Watching the plays written in Athens in the fifth century BCE strikes me as being in some ways like watching movies from the first quarter of the twentieth century. A few geniuses were trying to figure out how to make this new medium work, what it should do. In both cases, they mostly decided that it should tell stories. People have always told stories and listened to them. But how do you tell them? How do you use the new tools you have been given? And can you invent more new tools if you think you need them?
The Greeks already had a special way of telling stories. It was part of a religious ceremony in honor of the god Dionysus. The celebrations went on all day for three or four days every year. Ever eager to elaborate on a good thing, the Greeks not only had a narrator to tell the story but a chorus to back him up with singing and dancing.
Then one day one of the narrators, a genius whom history has named Thespis, had an idea. Instead of telling a story about, say, Dionysus, how about if the story-teller died like Dionysus and his grape vines (he was, among other things, the god of wine) and came back to life. The story-teller became Dionysus and showed what he did. (And so we still tell young playwrights and actors, Don’t tell me, show me).
And now those guys (it was all men in the ritual storytelling) were off and running. Instead of just one of these guys acting it out (call them “actors,” perhaps), let’s have two or three actors, responding not just to the chorus but to each other. Not to be too excessive, let’s limit it to three of them. But they wore masks, so a cast of three could play a dozen characters, some young, some old, some women, some children, some gods, some demons, whatever.
Given the huge potential with this kind of storytelling, the Greeks reached out to a whole library of tales passed down to them about gods and heroes and wise men and cowards and seductive women and tender mothers and children and traitors. And while not many of the play scripts those guys wrote have survived, those that have survived demonstrate how quickly the Greek geniuses learned to create thrilling dramas that could examine, dramatically, the great questions of our human existence.
So if they are so good, why don’t we do them? Some hurdles must be leaped over. They do come from a different culture – human, like ours, but still with some significant differences. And the priest of Dionysus, who presided over these rites, liked the singing and dancing of the chorus, so they had to keep them. But we’ve kept them in our musicals, so they must have some value.
Now In order to perform these great but thorny scripts, those of us who love them struggle to find ways to make them work for our audiences.
Washington University’s Performing Arts Department has been showing us one of those struggles. Ellen McLaughlin, a playwright in her own right – The New Theatre, when it existed, did two of her plays some years ago – also loves the Greeks and has struggled with several of those ancient scripts. Webster U.’s Sargent Conservatory produced her adaptation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata a couple of years ago, with a rock band taking the place of the chorus.
Now McLaughlin, and Wash. U.’s PAD, led by director and set designer Pannill Camp, have tackled one of the great monuments of Greek theatre. Normally, three very serious plays plus a closing comedy, added to ease everyone on the trip home, were performed each day of the Dionysian devotional festivities. Though we have several of the individual plays, only one trilogy has survived intact. That is The Oresteia, named after its central character Orestes, and composed by the great and constantly inventive playwright Aeschylus.
That is what McLaughlin, Camp, and their colleagues have tackled.
Agamemnon, the commanding general of the Greek forces, has assembled his men at the port of Aulis to sail across the Mediterranean to Troy, where the Trojan prince Paris has abducted Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. As our stories even now tell us, a beautiful woman can create trouble, and Helen was the most beautiful woman in the Mediterranean world. When Menelaus married her, he knew she might be trouble, and he made all the Greek princes swear to protect her should something like this happen.
But the winds would not blow to set the Greek ships sailing. Finally a priest and soothsayer explained that the goddess Artemis was angry because Greeks had hunted her protected animals in her sacred grove. She held back the winds. She would release them only when Agamemnon sacrificed his older daughter Iphegenia to the goddess. And so he did. And the winds blew, and eventually the Greeks conquered Troy.
The Greek poet and playwright gave the Chorus a powerfully moving description of the parents’ love for Iphegenia, the father’s pain and sorrow at the sacrifice, the mother’s bitter anger at the man, Agamemnon, husband and father, who has killed her daughter. McLaughlin does not tell us this; she shows it. It is acted out before us, though not the actual killing, just her mother Clytemnestra’s delight in caring for their daughter and then Iphegenia leaping into her father’s protective arms to be carried to the altar.
For the ten years of the Trojan War Clytemnestra’s anger at what Agamemnon had done festered and grew. And when the conquering hero returned, she killed him. We don’t see that. She welcomed him to his palace, and some say it was while he was bathing, unprotected, she killed him. We do see him and her servants drag his body wrapped in a bloody cloth out of the doors he had entered and dump him in a pit, along with the corpse of the Trojan princess and prophet Cassandra that his men awarded Agamemnon as among the spoils of war.
Clytemnestra avenged the death of Iphegenia. Now the death of Clytemnestra must be avenged.
That task falls on the son of Agamemnon, Orestes. He is also, obviously, the son of Clytemnestra. To avenge his father, he must kill his mother. Talk about dysfunctional families; the Greeks had it down.
Orestes has been sent to live with another royal family as he grew up. Learning of his father’s death, from Apollo according to Aeschylus, but McLaughlin has been gradually eliminating the gods as motivating factors in her characters’ actions, he returns to Argos, the city-state kingdom once ruled by his father, now his. He is warmly welcomed by his sister Electra, who has been neglected and almost treated as a servant at times. (In Aeschylus and in most other sources, Clytemnestra has taken a lover in her husband’s absence. He has a hand in the murder of Agamemnon and the treatment of Electra. McLaughlin has eliminated him also, keeping the focus on the killing of Iphigenia as the sole motive for the murder of Agamemnon which must be avenged.)
Orestes is of course reluctant to do what he must do. He knows, Clytemnestra knows, Electra knows. Electra urges him on, his mother pleads with him. As mother and son embrace, he stabs her. His hands covered with her blood, he and Electra roll her into the pit with her husband and Cassandra.
Shocked by what he has done, Orestes thinks that the women of the city who surround him and who have been a kind of vestigial chorus throughout – McLaughlin too finds the chorus useful – he thinks that these women are are the Furies, female underground, ancient goddesses who enforce the punishment of murderers, oath-breakers, and other violates of the standards of the society.
But Electra helps him regain his senses. And the women find a new way for the community to deal with the code of vengeance, finding in the community’s compassion for a suffering fellow human being a new resolution.
This is quite different from Aeschylus’ resolution of The Oresteia, which is brilliant in its own way and for the Athens of his time, just recently become a democracy ruled by the reasoning of its citizens, with revenge replaced by justice and personal vendetta by organized litigation. McLaughlin forged a reconciliation acceptable to our society, with law courts already firmly established and no need for help from the goddess Athena..
Pannill Camp’s direction on the set he designed matches McLaughlin’s intention to stage an Oresteia for today’s audience. As in Aeschylus, the first play begins with a speech from the watchman stationed on the roof of the palace who searches the horizon for the signal fire that will relay news of the end of the Trojan war and a Greek victory. But the “roof” is simply the small landing on the top of a backstage ladder. A low platform upstage, useful for Agamemnon’s victory speech and for the movements of the nine-person Chorus, with the stage curtains pretty much completes the set. But stage left loom the massive doors of the House of Atreus, a palace notorious for generations of intra-familial blood crimes and the resulting curses that lie heavily upon it.
The costumes by Dominique Green have a similar basic quality, with graceful gowns for Queen Clytemnestra and with changes in color distinguishing the dress of the Chorus, depending on the job they have to do. Subtle and effective changes mark Paige Samz’s lighting design. Henry Claude composed music for the production and plays the percussion score live. David Marchant designed the movements of the cast, and Dylan McKenna choreographed the fights. Emily Frei designed and managed props, Marisa Daddazio is the Stage Manager, Rob Henke the Assistant Director, and Minjoo Kim and Katherine Kopp the dramaturges.
Izzy Hobbs commands her subjects and the stage as a strong-willed, persuasive, attractive Clytemnestra. Dylan McKenna’s Agamemnon appears weak in the early scenes with Iphigenia but gains royal stature with the Trojan victory. Orestes is necessarily a troubled and indecisive young man as played by Alexander Hewlett. Caitlin Souers delights as the young Iphigenia, Ella Sherlock’s Cassandra knows what fate awaits her when she enters the House of Atreus, Brenna Jones’s Electra stiffens Orestes’s back, Chloe Kilpatrick plays a nurse in the household, and they all double as members of the Chorus, joining Sami Ginopolos, Melia Van Hecke, Marielle Hinrichs, and Mary Ziegler in that group. This Chorus rarely if ever speaks in unison, but they exchange thoughts with one another, with the other characters, and with the audience in a very satisfying way.
I always enjoy seeing productions of the classic Greeks and observing the ways they solve the problems. Washington U.’s PAD’s production of The Oresteia by Aeschylus and his centuries-late co-author Ellen McLaughlin is one of the most enjoyable.
Photo by Danny Reise Photography
Orestes (Alexander Hewlett) above Electra (Brenna Jones) in The Oresteia.