Wanamaker’s Famous Father

Family Move to London

Career Highlights

Greek Tragedy

Between the Lines

Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on September 16, 1998. All rights reserved.

Zoe Wanamaker and the Electra Complex

`Every daughter I know has a thing


her father," muses Zoe Wanamaker. "It’s not a problem, but

there is a daughter-father relationship which is incredibly strong.

You know there’s the Oedipus complex — but one tends to forget

the other one, the Electra complex."

Wanamaker is sitting in the Green Room at McCarter Theater working

on a tray of take-out sushi during a lunchtime rehearsal break,


about her title role in Sophocles’ classic Greek tragedy,


Electra is a woman who persists in mourning her father, Agamemnon,

years after his grisly murder at his wife’s own hand. Driven by an

insatiable desire to avenge his assassination, even at the price of

her mother’s life, Electra is the daughter who kills.

Directed by David Leveaux, in an updated translation commissioned

from Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, "Electra" opens


1998-’99 drama season on Friday, September 18, at 8 p.m. Reprising

the role that won her London’s Olivier award for best actress in 1997,

Wanamaker is joined in the new production by Claire Bloom as


Michael Cumpsty as Orestes, Pat Carroll as the Chorus of Mycenae,

Marin Hinkle as Chrysothemis, and Stephen Spinella as Orestes’


"Electra is not an obscure classic, a strange story of a distant

time and place and people," explains director Leveaux in his


notes. "It is, in every sense, our story." Deeply moved by

his experience of the civil war in the Balkans, he believes that


in the 1990s differs little from the devastated society Sophocles

imagined 2,000 years ago. Although Aeschylus and Euripides also


Electra’s mythic tale, Sophocles’ version is considered the most


Faithful to the three dramatic unities, the whole sweeping family

story is recounted on one spot near Clytemnestra’s palace, in the

span of a single day.

"The most important question about Electra is not why she must

avenge her father’s death, it is why she is inconsolable," says

Wanamaker, considering the core of the drama. "That question can

provoke some surprising answers, not least that the deepest gesture

in her is not violence, it is love. And that’s what’s


She says the transformation she must undergo during each and every

performance of the play is "a sort of exorcism."

"What Frank [McGuinness] did was to pare Sophocles down to a fish

bone — a bleached piece of bone — and make it accessible to

us. All he’s done is take away a lot of obscure references that we

don’t understand today," she says. McGuinness’s own plays include

"Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me" and "Mutabilitie;"

he has also adapted two plays by Ibsen and Sophocles’



Top Of Page
Wanamaker’s Famous Father

One of the most acclaimed British actresses of her


Wanamaker readily admits to being a newcomer to Greek tragedy —

a form she initially found stiff, impersonal, even intimidating. She

cut her professional teeth in English repertory theater in the 1970s,

and while she is widely known for her leading roles with the Royal

Shakespeare Company, new writing — whether for theater, film,

or television — has been her abiding professional interest.

Despite her lofty status on the theater scene, Wanamaker is a


woman and a down-to-earth talker. Her short, short haircut accentuates

her puckish features that are dominated by unnaturally bright,


eyes. Deliciously frank about her small failings, she still rolls

her own cigarettes and dreads her professional’s diet obsession with

the remark — "I’m not going to starve myself into some kind

of UNICEF advert for the sake of a movie career."

Family drama is hardly foreign to Wanamaker. She is the daughter of

the late Sam Wanamaker, a prominent American expatriate actor and

director of stage and film whose enthusiasm, tenacity, and energy

inspired the 28-year effort to rebuild a replica of the Globe Theater

in Southwark, London. The new Globe opened in 1996, just a few hundred

yards from where Shakespeare’s original once stood. Zoe is now a


of the Globe and a member of its artistic board.

From the time of his arrival in England in the early 1950s as a


refugee from McCarthyism and the H.U.A.C. witch hunts, until his death

from cancer in 1993, Sam Wanamaker cast a hero’s shadow in England’s

theater world. A shadow from which Zoe Wanamaker eventually had to

emerge, an acclaimed actor in her own right — without resorting

to homicide.

We asked her what it was like negotiating the territory from compliant

daughter to an independent professional whom some say outshines her

famous father.

"I think, for every child whose father or mother is notorious

in some way — whether they be murderers or aristocracy — I

think there is a negotiation to be made. We all have baggage to carry

and to deal with. I did have a huge amount of respect for family


both my parents were present at Lee Strasberg’s first group meeting

of `The Method’ in New York.

"Mummy had a job in New York, she was a radio soap star. I don’t

remember what the program was called, but I know she was very famous

to radio." Sam Wanamaker made his first film with Lili Palmer

when he was 25 and just out of the army. "He was already quite

a powerhouse in New York as a young man. He had his own liberal


company which Arthur Miller wrote his first piece for. They used to

go to factories to put on plays and performances," she says,


that as the son of Russian immigrants, her father had no lucrative

ties to the department store chain. Their family name was probably

an Ellis Island invention.

Zoe’s mother, Charlotte, was born in Canada. She moved to Chicago

and was working at the Goodman Theater when she met her husband, and

her job took the couple to New York. As first-generation


liberals, they became targets of McCarthyism.

"Like 99.9 percent of the people who were blacklisted, he had

nothing to do with the Communist party," says Wanamaker. "Of

course, it was a witch hunt of major hysterical proportions —

which it seems to me one after another happens in this country."

Still her father’s daughter of conscience, she suddenly adds: "I

mean what possesses someone to keep a semen-stained dress? It’s just

terribly damaging, and I take it seriously because this is my


Top Of Page
Family Move to London

When Zoe was three, the family moved to London, and her mother gave

up her performing career to take care of three daughters, of which

Zoe is the second. Today her oldest sister is a speech therapist in

Los Angeles, and her youngest sister lives in London. Their mother,

Charlotte, died last year.

Arriving in England in the early ’50s, when the country was recovering

from World War II, she says Sam Wanamaker was considered a major movie

star. "His appearance on the English stage was a phenomenal


It changed British theater because they had all heard of the Method,

and daddy was the first Method actor to appear on the British stage.

They’d never seen it, and of course it blew them away."

Sam Wanamaker is also remembered for his performances as Iago to Paul

Robeson’s "Othello." In 1959 the pair performed


in a seven-month run in Stratford-on-Avon. "The relationship


Paul Robeson and my father was fantastic, because they’d met and


before in America on various left-wing activities."

It appears that, by the age of 12, Zoe Wanamaker had already decided

to become an actress — or a ballet dancer. She thinks the comforts

of her father’s job with the Royal Shakespeare Company in


had something to do with it.

"That was when we were living near Stratford and it was really

a very idyllic situation," she recalls. "Stratford at that

time was extremely beautiful."

Replaying a generational conflict as ancient as classical Greece,

Wanamaker’s parents were initially displeased by their daughter’s

career choice.

"They were very resistant to me being an actress purely because

they knew what it entailed," she says. "Particularly for a

woman, it’s a very demoralizing, demeaning sometimes. Life is full

of rejection as it is, and to become an actress is full of rejection,

it goes with the job. At that time, in my teens, I was a very insecure

human being and easily hurt. So they were frightened that I’d be


by rejection. I think they were being parents — they wanted to

protect me."

Parental resistance may have slowed her progress somewhat, but it

did not stop Zoe Wanamaker.

"After I finished school, I had this idea that I wanted to paint,

so I went to art school for a year; and then discovered that it was

a discipline that I was not cut out for. I took a year out and learned

to do typing and shorthand in order to try and subsidize myself in

times of need and out-of-workness." Wanamaker worked as a


— "a very bad one, I have to say" — for a spell, then

became an assistant to a casting director, Miriam Brickman, whom she

describes as "the doyenne of all casting directors. She was an

incredible woman. And I nearly didn’t go to drama school as a


Wanamaker eventually spent three years completing the

drama course at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London,

a highly prestigious school at the time. And in 1970 she started in

repertory theater.

"Repertory theater in England at that time was at its peak,"

she recalls, "and that was, for me, an extension of my


From 1970 to 1976 she worked in repertory "playing the best parts

I could get hold of and learning my craft."

So does a famous father’s name help or hinder professional progress?

"The only thing you get from a name is that it can gets you a

foot in the door. After that, it’s up to you. I mean the only reason

you get work is because you’re useful to other people. If you’re


to other people, then they employ you. There’s not been a year that

I’ve been out of work — there have been a few months, but not

more. But there have been long gaps which have worried me and made

me insane."

Top Of Page
Career Highlights

Wanamaker has garnered rave reviews and awards on both sides of the

Atlantic in a variety of media. Highlights of her theater career


her London "Electra," Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie,"

Kattrin in "Mother Courage," and Elizabeth Proctor in the

"Crucible." On Broadway she earned Tony nominations for her

portrayals of Fay in "Loot" and Toine in "Piaf." Her

work in television includes "Countess Alice," "Memento

Mori," and her role as the common-law wife of a serial killer

in the much-lauded "Prime Suspect." Her film credits include

"Swept from the Sea" and received a BAFTA nomination for her

role in the recent Oscar Wilde movie, "Wilde."

Wanamaker married Gawn Grainger, a television writer and actor she

met on Bob Hoskins’ first film, a few years ago. He was a widowed

father of two, and now they are parents of a son, Charles, 22, and

a daughter, Eliza, 18. "Gawn has a healthy disrespect for the

theater, which is wonderful. He gave up acting for about 12 years

and wrote a few successful television series. He recently went back

to acting."

Known for her work across genres, she is reluctant to state a


for live theater, television, or film. "I don’t have a preference

— I have a fascination for it all, really," she says,


each one demands a completely different way of working. If not


then physically as well. I mean the fact that you have to be a night

person when you work in the theater, and that you’re a day person

and a morning person when you’re working in film.

"In film, you have to get up at five o’clock in the morning; then,

if you’re a girl, something unnatural happens to you — you have

to have makeup put on your face and you have to live with that all

day, and sit in that all day, and be prepared at any minute to


And I find that a challenge. I don’t enjoy it at all. I find the


a much more organic place to be. You don’t have to get up at a


time, and you can actually have a life and then go in to work. It’s

a more organic thing, and the nighttime is one for concentration.

Six o’clock in the morning is not a natural time to start


Top Of Page
Greek Tragedy

Has Greek tragedy previously figured in her career? "Not at


she replies. "I had been intimidated by Greek drama basically

because I felt it was masks and people speaking in funny voices —

something very alienating to me. And nobody had given me a point of

view and made it personal.

"When I was first starting out, I did feel that my education was

a desert, and that I’d actually spent most of my time in my education

— my poor parents had put me through a private education —

I’d frittered it away by staring out the window. But my education

started when I started working in the theater, for which I’m very


"Electra" is also Wanamaker’s first experience working with

director David Leveaux. "I liked him when I met him," she

says. "I found him fascinating, interesting — and


terrifying." They were considering doing Tennessee Williams’


of a Nightingale" together, until Leveaux proposed


"When David asked if I had ever thought of doing Electra, I said

no because the last time I was asked to do a Greek play it was


and her opening line in the script is `Ai-ai-ee-aa.’ It was some sort

of howl that was scripted as `Ai-ai-ee-aa,’ and I thought, `This is

silly.’ I couldn’t imagine myself doing it — so I turned that

one down. But when David suggested `Medea,’ I just kind of had a feel

for him. And I said, `If you help me, then I’ll do it.’"

"I think of myself as a pupil, but at the same time he makes me

laugh tremendously. His generosity of spirit and intellect is


It’s lovely to behold. And he doesn’t make me feel stupid. He’s one

of a few directors who’ve made me feel that I’m on a level with him

and not an inferior, which is a great way to be with your fellow


Leveaux describes his idea of Electra as "a woman

who is locked in a kind of captivity of childhood, and that makes

her ferociously dangerous." He then goes on to explain how


has frequently been cast as the best friend or the kinder party.


I’d always though she is an actress of the most phenomenal range.

So what I said to Zoe was, Don’t you think it’s time you had a really

good scream?"

"There’s a connection with some directors that you have, and some

that you don’t," observes Wanamaker. "I’ve had about four

directors who, when they talk to me about a play, it illuminates,

it triggers off a lot of colors or notes. I’m quite visual, I have

quite an imagination. And my imagination is not an intellectual one,

it’s purely subjective, I think. I also think in visuals. The way

he described it to me, it became an image. When I understand a


image, if we’re on the same wavelength, then that image becomes a

reality. And David’s image for me was very potent."

"I think because of my father’s death, the play must have had

some connection with me. I believe in it, I believe in the production

as being something that for me was different in so many ways. But

also that it brought Greek drama to someone like myself, who was so

anti-Greek drama. So if it can change my mind about Greek drama, then

maybe it can change other people’s minds. And if it can make me


of Greek drama, maybe it can make other people unafraid."

Electra, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-683-8000. Opening night for the drama that runs to October 4.

$25 to $36; $10 for under-25s. Friday, September 18, 8 p.m.

Top Of Page
Between the Lines

As September’s arts previews and back-to-school days

roll around again, regular as clockwork, it’s easy to think of our

life paths as some predictable forward journey from cradle to grave.

But as two of our writers discovered preparing this week’s issue,

you never know when the present is going to be delightfully


by a chance to re-visit a not-quite-forgotten and still-cherished

past. That straight life’s path feels a lot more like a zig-zag along

crazy pavement this week.

Christopher Mario, author of the preview and analysis of Princeton’s

grand new Princeton Stadium that has sprung up to replace the


Palmer Stadium, has written before about architecture for U.S. 1.

What we didn’t realize when we assigned this piece was that Mario

also has a special affinity for college football stadiums — he

has performed in them before literally hundreds of thousands of


No, Mario was not a star athlete of the college gridirons. But he

was a baritone horn player in the University of Pennsylvania marching

band, and in 1984 was the drum major — high stepping his way onto

the playing fields of the Ivy League. His favorite stadium: Penn’s

Franklin Field — "it’s got a presence, it’s right on the


and while it’s old, they’ve taken care of it," he says. For his

opinions on the new Princeton Stadium, turn to page 51.

Arts editor Nicole Plett also enjoyed a unexpected detour back to

her youth when actor Zoe Wanamaker arrived in Princeton to perform

her award-winning role as Electra in Sophocles’ classic drama at


Theater. Plett was no more than 10 when her theatergoing parents went

backstage (unencumbered by any of their four daughters) to meet Paul

Robeson and Sam Wanamaker after their performances as Othello and

a distinctly "hip" Iago at Stratford-on-Avon, England, in

1959, in a controversial production directed by the young Tony


Pleasantries were presumably exchanged, but something else clicked

between the American emigre Wanamaker family (the parents of three

daughters of their own) and Plett’s. The result was that the two


began a friendship that endured the rest of their lives, and one that

Plett’s mother, Rita Bronowski, the last survivor of the foursome,

still cherishes. So even though the two "girls" had hardly

seen each other for some 30 years — Plett still had vague memories

of some grumblings from Zoe’s dad about her drama dreams — the

family bond was readily renewed. The results of the bonding appear

on page 31.

We hope you’ll clip and save our comprehensive 32-page Preview,


on page 19. And as the seasons continue to follow predictably upon

one another, keep watching U.S. 1 for each week’s unfolding of events

for theatergoers, music lovers, dance watchers, gallery denizens,

families, singles, and everyone in between.


The telephone number for Reed House Gallery (200 North Main Street

in Hightstown) was incorrect in the U.S. 1 Retail Directory; the


number is 609-448-8588. Thanks to Deborah Paglione for catching the


We have received several calls from retail store owners who wish to

be listed in next year’s retail guide. The procedure is simple: Send

us your information, including a brochure or business card, if you

wish, as soon as possible. We will enter your information into our

data base now, and you will be in the loop for next summer.

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