Creating Clytemnestra

Richard E. Davis, Ph.D.
Department of Communication
University of San Francisco
2130 Fulton St.
San Francisco, CA 94117-1080

Thirty-five years ago as an college undergraduate I became interested in Aeschylus' Agamemnon in terms of its presentation on the modern stage. Having taught the play in my classes at the University of San Francisco for over twenty years my constant question to both myself and to my students was 'How can you make the play theatrically successful for a modern audience that has as its only memory a vague reference to Helen of Troy and 'the face that launched a thousand ships'. Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil provided one answer for this in their Les Atrides. One choice that both Mnouchkine and I made, each without knowledge of the other, was to begin with Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis. But the Theatre du Soleil's production runs ten hours and I was aiming for a script with a run time of two hours, including intermission. This latter choice meant that both the Agamemnon and the Iphigenia at Aulis would have to undergo significant cuts in order to fit into a 'standard evening' of theatre. At the same time the language of the two plays and their themes would have to be maintained so as to not violate the intent of the playwrights as I saw them.

Clytemnestra is the central figure in the Agamemnon and if she represents anything it is not evil incarnate but justice. Philip Vellacott makes this point eloquently: 'If Aeschylus' lines present in Clytemnestra a creature as repulsive as some eminent scholars describe, then the Oresteia is neither profound nor a tragedy....Clytemnestra defies human society and divine authority with her solitary indignation, knowing that in the end there can be only defeat,' (The Logic of Tragedy, Duke University Press, 1984, p 9). Clytemnestra is clearly the central figure in the Agamemnon and it is for that reason that I have entitled my adaptation Clytemnestra.

I decided that presenting Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis would familiarize the audience with the story which preceded the opening of Agamemnon. This juxtaposition would also serve to bring the audience into emotional contact with Clytemnestra's pain and anger. The opening choral section of Agamemnon would then becomea reminder to the audience of what they had already seen in the first play, which was presented as Act I of Clytemnestra. Putting the two plays together allows Clytemnestra to develop from what some critics have referred to as a 'middle class matron' in Iphigenia at Aulis to the powerful queen of Agamemnon. She becomes a more fully developed person. It is also easy to see how the women of the two plays grow during the progress of the evening while the men stay static, essentially the same at the end as at the beginning.

The problem is that these two plays, written fifty years apart by two very different writers are very different in style. This makes it difficult to combine them so that they appear to be a single play. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are the only obvious characters common to both plays, although characters such as the Old Man in Iphigenia at Aulis and the Watchman in Agamemnon fulfill the same dramatic function. But this would still be a weak connection. Adding a prologue and an epilogue by the Old Man made him a more significant figure but even then the connection was too tenuous.

A closer examination of the chorus of Agamemnon, however, showed that the Elders both supported Agamemnon's point of view, and sympathized with Clytemnestra's memories and feelings. On the basis of this split in loyalties, I introduced the chorus of women from Iphigenia at Aulis into Agamemnon and gave them the choral sections which were more closely related to Clytemnestra. In the Agamemnon half of the play, the women displayed not the 'girlishness' of their first entry in Iphigenia at Aulis but rather the anger of the sacrificed Iphigenia and the avenger Clytemnestra. The women's chorus thus fully joined the two plays as well as adding interest to the choral sections. In addition the choral parts were given to individual choral members rather than spoken in unison. The men's chorus was individualized so that each was in fact a seperate character with a seperate personality.

The cutting of the two plays involved some difficult choices, although the decision to delete the section of Iphigenia at Aulis after Iphigenia leaves the stage was easy, as there is fairly general agreement that this section was not written by Euripides. (see Denys L. Page, Actors' Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1934) That section conflicts with the tone of the parodos of Agamemnon. The removal of this section and the departure of the chorus with Iphigenia leaves Clytemnestra alone on the stage. The stage slowly darkens around her until she is left in a solitary spotlight. She screams, the stage goes black, end Act I.

Other cuts were more difficult and often were prompted by the reactions of experienced actors at readings as the adaptation developed. As early as two months before casting the play it became clear that over a half-hour had to be eliminated from the script. Most of the cuts were from long monologues, Achilles' monologue in Iphigenia at Aulis being the exception, and from extended choral sections.

Generally the choices on cuts and the reading of lines followed current scholarship. In one particular I departed from much commentary on the plays, however. Most scholars, including Vellacott, seem to accept Iphigeneia's 'noble sacrifice' at face value. Yet it seems entirely possible that she may be dissembling, a method learned from her father on their first encounter early in the play. She has always referred to Agamemnon as 'Father' or 'my Father,' but in this speech she refers to him, speaking to her mother, as 'your husband'. The word she uses for Achilles, xenos, is ambivalent and can be understood as either 'friend' or as 'stranger'. I translated it as 'stranger' because this more clearly indicates what I feel is her real message. This is not a case, as Vellacott regards it, of irony but rather of conscious sarcasm. Her lines 'It is clear that I have no right to love life, to cling to life so passionately.... shall my one life be an obstacle to this carnage? Is this justice? Why should this man fight the entire army and die, to save a woman's life? One man has more claim to the light of day than a host of women,' are clearly sarcastic, even if the dim-witted Achilles cannot see that. When Iphigeneia says 'We are born to freedom,' I belive she is talking to her mother, not to Achilles. The barbarians she refers to are the Greek men. Iphigenia grows from a little girl into a woman who takes charge of her life in a society that allows her only the freedom to die. It is her example that produces Clytemnestra and the Women's Chorus as we see them in Act II (Agamemnon). It is they who take up her cry in Act II and make, I believe, Agamemnon a powerful experience both emotionally and intellectually for the modern audience.

The male characters in the play produced some wonderful moments. Achilles is a wonderful comic character. The juxtaposition of the comic and tragic helps make the first act (Iphigenia at Aulis) very effective. The combination of the Herald from Iphigenia at Aulis and the Messenger from Agamemnon also produces the only instance of a male character who demonstrates any growth: the young Herald becomes the War Vet. It is he who narrates the destruction of the 'Greek' fleet and the army, of the horrors of the ten years at Troy. The Trojan War was the Vietnam and the end of Mycenaean civilization. Of the thousand ships that set sail for Troy, only one returned.

At present this adaptation has not been published. Anyone interested in a copy of the play can contact me, Richard E. Davis, Ph.D., Department of Communication, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton St., San Francisco, CA 94117-1080.

Further Reading:

Sarah Bryant Bertail, 'Gender, Empire and Body Politic as Mise en Scene', Theatre Journal Vol 46 #1, pp 1-30
Milly S. Barranger, 'Les Atrides: Ariane Mnouchkine's Dance of Death', Text and Performance Quarterly, Vol. 14 #1, pp 77- 84.) Martin P. Nilsson, Homer and Mycenae, Cooper Square Publishers, N.Y., 1968)
Philip Vellacott, The Logic of Tragedy, Duke University Press, 1984
[Unknown Author], An English Reader's Guide to the Oresteia Monophron Press, Cambridge, 1991

Richard E. Davis
The University of San Francisco