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,…

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