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Electra, Orestes, and the Sibling Hand

Nancy Worman

For somewhat obvious reasons theorists of tragic effect often privilege spectacle when analyzing what constitutes its complex aesthetics, but it alone cannot account for all of the conflicting sensations generated onstage and induced in the audience. Although an emphasis on other senses may be expected in the plays that center on the blind Oedipus (especially in Oedipus at Colonus), my paper focuses instead on Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Electra and Orestes. I argue that in these plays close-in viewing, bodily proximities, touching, and the handling of dynamic objects (e.g., Electra's urn in Sophocles) lend the sibling drama a charged and unsettling tenor, as sisters fondle brotherly tokens while brothers seek to lay hands on their sisters. Interactive details such as these are what theorists of theater semiotics call proxemics, which can indicate fond contact and connection. In these plays, however, the strongly gendered tensions of pivotal scenes often precipitate emotional recoil, so that proximity itself carries violent or perverse undertones.

My analysis takes up sensory and material elements of such scenes in the three plays, highlighting where eerie affective charges and the violence of familial plotting lend actions a startlingly sensual edge. I consider, for instance, the resonances of an early scene in Euripides' Electra, when the sister spies her brother drawing near and sees a rapist, while he claims (long before revealing himself) that there is no one he has more right to touch (οὐκ ἔσθ’ ὅτου θίγοιμ’ ἂν ἐνδικώτεραν, 220-24). Contrast Sophocles' Electra, who wishes that she might lie with her brother in the urn that she clutches in her hands (εἰς χεῖρας, 1119; cf. 1129, 1130, 1138, 1141), or Euripides' Orestes, who embraces Electra (cf. φιλότητι χειρῶν, 1048) and declares that their love replaces children and the marriage bed, while she responds by wishing that the same cedar coffin would receive them both (Or. 1052-53). In all three plays the siblings eventually plot murder and (effectively or actually) together grip the sword. These are only a few of the ramifications of what Electra in the Orestes terms "the sibling hand" (ἀδελφῇ χειρί, 221-22).

The paper considers as well the vibrant objects involved in these actual and desired proximities, among which Electra's urn is the most riveting, drawing the siblings together even while it functions as Orestes' mask and body proxy. As I show, in its triangulation of affective dynamics, it activates a powerful cathexis, eliciting responses from both siblings that seem necessarily to be channeled through it. The urn also sets in motion body-to-body relations, in which Electra desires to match herself existentially with its supposed contents ("this nothing with that nothing," τὴν μηδὲν ἐς τὸ μηδέν, 1165-66), which in turn raises Orestes' sensitivity to the physical state of Electra's sad body standing before him. Since the urn actually (within the mimetic frame) contains nothing, it operates as an uncanny theatrical device, being anything but empty in its impact.

For the audience, of course, all this body-to-body and body-to-object maneuvering is viewed rather than experienced, but the close-up interactions draw the audience into their intimate embrace, modeling shared space and sensation. This highlights the strangeness of affect as what Giles Deleuze has influentially theorized as a "becoming" of bodies, as what escapes, emanates outward, and circulates among them; in addition, affect's expansiveness in performance settings renders the tragic shudder (e.g.) a group experience. Thus the staging of these dynamics serves as a sensory supplement to the family story, which implicates the siblings and spectators alike in disturbingly close encounters. And since this is tragedy, such emergent proximities can almost never be only protective or comforting — in fact, tragic effect is achieved by the menacing possibility of their opposite: the outraged body, the violent hand.

Session/Panel Title:

Objects and Affect: The Materialities of Greek Drama

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