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Friday, March 12, 2004

Arts & Letters


Agamemnon by Aeschylus, staged by Robert Richmond with Peter Meineck. Translated by Peter Meineck; with Olympia Dukakis, Louis Zorich, Marco Barricelli, Louis Butelli, Miriam Laube, and Carissa Guild. Aquila Theatre Company, New York City, February 2-22.

Of the surviving ancient Athenian tragic dramas, Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy is notable for its dramatic power; the first play, Agamemnon, is absolutely enthralling, so cruel and relevant is its story to contemporary audiences. When the play is done well — and this Aquila Theatre production was excellent — the theatergoer has a real sense of ancient theater’s power. Over a lifetime of viewing this play, it is remarkable how many strong and varied interpretations I have seen, each inspired by the play’s language, even in English translation. For it must be remembered that we have neither original stage directions nor even the assignment of lines to the actors. The language is all. Peter Meineck’s translation — perhaps not as fluent or speakable as the great one by Robert Fagles — rode securely on his knowledge of the ancient Greek original, and came alive when spoken by actors of the quality that the Aquila Theatre assembled for this production.

Olympia Dukakis, whom the average theatergoer might too easily associate with Tales of the City or Moonstruck, is an accomplished actress equally at home in what we like to call serious theater; I recall her memorable performance in Mother Courage, years ago, in Boston. In Agamemnon, she took on a part that almost demanded that the lines be declaimed, yet — like Billie Holiday, who knew how to sing just to the side of the beat — Dukakis went in and out of the lines of her long speeches without ever losing the shape of the whole, infusing each word and phrase with its own character. In her opening scenes, Dukakis had the smile of a satisfied cat (one could not help thinking of the characteristic smile of the archaic Greek statue), the look, perhaps, of a happy housewife, although it soon became all too clear that her joy sprang from the knowledge that her husband was finally within her murderous grasp. Dukakis alternated between pleasant and a little sharp with the chorus of men sparring with her, as men sometimes choose to do with a female ruler, whose ostensibly gender-bending role provokes unease. Later, as she greeted her husband, Dukakis played to his insinuation of the potential of their sexual relationship, her voice lowering, silky tones alternating with a sense of command she could not lose. Moments later, after sending him into the palace, Dukakis came to the apron of the stage, stood above the single spotlight that shone upward to highlight her face unnaturally, making it into an evil mask, and delivered a speech of ice, her voice, like her still face, dead, beyond emotion, lethal. When she appeared in the final part of the play, corpses at her feet, Dukakis used her voice’s great range — deepening, cracking, growing hoarse, all anger, defensiveness, rage, and indignation — to elicit, and distinguish, myriad emotions as she argued and defended herself before the chorus of old men. She revealed the Queen, who first appeared on the porch before the palace in the beginning of the play, as what she was: a woman who played her part, vigorously and enraged, in the sexual politics of the royal household.

The Oresteia, the only surviving trilogy based on one continuous storyline, has a grand theme: the transference of society’s security and integrity from the family to the city. Whereas justice was, in earlier times, dispensed within and by the family — with women playing major roles in that dispensation — the evolved city relied on laws written, and courts juried, by males. Blood feuds and murderous vendettas were superseded by legal sanctions. Although it is called Agamemnon, the play’s central character is Clytemnestra, who reacts to her husband’s sacrifice of their daughter by killing him ten years later. Their tragedy is that what he considers to be his duty demands that he kill his daughter, thus looking beyond the needs of his family for the sake of his greater obligations. As Aeschylus makes clear, Agamemnon is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Furthermore, behind the murder and adultery committed in Agamemnon stands the memory of Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, whose brother, Thyestes, cuckolded him. In revenge, Atreus slew Thyestes’ children and served them up in a stew to the unsuspecting father.

The original audience would have known this horrible dance of adultery, murder, and cannibalism, and understood its relevance to a story about the next generation (in which a man kills his daughter, his wife sleeps with his cousin, and, in the end, the wife lures the man into a welcoming bath and stabs him to death). The play’s initial choral odes and Cassandra’s long monologue serve both to prompt the audience’s memory and reinforce the notion of inherited crime, a staple of societies that settle matters by vendetta. These reminders are, unfortunately, absolutely essential for a contemporary audience; but for the ancients who went into the theater without any advance information about what they were about to see, refreshing their memories was probably equally realistic. In this production, the director saw fit to precede the play with a tableau in which the murder and banquet of Thyestes’ children were acted out in order to clarify the several slightly oblique references to the event. It skewed the balance, however, since adultery is as important a theme in this play as murdering children.

One of the strongest features of this production was the chorus of old men. Speaking roles outside the chorus in Athenian tragic drama went from one to two to three, but never more. Thus, the action evolved from an exchange between an actor and a chorus, to a dialogue between two actors (exits and entrances allowing for still more characters) and a diminished role for the chorus, to an exchange among three actors, with the chorus sometimes reduced almost to a diversionary entr’acte. In this relatively early piece, however, Aeschylus gave the chorus a powerful role. Clytemnestra speaks to it, and it talks back to her; in the end, she ferociously defends herself to the chorus as Aegisthus threatens it and the chorus mounts a vigorous protest. This production’s director assembled a fine group of middle-aged men, veterans of the Broadway theater, whose practiced delivery of their individual lines redeemed the chorus from faceless nonentity. That the choral lines were spoken individually rather than in unison was a directorial decision — one is never sure with Aeschylus. What these men have to say alternates between remarks that are absolutely pertinent to their situation and those fortune-cookie-like platitudes so common in choruses of ancient tragedies. One has to assume that the playwright knew that a lot was going to get lost in the bustle of dance, song, and chorale, and that the obvious would get a better chance of being heard and understood, because intuited.

The chorus is made up of men who are too old to have been veterans of the recent war on Troy, men who were left behind, walking with canes, of little use to the community, their voices sometimes weak and hesitant. Nothing better underscored this than their dress: fedoras, gray suits, and gray overcoats. One imagined the hangers-on, petty dealmakers, loan sharks, and guys looking for angles thronging around the courts in lower Manhattan. Clytemnestra, on the other hand, wore a robe and tiara, as ancient Greek statuary would indicate; she looked like a Mycenaean queen. Agamemnon came in, riding in a jeep, wearing the dress uniform — complete with great sash — of a Union general from the Civil War; Louis Zorich is a handsome man, and the elegant uniform and bright sash adorned him, rendering him even sexier and more attractive. The mute women who danced in the fashion of an ancient chorus, here performing the function of Clytemnestra’s handmaids, were dressed in gowns vaguely suggestive of Greek frieze sculpture. Aegisthus was a big man and wore a gray business suit (off the rack of some discount store) as ugly as his heavy, unsubtle, threatening behavior. If his ghastly hairstyle was a deliberate attempt to reinforce this, it failed; one could only stare at it and murmur, “Aegisthus needs a new barber!” Cassandra’s long white robe, which resembled a nightgown, was an excellent vehicle for establishing her as seer, prophetess, and Agamemnon’s new sex slave. Varieties of costuming allow the experienced, contemporary theatergoer to get past the obvious contextual clashes and see the universals in the play enacted. It can certainly be argued that dramas from classical antiquity are so central to the whole of Western civilization that costumes congruent with any particular historical context lose the point.

Louis Zorich played all of his character’s mood changes in the celebrated scene of Agamemnon’s arrival, being by turns pompous with the townspeople, uneasy, almost shy, as he resisted his wife’s entreaties to step upon the carpet she had prepared for him, then bantering, smiling, and sexy as he sparred with her, as she busily played seductive games over the implications of his submission to her will. When, at last, Agamemnon becomes patriarchal and arrogantly indifferent to his wife’s feelings, and directs her to care for the slave girl — obviously his new sex toy — with whom he has returned, he reenacts the fatal, prideful obtuseness that has brought him to this point, and to the deadly wounds he will soon receive when his wife has got him into his bath. It is a powerful scene, one of the most dramatic in ancient theater, and Zorich and Dukakis (husband and wife in real life) play it with all the animalism, emotional tension, and vigor it deserves.

Students of ancient Athenian drama assume that because the convention of a third speaking actor was new, Aeschylus could get maximum shock value from it (as he certainly does in the trilogy’s second play, Libation Bearers, when Pylades suddenly speaks but two lines in the middle of the play). When Agamemnon enters with Cassandra, who remains silent in his dialogue with Clytemnestra, the audience (we assume) imagined that the Cassandra figure was not a speaking actor, and that only when he (all roles were performed by males) and one of the two speaking principals had left the scene, would one return garbed as Cassandra, ready to speak. That, at least, was the convention in Athenian tragic theater until that time. So when Clytemnestra and Agamemnon leave the scene and neither returns, and the silent Cassandra suddenly begins to speak, it comes as a revelation, as an intervention from outer space, of something that one would expect of a prophetess seized by a god. Her subsequent monologues are the kind of frenzied, god-inspired, prophetic voice of doom that one imagines coming from Cassandra. They are also very long, and Miriam Laube managed to vary their rhythms so they did not turn into singsong or deaden the audience’s capacity for comprehension. She managed the madness without excessive distortion. The only flaw was that, when sitting speechlessly in Agamemnon’s jeep as he sparred with his wife, Laube was directed to twitch as though she were palsied. The rush of divine prophetic madness should have come over her completely only after she found her voice. In the earlier scene, she became a distraction (one is surprised that her two colleagues — both veteran stars — did not put up a fuss at this kind of upstaging). One had to wonder why Agamemnon would have selected this jangle of nerves for his new sex kitty when he had his pick, presumably, of every woman in Troy; I mean, trophy is trophy, but still….

The other directorial decision that seems questionable was the enactment of the events spoken by the chorus in its first long ode. Aeschylus wrote a flashback here, describing the Greek fleet becalmed at Aulis, the priest’s injunction that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter to propitiate the gods (and get wind for the ships’ sails), and the actual, agonized sacrifice — the daughter pleading, the father tight-lipped and resolute. By having the scene acted out — pitiful Iphigenia wrestled to the ground, for instance, as she pleads for life — as the chorus described it, the director unfortunately obscured the time frame: the sacrifice scene seemed too immediate and present. Students of this text often imagine that the Aeschylean staging would have had the chorus narrating these long-ago events while Clytemnestra passed back and forth before it, bringing adornments to the various altars she bedecks in thanksgiving for her husband’s return. In this way, the aggrieved mother and determined killer would have rehearsed for her ears the dreadful events, ten years’ past, that led her down her murderous path.

Marco Barricelli, as Aegisthus, filled the stage when he came on. Large, and very male, Barricelli made the most of his body. He strutted aggressively and loomed possessively over Clytemnestra, taking all the credit for the murder, stealing Clytemnestra’s thunder by converting the murder into his revenge for his dead siblings, killed for the banquet of Thyestes. Thus, he enacted the revenge of the House of Thyestes on the House of Atreus, the next link in the blood feud’s eternal chain. As he threatened the townspeople like the bully, braggart, and coward he is, boasting all the while of his triumphal revenge, Clytemnestra’s response seemed ill-directed. She seemed to simper a bit in this scene. One imagined that she had enjoyed the sexual favors he offered her, but it was hard to believe that this clear-eyed, tough, and independent woman would have surrendered so completely, without at least some objection to Aegisthus’ usurpation of the murder she had committed for her own, very powerful, reasons. Aeschylus, I imagine, meant us to see the irony and sadness of this scene: Clytemnestra, who thinks she has acted on her own, is in fact just a vehicle for the House of Atreus’ doom and, as with all brides in ancient Greece, just another victim of the family into which she has married. For the important and sad — indeed, tragic — fact is that each of these people think they are somehow making a conscious choice in doing what they do, when all along what happens is meant to be — planned, doomed, and inevitable in the great pathways of time.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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