When we began this venture—translating, adapting, and staging the Fall of the House of Atreus as told by different playwrights from 2,500 years ago—I had no idea of the discoveries we would make. Indeed, I had known these plays intimately for over 50 years, but there were many surprises. So, briefly, I will try to share with you what I learned and relearned.
The most insistent prompt in my mind was to always remember that these were Athenian plays and that they reflected the moods, the successes, and the failures of that brief glorious period of the 5th century B.C., when the Athenian Empire flourished. Most importantly, this art form, drama, was invented in that city of Athens. There had of course been pageants and displays in other cities and cultures, but this literary form and art of imitated action was devised in that single city.
The Theatre of Dionysus, where these plays were originally performed, was essentially the first physical theatre in the world. The space could hold 20,000 people; this astonishing estimate reflects the Athenian sense of the importance of the theatre as a center of thought, where one could question what it meant to be human. The theatre lay below the Parthenon and directly below the Areopagus, the recently constructed space where murder trials were to be held. In some sense, these buildings were the symbols of a city that believed itself to be the center of the world. Athens was now the most powerful and rich city of the Hellenic world, at first a largely benign empire providing protection for city-states that gave it tribute.
The three plays that Court chose for this Cycle represent the early and the late stages of this development of drama. Iphigenia in Aulis gave us the world of fallible human beings, a world that even Euripides’ contemporaries recognized as being “like our own.” But as Athens itself slowly died during the Peloponnesian War, it was Iphigenia’s death that echoed the futility of the daily deaths of the young men of Greece.
In Agamemnon, Aeschylus began by showing the futility of anger and revenge. He wrote this play when Athens was at the height of its power and was celebrating its enlightenment, its literature, and its newly-founded democracy. Agamemnon was closest to a straightforward telling of the tale, through long passages of a poetic chorus and one lone character answering them. A century later, Aristotle theorized that this was how drama began. The essence of the developed drama—the “agon,” the conflict, the debate—had not yet reached fruition. In fact, it was a hard play to do. But it was not primitive; it was primal.
Our current play, Electra, was written late in Sophocles’ long life. But although his dramas were not overly political, they were truly about the polis and the complexity of human behavior. So too this play raises the painful question: what becomes of Electra, who is consumed with anger, a desire for revenge, and a hatred of the mother who killed her father? We are shown through Sophoclean eyes a human being tortured to the point of hating who she has become. In one of the many strokes of brilliant psychological observation, Electra is afraid of becoming like her mother. Freud noted her state of mind and called it the “Electra complex.” Sophocles speaks to us still.
These plays of domestic horror and taboos became expressions of the universal. Tragedy was born and grew into a mature art form in this brief century in Athens. When that Athens died in 405 B.C., tragedy died too. It did not awaken until the age of Elizabeth and Shakespeare; until once again all the world was a stage, until this was the great Globe itself.
I am grateful to Court Theatre for giving me and all of us a chance to revisit that ancient world—that world, alas, that is still “too much with us.”
Photo: Nicholas Rudall, Court Founding Artistic Director (photo: Joe Mazza)