Greek Tragedy

Of all dramatic genres, ancient Greek tragedy seems one of the least likely to feature our subject. Its stories are drawn from classical legends that were ancient even in the fifth century BC when the plays were written, and its characters seem rooted in the age of heroes, beings from a world of such grandeur that it could never accommodate anything so banal and commonplace as a spanking.

Some modern adaptations and retellings, however, start from the premise that these seemingly distant, larger-than-life characters once lived actual lives that were just as real and everyday as our own. That’s partly how, in 1944, the French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-87) was able to give Sophocles’ Antigone, a parable about resistance to tyranny, a direct contemporary resonance at a time when France was under the Nazi jackboot.

If you don’t know the story, Antigone is piously determined to bury her dead brother even though King Creon, her uncle and prospective father-in-law, has made this a capital offense; she refuses to cooperate with his efforts at a coverup, and so the law has to take its course. Anouilh kept the period setting, making the story remote enough to satisfy the Nazi censors, but added recognizable human and contemporary touches around the edges, so giving it a more direct application to modern times. And two of those touches raise an intriguing possibility…

As the play begins, Antigone’s nurse catches her returning from a nocturnal excursion, and expresses an opinion about what to do with her. Different English translations render this in various ways. In the 2000 version by Ted Freeman, the line is: ‘I ought to give you a good spanking, like when you were a little girl.’ On the other hand, the first British production in 1949, with Vivien Leigh as Antigone, used a translation by Lewis Galantière in which the Nurse says:

‘Do you know what I ought to do to you? Take you over my knee the way I used to do when you were little.’

In any event, the play establishes early on a world in which Antigone, who has been out illicitly burying her brother, might be spanked for doing so. And this resonated with some audiences: ‘Antigone casts an image of a stubborn, petulant girl much in need of a spanking,’ wrote a Pittsburgh theater critic about a 1965 production starring Barbara Caruso.

The possibility is floated a second time in her long confrontation with Creon that is the center of the play, though here we are much more at the mercy of the translators. The Galantière version completely cuts out the line in question, and in the Freeman translation Creon proposes ‘bread and water and a box on the ears’. But Anouilh’s line is better rendered by Zander Teller in 1987, in which Antigone is told:

‘You’re twenty years old and not so long ago all this would’ve been settled with a good spanking and sending you to bed without supper.’

Since the story is actually about how Antigone gets executed for her principles, this is unlikely ever to be more, in any version, than an interesting counterfactual. But we’re on slightly more promising ground if we turn to Electra, the titular heroine of tragedies by both Sophocles and Euripides. She’s the daughter of a murdered king whose mother then marries the murderer, Aegisthus, thereby giving him the throne, and the burden of the story concerns how she facilitates the revenge taken by her brother Orestes. But the interesting part from our point of view is the period before Orestes returns, when she’s living in Aegisthus’ household as his teenage stepdaughter. So it might seem counterintuitive that our first illustration comes from Mark Frank’s retelling in Iphigenia Rising (2009).

The play was first produced at Coffeyville Community College, Kansas, with this pretty student actress in the role of Electra:

The action takes place in the aftermath of the whole story as Electra, Orestes and their sister Iphigenia fall into mutual recrimination over the deaths of their parents, so the essence of the play is largely retrospective, with the characters picking over the past. There’s one thing that Electra remembers with especial resentment about her life with Aegisthus:

‘I didn’t appreciate him spanking me bare bottom in front of his subjects.’

So Electra is one Greek tragic heroine who has been spanked, and in an exceptionally public and humiliating way, too. But not onstage. For that, we have to head for New York in 1983, where the St Mark’s Poetry Project, the long-time East Village home of innovative literary experiment, staged a more radically modern retelling entitled Electra Gumbo.

In this version, Electra (Suzan Cooper) is the daughter of Queenie, who has taken up with a man Electra knows as ‘Uncle King’. It is a predictably tense ménage, and among the humiliations inflicted on Electra are her mother’s forcible cutting of her long hair, a key event leading up to Euripides’ treatment of the story. But before that, Electra is also soundly spanked by ‘Uncle King’, onstage, as her mother watches.

There’s no known photograph of the scene, but seven years later it featured in a series of drawings done by Suzan Cooper to document the production, in a distinctive and very modern style.

It’s not a very literal representation, but it rewards a close look. The long-haired Electra is across his knee, and his right hand has just landed on her bottom with what looks like an extremely explosive impact. Ouch!

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