The Harvard Classical Club presents Aeschylus' Agamemnon
In collaboration with Gregory Nagy's Core Course 'The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization'
December 11, 1993
Reviewed by Patrick Rourke
745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, U.S.A.
Most students learn about Greek tragedy from an open book -- the Chicago or Oxford series translations, Fitzgerald or Fagles or Lloyd-Jones. They take in their hands a sheaf of paper printed on a linotype and bound up into a cheap codex with paper covers. We ask the students to read the introductions and the 'plays', ask them to identify important themes and points of conflict; the best teachers lecture them as well on theimportant differences between a Greek tragedy and what we today think of as a play -- the music, the dancing, the masks, the ritual identity that may have been manifest at the center of the circular dance floor or may have lain in the recesses of the audience's mind. Unfortunately, the paperback gives this lecture the lie -- and Aeschylus and Euripides become as indistinguishable from Shaw and Ibsen as the Methuen paperbacks. In reading the play, the essentials are lost, the look and feel and sound of the Greek tragedy that cannot be found in the finest commentaries or the most comprehensive monographs.
The only way for a student to understand what a Greek tragedy was is to see one produced, or to make the effort to produce the tragedy herself. In trying to find formal equivalencies between the Greek music or staging or costuming or dance and conventions that can be used on a modern stage, a student learns how much of a Greek tragedy remains behind in the words, and how much must be recreated for the eye. A student production of, the Agamemnon, then, has value only so far as it is able to ask questions of its participants, and lead them to find their own answers.
One recent attempt to bring Greek tragedy directly to students on the stage was the Harvard Classical Club's Agamemnon, which was produced in collaboration with Prof. Gregory Nagy's Core Curriculum course 'The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization' and directed by Therese Sellers, a graduate student in Boston University's Comparative Studies program. Sellers' and Harvard's Agamemnon was a workshop performance at the Sanders Theatre, a proscenium stage with an interesting design that lends easy parallels to the Greek theater: the lowest level of the stage is cut in a semi-circle; there is a roof-balcony; the audience was seated in a square orchestra before the stage and in tiers and balconies enclosing the orchestra on three sides; there were two stairs meeting dead center at the front of the stage and two more in the wings. The actors and a large part of the audience were students in Nagy's course and members of the Harvard Classical Club (a section of the orchestra was quite rightly reserved for them).
The scenery consisted of two large black sheets dropped straight in from the balcony and obscuring all but the center eight feet of the stage's back wall and two large spreads of fishing net hung in arcs from the center of the balcony rail to the far wings of the stage front; in addition, a dirt- floored stone circle at the center of the lower stage represented a sacred space, both hearth and altar.
The libretto (Fagles' translation) was supplemented by two percussionists who rapped out the original Greek meters of the lyric passages in accompaniment to the chorus' recitation on two drums and a scraper. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between Fagles' translation and the meters so carefully reproduced -- if there is any melopoeia in Fagles, it is the melopoeia of the dialogue and not that of the choral song. The percussion combined with the mechanical delivery of the chorus and the halting shuffle of their feet to reinforce the mistaken impression of meter as something imposed on a text, rather than as an integral affect of poetic language.
In two places, the refrain of the parodos and a coda lifted from the Eumenides, lines were recited in the original -- but were impossible to follow. This device is common enough, an attempt to convey some of the music of the original lyrics, and always fails -- in an English performance, the Greek gets in the way. The networks of assonance and rhythm are lost in the translation of the other lines of the ode, and drowned in the poverty of delivery; ailinon ailinon eipe, to d'eu nikato becomes a mantra as empty of meaning as om. Perhaps in a performance in which the Greek lines were truly sung, rather than chanted, with the English as a spoken caption, the device might have some value; here the effect was merely distancing.
The acting had one strong point and one serious weak point. The actors lived up to many of the physical demands of the play -- gesture and movement, blocking, and the use of facial expression. There were some mistakes in blocking (the positioning of Clytemnestra in the last scene, to the right and behind Aegisthus, drastically undercut her posture in the play), and the choreography was erratic, but there were also felicities (the lie of Agamemnon and Cassandra's bodies in the hearth-circle, and the circular path of the chorus in the parodos. Unfortunately, almost all of the performances were marred by poor delivery. The coryphaeus' grating, puerile voice was the most serious liability; in the kommos with Cassandra, each of his interruptions (accompanied by an interruption in the percussion) was a lead plumb. The chorus' delivery of their anapestic lines was unmistakably harsh, and the rest of their delivery artificial and toneless; Clytemnestra (one of the better performances) was astringently high-pitched; the Watchman grindingly mechanical; Agamemnon flat; Aegisthus, played by a Greek actor with a finely controlled voice, occasionally lapsed into parody (I would have preferred this actor as the Watchman, a role that sets the audience's expectations); Cassandra, quiet (a surprising, effective variation) and at times lyrical, occasionally let slip a whine.
The flaws in the performance were rooted in deficiencies of rehearsal; the clumsinesses of delivery indicated a lack of preparation (perhaps inevitable in an extracurricular student production at a demanding time of year); the poverty of choreography and music (and translation) would have been more apparent to a better prepared cast. The other flaws in the production were traceable to a lack of ambition: the director too often chose the obvious over the original. The stage directions in the translation were not well interrogated (for example, the poorly motivated appearance of Clytemnestra in the parodos remained). There was no attempt to represent many of the conventions of Greek tragedy (the mask and the skenographia being the most obvious), preference being given instead to traditional modern conventions: Clytemnestra's performance was identifiably Stanislavskian, while Cassandra, in divesting herself of the trappings of her status as seer in the kommos, predictably disrobed, leaving herself only a thin slip. The use of a strobe light behind the audience to represent the (unseen, but perhaps represented symbolically to the original audience by the sun rising behind the stage) beacon in the prologue was annoying. The stage, which provided so many parallels to the unavailable (in a Boston December) outdoor theater, was underutilized.
But perhaps the worst failing of this production was in the coda. As the lights dimmed and the actors left the stage, on the balcony first occupied by the watchman in the prologue, a narrow spot highlighted three figures. They were dressed all in black, with tangled black wigs and black makeup on their faces, and, arms swaying like Halloween spooks, they crooned an incomprehensible line of mutated Greek (which I assume was lifted from the Eumenides; I couldn't make out the words). The director should have learned from T. S. Eliot's 'football team' how difficult it is to represent the Furies on stage, and not added them where they were not necessary: the audience laughed.
Viewed as anything other than a workshop production, the performance was disappointing. While in quality it surpassed many student productions I have seen, the inconsistencies in performance and vision were troubling. In its most important task, however, the production fared well; I have no doubt that the students learned something of the difficulties in the performance of a Greek tragedy. Perhaps in future productions of Greek tragedy at Harvard, the actors will be given more rehearsal time and better stage and cast resources (there were only four choreutai, two borrowed from the acting cast). And I hope that in future productions the director will match her ambitions to her intentions, and try to more fully and more powerfully represent the differences of Greek tragedy.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Santiago Tapia, Ed Leballos, Menios Karanos, Johnathan Murrow, Rachel Segal, John Donnelly, Kelli Keller; Stephen Adamian, Kevin McCarthy, Efren Mencia, Karen Oakley, Amy Lo, Kathryn
Musicians: Steve Sweeting and Jason Crocker
Producer: Hoang Nguyen
Director: Therese Sellers
Choreographer: Colby Devitt
Production Coordinator: Kathryn Slanski
Music Composer: Steve Sweeting
Patrick Rourke is applying to graduate programs in classics.