current treatment. Remember the '60s slogan, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" Well, what if they gave a Greek tragedy and nobody, onstage or in the house, cared enough about it for the event to have any effect at all? The possibilities that suggests seem grimmer than Electra's story: either human nature has changed its essence, making matters that once shook us to the core seem pointless and dull; or the social act of theater going has lost its point; or, most probable, that the play and the theater it inhabits have become irrelevant to one another.

This last hypothesis is grimmest of all in the prospect it holds for New York, a city that has always depended on the range and variety of its stage performances to provide not only a major inducement to tourism but a sense of its own spirit and identity. Yes, New York always preferred loud, fast, flashy fun to the slow, somber steps of tragedy, but the city's cachet, its glamour, came from its willingness to accept both and know how to gauge the value of both. Musicals and farcical comedies may have charged higher ticket prices and drawn louder applause, but those who had a passion to see—pulling examples from the past at random—Nazimova in Ghosts, Robards and Dewhurst in O'Neill, Laughton as Galileo, or James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in Fences might be forgiven for thinking that their experience made up in depth for what it lacked in crowd-pleasing and profit.

The dynamic involved would have been familiar to Athenians of the fifth century B.C., who more than once snubbed Aeschylus and gave the prize to some nobody whose choruses made catchy drinking songs. But Broadway only sneered when Sophocles was last offered there in musical form, via Breuer and Telson's Gospel at Colonus, and most of its current visitants are probably unaware of Martha Graham's tragic work, though no less a word man than Eric Bentley wrote that seeing Night Journey was the only time he felt he understood what the Greeks had meant by a chorus.


Electra By Sophocles
Ethel Barrymore Theater Broadway and 47th Street

None of these matters is applicable to the current Electra because there's nothing to apply them to. The audience is ushered to its seats in the Ethel Barrymore, the house lights go down, and for 90 minutes 10 actors move around while speaking a much reduced text of Electra. At least on the second night, nothing else happened. The drama sits unawakened onstage, evoking minimal response in the audience. A few ironic lines get weak laughs, a few inevitable sensationalist tidbits (like Electra licking her mother's blood off her brother's hand) rouse faint murmurs, but that's all. There is no performance of Electra and no audience to respond to it. For all anyone cares, the theater might still hold Ethel herself in The Corn Is Green; she couldn't be deader than this experience, even after 50 years.

Maybe Zoë Wanamaker should try Miss Moffatt instead. The role demands pluck, and as Electra, Wanamaker is the pluckiest little actress you'll ever see. She never gets anywhere near the center of the role, but she certainly does try her mightiest to decorate it. She snivels, whimpers, sulks, shouts, rages, mutters, sneers, scoffs, mimics, flounces, yelps, gasps, grunts, and I believe at one point even grinds her teeth. Now and then she does one of these things in concert with a line of the text, but there is never any sense of her being the royal daughter who says these lines and means them; it's rather like watching someone try to hang the ornaments before they've bought the tree.

Since Wanamaker has shown in previous work that she's not a centerless actress, much of the performance's emptiness should presumably be heaped on director David Leveaux, whose earlier Broadway visits offer solid evidence of unfocused incompetence; I still cherish the memory of Natasha Richardson, in his revival of Anna Christie, walking barefoot on what was supposed to be the deck of a coal barge. Nothing that nakedly stupid occurs in Electra, but neither does anything to suggest an interpretation, or even a mere acting-out, of the story. Banking on the assumption that most of his audience has never seen the play, or Richard Strauss's operatic version, Leveaux fills his stage with smidges of imagery and business from two decades' worth of other people's productions, till it's a hack job almost any European resident theater might have churned out in the 1980s.

As is now usual, the palace courtyard is a repository for used furniture, while the palace itself has the customary look of an abandoned factory, the sliding steel door of which inevitably rolls aside at the finish, to reveal a fluorescent Escherian maze of white ladders that makes killing Aegisthus hilariously awkward. Electra clomps around in her father's overcoat, and kisses the tutor as well as Orestes with incestuous fervor. To give Leveaux credit for small favors, though, she merely rolls on the ground and laughs while Orestes is killing Clytemnestra, instead of having the now-standard orgasm. Only the most naïve provincial could call such stuff original. To a city that's seen Mnouchkine's Libation Bearers, and nurtured Serban's austerely noble Electra, it's hardly more than navel lint.

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