Impossible Things Before Breakfast
by Debbie Falb
Telluride Theatre Festival
Historical Sheridan Opera House
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald,
Department of Theatre,
University of California at San Diego,
Impossible Things Before Breakfast is an adaptation of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis which brings Euripides' play up to date in a moving way. Euripides shows us Agamemnon's terrible dilemma, the choice between killing his daughter and failure as a commander. Falb abstracts this core and applies it to a modern situation. A military leader has crushed a rebellion by capturing a rebel city. He asks his superiors that not all the inhabitants be killed, and his request is granted, but only one person is allowed to survive. When he made his request he promised to prove his loyalty, lest his request for mercy be misconstrued. He is then told that he must kill his daughter.
He meets the woman who survived the destruction. He tries to persuade her to prevent his daughter from coming. The daughter insists, and confronts her father, who is forced to make his decision. He decides that he will die with his daughter rather than commit the atrocity of killing her. It turns out that the survivor had agreed to start the deadly fires that destroyedthe city in return for her own life. She compromised in a way the father did not.
There are frames for the play. The beginning tells the story of Iphigenia, and this prepares us for her sacrifice. The ending tells us of a Jew who collaborated to survive the holocaust. These are counter-examples to the moral choice the father makes in this play. If there is to be a story, there must be a survivor to tell it. It is the woman who collaborated who brings us this story. She delivers the prologue and epilogue; perhaps this is a form of redemption for her collaboration.
Chris Kortum has designed a simple backdrop of ropes and a 'curtain' of ropes that moves to the side to reveal the action. It is a suitable metaphor for someone trapped in an impossible dilemma. The father is played by Michael White, whose muscles bulge under his green shirt and khakis. He carries a gun and wears black boots. Carla Harting plays the daughter, in a blue skirt, bobby socks and a white shirt. She puts on a black jacket for her trip to meet her father. Erin Ryan, who plays the woman from the city, wears black pants and a dirty white T-shirt. The colors are simple and black is always an element. The characters are nameless, and this adds to the play's resemblance to a parable.
Mozart's Dies Irae (a medieval hymn that tells of the punishment that sinners face) from his Requiem Mass, played as the father drinks and suffers from his indecision, is a particularly striking feature of the musical accompaniment. Although there is no chorus, there is music, music that resonates with meaning for us moderns. The Mozart piece invites a comparison with the final day of judgment.
Falb's play revises Euripides into a Sophoclean confrontation with a moral decision. In both the Antigone and the Philoctetes the issues of this play appear. Should one obey the government regardless of whether it is right or wrong? Antigone says, 'No,' and dies for it; Neoptolemus is luckier: he says, 'No,' and lives.
In Impossible Things Before Breakfast we see several admirable goals: to support one's government, crush rebels who commit atrocities, and to be a messenger to record abuses when they occur. Yet people pay a price that is too high when they sacrifice their ideals, even if the end is noble. Euripides showed us characters choosing to commit atrocities (Medea was a predecessor of Agamemnon); Debbie Falb shows us that moral choices are still possible. The outcome in both cases is tragic, but at least in the latter case the victims still have their personal integrity: better to be a victim with a clear conscience, than a victor who has betrayed his principles.
Euripides usually empowered women, children and slaves by making them the heroes in his plays, in contrast to the immoral and corrupt traditional adult males. Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus and even Achilles all come off badly in his Iphigenia at Aulis. It is Iphigenia who is the hero. Falb allows a male leader to make the proper choice, and in her play it is a woman who is a collaborator. Her Iphigenia first opposes and then supports her father: father joins daughter in making a moral decision. Women in Falb's play have more power, but are less heroic.
The agonizing of the father at night and his change of mind; the messenger sent to prevent the daughter from coming; the daughter's initial refusal to die and ultimate acceptance of death: these are familiar from Euripides. But there is no chorus; only three characters appear; the setting is modern times; other stories are interwoven and alluded to, such as that of Abraham and Isaac. Impossible Things contains elements from both Judaism and the Christian Bible ('and it came to pass'), from the folktale ('once upon a time'), and from later Christianity (Dies Irae).
This play is in the mythic tradition. It is as if religion and myth frame and provide a backdrop for the play. What, after all, are a society's myths if they do not give a clue to man's well-being as based on moral choice? They deal with man's place in the world and his greatest fears and dilemmas. In Falb's moving drama we are drawn into the agony expressed by the actors. It is refreshing in this day of entertainment for entertainment's sake that there can still be a play with a moral message. Falb joins Brecht with the Greeks and we are left with a modern parable.
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Donald Charles Goertz, The Iphigeneia at Aulis: A Critical Study. Michigan: University Microfilms, 1972
Euripide: Iphigenie a Aulis, trans. Francois Jouan. Bude VII. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1990
Marianne McDonald, Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible. 1983; rpt.Boston: The Greek Institute, 1991
'Cacoyannis' and Euripides' Iphigenia: The Power of the Powerless' in Classics and Cinema, ed. Martin Winkler. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press,1991
Robert Meagher, Mortal Vision: The Wisdom of Euripides. New York: St Martin's Press, 1989
Euripides, Women, and Sexuality, ed. Anton Powell. London: Routledge, 1990
Charles Segal, Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993
University of California, San Diego