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Electra Three Ways

July 20, 2009

Stanford Summer Theater (SST) is addressing issues of tragic memory with a triptych of Ancient Greek takes on the Electra story. Guest blogger Aisha Wells, Student Producer of SST, shares her thoughts about some of themes in this year's Festival...

Maurice "Rush" Rehm, Stanford Drama and Classics professor and Artistic Director of Stanford Summer Theater (SST), has recently purchased a new cell phone--a small, convenient flip-phone complete with a built-in camera and that polished luster that characterizes most new technology. "$29.99," Rehm exclaims in disbelief at his own ownership of such a strangely modern device.

Ask any student, friend or colleague of Rehm--or even Rehm himself--and you will hear confirmation that he is not a person concerned with keeping abreast of the latest cutting edge technology. While the rest of Silicon Valley moves forward at a blindingly quick pace, at Stanford University, Rehm is directing Stanford Summer Theater's 11th season, the Electra Festival, which offers a comprehensive investigation into the timeless theater stories of the ancient Greek world.

But Rehm cannot be accused of living in the past. As an author of four books on Greek tragedy, Rehm is internationally considered an expert on the Classical drama, and yet it is not merely his personal interest in the ancient world that motivated his decision to select Electra as the theme for this year's SST festival.

On the contrary, selecting Electra was done primarily with the intent to provide modern audiences with an intimate experience of the value of confronting tragedy-- a tragedy ancient in origin, but as pertinent and current as Rehm's brand new $29.99 camera phone.

Directed by Rehm, SST's major production of Sophocles' Electra, beautifully poetic in this translation by Anne Carson, is an uncompromising look at an archetypal story of revenge. The part of Electra, played by Stanford Alumnus, Valentina Conde, is a theatrical tour de force. Her fiery rage, unsettling obsession with avenging her father's murder, and inability to move beyond her memory of past injustices, combine to ignite a series of increasingly tragic events."In Electra" says Rehm, "Those who forget are rewarded, while those with fixations on past wrongs are ultimately consumed by their own obsessions." Rehm proposes that this is not all too different from today's attitude toward dealing with the past: "We are asked to forget before we remember. Progress is favored over memory-- particularly when it comes to tragic historical memory." Tragedy in the real world is so overwhelmingly prevalent that often the only feasible mechanism we have for coping with it is to forget it--to move onward and upward.

But forgetting tragedy, and the modern preoccupation with the glittery appeals of perennial progress, has proved problematic. "Like the old caveat goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat." Indeed, today's tragedies often demonstrate a seemingly endless repetition of historical mistakes.

Electra, Rehm suggests, is an explosive experience that invites its audience to confront the catch-22 imposed by tragic memory: While on the one hand we should not abandon our tragic memories, on the other hand, will determination to remember injustice ever allow us to forgive it? Or will tragic memory, as in the case of Electra, inevitably cause perpetual frustration, persecution, and cyclical acts of revenge?

"Here, Electra gets complicated; it's not clear that simple memory and action based on that memory leads us out of the woods at all," says Rehm.

And while many playwrights, dramatists, and scholars share this viewpoint, part of what adds to Electra's timelessness is the countless ways in which perspective can introduce additional nuance and complexity to the myth. Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Euripides' Electra, and the films selected for SST's weekly screenings are all telling the same story, yet their divergent approaches avoid simple unnecessary rehashing--instead bringing to light subtle shifts in the characters' motives and feelings. Perhaps the more perspectives that shape Electra's retelling, the closer one can get toward reconciliation with tragic memory.

While many people may share a good joke at Rehm's unwillingness to embrace technology's constant new developments, there is something to be said for what we may glean from slowing down and taking a good look into the past.

Stanford Summer Theater's Electra Festival runs July 13 through August 15, 2009. For more information, click here.


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