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Chez Atreus


by Aeschylus, directed by Andrei Serban. at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York

A great deal of enthusiasm goes into the production of Greek tragedies for the modern stage, both academic and professional; unfortunately the same enthusiasm is rarely in evidence on the house side of the footlights. Playgoers watching a Greek tragedy usually manage to refrain from looking too often at their wristwatches but the expression on their faces is one of self-congratulation at the steady accumulation of cultural Brownie points. They greet the barely intelligible chanting of the chorus and its inert choreography with simulated rapture and affect a connoisseur’s taste for rhetoric as the long descriptive speeches roll on uninterrupted; only their applause for the end of the proceedings is heartfelt. Most productions of Greek tragedy, though I should be the last person to say so, are a crashing bore.

Excuses lie ready to hand. We have only the bare words of the text; we have lost the original music of the choral odes and the mimetic gestures of the dancers as well as the enigmatic immobility of the masks. We cannot experience the tension generated by the awesome size of the ancient audience (the theater at Athens had a capacity of 14,000); we cannot even imagine the religious fears and ecstasy to which the participants in this Dionysiac festival appealed. We have only the bare bones, a magnificent armature of course, but not living flesh and blood.

The more courageous among the modern directors have refused to resign themselves to such an admission of defeat and have determined to make these bones live. The usual approach has been to poise against the decorous rhetoric of the dialogue and the allusive obscurity of the lyric a violence in action, staging, and costume which draws eclectically from all the modern stage innovators—Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski, Brook—and from any source provided the result will compel audience attention. One school favored a jarring contemporaneity: Menelaus returning from the Trojan war in combat boots with six-inch soles, cigar in mouth; Orestes and Pylades juvenile delinquents in light-colored sunglasses and black motorcycle jackets.

Others, influenced perhaps by Francis Fergusson’s chapter on Oedipus in his Idea of a Theater, followed the opposite tack: to present Greek tragedy as a sort of primeval scapegoat rite. The most distinguished effort along these lines was the Guthrie Oedipus produced at Stratford, Ontario; the hideous masks, primeval decor, and weirdly stylized movements invested the most relentlessly secular of Sophoclean dramas with overtones of some Stone Age ceremony of human sacrifice. The most sensational was undoubtedly the New York extravaganza called Dionysus in 69, which, claiming the Bacchae as its base—“of the 1,300 lines in Arrowsmith’s translation we use nearly 600, some of them more than once”—splashed pints of stage blood on many square yards of nude female anatomy, and spiced the mixture with simulated fellatio and a naked New Guinea “birth ritual,” to produce a dish which would have given Euripides, that most civilized of dramatists, an acute case of indigestion.

Whatever their success as theater of cruelty, metatheater, or unintentional farce, these solutions to the problem posed by Greek tragedy in performance were all wide of the mark. For the problem has nothing to do with the loss of the original music and choreography, which were the humble servants of the word, not its equals, and for which, with proper care and talent, modern substitutes can be created. The problem lies in the words themselves. They were aimed at an audience which listened to them in a way no modern audience can, an audience which was sensitively attuned to the living word as an art form, or rather—to use their own evaluation of it—as a kind of magic. Fifth-century Athens was a city in which books existed to be read aloud; Homeric epics as well as lyric poetry and the drama were heard, not read; state policy was influenced by the eloquence of orators not by the cogency of position papers or the brute force of statistics; the philosopher Socrates made his indelible impression on the mind of a whole generation by speech alone—he never wrote a word.

Pindar, a contemporary of Aeschylus, wrote victory odes for athletes which are so difficult for a modern reader to follow that Cowley, who translated some of them, remarked that if a man translated Pindar literally readers would think that one madman was translating another; Voltaire ironically complimented Pindar on writing “des vers que personne n’entend / Et qu’il faut toujours qu’on admire.” Yet these poems, so rich, concentrated, and allusive in their diction and content, so subtle and complicated in their meter, so lightning-swift in their elliptical transitions, were commissioned (and paid for at high prices) by the families of young men victorious at the national games—for performance at a private celebration. Whitman demanded great audiences for poetry; the Greek poets had them.

The lyric portions of Attic tragedy are from the same poetic mold as the Pindaric odes; those of Aeschylus were already famous in antiquity for the magnificence of their vocabulary, the audacity of their imagery, their length, and what seemed to later ages like lapses into occasional magniloquent obscurity. But his audience understood and was swayed by them; no Attic dramatist, in the fierce competition for popular favor imposed by the festival, could afford to leave his audience puzzled.

If the lyric sections of the drama were merely ornamental the modern producer could skirt the difficulty. But they are not. In most Greek tragedy and especially in Aeschylus they are essential for the audience’s understanding of the drama as a whole. Yet to modern ears, no matter how reductively simple the translations, they are hard to follow even if they are intelligibly delivered (which is often not the case); and even if they are understood they cannot make that direct appeal to the senses which the original audience experienced. And no amount of naked writhing and sacre-du-printemps screaming, no display of motorcycles, cigars, or machine guns is going to be any help toward a full appreciation of these lyrics which present not only the mythic background, but also the moral and religious context of the words and actions of the masked players.

In his choice of the Agamemnon, Serban has taken the bull by the horns; the lyric sections of the play are not only the most sublime passages of Aeschylean poetry, they are also the longest such sequences extant in Greek drama—they constitute almost exactly one half of the text. The Agamemnon comes close to justifying the jeering assessment of Aeschylus’ dramaturgy offered by “Euripides” in Aristophanes’ Frogs: after a prologue “the chorus would then churn out / four consecutive chains of unbroken odes, while the actors kept their mouths shut.” It does, in fact, contain four stasima, set pieces performed by the chorus in song and dance (the first of them the longest in Greek tragedy); it also presents in this lyric mode two long dramatic scenes—the prophetic ravings of Cassandra and the choral mourning for Agamemnon, interrupted by Clytemnestra’s increasingly insecure attempts at self-justification.

To add to the difficulties faced by the modern director, the dramatic action of the first half of the play is not motion along a line but development of a single theme. In the prologue a watchman announces the fall of Troy and prays for the return of Agamemnon; the first episode consists of Clytemnestra’s announcement of the fall of Troy and the imminent return of Agamemnon; the second presents a herald who gives thanks for the fall of Troy and announces Agamemnon’s arrival in Argos; and in the third Agamemnon returns and describes the fall of Troy. Anything farther removed from the modern conception of dramatic action it would be hard to conceive.

Serban’s response to the challenge of this recalcitrant text is restrained and intelligent. He avoids both fake modernism and self-indulgent primitivism; the tone is hieratic, not savage. Above all, he avoids nudity; in fact, the actors are padded out with multiple layers of clothing—the one instance of partial nudity is reserved for an appallingly successful dramatic effect. He has his actors deliver the spoken links with distinct, almost meticulous, elocution and deliberate slowness; his aim is clearly full intelligibility. That aim is furthered by the choice of Edith Hamilton’s translation, which, in spite of occasional archaisms, is distinguished by its simplicity and straightforwardness. The choral odes are performed by a chorus which both sings and dances, but it does so in a way which puts to shame most previous efforts in this line; after this production there should be no excuse for posturings in the style of Isadora Duncan and pale imitations of plainsong or—the usual alternative to these genteelisms—aboriginal howling and primeval jigs.

Serban’s chorus not only sing well, it has something to sing; Elizabeth Swados has composed for these voice music which, reminiscent at times of Byzantine church-music and at times of Mikis Theodorakis, is authoritative, exquisitely adjusted to the dramatic tempo, and compelling in its own right. And the chorus as dancer is a disciplined instrument; it moves with that reassuring speed and precision whch comes only from training; the figures of the dance, ranging from solemn processional to the abandon of funeral lament, impose themselves throughout as appropriate to the situation. A great deal of thought and work has obviously gone into the creation of these effects, but, satisfying though the results are, they are the product of refinement rather than invention. What is truly original is Serban’s attempt to deal with the real problem, the poetic and intellectual content of the lyric portions of the play.

Since a modern audience, unused to hearing poetry even of the simplest sort, cannot see in imagination or experience in emotion the events over which the chorus broods in the choral lyrics, Serban puts those events before their eyes, on stage. The sacrifice of Iphigenia, for example, which is re-created in merciless detail and magnificent poetry in the first stasimon, is, in this version, acted out before the spectators’ eyes in what the Elizabethans called “dumb show.” A similar technique is adopted for many other lyric passages, in particular for Cassandra’s horrendous visions of the past, present, and future of the house of Atreus.

Now that the work once done by the words alone is given to the actors, the words themselves become superfluous; indeed, if recited at full length and so as to be intelligible to the audience they might constitute a dangerous distraction. So Serban cuts the text considerably and has his chorus sing the words in what is billed as a mixture of the Edith Hamilton translation and “fragments of ancient Greek.” And, of course, since the words are no longer all-important, the music is given free rein. In the first stasimon, which has as its climax the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the English translation emerged from the music into full intelligibility only at the passages essential for an understanding of the mimed action; the rest of it was impenetrable, sometimes because of the volume of the music, sometimes because whatever the chorus was singing it was not Edith Hamilton, or, for that matter, English. I wish I could say that it was Greek, but though I know most of the choral lyric of the play by heart in the original and though I am familiar with many of the different modern ways of pronouncing ancient Greek (sloppy English, harsh Prussian, soft modern Greek, and Chinese-singsong purist being the main varieties), I managed to identify only three words. Two of them, iou and popax, are not words at all, but exclamations (and the second one does not occur in Agamemnon); the other, kai, a savage choral cry of anger with which the chorus punctuated Clytemnestra’s keening over her daughter’s body, is Greek all right, but it is the Greek word for “and.”

This is of course an unfair scholarly cavil; 99 percent of the audience was perfectly content—it was Greek to them. And I would have been equally content if the program had told me that the chorus was singing in Zulu. For the fact is that the enactment of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is a theatrical tour de force, an irresistible assault on the emotions of the audience. The frenetic gestures of the priest as he declares for the sacrifice, the monstrous padded figure of Agamemnon, wearing a mask suggestive both of cruelty and of agony, the wordless, shocked grief of Clytemnestra, and the innocence of the child in her saffron wedding dress, all build the tension toward the moment when the armed men surround the girl and strip off her robe; the frail adolescent body, naked except for white loincloth and breastband, the mouth stopped with a black gag, is lifted high up over Agamemnon’s sword, “as you lift a kid above the altar,” to create, for one instant of unbearable intensity, that pity and fear which Aristotle named as the emotions proper to tragedy. After this scene, no one in the audience can fail to understand the force which drives Clytemnestra on to her revenge. Here at last a director has found a way to penetrate the modern spectator’s insensitivity to spoken poetry and expose him to the beauty and terror which, for the ancient audience, stemmed from the words alone.

Now for the bad news. The same technique is less successful elsewhere. The second choral ode begins as a hymn of thanks to Zeus for the victory at Troy: “you cast over Troy and her towered walls / a close-meshed net none could win through”; it proceeds through an indictment of Paris and Helen, the cause of the war, to lamentation for the Greek losses, and ends in foreboding for the future. Serban’s chorus operates with a real net, one as wide as a tennis court; dancers who appear to represent Paris and Helen are snared, released, and finally caught as the mazes of the dance reach their end. This is heavy-handed literalism and ineffective theater; it is also not very clear—there were many puzzled faces in the audience. My own disenchantment was increased by the fact that this was one net too many (number four, in fact). Every schoolboy knows (well, every undergraduate who has taken a course in Classical Civilization) that the dominant image of the Agamemnon is the net; but there was no need to rub it in by dressing Clytemnestra in a black net shawl, giving her a net to play with as she makes her speech about the fall of Troy, and using for a stage a huge construction made of steel netting.

The technique of what might be called the visual correlative is employed with a lavish hand in one other lyric area of the play, the Cassandra scene. This is certainly a proper place for it. Cassandra’s lines in the original—disjointed fragments of a whirling vision of past, present, and future—are allusive in the extreme; in the play they are for the most part unintelligible to the chorus but of course they were understood by the audience, which was familiar with the story of the house of Atreus. The modern audience, however, has to read up on it quickly in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont theater, where it is displayed on a large chart; inside the theater, the audience needs all the help it can get. It does not get enough. Serban does put most of Cassandra’s visions on stage but without the sureness of touch which made the sacrifice of Iphigenia so electrifying. The Fury dancing with her blazing torch is impressive enough, but the children carrying their own cooked entrails are merely grotesque, especially since the objects they have in their hands look more like dried-out lobster shells than liver and lights. When Cassandra realizes that Apollo is sending her to her death in the house, a contraption that looks like the platform used by window cleaners on the World Trade Center descends from the flies carrying a muscular man dressed only in a black jockstrap; he proceeds to prod Cassandra from above with a spear longer than anything seen in Greece until Philip of Macedon’s troops came south with their fourteen-foot sarisas. Who is it? Apollo? I suppose so. But the man sitting behind me whispered to his companion that it was Superman.

Cassandra’s most spectacular vision is the murder of Agamemnon in his bath. The bath (a little small for Jamil Zakkai, its occupant) duly appears on stage and Agamemnon is killed in it (after having net number five thrown over him by Clytemnestra). So far so good, but then Clytemnestra kills Cassandra. Not the Cassandra who is seeing this happen in a vision, but the one in the vision; they are both on stage. This is confusing enough but is made worse by the fact that Priscilla Smith, who has so far played Clytemnestra, is now playing Cassandra (the one having the vision) so that the Clytemnestra who kills Cassandra (the one in the vision) is somebody else. These complications are a by-product of the decision to use only two actors for the four principal roles.

It is hard to think of reasons for such a procedure. It was surely not a shortage of competent actors and though there might be some slight symbolic value in having Agamemnon and Aegisthus played by the same man, to emphasize the repetitive pattern of justice by revenge, there is no similar dividend to be expected from doubling the roles of Clytemnestra and Cassandra. It has been suggested that Serban is striving for authenticity by accepting the limit of two speaking actors which early tragedy imposed on the Attic dramatist. If so, there has been a failure of communication somewhere, for the Agamemnon is the first play we know of in which the third speaking actor, introduced to the repertoire by Sophocles, is used by Aeschylus—used, in fact, to bring Cassandra on stage together with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

This is not the only case of tampering with the structure of the original. Much more serious is the rearrangement of the final sequence. In the Greek play Cassandra’s exit is followed by Agamemnon’s famous death cries offstage; the door opens and Clytemnestra appears to make her triumphant speech over the bodies of the king and the Trojan princess. As the chorus laments their dead king and accuses the queen, she defends herself, but, retreating from her original assumption of full responsibility, finally claims that it was not she who killed Agamemnon but the spirit of vengeance which haunts the house. She prays that this spirit will depart, offers to sacrifice part of her wealth, to bargain with it, in fact, and at this moment, Aegisthus, its living embodiment, comes on stage to exult over his enemy’s corpse. The chorus, stung to fury, defies him; he threatens them with his armed bodyguard, but Clytemnestra intervenes to prevent “more bloodshed.” The stage is set for the next play, in which more blood will indeed be shed, that of Aegisthus and her own.

What happens in Serban’s version is very different. When the door opens it is Aegisthus who walks out to make his victory speech. He quarrels with the chorus and Clytemnestra intervenes. Only then does the queen, over the bodies of her two victims, buried in a shallow grave in the steel netting, make her great speech of triumph while the chorus mourns its king. This radical reshuffling (reminiscent of Marowitz, who played similar havoc with Shakespeare in an attempt to abolish his “relentless narrativeness“) deprives the play of two of its great lines (Agamemnon’s offstage death cries) and one of its great tableaux (the confrontation of the aged chorus and the tyrant’s bodyguard); it also destroys the logic of the Aeschylean development.

Nothing in the production so far has suggested that Serban is merely capricious; there must be some reason for this. Perhaps it is connected with the fact that the Agamemnon is not a self-contained play but the first part of a trilogy, which goes on to present the insoluble dilemma faced by Orestes and in the last play the solution which can come only from divine intervention. The Agamemnon cannot stand alone; some hint of the future is indispensable. Too far into the future Serban cannot go; what he does is to bring Orestes on in dumb show, equip him with a sword (handed to him from Agamemnon’s grave by Electra), and send him into the house to murder his mother. He may have felt that this silent miming of Orestes’ return and revenge made most sense if it followed directly on Clytemnestra’s speech over the corpse of the king, and so transposed the final scenes of the play.

This sequence is visually and in every other way an anticlimax but it is at least fairly intelligible. There is, however, another dumb show, which serves as prologue to the play, for which the same claim cannot be made. In it, Agamemnon pushes what looks like a baton against Iphigenia’s stomach; she lies down, whereupon Clytemnestra does the same thing to him, with the same result. A young man, naked to the waist and dressed in baggy white trousers, appears and does the same thing to her. This is, presumably, Orestes (at least he is the same character we see at the end of the play), but there were few in the audience who could be sure of it. In any case, this is an unimpressive piece of business; it seems to come from a different mind than the one that conceived the terrifying scene of Iphigenia’s sacrifice.

In retrospect, the weaknesses recede as the production’s tremendous images reassert their hold on the imagination. The play has a wealth of stunning visual effects, many of which have an authentic antique Greekness: one such scene has Clytemnestra light the torches of the chorus women as they file slowly past her looking like figures from an Attic vase. And it would be hard to imagine a more convincing Clytemnestra than Priscilla Smith. She is magnificent and deadly throughout: in her incredulous agony as she watches her daughter die, her mouth wide open in a soundless scream; in her slow delivery of the baleful speech of welcome, loaded with flattering superlatives and laced with menacing ambiguities; in the struggle of wills as Agamemnon balks at treading the purple carpet; above all in her exultation over Agamemnon’s corpse. “Croaking your song, raven-like” the chorus says, and, as she rasps out her hymn of triumphant hate, she jumps on the steel netting, her legs wide apart, like some hideous bird of prey.

The production has its victories as well as its defeats; the critic, to adapt an Aeschylean refrain, may at times cry Alas but the good prevails. The richness of its music, the care that has been taken with the training of the chorus, the insistence on clear delivery in the spoken dialogue, the restraint of the actors, whose passionate intensity is somehow raised rather than lowered by the solemnity of their gestures, above all the imaginative attack on the problem posed by choral lyric—all this means that Serban has set standards against which future productions of Greek tragedy will be measured.

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