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SOCIETY HUNGERS FOR ALL-OUT PERFORMANCES

At the Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, capacity audiences are turning out eight times a week to see a 2,400-year-old play about vengeance, Sophocles' "Electra." It is the surprise hit of the Broadway season, this stripped-down production, played on an almost bare stage with only a wall and two ladders behind it. No music. No dancing. And only one bit of color in one of the costumes.

What gives it its compelling power is the performance of Zoe Wanamaker as Electra, daughter of the murdered King Agamemnon. She is consumed by her passion for retribution against her mother, Clytemnestra, who has conspired in the killing and has taken Agamemnon's murderer, Aegisthus, to her bed.

As she goads her brother Orestes to slay their mother, Electra becomes the distilled essence of all the morally certain, driven, almost demonic figures who have made the history of the last two millennia so bloody by their willful determination to balance the scales of justice -- or injustice.

So fully does Wanamaker inhabit her role -- and so skillfully is she supported by great actors like Claire Bloom, Pat Carroll and Stephen Spinella in the other major roles -- that the 90-minute drama, played without intermission, is emotionally exhausting. One wonders how Wanamaker can psych herself up to such a pitch eight times a week.

Watching her, it struck me that there is a special hunger in our society just now for performers who are willing, as this actress is, to invest herself entirely in her role. That came through in the tributes to Michael Jordan, when he announced his retirement last week.

Teammates, opponents and the sportswriters who had covered him spoke not only of his extraordinary athleticism, but of the discipline and dedication he brought to his career. "He showed up to play every night," they said, and some of his most notable performances came on nights when he was ill or injured or worn out. But, as the saying goes, Jordan "never just mailed it in."

We see so many people who have been blessed with great skills or great good fortune who take their gifts for granted and simply go through the motions. That is what happened to Elvis Presley in his later years, as biographer Peter Guralnick points out in the second and final volume on the life of the great singer, published this month.

One reason that sports has such a hold on the public imagination is that competitors in that field do not have to disguise the intensity of their emotional investment in the games they play or coach. When John Thompson retired earlier this month as the Georgetown University basketball coach, people spoke of the fierce discipline he exerted on his players, both as athletes and as students.

John Elway has had that same reputation for unstinting dedication in the 16 years he has quarterbacked the Denver Broncos.

It is striking -- and sad -- that no public official in our times has enjoyed anything like that reputation or evoked the same kind of response. Since the end of the Cold War, calls for sacrifice for the national cause have gone out of fashion. Political competition takes the form of offering the voters alternative plates of sweets -- tax cuts, new entitlements, or both -- with little asked in return.

And officials are not prepared to demand that much of themselves. President Clinton's actions were, to put it mildly, self-indulgent, and the Senate is in a dither trying to decide if it is politically safe to call him to account.

Perhaps as a result of all this, when someone is described as "a consummate politician," it is taken as criticism, not praise. And that is a shame, because politics is as high a calling as acting or coaching or playing a sport.

But where are the Wanamakers or Jordans or Thompsons or Elways in public office today?

Washington Post Writers Group

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