Stage & Screen

At Home in the House of Atreus

"Iphigenia in Aulis" at Court Theatre

Sonia Chou

I am a sacker of cities, destroyer of Troy,” proclaims Iphigenia toward the end of Court Theatre’s Iphigenia in Aulis. Only sacrificing Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis will raise the winds the Greeks need to sail to Troy; to that end, her father, the Greek commander Agamemnon, has resolved to kill her. Anguished but out of options, Iphigenia (Stephanie Andrea Barron) finally and fervently accepts her fate. The veneer of glamorous martyrdom in her words belies her death’s horror, and its futility: her murder will pave the way for the ten years of slaughter and atrocities to come. The fluidity and power with which Barron delivers the line similarly conceal the care and challenge involved in translating Euripides’ 2,400-year-old tragedy for today’s stage. In this production, what is just below the surface often has the strongest effect. 

“There’s always been this interest,” says Nicholas Rudall, founding artistic director of Court Theatre and the play’s translator, “in tackling Greek tragedy not as a museum piece but as something that is entirely relevant (that awful word) and still has ways of speaking to a contemporary audience.” Enabling theatergoers to hear what Iphigenia has to say, however, is hard. The show throws up myriad hurdles to a successful performance, compounded by the fact that Court is putting on Iphigenia as the first in a three-year cycle of Greek tragedies, all by different playwrights, that tells the story of the House of Atreus, Agamemnon’s family.

“The Greek audience would have known instinctively that the main characters on stage are all going to die,” explains Rudall. “So [at the end] there’s all this great hope of we’ll sail off, and we’ll conquer Troy, but Agamemnon will die, Clytemnestra will die—she will die by the hands of the baby she is holding in her arms at the end, Orestes—and Iphigenia will die in vain.” Context makes up a significant part of Iphigenia’s potency; dramatic irony lends force to many of the most painful lines.

“Euripides wrote [Iphigenia] at the very end of the Peloponnesian War,” says Rudall, “that is, after thirty years of civil war. Athens is dying. Not only is Athens dying, but people are dying, needlessly as they do in civil wars.” 406 B.C. Greeks would consider literal human sacrifice no less shocking than we do: Euripedes uses the intensely personal pain of a single family as a manifestation of the greater societal problems that the play asks us to confront: war and killing, and the heedlessness of their proponents in their lust for glory and revenge.

As the archetypal family, the actors must make the audience feel these questions’ power, and the superb cast rises to the challenge. Mark L. Montgomery is a beautifully tense Agamemnon, and Sandra Marquez transforms Clytemnestra’s motherly excitement for her daughter’s marriage to hatred for her husband such that she maintains her humanity and ultimate relatability, effectively drawing out Euripides’ commentary on the consequences of violence.

But it is Barron, more than anyone else, who drives home the play’s indictment of gung-ho aggression and militarism. She emphasizes her youth and innocence, and her prodigious faith in her father, without rendering herself infantile. Her poise and courage as she strides to her death come across as the result of an idealism misguided and exploited, a heroism she ultimately finds false. As Rudall describes it, “At the end, Iphigenia says, ‘Yeah! Let’s go,’ and she is drawn into the irony of ‘Greeks must be free’ at a time when the opposite was happening. It’s as if this play were written in the middle of the Vietnam War—that is, this is slaughter, everywhere, sacrifice everywhere, and no one is getting it.”

Clytemnestra and Iphigenia are not the only women in the play, even if the original Greek cast would have been all-male: the female chorus stands out as one of the most intriguing parts of the production, and one of the most delicate; it’s easy to imagine how a director might stumble over how to incorporate an element so foreign to contemporary theater. Impressively, the director, Charles Newell (also Court’s artistic director), manages to make the chorus feel like a natural, integral part of the play. Their commentary on the action draws out the pathos of each scene, and the interludes they have to themselves are captivating spectacles, adorned with ritualistic movements and sung phrases.

Part of what makes this chorus so effective is Scott Davis’s set. Split into two levels of worn-looking wooden beams, brick walls, and industrial accents, it evokes the deck of a ship, or a dingy dockyard, complete with ropes and cleats. But the division, mimicking somewhat the orchestra of the Athenian theater, also provides the chorus with the perfect place to stay throughout the show, letting them take on more or less prominence as needed. And it provides plenty of corners for lighting designer John Culbert to take advantage of: his tenebrous lighting hems the viewer in, trapping them just as the characters are.

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Credit for the vivid effect of Iphigenia must also be given to Rudall himself, and his modern translation. To be performed effectively, a translation for performance must be profoundly different from the sort of literal text useful in the classroom, while still carrying the original meanings. “It’s always the same aesthetic,” Rudall says of his work. “Don’t sound like a translation: allow contemporary American actors to speak the language onstage.” His fluid, modern-sounding translation (“It was contemporary Greek—it’s ridiculous to translate it as though it were ancient,” he says) forms the foundation for the production.

Rudall has been translating for decades; the first translations he did, he says, were to avoid royalties in Court Theatre’s early years, but now he has published over twenty translations of plays in languages including not just Ancient Greek but also French, German, and Norwegian. Still, that does not mean his task is easy. “I pride myself on never omitting anything,” Rudall explains, “but when a Greek paragraph gives you eighteen different ideas in adjectives, adverbs, verbs, I try to make sure that all of them are there intact, but not necessarily literally; you wouldn’t understand it. So I might make this adjective into a sentence, because my job is to make the language not sound like a translation.”

As if it weren’t enough to bring together all these details to make Iphigenia in Aulis speak to us the way it can and should, Court’s project raises the bar even higher by uniting it with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Electra. The choice to turn these plays into a novel trilogy is a daring, perhaps unprecedented one, and it amplifies the difficulties of putting on a Greek tragedy—presenting a particularly thorny problem in translation. “Translating Aeschylus in a way that the Agamemnon is a follow-on from this play [Iphigenia in Aulis] is in fact a fascinating challenge, because they don’t write in the same style,” Rudall observes. “Your question is, do you adapt the translation so that they follow in some kind of aesthetic continuum, or are you true to a style which is, in Aeschylus’s case, quite obscure, very often, in the poetry. I don’t know yet—I’m in the middle of it!”

But the needs of the trilogy manifest themselves in other ways, too—in fact, they even changed Iphigenia’s ending. The play’s text has been significantly distorted in places in the 2,400-odd years since its original performance, bowdlerized by Greek actors working in the entirely different theatrical tradition that gained prominence after the Athenian tradition had withered away. The endings of plays were often changed, just as those of Shakespeare were years later, and Iphigenia was no exception: in the suspect version we have, a messenger comes in to crow to Clytemnestra that Iphigenia didn’t really die but that the gods took her to live among them and replaced her with a deer. It’s dissonant, frustrating as a reader or viewer. Rudall goes so far as to call it ridiculous, noting that it leaves Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s relationship in limbo, and the pair thrilled about the coming war. Though his original translation years ago left the text as it stood, the production stirred up old questions. “For us to do a trilogy,” he said, “it had to be absolutely clear that he killed his daughter. It has to end with the death.”

The spurious portion had to go, but how to authentically conclude? The part of the play before the interpolated section had its own problems; Iphigenia delivers her “I am a sacker of cities” line only to have her speech repeated almost word-for-word by the chorus lines later. Typically, one of these speeches is considered a later addition, but an article in the journal Classical Philology gave Rudall the idea that both speeches were part of the original ending of the play, together forming an antiphonal exchange, a ritualistic back-and-forth between the chorus and Iphigenia.

Working from there, he found a new conclusion. “All the words are still there,” Rudall said. “I haven’t cheated at all. I’ve just rearranged them for a theatrical ending, which is that she has decided to die, and she goes to her death singing and with antiphonal singing by the chorus, and the only thing I’ve added comes directly out of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, where the chorus describes her death…So now we have an ending that allows us to do the Agamemnon.”

The new text, and the production it forms the foundation for, creates a gripping theatrical experience, evocative in ways that many stagings of Greek tragedies fail to be.

“It’s always a challenge to do these plays,” Rudall says, “because their format is seemingly alien, with choruses and long speeches and all that. But the beautiful thing is that they leap off the stage as being contemporary once you see them; the people are infinitely recognizable.”

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