How relevant to contemporary events should a classical Greek tragedy be? According to the classical Greeks, not too much so: that, at any rate, is what the sad case of Phrynichus suggests. In 494 BC, the wealthy city of Miletus, culturally Greek but located on the coast of Asia Minor, was brutally sacked after a failed insurrection against its Persian overlords. This event had two results: it inflamed the moral outrage that drew Athens ever closer to a war against Persia (which would follow in another few years), and it inspired what was surely one of the first “fact-based” dramas in the Western tradition—a tragedy by the playwright Phrynichus entitled The Capture of Miletus, produced at the annual dramatic festival at Athens two years after the Miletian disaster, in 492 BC. It was a shrewd choice of subject on the dramatist’s part: Miletus had had particularly close cultural ties to Athens, and tugging on Athenian heartstrings was, no doubt, a sure way to move the audience—and, perhaps, the judges of the dramatic competition. But as Herodotus relates, the playwright got more pity and fear than he bargained for:
When Phrynichus produced his play The Capture of Miletus, the whole audience at the theater burst into tears and fined Phrynichus a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a calamity that was their very own; they also forbade any future production of the play.
There can be, it would seem, such a thing as too much relevance.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, tragedies dramatizing real-life events soon ceased to be produced in Athens. (Only one, indeed, survives: Aeschylus’ Persians, produced in 472 BC, which commemorates the allied Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC—an event that inspired the indefatigable Phrynichus to write yet another play.) Instead, the Athenian dramatists thereafter embraced, exclusively as far as we can tell, another kind of relevance, one that was at once more abstract and more enduring than that afforded by detailed allusions to current events. Tragedy would from now on vigorously exploit the rich cultural vein of myth for its plots; these stories, about a relatively small number of divine and human families, could remind audiences of “calamities of their very own” without being mired in the kind of real-life particulars that could cloud aesthetic experience (and that would, in any case, be doomed to a relatively short cultural shelf life). Indeed, even when comment on current events warranted a response from what we today would call “the creative community,” it was myth that provided the ideal armature. As witness, for instance, the well-known example of Euripides’ Trojan Women, produced in the spring of 415 BC, which uses the final, ugly chapter of the Trojan saga to indict Athens’ ruthless annihilation of an unwilling “ally” the previous winter.
The shift from history to myth as a subject for drama was, perhaps, the first and greatest example of tragedy’s special genius for abstraction and distillation—qualities that made it the artistic vehicle par excellence for examining, sometimes critically, the institutions of life in the polis, the city-state. The failure of many productions of Greek tragedy—and of two recent stagings in particular, one of Euripides’ final “war play,” Iphigeneia at Aulis, another of Sophocles’ great masterpiece Oedipus Rex—to reproduce or even suggest the larger, more abstract, more public concerns that were integral to Athenian drama in its heyday was the subject of a previous essay.1 That failure, which is owing in part to the contemporary, post-Freudian preference for psychology over politics as the subject of drama, inevitably miniaturizes and misrepresents Greek tragedy. All the more ironic, therefore, that of a number of recent productions of Greek tragic texts to appear in New York, it was the one about what we think of as the most private issues—love, sex, marriage—that came closest to conveying how Athenian drama, with its grand public preoccupations, must have felt, and worked.
The work in question was a new theater piece by the playwright Charles Mee, entitled Big Love, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM’s publicity material for Big Love states that it’s based on Aeschylus’ Suppliant Maidens, one of the seven extant plays by that poet, but that doesn’t do justice to the scope (some might say audacity) of what Mee has done. Many of Mee’s earlier plays are dramatic Humpty Dumptys—reassembled (as he has put it) out of the deconstructed shards of preexisting works, among them A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Elaine Scarry’s writings, the transcript of the Menendez trials, and of course various Greek tragedies. (Another play, called True Love, updates Euripides’ Hippolytus to a gas station in upstate New York.) But the putting-together-again you get in Big Love is more impressive than any of those could ever be, since the play in fact reconstitutes all of the action thought to have been dramatized in Aeschylus’ Danaid trilogy, which had its première sometime around 463 BC—about five years before the Oresteia and seven before the dramatist’s death—and of which Suppliant Maidens was the first, and only surviving, third. (The trilogy’s plot we infer from later summaries and some fragments, of which the most significant is seven lines thought to be from the final play.)
Like so much of high classical tragedy, this lost trilogy entwines what we today would think of as the personal and the political in such a way as to make them inextricable. As far as it’s possible to reconstruct it, the trilogy went something like this. In the first play, Suppliant Maidens, the eponymous chorus, the fifty daughters of Danaus, an Egyptian king and descendant of the Greek princess Io, arrive in Io’s hometown of Argos, having fled Egypt and their fifty cousins, to whom they’ve been promised in marriage. Whatever their assertions that the betrothals are “unlawful”—difficult to take at face value, given that (as the Greeks knew) even brother–sister incest didn’t raise eyebrows in Egypt—Aeschylus makes it clear that what really motivates the girls’ flight is their profound aversion to sex, and to the very idea of marriage. The fifty girls supplicate their distant relation the Argive king, Pelasgus, who after consulting with his assembly—every tragic supplication, however intimate the reasons, precipitates a political crisis—nobly agrees to defend the girls. (Their threat of mass suicide at the holy altar, a terrible pollution, helps him to see the light.) The beastly cousins eventually arrive in hot pursuit, threatening war against Argos and testing the resolve of Pelasgus, who tells off their representative in no uncertain terms. The play ends with this tense standoff.
The next play in the trilogy, Egyptians, seems to have begun with the defeat of Pelasgus and his army by the Egyptians after a pitched battle; in his place, the steely and ambitious Danaus, father of the fleeing girls, assumes the throne. It is he who makes his daughters swear their famous oath to kill their husbands on their wedding night—which at the climax of this middle play they all do, with the exception of one girl, Hypermnestra, who has fallen in love with her betrothed. End of part two. The third play, Danaids, apparently portrayed the moral, legal, and political fallout of Hypermnestra’s actions. In it, Hypermnestra is tried for breaking her oath, but acquitted by none other than Aphrodite herself, goddess of love, who (in that seven-line fragment) affirms the universal and inevitable power of love and sex—the very things that the cousins had neurotically shunned, and that Hypermnestra alone embraced. Just as the Oresteia ends with a delicately achieved equilibrium between the craving for retribution and the necessity of peace, so too the Danaid trilogy, which even as it gives voice to female terror of male aggression, reasserts the need for marriage, reproduction, and the social structures that further them.
At first glance, the stage of the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is where Big Love was performed late last year, didn’t look as if anything very dramatic were going to happen on it, let alone attempted rape, mass murder, and a climactic courtroom drama. What you saw, basically, was a bathtub and a chandelier. This was not necessarily what you’d expect in a production of a drama that the classicist Froma Zeitlin, in an article about the Danaid trilogy, described as one that “confronts the most primary questions about relations between the sexes,” and that the French scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant called above all “an inquiry into the true nature of kratos“—that is, of power. According to Vernant, the play raises questions that typically entwine the domestic and the political: “What is authority, the authority of the man over the woman, of husband over wife, of the head of the State over all his fellow citizens, of the city over the foreigner and the metic [resident alien], of the gods over mortal men?”2 Power, gender, marriage, politics, religion—all this in a bathtub?
Well, yes. Mee understands that tragedy’s genius is for abstracting big ideas from concentrated resources; what, after all, did you get in Athens but a few actors, a handful of stylized gestures and dance movements, highly conventional poetic speech, a door upstage center that conveniently stood for a palace, a hut, a city, a temple, a tomb? His stage directions alone show a remarkable grasp of this all-important notion: “The setting for the piece should not be real, or naturalistic. It should not be a set for the piece to play within but rather something against which the piece can resonate.” And resonate it did: Mee created new harmonies by weaving into the mythic plot sounds and images and movement—acrobatics, tomato-throwing, dance, tons of music ranging from Le nozze di Figaro to the blues song “You Don’t Own Me,” some business about Estée Lauder 24 Karat Color Golden Body Crème with Sunbloc—familiar from the contemporary culture.
The plot was basically Aeschylus’. Here again, there are fifty girls in flight from an unwanted marriage, and fifty brothers in pursuit—although we actually only meet three of each (Lydia, Olympia, Thyona; Nikos, Oed, Constantine), a nice concession on Mee’s part to the contemporary discomfort with choruses, yet one that preserves the corporate character of Aeschylus’ choral protagonist. In Mee’s play, the girls are fleeing not to Argos but to a posh hotel in Italy (“If Emanuel Ungaro had a villa on the west coast of Italy, this would be it,” go the stage directions), but as in Suppliant Maidens there’s a supplication to a kindly protector, this time a suave tycoon named Piero instead of a king called Pelasgus, and a threat of mass suicide. Interestingly, the one major cut that Mee has made is to excise the character of the scheming father, Danaus; in this Danaid trilogy, the girls’ hearts don’t belong to daddy.
It’s at this point, rightly about a third of the way through, that the rest of Aeschylus’ lost trilogy kicks in: you get the murderous oath, and the graphic wedding-night murder (with the exception of the one sister, Lydia, who’s fallen in love with her intended, Nikos), and a furious confrontation between Lydia and her outraged sisters. Of the latter, none is more outraged than the hot-tempered redhead Thyona, who here embodies the sexual anxiety and hatred of men you find in Aeschylus’ text (“These men should be snuffed out! Who needs a man?”) much as her opposite number, Constantine, embodies masculine violence and sexual aggressiveness, with a Bret Easton Ellis twist. “You want me to sew your legs to the bed and pour gasoline on you,” Constantine screams at one point. “Is that what I have to do to keep you?”
Mee provides a nice Aeschylean resolution, too, presided over by a mature female—here, an outspoken Italian grandma named Bella—who ends this play, much as Aeschylus ended his, with a paean not only to the generative powers of nature and sex (“Love is the highest law,” she declares among the bodies and broken wedding meats), but to the urgent importance of familial, social, and civic order. “So we all get along,” she tells the girl as the play ends, a statement clearly meant to be less descriptive than prescriptive. “So Lydia: she cannot be condemned, and that’s the end of it. And as for you, there will be no punishment for you either…. For the sake of healing. For life to go on.” That may sound like Mrs. Buitoni, but the sentiment is pure Aeschylus.
Still, none of this looked like a Greek tragedy. For one thing, there’s humor here, and lots of it: these Danaids enter by clomping onto the stage in their wedding dresses, loaded down with luggage; almost immediately they strip and jump into that bathtub. Their cousins arrive, noisily, by helicopter, and peel off their flight suits to reveal dinner jackets beneath. There are no attempts to reproduce the craggy grandiosity of Aeschylean diction: Aeschylus’ terrified fiancées compare themselves poetically to heifers and doves pursued by hawks, ravens, wolves, serpents, and dogs, whereas Mee’s girls are worried about being “the kind of person who ends up in a ravine with her underpants over her head.”
And it’s a safe bet to say that Aeschylus wouldn’t have thought up the Cupid-like character of Giuliano, Piero’s gay nephew and Bella’s sidekick, who collects Barbie dolls and confesses a penchant for being “taken forcibly from behind”—one of several additions Mee has made in order to emphasize the variety and inexplicability of love (which is Aeschylus’ subject, or one of his subjects). At the end of Big Love, this Giuliano and the wise old Bella sing an eerie climactic hymn—the part that corresponds to those seven preserved lines from Danaids, the ones in which Aphrodite waxes ecstatic about how love produces the fodder for flocks and the fruit of the trees—a lyric poem to what they, if certainly not Aeschylus, believe to be the pleasures that make civilized life worth living: “silk stockings,” “buttons,” “birds nests/hummingbirds,” “lessons for the flute,” “a quill pen.”
Nor does Big Love show the physical restraint characteristic of Greek tragedy: the centerpiece of the first, Suppliant Maidens part of Mee’s play is an acrobatic tour de force in which the girls repeatedly and quite violently hurl themselves to the ground, crying out things like “Who needs a man?” and “These men are parasites, these rapists.” That scene is nicely balanced by one a little later on, in the part that corresponds to the second third of Aeschylus’ trilogy—Mee has thought a lot about the construction of his model—where the men hurl themselves on the same mats, angrily denouncing “the expectations that people have that a man should be a civilized person” and screaming “Fuck these women!” while one of them viciously hurls circular saw blades into a wall. And with perhaps one exception (a spectacular onstage suicide by a bereaved widow in Euripides’ Suppliants), no Greek tragedy of which we know represented acts of violence on stage, let alone violence on the order of the graphically depicted sex and then murder that Mee shows us in the wedding-night climax of the second, Egyptians, part of his play.
And yet you left Big Love with the feeling that you’d seen, if not a Greek tragedy, then a play that had the theatrical and intellectual vigor that Greek tragedies must have had when they were first produced—one that grappled with all the big social and political issues that Aeschylus grappled with, and made you grapple with them, too. The humor, physicality, and inventiveness of Mee’s play, the way he chose to represent, visually and gesturally, sexual anxiety and masculine aggressiveness, the mysterious power of love, the whimsy and violence and beauty of life, made you care about what was happening on stage, and hence about the underlying issues, which not surprisingly turned out to be the very ones that Aeschylus’ play is about. Which is to say, the most pressing questions about relations between the sexes, and the true nature of power. You didn’t leave Shepard Sobel’s Iphigeneia at Aulis worried about the moral corrosiveness of war, and you didn’t come out of Tadashi Suzuki’s sober and beautiful Oedipus at the Japan Society ruminating about knowledge and fate and self-determination, but you did emerge from Charles Mee’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ Danaid trilogy arguing (as people were doing as they left the Brooklyn Academy of Music) about women and men and violence and sex and power. About eros and kratos, that is, the twin poles around which Aeschylus’ trilogy was organized.
If Mee’s production seemed to be about something (something other than giving people the edifying feeling that they’d been to a Greek play, that is), it was because he’d thought hard about not only what this tragedy meant, but how it meant—about the figurative forms and allusive structures that might allow tragedy, twenty-five centuries after the demise of Athens, to keep signifying, just as those forms and structures allowed the dramas, in their original productions, to investigate so much more than the lives and feelings of a few unfortunate heroes and heroines and their families.
The tensions and negotiations between the demands of the past and the needs of the present are, as it happens, a very Aeschylean concern: one that drives not only the Oresteia, as we know, but also, according to at least one critic, the trilogy that Mee has so idiosyncratically resuscitated. In her discussion of the Danaid trilogy, Froma Zeitlin remarks that the fifty sisters’ anxiety about embarking on lives as sexually mature females is paired with, and enhanced by, a morbid obsession with the past—in particular, with the tale, the mythos, which they keep repeating, about their illustrious ancestress Io, another famous female victim. As Zeitlin observes, awareness of the past, as expressed in myth, anchors and perennially renews our sense of who we are; yet obsession with the past cuts us off from the present—and the future.
What we, like Aeschylus’ Hypermnestra and Mee’s Lydia, want—from life but also from art—is a complex negotiation, one in which, as Zeitlin puts it, “myth remains the mythos, the primary story and the plot of the action, but it is also coded to speak about the present.”3 It would be hard to find a better description than that of what tragedy was in its heyday, and of what Mee accomplished with Big Love. His new work is a model of how to pre-sent tragedies today: preserving their primary stories while imaginatively reconfiguring the codes—the ancient, formalized theatrical vocabularies of the telling gesture and potent symbol and striking image—in a way that allow the works, after so many centuries, not merely to speak but to be heard.
—This is the second of two articles on recent productions of Greek tragedies.
April 11, 2002
Froma I. Zeitlin, “The Politics of Eros in the Danaid Trilogy of Aeschylus,” in Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 124; and Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Tensions and Ambiguities in Greek Tragedy,” in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, edited by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (Zone Books, 1990), p. 39. ↩
Zeitlin, “The Politics of Eros,” p. 161. ↩