Aeschylus' Agamemnon
Translated by Umberto Albini
Directed by Roberto De Simone

Aristophanes' Acharnians
Translated by Giusto Monaco
Directed by Egisto Marcucci

Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound
Translated by Benedetto Marzullo
Directed by Antonio Calenda

The Greek theater at Syracuse, Sicily
Summer 1994

Reviewed by
Caterina Barone
Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichita
Universita di Padova
Fax: 049/8284713

The Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico was born in Syracuse in 1914. It meant to reproduce the great ancient dramatic works in Syracuse's own Greek theater. Agamemnon (translation and music by Ettore Romagnoli, direction by Duilio Cambellotti) was the first tragedy performed. On the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Institute, it seemed only right to choose Agamemnon to open the XXXIII cycle of classical performances. For this occasion Giusto Monaco, late director of the Institute, wished to produce two additional plays rather than one, undertaking an immense organizational and financial effort to produce Acharnians and Prometheus in addition to Agamemnon.

Monaco wanted Roberto De Simone as the director for Agamemnon because he considered him the best able to realize the ancient practice of a chorus which was entirely danced and sung. He did not, however, aim for an archaeological reconstruction, which he considered both imposible and inconvenient. Instead, De Simone searched for an equivalent of the sacred atmosphere of Greek tragedy. Over and above the music, which was descriptive and emotional, he wished to translate the archaic religiosity which molds the structure of Agamemnon. In doing so he created a mix of modern musical forms, blending popular songwriters, Gregorian chants, Bach's chorales, and Gospel. To underline the sacredness of some pieces, he set the invocations to the gods to music and had the chorus sing them in Greek to great emotional effect. The superiority of music and the richness and majesty of the scenes gave De Simone's production a resemblance to nineteenth-century opera--down to the reduced movement of the actors and slackening of the action.

Two dancers, representing the two eagles of the portent in the parodos, increased the turbulence of the scenes with their strongly symbolic dances. Cuts in the text were balanced by an expanded visual element in order to preserve Aeschylus' meaning. The director carried his central concept into obsessive anaphoras of words and phrases. By repeating phrases like 'the excess of glory is a risk' he underlined the danger a powerful man faces: hybris drawing the wrath of the gods.

De Simone tried to connect the spoken passages to the sung ones, instructing his actors to base their recitation on musical tones. Cassandra best realized this intent, not only because of the young actress' extraordinary vocal quality but because of the specific features of the character, whose human deeds are subsumed by the sacredness of her role. The transition between her scene and the surrounding choral odes was smoothly in keeping with the religious atmosphere of the production. Other characters, however, sometimes found themselves crushed by the music, their words lost.

De Simone's setting was barbaric, African, and even Oriental. The costumes were sumptuous and primitive at the same time and ranged from soft tones to bright ones. The chorus entered with faces covered by colored, almost tribal, masks, dressed in long, raw tunics in warm shades, led by a tall black percussionist. Armed with 'African' shield and lance, he scans the horizon from upstage right, waiting for a sign. Clytemnestra, dressed in green, wears a copper mask with two faces, the same one she wears at the end when she and Aegisthus are flaunting their power. Agamemnon is covered by a mantle and wears a high hat to emphasize his role as leader. Cassandra's face is hidden by the fringes of her sacerdotal insignia, under which her shaved head indicates her status as a slave.

Except for its back wall, the set is horizontal. The palace is not majestic, but it is marked by a large door through which exiting performers seem to sink as into the abyss of Hades. Four twisted obelisks, an astrolabe, a sphere, and a pyramid are drawn together by a central geometric structure. A large dagger in the foreground signifies violence. Clytemnestra shows her awareness of that violence when she speaks of the Greeks before and after their victory at Troy and seeks peace after fury. But the dagger, driven into the palace door at the end of the performance, remains as a symbol of the perpetuation of human anger.

Umberto Albini's translation is noteworthy for its attempt to represent the different levels of the text and to respect the lexical richness of Aeschylus without merely copying the original. The sentence structure does not conform to that of the Greek, but it grants a rapid, incisive, paratactic verbal foreground to the greater rhythmical range of the choral odes in order to offer the right support to the words and the songs.

As violence was at the heart of Agamemnon, war is the central theme of Egisto Marcucci's Acharnians, specifically the absurdity and impossibility of war. The almost-realistic setting emphasizes the hermeneutic content of the performance. The apparent majesty of the high tribunal flanked by fortresses is lowered by the destruction of war as represented by the corpse- strewn gravel of the orchestra and the tremendous jackals come to feed.

Dicaeopolis seems an ordinary man, the victim of a war he does not understand. Although apparently cowardly, he becomes heroic when he is ready to risk his life just to explain to the Assembly his disagreement with the decision of the warmongers. His pragmatism shows in his choice of the benefits of peace on which he bases his argument: easy money, good food, and erotic entertainments.

The strange characters whom Dicaeopolis encounters provide a showcase for the creative powers of Graziano Gregory. The performance is a rapid succession of brilliant, witty, and funny inventions. Music is the essential element, now lively and ironic, now grave and sad, providing accurate commentary on the action and the speaking roles. Among the notable characters are the prytanes, agile black figures with beaks; 'the king's eye', a spherical being with two little feet, a wattled neck, and a proboscis with an eye in the end; Lamachus with big belly, bow legs, plume and sword; and Euripides, clad in white, aspiring to poetry on a hospital gurney with his feet in the air.

The real force of the performance is in the chorus, the interpretation of which is the basis for all the staging. They have dark faces and long military coats and lean on sticks, heroes of Marathon who are mistreated by their city in spite of their support for the war. Initially angry with Dicaeopolis, they slowly come to understand that he is right and begin to hope for a peaceful future. The director has chosen to emphasize the grave tones of the songs and underline the subtle and persistent sadness of the play, the falseness of the joy. Marcucci does not indulge in easy comicality but portrays the father who tries to sell his daughters as a man forced by hunger to act as he does.

This gravity, however, does not exclude moments of pure comedy and frequent references to phalloi and the provocative female nudity. The obscenity of the text is neither censored nor softened, but rather juxtaposed with deeper themes to create a sharp counterpoint. Thus a great artistic and interpretive performance is born--from which a pessimistic message follows.

Giusto Monaco's script, completed just before his death, showed Marcucci the way to interpret Athenian comedy, not merely trolling for laughs or indulging in obscenity for its own sake. The translator directed his attention to an allusive lexicon and words sharp in semantic nuances. The resulting script demonstrates Monaco's scenic sensitivity and shows us just how great a loss he is to theater and classical studies.

To understand the setting of Antonio Calenda's Prometheus, it is necessary to start from Benedetto Marzullo's translation and the weighy essay on which it is based. Marzullo studied the tragedy for a long time and concluded that it would be better to call it para- tragedy, that it was not written by Aeschylus but by a homonymous 'magister' in the late fifth century. Many elements in the text led the philologist to state that the work could not belong to a poet with Aeschylus' dramatic and religous vision, but is more similar to Euripides and to eighteenth-century opera.

In order to create the same effect in his own script, Marzullo underlines the titanic fight between freedom and tyranny, secularism and religious tradition, rebellion and order enforced by violence. The script is filled with meaningful and allusive words from its beginning. The Greek Kratos and Bia become Schutz and Staffel, two Nazis, executing the 'ukase' of a Zeus called 'putschist' and 'Conducator'. To this fascism are opposed terms like 'proletarian', 'subversive', 'anarchic'--and a 'moderate' knight, promptly eliminated during the performance.The language is rich and complex, ranging from the colloquialism of 'all the blessed days' or 'coming off his high horse' to the elevation of 'hauberk,' 'jeremiades', 'lineage', from new words ('paranoiac', 'Jurassic') to Catholic expressions ('Almighty God,' 'Holy Trinity'). These are interspersed with scholarly Latin quotations and snobbish French phrases. This mixture not only arouses the interest of the public but gives the director a good base from which to create his performance, both conceptually and interpretatively.

The action takes place in a desert land. An enormous black gate divides the acting space into two parts: the skene, enclosed by a rocky background wall, and the orchestra, covered by a bituminous sheet on which Prometheus is chained under an iron grid with only his head visible, like Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. When he is first brought in, carried motionless in a chair by jailers in black leather jackets and helmets with chains around their waists, he wears black glasses and an oversized coat, like Hamm in Match Finals. Calenda's Prometheus is not heroic but rather a Beckettesque clochard enclosed in loneliness and useless Titanism. He is conscous of the futility of his intentions and his life but always opposes authority. The actors' delivery is spare rather than elaborate, unrhetorical, unrealistic but anguished.

A chorus of twenty-two girls approaches, led by a coryphaeus in a black suit which recalls the years just prior to World War II, as does Ocean's dark double-breasted blazer. When the Oceanids arrive, in a wooden vehicle which runs along the edge of the background wall, they drop quickly into the void and walk slowly along the footbridge in suggestive formation. Their beautiful dances were created to the music of Germano Mazzocchetti, who combines echoes of Brecht, languid tangos, and classical reminiscences.

Io's feral nature is underlined by her entrance through a lion's cage. Presenting her as a cow seems an excess of realism, even if she hides her animal qualities under a voluminous skirt. Her status as the innocent victim of a superior is a sort of corollary to Prometheus' own situation. The two have in common the absurdity and pointlessness of their predicaments.

The final earthquake and collapse of the background wall, among fires in the darkness of the Greek theater, mark Prometheus' lapidary conclusive achievement. He towers weakly with a bloody breast, like Christ, become flesh for humankind, a powerful symbol of all persecution. The holocaust, mentioned often during the performance, is a great denunciation of the human pain generated by the madness and cruelty of men. But the final image is ambiguous, Zeus' victory uncertain, because Prometheus with his mocking tone is firm in his fighting even in the last moment, even before the mellifluous Hermes.

Caterina Barone
Padova, Italy

Caterina Barone teaches Classics at the University of Padova.