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.)
Much of this was treated in extant tragedies that Barton self-consciously invokes: Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia Among the Taurians, Andromache, Hecuba, and The Trojan Women. But all of it was originally the subject of a lost cycle of epic poems about the Trojan War, of which the Iliad and Odyssey alone survive. Barton is clearly aware of this. “What is your story called?” the Chorus asks the Poet, and he answers in Greek: “Kuklos:/Epikou cyclou leipsana.” “A cycle: remnants of the epic cycle.”
An awareness of the vastness of what has been lost is, in fact, the point of Barton’s title. What it implies, and what his cycle very effectively conveys, is something you can’t get in productions of individual tragedies, which is a sense of the total scope of myth, with its cyclical repetitions and recurring themes—a very Greek sense that the drama you’re seeing on this particular occasion is part of something much bigger and older, and that however new the version you’re seeing is, it’s just a variation on a well-known theme.
The sheer length of Barton’s cycle, which has excited a good deal of comment (one critic complained about the food served during the meal breaks; you wonder what Aristotle would have made of him), is necessary: it allows the author to cram his narrative with a sufficient number of mythic episodes that the audience will be able to see parallels and hear echoes that the Athenian audience, raised on these myths, would have taken for granted.
For instance: most of us know, and Barton reminds us here, that Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris; this, we tend to think, was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Barton, however, revives and emphasizes an earlier episode from the epic cycle, one in which the Trojan princess Hesione, Priam’s sister, was first abducted by the Greek hero Heracles; his implication is that this was the real cause of the war—that Helen’s abduction was primarily an act of reprisal for another, still earlier crime. Similarly, we have Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a play about a magic weapon, a festering leg wound, and a hero who will help end the Trojan War. But is this the only such plot? In the first part of his cycle, Barton works in the myth of Telephus (the subject of a lost play by Euripides that was ridiculed by Aristophanes), which involves a magic weapon, a festering leg wound, and a hero who will help start the Trojan War.
We know, too, that Iphigenia must be sacrificed in order to appease the irate goddess Artemis, who has becalmed the Greek fleet just as it sets sail for Troy. Barton includes this episode: but because, toward the end of his cycle, he also includes the sacrifice of the Trojan princess Polyxena (necessary, here, in order to appease the spirit of the dead Achilles, who has becalmed the Greeks trying to get back home after the war), you get a fresh sense of the symmetry of the whole myth, of the way that the terrible war, a vehicle for unleashing men’s aggressions, is framed by the deaths of two innocent girls.
By providing such parallels, Barton excellently conveys the paradoxical nature of tragic mythmaking, which is at once endlessly inventive and suffocatingly hermetic. “How could it be otherwise?” you ask. The answer, everywhere in evidence here, is that there are always other versions and other causes, parallels, and doublings. (It was a nice touch that, in the otherwise gimmicky and overly cute staging of the framing prologue, a popular song by the late Greek composer Manos Hadzidakis is heard playing in the background as the beach bunnies take their places; its refrain means “Let me start the song from the beginning once again….”) The creation, within the course of a single long day, of an effective means of recovering a sense of the size and structure of tragic myth was, I thought, Tantalus’ greatest achievement.
Barton’s innovations in myth are as illuminating as his recapitulations of it are. There is a particularly sug-gestive novelty in his portrayal of certain characters. The Agamemnon one saw in Denver was considerably more soulful, more hesitant and thoughtful, than the king portrayed in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon—or, for that matter, in Sophocles’ Ajax. “How can we win wars/When there is a blood-feud/In our own house?” he wonders at the beginning of the Telephus section, as he invites his estranged cousin Aegisthus for a reconciliation. This Agamemnon isn’t Homer’s blustering potentate, but, interestingly and rather movingly, a minor king only too aware that his civilization is inferior to the one he is seeking so mightily to bring down. There’s a wonderful moment in the first play of the second trilogy, War, that gives you a poignant sense of both how reluctant Agamemnon is to destroy Troy and, indeed, how long the Greeks have been away from home. “I have come to love that city/ Better than my own Mycenae,” he murmurs.
Just as surprisingly, and provocatively, the kind of aggressive impulse you normally associate with Agamemnon is here embodied by none other than Peleus, Achilles’ aged father. “Now the war’s begun/Why give moral reasons/For something that’s enjoyable/And worth-while in itself?” Peleus demands of Agamemnon as the Greeks gather at Aulis. (The vaguely porcine mask that the actor portraying Peleus wore in Denver, as well as the cap, complete with piggy ear flaps, that he had on, were perfect—just two of many superb touches by the Greek designer Dionysis Fotopoulos.) This Peleus is barely recognizable as the young hero who was rewarded for his virtue by the gods, or the noble old man of Euripides’ Andromache, the only extant tragedy in which he appears. When he first came onstage (played by the same actor who had played the Poet in the prologue: both characters are major string-pullers in the cycle), I found myself objecting to the playwright’s innovation—and then I realized that I now had some idea of how an Athenian of the classical period might have felt when he saw the lovably wily Odysseus of Homer’s epic transformed into the evil, scheming villain of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes.
In view of Barton’s overall success at giving his audience an ability to appreciate how real Greek tragedy achieved its allusive resonances, it’s too bad that the most dazzling of Barton’s reconfigurations of the tradition was unlikely to be appreciated by anyone who wasn’t deeply familiar with his tragic models. When Neoptolemus, the first play of the second trilogy, opens, Achilles has died; now, his young son Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus) has come to Troy and is intent on living up to his father’s reputation—and winning his father’s famous armor. But Odysseus promises the youth the golden armor on the condition that he infiltrate Troy in disguise in order to spy on the Trojans, who at that moment are debating whether to bring the famous gift of the Greeks inside the city walls.
Neoptolemus, who’s been raised to adhere to the heroic warrior code that (he thinks) his late father em-bodied, objects to a plan he considers shameful—not least because the disguise Odysseus has in mind is the sacrificial saffron-colored robe worn by Priam’s now dead sister Hesione on the day she was snatched away by Heracles. (Hesione has died in Greek captivity, but Agamemnon thoughtfully wants to return it to his Trojan adversary.) “You want me to lie again,” Achilles’ son snaps at Odysseus. The latter’s response is crafty: “I want you to tell a story/To uphold another story.” Neoptolemus ends up obeying orders; in the next play, we see that he’s infiltrated both the city and the good graces of Priam, who decides, disastrously, to bed the beautiful “Pyrrha.” This invented episode of compulsory transvestism nicely echoes a real myth, dramatized by Barton in Part One: the story of how Thetis disguised Achilles in women’s clothing in order to prevent him from being taken to Troy.
Everything in Barton’s invented tale is, in fact, an exhilarating riff on moments in the tragic corpus. It owes the most to Sophocles’ Philoctetes, in which Neoptolemus is persuaded by Odysseus to lie to the wounded Philoctetes in order to steal the hero’s magic bow, without which Troy cannot be taken. (That play’s debates about bravery versus guile and about truth and lies, nicely replicated in this new version, invoked terms of a contemporary philosophical debate in Athens.) I wish Barton had found a way to allude to this material from Philoctetes earlier on, so that people could appreciate the tradition-bound innovation of his Neoptolemus.
But then, you’d probably need to be a classicist in order to appreciate the full extent of his play with the tradition here. The use of cross-dressing, for instance, as the means by which a male character seeks to win the martial or political prize he covets is a knowing allusion to Euripides’ Bacchae —a play that, because it is about Dionysos, god of the theater, is particularly concerned with the theater itself, its operations and effects, as indeed its famous scenes of dressing up and its elaborate play with vision and illusion suggest. (In Bacchae, the Theban king Pentheus is persuaded by a disguised Dionysos to dress up as a woman in order to spy on the Maenads, the frenzied Bacchic celebrants whom the young ruler is trying to keep under his control.)
This “metatheatrical” aspect of Bacchae is brilliantly evoked in the staging of a scene that takes place later on, when Neoptolemus’ grandmother Thetis enters upstage, walking backward while wearing Neoptolemus’ “Pyrrha” mask on the back of her head; since the “real” Thetis is also just a mask, we’re made to think of the theater itself and how it achieves its real-seeming illusions in a complex, compelling, and very Euripidean fashion.
Although it was, in some sense, the most original play in the entire cycle, the sophisticated and allusive manner in which elements from existing myth and tragedy were reconfigured in order to make an intellectually, thematically, and dramatically convincing new whole was, I thought, profoundly and authentically Euripidean. Indeed, watching this new Neoptolemus in 2000 was what watching the first performance of Euripides’ Orestes—another drama that makes playful, provocative use of preexisting myths and the dramatizations of them in earlier tragedies—must have been like in 408 BC.
The scene featuring the masked Thetis suggests just how good the production could be when direction, design, and text came together. There was much here that remained in the mind’s eye long after the performance was over: the first glimpse of the Trojan queen Hecuba, dressed in clanking, barbaric regalia that looked like something Schliemann might have dug up; the wittily costumed Myrmidons—Achilles’ soldiers, said to have been transformed from ants into men—with their shiny black armor bristling with ant-like hairs and a suggestion of mandibles; the first glimpse of Achilles, portrayed here as a kind of enfant sauvage, rising naked and streaked with blue paint out of the earth; the fabulous apparition that turned out to be the opulent Eastern potentate Priam, walking on stilts in a long black robe, his shaved head plated with gold, supporting himself with delicate braces that suggested not only his imperious distance from his subjects but also his inability to move, to break away from his mythic fate; the impressive climax of the “Priam” section when, as Priam, having swallowed Neoptolemus’ lies and authorized the admission of the Horse, folds himself around the trembling “Pyrrha” as, behind him, the Horse—its vast size suggested only by the gigantic wheels that roll past, upstage—makes its deadly way inside the gates. There’s much to complain about in the excessive reliance in popular theater today on cheap and vapid spectacle; but for the most part, the spectacle in Tantalus had a serious point to make, and frequently made it powerfully.
There were other fine theatrical effects, beneath the dazzling accoutrements. Like so much else in this production, certain choices managed to seem fresh while forcing those of us who were more familiar with the conventions of classical tragedy to think a little harder about those conventions. I am thinking here not so much of Fotopoulos’s masks (which, modeled on the actors’ heads, were far less stylized than the gaping, goggle-eyed masks that Hall chose for his 1981 Oresteia), but about the use of one actor to play multiple roles. There’s been some debate among classicists about the extent to which this ancient convention may have affected an audience’s sense of the play as a whole; the Denver production made it clear that, despite the ostensibly obscuring effect of the masks, your sense of the actor behind it is very much alive during the performance, with the result that certain moments take on ironic and even poignant new meaning. In the Denver Tantalus, Agamemnon was played by the same slender actor who played the Mycenaean king’s great enemy, Priam, and it felt eerie to hear the same voice coming from both mouths—or, more precisely, mouth-holes. And the use of one actor for both Achilles (who’s portrayed as wild but not cruel) and his son Neoptolemus, who after his seduction by Odysseus becomes increasingly bloodthirsty and vicious, powerfully suggested the moral disintegra-tion of the Greeks between the optimistic beginning of the war and its sordid conclusion.
Inevitably, not everything in Tantalus was so good. I’ve already mentioned Barton’s flat, uninteresting diction, which, with a few exceptions—among them a poignant and rather Ovidian lyric given to Thetis, in which the goddess describes how the war has soiled her undersea playground with sunken ships and rotting bodies—simply isn’t up to the level of the events he portrays, let alone the works he’s invoking. Beyond this, however, too many of his paraphrases of tragic action are neither enhanced by suggestive variations nor made provocative by playful innovations. A lot of Tantalus betrayed a sense of obligation rather than real inspiration. (The classicist friend with whom I saw the cycle turned to me at one point during the War section and said, “Aren’t they going to do the murder of Astyanax?,” and lo and behold, two minutes later a rushed reference to that event was crammed in. It felt as if Barton were ticking things off a list.) And many line readings were intrusively and condescendingly jokey; apparently the Halls thought we weren’t up to a full day of seriousness. They were wrong. At a round-table discussion presented during the Tantalus cycle’s run, the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl who’d attended reported that her daughter had complained that she felt condescended to. “I wish they’d lose the beach bunnies,” the girl said. (Barton’s stage directions call for “a barren place,” and you wish Hall had listened. So, evidently, did Barton: the rumor in Denver was that he left town a few hours before the opening because he was so incensed by certain aspects of the production.)
But in the course of a work this vast and a day this long, such weaknesses and longueurs were, as we know from the historical record, to be expected. Still, when I looked around the Denver Center theater, I didn’t catch anyone snacking. This Tantalus cycle’s sheer ambition, its many high points, and most of all its suggestive innovations within tradition made a twelve-hour day pass as quickly—perhaps more quickly—than it did for the ancient Athenians.
January 11, 2001