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Eclectic Encounters: Staging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009

Abstract and Keywords

The productions discussed in this chapter span four decades, and their manifold differences justify the title “eclectic encounters.” Each represents a specific response to the Greek original, reflecting the personal concerns of the artists involved (particularly the author’s own political convictions), the material conditions available to them, and the cultural and political environment that shaped their, and their audiences’, perceptions. The productions include Euripides’ Electra (1973), Cyclops (1983, adapted as a musical, Cyclops—Nobody’s Musical), and Suppliant Women (1993); Sophocles’ Oedipus tyrannus (1981), Women of Trachis (2006, adapted for solo performance as Deianeira), and Electra (2009); and Aeschylus’ Persians (1990), along with a brief account of Rehm’s work on the Oresteia (translator, actor, assistant director) in Australia in 1974.

Keywords: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Cyclops, Oedipus, Suppliant Women, Persians, Electra, Women of Trachis, Oresteia

I offer this account of my theatrical engagements with Greek tragedy out of an abiding respect for the original material—its impulses, subject matter, and dramatic form. I believe that modern audiences have more to gain from productions of tragedy that maintain such respect than from those which treat ancient tragedies as if they were written yesterday and so conform, willy-nilly, to contemporary theatrical assumptions and conditions. That approach, unfortunately, informs many contemporary productions of Greek tragedy, including a fair few that have proven popular and influential.

My regard for form of tragedy, however, has not translated into a historicist recreation of fifth-century theatrical conventions.1

I have never directed tragedy with an all-male cast or done a production in ancient Greek. I rarely have used masks, convinced that this ancient convention alienates a modern audience more than it captures the objectivity and “otherness” basic to the genre. Only occasionally have I staged tragedies out of doors. Nonetheless, I believe that the ancient focus on poetic language, rhetorical argument, relatively simple plots, archetypal characters, and a communal Chorusas opposed to our current preference for conversation, character psychology, personal idiosyncrasy, and realistic situations—offers transformative potential for the contemporary stage.

Tragedy depends on, and celebrates, the power of language and dramatic structure to release the imagination of the audience. In doing so, tragedy offers a powerful alternative to much contemporary theater, which tends to imitate television with its generic crime dramas, situation comedies, soap operas, game shows, and reality TV. Theater based on these models usually reduces speech to the conversational and the world to a room with chairs, laptops, and cell phones. Similarly, Greek tragedy provides a welcome antidote to the influence of Hollywood on live performance, where spectacle and graphic visualization find their way into the mega-musical and theatrical blockbuster. Finally the elite world of performance art shows little interest in the (p. 747) close observation, verbal subtlety, lyric complexity, and tragic conflict that characterizes ancient Greek drama.

The productions I discuss span four decades, and their manifold differences justify the title “eclectic encounters.” Each represents a specific response to the original, reflecting the personal concerns of the artists involved (particularly my own political convictions), the material conditions available to them, and the cultural and political environment that shape their, and their audiences’, perceptions. The productions include Euripides’ Electra (1973), Cyclops (1983, adapted as a musical, Cyclops—Nobody’s Musical), and Suppliant Women (1993); Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (1981), Women of Trachis (2006, adapted for solo performance as Deianeira), and Electra (2009); and Aeschylus’ Persians (1990), along with a brief account of my work on the Oresteia (translator, actor, assistant director) in Australia in 1974.

Euripides’ Electra (1973)

I first read Electra in Greek at university, and I found myself so puzzled by its anti-tragic flavor that I began to translate it for the stage. The strange shifts in tone, the anomalous rural setting, the atypical characterization of the principals, the apparently disconnected choruses, the unpleasant thrust of the action (the murders of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra seem more slaughter than revenge), the double-talk of the Dioscuri at the play’s close—Euripides seemed to be describing the world of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I attended university on an army scholarship, which I gave up when I became active in the anti-war movement. Like many others, I was horrified at the secret bombing campaigns in Laos; our undeclared war against Vietnamese national liberation, packaged as a Cold War struggle against Soviet and/or Chinese expansion; the U.S. “incursion” into Cambodia, overthrowing the government of Prince Sihanouk; the massive U.S. bombing that followed, leading to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge (whom the U.S.A. later supported after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979–80); and the campaign at home against civil rights, free expression, and alternative politics. Mutatis mutandis, Euripides seemed to grasp the violence, absurdity, pathos, and horror of this madness. His undermining of heroic tragedy, and his exposé of the ideals on which it was based, mirrored my own disillusionment with the myth of U.S. exceptionalism. The moral and psychic distance I felt from my earlier beliefs took comfort in Euripides’ reworking of the myth of the house of Atreus—Iphigenia in Aulis, Orestes (I played the title role in a college production), and most prominently Electra.

Given this background, it may seem strange that our production of Electra bore no resemblance to Richard Schechner’s influential Dionysus in 69, a version of Euripides’ Bacchae as an orgy of nudity and blood that failed to speak to me (on Schechner’s play, see Jenkins, Sides, this volume). I preferred that the parallels between Euripides’ play and contemporary America emerge through the performance, rather than overwhelm (p. 748) it from the start. I invited electronic composer John Selleck to write a score using computer-generated sounds, frequently with a strong lyric feeling. A graduate student in Composition at Princeton, John found an effective musical analogue for the tension between Euripides’ sources and his treatment of them. For example, we chose a fanfare for Clytemnestra’s luxurious arrival at Electra’s sooty cottage. But the electronic sounds lacked the full confidence and clarity of normal trumpet-blasts, suggesting something at odds with itself, in this case the bizarre nature of the scene between a regal (but apologetic) Clytemnestra and her disheveled (but deadly deceptive) daughter.

For the Chorus of young women, choreographer Lucy Graves combined passages of ballet-like fluidity with Duncanesque shapes and poses, in contrast with Electra’s determined, earth-bound movement. Her labored physicality gave the impression that she sustained her hatred with every deliberate step (El. 112–39). Electra belongs to the actor playing the title role, and Roxanne Hart fully captured her unsettling mix of bitter fixation and disturbed vulnerability, nowhere more so than in her speech to the head of Aegisthus:

  • There’s so much to say. Do I start with the worst,
  • or save that for last? What should I fit in between? …
  • As for your other women, it’s not proper for a virgin
  • to speak of such things. I’ll keep quiet, only hint at all I know.
  • You let it go to your head—you held the royal palace
  • and knew you were so damned handsome. I don’t want a husband
  • with your delicate features, but a real man to father men
  • who cling to war, not pretty-boys only fit for dancing.
  • To hell with you! … (Eur. El. 907–8, 945–52)

My translation gives a sense of Electra’s rhetorical self-awareness and vituperative excess, and the stage image (Fig. 46.1) catches the essential Euripidean gestus: rhetoric and logos undermined by the passion of the speaker and the futility of her outburst.

Standing over the corpse of their mother, blood-spattered and full of remorse, neither Electra nor Orestes drew comfort from the future, no matter how hard Castor, the upbeat deus ex machina, encouraged them to do so. In our Electra, the sense of horror and loss not only accompanied Electra, Orestes, and Chorus when they left the stage, but also remained all-too-visibly on it. The lights faded on the corpses of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus—ghastly slaughter polluting a peasant’s cottage.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia Trilogy (1974)

Eclectic EncountersStaging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009Click to view larger

Fig. 46.1 Electra (Roxanne Hart) with the head of Aegisthus, Euripides’ Electra (1973).

Photograph by John Coventry.

I joined Melbourne’s Greek Theatre Project in 1973, translating and acting in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and working closely with the Australian director James McCaughey. The translation and rehearsals took the better part of a year, and we presented the trilogy 20 times, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. (with a dinner break), changing the seating between plays to suggest the different relationship each forges with the audience.2 McCaughey’s approach to (p. 749) choral lyric aimed at generating compelling choral events rather than a consistent choral “character.” In Agamemnon, for example, the creation of the evocation of the eagles and pregnant hare (Ag. 109–21), the sacrifice of Iphigenia (184–249), the celebration at the fall of Troy (355–66), the grief when a family welcomes home “an urn of ashes instead of a man” (427–36), the pet lion cub that reveals its nature when it grows (717–36) took precedence over the depiction of weak old men. The Chorus in Agamemnon were effete elders only when described as such; at other times, they were a physical ensemble committed to bringing Aeschylus’ complex lyric to life. I brought these lessons with me when I returned to the United States, translating and directing Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.

Oedipus Tyrannus (1981)

On a bare stage and with simple rehearsal costumes, this taut production focused on the text and actors. The ensemble formed the Chorus, out of which individual characters emerged and into which they returned after their scene, all save Oedipus, who remained apart from the group. This relationship helped convey the irony inherent in (p. 750) the situation—an apparent outsider who proves to embody the group’s identity in horrifying ways.

In the translation of Oedipus, I selectively followed the inflected word order of the Greek, trying to catch Sophocles’ strange emphases—for example the Priest’s account of the plague:

  • Wasting away the seeds of grain across the earth,
  • wasting away the flocks of the field, wasted are the stillborn
  • cries of women in their childless labor … (OT 25–7)

Sometimes the choice took the form of an unexpected apostrophe, as if the word itself were being addressed, as in Oedipus’ plea to Teiresias: “Our city, although you cannot see, still you know | the plague that lives inside her” (302–3). I kept the key term deina untranslated, and its repetition gained significance for the audience over the course of the play.

The highly physical Chorus featured bodies in extremis, appropriate for lyric dealing with plague (OT 167–202), comparing Laius’ killer to a bull fleeing sacrifice (477–82), and celebrating the wild possibility that Oedipus’ parents might have been divine (1086–109). In that short lyric passage (following Jocasta’s despairing exit and before Oedipus’ own recognition), the Chorus spun together arm in arm, whirling with such speed that some left the ground (Fig. 46.2). Their “taking flight” suggested that Oedipus’ pinned ankles might not root him to the earth of Thebes—dead wrong, as events will prove.

The Chorus’ physical freedom contrasted with the stillness of the Messenger from the palace, who delivered her account on her knees, barely moving. Only when she described Oedipus’ blinding did one clenched fist twist hard against the other. The Messenger’s posture recalled Oedipus’ supplication of Teiresias earlier in the play, when he too went down on his knees (OT 326–7). The prophet’s brusque rejection of the king’s appeal on behalf of his city helped to justify Oedipus’ angry reaction. After his blinding, the audience saw a man struggling to find reasons to live and not follow his wife’s suicidal example (as the Chorus urge him to do, 1367–8). Carefully orchestrated over the last 350 lines, Oedipus’ return to the stage culminates in his embrace of his incestuous daughters. That the girls came from the ensemble reminded us that they had always been present, but only in Oedipus’ blindness were they seen, and accepted, for who they were. The revelation of what is before our eyes but goes unrecognized lies at the heart of the play and informed our version of it.

Euripides Cyclops, or Cyclops—Nobody’s Musical (1983)

Eclectic EncountersStaging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009Click to view larger

Fig. 46.2 Chorus (Andre Braugher standing), Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (1981).

Photograph by James Carmody.

I directed an adaptation of Euripides’ satyr-play Cyclops in the form of a rock musical, writing the book and lyrics, with music composed by Francis James Brown. Scored for percussion, guitars, and keyboard, CyclopsNobody’s Musical featured original (p. 751) songs using the bass register for Cyclops and a high tessitura (in the mode of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar) for Odysseus. We followed the basic form of Euripides’ original, translating lyric passages into songs for the satyr Chorus and occasionally converting speeches into songs for the principals (Silenus, Odysseus, Cyclops).

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus visits the island for provisions and guest-gifts, but he also adopts the “colonial gaze,” imagining what civilized men like himself could make of the land (Od. 9. 116–41, echoed somewhat at Cyc. 113–62). In both Homer and Euripides, Odysseus boasts of his role in the Trojan War (Od. 9.259–66, Cyc. 177–8, 198–202, 290–8), an expedition that Euripides’ Cyclops finds shameful—a war waged for a single woman (Cyc. 280–4). Exhibiting his antinomian instincts and suspicion of Homeric heroics (316–40), the title character of our version resembled Rousseau’s “natural man,” unmoved by civilization with its religion, collective violence, and expansionist instincts.

Cyclops—Nobody’s Musical did not minimize the monster’s cannibalism, but presented it as a natural (albeit grisly) response to foreign intervention. Cyclops’s rejection of social convention and accepted ideology struck me as a humorous response to the patriotic rhetoric and militarism of the Reagan administration, most absurdly manifest in the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada in 1983. At the same time, the U.S.A. built up (p. 752) its nuclear arsenal, embarked on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”), introduced cruise missiles into Europe (in spite of tremendous protest there), and so on. Simultaneously, the U.S.A. offered virtually unqualified support for dictators across the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, all in the name of “national security.”3

For all these political resonances, Cyclops did not stint on bawdy sexual humor. Designer William Eddelman equipped the satyrs with humongous phalloi with ithyphallic potential (via a hidden drawstring) (Fig. 46.3). A secondary female Chorus played Cyclops’s ovine herd, moving with delightful suggestiveness in Stacey Greenberg’s choreography. In a drunken dream sequence following Odysseus’ gift of wine, the sheep slipped out of their sheepskins to reveal gorgeous women unleashed by the power of Dionysus. The dream of the satyrs coincided with Polyphemus’ nightmare, culminating in his blinding by Odysseus with the olive stake (Cyc. 455–63, 593–5, 656–62). As in Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysiac abandon leads to gruesome violence, a destructive possibility suggested earlier when the satyrs fantasize about raping Helen after the fall of Troy (Cyc. 179–87).

Eclectic EncountersStaging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009Click to view larger

Fig. 46.3 Satyrs (Frank Murray, Michael Ramsey-Perez, Graham Winton, Sam Barker) with Odysseus (Marc Accornero), CyclopsNobody’s Musical (1983), adapted from Euripides’ Cyclops.

Photograph by Connie Strayer.

The sexual atmosphere of Euripides’ original includes strong homoerotic elements, indicated in the set design by the phallic-like Aetna rising above the anatomically suggestive cave mouth. When the drunken Cyclops retires with Silenus as his reluctant (p. 753) Ganymede, Euripides has the monster say, “Anyway, I take more pleasure | in boys than in women” (Cyc. 582–9; see also 266–7). In our Cyclops, Silenus lost his initial disgust following his offstage intimacies with Polyphemus, and he seemed distraught at the blinding. Being Silenus, however, his distress was short-lived, and he ran off with the other satyrs to join Odysseus and his crew in pursuit of further Dionysiac adventures. The final scene showed the blind Cyclops alone, cradling the master ram whose throat Odysseus had slit (paralleled at Od. 9.431–5, 548–53). For all its fun and games, Nobody’s Musical left the audience commiserating with another victim of the “march of civilization.”

Aeschylus’ Persians (1990)

Any serious production of Aeschylus’ Persians must deal with the devastation of imperial expansion. Our production, however, avoided the topical (and confusing) choices that some directors foist on the play. Consider, for example, Peter Sellars’s much-discussed 1993 version set in Iraq after the first Gulf War, which lamented the destruction wreaked on the Iraqi people by the U.S. “Operation Desert Storm.”4 I joined many in protesting that war, and consider U.S. leaders guilty of war crimes (100,000 dead Iraqis, and another 500,000 to a million civilian deaths from sanctions).5 However, using Aeschylus’ drama to do so skews the power relationships that ground the play. Persians describes the defeat of a great empire by a small and relatively minor country, not the reduction of a weak nation by the world’s superpower.

We staged Aeschylus’ Persians in the soaring-roofed Canon Chapel at Emory University in Atlanta. Not unlike the theater of Dionysus in Athens, the audience sat on three sides of a bare stage (the chapel altar was removed), most of them looking down on the action. The high roof gave a sense of scale lacking in many indoor venues, and the balconied back wall allowed for the appearance of the Ghost of Darius “on high.”6 The bare stage included an elevated platform at one end for the tomb of Darius, covered with a large purple cloth to suggest the wealth of the royal family.

We approached the choral lyric much like a staged oratorio. Atlanta composer Don Rechtman arranged a layered vocal score reflecting the prominence of lament and mourning in the play. Rechtman accompanied the lyric voices with a lyre tuned to a nine-tone scale and run through a synthesizer, avoiding any quaint or ethnic associations. The vocal music featured patterns of overlapping words, with various leitmotifs (for royalty, battle, drowning, yoking, etc.). Rhythmic chanting alternated with song, choral unison gave way to solo descant, leading to the final kommos between the Chorus and Xerxes.

Costumes also reflected the play’s mournful tone, the Chorus of seven men in black pants and turtlenecks, the Queen in a modest black evening dress, with a single decorative element—a large metallic necklace hanging over the bodice. Her hair was tied with a ribbon of purple and red, the color motif we adopted for the house of Darius. When the Queen returned to the stage with libations for her husband’s tomb, she used a metal (p. 754) vessel of the same color and material of the necklace she no longer wore. Her ritual for the dead had replaced the ostentations of wealth. The ghost of Darius also appeared in black, but with a red and purple shoulder sash; their son Xerxes wore a similar outfit, but in tatters. The basic black suggested the commonality of grief, with the red and purple accents indicating the despotic royal family.

In Persians, images of yoking—of forced, constrained, or unnatural union—point to imperial excess, particularly Xerxes’ “yoking” of the Hellespont.7 We brought these elements together by using a swath of red fabric to represent the yoked chariot in which the Queen first enters. Drawing it tight across the Queen’s back and then crossing it in front of her, two attendants stretched the red cloth to its full length (some 20 feet) and drew her onstage. The Queen dismounted by lifting the cloth over her head, and the attendants laid the red fabric over the pre-set purple cloth, fully displaying the royal colors. After learning of the Persian defeat in the great Messenger speech, the Queen “remounted” the chariot and was led offstage, the sense of loss suggested by the color draining away from the set. When the Queen returned with offerings for her husband’s tomb, she arrived not in a red-cloth “chariot” but on foot, unattended, and without the genuflections of the Chorus that marked her first entrance (P. 150–60 vs. 607–9).

As the Queen made her offerings, the Chorus took hold of the edges of the pre-set purple cloth, which they rippled and shook. The invocation of Darius intensified; the cloth rose and fell, until it billowed to its full extent. In a rapid cross-fade, the cloth fell to the earth, and a pin-spot revealed the ghost of Darius on high, caught in an eerie shadow. His prediction of the cost of Xerxes’ hubris anticipated the appearance of his son in rags, lamenting with the Chorus the countless Persians who were “gone, dead and gone.”8 Resisting the popular view that Aeschylus laid the foundation for western orientalism by “inventing the barbarian,” our production did not mock the fallen “other” or their manner of mourning. In my view, Persians focuses on the catastrophe that awaits any empire, a case made more powerfully through shared grief than partisan derision.

Two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and three months before our production of Persians, the U.S.A. invaded Panama, an impoverished country with a legacy of U.S. continental yoking. U.S. policy makers needed new justifications for our giant military, and the narco-trafficking Manuel Noriega (formerly a CIA asset) provided the excuse. “Operation Just Cause” left thousands of Panamanians homeless and some 3,000 civilians dead. I could think of no play of any period more relevant to the United States, consumed then (as it is now) with Persian-like hubris. Our work on Persians represented a plea for future compassion, not compassion for others, but that which others might extend to us when our time of grief comes.9

Euripides’ Suppliant Women (1993)

I directed a production of this neglected tragedy in 1993, part of the Democracy 2500 project, which celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Cleisthenic reforms that (p. 755) instituted Athenian democracy.10 The reasons for the play’s relative neglect involve precisely those qualities that attracted me to it: the debate about politics and political systems; the argument for a “just war”; the exposé of ideological manipulation and its transmission to the young; the differing responses to war by men and women, old and young, parents and children; and the perpetuation of the cycle of violence.

Using a large (1,700-seat) proscenium theater, we reversed the standard seating arrangement by erecting bleacher seats on the stage and constructing a circular orchestra that extended over the normal seating area. This inversion gave the audience the sensation that they were watching a floating world, but one with the visual expanse of an outdoor theater. The stage-circle was backed by a large T-shaped platform, creating two staging areas, useful for highlighting the tensions between age, gender, and civic loyalties. Suspended behind the platform was a large (24 × 24 feet square) projection screen—actually a scrim, opaque when lit from the front, but translucent when backlit. This arrangement allowed for the unexpected appearance of Evadne from behind the projections, high above the pyre of her husband Capaneus, followed by her suicidal leap into the flames.

Eclectic EncountersStaging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009Click to view larger

Fig. 46.4 Chorus (with Adrastos in background), Euripides’ Suppliant Women (1993).

Photograph by John B. Wilson.

On the scrim we projected a sequence of images that helped with the shifting focus of the text (temple façade, battle ground, expansive terrain, corpses, the sun, public demagogues, death rituals), while fleshing out the mythic background that might be lost on a modern audience (Fig. 46.4). These images reached their climax with Athena’s (p. 756) appearance ex machina, beginning with a series of still images of Athena that then were overlaid with a film sequence (the only time we used moving, rather than still or morphing pictures). A larger-than-life figure on the screen, the goddess counseled the sons of the Seven to initiate another invasion of Thebes once they had grown to manhood (Supp. 1213–26), undermining the tentative peace that followed Theseus’ recovery of the bodies. The fact that the actress playing Athena was not present but “in the can” suited Euripides’ disturbing ending. By failing to be literally present and open to the challenges of live performance, Athena’s appearance emphasized how deeply embedded the ideology of war was in late fifth-century Athens, and in late twentieth-century America. The film of “patriotic war” (manipulative, persuasive, and hard to challenge) keeps playing in our heads, internalized by repetition in popular culture and the mass media. Even a good leader like Theseus (721–39, 1165–75) cannot stop the outbreak of a new conflict when forces like Athena insist that it occur.

The floating stage included a small circle covered with plexiglass located dead center. This area was lit from below to represent the altar at Eleusis (where Aethra makes her sacrifice at the start of the play), but it disappeared when the play “forgets” its Eleusinian setting and shifts toward Athens.11 Designer John Wilson painted the stage floor terracotta-orange, suggesting both the sun-baked earth and the body of a fifth-century Attic vase. The Chorus wore heavily draped black linen with orange and purple accents, favorite colors of Attic black-figure artists like the Amassis Painter. The costumes of the principals maintained the earth-tone palette, appropriate for a play connected to the land, fertility, burial, and the prospect of new life associated with the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis.

The production featured the contributions of choreographer Ze’eva Cohen and composer Michael Keck. The choreography combined ritual-like movement (drawn from Yemenite dance) with freer expressive gestures, usually performed by the Chorus in unison. The suppliant women moved to a richly textured score featuring driving percussion and the haunting sounds of shofar and oud. From the outset, Keck conveyed the high stakes of the drama by introducing a searing, long-descending tone swelling in volume, like the sound of a bomb falling from thousands of feet. The climax, however, was not a Hollywood explosion but a deep reverberation, like an earthquake moving a massive volume of air (sub-woofers were located under the seats). During this sequence, the women arrived at Eleusis and supplicated Aethra who stood at the altar, bathed in light from below. Keck used softer eastern flute motifs for the appearance of Evadne above the pyre of her husband, for the procession of the recovered corpses onstage, and for the return of the ashes to the mothers of the Seven after their sons’ cremation.

The Chorus of suppliant women and the secondary Chorus of their grandsons wore half-masks, giving them a certain anonymity. As victims—and, for the sons of the Seven, as future perpetrators—of violence, the Chorus members have a deeply personal connection to their dead sons/fathers, but the half-masks suggested an objectivity beyond individual grief. The women represented any parents in anguish over their children, and the boys stood for archetypal young males who dream of heroic exploits without considering the consequences. We played public speeches out to the audience, (p. 757) striving to maintain the immediacy of Euripides’ argument. In the debate on monarchy versus democracy, for example, the Theban Herald (Supp. 412–25, 479–85) makes a strong case against democracy as practiced, anticipating later Athenian critics. Sleazy politicians simplify confusing issues for their own gain; money and influence dominate decision-making; the myth of popular rule camouflages powerful interests that determine the agenda, propagating an ideology that sounds democratic but is not.

Euripides offers a clear-cut instance of ideological manipulation in Adrastos’ funeral oration (Supp. 857–917), echoing the Athenian institution of the patrios nomos. Adrastos rewrites the story of the Argive invaders of Thebes, converting them into paragons of self-control, civic virtue, and rational deliberation, qualities clearly absent in their invasion of Thebes. Contemporary examples of political and corporate powerbrokers misleading the public are legion, and I dedicated the production to the people of Nicaragua. The program described how the U.S.A. considered this impoverished country of 3 million a direct threat to our national security (“only a three-day drive to Harlingen, Texas,” President Reagan insisted). Instead of ridicule, the corporate media adopted the Reagan administration’s euphemistic term “freedom fighters” for the U.S.-backed Contra who butchered some 20,000 civilians in their rampage against grass-roots Nicaraguan democracy (Sklar 1988; Walker 1987). No “just war” here—just ideological manipulation and its deadly consequences. Suppliant Women proved timely, and it continues to.

Sophocles’ Women of TrachisDeianeira (2006)

I translated and adapted Sophocles’ Women of Trachis as a 45-minute solo piece for the dancer, choreographer, and performance artist Aleta Hayes. Focusing on the protagonist Deianeira, we exploited the fact that she and Heracles were played by the same actor in the fifth century. I used a taped voice for the Messenger who reports Heracles’ sack of Oechalia, his mad passion for Iole, and her fate as an uprooted war bride (a situation not unlike Deianeira’s). We solved other dramaturgical problems via projections (still and moving) on the two screens that formed the ends of our alley staging, with audience facing each other on opposite sides.

The performance opened with the swirling leaves of Dodona, the source of the prophecy so crucial to Heracles’ fate (Trach. 166–74, 1164–74). As in Suppliant Women, the scrim enabled Deianeira to emerge as if out of the projected leaves when the backlight slowly took over. In this way her story seemed as ephemeral and as cyclical as the leaves, their bright colors and dance-like movements setting the tone for the other projections—oak trees at Dodona, the meadows and crags of Mt. Oeta, the cliffs of Euboea, the rivers Achelous and Evenus, the bright sun, and the night canopy where “the big bear wheels forever | deep in the star bright sky” (129–30). These images usually began (p. 758) as photographs, but video artist Ethan Hoerneman hand-painted many of them, making the visuals at either end of the stage magical and otherworldly. These “book ends” conjured a mythic cosmos, while the performance within told of a particular woman’s love, fear, and jealousy, and the passion that drove her husband to wreak havoc, and her (unwittingly) to do the same.

As with the Sophoclean original, Deianeira depends for its impact on the actress playing Deianeira. Hayes gave a tour de force performance, her movement vocabulary expressing a range of emotions from Deianeira’s childlike freedom to her horror at Achelous’ pursuit, from the excitement of a young bride to the anxiety of a wife who has lost her husband’s love. After her transformation into Heracles (particularly moving when he cries in pain like a girl, Trach. 1070–5), the projections shifted from erotic flames to a wildfire and then to the sack of Oechalia suggested by images of contemporary war.12 Against this background of burnt-out trees and urban conflagration, Deianeira ended with a horrific sense of the destruction that arises when reason loses its grip, overwhelmed by the passions of the moment (Trach. 438–48, 660–2, 765–71, 851–61, 1082–4). As my version puts it, “Desire is a curse, passion breeds grief, | and love—if that’s its name—flames the world to ash.”

Sophocles’ Electra (2009)

As part of the Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT) Electra Festival, I directed Sophocles’ version of the story in Anne Carson’s translation (Carson 2001). The festival also included productions of Aeschylus’ Choephori and Euripides’ Electra, using the Greek myth to explore the interrelationship of memory, resistance, revenge, and justice. SRT had mounted an African festival in 2007, including a play on the 1994 Rwandan genocide that dealt with the contradictory demands of justice and reconciliation. The 2008 SRT festival had focused on the work of Brian Friel and Field Day, a group of Northern Irish writers trying to find a cultural path through “the Troubles,” focusing on the links between memory and violence, and between forgetting and injustice. Prior to that, I had traveled to the West Bank, experiencing first hand (albeit briefly) what life under Israeli occupation was like, challenging my confidence that non-violent resistance offered the path to Palestinian liberation. Although none of these influences directly affected the staging of Sophocles’ Electra, they influenced my decision to produce the play and inform my sense of why the play matters now.

Designer Eric Flatmo configured the palace at Mycenae as a dark red manor-like structure sitting high on a platform walled below with trellises of ivy, its double-doors opening and closing invisibly.13 The porch had a steep stairway leading down to the main playing area. Covered with highly reflective, bright white laminate panels, the stage floor moved the play beyond realism into a world of extremity and excess. At the back stood a copse of thin trees, painted red, their wiry, leafless branches resembling (p. 759) the lines of a CAT-scan. Near the edge of the stage stood the altar of Apollo, the site of the antithetical prayers to the god offered by Clytemnestra (S. El. 636–59) and Electra (1376–83).

As with Suppliant Women, we set up scaffold seating on the cavernous stage, but in this case the audience faced the closed fire curtain, which sealed the auditorium seats from view. Constructed of thick fireproof fabric, the curtain resembled a wall of concrete on which the shadows of the trees fell. Above the audience, the ceiling (designed nearly a century ago to fly scenic elements) rose 100 feet; on the sides, the walls of the theater—including the rigging rails with their mass of ropes and counterweights—remained visible. The contrast between the rough theater space and the polished scenic elements mirrored the play’s complex shift between truth (often incredible) and deception (all-too-credible), exemplified in the offerings at Agamemnon’s tomb (El. 871–933), the elaborate death of Orestes (673–763), the empty urn that Electra cannot abandon (1113–223), and the corpse of Orestes which is actually that of Clytemnestra (1466–75).

Eclectic EncountersStaging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009Click to view larger

Fig. 46.5 Chorus leader (Kay Kostopoulos) with Chorus, Sophocles’ Electra (2009).

Photograph by Sefanie Okuda.

Friends and confidantes of Electra, the Chorus invoke mythic archetypes against which the story unfolds (El. 482–515, 1075–80). Occasionally speaking in unison, they more often delivered the lines individually, the text moving rapidly among the seven Chorus members, supported by the seamless choreography of Aleta Hayes (the actor-choreographer of Deianeira). For the first strophe of the second stasimon (1058–69), the Chorus leader sang a powerful solo (how birds sustain life and family, unlike people), (p. 760) accompanied by an intense dance from the group (Fig. 46.5). When not performing lyric, the women provided a sculptural-like background that changed subtly with the action—a rapid movement of the head or lifting of the arms, a sharp contraction, a small impulse moving from one member through the group. These accents highlighted an argument, or suggested the women’s attitude toward a character, or indicated a change in the dynamic between speakers. Here, the Chorus embodied Schlegel’s “ideal spectator,” always focused on the dramatic event, their attention evident in their gaze, attitude, posture, and gesture.

As with Euripides’ Electra, Sophocles’ tragedy demands an extraordinary performance from the actor playing the title role. Colombian-born Valentina Condé rehearsed with me for several months until Electra’s raw intensity became second nature. Only then did the rest of the company join the rehearsals. Time and again Electra manifests a desperate willfulness and uncompromising resilience, especially in her exchange with her mother Clytemnestra (played formidably by Courtney Walsh).

We chose dramatic means rather than program notes to bring the audience to the passionate intensity on which Electra’s confrontations depend. We began the play with a prologue going back ten years, showing a young Electra gathering flowers to give to her father on his homecoming from Troy. Hidden beneath the stairs, she watches her mother’s welcome of Agamemnon, the spreading of the red tapestries, his entry into the palace, Clytemnestra’s ecstatic outburst over the corpse, and her embrace of Aegisthus (Fig. 46.6), using speeches from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (Ag. 855–913, 958–74, 1372–94, 1431–6).14 After Clytemnestra’s exit, the young Electra climbed the stairs to embrace her dead father and then stood by the corpse, resolved to fight back. The prologue helped establish the background of murder, desecration, trauma, and the compulsions to revenge that lie at the heart of Sophocles’ Electra.

Over the course of the production, those compulsions were revealed to be more problematic than restorative. Sophocles’ “sword of Damocles” ending means that Aegisthus always awaits Orestes’ torture and murder (El. 1491–507), and Electra never regains her youthful integrity, insisting that Orestes deny burial rites to Aegisthus (1483–90). Our production closed with Electra once again embracing a corpse, this time her mother’s. Instead of the bouquet of flowers, she tore off ivy leaves from the dark red trellis, placing them on the body of Clytemnestra as she lay down beside her. In spite of her triumph, and in part because of it, Electra cannot rise above the bloodshed of the past.

Eclectic EncountersStaging Greek Tragedy in America, 1973–2009Click to view larger

Fig. 46.6 Clytemnestra (Courtney Walsh) and Aegisthus (Donnell Hill) over the corpse of Agamemnon (James Kierstead), with the young Electra (Davia Schendel) watching, Sophocles’ Electra (2009).

Photograph by Sefanie Okuda.

Greek tragedy offers a daunting challenge to anyone working in the American theater, a call to artistic engagement that respects and learns from the past, even as it finds a way to speak to a modern audience. I am reminded of Seamus Heaney’s noble wish at the end of his version of Philoctetes that—somehow—hope and history align. As this summary of my work suggests, we may find that it is not hope with which our history rhymes, but tragedy.15 (p. 761)


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                                              (1.) See Rehm 1988; 1992: 43–74; 2002: 35–75. For very different perspectives, see Wiles 2000 and Goldhill 2007.

                                              (2.) See Rehm forthcoming. Agamemnon featured alley staging that focused on the linearity of arrival; Choephori was played against a back wall, with the audience on three sides, emphasizing the claustrophobic nature of the murder plot; Eumenides opened the playing space up in a V-shaped arrangement, suggesting the possibility of a less constricted, more “democratic” future. Playing the trilogy on one evening was not a problem, given that the trilogy comprises fewer lines than Shakespeare’s Hamlet and roughly the same number as Richard III. And yet I have seen productions of Agamemnon by itself that have included an intermission!

                                              (3.) The list of U.S.-backed regimes included the colonels in Argentina, the Stronato regime of General Stroessner in Paraguay, the Bonzer dictatorship in Bolivia (its death squads trained at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia), military regimes in Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. After the fall of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in 1979, the U.S.A. then backed the “Contras,” who waged a savage counter-revolution against the freely elected (1984) Sandinista government, using U.S. bases in Honduras and Costa Rica.

                                              (4.) On Sellars’s production, see Hall 2007: 191–2.

                                              (5.) On first Gulf War casualties, see Ali and Shah 2000; also Daponte 2007. For the second Gulf War, see Brecher, Cutler, and Smith 2005.

                                              (6.) In Rehm 2002: 239–40 I have argued that the roof of the skênê façade was available in the theater of Dionysus for Persians, and provided the platform for the ghost of Darius’ appearance; see also Seaford 2012.

                                              (7.) A. Pers. 67–72, 128–31, 722–3, 734, 736, 745–50; also used for the yoke of slavery at 49–50 and 585–93.

                                              (8.) Aeschylus’ Persians 1981.

                                              (9.) A lesson clearly not learned after 9/11, when the Bush (2) administration used world sympathy as an umbrella to mount a disastrous war against Afghanistan, followed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. See Rehm 2003: 76–7; 88–90, and above n. 5.

                                              (10.) For critical response to the production, see Hartigan 1995: 144–6. Using the translation by R. Warren and S. Scully (New York 1995), the production was staged at Memorial Theatre, Stanford University, and the Folger Library, Washington, DC.

                                              (11.) On the shifting locales, the lack of any entrances through the skênê façade, and other staging issues in the play, see Rehm 1988: 283–90.

                                              (12.) The war images included photographs of the U.S. assault on Falujah in 2004—Operation Phantom Fury, which used white phosphorus bombs on human targets. The rates of cancer, infant mortality, and leukemia in the survivors exceed those reported in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See Monbiot 2005; Busby, Hamdan, and Ariabi 2010; Cockburn 2010.

                                              (13.) Worked by stagehands positioned underneath the platform, the doors seemed to respond to the commands of Clytemnestra in the prologue, and then increasingly to Electra and Orestes as the play progressed.

                                              (14.) In this prologue, Agamemnon and the young Electra remained silent; we integrated Clytemnestra’s speeches from Agamemnon to provide relevant background.

                                              (15.) Heaney 1990. For the fear that modern history and ancient tragedy are reflecting mirrors, see Schmidt 2001: 6–19; 271–84.