January 31- March 5, 1995
Reviewed by Helene Foley
Barnard College and Columbia University
Ellen McLaughlin's play adapts Euripides' Iphigeneia in Aulis, Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris in succession to create what she calls in the program notes 'a meditation on feminism.' This female-centered domestic drama eliminates Aegisthus altogether; Orestes is the only male character to appear on stage. Yet the play is about history and what appears to be women's largely marginal place in it. As the notes put it, 'Clytemnestra clearly feels that she is part of history, Chrysothemis that she is outside history, and Electra that she is history. Orestes, the solitary male, has the hatred of history that only one who has been part of its chugging engine can feel.' Chrysothemis says:
The smell of burning is in the air.In the prologue alternating monologues by Iphigenia and Clytemnestra create a vision that is timeless, mythical, static. Here Iphigenia is the object of the male gaze, aware of history only as it is about to sacrifice her:
Carried to us from the battlefields we can never see.
Ash of buildings, of bodies, of children
Finds us here.
Drops itself exhausted into the furrows of our fields
And the spring is false again
We bear nothing, we bear all
We are blind to what is killing us
But we smell it in the wind...
What was I doing at the time? Ironing? Planning dinner, folding sheets? While millions died, while the world came to an end, what was I doing at the time? Making a sandwich...
And all these eyes are on meThe prologue concludes spectacularly in this production with Iphigenia mounting toward her sacrifice up a steep pile of rocks to stage right, accompanied by the measured anguished panting of her mother. The long veil that she is wearing turns after a quick blackout into a sail filled with wind.
This is a terrible place
Something must be done
Ah, I see.
I was right
Here is my husband
This ancient stone
And the quick shadow of the knife
I am to marry everyone one
Every single one
This is what it is at last.
The set, a pile of rocks and a pool of sand bordered by pebbles, serves in the prologue and epilogue as a beach, and in the Sophoclean middle section as a desolate garden gutted and pitted by Electra, who gives her father continual burials while she awaits the return of Orestes.
In this bleak landscape the slovenly, neurotic Electra and the witty and ironic Clytemnestra engage in sadistic psychological games, while the reliable, domestic 'good girl' Chrysothemis becomes a character far more developed and sympathetic than she was in the Sophoclean original.
I was, I am unremarkable. No one ever asked me a question. Not once in my life. No one has ever been curious about what I might be thinking or feeling. No one has ever said: 'What did you see? Where were you when it happened? What do you remember? What did you feel?'Electra is the (perhaps not entirely reliable) vehicle for memory; Chrysothemis has only Electra's memories. The fierce Electra yearns for justice; for Chrysothemis justice is Electra's 'idea, nothing more. Perhaps there is nothing like justice in nature.' Electra responds, 'Then nature is appalling. We can do better.'
In her recognition scene with Orestes, Electra imagines that his male life in exile has been romantic. 'I pictured you in Africa, standing in a marketplace, color all around you, languages buzzing, monkeys chattering and scrambling over while you drank something hot and sweet or bit into some strange fruit that dripped on the ground.' But Orestes 'was never in Africa.' He was a killing machine in unheroic wars, haunted by a nightmare in which Electra propelled him unwilling into a terrifying womblike space. Although for McLaughlin the setting was meant to suggests post-World War I Europe, for the audience it could equally suggest Eastern European conflicts in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The epilogue, by adapting Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris, opens a way past the tragedy of the violent central episode that once again gives the critical role to a woman. A public trial (such as we find in Aeschylus' Eumenides) cannot liberate Orestes from the furies who pursue him after his matricide; only his sister Iphigenia, who has been transported to the land of the Taurians, where she must sacrifice every Greek stranger, can do that. Refusing her mission, Iphigenia asks Orestes to bring her back to Greece.
In contrast to Euripides' original, where the heroine escapes with a statue of the goddess Artemis, McLaughlin's Iphigenia becomes the statue herself. Although remaining the object of the fascinated male gaze, she turns from victim to a source of salvation at the center of history:
I am the statue you have come to findThis 'needle through the wall of history,' 'the part of justice which is merely/ personal' is 'finally/ Something like/ Love.'
Take me to the city
To the center of the city
Build noise and life around me
I will be silent and tall
I will remind them
I will seem to see everything
I will be female and slightly terrifying
I will be what I have always been
Visible and mute
You will place me at the center of something
And you will lay your tortured head on my cold feet.
And you will finally sleep.
McLaughlin's turn to Euripides to circumvent the tragedies of the house of Atreus through a familial relation transformed by time and distance seems especially apt in a world where public justice is becoming an increasingly questionable, even in certain instances impossible solution to the burgeoning impulse for revenge. The spare and elegant production captured visually the largely poetic language of the text. Chrysothemis pathetically plants flowers in the sand. Electra stakes herself to the ground, so that she can only walk clockwise. The bare white panels that formed the backdrop rotated to introduce Chrysothemis in bed and Clytemnestra on a chair high above Electra, lurking in a pit; in the epilogue it revealed Iphigenia's chorus of fellow virgins. Dreamlike and uncanny, such moments changed the audience's perspective by, for example, allowing them to look down on the awakening Chrysothemis (though she was positioned vertically on the wall).
These aspects of the production underlined a major motif concerning vision and perspective throughout the play that appears in the quotes given above: women (like Iphigenia in prologue and epilogue) are both the object of vision and (like Electra) the tortured eyes (and tongues) that witness the past and keep it alive. The aural contrasts created by walking on sand or pebbles were also used to good effect. The acting--Susan Heimbinder as Iphigenia, Kathleen Chalfant as Clytemnestra, Sheila Tousey as Electra, Deborah Hedwall as Chrysothemis, and Seth Gilliam as Orestes-- served the text equally well by being restrained and spare with moments of terrific intensity.
This was as consistently excellent a set of performances as I have seen off-Broadway for some time. McLaughlin's provocative script raises some complex questions, however. Ariane Mnouchkine's tetralogy Les Atrides (Iphigeneia in Aulis plus the Oresteia), first performed at the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, clearly had feminist elements, and used Euripides' play to powerful effect to introduce the myth. This adaptation takes the bold step of largely eliminating the powerful patriarchal presences that shaped the originals or compromised its heroines. Because the adultery with Aegisthus is never even mentioned, Clytemnestra, uncompromised by wayward sexuality, becomes the sole killer of an unworthy and unseen Agamemnon. Whereas in the Sophoclean original Orestes, following the advice of his tutor, cruelly silences the heroic Electra just before the final revenge, in this production it is Electra who dominates and overrides the reluctant, isolated, and war-weary Orestes. Despite her seeming exclusion from history, it is the confined Electra who claims to 'make it happen' and the remote, no longer fully human Iphigenia who finds the way through the entrapments of history.
Yet without the constraining forces of patriarchy, it becomes difficult to explain, for example, why Orestes, not Electra, must kill Clytemnestra. Powerful social and political forces prevent Sophocles' heroine from avenging her father. Yet when McLaughlin's Electra fails to stab her mother with the knife that murdered Agamemnon early in the second section of the play, her failure appears simply neurotic. By eliminating or muting some of the powerful complexities and cruel realities of the originals and substituting for them domestic and pointedly psychological drama, McLaughlin's play may seem more relevant to our own age, but is in danger of diluting the tragic power and raw contradictions of the original plays.
Another controversial aspect of the play is the mixture of highly poetic and often almost timeless language with pointed anachronisms. Some of those I talked to after the production found it jarring to hear Clytemnestra threaten to shut up Electra in an attic after she picked up the dry cleaning, or her concern to entertain the disguised Orestes with jello, vodka or Ritz crackers. For others-- here I largely include myself-- such anachronistic juxtapositions were fresh and ironic.
The prologue and epilogue, the one monologic and dense with allusions, the second an attempt relatively unfamiliar to modern theatergoers to reach a post-tragic resolution, may have worked best for those familiar with the Euripidean originals. Some members of the audience did not fully understand the epilogue and found the prologue undramatic, despite the brilliant staging. Euripides' Iphigeneia, still angry over her sacrifice, is in real danger of sacrificing her brother in the land of the Taurians, and discovers the sympathy that leads to her recognition with Orestes with some surprise. The scene echoes the tragic pity, fear, and suspense produced by the earlier recognition between Orestes and Electra; but this time history miraculously does not repeat itself. The siblings are permitted-- impossibly and almost arbitrarily-- to escape (if not entirely) from their story. McLaughlin's version retains the self- consciousness and delicate irony of Euripides' play, but mutes the heroine's human pain and confusion and eliminates the theological revelation that transforms Euripides' siblings. As a result, the rescue of Iphigenia threatens to become too abstract or sentimental.
Despite these difficulties, I very much hope the text of this play will be published, and that it will continue to be produced. It would make a welcome new addition to classical drama or classical tradition courses that include later versions of Greek drama. Although the twentieth-century has seen many eminent adaptations of the Orestes myth--e.g., Sartre's Les Mouches, O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, Pound's and Giradoux's Electras, or Hofmannstahl's libretto for the Strauss opera-- the feminist perspective offered in this version makes a significant contribution to the growing theatrical dialogue. It would also, due to its uniformly ambitious female roles, be an excellent choice for productions in academic theater programs.
Barnard College, Columbia University
(Helene Foley acted as a consultant for this production.)