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When Not in Greece

Iphigeneia at Aulis

by Euripides, directed by Shepard Sobel
The Pearl Theatre Company, New York, November 19–December 16, 2001

Oedipus Rex

by Sophocles, directed and designed by Tadashi Suzuki
The Japan Society, New York, November 1–3, 2001

1.

Nothing to do with Dionysos!” So went the proverbial Athenian complaint about tragedy. And no wonder: after all, the annual theatrical productions at Athens—with their brilliant costumes and special effects, the rich musical accompaniment and complex choreography, the poetically sophisticated and intellectually provocative libretti, the keenly watched competitions for playwrights—seemed to have very little indeed to do with the quaint rural shindig in honor of the wine god Dionysos from which, if we are to believe Aristotle, Greek theater evolved. For tragedy (as he asserts in the Poetics) got its humble start as a festive choral song called the dithyramb, sung in celebration of the god’s birth; while comedy owed its origins to a genre that clearly had something to do with Dionysos’ role as a fertility deity, as we may infer from its rather louche name (“phallic songs”).

Still, however far from its folksy holiday roots it may have strayed, Athenian drama in its heyday represented much more than an evening (or, more accurately, morning) of secular, private entertainment—the kind of experience we expect when we go to the theater. “Dionysos” was indeed present—nearly every extant work for the Athenian stage returns obsessively to the subject of religion—as were a host of other issues crucial to the city and its self-image. These matters were explored with a combination of intellectual subtlety and theatrical verve made possible by the genre’s natural affinity for the symbolic, abstract, and metaphorical over the naturalistic. Only in tragedy, where (for instance) women so often represent the domestic realm, and men the public, where a red carpet embodies a family’s bloody past, and a trial lawyer is an Olympian deity, could a family melodrama involving bad career decisions, spousal abandonment, child abuse, and retributive homicide become, as it does in the Oresteia, an allegory for the establishment of justice, of orderly civic life, of civilized culture.

The grand religious and civic ceremonials that framed the performances—the opening libations to Dêmokratia, democracy personified, the pa-rade of war orphans (and of allied tribute), the reading of the names of patriotic citizens, the sacrifices on behalf of the city, even the visible presence of fifteen thousand other citizens in the theater of Dionysos—underscored, in a fashion impossible to reproduce in today’s theater, the sense that the plays being performed had much larger social, civic, ritual, and political resonances.

Nothing to do with Dionysos” would, on the other hand, be a fair assessment of most modern-day stagings of tragedy. Of the vast number of works composed for production at the annual Dionysiac festival in Athens—the three great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote nearly three hundred between them, and there were many more poets writing over a period of a couple of centuries, all of them together producing a total of perhaps a thousand works in the fifth century alone—only thirty-two survive. Of those thirty-two, contemporary productions of tragedy have favored those that seem to be about recognizably contemporary emotions and dilemmas—subjects, in other words, that seem to be able to transcend the loss of the plays’ original contexts and speak to some larger, “universal” truths about human nature.

Or, at least, early-twenty-first-century truths. At least part of the contemporary admiration for (say) Euripides’ Bacchae derives from the play’s affinity with Freudian notions about repression and libido; certainly a great deal of our admiration for Sophocles’ Antigone comes from the fact that it seems to be a sympathetic portrait of a hot-blooded woman valiantly preserving her family against encroachments by the cold and anonymous State—a modern (and modernist) dilemma if ever there was one.

How the Athenians would have viewed Antigone, and Antigone, is another matter; this is where context makes a difference. After all, they saw the play after also seeing the orphaned children of the war dead—and, perhaps more to the point, the tribute money from Athens’ subject-allies—paraded around the theater. How, in that situation, the audience would have looked upon the willful girl’s defiance of a man who is not only her uncle but also, as she herself acknowledges, the city’s stratêgos, “general,” is anyone’s guess. But it seems safe to say that without the formalities that accompanied the original perform-ances, we have, at best, a partial sense of how the plays were understood; and indeed the evidence suggests, if anything, that their original resonances were very different from those that we associate with gripping drama. (It is entirely possible that, whereas we like courtrooms because they remind us of theaters, of “drama,” the Athenians liked the theater because it reminded them of courtrooms.) Our discomfort with the idea of tragedy as essentially public, political theater is reflected, notoriously, in our embarrassment about what to do with the most distinctive feature of Greek drama, the chorus—that ever-present reminder on the Greek stage that the ostensibly personal decisions made by the individual characters are always made in the setting of, and always affect, the larger society.

Those who would stage Athenian drama today must, like Agamemnon, make an unsavory choice that involves a terrible sacrifice. To strip away (as often happens) the inconvenient bits that don’t speak to us today—the chorus, the masks, the angular gestures, the abstruse mythic allusions, the high poeticisms of the language—is essentially to misrepresent the genre; without those elements, the elements that make plots into allegories, the domestic into the political (and even the cosmic), tragedy is miniaturized. And yet to reproduce a Greek tragedy today would be a meaningless exercise in theatrical embalming; anyway, even if it were possible to recreate the elements of the staging, it would be quite impossible to replicate the shared civic experience that was Athenian theater.

How, then, to proceed? Three stylistically very different productions of Greek tragedies that were staged in New York in the past few months—of which I discuss two here, and the third in a subsequent essay—suggested, paradoxically, that the best way to honor the spirit of the ancient plays was to stray very far indeed from what the playwrights wrote.

2.

All three of the canonical Athenian tragedians were represented on stage in November and December 2001; ironically, it was Euripides, the most formally daring and ideologically subversive of the three, who received the most banal and conventional treatment.

You can see where the temptation to treat this 2,500-year-old author as a contemporary might come from. The youngest of the three great dramatists—he was born a decade after Sophocles and forty years after Aeschylus—Euripides has always seemed to be the most accessible. For the postwar generation of classicists, there has indeed always been something eerily familiar about the playwright’s mordantly ironic tone, about his prescient interest in, and use of, female psychology in his plays, about his flirtation with the Derrida-like Sophists and their newfangled arguments about the nature of, and connection between, language and reality, and even about his language, which eschews the archaic and hieratic grandiosity of his predecessors and approaches something more streamlined, more “modern.”

And indeed, as the Peloponnesian War ground on for thirty bitter years, during which Athens collapsed both politically and morally, the playwright increasingly rejected the traditional received forms of theater in favor of what looks to us like an almost post-modern array of theatrical modes and styles—pageant, melodrama, absurdist farce, romance, sci-fi fantasy—in order to expose the morally bankrupt behavior of his city, and the immorality of war itself. Iphigeneia at Aulis was the last of the poet’s so-called “war plays”—a group that includes, most famously, Trojan Women. (It is, indeed, the last of all the plays: composed during Euripides’ final years of self-imposed exile in Macedon, it was produced posthumously, along with the Bacchae, following his death at seventy-nine early in 406 BC.) In his final work, the poet returned to a mythic beginning: in this case, the pivotal moment in the story of the Trojan War when Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief, decides to sacrifice his own daughter in order to win favorable winds for the expedition to Troy and (he thinks) everlasting glory.

Aristotle rather enigmatically calls Euripides the “most tragic” of the three great tragedians; Iphigeneia at Aulis suggests why. You’d think that the brutal murder of a young girl by her own father would be enough to arouse pity and fear; Aeschylus, after all, narrates the sacrifice briefly but harrowingly in a chorus of Agamemnon (which achingly describes the gagged girl pleading with her eyes for mercy). But Euripides brilliantly ratchets up the emotional ante in his last play, creating a complex and convoluted plot that yields terrible poignancies. Here Agamemnon has lured Iphigeneia to Aulis with the false promise that she is to be married to the hero Achilles (who is ignorant of the ruse); tormented by guilt, he sends a second letter warning his wife to ignore the first and thereby to save their child. This second letter is intercepted, however, and so the clueless Clytemnestra and her daughter arrive, preparing for a wedding that—as Agamemnon knows but now, pressured by his fellow generals, can no longer reveal—will be a murder. (Now it is he who is “gagged.”) The ongoing tension in the play between the rite that Iphigeneia and her excited mother expect will take place and the one that does in fact occur is one of the most wrenching that tragedy has to offer.

If the plot is contrived and artificial, then so too is the characterization. Euripides more than any other playwright had no qualms about sacrificing naturalistic verisimilitude to a larger dramatic point; in play after play, he introduces spectacular surprises and bizarre turnarounds in an almost absurdist attempt to provoke reexamination of our expectations of human nature, or divine good will, or fate. One of the striking things about Iphigeneia at Aulis is the way in which nearly every major character has a sudden volte-face: Agamemnon writes his second letter; his brother Menelaus at first denounces him for trying to save Iphigeneia, only to return in the next scene, repentant and swearing fealty to his kin; Achilles furiously rejects the idea of the false wedding—and then seems to fall in love with Iphigeneia; Iphigeneia herself at first resists her fate, only to embrace it moments later, volunteering for death. Aristotle cited her as a particularly egregious example of “inconsistency”; but as you watch Iphigeneia at Aulis, you wonder if the real point here is whether consistency of thought and emotion is even possible during a war—whether violence has a disintegrative effect on the very minds of those touched by it.

3.

None of this—a feeling for the dire real-life circumstances that shadow the play; an awareness of Euripides’ personality as a dramatist, or of the centrality of this particular moment in the myth as the ideal vehicle to investigate the nature of violence and our apparent inability to resist it; a sensitivity to the deliberate structural anomalies—was evident in the performances of this play by New York’s Pearl Theatre Company. You’d never have guessed, from Shepard Sobel’s blandly earnest production, that there was much difference between Euripides and Philip Barrie; it would certainly come as a surprise, after seeing his Iphigeneia, that this play is one that the classicist Bernard Knox could cite as an example of tragedy’s, and especially Euripides’, penchant for creating characters who speak “more like marionettes than living, feeling human beings.”1

  1. 1

    Bernard Knox, “Euripides’ ‘Iphigenia in Aulide,’ 1–163 (in that order),” in Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 279.

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