Reputed to be the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, Helen was seduced away from her husband, Menelaus, by the Trojan Prince Paris, who brought her to Troy. Enraged, Menelaus came for help to his brother Agamemnon, King of Mycenae. Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of the Greek forces, assembled many troops and 1,000 ships to attack Troy. The goddess Artemis, displeased with Agamemnon, caused a constant east wind to blow, thus preventing his ships from sailing east toward Troy. Soothsayers told Agamemnon that only if he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia would the wind subside. He sacrificed her, and the Greeks sailed for Troy. But the sacrifice of her daughter had turned Klytämnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, against her husband.
After nine years of war, Troy fell. When Agamemnon returned from Troy, Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth murdered him with an ax. They sent away Agamemnon’s young son, Orest, to prevent the possibility of his avenging his father’s death, but his two sisters, Elektra and Chysothemis, remain in Mycenae. Elektra has been punished by years of physical abuse and deprivation, as she awaits the return of her brother to avenge their father’s death.
Five maids and their overseer are in the courtyard of Agamemnon’s palace, wondering whether the demented Elektra will appear, as usual, to wail for the dead king. Only one of the maids defends the princess,
When the maids leave, Elektra appears for her nightly ceremony. She implores the spirit of her murdered father to appear, dwelling upon the gruesome details of his death and the bloody vengeance she vows to have. Her sister, Chrysothemis, interrupts with the warning that their mother and her lover, Aegisth, plan to imprison Elektra. Chrysothemis, who wants only to have children and live a normal life, pleads with Elektra to give up her obsession with their father’s murder so that they may both be allowed to leave the palace.
Elektra does not comfort her. The sisters hear their mother, Klytämnestra, approaching. Chrysothemis, not able to bear another fight between her mother and sister, rushes away. Klytämnestra, diseased, tortured by the murder she committed and fearful of the future, enters with her retinue. She has long suspected Elektra of clairvoyant powers, and, finding her at first docile, she asks Elektra for advice.
Elektra draws from her mother the fact that she is terrified all the time, suffers nightmares, and that she wants to know what sacrifice she can make to the gods to free her of the pain that is destroying her life. Elektra tells her that she knows what sacrifice will help her. At first quietly (but very cleverly), Elektra describes the sacrifice, ending by telling her mother that it is her death at the hands of her son (Elektra’s brother) that will release her from her nightmares. Her mother collapses in terror, but then, hearing secret news from a confidante, she laughs hysterically and departs.
Chrysothemis rushes in to relate that news has reached the palace that Orest has been killed. Elektra resolves that she must avenge her father herself, and she tries to enlist her sister’s help in murdering their mother. When Chrysothemis understands what her sister is asking her to do, she flees.
Elektra begins to dig in the spot where she buried the axe that killed Agamemnon, when a stranger appears with a companion. At first taking her for a servant, the stranger realizes through her anguish that this dirty, crazed woman is Elektra. Only when several servants come quietly into the courtyard and kiss him does Elektra realize that he is her brother, Orest. Crying his name, she embraces him. Elektra encourages her brother to avenge their murdered father.
Klytämnestra and her attendants believe that this stranger is carrying the news of Orest’ death, and they welcome the two men into the palace. The screams of Klytämnestra can be heard in the courtyard as Orest kills her. Aegisth returns from the hunt. Elektra joyfully lights his way into the house, and Orest kills him as well.
Chrysothemis and her women return to rejoice that Orest has returned, and the sisters exult together. Elektra declares that they should celebrate their release with nothing but silence and dance, and she begins to dance wildly. Her sister, frightened, goes inside. Alone, Elektra dances, exulting in the vengeance of which she has dreamed. But the release of so much pent-up hate and euphoria proves too much for her. Just as Chrysothemis returns, Elektra falls to the earth, dead.