Killing One’s Kin: Greek Tragedy on Violence and Vendetta
Three Stagings in Washington, Lyon, and Paris Tell the Story of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra
Aeschylus’ plays are back in the news. Alongside the Suppliants, which a wider French audience was able to discover thanks to the involuntary publicity given to it by this spring’s controversies at the Sorbonne (account here in English, and editorial on the topic in French), productions of the Oresteia came this summer to Lyon and Washington, D.C. Another story of Orestes, the one sketched by Euripides in his two plays Electra and Orestes, sold out at the Comédie Française in Paris. I was lucky enough to see the three productions — each time with a renewed but different pleasure.
While all effective, these shows indeed contrast with each other, as a comparison will highlight. The tragic kaleidoscope they create together reflects light and cuts through darkness in a mobile and diverse way. It invites us to meditate on the plasticity of these dramas, which lend themselves to constantly renewed questioning and assume varied forms on today’s stage.
The contrast is first and foremost played out in the response they provide to this unavoidable problem: to translate or to adapt Greek drama? Michael Kahn’s high-budget production, his last after thirty years as head of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C., exemplifies adaptation. Modern marketing puts the name of Ellen Mclaughlin — creator of the adapted script — above Aeschylus’ on the bill: a playwright and actress — known for creating the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — McLaughlin has already successfully adapted several Greek tragedies on and off Broadway. Although she does not read Greek, McLaughlin has a talent for absorbing the poetic language of Greek tragedy and rendering it in a refined English, quite direct but not without depth, striking and sensitive at the same time. In this clearly feminist rewrite, it is an independent Clytemnestra who stands at the forefront, haunted by her daughter slain on the altar by her father Agamemnon — Iphigenia appears several times in flashback scenes. The third piece in the trilogy, the Eumenides, is completely redesigned: it questions the possibility of a trial for Orestes, murderer of his mother, but postpones this prospect beyond the time of the performance.
Adaptation in the New World, but translation in the Old? This distinction, which might seem clichéd, applies here. But it is undoubtedly a matter of places and people: the Roman theatres of Fourvière in Lyon offer Georges Lavaudant the opportunity to return to the Oresteia, with his long-time partner, the dramaturge Daniel Loayza, also author of a beautiful translation of Aeschylus that has now become a standard in France. There is no reason to change it: Lavaudant rejects the rewriting of the classics and cites Simon Stone’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters as a scandal. However, outdoor theater required alteration of the Oresteia he put on in 1999–2001: the team of actors is completely new, and Lavaudant has chosen great voices to make the powerful Aeschylean language heard in an open space, between city and sky, potentially exposed to the whims of nature (in fact, the actors had to face pouring rain during the opening night in Fourvière). Twenty years ago, Lavaudant was inspired by the bare and metaphysical aesthetics of Klaus Michael Grüber, and the text was almost whispered by the actors. He now opts for a “ flamboyant tragic” that gradually unfolds to find its full potential in the Eumenides, a wacky Dionysian cabaret. At the heart of the show, Lavaudant claims the need to put Aeschylus’ language, an old foreign language, “of a surprising richness, with its metaphors, its shortcuts, its digressions, its mixture of realism and mythology” into a form that saves us from the simplistic and reductive language of today’s media.
In Paris, the production by Dutch director Ivo Van Hove brings Euripides’ Electra and Orestes to the Comédie Française’s repertoire for the first time. Tradition obliges that it be a translation: in this case Marie Delcourt-Curvers classic version from the La Pléiade edition. The two plays are rightly combined: they form a singular “Oresteia,” which was undoubtedly for Euripides a response to the work of his predecessor Aeschylus. In Electra, Agamemnon’s murder has already taken place. That play tells of Orestes’ reunion with his sister and their sinister revenge, while the drama Orestes is interested in the aftermath of the murder. To a trial orchestrated by the gods, Euripides prefers a trial conducted by men in Argos, where human passions are unleashed: Orestes and his sister are sentenced to death by stoning. Yet they will seek to escape this verdict by resorting to alarming violence. Ivo Van Hove contrasts this desperate and subversive aspect of Euripides with the Damned of Visconti, which he also staged at the Comédie Française this spring: “the end of the Damned is the starting point of Electra/Orestes,” he writes, and the Visconti/Euripides diptych is constructed as a study of madness and violent radicalization.
On the stage of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, a house with an imposing façade — yet one that has “the kind look of old people” — stands as a living palace whose windows are like two sad eyes open on the ruin of a family condemned by the curses of the past, as well as by its own excess. The uneven ground and black backdrop look like molten lava, barely cooled, ready to ignite again when the blood flows through this house, generation after generation. The stage set-up is quite sober, the entrances and exits are made through the palace door or the wings. This reminds us of the simplicity of the dramaturgical means of the Athenian theater, except that this set-up is magnified by successful lighting and sound effects. In this beautiful setting, Clytemnestra is given the lead role. Kelley Curran interprets it in a masterly way, with her warm and deep voice, and the impressive palette of emotions that runs through her: she is both strong and tortured, sensitive and hateful, loving and seductive. This Clytemnestra takes revenge on Agamemnon on her own initiative, delivered from a man’s power. A scandalous act or a stroke of genius? Ellen McLaughlin has removed Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, from the play. Clytemnestra sharpens her knife alone, strikes alone and hopes to be able to live a normal life alone, once this “justice” has been achieved.
Kelley Curran’s remarkable performance contributed greatly to the success of this production, as did the rare work done by the chorus, made up of seven members, women and men of all ages, whose presence on the stage is almost constant throughout the entire play. They are the faithful servants of the house, the external witnesses, modest and sometimes almost invisible. However, through their presence and indirect involvement, they are part of the bloody history of this house. It is a chorus that does not sing or dance, unlike the ancient Greek convention, but the sequencing of the individual members’ voices is superb, no doubt requiring extremely fine precision and countless hours of work. This chorus speaks in a form of “polyphonic unison:” the responsions, all largely inspired by Aeschylus’ text, are spoken by a few, then taken up by the entire chorus. Aeschylus’ key words circulate and cascade, sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted or hammered, yet carried by a community of voices that does not annihilate differences. The tone varies from choreut to choreut and sometimes reflects disagreement: this chorus is not limited to harmony. In the third part of the play, when it comes to judging Orestes, a divisive task, if ever there was one, the individual voices burst out and clash.
Aeschylus’ verbal and visual poetry is therefore present and animates the show: the adaptation is not betrayal, and Ellen McLaughlin has the intelligence not to change much from the original at certain times, as in the famous scene of the “red carpet” rolled out by Clytemnestra at Agamemnon’s feet, when he returns victorious from Troy. The sign is eminently ambiguous (supreme honor done to the winner or path of blood?) and the scene is full of mystery. It is played as such in this adaptation, and the emotional and physical charge of the red fabrics grips us. Blood becomes fabric, fabric becomes blood. Earlier, at the time of Iphigenia’s murder, two long strips of red fabric were forcefully ejected through the windows, sinister tears of blood flowing through the house’s eyes.
The production has some weaknesses, such as the perhaps overly psychological interpretation of the character of Clytemnestra, who acts only in the name of love for her daughter — whereas Aeschylus’ drama suggests, ambiguously, other motives, such as a taste for power, a family curse, jealousy and adultery. The ending is less convincing: the Erinyes, the gods, the trial of Orestes, are replaced by a private discussion among the members of the chorus who wonder about the fate of Orestes. Their statements about what justice can be sound fair at times, but sometimes seem naive, and this domestic “judgment,” improvised at the scene of the murders, by servants themselves involved in history (and therefore necessarily biased) made me feel the lack of a broader and more universal political and civic perspective. There is no doubt that this is a playwright’s commentary on the state of American democracy today, but it may deviate too much from Aeschylus’ more complex, innovative and non-Manichean theatrical propositions. Justice is not an easy thing to find and to institute, and the drama of the Eumenides introduces a fine dialectic, between overcoming the vendetta and preserving political instruments of control of the citizens through fear. Erinyes, forces of darkness, are not expelled at the time when justice is being instituted; on the contrary, Aeschylus grants them a central place in the heart of the city of Athena. Through this theatrical twist, Aeschylus was offering his fellow citizens the opportunity to take a fresh look at their own institutions. Did Ellen McLaughlin achieve the same effect in turn? This is open to debate. However, an interesting experiment took place at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the wake of the performances: Electra’s responsibility was judged in a mock trial led by no less than a judge from the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Back home in Lyon, and still haunted by these vivid memories of Kahn’s Oresteia, I had to wait for a few weeks before impatiently taking my place on the stone benches of the spectacular 1st-century B.C. Roman theaters of Fourvière. Sitting there for an ancient play, under the stars — and on opening night, under a threatening, stormy sky — always comes with an additional awe. I ended up seeing the show twice (not only because of the weather conditions) and both times it met without a doubt my high expectations.
To see Lavaudant in Lyon after Kahn is to be confronted with another reading of Aeschylus’ text, which manages to revise our knowledge of the character of Clytemnestra and to orchestrate, with vigor and fantasy, the trial of Orestes that was deleted from Ellen McLaughlin’s version. In contrast to a psychological approach and the more intimate interplay allowed by a closed theater, in the Roman theater the acting is frontal and declamatory: actors stand still and have a hieratic attitude, not always with the same success (I regret in particular Cassandra’s immobility in Agamemnon). Overall, however, the quality of acting is very high. Anne Alvaro is an older magnetic Clytemnestra who imposes her enigmatic presence. The economy of her acting is amazing: the body is straight and fixed, but a tilting of the head or a set of looks are enough to express her jubilation or anguish. She is a Clytemnestra with a hushed, cold, restrained power and all the ambivalence of the character passes through her strange diction, her ironic tone, or her unexpected weariness when she parades the sword in hand over the corpses of her husband and Cassandra… She embodies well this paradox of “woman with a man’s heart” described by Aeschylus.
In front of her, the actor of television and cinema Carlo Brandt is a seductive Agamemnon, another great example of staging. When Clytemnestra invites him to walk on the purple, in the “red carpet scene” already mentioned, the wife and husband clash. Agamemnon refuses for fear of committing sacrilege. Lavaudant succeeds in transforming our reading of this agon by making it a joust between two loving spouses: Clytemnestra’s manipulative persuasion becomes (at least on the surface) a loving persuasion. The blood-red fabric then takes on the color of a husband’s love (feigned or not) in a new and fresh way; a husband who kisses his wife in the mouth just before walking along this fatal path.
Another success of the staging is undoubtedly the last part, whose quickened pace constitutes a complete break, both visual and aural. The hieratic form is overturned and abandoned (except for Athena, who rightly keeps an Olympian calm and grandeur). The pursuit of Orestes by the Erinyes, the thunderclaps and the luminous flashes, not to mention the “acoustic” arrows launched by Apollo, give a breathtaking turn to this third period of action, driven by a displacement, already innovative in 456 B.C., from Argos to the democratic space of the Areopagus of Athens.
We then witness a grandguignolesque cabaret, on that fine line between tragedy and comedy, between dragshow and the Cannes Film Festival. Lavaudant explains himself, recalling that Aeschylus’ trilogy was originally followed by a fourth play, a satyric drama of comic tone: the Eumenides would make a transition towards this lost play. The Erinyes, these “old children” in Aeschylus’ terms, are a pack of hirsute dolls (brilliantly led by Carlo Brandt again), who squeak, sniff and bark, their animal bodies shaken with tics and spasms. They are fun without being ridiculous: Lavaudant has well understood that the question of the honors they receive is a serious issue in the trilogy, as much as the acquittal of Orestes. With long platinum blond wig, bare-chested and covered with glitters, capped in black and perched on platform shoes, Apollo is a haughty and proud god who “makes the show” without inspiring confidence… The challenge then consists in making the trial heard as written by Aeschylus, despite the obsolete arguments he used at the time. Apollo’s demonstration according to which the woman is a simple container of the seed deposited by the male, intended to prove the father’s superiority over the mother, is certainly impossible to hear today (and who knows if someone will not one day seek to censor Aeschylus here…). But the staging is intelligent in that it makes us hear this argument as a kind of joke, forged by Apollo at the time, in all bad faith. The Erinyes are outraged and we are on their side, in empathy with them. The director summons our modernity to renew the power of Aeschylus’ tragedy: he makes us feel that the monstrous creatures have their own logic and justice. Despite their freakish look and anger, they have to be integrated within the city’s system of justice.
A few days later, a train to Paris brought me into an entirely different theatrical world.
It was hard to secure a ticket for the Comédie Française: the staging of Euripides’ Electra et Orestes by Ivo van Hove has very well received by the public and critics. The radical nature of the stage directions, supported by the trance effects of the Xenakis Trio’s percussion, but also the darkness of the characters and the plot, give the show a “trash” touch that certainly undermines the general public’s idea of Greek tragedy.
In fact, Euripides’ two plays take Aeschylus’ Oresteia in reverse and deconstruct the tragedy of his predecessor. Euripides’ tragic drama seems to be born from the observation made by the characters themselves of their inability to imitate the tragic greatness that was once theirs. His Electra, exiled to the countryside by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, married by force to a peasant, is bitter and revengeful. Orestes is drunk with violence against Aegisthus, usurper of his throne and wealth, but is in anguish when it comes to killing his own mother. The reunion between son and mother, shown in Aeschylus as a necessarily complex encounter where love and hatred are mixed, is removed from Euripides’ play: all that remains is deception, manipulation, sordid murder, and guilty regrets expressed by children who are no longer even capable of assuming the “justice” of their act, once their mother lies on the ground.
In Ivo Van Hove’s work, this rejection of elevation, which gives rise to a bitter and desperate tragedy, is conveyed by the mud that occupies the entire front stage and smears the characters from head to toe. Clytemnestra’s slipper remains mired in mud, like a symbol of the whole drama. After murder her, Orestes literally sinks and vanishes into the mud, as if he were metaphorically recovering the lost maternal womb. No one claims to be admirable anymore: Clytemnestra and Helen (both played by Elsa Lepoivre) are beautiful but weak; Menelaus (Denis Podalydès) is a coward, Tyndareus (Didier Sandre) an old man without wisdom. Electra and Orestes are not so far from the characters of Ellen McLaughlin, who admits to having also been inspired by Euripides. But they are more violent and angry, and Ivo Van Hove goes much further in bringing into play their troubled taste for violence. The scene of the outrage of Aegisthus’ corpse by Electra is shocking: everything happens as if a crime of primitive times, the emasculation of Ouranos by his son Cronos, was suddenly replayed on the set.
In this descent into hell where spirits and bodies are soiled and dehumanized, it is not clear whether the final deus ex machina, the only ray of hope for Orestes and Electra, is a dream or a reality. Ivo Van Hove’s staging thus questions the modern, overly caricatured conception of tragedy as a civic theater par excellence, a beautiful “total performance” in which Athenian citizens, strengthened by theatrical art, received communion. Euripides’ theater, already, by its subversion, disrupted and short-circuited this supposed political vocation of tragedy.
These three representations are therefore fascinatingly opposed without cancelling each other out. They come together surprisingly in a gesture: an unexpected and almost miraculous point of contact among these three “Oresteiae” from Washington, Lyon and Paris. On stage, the gesture of washing the blood, cleaning the bodies, intervenes as a breath, an unexpected moment of care where one tries, almost tenderly, to repair wounds. In Ivo Van Hove’s work, Electra and Orestes try to wash the blood from their mother’s body just murdered at the end of the first play — before plunging into another cycle of violence. In both the Oresteiae of Washington and Lyon, the soothing gesture holds the promise of a possible future: at the end of the trilogy, Kahn’s beautiful chorus cleanses the stains of the brother and sister, while in Lavaudant’s, it is the Erinyes themselves, won over to the cause of Athena and reassured, who wash their dirty faces. From Erinyes, they have become benevolent Eumenides.
L’Orestie d’Eschyle, directed by George Lavaudant, played from June 5 to 8, 2019, at the Théâtres Romains de Fourvière; and will play again October 3 and 4, 2019, at L’Archipel, Scène nationale de Perpignan; and March 24 to 28, 2020 at MC2 Grenoble. Électre/Oreste d’Euripide, directed by Ivo van Hove, played from April 27 to July 3, 2019 at the Comédie Française, Paris, and Epidaurus festival, July 26 and 27, 2019; it will return to the Comédie Française from October 25, 2019 to 16 February 2020. Ellen McLaughlin’s The Oresteia, adapted from Aeschylus’ trilogy, directed by Michael Kahn, played from April 30 to June 6, 2019, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington D.C.
With my grateful thanks to Elizabeth and Hunter Rawlings for their precious help in adapting this piece in English.
Anne-Sophie Noel is assistant professor of Greek at the Ecole Normale Superieure of Lyon.