The God-Father Awakes: Greek Tragedy in Sicily

Aeschylus' Libation Bearers
translated by Umberto Albini
directed by Giorgio Pressburger

Performed under the auspices of INDA
at the ancient theater at Syracuse, Sicily
Summer 1996

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego

A pulsing, seething production of Aeschylus' Choephoroi, the second play of Aeschylus' Orestes Trilogy (Oresteia) was admirably performed this spring in Syracuse, Sicily by the National Institute of Ancient Drama, now under the distinguished leadership of the renowned classical scholar, Professor Umberto Albini, who also provided the lively translation. The Choephoroi was performed in the ancient Greek theatre, which seats about 10,000 people, and on its final night had an overflow which had to be managed by police.

The palace is represented by a huge glass construction with lead fretting joining mirrors and panes, some shattered and some whole. A large staircase leads up to a glass door. The set looks like the ruins of Bosnia with broken cars and abandoned watch towers in front of the palace. A prologue of mingled voices can be identified as U. N. forces talking among themselves. The contemporary significance is obvious: internal strife can destroy a country.

In the Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces against Troy returns victorious only to be killed at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The Choephoroi shows us the vengeance of Orestes, who was commanded by Apollo to execute his own mother. The Eumenides shows Orestes pursued by the furies, but finally acquitted by Athena, the judge of the law court, the Areopagus. According to Aeschylus, this court was established here for the first time and sought to bring a rational and fair solution to the cycle of personal blood vengeance.

The recognition scene during which Orestes, dressed in the black leather that one associates with motorcycle gangs, is reunited with his sister, Electra, also in black, was greeted with applause. The chorus of young scantily clad women dance orgiastically, accompanied by a flute and singing. They are spectral in black and white costumes and makeup.

Orestes announces to Clytemnestra that Strophius (the father of his cousin and friend, Pylades) has asked him to deliver the message that Orestes is dead. Clytemnestra welcomes the two (Orestes and Pylades) with sinister words, 'Come inside! We have hot baths,' and we remember that Agamemnon was murdered in the bath. She is dressed in red reminiscent of the red carpet with which she welcomed Agamemnon, inviting him to walk on it in a hybristic display of his triumph. After Orestes' death is announced, Cilissa, Orestes' old nurse, played by a comfortably plump Italian actress, is told to see that Aegisthus comes without a guard. Aegisthus enters the palace and we hear his screams. Clytemnestra attacks both the grave of Agamemnon and Orestes with an ax. Orestes stabs her with his sword, urged on by Pylades, in spite of his mother's final plea as she exposes her left breast, asking him to respect the breast that nursed him as a baby.

The chorus become more and more excited, and the erotic tone increases as they embrace each other and dance wildly. The climax comes when Orestes crashes through the glass door at the top of the stairs as he hurls the body of Aegisthus to the bottom. Brilliant white lights shine behind all the panes, which shatter along with the door as if in a gigantic explosion. Clytemnestra's body, after Aegisthus', is placed in a descending channel which emerges into a pool which grows gradually scarlet with the mingled blood slowly oozing from the corpses. Orestes starts to see the furies, now in his mind, although in the next play of the trilogy they will appear on the stage.

In this powerful replication of modern chaos and callousness, one lacks empathy for the characters. Perhaps this is an age where empathy is regarded as a useless luxury, and it is the spectacle that counts: think of Tarentino's 'Pulp Fiction', or some sequences in Coppola's 'The Godfather'. In this production we see a world without values, except those constructed in unholy alliances.

Aeschylus had a bias towards Orestes and Electra, but murder is murder, and particularly in this performance we find hardly anything compelling in anyone's defense. The actress playing Clytemnestra seems about as young as the youthful Electra, and we forget this is a mother whose daughter Iphigenia was taken from her and sacrificed by Agamemnon to secure good winds for his voyage to Troy. Clytemnestra's laughter when she is told of Orestes' death makes nonsense of the text which follows and destroys any sympathy we might have had for her. She is played as a whore so that when she bares her breast she tries as much to seduce Orestes as to remind him of her feeding him as a baby. This is also rather like simple cops and robbers, with the cops now played by capos; these are not two young men raised in Strophius' genteel household. They resemble instead the criminals we find in Euripides' Orestes.

Bravo to Syracuse and the National Institute of Ancient Drama! By means of riveting performance and a superlative text, we see the importance for the modern world; this leads us to think about the problems of vengeance and vendetta which are yet to be solved.

Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego