Tragedy in Practice: Les Atrides

atrides-t1During my senior year in high school, we staged Jean Anouilh’s Antigone; that was, for a long time, my only experience with tragedy on stage.  It would be twenty years before I saw Greek tragedy on stage again; another twenty have passed since that moment, courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1992.

The occasion was the presentation of Les Atrides by the Le Théâtre du Soleil under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine.  And it was utterly transcendent, perhaps the most thrilling piece of theater I have ever seen.


Les Atrides takes the Oresteia as its core, but offers as a preface Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, a play that provides the backstory for Clytemnestra’s vengeful murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus’s trilogy.  The performances sponsored by BAM were held in the cavernous Park Slope Armory; I saw them over the course of two days on a brilliant, sunny October weekend.

After almost a quarter of a century, much of what I saw that weekend has receded from memory’s grasp.  But there is enough, and of a critical nature, that remains imprinted on my mind for me to offer a glimpse here of what the performance was like.  But before I do that, I need to return once more to Aristotle, the Poetics, and the elements of tragedy that he laid out.

There are six: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle, and Aristotle ranks their importance in the order I have just presented.  For the modern theatrical producer, the first four are pretty well covered by the playwright’s text.  The challenge—and for me the most difficult to comprehend from the text and from a distance of 2500 years—are the last two: melody (the role of the chorus) and spectacle (the staging of the action).  And it was precisely in those latter two that Mnouchkine’s presentation of Les Atrides proved to be, for me, unprecedented.

Not that there weren’t surprises to be had when it came to plot, character, and diction.  For one thing, the plays were performed in French with a simultaneous English translation provided via headset (remember this was 1992, and that sort of technology was not at all commonplace).  All the dialogue came doubled, and both versions were simultaneously intelligible if you spoke both languages.  The effect was somewhere between a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt and a Theater of Cruelty à la Artaud, wherein the very strangeness becomes disorienting and destabilizing.


Agamemnon and Iphigenia

The combination of Euripides and Aeschylus proved unsettling as well.  As I said, it had been a long time since I’d read either author; in other words, I’d read them as an unsophisticated youth.  And so, in the theater that day, the psychological realism of Euripides seemed quite normal to me, indeed, unremarkable.  The shift from Euripides to Aeschylus was like a sudden switch from modern prose to a rigorous, metrical, primitive incantation.  Aeschylus’ language was strange and alien in comparison, and (the greatest irony?) infinitely more compelling.

But for me the triumph and the transport of Les Atrides came in the way that Mnouchkine handled what Aristotle asserted were the least important aspects of the tragedy: melody and spectacle.

All that began with our arrival at the Armory, where we discovered that the actors’ dressing area was set up under the bleachers we would be seated on.  As we milled into the vast, darkened space of the theater, lights glowed in these warrens of exotic color, costumes hanging from pipes, some of the cast already in the heavy white makeup they would wear onstage, others meditating serenely on rugs of Eastern provenance.  As we were rushed through to our seating, the glimpse proved provocative and disorienting.

When the action finally opened on the stage, the sense of strangeness, of uncomfortable confrontation, and yet of thrilling possibility, was only heightened.  The costumes were Mediterranean, Persian, Indian, all at once.  The dialog came at you in two different languages simultaneously.  The music was simple—often only a single instrument or perhaps a battery of drums—utterly apt, disturbing, premonitory.


A scene from Agamemnon, with the Chorus

The actors in their startling makeup were alien; the total affect was one of something only vaguely human.  These creatures on stage were familiar and extraordinary at the same time.  After a few moments I realized that the makeup and the limited range of facial expression it enforced made the actors’ visages into masks.  These were not the masks of Greek tragedy but they were masks nonetheless.  They struck me as shorthand for Mnouchkine’s entire production: this was not tragedy as the Greeks experienced it on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens, but to was easy to believe this presentation of Aeschylus affected a modern audience the way it affected the ancients.


Members of the chorus: Iphigenia in Aulis

Nowhere did this feeling come through more strongly than in watching the chorus perform.  I’d never quite understood how the chorus could effectively integrate into the telling of the drama I read in my survey  of world lit classes.  But here they were, exploding into improbable life.  I say improbable because the movement, the costuming, even the music, owed far more to the Kathakali traditions of southern India than they did to ancient or even modern Greece.  But even more improbably, the chorus fit and complemented the action on the stage; it was integral, believable, dramatic.

As I noted in my previous post on tragedy, The Eumenides is the ringer in the trilogy, a play that celebrates reconciliation and justice rather than destruction and revenge.  But The Eumenides could be the most startling of the plays visually, for the Chorus in this work is comprised of the Furies, the demons of vengeance who are, by the judgment of Athene, transformed at the play’s conclusion into “The Kindly Ones”—as the Greek title translates into English.


The Furies

Mnouchkine’s visualization of the Furies was two-fold.  The leaders of the chorus were part Holocaust survivor and part refugee from the nightmare worlds of Samuel Beckett The mass of the chorus members was mad mythologizing: a pack of ape-faced dogs, snarling and leaping at the limits of the human conscience.  These creatures occupied the ramparts of the stage in the same way that those graceful, swirling dancers of the Agamemnon had done, but these dog were crippled, earth-bound, and vicious.  All the more startling then, at the play’s conclusion, after Athene has broken the deadly cycle of vengeance, to see them suddenly rise up on their hind legs, to walk on two feet among us like men.

I remember returning home and seeking out Dr Falk, who’d taught me his theories of tragedy, to avidly inform him that I’d seen and heard Greek tragedy unveiled.  Dr Falk, always strict, essentialist, and purist, smiled at me knowingly and said, “Ah, but you don’t know what it smelled like.”

And he was right of course.  Ariane Mnouchkine and Le Théâtre du Soleil were not performing Greek tragedy in New York.  But they were making great theater, à la français, but perhaps also somehow à la grecque, and offering me a change to understand Aristotle and Aeschylus in a way never before equalled, nor since.

There’s no chance that my words can ever convey that experience.  The only record of these performances that I have been able to uncover is this clip from rehearsals of Mnouchkine’s Agamemnon.  It is, for a YouTube video, long and slow, but that approximates the actual experience in the theater quite well.  I urge you to watch it and to be patient.  It unfolds wonders.  Just wait till the chorus enters….

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