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Directing as Political Act: The "Dangers" and "Fears" of Mounting Aeschylus's Oresteia in Contemporary Periods of "Tyranny".

Performed in its particularity, in its monolithic aspect, progressive
in relation to its own past but barbarous in relation to our present,
the ancient tragedy concerns us in that it allows us to understand
clearly, by all the means of the theatre, that history is plastic,
fluid, at the service of men, if only they try to make themselves its
master in all lucidity. To grasp the historical specificity of the
Oresteia, its exact originality, is for us the only way of making a
dynamic use of it, a use endowed with responsibility. (1)

                                                       Roland Barthes

Theatre as Resistance

The conviction that Aeschylus's Oresteia (458 BCE) is political theatre par excellence has been thoroughly shared by theatre scholarship, even though the concluding trial scene of the third play has repeatedly posed problems of interpretation. (2) A universal depiction of progress and political maturity from the tyranny of brutality and moral chaos in Agamemnon and Libation Bearers to the establishment of civic law in Eumenides, the tragedy is a shockingly bold validation of democratic process as an arbiter of homicide and conflict. The theme of retributive justice, in its twofold manifestation on human and divine scale, drives the plot, unifying the three different parts. The immutable law of the gods is eventually replaced by a democratic system of rule: at the end of Eumenides, goddess Athena establishes the Areopagus, the fifth-century Athens Supreme Court of Justice. In his closing tour de force statement on the changing status quo of the city, Aeschylus advocates his strong faith in democracy as a guarantor of the nations moral identity. The celebratory acquittal of Orestes through trial by jury marks the beginnings of a new era, the transition from the realm of gods and the supernatural to the age of rationality In this respect, the Oresteia has functioned as a very early model of political drama, which can educate its audiences, revise existing cultural norms and offer new societal and administrative insights.

In discussing the dangers and fears of staging the Oresteia in contemporary periods of tyranny, we should bear in mind that any form of political theatre ultimately focuses on specific structures of power that must change. More importantly, as Susan Bennett argues, one must consider the "implications of the relationship between theatre as cultural institution, sharing or challenging the dominant ideology, and the audience's collaboration in the maintenance or attempt to overthrow that ideology." (3) In other words, we need to examine how the political dimensions of the text have been used (and often abused) historically by production and performance choices intended to reinforce (or even impose) essentialist attitudes of the ruling authority. The degree to which a director or a given audience shares or challenges an autocratic states views inevitably informs the productions point of view, its thematic axis and the aesthetic stipulations that are explicit or covert in the mise-en-scene. This confirms that context influences both conception and reception, and in this sense, while plays can be political, performances become politicized as soon as they meet the "right" community of spectators or occur in a setting fraught with political tension.

More than anything, it is important to investigate the dangers that lurk behind any staging of the Oresteia, especially in light of the fact that its complex political aspects are also a little ambiguous, and as such, prone to extremely diverse interpretations. While we can readily acknowledge the trilogy's democratic scope, interwoven into its dramaturgy, we should pay heed to the manner in which, as the play s production history attests, its concluding proposition of "order versus anarchy" has provided ample ground to authoritarian regimes to promulgate their extremist views. Much more so than some other revolt tragedies, such as Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound or Sophocles's Antigone, the Oresteia has often served the rhetoric of Western continuity, nationalism, and state order. For example, as we will soon examine, the staging of the play in Berlin in the 1936 German Olympics was commissioned to reinforce the Aryan ideal of the German National Socialist party. Similarly, Aeschylus's precarious and opportunistic appeal to the military dictators of Greece in the late sixties and early seventies can only suggest that, in addition to its popularity among artists of the Left and its celebrated status as a global monument of democratic and legal process, the Oresteia has indeed been vulnerable to the abusive manipulation of totalitarian discourse.

Politics in Aeschylus's Oresteia

Although the themes and stories of the Oresteia are part of a mythic past, the thought that has driven the work is no doubt infused with the ideological assumptions of the city in which it was conceived. There is no denying that Aeschylus wrote for the citizens of fifth-century Athens and that his plays constantly reflect their genesis in a fifth-century Athenian political environment. As Simon Goldhill explains, the Great Dionysia festival is "a performance integral to democracy in action," and similarly, the "theatre is not so much a commentary on ta politika as part of it." (4) At the same time, the way "a drama relates to (or instantiates) the ideology of the polis" and the "intricacy and variation of audience engagement in the dramatic event" are sharply focused by different, if interrelated, levels or forms of political understanding, from "precise reference to specific policy, to the discussion and enactment of the political nature of power, to the most general sense of the politicized subject, the citizen." (5) After all, Athens was a "performance culture," with a political and a social life that was, according to Nicholas Ridout, steeped in various "participatory practices," one of which was theatre. (6)

Although Aeschylus avoids clear-cut analogies that would link the trilogy's protagonists to major political personalities of his time, some allusions to the state of affairs in fifth-century Athens can duly be drawn. During Aeschylus's lifetime, Athenians had already established an early form of democracy, effecting some of the court reforms that were expounded in Eumenides. According to the Athenian constitution, the council of the Areopagus was responsible for trying murders of Athenian citizens. (7) Being both a cultural product and a timeless property, the ending of the Oresteia teaches a system of governance of mature conflict resolution, which renounces the retributive violence on which both Agamemnon and Libation Bearers are based. The dark, liminal space of the first two plays, where a decaying monarchy divides the elder men of Argos, the usurper Aegisthus enters the stage escorted by an armed guard (as any real dynast would), and intrafamilial crises are settled by homicide, seems inconclusive. Thankfully, not only does the attainment of the moral resolution in Eumenides bring along with it a sense of emotional catharsis, it also builds spectator confidence in an effective and more humane form of reconciliation and a legal system that can resolve conflict diplomatically. Thus, in the trial scene, the Court, which consists of outstanding Athenian citizens--and also, by an ingenious metaphorical expansion, of the audience present in the theatre of Dionysos--votes for the acquittal of Agamemnon's son. The audience feels cleansed, "liberated," like Orestes himself, "from the tribulations and excesses of the old, monarchical-aristocratic world, by our initiation into a Brave New World of Athenian democracy." (8) Divine agency is no longer the determining factor of human absolution and the gods cannot be held accountable for people's actions. Instead, civic justice prevails: the prerogative of deliberation is transferred to the humans, with all the complications such privileges typically entail. Ultimately, the Oresteia is a play of revolution and evolution: the blood for blood ethic of the first two plays is, in Eumenides, reckoned with and dismissed in favor of a morally advanced civic culture.

The contrast between the grim, mythical world of Argos and the precocious legal system established in premodern democratic Athens still resonates in various settings and time periods. What has been variously described as a movement from darkness to light and from barbarism to civilization functions as an attractive and necessary narrative, to the extent that it relates to the pressing social and political concerns of any society protected by constitutional laws and values. But is the Oresteia merely an intellectual play of therapy for the disenchanted audiences today? Are we past the teachings of Aeschylus, or are there still things to learn from Athena's words of wisdom? Given that most audience members in the regions where the play is ordinarily performed belong to communities that share the benefits of democratic societies, what is the artist's role in bringing this play back into our world today? Edith Hall thinks of the trilogy as a form of collective worship, a ritual we could all use today, and claims that even though the text is "troublesome, slippery, and evasive," in its full intricacy, density, and inconsistency, it offers lucid insights into the creation of conditions in which intractable conflicts can be resolved. (9)

Viewed among scholars, artists, and spectators as one of the most fascinating samples of dramatic writing, the trilogy has been revived and adapted for the stage either in its entirety or in parts (as individual plays). From the early twentieth century to date, it has furnished a strong political lens, which has been used by artists as well as state officials to reflect their own ideology; in the latter case, sadly, to establish or reinforce a nationalist agenda of continuity, a solid connection to the Greek heroic past. Indeed, in so far as a performance's "contextuality," its "propensity... to achieve different meanings/readings according to the context in which it occurs," (10) is an important determinant of the play's performability, to evaluate the dangers and fears of staging the Oresteia today one must take into account the special conditions of its reception. That is mainly because interpretations that may seem trivial or blasphemous to one audience seem strikingly appropriate to another, reflecting, as they do, some of its unique cultural circumstances. "Context conditions meaning." (11) Any staging will allow the text, a product of one person's thought process, to become through performance a shared property, a new collective experience. The director's role as mediator is to find contemporary metaphors to stir in the spectators, as much as possible, the intensity of the fresh response that the play had produced in its original audience.

Tyranny Today

The message of the Oresteia in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been applied to establish correspondences with contemporary settings of political turmoil but has also been used to convey a broader concern with violence and ideological contention. A plethora of textual and performance adaptations, the discussion of which is beyond the focus and scope of this article, highlighted the connections between the play's politics and recent instances of global turbulence. In theatre scholarship, Anton Bierl's seminal monograph Die Orestie des Aischylos auf der modernen Buhne (1996) is an excellent source of insights about auteur stagings of the tragedy, with arguments that both redefine the perception of the myth from a contemporary political lens and revise performance strategies. (12) In addition, Helene Foley's richly documented study of American productions based on the Oresteia is well worth consulting. (13) In terms of new textual versions of the play, among the most imaginative politically minded plays are David Rabe's adaptation The Orphan (1973), (14) a remaking of the Orestes myth inspired by the Vietnam war; Charles Mee's Agamemnon 2.0 (1994), in which a physically impaired and fragmented Chorus of Herodotus, Thucydides, Homer, and Hesiod offers profound, if profane, meditations on war, violence and civilization; and, more recently, South African playwright Yael Farber's Molora (2007), set in the postapartheid period during the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings. These plays, together with a considerable number of other adaptations, are discerning statements--sometimes open indictments--about the complex political and cultural phenomena of their age. In effect, the original text's inspiration serves to remind us that history repeats itself, that its destructive patterns are constantly recycled across time and space. Reflecting on the reasons why the Oresteia is still popular today, we can only briefly hint at some of our age's tribulations to which a mounting of the play could potentially alert us, if not fully alleviate. A tumultuous twenty-first century is already facing a multitude of traumas: a culture of global fear and political divide is threatening the formerly privileged and complacent West, which is numbed by the seismic changes in the political map of Europe, including Brexit and the establishment of the extreme right in many EU member states. As a blind response to the anxiety of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, violence fosters a climate of insecurity that keeps generating new radically conservative talk and new political configurations. Continuing warfare in the Middle East as well as lack of economic stability in the region has also resulted in unprecedented highs of immigration and political asylum seeking. More than ever before, the humanist ideals of altruism, collaboration, and progress are being trampled upon, replaced by communities of mistrust and hate, whose connection is paradoxically based on an agenda of exclusion and isolation. "Terror management," which is "the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy," (15) keeps showing its ugly face in many government administrations and the media alike.

If there is one thing that history has taught us, it is that social, political, cultural, and moral instability carries the seeds of absolutism and releases selfishness, panic, and rage. For artists, political engagement seems a one-way road to prevent those seeds from further fertilizing newly emergent tyrannical structures. Indeed, tyranny has many faces and changes its identities swiftly: it creeps anywhere and everywhere, it revels in the undisturbed comfort of despotic states and military dictatorships, and it winks complacently at us from the bosoms of self-proclaimed democracies, which are, however, anything but democratic. It is nothing less than depressing that many country-states notorious for their authoritarian apparatus and oppressive policies have proudly flown the flag of democracy, deceptively declaring faith in the power of the people. Conversely, countries that have been historically regarded as bedrocks of egalitarianism are now displaying manifestly undemocratic practices, manipulating the outreach of the print, televised, and digital media to endorse morally dubious political campaigns. In Europe, oligarchies established by elections continue to enforce tyrannical policies that breed racial and gender bigotry in the name of the "common good."

At an alarming rate, tyranny is expanding its scope well beyond the usual identities of totalitarianism. Clusters of tyrannical cultures and cults keep sprouting from within the walls of democracies, even in the West. In Europe, and elsewhere, established democratic prerogatives have ironically provided extremist groups with generous platforms in which to unfold vicious political or religious actions, while still operating under the gratifying umbrella of freedom of expression. Most would surely condemn the power of reactionary religious groups to ban theatre productions on the grounds of their "inappropriate" content. (16) Few of us would, however, acknowledge that tolerance, a major anchor of democracy, is now variously manipulated to usher in a different form of censorship.

Needless to say, we are not immune to such sophisticated or primordial systems of tyranny, with all their mythologies of patriotism, nationalism, or postcolonialism, even if we consider ourselves protected by the institutions of our--nominally termed, at least--"free" societies. Ionesco captured the powerful grip of fascist propaganda in his 1959 absurdist play Rhinoceros, which described a dystopian totalitarian setting where, one after another, people submitted to state indoctrination and were transformed into gigantic beasts. Because propaganda strives to turn individuals into brainless mobs, theatre, by virtue of its capacity to reach out to the masses, has been assiduously exploited as a means to proselytize. In the words of Hanna Arendt:
Totalitarian propaganda raised ideological scientifically and its
technique of making statements in the form of predictions to a height
of efficiency of method and absurdity of content because, demagogically
speaking, there is hardly a better way to avoid discussion than by
releasing an argument from the control of the present and by saying
that only the future can reveal its merits.... The language of
prophetic scientificality corresponded to the needs of masses who had
lost their home in the world and now were prepared to be reintegrated
into eternal, all-dominating forces which by themselves would bear man,
the swimmer on the waves of adversity, to the shores of safety. (17)

Heeding the sirens of absolutism is one of the major dangers that artists working within autocratic contexts are faced with. Accepting the new state of affairs, no matter how heinous an act, is alarmingly easy, as history has shown. "Anticipatory obedience," to borrow Timothy Snyder's term, means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation, because people are "remarkably receptive to new rules in a new setting." (18) Moreover, tyranny feeds on polarizing cliches that ultimately circumscribe our capacity not only to express ourselves with clarity, but also to think beyond what has been given to us. It advocates appearances as reality and has an aversion to facts. Add to that the omnipotentiality of the Internet and of the social media communities to muddle perception and judgment by fabricating new conspiracy fictions. Predictions, in fact, substitute an informed communication of facts. "Post-truth"--"relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief" (19)--is an ailing concept that fundamentally corrodes democratic process. Post-truth is, indeed, pre-fascism. (20)

In tyrannical societies, surviving as an artist regrettably often involves subscribing to the rituals of the tyrants and playing by the rules of their game, an attitude that can only consolidate the rules and cement autocracy. Artists, however, can only create by questioning. Directorial interpretation is a product of relentless intellectual, moral, and aesthetic interrogation. (21) How can a director restore confidence in the truth of the facts? What is the imperative of staging the Oresteia today? Who are this century's Furies? Is there any special value in directing the trilogy in contexts that skillfully employ totalitarian communication tactics, while still pledging to democracy? Can Aeschylus's faith in peoples ability to reach decisions by logical, communal debate teach us anything about our responsibility as citizens to shield ourselves against the rhetoric of fear and hate that has invaded our gradually de-democratized world?

In a contemporary context of sustained anguish and doubt, one can claim that staging the Oresteia could relieve such anxieties in its proposing a precocious model of peaceful, institutionalized conflict resolution, whereby decisions are made collectively. In following a storyline that highlights how democracy replaces despotism--the delegates of the Areopagos Court showing justice to be a matter of public deliberation--today's audiences may in the very least feel empowered. Moreover, the lucidity of argument and thought that runs through the trilogy is essential in reestablishing the value of reflection. By opting for a line of interpretation that encourages gradual mental examination rather than instant sensation, directors can make a political statement.

Contemporary Stagings of the Oresteia

The rich line of remakings and international productions of Aeschylus's text testifies to the fascination that the myth has exerted on both writers and artists. Several acclaimed performances of the Oresteia were staged in the nineteen seventies, nineteen eighties and nineteen nineties, each viewing the trilogy from a notably political lens. Notwithstanding their level of political engagement, twentieth-century directors used the tragedy also as an opportunity to experiment with new aesthetic forms and adventurous acting and directing styles, privileging an innovative stage ecriture, in which visual dramaturgy met the verbal element as a true equal. (22) Some readings, such as Peter Stein's, Peter Hall's, and Ariane Mnouchkine's, were created within a context of relative political stability and economic prosperity in the West at a time when humanist ideals of progress and faith in a unified European future seemed more possible than ever. The democratic premise of Eumenides being taken for granted, those performances confirmed the civic values the play propounded. (23) Other productions, as those by Luca Ronconi, Karolos Koun, and Romeo Castellucci, put forth a more critical position vis-a-vis the tragedy's purging effect. In more recent, twenty-first century readings, ironically, the emphasis appears to have veered away from an overtly political agenda to a more in-depth exploration of the psychological element and the complex relationships among the characters.

Mnouchkine's 1991-1993 stylistically stunning tetralogy Les Atrides was political in its confirming the values of cultural approximation. Applying Asian forms of ritual dance (notably of Noh, Kabuki, and Kathakali) into the staging, Mnouchkine created a resonant collage of images that reinforced her unique artistic signature but also promulgated an intercultural vision that has helped strengthen the efficacy of a theatre beyond text ever since. More importantly, the iconoclastic mise-en-scene invited audiences to absorb the coming together of cultures viscerally and achieve a kind of catharsis through ritual.

Peter Steins epic Oresteia (approximately eight hours long in duration) opened in Berlins Schaubuhne in 1980 and was revived in Moscow in 1994. Eclectic in style, it mixed costume elements from different periods and traditions and placed the audience in a large hall, with a wide corridor in the middle, used by the Chorus. Steins later, more cynical version, was set in postcommunist Moscow, shortly after Boris Yeltsin had dissolved the parliament, rethinking the metaphorical function of the Furies, which were now portrayed as old Russian women. Intended to be a comment on the fragility of history, the Moscow revival was significantly darker and more sinister than its Berlin counterpart, especially in its sensational Court scene finale. As the spectators were leaving the theatre space, the jurors, dressed in conservative suits, continued like automatons to cast their votes mechanically, while on the other side of the stage the Furies put on the clothes that symbolized their new social function. This charade of democratic process seemed to suggest that meaningful voting is a lot more than empty ritual.

The political resonance of the Oresteia emerged in varying degrees and in markedly different styles of production, attesting to the trilogy's fascinating ambivalence. In Greece, director Karolos Koun's 1980 production revisited the Oresteia's universe of primeval nightmares through the use of masks and primitive costumes. However, in addition to the emphasis on ritual, a subtle political message also became apparent: the ending of the trial scene caused an aftertaste of doubt and a mood for reflection on the special conditions under which a democracy can mature. Staging the play just a few years after the fall of the Greek Junta, the director refrained from facilitating easy parallels between the nature of crimes described in the Oresteia and of those perpetrated by the army generals. Precisely because of its undercurrent of skepticism about the possibility of achieving resolution, the performance left a lasting mark in the spectators, many of whom had suffered personally from the dictators' tyranny.

Earlier, in 1972, Luca Ronconi had staged an overtly pessimistic version as a future dystopia where the individual suffers from extreme alienation. At the end of Eumenides Orestes was wheeled into the stage on a hospital bed, and, upon the verdict of acquittal, exited the court mumbling incoherently. As Bierl asserts, Ronconi s structuralist and poststructuralist strategies make his conspicuously eclectic Oresteia "a total experience of the fragmentation of the individual, into a phylogenetic journey from a nebulous primordial past to the present-day world of alienated human beings." (24)

Ronconi's disenchantment was equaled and surpassed by another Italian director, Romeo Castellucci, in the latter's 1995 reading, Oresteia (una commedia organica?), where defeat and decay were visually captured in extremely violent forms. Among an array of jarring images, there were graphic depictions of blood and excrement, a Chorus of mechanically operated plastic rabbits, and live apes performing the Furies. This was a jarring parody of a children's fairy-tale, borrowing from the grotesqueness and absurdity of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Castellucci used the performers body as a mirror of character impotence, wishing to signify the inconclusive ending of the trilogy. Thus, Apollo was played by an actor missing the arms, a visual comment on the utter inability of the homicide's instigator to provide "a helping hand" to Orestes. To make the statement even stronger, the director staged an emasculated Orestes, who had to be assisted by a mechanical contracting arm, in order to commit the act of matricide. (25) Those controversial strategies of embodiment functioned as metaphors of contemporary malaise, in effect, of a "post-sense world." (26) The celebration of cultural progress transformed into a disillusioned portrayal of devolution, where the Furies never became "kindly ones" (Eumenides). In Castellucci's words:
I refused to take for granted the cultural conclusion of the
"Oresteia:" the establishment of the Areopagus, the absolution of
Orestes (with the tied vote) and the definitive institution of a
patriarchal and spiritual system to overcome the ius naturale (carrier
of violence of life, of matter, of darkness of the consternation of
ephemeral bodies) because if it is true that the "Eumenides" achieve
this spiritual overcoming it is also true that the entire "Oresteia" is
made up of those very elements to be overcome. (27)

In the twenty-first century, Aeschylus's trilogy is still choice material in the repertory of important theatre institutions of the West. That being said, one would have thought that the multiple political crises stalking the second decade of the third millennium--be it the rapid rise of Nationalist states, increasing attacks of global terrorism, outbreaks of racial riots, or the establishment of neo-tyrannical political and media formations--would have produced even more radical interpretations of the Oresteia myth. After all, Aeschylus's trilogy describes how a democratic process can put an end to a cycle of violence. It is therefore worth noting that psychology rather than politics has been the main point of focus in recent productions of the play. In 2017, This Restless House, a Citizens and the National Theatre of Scotland's adaptation also invested in the personal-emotional, rather than the political aspect. Rewritten by Zinnie Harris and directed by Dominic Hill, it built a visceral atmosphere of mental malaise, using a series of relevant psychiatric analogies. In 2015, Robert Icke's celebrated free adaptation at the Almeida Theatre and the Globe Theatre's production directed by Adele Thomas (both in London) addressed the trilogy with varying degrees of political focus. In the Globe performance, amid the generally parodic effect, the audience members mingled with the performers in the pit, invited to applaud the conversion of the Furies into Eumenides and the participatory element of Orestes's trial. (28) The mood, nonetheless, was more festive than reflective. Characterized by a cool and clinical ambience, the Almeida's sleek production, set in modern Britain, concentrated on the psychological implications of the crimes committed and comfortably shied away from any overt political commentary, a choice supported by the brevity of the third part of the trilogy. One should definitely make note of such noncommittal aestheticism as a reaction to the enveloping social and political bleakness of our century.

Staging the Oresteia in Contexts of Totalitarianism: Propaganda and Resistance

Significantly, as the play's production history reveals, performances of the Oresteia became artistic outcries for resistance but also mouthpieces for the "reformation" projects of totalitarian regimes. Commonly, directorial readings treated Orestes as a premodern liberator of humanity, performing a social service to his people with the matricide. However, the trilogy also promoted and helped solidify ideals of absolutism. Art and culture, after all, have always been mighty weapons of propaganda and, in troubled political times, mediums of state ideology and conservatism. (29) On two notable occasions, the play was seized by autocratic regimes to promote their own agenda, leaving artists very little room for individual interpretation, and using the spectacle aspect of theatre for crowd mobilization. In Bierl's typology, this "national-patriotic model" corresponded to the movement from chaos to the authoritarian "Rechts' Staat." (30)

The Oresteia performance in the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin was part of the opening ceremonies in the Staatliches Schauspielhaus. (31) It was directed by Lothar Muthel and used the 1885 translation by established classical scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Quite interestingly, the translation, which had been revised by von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff as a response to/renouncement of Nietzsche's contemporary theories that linked Greek tragedy to archaic ritual forms, (32) contained a certain amount of Christian phrasing, which the director had however eliminated in his production. Aeschylus's tragedy was put on as a piece of propaganda that was supposed to affirm the human progression from chaos to order and the ultimate supremacy of the Aryan race. In effect, the triumphant ending of Eumenides was intended to reveal the affinity between Greek civilization and the new state of affairs in Germany--a continuity in the spirit by which the new national German identity was purportedly inspired.

Erika Fischer-Lichte's analysis of the Nazi Oresteia is key in bringing attention to the fact that it is the context in which the performance occurred instead of its actual mise-en-scene that gave it its special political significance. Muthel's directing was in fact faithful to the text, without any spectacular innovations in form. However,
by staging the transition from the Dionysian to the Apollonian, from an
'archaic' to a 'classic' Greece, Muthel's production enabled it to be
understood and interpreted as a representation of the Zeitenwende
(changing times) brought about bv the Nazis.

Muthel's production of the Oresteia could therefore be understood as a
portrayal of Germany's 'rise' from the bloody battlefields of World War
I, the 'betrayal' through the Versailles treaty and the 'darkness' of
the Weimar republic to the 'light' brought about by the National
Socialists' seizure of power. (33)

Nowhere was the hermeneutic polarity of the Oresteia more obvious, however, than in the trilogy's diverse stagings in Greece during the years of the military dictatorship (1967-1974), where the myth served two different causes: on the one hand, just as in the case of the 1936 Berlin project, the play was utilized by the military regime as a tool for building the aforementioned narrative of cultural continuity (this time, Hellenic) through stability and order and simultaneously for castigating anarchy and revolt; on the other hand, Orestes's tyrannicide was hailed as an act of civic resistance by the Greek Left, which had been zealously persecuted by the Junta. Gonda van Steen's exceptionally researched and lucidly argued article "Rolling out the Red Carpet: Power 'Play' in Modern Greek Versions of the Myth of Orestes from the 1960s and 1970s (II)" analyzes in detail Greece's special social, cultural, and political conditions that brought about a revival of interest in the country's cultural heritage. In her view, there was a desire on both sides--the Left and the military--to appropriate the ideal of "sublime, ageless authority," that the Oresteia immortalized, and so the issue became "which side represented best the true values of the classical past, which side could be considered as the real descendants of the ancient Greeks. Far from rejecting the classical heritage, each camp then attempted to wring it from the hands of abuse.'" (34)

The dictatorship of 1967-1974 lavishly supported the National Theatre of Greece in its antiquarian, conservative stagings, as was the 1972 production of the Oresteia, tepidly directed by Takis Mouzenidis at the ancient amphitheatre of Epidaurus. The performance was presented in front of a great number of Greeks and foreign tourists alike, a spectacle that in its sheer neutrality sustained the dictatorship's hegemonic attitude to the myth, filling up the passive spectators with feelings of national pride. Even though little can be said about the aesthetic or intellectual value of the mise-en-scene, the performance served its purpose well: it was a "reverent," "properly" staged, and well attended occasion for entertainment, in the spirit of the "bread and circuses" practices that were so popular among the dictators.

To the Greek Left, the Oresteia represented quite a different narrative, spotlighting, more than anything, Orestes's matricide as an act of rebellion against tyranny. While heroism had become a catchphrase for the military, the Greek colonels, with all their pumped-up rhetoric and insidious violent tactics, came to be identified with the tyrannical figures of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, who seized power by force. In 1973, the theatre department of the University of Athens mounted a visually imposing production at the Herodion theatre during a period of passionate student group protests against the Junta. A red cloth was employed as a central metaphor for many elements of the production, accentuating different moments from the trilogy, such as the arrival of Agamemnon and the treacherous bath murder, as well as the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the red cloaks of the Furies. In a coup de theatre, at the end of the play the same large cloth was brought down on the many rows of spectators, also covering the remaining characters on the stage. A metaphor for the Greek opposition's bloodstained revolt against the oppressors, the visual reference to the red carpet--habitually rolled out for the colonels in daily ceremony--was a compelling reminder that "the dictators had blood on their hands but many more were also tainted by blood and guilt, in addition to the defendant Orestes." (35)

Censorship, Metaphor, Ambiguity

One is certainly aware of the challenges for any state-employed director to diverge from the regime's imposed requirements of a "true to the original"--as if such a possibility can ever truly exist--version of the play. Censorship committees controlling the text and themes of plays functioned--and continue to function in many parts of the world (36)--as a matter of course in most totalitarian regimes. In general, they ban whatever they deem unsuitable for the public, including a great deal of literature and film. In the theatre, key concepts can be scrutinized and entire passages from plays omitted or thoroughly rewritten to conform to the rules imposed by the censorship committee delegates. On the whole, such committees require inspection of the printed versions of the plays and their translations before consenting to the mounting of any production. Such tight control can lead to a clever handling of staging, which has to rely on visual allusion and metaphor, and as a result, directors must become especially inventive (and cautious) with their metaphors. The use of the red cloth in the University of Athens student production cleverly avoided the trap of censorship by delivering its political statement semi-concealed in a powerful symbol. In general, such resonant metaphorical images help purge the audience of whatever remains blocked inside the unconscious, stimulating associations that serve the directors' purpose of getting past the rigid demands of committee delegates while still communicating a political message. Allusion and metaphor therefore become a solution for fighting the system from within, as one can stage a play "politically" and still avoid all direct analogies to existing figures, facts, or settings. According to their background, the audiences will inadvertently detect different levels of politicity buried within the paralinguistic elements of staging.

Fundamentally, intelligent metaphors expedite and enhance practices of recontextualization, (37) by transferring the action of the original work to a physical and cultural setting that today's spectators will be able to identify easily. On the hand, they resonate with an informed interaction of past and present, the current reality being filtered through the reception of the play at the time in which it was originally produced. Their efficacy seems to suggest that oblivion or conscious disregard of either past or current history can only lead to "inchoate renderings lacking a viable inner pulse." (38) Because updating strategies are essential mechanisms of framing point of view, many revisionist artists have borrowed imagery from well-known occurrences of political turmoil to bring home to the audience the classics timely relevance.

Katie Mitchell's 1994 Oresteia at the Royal National Theatre in London, based on a translation by poet laureate Ted Hughes, built strong analogies to the war in Bosnia that was ravaging that region at the time of the production's run. Eclectic costume, Eastern European folk music, and design anachronisms reinforced the updating effect (for example, Agamemnon was dressed as a Bosnian military commander). Mitchell defended herself against criticism of her revisionist choices, claiming that she was trying to find "the simplest modern equivalent to every moment in the play,... so that someone who knew nothing about Greek drama or the story could understand at once what was going on." She felt that updating the play was her own way of grappling with the anxiety of political instability, and explained: "A lot of us feel morally thrown [about the war in former Yugoslavia] and don't know how to find our bearings morally and politically. To some extent the production was working that through." (39)

In 2010, at the National Opera in Warsaw, Polish director Michal Zadara reworked the Oresteia myth by relocating its action to communist Poland after World War II. According to an analysis of the performance by Malgorzata Budzowska, Agamemnon was portrayed as a partisan of the underground National Army who fought against the fascist occupier but was pursued by the communist authorities as a traitor of the new political ideology, while Clytemnestra's lover Aegisthus was a political activist of the new regime. When Agamemnon died for his political views, Orestes avenged his death, aided by Athena--ironically, a reflection of the ambivalent national figure Edward Gierek, "the communist leader, who has earned a reputation within society through the distribution of goods" (40) and who was aconsidered a communist savior. Athena-Gierek bribed the Furies--depicted as factory workers--to liberate Orestes. In the end, Agamemnon became a metaphor for the sacrifice that had to take place in order for a new political order to emerge within the dark times of Stalinism. Budzowska points to the creation of a parallel between ancient mythological Greece, just after the Trojan War, and Poland, just after the Second World War, justifying the directorial point of view by saying that "in a devastated country the rules of the state must be re-formulated. In Poland, this was a time of the birth of a completely different community and this beginning was connected with fratricidal struggle and murders." (41)

Directors and the Ethics of Seduction

The artist is an agent of ideology in constant interaction with the present, an "intermediary between the dominant ideology and community." (42) Theatre practitioners have a responsibility to bring burning political questions in front of a community of people to navigate them through vigorous critical scrutiny toward an enlightened vision of life. After all, directing is about creating imaginary, parallel worlds and about relying on the infinite possibilities of the stage to interpret our cosmos. Interpretation is a form of commitment to one's own beliefs. The manner in which the final scenes in Eumenides will be staged ultimately reflects the directors' own choices. In this respect, ideology is the linking of theatrical text with the discursive and ideological practice both on the production level (the director) and on the level of reception (the spectator). (43)

In times of tyranny, commitment can falters, as artists will inevitably be forced to decide between serving the authoritarian state's propaganda on the one hand and exposing its falsities to awaken the community of spectators to the reality around them on the other. The less freedom they experience, the more intense the ethical dilemma becomes, as does the struggle to rebel radically against the sponsoring regime they are operating within. Staging a particular play in a particular way at a particular moment in time calls for an honest examination of how far theatre artists are willing to go in order to defend their own engagement with particular social, political, and moral beliefs. It is precisely at this point that the question of responsibility becomes critical. On the simplest level, defying the state's political and ideological views, a director has the right to turn down invitations to specific projects, a rejection that will signal a leading gesture of resistance. When no such option is available, issues of a more complex nature arise, at the heart of which once again lies a choice: the director can either proceed to an edited, neutral/neutered reading of the play--indeed, divest it of any political significance if at all possible--or, conversely, let the play speak for itself, "seducing" the audience by allegory and metaphor toward a first encounter with its inbred message. The latter alternative betrays a sense of unwavering commitment to the text and its social function in today's world, as well as to the community of the audience. It is a subtle and informed act of politics, if not necessarily a flaunting statement of activism.

In the end, directors are always performing a kind of social duty, even when their agenda is not overtly political in the narrow sense of the word. In effect, one can influence spectators' beliefs in various ways--from an explicit condemnation of propaganda to subtle political innuendo. Baz Kershaw claims that "theatre which mounts a radical attack on the status quo may prove deceptive. The slow-burning fuse of efficacy may be invisible," (44) while Michael Kirby maintains that many pieces seek to "achieve an attitude change through what could be called seduction." (45) In any politically conscious undertaking, such valuable seduction can only balance between pleasure and meaningfulness.

In the end, the challenge and responsibility, the dangers and fears of revising classical myths today may have to do with communicating the same unadulterated impact and reviving in contemporary spectators the political meaning and visceral responses that the ancient text had generated in its original audience. Any interpretation of Greek tragedy carries within itself a conflicting desire to remember and to change, to revive and to bury. As a result, part of the director-adapter's task is to think of the metaphors that could substitute for indices of alterity on today's stage and to consider possible ways in which the mise-en-scene can serve both the distance and the timelessness of the ancient play within the context of our contemporary reflections, life, and culture. (46) Staging the Oresteia at any time in history is a form of public service. That said, one cannot simply direct Aeschylus's monumental tragedy as a sensational family drama or a psychological study of character and motivation. Conceived more than two thousand years ago, the trilogy raised questions that can still help partially resolve within us notions as ambiguous and troublesome as tyranny, justice, and democracy. To renounce through a toothless staging the play's social, civil, and religious import will ultimately divest it of a perspective at once historical and timeless. For a director, such an operation of depoliticization--whether conscious or not--would be, in the fraught times we live in, an act of apathy, a disregard for the dangers that loom behind neglect for history. In our millennium of fear, upon which new and complex tyrannies are being built, directing the Oresteia is a unique opportunity to share a process of political "coming of age," which could ultimately be of comfort and of use.


Open University of Cyprus


(1) Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evasion, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 66.

(2) The reference edition for my study of the play has been Richmond Lattimore, trans., Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 3rd ed., ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), vol. 2: Aeschylus II.

(3) Susan Bennett, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (London: Routledge, 1990), 9.

(4) Simon Goldhill, "Civic Ideology and the Problem of Difference: The Politics of Aeschylean Tragedy, Once Again," Journal of Hellenic Studies 120 (2000): 34-56 (35).

(5) Ibid., 49.

(6) Nicholas Ridout, Passionate Amateurs (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 20.

(7) According to C. W. Macleod, in 462 BCE the Areopagus, a legal body composed of all former archons which had in the previous period gained some larger powers, had its functions confined to the trial of murder as a result of actions carried out by a "radical," Ephialtes. Macleod argues that Athena's court is in the Oresteia representative of law as a whole and denies suspicions that Aeschylus had taken up "any partisan position" in describing the court scene in Eumenides. C. W. Macleod, "Politics and the Oresteia" Journal of Hellenic Studies 102 (1982): 124-44 (127-28).

(8) Mark Griffith, "Brilliant Dynasts: Power and Politics in the 'Oresteia,'" Classical Antiquity 14, no. 1 (1995): 62-129 (81).

(9) Edith Hall, "Peaceful Conflict Resolution and its Discontents in Aeschylus's Eumenides" Common Knowledge 21, no. 2 (2015): 253-69 (269).

(10) Baz Kershaw, Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1992), 33.

(11) Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (New York: Routledge, 2006), 145.

(12) Anton Bierl, Die Orestie des Aischylos auf der modernen Buhne: Theoretische Konzeptionen und ihre szenische Realisierung (Stuttgart: M und P, 1996). See more in Anton Bierl, "The Chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon in Modern Stage Productions: Towards the 'Performative Turn," in Agamemnon in Performance: 458 BC to AD 2004, ed. Fiona Macintosh, Pantelis Michelakis, Edith Hall, and Oliver Taplin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 291-306.

(13) See Helene P. Foley, "The Millennium Project: Agamemnon in the United States," in Macintosh et al, Agamemnon in Performance, 307-342. Foley's detailed list includes Robert Auletta's translation/adaptation of Agamemnon (directed by Francois Rochaix), with references to the Gulf War and more generally to nuclear war (338). It also includes Andrew Ordover's 1994 Agamemnon, which topically sets the play in the Balkan region, even though neither time nor exact location is specified (331). The Millennium Project, a cut and partially adapted version of the Oresteia directed by Polish director Henryk Baranowski (2000), gave the production an Eastern European twist, portraying the Chorus in Agamemnon as "homeless, dispossessed victims of an oligarchy" (338). In Libation Bearers, the Chorus, Electra, and Orestes were a "violent, punk youth nevertheless seriously concerned with justice," while "the Furies of Eumenides created an atmosphere suggestive of science fiction as background... which in many respects offered a partially comic send-up of a collapsing civilization" (338).

(14) Direct analogy turns the character of Agamemnon into a caricature of US President Lyndon Johnson and Pylades into a brutalized war veteran who had engaged in a My Lai-type massacre. The "stay-at-home" tyrant Aegisthus, who cut ofTElectra's hands and tongue in prison, was modeled after Richard Nixon. Ibid., 331.

(15) Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny. Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), 109.

(16) In 2012, the production of Terence McNally's Corpus Christi at Chytirio Theatre in Athens was banned due to fierce protestations--including physical violence, police arrests of participating artists, and some rounds in the courts--from the Greek Orthodox Church and the Golden Dawn extreme right-wing party, who raged against the play's homosexual perspective. In 2016, the National Theatre of Greece faced extreme verbal attacks for supposedly atoning for acts of terrorism in one of its productions and giving voice to convicted criminals. The play, Nash Equilibrium--based on Albert Camus's 1949 play The Just--included writings by the imprisoned Savvas Xiros, member of the now defunct terrorist group "Revolutionary Organization 17 November," which was responsible for several political assassinations and kidnappings in Greece. The board of directors was ultimately forced to take the production down in an unprecedented act of self-censorship that caused further public controversy.

(17) Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), 346,350.

(18) Snyder, On Tyranny, 21.

(19) Oxford Living Dictionaries, s.v., "post-truth," accessed August 3, 2017,

(20) Snyder, On Tyranny, 71.

(21) Ibid., 78.

(22) In some productions, the ritualistic element took precedence over the need to serve a manifestly political purpose. A case in point is Andrei Serban's 1977 highly stylized Agamemnon, which emphasized the ritual element of Greek tragedy. Serban used a Chorus of young men and women who moved ceremoniously, carrying fire pots among the audience and chanting in ancient Greek and English to the music composed by Elizabeth Swados.

(23) Part of what Bierl termed an "evolutionary," "democratic," and "affirmative model." Bierl, Die Orestie des Aisehylos, 23-35.

(24) Bierl, "The Chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon',' 294.

(25) In an ironic contrast to Orestes's anorectic presence, the obese bodies of both Electra and Clytemnestra in the first two parts of the trilogy betrayed an ample determination and hunger for power, respectively.

(26) Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on the Edge (New York: Routledge, 2003), 79.

(27) Romeo Castellucci, "The 'Oresteia' through the Looking-glass," in "The Return of the Classics?," ed. Hugo De Greef and Tom Stromberg, special issue, Theaterschrift 11 (1997): 190-99 (197).

(28) The productions scenography, featuring a graffiti-adorned backdrop of wooden boards, conjures up the protest-wracked Greece of today.

(29) As Arendt claims, since totalitarian movements exist in a world which itself is nontotalitarian, they are forced to resort to what we commonly regard as propaganda. Origins of Totalitarianism, 342.

(311) Bierl, Die Orestie des Aischylos, 31.

(31) The actual site was designed in the spirit of a replica of the Ancient Olympia topography.

(32) When Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy, one of the first to react was Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who wrote a vicious pamphlet accusing Nietzsche of betraying the principles of classical philology.

(33) Fischer-Lichte cites contemporary reviews of the production, which attempt to draw attention to the assumed role of Nazi Germany as the "genuine heir of and actual successor to ancient Greece." Erika Fischer-Lichte, "Resurrecting Ancient Greece in Nazi Germany: The Oresteia as Part of the Olympic Games in 1936," in Performance, Iconography, Reception, ed. Martin Revermann and Peter Wilson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 498. According to the critic of the Munchner Zeitung (August 11, 1936), "The Oresteia is born out of the clash of two Weltanschauungen. In it, there lives the enormous tension that always shakes the earth when the old is doomed to fall and something new is born--as we experience it today" (ibid., 493).

(34) Gonda A.H. Van Steen, "Rolling out the Red Carpet: Power 'Play' in Modern Greek Versions of the Myth of Orestes from the 1960s and 1970s (II)," International journal of the Classical Tradition 9, no. 2 (2002): 195-235(212).

(35) Ibid., 214.

(36) One such example of state control continues to characterize the process of reviewing the content of the script and the actual staging of performances in the reputable Fadjr International Theatre Festival in Iran.

(37) For more on the use of metaphor in revisionist adaptations of Greek tragedy, see also Avra Sidiropoulou, "Adaptation, Recontextualization, and Metaphor: Auteur Directors and the Staging of Greek Tragedy," Adaptation 8 (2015): 31-49.

(38) Avra Sidiropoulou, "Adaptation and the Ethics of Directing," in Adapting Greek Tragedy: New Contexts for Ancient Texts, ed. Vayos Liapis and Avra Sidiropoulou (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

(59) Katie Mitchell, quoted in Celia Wren, '"The Oresteia,' Bearer of Many Agendas," New York Times (May 7,2000), accessed August 3, 2017,

(40) Malgorzata Budzowska, "Postmodern Performances of Ancient Greek Tragedy (Aeschylus' Oresteia and Euripides' Electro)" Athens Journal of Humanities & Arts 1 (2014): 225-37 (232).

(41) Ibid.

(42) Julia Listengarten, "Problematics of Theatrical Negotiations: Directing, Scenography and State Ideology," in Directors and Designers, ed. Christine A. White (Bristol: Intellect, 2009), 121.

(43) Bierl, Die Orestie des Aischylos, 79.

(44) Kershaw, The Politics of Performance, 28.

(45) Michael Kirby, "On Political Theatre," The Drama Review 19, no. 2 (1975): 129-35 (135).

(46) Sidiropoulou, "Adaptation and the Ethics of Directing."
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Author:Sidiropoulou, Avra
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Date:Mar 22, 2018
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