I fell in love for the first time when I was fourteen. Not a mild love. Not the sort of minor skirmish with passion that can be dismissed as merely a crush. This wasn’t the pop-star-poster frenzy of pubescent fantasy. This was serious: inescapable, life-shuddering, palm-itching, shameful, passionate, hateful, total desire; Eros and Thanatos copulating in my imagination long before I even had words to articulate such thoughts. This was a passion that would last.
Sometimes my feelings would pour out. In the school library, at the check-out desk, at the request log—this was the 1980s, long before computerised ordering, so a dog-eared blue feint exercise book, with endlessly gnawed Bic biro attached by string and Sellotape. Occasionally other girls would write their fantasies in it, but mostly to antagonise the sandalwood-scented librarian, Miss Clegg: Sandra Reid 4 Freddy Mercury; Lucy S luvs Boy George … But me, oh, I wanted something much darker than ‘Karma Chameleon’; I wanted to scrawl her name endlessly … please order anything to do with—a dead Greek tragedian and a fictional matricidal classical heroine. Weirder than the year 10 bullies could have imagined, I had fallen for Sophocles’ Electra: the twisted, degraded, haggard remnant of the most dysfunctional of all families in Greek mythology (quite an achievement), the starved and beaten victim of her mother’s abuse, who would turn that degradation into something much more base than anything her mother had done, as she screams in ecstasy for her brother to stick the knife in the woman who bore them just one more time. And yet she is a character with such extraordinary ability to seize the entire expanse of being that she stole my passions whole.
Thirty years and several lovers later, the confession still feels just a little shameful, the frisson she engenders just a little odd, and the admission just a little too naked: that the entire course of my life has been carved out by my desire not just to read but to be a highly problematic, not particularly admirable, totally fictional debased princess who was created 2500 years ago and who lives for seeing her mother dead. But that’s not the Electra I fell for. My desire was for another, parallel Electra: a woman of such passion and perseverance, fortitude, and magnanimity that actresses who have played her all understand why Fiona Shaw once called her ‘a very lovely soul’; that audiences who watch her as she pointlessly grieves over the ashes of her brother (who in fact stands right beside her) still opt to share her pain and tears rather than shout ‘He’s behind you!’; that readers still inhale with shock at each new imagining of her character and story. I fell for a woman who, for all her degradation, simply changed my life forever.
Sites of seduction should have some romance, but mine took place to the scent of mildew and crumbling window putty. It was 1983, in the soon to be condemned Portakabin that was home to my reluctantly taken elective, ‘Greek Literature in Translation O Level’. Once upon a time, before the English powers-that-be relegated the humanities to the status of user-pays hobby for the rich, the British education system offered such strange niche subjects: two whole years of reading Penguin Classics editions of Homer and Herodotus and Sophocles and Euripides, with nary a vocational purpose in sight. We learnt such useful things as how many axe rings an archer with a bit of divine assistance could shoot through (twelve), how many shags it took Cheops’ daughter to build her dad’s pyramid (quite a few; she charged a brick a trick), and the best way to cure gangrene, save face and beat the Trojans in one fell swoop (get a demi-god to drop in on a crane and make everyone kiss and make up).
In theory ‘Greek Lit’ should have been a beacon for liberal arts education; in reality, the omens were as inauspicious as the Portakabin was dilapidated. The class was a mixed and scary bag. ‘Greek Lit’ was our school’s ‘O’ level dumping ground, where the academic detritus of the school met the swots like me with unruly timetable clashes, under a fledgling teacher who shocked the staff room by hennaing her hair and wearing ‘Support the Miners’ badges. This was no enclave of passionate classicists: this was the ‘divvy’ subject for the year 9s and 10s. If it had been a boys’ school, this would have been the woodwork class. But I went to a single-sex state school with pretentions; in this institution, even the rabble would be force-fed Homer. Once it had been a very posh school: a selective grammar, where daughters of bankers were sent to receive a streamlined transition to Girton or marriage to a stockbroker. Now, though, it was a hodge-podge of dying Labour education reforms and early Thatcherite aspiration, where ageing teachers called Dr or Miss, cherishing memories of their Oxbridge women’s colleges, vied with the products of seventies red-brick universities and their fancy ideas on comparative religion, sex education and the radical insistence on first names among year 12s. Meanwhile a new breed of sullen school girl, the Iron Lady’s have-it-all daughters, had replaced the polite young ladies of yore in the brave new world of shaggy perms and eighties Britain.
Despite times a-changing, the school hung on to Classics, mostly because it was the home of ‘The Thompson and Craddock Latin Course’, written by Mr Craddock, our septuagenarian Classics master. A double-take-inducing cross between Arthur Lowe and Bristow, he put us under the roof leak for mistranslating Cicero, and with Herculean persistence ensured that Latin was compulsory for years 7 and 8. Even Jackie Preston, who tormented me for years and found herself in juvenile court for doing unspeakable things to a year 7 girl in the science block toilets, even she learnt magister discipulas educavit (first conjugation, not to be confused with third conjugation educere unless you want to stand under the drip again …). Classics for all, regardless of aptitude. Hence our oddball class: Dayna Philips, who shaved off her eyebrows in a fit of post-punk pique; Karen Henderson, who scraped her forearm with a compass point until dark red lay-lines crisscrossed her flesh; Lisa Reynolds, a wonder among us for having lost her virginity while still in year 8; ten other assorted gangly pubescent girls; and me, every bit as odd in my lanky, swotty way.
We had meandered through The Odyssey, slightly bored but in general good humour. But then it was a whole new year, and a new set text, and a damp Tuesday in January, with post-Christmas blues and soggy blazers steaming from the heater’s noxious fumes. Copies of Smash Hits incubated mould cultures in slush-stained school bags, while tight-less chilblained ankles chafed in winkle pickers with synthetic uppers. We picked up the book: an unprepossessing cover and names in the Dramatis Personae with too many syllables. We bated the teacher with predictable quips about Greek electricians and puns on Clytemnestra’s name so rude we baulked at our own bravado. We expected boredom, glaze-eyed daydreaming, to be disengaged and to have to tolerate the next ninety minutes until lunch. We expected … not what we got.
Our teacher began her adenoidal synopsis. She tried hard, did Ms York, to wake us from our year 9 somnambulism. She’d done some student theatre in her undergraduate days (all of three years ago), and gestured and overemphasised with the gusto of a Drama Society recruit in freshers week. Initially we mocked her for it, but there was something about the combination of the scarlet hair dye, the enthusiastically applied green eye shadow and the Body Shop dewberry shower wash that gradually inured us to the worst of her acting. I had even developed a crush. So we listened as she told us about Agamemnon’s murder by his wife, and their daughter’s waiting for revenge, and her brother’s returning to kill his mum and her lover. So we were right. We knew what was going on. Or so we thought. But clearly not, not even remotely. Because what Sophocles would teach us that day, and for the rest of the term until the new set text, was that there is never, can never be, just one side of a story, and that we should never trust anyone who said there was.
This was a big thing in an age of conservatism and family values absolutes. This was a 2500-year-old political lesson that, though only vaguely grasped at in our stumbling, inchoate reasoning, would be played out, too often and too cruelly, many times over the next decades. Somehow this ancient play, with its amoral extremism, its lack of moderation and failures of reconciliation, would speak of the Troubles in Ireland, the war in the Balkans, the atrocities in Rwanda, before we even hit the war on terror. This would become the play for the nineties and the new century.
For now, though, we simply read, and as we read on—awkward and embarrassed as we passed around parts, stilted and halting over the difficult Greek names, ponderous and leaden over the depth of emotions—we discovered this thing, and it infected us. This play was totally different from anything we had encountered before. It began predictably enough: two men talking about themselves and what they would do, but then … from the inside, a cry. A woman’s cry. Strange and just a little embarrassing for our teenage sensibilities. A cry of total pain that the men just ignore, as they turn their backs and get on with their stuff. While we, for the next 800 lines, enter the world of women and words, of passion and hatred, desire and humiliation, defiance and despair and yet more unending pain, all contained in just words. In the words that women hurl at each other when the only weapon they have is language. In words that men use to betray and deceive and make a truth more potent than reality. In words that women weep, which have the power to make an audience gulp down tears of pity at a grief they know is based on a lie. Until the boys come back; until the men come in, and stop the women—stop that woman— from talking. Make her shut up and do as she is told, substitute action for words and steal the words from the women in blood and yet more killing.
I still wonder at what happened that term, why we all connected with this play. Was it the passion—the focus on women (so rare for us to read such a female perspective), the concentration on dysfunctional families (we were all at the age when there was at least one member of our family we loathed) or that gnawing desire to be heroic? Just as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke a century or so earlier had longed, but failed, to be the modern-day Antigone, we wanted to prove ourselves through a nobility so extreme that its rights or wrongs were incidental. Much closer to Anouilh’s Antigone than George Eliot’s modern counterpart, we wanted our bonheur in the sadomasochism of righteous abjection. Typical teenagers, I suppose. What we didn’t understand, of course, were the connections: that we were living through a period of history when human rights abuses were much more actively debated than they are now, when Sting was singing to President Pinochet and BBC 2 would devote a whole season to plays and documentaries about Amnesty International. We didn’t realise there is nothing glamorous or exciting about torture and abuse. Instead we wanted the hit of the heroic. A meaning, a greater purpose, a chance to be more than the mundaneness of year 9 girls wearing training bras. And it seduced us all, teenage girls with our jumble of confusion and implosive distress: the self-harmer, the anorexic, the abused girl, the disaffected girl, the misunderstood girl, the angry-for-no-cause girl, the punk, the druggie, this mishmash of fourteen-year-old oddness in this school with its leaking terrapin huts and antiquated pretensions who all felt something that day.
By the end of the term, after weeks of reading and re-reading, the class was hooked and begged Ms York to let us stage a production for the other year 9s. Nothing to do with me: I was terrified of anyone suspecting my secret desire to be an actor, so let Paula Ainsworth do the talking (she had won bronze in the quarterfinals of the South Buckinghamshire under-15 Elocution Eisteddfod, so we all knew she was a shoo-in to play Electra). As audition week approached there was an electric buzz of excitement and spray tan: Dayna agreed to grow her eyebrows back if she got Chrysothemis; Karen worried about whether her self-harm marks would show under a Grecian costume; Paula strode the playground declaiming ‘Sweet light, clean air’; and I made pacts with the gods in the secrecy of my bedroom, that if Ms York chose me to play Electra, I’d keep my bedroom tidy and do the dishes, and stop leaving my homework till the last minute, and … anything, just as long as she chooses me … please …
Miraculously for me, and bizarrely for everyone else, Ms York did choose me. ‘Not because you can act,’ she told me straight up so we all knew where we stood, ‘but because you’re good at learning Latin vocab, so you’re the least likely to forget the words.’ Dayna got to grow her eyebrows, and Paula snarled and raged as Clytemnestra. But for me, this was not good. Be careful what you wish for, my dour Welsh grandmother had always warned. And she was right: for this was beyond anything I could have hoped or dreamt, and this was beyond awful. Face to face with my love, and tongue-tied even though she had given me the words. There was too much pressure: I couldn’t perform well enough for our mutual satisfaction. It was a doomed first date, with the weight of all that expectation. I was too in awe to be a decent lover, too gauche and uptight to give myself entirely to her. I thought about, and then thought better of, skipping lunch for a couple of weeks to feel the hunger I knew gnawed in her belly, but I had the hormones of a fourteen-year-old to feed. Self-abnegation for the sake of my art could wait for a couple of years. I thought about sleeping on the floor, or effecting a few rows with my mother, to feel what it would be like, but I needed my sleep to be in shape for my mock O levels, and I’d never been rebellious at the best of times. For all that I’d devoured An Actor Prepares, I’d have to let my Stanislavskian leanings wait until I was older. I was a disappointment, but give me a bit longer, a few more years … in my imagination, again and again I played out the performance I would give of her, with her, one day when we had both come of age. For now, it was just a rehearsal.
So our class put aside books; we dyed sheets and attached our safety pins into a vague semblance of what I would learn later was a chiton; Anna Leibman (one of the oddballs like me, who later became an opera singer) DJ’d her Shostakovich 5 LP on the school hall stereo; we borrowed the headmistress’s rose bowl as Orestes’ urn. Then we seriously and reverently acted our little hearts out in front of eighty bemused year 9s, who wondered why they were missing a free period to watch this. But for us it was everything: the culmination of our passion.
Afterwards we talked and talked, in our odd little group, about putting it on again, properly this time for the whole school, in a three-night season, with lights and sets and everything, but it never happened. We drifted off the next term into Euripides and our passion was lost as we hobbled through Hippolytus and frankly wondered why Phaedra didn’t just shag her stepson and have done with it.
But for me it was not the end. It didn’t leave me. She didn’t leave me. I daydreamed about her, I doodled her name on my exercise books—in English first, and then later in Attic scrawl. Hlektra, entwining round biology notes, irregular French verbs and timelines for Hitler and Mao Zedong. Meanwhile each Saturday morning I’d go up the road to the elderly vicar, an artist once before his calling to God, who taught me Greek in return for tubes of oil paints with names as exotic as the language I was struggling to learn: cinnabar, phthalo blue, cadmium yellow, side by side with rough and smooth breathings and aorist imperatives.
Three decades later I wonder if I have outgrown her now and can finally lay her to rest. I’m the same age as her mother now—well, at a push; I played her mother in 2010 and, to my amazement, loathed the whinging teenager I had once so loved, and sympathised with the much maligned matriarch. Perhaps it’s that I’ve two daughters of my own. Or that I have a fuller life than can be found in plays. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve now done as much with and for Electra as I can: I’ve understudied her and played Chorus and Chrysothemis to her; I’ve directed her in English and later in Greek; I’ve learnt a dead language to get close to her and written a PhD devoted entirely to her; and most of all, for six whole months that took me away from my real beloved and my home in Australia to the other side of the world and a wintery Sheffield, I’ve been her. Night after night in theatres around Britain, I stripped and ripped my flesh for her, became emaciated and injured for her, twisted my psyche into knots for her, even acquired a septic toe and a displaced kneecap for her, and finally joined with her in that performance I had promised I’d give us one day, where brain and body meet in the spirituality of abjection. So she’s on hold for a while, until the next incarnation.