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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’
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
We asked her what it was like negotiating the territory from compliant
daughter to an independent professional whom some say outshines her
"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
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
"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
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 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
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
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
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
"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."
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.
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
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