By Natalia Koper
Electra was an angry daughter. No wonder, her mother Clytemnestra, in a vengeful act, had killed her father Agamemnon after he had sacrificed his eldest daughter, the innocent Iphigenia on the altar of war. Being a daughter of a murdered father and a mother-murderer has marked Electra’s identity throughout literary history.
The story of Electra has been recounted many times partly because it exposes the complexity of human suffering; partly because the ease of reproducing violence resonates with our experiences and histories. Electra individualizes and humanizes the different facets of pain: her tragedy in the midst of the Trojan War is not discarded as one of many. At the same time, Electra’s struggle touches on some (perhaps) universally pertinent dilemmas. How to break with the cycle of violence? Where is the line between vengeance and justice? How does an ‘after’ for a survivor of violence even look like?
This year, I experienced this famous product of Greek mythology from a completely unexpected angle. In Lima’s Teatro la Plaza, a group of Venezuelan actors relived Electra’s story, adding to it that of their nation.
The actors signalled their message early on: the play began by the actors approaching the edge of the stage, introducing themselves, and explaining how long they have lived in Peru. Peru has observed a consistent increase of people arriving from Venezuela since the living conditions there began to deteriorate drastically in 2017. Currently, the country is the second-largest recipient of Venezuelans fleeing the violence of the Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Out of more than 800,000 Venezuelans residing in Peru, about 80 percent – including the actors in front of me – sought refuge in Lima.
The play, however, took us to the modern-day Caracas. It revolved around a family gathering, celebrating the birthday of Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. It was a glimpse into a fallen kingdom of prosperity. “Soon there will be nothing left to sell from this beautiful villa,” noticed one of the party invitees. (Actually, the comment served also as a meta-joke on the minimalist scenography). The purchase of birthday balloons, forming into Aegisthus’s name, met with Electra’s disapproval too.
In this reality, Electra’s resentment towards the impunity of her father’s death gets mixed up with quarrels over a chicken missing from the fridge. Not so surprisingly, these two dimensions of the quarrel belong together here. In Venezuela, the aggravation of the institutional order, the restraints on civil rights, and extrajudicial killings go in pair with the economic crisis, extreme hyperinflation, and the consequent lack of access to basic social services. The economic fiasco of Maduro’s politics fuels the public discontent, which, in a strong democracy, would force him out of power. To hold on to his seat, Maduro resorts to the militarization of the public “safety” and the criminalization of the opposition. Extreme poverty also affects crime rates. All these factors combined push people to leaving the country, which further contributes to limiting access to social services and shortages of food and medical supplies. For example, by 2017, more than 40 percent of doctors who have graduated in the last decade decided to emigrate. Of those who remained in Venezuela, 75 percent still intend to leave. In short, Electra’s family perpetual cycle of violence coincides with what Venezuelans experience in real life.
In the play, the Caracas of 2019 finds itself contrasted with other moments from the 20th-century history. In particular, this Greek royal family holds on to the memory of better days, manifested in the abundance of everyday resources and the right to manage them in a carefree, wasteful manner. It’s not exactly clear whether that refers to the 1980s when Venezuela’s elite thrived on U.S-backed oil deals or to the more recent social welfare project of Hugo Chávez. Both of these “happy times” remind us, however, about the unstable foundation of the Venezuelan economy. By relying almost entirely on oil exports, the country is susceptible to economic collapse every time the oil market prices drop significantly. Economists call this phenomenon a natural resource curse, which again brings back the ancient Greek notions of fate and doom.
Electra didn’t manage to escape her family’s cycle of pain. Instead of joining her brother Orestes in Peru and leaving her fate behind in Venezuela, she completes the cycle the moment we hear behind-the-scene shots. Vengeance for her father’s death is executed, turning Electra into yet another murderer. What will be of Venezuela now?