Tantalus: Ten New Plays on Greek Myths
We know remarkably little about who actually went to the theater in ancient Athens—scholars continue to debate whether women were permitted to attend, for instance—but it’s a fair bet that whoever did go had a pretty grueling time of it. All tragedies were originally performed during a six-day-long citywide springtime festival in honor of Dionysos, god of what you could call altered states (drunkenness, theater). On each of the three successive festival days devoted to tragic performances, a different playwright presented a full tetralogy—three complete tragedies followed by a brief, ribald romp called a satyr play, which probably parodied the themes of the dramas immediately preceding it. The day before the performances was reserved for civic and religious ceremonials performed, like the plays themselves, inside the theater: there were parades of war orphans and of the annual “contributions” from Athens’s subject-allies; announcements of the names of citizens who had benefited the state; libations to democracy, peace, and good fortune.
The days of the performances themselves were undoubtedly long ones. Modern productions of Greek drama tend to minimize or dispense with the elaborate musical accompaniment and the choral dances that were such an integral part of the ancient performances—the music was composed, and the dances choreographed, by the tragedian himself—with the result that today a performance of, say, Sophocles’ Oedipus will take about an hour and a half. (That’s how long a new production by the Greek National Theater at the City Center in New York took in October.) But twenty-five hundred years ago the plays, which were presented in a theater scooped out of the slope of the Acropolis and underwritten, in fulfillment of a civic obligation, by rich citizens who vied to outspend one another on costumes, masks, and the training, rehearsing, and feeding of musicians and chorus members, certainly took much longer, an entire tetralogy lasting probably from sunup through dusk. (Certain works appear to have been intended to take dramatic advantage of the organization of the festival day: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only complete trilogy that has come down to us, begins at dawn and ends with a torchlit parade.)
To these day-long events, audience members brought their own food; with the exception of certain dignitaries and priests, people sat on either wooden benches or the ground. (The marble amphitheaters and concentric rings of stone benches that many of us are familiar with were generally built well after tragedy’s heyday in the fifth century BC.) There were, undoubtedly, longueurs. In a passage of the Nichomachean Ethics about the sources of pain and pleasure, Aristotle remarks that spectators tended to eat their snacks during stretches of bad acting.
The festival hubbub, the elaborate preliminaries, the sight (and smell) of the vast throng, numbering around 20,000, sitting for hours on end, several days in a row, under the springtime sun; and, onstage, the singing of the big aria-like speeches, the slow, recitative-like chanting of the dialogue, the choral ballets, the ribald coda—nothing could be further from the way we like to think of tragedy today: austere, stripped down, distilled. What makes classical tragedy “classic,” after all, is our sense that its representations of ideological and emotional conflicts are so superbly compressed and elemental that there’s nothing extraneous for time to erode. Antigone defying Creon, Medea exploding at Jason: these confrontations seem so obviously to be about eternal tensions (between the individual and the state; between men and women) that the settings in which they originally were played out seem beside the point.
It’s hard not to think that this is just as true of the abstruse and culturally specific references within tragic texts. To understand and sympathize with the humiliation and rage of an abandoned wife, after all, you merely need to be human. Certain other elements in Medea—allusions to the history of the Argonauts and their expedition; to the status of foreign women in Greek city-states; to procedural fine points of formal oath-taking; to the ongoing rhetorical fascination in fifth-century Athens with logos and ergon, words and deeds—may have been clear to the community of spectators who first saw Euripides’ play in 431 BC, but now seem about as necessary to grasping the essential message of the drama as knowing the precise height of the heels on the kothurnoi, the platform shoes worn by tragic actors.
And yet an awareness of context—the social and civic contexts for the performance, the literary and intellectual contexts for the words of the drama itself—can make a startling difference in how we understand these works. To take one example from a familiar text: as citizens of industrialized democracies, deeply invested in the notion of individualism, we have always liked to see Antigone as a hero of individual conscience against state-sponsored repression. (Jean Anouilh certainly did.) But just how an Athenian citizen might have viewed this ungovernable girl, on the day after he’d wept while the sons of dead war heroes—his friends, tribesmen, or even relatives—were paraded through the very same theater in which the actor playing Antigone now proclaimed her mulish resistance to her uncle the king, is anybody’s guess. Nor, even more frustratingly, can we know in its entirety the vast fabric of myth and traditional stories out of which the Athenian playwrights wove their inventive new versions. Such knowledge was of course assumed by the playwrights; many tragedies derive their special resonance and meaning precisely from the tension between the old and new versions. (How shocked, and provoked to new and disturbing insights, the Athenians must have been when Euripides, the most playful of the three great tragedians in this respect, decided to have Medea—rather than the people of Corinth, as in earlier versions—kill her children.)
Nothing conveys better the differences between the Greek experience of tragedy, so inextricable from communal knowledge and experience, and our own than do the respective theatergoing habits of each culture. Today we attend the theater sitting in total darkness, from which the drama appears before us as a luminous and discrete object, as distinct from ourselves and the humdrum matter of our everyday lives as brightness is from dark. We tend to seek entertainment, even serious entertainment, as an “escape” from the everyday. For the Greeks, there was no escape: the broad daylight that poured down on the theater of Dionysos made it impossible to ignore the gigantic civic community whose shared social assumptions, literary and mythological traditions, and religious and political conventions were the stuff out of which tragedy’s meanings were fabricated and upon which it commented.
A rare sense of what attending the theater in Athens must have felt like is what you came away with after seeing John Barton’s new ten-play cycle, Tantalus, which was performed in a somewhat abridged, nine-drama, twelve-hour-long version directed by Sir Peter Hall and Edward Hall at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last fall. I say “felt like” rather than “looked like” because Hall’s staging, much of which was striking and emotionally overwhelming and some of which was gimmicky and flat, made no serious claims to replicating authentic tragic conventions. (The actors wore masks, a Hall specialty, but that was about it.)
Nor, indeed, did Barton’s texts, which, with one thrilling exception, re-created well-known episodes from myth—the rape of Helen, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the ruse of the Horse, the fall of Troy, the sacrifice of Polyxena, Hecuba’s madness—but did so in language that fails to display the dense lyricism and verbal astringency of the originals, even if it’s presented as verse. (Barton, a co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and prolific playwright and adapter, generally uses a short three-beat trochaic line, as opposed to tragedy’s longer six-beat iambic trimeter.) “Don’t put me down,” Barton’s Electra tells her mother in an exchange whose banality is all too typical.
A work like Barton’s, which is “new” and yet inevitably invites some sort of comparison with its sources of inspiration, can be judged on several levels: as an original work of literature, to be held to the rigorous standards that we must apply to serious art; as a textual skeleton to be fleshed out by stagings that are themselves a source of pleasure and provocation; and, finally, as provocative glosses on the originals that so clearly inspired it. I would say that Barton’s new cycle fails on the first level. (It’s not that it’s terrible, it’s just that it isn’t great.)
But the extent to which it succeeds on the other two is significant enough to give it an enduring appeal. For all that it strayed from authenticity of staging and prosody, there was something deeply Greek-tragic about the cycle. Like the great tragedians, Barton sees myth as elastic, as something to play with; his inventive retelling of stories that we know, alongside his presentation of some he’s just made up, is more deeply and authentically Greek than many respectful stagings of this or that tragedy. The two questions that various characters keep asking as Tantalus proceeds—“Who is to blame?” and “Could it be otherwise?”—show that Barton has a deep understanding of his tragic models, which also ask them over and over again; ostensibly about the Trojan War (the subject of more plays than anything else), these questions could be said to refer as well to the tragic tradition itself, with its anxious preoccupations about originality and innovation. Whatever his claims to creating a new epic “for a new millennium,” Barton’s up to some very old tricks here.
The dramatist’s decision to name his new cycle after the remotest ancestor of mythology’s most dysfunctional family tells you a lot about his ambitions. Tantalus, the last mortal to dine with the gods, was the father of Pelops (whom he roasted and served to the gods; the partially eaten boy was resuscitated and ravished by Poseidon). Tantalus was also the grandfather of Atreus, who after being cuckolded by his brother roasts the brother’s children and serves them to their father; and he’s the great-grandfather of Agamemnon, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia and is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, whose lover is Agamemnon’s cousin—the surviving son of the unwitting cannibal. Fascinating as this may be, Tantalus never appears onstage in the new cycle that bears his name; with the exception of a brief prologue, the entire cycle is devoted to the Trojan War and features a well-known cast of characters: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Helen, Menelaus, Hecuba, Priam, Cassandra, Iphigenia, Achilles.
Indeed, after the prologue, which is set both in the present (a Poet tells a group of bikini-clad female tourists stories that metamorphose into our plays) and in the mythic past (where we get brief prehistories of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s marriage—he rapes her, but they make up—and of Achilles’ parents, the mortal hero Peleus and the shapeshifting sea nymph Thetis, whom he must rape on their wedding night), the plays themselves narrate well-known events. The preparation for Troy and the sacrifice of Iphigenia are the subject of the first trio of plays, The Outbreak of War; the siege itself, the climactic ruse of the Horse, the fall of Troy, and the enslavement of the Trojan women are the subject of the second trio, The War; and the aftermath—Hecuba’s madness and transformation into a dog; Andromache’s servitude in the house of Achilles’ son Neoptolemus; the trial of Helen and the voyages home of Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon—are either dramatized or narrated in the third section, The Homecomings. (In Denver, there were meal breaks between the trilogies, during which theatergoers sat at big round tables, forced, like the Athenians, to share their theatrical experience.)