Aeschylus' Agamemnon, translated by Kenneth McLeish Sophocles' Electra translated by E. F. Watling Directed by Tim Ocel, Theater Emory, Atlanta, Georgia 5 November 1993. Niall W. Slater, Department of Classics, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, U.S.A. e-mail: email@example.com
The original texts of Greek tragedy are generally of a length to play in little more than an hour, but rare is the production today of such brief compass. The temptation for the translator, especially for a stage production, is to expand. Audience expectations of the modern theatrical experience encourage this as well: the spectators come for a full evening's entertainment, not a short subject. With the exception of those directors willing to tackle the whole of the Oresteia in an evening (and that usually by substantial cutting), contemporary practice nearly always gives us a single Greek tragedy in a performance.
Theater Emory's Greek Project is a bold experiment, then, although it is not clear how much the director has contemplated the formal aspects of his experiment. The decision to combine Aeschylus' Agamemnon with Sophocles' Electra would seem to owe more to an interest in narrative and in searching the sources of character motivation than to a desire to recreate an alternative to the one preserved Aeschylean trilogy. The director, Tim Ocel, staged a production of the Electra at the Sacramento Theater Company last year and drew very heavily on that experience in the present staging. Interest in the story behind Electra's plight, then, formed his approach to the Agamemnon.
The staging was loosely postmodern, a bricolage of costumes and properties ranging from the 1950's to the present. The theatre used for the production was the standard American 'black box', stripped almost to the walls. Large permanent metal doors at the back, painted red, functioned as the palace doors. A low platform to the left, with a dining table and chairs, created a more or less interior space. A very high platform to the right, reached by a ladder and equipped with an easy chair and reading lamp, also created a space underneath it, though at first closed off by a blackboard. On the apron of the stage several rocks, painted a lurid red, defined a few paths on an eroded checkerboard floor. Light projections of Doric columns on the walls of the black box surrounded both stage and audience; for Electra, these were replaced by projections of barbed wire.
A number of structural innovations in the Agamemnon was dictated by the desire to knit it to the Electra text. The Watchman became the Tutor (Paedagogue), sitting up late over a book in his easy chair, watching for the beacon from Troy. Soon thereafter we discovered that much of the choral material had been assigned to individual characters, including the Tutor, a woman who seemed to be his wife and a fellow domestic, and even Electra, for she, Chrysothemis, and a very young (and non- speaking) Orestes appeared, dressed in school uniforms and apparently doing their homework around the family breakfast table. Aegisthus, dressed in silk boxers and a loose dressing gown, also made a silent but clearly resented (by Electra, at least) appearance at the breakfast table. The chorus per se were represented by the media, television and print reporters and photographers who come to quiz Clytemnestra on the news from Troy, then the messenger (a soldier in a wheelchair - this a bit heavy-handed, since he is even accompanied by a nurse who injects him for pain at one point), and finally the returned commander in chief, Agamemnon, accompanied by Cassandra.
While traditionalists would find much to be offended by in this staging, the result was an enlivening and creative rethinking of the play. Not having read the McLeish translation immediately before seeing the production, I cannot be sure that the major changes are only cuts and reassignment of lines, but the audience at large seemed to follow events quite well. Only the touch of having the Tutor 'lecture' some unnamed extras on the history of the war and more particularly the sign of the hare and the eagle (even using the blackboard to diagram his points) seemed a bit patronizing of the audience, a failure to trust them to follow the background information on their own. By contrast Clytemnestra, superbly performed by Lura Dolas, demonstrated how even recondite geography can be brilliant theatre with her rendition of the beacon speech. The carpet scene functioned as powerfully and as simply as one might hope, and Clytemnestra's reentry with the axe, her Nancy Reagan-style white suit now spattered with gore, was electrifying. The initial hour of the production (very crisply played) left one with considerable hopes for the subsequent play.
That the Electra fell short of those hopes may be laid in lesser part to the translation, in greater to the director. The result was not a failure but seemed more self- indulgent and less thoughtful than the first half - or perhaps, given that this was in part a restaging of the earlier Sacramento production, had been subject to restraints from which the Agamemnon had not suffered. The program offered no comment on the choice of translations; one worries the choice of Watling for Electra may have had more to do with royalties than artistic considerations. In any case the shift from poetry to prose in the translations heralded a general degradation of surroundings as well as morals. Clytemnestra's linguistic degeneration matched her transition from tailored suit and regal poise to a Sunset Boulevard - negligee and a tendency to drink Jack Daniels from the bottle. 1950's kitsch was the leading design tone, most notable in Chrysothemis's sheath dress, white gloves, and winged eyeglasses, but also marked by plastic kitchen chairs. This retrogression in design time versus progression in narrative time seemed confusing: or were we to imagine that the Argive royal family was now reduced to shopping at garage sales? I leave aside here such puzzling items as the huge pile of shoes now dumped on the stage, sorted over by women of the chorus.
The actress of the title role, clad still in her now tattered school uniform from the first play, gave a suitably distressed performance, as did a very young and gallant Orestes. Their recognition scene was as moving as one might have hoped; here for once the prose rhythms helped rather than hindered. The chorus, now reduced to three blind women (Ocel is nothing if not obvious in some of his directorial choices), seemed in need of something to do while they divided the lines among them: hence apparently the shoe pile, giving them some business. Again the contrast to the swift, choreographed movements of the questing media chorus of the first play was pointed. Only the final touch of the production verged on the unforgivable: after Aegisthus was led away and we had heard his final cries, the silence was broken by a lilting offstage whistle, presumably Orestes. For most in the audience, I suspect, the tune only became clear when the recorded music of the same tune faded in as the house lights came up: Doris Day singing Que Sera, Sera.
Contemporary restagings of Greek tragedy are now becoming almost as common as they are for Shakespearean tragedy. This is particularly tempting where Trojan war themes allow easy allusion to America's recent military adventures. Here the Greek Project breaks no new ground. More intriguing is the pairing of two originally separate plays. If the structural innovations and design concepts were intended to shape a whole out of the two, however, the results were less than successful. Prose and poetry still have very different impacts in performance, not easily effaced or subordinated to other considerations. I do not believe that the director intended the design elements to undermine the possibility of a tragic response, but in fact they did so. John Styan has remarked that tragedy vanishes when Macbeth trips over the carpet or Hamlet wears pink: the sheer accumulation of props on stage in these productions weighed them down, and the touches of kitsch flattened response even more.
Yet the experiment was well worth trying, and similar endeavors with the Theban plays, for example, might prove even more illuminating. Most of all, we should welcome anything which helps to restore a sense of these plays as parts of a larger festival, elements that interpret and reinterpret each other.
Niall W. Slater
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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 6 - November 1993 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1320-3606