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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Arts & Letters

Aeschylus Through a (Cracked) Looking Glass

A review of Charles Mee’s Big Love, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, November 30-December 10, 2001.

Charles Mee’s Big Love, a retelling of Aeschylus’ Suppliant Maidens, staged recently by Les Waters at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, offers a rousing, jagged-edged, and ultimately compelling rendition of the old work. The production on opening night was a crowd-pleaser – a raucous, topical, loudly argued collage of Aeschylus’ play conveyed through a mix of theater, song, and tumbling. Nevertheless, the contours and argument of the original play (or rather the entire original trilogy of which the extant Suppliant Maidens formed only one part) were clearly discernible and highly entertaining in the refracted image of this inveterately contemporary production.

To begin the play, the lone “lover,” Hypermnestra (here renamed Lydia), walks angrily down from the audience and divests herself of her marriage gown, stepping leisurely into the stage’s lone prop, a bright, white tub. The play’s finale, following good late Aeschylean form, as in the celebratory end of the Oresteia, has the same Lydia, now newly wed, toss her bridal bouquet back into the audience to broad applause and jubilation. Her two opening and closing gestures frame the long arc moving from love refused in Aeschylus’ original Suppliant Maidens to love enjoyed and celebrated in Aphrodite’s presumed solution from the lost and concluding play of the trilogy. Along the way, we see a viable and entertaining recreation of what may have been Aeschylus’ entire argument or “mythos,” the story of love in its biggest form, etched into the bedrock of civilization, all reconstituted from the fragmentary antique. For this reason, although the production’s contemporary high jinks sometimes provoke titters, and the play’s aggressive vernacular often cloys, the playwright, Charles Mee, may be justified in his claim, and applauded in his effort, to remain loyal to some higher element among the Greeks in this version of the ancient play.

The story unfolds in a brightly illuminated but mostly bare set, dominated in the rear by three elevated wall panels painted with a cloud-blue sky, and on the floor by a pink, padded wrestling mat (more on that later). The 50 daughters of Danaus from Aeschylus’ original are distilled by Mee to a more manageable three: blonde, redhead, and brunette, fatigued after a long boat-ride from Greece – not to old Argos, but to contemporary Italy. Mee invents further, to make the women’s cousins modern Greeks, no longer Egyptians, who arrive from somewhere in America, dropped onstage by army helicopter, like an assault of green berets.

The three women – buxom and sweet-tempered Lydia, the militant feminist Thyona, and the ostentatiously girlish Olympia – still dressed in their bridal gowns, represent the spectrum of young womanhood. They are counterpoised by their respective grooms, in their corresponding formalwear: the stammering and lovelorn Nikos, a stentorian and stern Constantine, and the likable but nearly mute Oed. Aeschylus’ Argive Pelasgus, in turn, has been replaced by Piero, an Italian padrone of the bella figura tradition. (An even stranger addition to the team is Giuliano, Piero’s overtly gay nephew, who sings of Barbie dolls and other distractions.) Aphrodite herself emerges onstage split into two separate characters. First, as Piero’s mother, Bella, a classic Italian matriarch, she counts out and appraises her 12 sons on a south Italian abacus of tomatoes, gently placed on the rim of the tub. However, old Bella disappears later in the play to be replaced by the sexpot hedonist Eleanor, a shift mimicking the kind of transformation, from earth-mother to goddess of beauty, that some scholars see in Aphrodite’s own mythical evolution (the same actress plays both parts). It is the presence of Bella/Eleanor that enables the play’s transformation of that biggest love, old “eros,” from violent rape to civilized marriage.

If the play’s transplanted context, the diminished chorus, and the ethnic and geographic dislocations, do not provide clear enough evidence of the wrenching of the old unities, a few lines from any of the characters, whose conversation is often painfully topical, enables the audience easily to pinpoint the new time and place. For example, Piero at first refuses the girls in their request for asylum with the complaint: “I’m not the Red Cross.” The character substitutions are simple to grasp for anyone remotely familiar with the old story, or yesterday’s news.

It may seem ironic to find what was for many years thought to be the earliest of all Greek plays (largely due to the predominance of the chorus’ role) being set so unmistakably in the modern period. And surely Mee’s condensing of the chorus into three female and three male narrative roles reduces its musical presence, but the device also creates a more functional and engaging vehicle of argument for the playwright. In Aeschylus’ original, the first play is consumed with the chorus of Danaids petitioning for asylum in Argos and their charge that their Egyptian cousins, in hot pursuit, are essentially rapists. In the second play, the maidens are forced to marry their cousins but swear an oath among themselves to murder these “husbands” on their wedding night. In the third play, Hypermnestra, who alone does not take action against her husband, is forced to stand trial for having violated her oath, and, in a scene reminiscent of Athena’s presence in The Eumenides (a play that followed this one by about seven years), Aphrodite appears and defends her.

The cycle of revenge in the Oresteia trilogy, informed and goaded on by the curse on the house of Atreus, is transcended by the civil justice handed down by an Athenian court in the final play. In this trilogy also, the tangle of competing legal claims, first brought by the angry grooms and later by the chorus of brides against their sister, Hypermnestra, is undone by the will of Aphrodite in her famous concluding speech, of which we possess one priceless fragment (translated by Seth Benardete):

As the sacred heaven longs to pierce the earth,
So love takes hold of earth to join in marriage,
And showers, fallen from heaven brought to bed,
Make the earth pregnant; and she in turn gives birth
To flocks of sheep and Ceres’ nourishment –
A marriage that drenches the springtime of the woods –
For all this I am in part responsible.

The universal and divine law of love supersedes legalistic and even democratic procedures, transforming rape into marriage and closing this ancient play in a hallelujah chorus – or so many scholars think.

In Mee’s Big Love, this argument, or its general flow, remains intact, although the language in which it’s conveyed rarely rises to the level of poetry, and sometimes the argument simply goes on too long. The question of the girls’ asylum is merely a foundation for the story. Moreover, the character of Giuliano, who supports the position of laissez aller (“just do what you do”) – as well as the appeal (to him, at least) of being taken by force – seems an adolescent attempt at levity that quickly declines into absurd camp. Real moments of theatrical leavening come from Bella, in her scene explaining the relative merits of her children (indicated by whether she polishes a tomato and lovingly sets it down, or casts it to the floor in an explosion of pulp), and, later, from Eleanor, in her admonition to the lone loving couple to “embrace life – throw yourself into life.” Also of note, as perhaps the tenderest use of light and movement in the entire play, is the courting of Lydia by Nikos (Lynceus in the myth), who haltingly suggests to her, “marriage…or a movie.” Finally, and most viscerally affecting, Mee and his director Waters added one element that was sure to be remembered. In what constitutes arguably the most shocking moment of the evening, first the Danaid chorus and later their male counterparts engage in a “stasimon” of riotous tumbling worthy of De La Guarda. This provides the clearest sign of Mee’s appreciation of the European avant garde and postmodernist artists such as Pina Bausch and her TanzTheater.

The lead argument, however (as in Aeschylus), is dominated by the chorus, and (again as in Aeschylus) by the most extreme representatives of each point of view. For the women, it is Thyona who gives it voice, urging that “boys should be flushed down the toilet” and that the first order of business is to “establish a just society.” Facing her chin to chin is Constantine, her fiancé, who repeatedly reminds the audience of the binding nature of contracts and that, in any case, “all life is rape,” and we should “make the best of it.” Only a committed optimist could forecast any harmony emerging from such a duo, and yet Aeschylus has brought us here before, in the contrasting claims of the Furies and Apollo in the Oresteia. And also as in that trilogy, Mee seems to bring this work to a hurried and not fully earned conclusion, fast-forwarding roughshod over the newly bloodied grooms to the finale, with Lydia’s casting of the bridal bouquet and rapid exit back through the audience.

Mee clearly draws on the myth, and Aeschylus’ version of it in particular, but breaks the mold and refracts the Aeschylean original through his avowedly postmodernist prism. Mee himself remarks on this process in this and other retellings: “Aeschylus didn’t see himself writing adaptations – or even original plays. He just took stories from the common culture and did his own version….The culture owns the story, and we do our versions.”

The example that Mee provides with this play and with his other “retellings” in general is a valid and important one. For the version of Aeschylus that recently played in Brooklyn is just the latest in a long line of “Meedernized” Greek plays (he has done four plays based on Euripidean plots and two from Aeschylus). Furthermore, Mee’s long attraction to and use of ancient Greek drama has a longer history and purpose: the Greek plays have the potential to redress the key failing (in Mee’s formulation) of modern theater.

Mee writes of the decline of modern theater coinciding with the triumph of naturalism and the rise of the well-made but rather boring play: “The great hope for the theater is that it returns to the immense energies that were in Greek theater and Shakespeare, theater that includes not just text…but also spectacle, music, dance, physical performance, color, noise, fabulous events happening.” According to Mee, the Greeks present a grander, richer, and more complex notion of what’s possible for theater than the traditions of naturalism or American psychological realism. Mee’s approach, as he wrote in his 1999 memoir, A Nearly Normal Life, is to take “the text of a classic Greek play, smash it to ruins, and then, atop its ruined structure of plot and character, write a new play, with all new language, characters of today speaking like people of today, set in the America of my time.”

The idea of ruins runs deep in the author. Mee, who was born in Barrington, Illinois, was stricken with polio at age 14, and still uses crutches to walk. He has noted the words of a professor who suggested that architects, in the buildings they design, always project the structure of their own bodies. Similarly, Mee writes of going through life with a shattered body, and compares his own work to a wineglass thrown on the floor and shattered, with the pieces still describing a wineglass. “The effort is to put these shards back together in a way that is harmonious and beautiful.” On his Web site, Mee writes: “My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges….That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.” Mee has written a play that, following Aeschylus, is big on love – a sharp-edged, newly familiar, and welcome re-vision of the ancient Greek work.

Avi Sharon is a classicist and translator of ancient and modern Greek, Italian and Hebrew, living in New York City.
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