“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.
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.
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
Indeed all you got, in Sobel’s production, was living, feeling men and women, as if what happened at Aulis was Lyme disease, or a bad dot-com investment, something awful that might well befall the nice people next door and that you vaguely hope won’t happen to you. In high tragedy, complex abstractions and extreme emotion are conveyed by means of high stylization: the deeply poetic texts, the rich allusive vocabulary of myth, the ritualistic singing and dancing that resonates with shared religious and social values—the very artificiality, to which Knox alludes, that enhances rather than diminishes grand themes and emotions. Without the stylization, the naked texts seem embarrassingly deflated.
Sobel’s failure to appreciate this key point was evident first of all in his casting: the bearing, gestures, and diction of the actors suggested an unfortunately extended acquaintance with made-for-television miniseries. This wasn’t always necessarily disastrous, at least during those moments when Euripides does get sentimental: the Pearl’s Iphigeneia nicely combined virginal fragility and bouncy girlishness, with the result that her first scene with her father (the horribly ironic “Aren’t you happy to see me, Daddy?” scene) had some real pathos. But more often than not, the style grotesquely dishonored the play—and the genre. This was particularly true of the dismally suburban Clytemnestra, who conveyed absolutely no sense that the play in which she was appearing was a unique representation of the pivotal moment in her towering and tormented character’s evolution—the great and terrible day that turns Agamemnon’s conventional wife into the monster we recognize from the Oresteia.
But the real tragedy here was the direction: you reached the end of this Iphigeneia at Aulis with no sense that anything of great import—the morality of the characters’ political goals, the fate of their marriages and households, the destinies of their royal houses, their honor, their lives—had ever really been at stake. But then, there are no stakes if you see this as being about real people in plausible situations—if you smooth away the baroque artificiality of the plot and diction, and therefore make nothing of the deeper questions that such artificiality raises. Sobel is good at producing real-looking surfaces; as far as they went, these answered some questions. You knew this was Greece, for instance, because the characters went around in classical-looking tunics, and you knew there was a war going on, because there was a rack of very real-looking spears downstage left. But you didn’t learn much else. Why does everyone in the play change his or her mind at some crucial juncture? What are the public pressures that might compel a man who is at once a general and a father to kill his own child? What is this play telling us about war and what it does to people’s characters? In such a production as Sobel’s you neither know nor care.
It’s the narrow focus of Sobel’s production on what, to us, looks reassuringly familiar and “relevant”—on the domestic, private nature of the pain in Euripides’ play—that ultimately robs it of its truly tragic stature, and effect. True, Aristotle argues that the best dramas are those about families, and this play is nothing if not a drama about one of the most dysfunctional families in world literature; but Sobel’s failure to provide any sense of the vast public, imperial, and martial ramifications of this family’s actions (ramifications that the Athenians would have felt) trivializes what Euripides wrote.
In Michael Cacoyannis’s harrowing if uneven 1977 film version of the play, the director devotes a great deal of time to a lengthy opening sequence showing the restive soldiers grumpily hanging around next to their useless ships, bickering and getting into scuffles out of sheer boredom, and after seeing a few dozen shots of this sort of thing you had a very solid sense that the lack of favorable wind was more than a meteorological annoyance, but rather a potentially disastrous political and military crisis just waiting to explode, with fearsome consequences for Agamemnon, his rule, and indeed for all of Greece. It was clear, because Cacoyannis had made it clear, that the heroes at Aulis would welcome a fair wind at any price, even the price of a young girl’s life piteously cut short. Sobel gave you none of this. Or, maybe, half: there was pity, but no fear.
In many ways Tadashi Suzuki’s Sophocles—a Noh-inflected Oedipus, performed in Japanese with English surtitles at the Japan Society last fall—represented a huge improvement over the Pearl Company’s Euripides and showed a thoroughgoing understanding not only of the spirit of classical drama but of its style.2 Suzuki has devoted much of his distinguished career to staging Greek tragedy, and his highly stylized technique (which arises out of philosophical antipathy to technology, and which emphasizes the alternating containment and explosion of “animal energy” by the actors on stage) has suited the highly stylized Greek texts very well. In his printed comments on the Oedipus production, Suzuki rightly notes the affinities between the Japanese and Greek theaters:
Obviously, they resemble each other on the levels of stage structure. Both use a chorus as an inseparable part of the dramatic action, and both use masks, thus enabling one to three main actors to play more than a single role….
Depicting the disastrous deaths of noble heroes, both dramas pay homage to them, or pacify their souls. What they ultimately face up to is the inevitable fact of human weakness in the context of eternal nature or laws beyond human understanding. It is this vision, and the starkness with which it is represented, that are significantly common to Greek tragedy and noh.
It would have been difficult to find a more starkly beautiful representation of Sophocles’ great drama of fate and self-knowledge (and ignorance) than the one Suzuki presented. The pared-down, elemental quality you want from performances of tragedy—that is, the sense of distillation that makes allegory and allusiveness possible—was present here in a number of ways, starting with superb performances that, in the classical style, made use of a limited but extreme gestural vocabulary, conveying a great deal with a fierce economy. I suppose there is a way that a real woman might react on hearing she’d borne four children to her own son, but Sophocles isn’t interested in that—in his play, the incest and parricide are part of more abstracted and elaborately coded theatrical and mythic discourse about selfhood and otherness and “knowing.” The brilliantly drawn-out, stylized recoil of Suzuki’s Jocasta, when she finally realizes who her husband is, suggested extremes of horror, loathing, and abjection in a way that no “realistic” enactment could ever have attained. Suzuki’s deeply classical technical emphasis on patterns of move- ment, on alternating compressions and explosions of physical energy, is, indeed, ideally suited to the highly conventional structure of Greek tragic action, which itself is organized as a series of compressions and explosions: dialogic exchanges, each beginning more or less calmly and climaxing in anger or violence or revelation, are framed between choral interludes of comparative calm.
The physical production similarly emphasized to great effect the way in which minimalist, allusive style yields the greatest results in the staging of classical texts. The stage at the Japan Society was equipped, as was the theater of Dionysos at Athens, with the bare minimum of structures necessary to convey an interior space (the palace), in which things—terrible things—took place, and a public space outside, in which those things were revealed; there was a small platform downstage for Oedipus to speak from and to be spoken to, some sliding screens upstage from which entrances and exits were made, sometimes with unnerving stealth. (One of the screens seemed at first to be nothing more than a mirror, but turned out to be transparent as well, so that characters could see both themselves reflected in it and other characters revealed behind it; this was a superbly well considered effect for a drama in which every “self” turns out, disastrously, to be an “other”: the husband a son, the wife a mother, the detective a criminal, the city’s rescuer its vile pollution, the king an outlaw, the foreigner a native.)
The effect of these minimalist sets was to focus your attention on the characters—or, rather, on the magnificent costumes by Tomoko Nakamura and Kana Tsukamoto, ponderous, heavily embroidered robes and gowns and crowns that well conveyed the imperial status that these private persons enjoyed—or were oppressed by. In tragedy, as in its distant descendant, nineteenth-century opera, what makes the private agonies particularly unbearable is the fact that they are often endured in public, where the characters’ royal status squarely places them.
And yet the costumes may have been the only thing that did fully convey the political aspect of the Oedipus drama—the sense, one that Sophocles goes to great lengths to underscore, that the terrible things happening are not merely happening to a private person but to the leader of a city, one that he himself had once rescued and one indeed that has turned to him for salvation once again. Suzuki has commented not only on the similarities between tragedy and Noh, but on what he sees as the differences:
Noh focuses on the vanity of human passions seen under the spectrum of eternity, whereas Greek tragedy stresses the indefatigable power of the human spirit in fighting against fate. Even though the fight is destined to be lost, Greek heroes overwhelm us with their will to know the whole truth about their failure…. Oedipus is the representative case—with all the sinister premonitions, he pursues his own past sins like the severest of prosecutors.
There is no question that what is admirable in Sophocles’ Oedipus is his heroic desire to know even when it is clear that the knowledge he seeks will bring disaster. But “indefatigable power of the human spirit” sounds suspiciously sentimental, and if there is anything that distinguishes the classical sensibility from the contemporary it is the former’s almost total lack of sentimentality. This is nowhere truer than in tragedy, a genre that draws our attention as unrelentingly to its protagonists’ deficiencies of character as to the piteousness of the punishments that in some sense “correct” those deficiencies. Indeed the text that Sophocles has composed suggests over and over again that what Oedipus is fighting against is as much his own nature as some randomly hostile fate. (At least one aspect of Oedipus’ nature that clearly ought to arouse suspicion is one that Suzuki’s style of direction nicely underscores: his explosive rages against older men—indeed, against every other male character in the play. Classicists like to observe that Oedipus doesn’t have an Oedipus complex, but it would be hard to find a character who has bigger “issues” about older male authority figures than this one.)
And yet despite the care with which Sophocles limns his protagonist’s character, Oedipus is even more than simply a heroic individual, tormented by psychological demons against which he struggles alone, valiantly, in his quest for knowledge. The grandeur and horror of Oedipus’ position owes much to the fact that the acts he commits as an ostensibly private person—or at least within what we’d think of as the private sphere (he has serious problems with road rage; he gets married) have terrible public ramifications: there is, after all, a plague going on that’s afflicting all of Thebes, and Oedipus and his past crimes are the reason why.
It is Oedipus’ public role that Sophocles emphasizes throughout the play, particularly at the beginning: the curtain, so to speak, rises to reveal him surrounded by supplicatory priests and citizens, appealing to the killer of the Sphinx to find once again a solution to a civic crisis—the plague. The next scene, an exchange with his brother-in-law Creon, demonstrates the King’s anxious concern for his people. (In the prologue, he assures the priest that he has already sent to Delphi for a clue about what’s causing the plague; Creon’s entrance, as he returns from his mission, is a concrete demonstration of the truth of the King’s claim.) When it is revealed that the plague is a divine scourge in response to the presence among the Thebans of the old king’s murderer, it is Oedipus the ruler—Oedipus tyrannos, Oedipus rex—who lays the famous curse on the killer, “whoever he or they may be”—unaware all the while that he is condemning himself.
All this has been stripped away from Suzuki’s Oedipus: the prologue supplication, the Creon scene (he appears here only for what, in Sophocles, is his second scene with Oedipus), anything that gives a sense of Oedipus the public personage with responsibilities to a people and a city—and, hence, anything that conflicts with Suzuki’s notion of Oedipus as a type of romantic sufferer. Most bizarrely of all, Suzuki’s version of the play ends immediately after the moment of revelation, when Oedipus realizes who he is; everything in Sophocles’ play that follows that revelation—the messenger’s speech with its narrative of the self-blinding and of the discovery of Jocasta’s suicide, the reappearance of Oedipus at the end, abjectly bidding farewell to his two daughters, his climactic exit to begin a life of exile—was relegated to a two-minute summary delivered via loudspeaker. By chopping off Sophocles’ beginning and, particularly, the ending (for it is the traumatic ending that shows us the fulfillment of the King’s curse in the abjection of the man, and thus brings the drama full circle), Suzuki diminishes the public, political, and cosmic dimensions of the play, and thereby erodes the sense that what happens in the drama is the result of very great forces at work in the universe, inexorably effecting their terrible outcomes.
But of course, that larger dimension is what raises the stakes and makes tragedy precisely what Suzuki thinks it is not: a cosmic drama about the vanity of human action. What brings Oedipus closer to the “spectrum of eternity”—what makes him worth the Greek gods’ notice at all—is the fact that he is not a private person but is, and has been all along, royal, destined to rule the fates of others. Sophocles, of course, did not call his play what Suzuki called it for the purposes of this production—Oedipus Rex, which is merely the Latin translation of the title that an ancient editor, who’d cottoned on to how many times the epithet occurs in the play, gave it: Oedipus tyrannos, “Oedipus the supreme ruler of the city-state.” But whatever its author called it, and however this director envisioned it, this is a work that is clearly about a man who is a ruler as well as an individual—a work about states, and states of being, as well as personalities. As admirable as it was in so many respects, Suzuki’s production gave you the Oedipus, but not the rex.
For that—for the grand sense of the larger social, civic, political, and cosmic concerns that tragedy in its original context so fiercely and stylishly illuminated—you had to get very far from Athens, and go to Brooklyn.
—This is the first of two articles on recent productions of Greek tragedies.
March 28, 2002
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. ↩
Suzuki’s Electra, also performed in New York, was based primarily on the von Hoffmansthal adaptation of Sophocles’ play. Another tragic adaptation that the director brought to the US last fall was Dionysos, based on the Bacchae, but it was not performed in New York. ↩