Timelessness and Timeliness:
Anachronism in the Performance of Greek Tragedy

A reflection on the ART Agamemnon
English version by Robert Auletta
Directed by Francois Rochaix.[1]

American Repertory Theatre
Loeb Theatre
November 1994 - January 1995

By Patrick Rourke

Whenever a Greek play is brought to the modern stage, the producer must struggle with the issue of anachronism. Because the modern stage is not the Theater of Dionysus, and the modern audience is not the Attic demos, some degree of accommodation to local, present conditions is not only desirable but necessary. This kind of accommodation is by definition anachronistic; but the director must take care that the anachronism facilitates the audience's approach to the work rather than blocking its way.

Francois Rochaix's production of Robert Auletta's English version of the Agamemnon in the winter of 1994-95 featured systematic anachronization of both the constructive and the deleterious varieties. Rochaix -- and especially Auletta--inserted anachronism into every element of the production, from the staging and costuming to the choreography, the blocking, the acting, the music, and the language. But while many of the effects were jarring, and a few absurd, some, reassuringly, served to sharpen the focus of the play--or more precisely the audience's focus upon the play.

The most striking anachronisms were, not surprisingly, in the language of Auletta's translation. Those familiar with Peter Sellars' presentation of Auletta's Ajax, or his recent, Gulf-War reworking of the Persians, would only be surprised by Auletta's comparative restraint with Agamemnon. Auletta's usual approach to the task of translation is to drag the play in question kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, leaving all the marks of struggle in place.

In his essay, 'Notes on Writing Ajax,' Auletta explains his whole methodology of anachronization. He tackles character, constructing Tecmessa's analogue in the translation as the refugee/defector wife of a dashing American officer, a fictional daughter of Chilean dictator Salvador Allende. With regard to setting, rejected possible parallels between Vietnam and the Trojan War in favor of a fictional (but not implausible) future war in Latin America so that he could depict victorious generals.[2] Knowing Auletta's method, the madness of his Persians at the 1991 Edinburgh festival seems sane: a Saddam Hussein for Xerxes, Iraq for Persia.

Auletta's Agamemnon, on the other hand, is less explicitly a twentieth-century adaptation. At times the translation is little different from Lattimore's; at other times it exceeds all the extremes of Tim Reynolds' Peace, Christopher Logue's War Music and Tony Harrison's The Common Chorus in a single phrase.

I should make it clear that I am not damning these extremes. Logue's versions of the Iliad, in such works as War Music, Kings, and now Husbands, work with the intellectual idiom of Homer to create a modern poetic sequence which is relevant to the Homeric original. Harrison's versions of Greek drama vary between the Northern (English) archaism of his Oresteia, bringing the aura of the Mystery plays to the Greek cycle, and his Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, which self-consciously turns the fragments of Sophocles' satyr-play inside out, matching the contrast between the 'tragic' dignity of Kyllene and the crudity of the Trackers with a contrast between the 'civilized' endeavors of classicists and the vulgarity of football hooligans.

But anachronism can be disruptive. Agamemnon arrives on the scene in a chariot shaped like a Gulf War Humvee (a very Peter Sellars effect), steps down and roars to the chorus 'put away your cameras: you'll have to find another photo opportunity.' Rather than enhancing the connection between the audience and the play by the careful elaboration of an Aeschylean theme through a modern idiom, Auletta has inserted a throwaway line castigating the contemporary press. Of course, it can be argued that the so-called 'carpet' scene focuses on perceptions and posturing, on the roles Agamemnon and Clytemnestra play for the Chorus-populace, but it seems to me that Aeschylus' scene is centered more on Agamemnon's self- portrayal rather than the Chorus' distortions of him. The scene is precisely the dissection of a carefully crafted 'photo opportunity,' and by putting the line he does in Agamemnon's mouth Auletta undercuts its development.

Another example of this destructive effect is the description of Helen 'signing autographs with her eyes.' Gratifying though it must be for Auletta to equate Helen with Marilyn Monroe, reducing helenaus helandros heleptolis Helen to a saccharine pinup hardly elaborates meaningfully upon either Aeschylus or modern society. There are also the gratuitous but trendy obscenities of the Watchman, who is freezing his balls off, and of Clytemnestra, who constantly objects to fucking-this and damned-that.

On the other hand, many of Auletta's modern phrases actually strengthen Rochaix's production. The most powerful comes during the set speech where Agamemnon describes the destruction of Troy in terms of a nuclear attack, right down to the mushroom cloud, without ever actually mentioning the bomb or atoms or any other element that would necessarily intrude upon the audience's perception of an ancient Greek tragedy. Here Auletta is the equal of Harrison and Logue in the vividness and relevance of his expression. This is also where he is at his best as an artist. Auletta has followed his star, and the result is a misconceived translation with occasional flashes of brightness, and one flash of brilliance. Rochaix is left to do the best that he can.

At first, Rochaix's direction seemed more conservative than Auletta's translation. The stage was dominated by a mock-up of a vaguely Mycenaean structure, with a huge front door, a ledge at the top of the first story, and windows in the second story above the ledge. Scaffolding and ladders provided an obvious means of moving from the stage floor in front of the structure to the ledge-roof atop it. The other aspects of the setting were perhaps more avant-garde: on each side of the stage the scaffolding extended out to hold posters of 'classical' import, like the advertisements outside a ticket kiosk. Below the main level of the stage, in the orchestra, stood an enormous wooden conference table, which served as a gathering place for the chorus and a focal point for the limited choreography.

As already mentioned, Ben Halley, Jr.'s Agamemnon rode in on a chariot constructed and painted to resemble a Gulf-War Humvee, appropriate enough to the conference table; but when Clytemnestra demonstrated the device of the beacons, the lamps she used seem more consistent with the Mycenaean stage than with the other, modernized properties. It was unclear whether this contrast was intended to say something about the nature of the motives and values of the two characters, or of men and women more generally.

The costuming was characterized by a more successful chronological eclecticism. The Watchman wore the standard rags seen in any modern production, while the chorus wore early 20th century hats and overcoats (I was reminded of the dress of the black-market syndicate in Schindler's List), costuming intended to represent the chorus' status as elders. Clytemnestra's dress was somewhat akin to an Ionic chiton, while Cassandra's costume combined middle-eastern influences with hints of a formal sari, and her attendants were cloaked in colored body veils. Perhaps the most interesting costuming choice, however, was a WWI-influenced uniform for Agamemnon and his attendants, complete with puttees. Like all the other costuming choices, these uniforms enhanced the symbolic nature of the characters, and the choices seemed obvious in retrospect.

The acting was uneven. Unfortunately, Randy Danson's Clytemnestra was thoroughly conventional: a shrill, shrewish, Susan Lucci-type villain. Clytemnestra should be cold, manipulative, insectile, entrapping -- in catching Agamemnon in her net she should be a spider catching a bee in its web. In the final scene with Aegisthus, she should stand proudly behind and above him as Aegisthus follows his foolish temper into a near conflict with the Chorus, and coolly snap him back to reason, back under her control, with the chilling words 'We shall make order now.'[4] In her confrontations with the Chorus she should be aloof; with Agamemnon, condescending; only Cassandra's silence should disturb her triumphant equilibrium.

The only time Clytemnestra really shone in this performance was in the bit of stage business she used to explain the device of the beacons to the chorus: placing a series of tall lamps, burning oil or paraffin, in a ragged line while she named the sites of the corresponding beacons, all in a kind of mania. Otherwise Clytmenestra was a television caricature of the moody menopausal witch violently thrashing about in four-letter exasperation. Portraying women who commit violent acts as hot-tempered, jealous women-scorned is frankly misogynistic, and whatever misogyny is in Aeschylus, it is not of this kind.

Natacha Roi achieved a frightening excess in her portrayal of Cassandra's mute scene. Her physical reactions to Clytemnestra's threats, her gestures and movements, were grossly exaggerated. Perhaps if she had been wearing a mask and loose costume they might have been appropriate; but in a performance characterized by relatively naturalistic acting, her extreme movements (she practically leapt backward a foot and a half in the Humvee- chariot at Clytemnestra's blusterings) were too exaggerated.

One of the interesting innovations in this performance was the delivery of most of Cassandra's lyric monody in the original Greek, with an interpolated character of a Trojan interpreter giving the lines in English. Once Cassandra began her long lament in Greek, Roi came into her own. The cold, affectless delivery of Starla Benson's interpreter provided a perfect counterpoint to Roi's fiery Greek delivery (a tribute to whomever taught her the Greek lines--one would assume Carolyn Higbie).

There is an obvious problem with this device. Aeschylus makes a point of Clytemnestra's queries to Cassandra about her ability to speak Greek, a one-sided argument that prepares the audience to expect a mute Cassandra. Then Cassandra's first words, O tototoi popoi da Opollon Opollon, tread the borderline between Greek and nonsense, seemingly preparing the Chorus for a non-Greek-speaking Cassandra. When Cassandra finally speaks out in difficult, allusive, but powerfully lyrical Greek, the Chorus is stunned into a purely intellectual, rather than linguistic, incomprehension. By depicting a foreign- speaking Cassandra (who does, from time to time, drift into translation at particularly poignant moments), Rochaix (or Auletta) has elided Aeschylus' more subtle handling of the issue of communicability in order to highlight Cassandra's 'otherness' in a peculiarly modern way.

This device of translation is not incompatible with the tone of the play; a Cassandra who understands Greek but speaks 'Trojan' (assuming the English to be a representation of Greek and the Greek of a putative 'Trojan') isn't incompatible with Aeschylus' depiction of Cassandra as a barbaros--which is what makes her seer's insight into the curse of the Atreids so striking. It also brings out the power of the Greek lyric in a way that simply isn't accessible through the translation--while the delayed translation carries across the meaning of the words spoken. In performance, I found this scene to be effective in a way that the conventional method of introducing Greek into a translated performance of tragedy, through the choruses, has not been. But this approach relies a great deal to an actress able to speak clearly enough for the cadences and words of the Greek to carry comprehensibly to the audience.

Will LeBow's Aegisthus was agreeably dissipated and impetuous, and almost sufficiently ineffectual to lend strength to Clytemnestra. Jeremy Geidt's Watchman was played as an old, impotent, embittered townie. The chorus played up the Yiddish grandfather implications of their costumes and their conference table, but were crippled by the unimaginative choreography--mainly traipsing and posturing with a slight admixture of theater-in-the-round gimmickry. The most unusual of these gimmicks belonged to the beginning of the play -- or rather, before the beginning--as the chorus-actors (I hesitate to call them choreutes) wandered about the hall lecturing the audience on the play's antecedents in Greek myth: the judgment of Paris, the Trojan War, and the blood-feast of Atreus. Unfortunately, the only other ways to make a modern audience sufficiently familiar with the mythology necessary to understand the play would be to interpolate a lengthy Euripidean excursus into the Watchman's prologue, or to rely on the edifying quality of the program, both undesirable choices.

By far the finest performance in this Agamemnon belonged to Ben Halley, Jr. in the title role.[3] Halley's presence in the one scene between his arrival and his entrance into the palace dominated the play. Following the lead of his uniform and puttees, he used his commanding voice and bearing to dominate the other actors as Bokassa or Amin dominated their subjects. His portrayal of Agamemnon as an aloof rational tyrant, who (in another interpolated bit of stage business) leans over to listen to the whispers of an informer, then straightens unaffectedly to resume his set speech without betraying his suspicions, who refuses to accept Clytemnestra's condescensions, worked creatively against the expectation of a vain, suspicious demagogue. The only problem was a failing, once again, of the choreography: Halley's Agamemnon stomped his way across the tapestries into the palace like a child splashing through mud puddles. But if this had been handled better--and if Danson's Clytemnestra had been more controlled and less whining--the scene would have been a masterpiece.

The music of the production, composed by Jan Garbarek, a 'Norwegian jazz composer and tenor saxophonist of Polish descent,' was dominated by woodwinds (mostly saxophone, wood flute, and wind harp, according to the program) and devoid of percussion, perhaps in the hope of reproducing the effect of the aulos. It was in the 'Real World' style, with middle-eastern overtones--again, a choice perhaps intended to reproduce something of the effect of the original.

The problem with the music is that it had no correlation to the lyrics of the play--the music tended to accompany the slow, methodical speeches of Clytemnestra or to fill the spaces between choruses and episodes, rather than accompany the performances of the chorus or the solo lyrics of Cassandra. The lack of musical coherence matched the prosaic choreography. In reading the explanatory notes peppered through the program, including a short glossary entitled 'The Structure of a Greek Tragedy,' I found only two mentions of the word song, both in the definition of threnody as 'a poem, speech, or song of lamentation, especially for the dead; a dirge or funeral song.' In point of fact, the definition of strophe and antistrophe includes this incredible statement: 'Some scholars believe that this structure indicates that the chorus spoke in two halves.' It is disconcerting to imagine that any reputable scholar could hold the opinion that the strophes of Greek tragedy were spoken.

This may not be entirely Rochaix's fault; the dramaturg (Monika Gay) must have contributed to this error, and, by negligence, so did Carolyn Higbie, the classicist who acted as consultant to the play.The musicality of Greek tragedy is central to the wider issue of the differences of Greek tragedy vis-a-vis the later theatrical tradition. When the music of a production is dealt with in this way, as the music to a modern verse-drama might be, the tragedy is reduced to the level of mere verse- drama. Either Professor Higbie, against expectations, didn't find it necessary to convey this information to the producers and director, or the producers, director, and composer didn't find it necessary to listen to her.

In talking to classicists and others interested in the translation and performance of Greek tragedy, I have found that the dominant assessment of this production echoes that expressed by Timothy Wutrich in his 'open letter' published in the Boston Globe on January 8, 1995. Wutrich characterized the production, the adaptation, indeed the whole underlying aesthetic of the ART with the words 'irresponsible, self- righteous, arrogant, condescending, an abortion, shameful, deserving of dismissal, boring, annoying, bizarre, awkward, indecent, and hopelessly dated. Wutrich's main grounds for condemning the production seem to have been the director's and translator's offenses against '"Timelessness," and the ability to speak across the centuries.'

While it should be obvious by now that I am less than entirely sympathetic with Rochaix's, or especially Auletta's, rendering, I think it important to answer those who, like Professor Wutrich, have failed to distinguish between creative and disruptive anachronism, and have failed to recognize the absolute necessity of creative anachronism in the translation and production of Greek tragedy.

Classicists have a long history of discounting the demands of timeliness, whether they are accommodated by modern adapters or the original authors. Housman, for example, in reviewing Flagg's edition of Iphigeneia in Tauris, castigated him for explaining the final scene as a patriotic set piece, charging that to explain it in this way 'is to arraign Euripides, not to defend him. It means that he wrote for an age and not for all time: he defaced his drama that he might gladden the eyes of the vulgar with the resplendent stage-properties of their beloved goddess.' [5] But the Greek dramatists were writing for an age--they were writing for public performances in competition for a prize. They had to write with their audiences' demands in mind. '"Timelessness," and the ability to speak across the centuries' was never enough for any audience. One of the concessions to timeliness made by the Greeks was creative anachronism, as is most noticeable, of course, in Euripides. But even in the Eumenides, Aeschylus intrudes the Areopagus anachronistically to startlingly timely political effect.[6]

It is, perhaps, opposition to the political content of Auletta's plays, or of Harrison's, that is the true motivation of the critics. Clearly Auletta, with his focus on 'the crimes of America'[10], is not a conservative; nor is Harrison, the author of the feminist Medea: A Sex War Opera and an anti-nuclearLysistrata (The Common Chorus). But conservatism is the watchword of our day, whether in Newt Gingrich's America or John Major's Britain; and conservative distortions of Greek tragedy are by their very nature more insidious and less detectable than liberal, radical, or Marxist ones. The conservatives eschew anachronism (or so they think), and celebrate the perceived archaic purity of the original text. The classics are constructed as the sole preserve of the cultural guardians, and so have a hallowed place in the shrines of the William Bennetts, Lynne Cheneys, and Allan Blooms of the modern political world.

But many of the best uses of the classics in the past thirty years have relied upon the interpretive power of anachronism: William Arrowsmith and Douglass Parker's translations of Greek Comedy, Tony Harrison's Oresteia, Common Chorus and Medea, Christopher Logue's Homer, Ariane Mnouchkine's Les Atrides. These works inhabit a separate tradition from the adaptations that Robert Brustein obligingly suggests in his response to Timothy Wutrich in the Globe: O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, Eliot's The Family Reunion, Racine and Cocteau; they place slightly more emphasis on the effort to carry the reader back to the work than they do on carrying the work to the reader. There is also a place, to be sure, for the Richmond Lattimores and the Michael Cacoyannises, and for the Cambridge Greek play. But to condemn a work like Auletta and Rochaix's Agamemnon, not for its defects in achieving its own goals, but for the goals it sets, is academic chauvinism and aesthetic irresponsibility.


Edith Hall's lecture (at the Institute for the Classical Tradition conference in Boston, March 1995) on the effect of modern performance on interpretation provided some of the aesthetic background for this essay. Other works consulted include Robert Auletta's 'Notes on Writing Ajax' and adaptation of Ajax in Theater XVIII.1 (Winter 1986-87) 16-41; Oliver Taplin's The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Clarendon, 1977), J. D. Denniston and D. L. Page's commentary on the Agamemnon (Clarendon, 1957), D. L. Page's Greek Literary Papyri (London, 1941), the first volume of Werner Jaeger's Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (Second edition, translated by Gilbert Highet: Oxford, 1945), the letters of Timothy Wutrich and Robert Brustein in the Boston Globe (January 8, 1995), and Christopher Ricks' edition of The Collected Poems and Selected Prose of A. E. Housman (Oxford, 1977).


[1] Agamemnon, the first part of The Oresteia, an English version by Robert Auletta from the trilogy by Aeschylus. American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Theatre, November 1994 - January 1995; Directed by Francois Rochaix.

Cast (in order of Appearance)

Watchman - Jeremy Geidt; Chorus - Alvin Epstein (Chorus leader), Granville Hatcher, Will LeBow, Remo Airaldi, Tom Hughes, Thomas Derrah, Benjamin Evett, Charles Levin, Jeremy Geidt, Kerry O'Malley; Clytemnestra - Randy Danson; Clytemnestra's Servants - Starla Benford, Karen Phillips, Jessalyn Gilsig, Natacha Roi, Teresa Hegji, Chandler Vinton, Sherri Lee; Herald - Benjamin Evett; Agamemnon - Ben Halley, Jr. (also Charles Levin and Phillip Jimenez); Cassandra - Natacha Roi; Trojan Interpreter - Starla Benson; Trojan Captives - Jessalyn Gilsig, Teresa Hegji, Sherri Lee, Karen Phillips, Chandler Vinton; Aegisthus - Will LeBow.

Set Design by Robert Dahlstrom; Costume design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin; Sound design by Christopher Walker.

'This adaptation was commissioned by the International Exchanger Foundation, Los Angeles, in association with: Francois Rochaix; Den Nationale Scene, Bergen; L'Opera Decentralise, Neuchatel; and the International Theatre Center 'All the World,' Moscow.'

This review is based on the performance January 6, 1995. The ART chose to present the Agamemnon 35 times, including four previews, and the Choephoroi and Eumenides (combined into 'Oresteia 2' on their calendar) 13 times, with no previews. All told, there was only 1 opportunity to see the Oresteia in its entirety in one day, and only a little more than a third of those who saw the Agamemnon saw the entire Oresteia even on a split schedule. While it would of course have been preferable to review the whole of the trilogy, the logistics of the production simply did not permit it; and since the majority of those who saw the play saw exactly that fragment of the overall work I saw, I feel it is perfectly fair to review the Agamemnon as it stands alone.

I am told by those who attended earlier performances of the Agamemnon that the actor Mr. Halley replaced was less than effective; readers who are familiar with other evaluations of this production might consider this as one element contributing to the discrepancy between my tentatively positive review and others' condemnations.

[2] Auletta, 'Notes on Writing Ajax' and adaptation of Ajax in Theater XVIII.1 (Winter 1986- 87), p. 16

[3] Some readers might be interested to know that Halley played the role of the Messenger in Sellar's Ajax.

[4] Literally, 'You and I, ruling in this house, we shall make good order' (ego / kai su thesomen kratounte tonde domaton kalos). Also, note Taplin's comment on this scene in The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: 'She achieved the deception of Agamemnon and his murder entirely by herself without any direct help from Aegisthus.'

[5] Review of I. Flagg, Euripides' Iphigeneia among the Taurians in Classical Review iv (1890)

[6] 'The traditional legends were now handled from a contemporary point of view. Aeschylus' successors, particularly Euripides, went so far in that direction that they finally vulgarized tragedy into a drama of everyday life; but the first step had been taken by Aeschylus himself in presenting traditional heroes (who were often known only by name and by the bare outlines of their deeds) in accordance with his own conception of them). . . . Aeschylus did not make needless changes in the events as described by tradition, but in rounding out a legendary name into a complete character he could not help transfusing into myth the modern idea which was to be its spiritual lifeblood.' Paideia I.252-3. While many modern scholars might criticize Jaeger's construction of 'character' in Aeschylus, and perhaps see lost tragedies, epics and hymns fleshing out 'the bare outlines of their deeds' (and hopefully take issue with his description of Euripides' plays as 'vulgarized'), I think it is important to point out that the view of Aeschylus as a subtle modernizer was accepted so wholeheartedly by a scholar whose philological talents were beyond reproach.

[10] This leads, of course, to the whole question of whether Aeschylus is the proper vehicle for a liberal dissident translator: an argument that would take an entire essay to make. I myself found Auletta's political content to be distubingly out of phase with Aeschylus' in Agamemnon, and wonder if perhaps the Aulis, Hecuba, or the Trojan Women might (despite the cautions of Edith Hall in a recent lecture) have been more appropriate, or more easily appropriated, to the tenor of Auletta's critique of American militarism.

Patrick Rourke

(Patrick Rourke left the staff of Arion to pursue a PhD.)