Gender, empire and body politic as mise en scene: Mnouchkine's 'Les Atrides.' (Ariane Mnouchkine)
Mnouchkine and Barrault; Brecht and Artaud
In 1955, Roland Barthes witnessed Jean-Louis Barrault's production of L'Orestie at the Marigny theatre. In the review quoted above, he ironically comments on what he saw as a misguided attempt to wrest the work loose from the academic rhetorical tradition in France by presenting it as "Artaudian trance theater" in the style of African mask ceremony. Barthes describes it as an impossible combination of participatory theatre that no one really wanted to participate in, with an inappropriate "bourgeois-psychological" acting style full of secretive nuances, and costumes and decor that exuded Greco-Parisian elegance. Yet he most seriously criticizes Barrault not for aiming at the exotic but for lacking historical responsibility. It is important to note that Barthes's remarks were made during a highly charged moment for French theatre, an era of retrenchment and polarization that had begun in 1954 with the guest appearance of the Berliner Ensemble's Mother Courage at the Theatre des Nations. By the following year, Barthes had become an outspoken proponent of Brechtian theatre and he seems to be judging Barrault's production of Oresteia as the antithesis of this model.(4) By contrast, Ariane Mnouchkine's recent Les Atrides at the Theatre du Soleil demonstrates, despite exotic elements borrowed from India and Asia, a historical responsibility of which Barthes would surely approve.
Inspired by Brecht's example as were directors Roger Planchon, Antoine Vitez, Patrice Chereau, and many others who began their careers in the fifties and sixties, Ariane Mnouchkine has based more than thirty years' work on the principle of historical responsibility. Her leftist politics and collaborative rehearsal and management practices have been constant since she co-founded the Theatre du Soleil in 1964, even as her aesthetic and political vision has continued to evolve. Characteristically, Mnouchkine describes Brecht as a master with whom one must be careful, and accordingly disassociates herself from his authoritarian aspects: "I like him when he searches, but I don't like him when he legislates."(5) Yet her commitment to a historically responsible theatre has taken her along a Brechtian route through a Verfremdung achieved by borrowing from Asian theatre. In a seeming paradox, she explains that she can only seize the historical import of a work - i.e., its relevance for our time - by creating a distance. For Les Atrides, a cycle of four plays that adds Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis to Aeschylus's Oresteia, this distancing is achieved through the filter of an imaginative context inspired mainly by Kathakali dance, makeup, and costumes, and the colors and fabrics of India.(6) The Atreus cycle is part of a long series of "Orientalist" projects for which the Theatre du Soleil has either adapted Asian or Indian theatre conventions to stage Western texts or created new works that depict the colonization of the Third World more directly. The productions have alternated between classical plays like Les Atrides and the Shakespeare cycle (Richard II, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV) and new contemporary creations such as L'Indiade and L'Histoire terrible mais inachevee de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge (The Terrible but Unfinished History of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia). As Mnouchkine is well aware, the canonical works are sure to receive a warmer critical reception and more box-office success than the contemporary ones. However, both serve a necessary function in the Theatre du Soleil's ongoing political and cultural critique, a dialogical engagement against and with the Western and specifically the French theatrical tradition.
Like Barrault, Brecht, Peter Brook, or anyone else who appropriates the art of another culture, Mnouchkine risks practicing cultural hegemony.(7) In Orientalism, Edward Said warns of enervating the traditions and colonizing the people from whom one borrows, of positioning oneself as the primary and knowing subject, and the other as the secondary object to be known - a theatre through which the subject seeks self-knowledge. Said defines Orientalism as a manifold discourse enmeshed deeply in politics, art, philosophy, religion, the social sciences, sciences, and every other area, "a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between |the Orient' and . . . |the Occident.' . . . European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self."(8) I hope to show that while Les Atrides may not escape producing hegemonous effects with its own Orientalist project, it nevertheless manages to historically contextualize the cultural production of Orientalism as a semiotic process. It stages as historical the verbal, visual, and aural discourses through which the West embodies the multiple Other as a non-Western, non-masculine, ultimately non-human "oriental" whose language is barbaric, at best strange music and at worst demonic noise. But because this is the Oresteia, the pillar of the Western theatrical canon, the Western spectator perforce hears it as more than music or noise. The historical responsibility taken on by Mnouchkine is an elucidation through theatrical means, above all that of l'ecriture corporelle, or writing by the actors' bodies, of the fateful intersection between the discourses of gender and empire in this founding myth of the West, setting forth power relations that remain in force today.
In recent years Said himself has refuted the growing oversimplification of Orientalism as a one-directional hegemony. In Orientalism he in fact notes its capacity for a productive interrogation of the "idea of the West" and the power relations that this idea has entailed. Precisely because Orientalism is "a grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness," he believes that it is "valuable more . . . as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient."(9) Since classical antiquity, the idea of the oriental exotic has been used in the embodiment of private and public power relations, or as Foucault might put it, the deployment of power through institutionally staged discourses or "technologies" involving the human body. The colonizer often imagines the colonized as an other by feminizing, demonizing, and depriving the other of language. The outlines of this corporate image of the other are already evident in the first extant Greek play, Aeschylus' The Persians. The feminine in ancient Greece was equated not only with irrational nature but, especially in times of crisis, with the "barbarians" (literally, non-Greeks) to the east, whom Athens feared and had been trying to fend off or colonize for nearly a thousand years, ever since the wars with Persia and later with Troy in Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey. Indeed, an inferiority complex, a fascination-repulsion vis a vis Eastern civilizations was already thematized in Homer's epics, with Troy depicted as a sophisticated, corrupting, "Oriental" city whose men, like Helen's lover Paris, were unmanfully elegant. The Greeks knew that the civilizations of India, Persia and Asia were indeed more advanced in many ways than their own, and the wars with Troy were imagined as part of the epic battle between West and East. In Les Atrides the discourses of Orientalism are deployed through theatrical signifiers, and in the process women, Eastern barbarians, ill winds, and other threats to the rising patriarchal Greek empire are condensed, expanded, or diffused into a bodied other that can be followed in the texts and production.
For Mnouchkine as for Brecht the historically responsible theatre does not aim to reproduce a context outside itself. Neither ancient Greece nor India nor France is imitated realistically. The attempted reproduction would imply that history flows along everywhere else but on stage, unless theatre is forcibly transformed into history's channel. Instead, theatre is both a producer and production of historical consciousness, and Greece, India, Asia, and implicitly France and Europe are shown as floating cultural signs. In short the mise en scene is semiotic, not as a formalistic structure but as a site where historical signs are produced. It is more than a theatre aware of itself, or an epic theatre with direct speeches to the audience, "non-linear" time, montage space, separation of elements, songs and dancing interrupting dialogue, etc. Above all, Les Atrides is not a staging of the tragedy as inevitable, but as a history that didn't have to be.
Gender and empire.
Materialist feminism and the critical tradition.
The Oresteia has become so encased in canonical production styles and receptions that it appears to be suspended in a world sealed off from time. It is often claimed as the founding text not only of Western drama but of Western culture, and usually interpreted as the defeat of the old barbaric tribal law of revenge and the victory of the new rule of democratic law. However, a historical inscription of gender, race, and empire underlies this idealized mythic reading. Mnouchkine's prefacing of the trilogy with the rarely staged Iphigenia at Aulis strongly foregrounds the ambition, violence, misogyny, and sheer political expediency of the militaristic patriarchy. While Mnouchkine shares with Brecht and Barthes an insistence on historical responsibility and a resolute rejection of psychologizing, naturalism, and universalism, her politics also includes feminism, although she is aware that this is a red-flag "label" to the conservative and liberal establishment, an automatic synonym for dogmatism. As a long-time collaborator and friend of Helene Cixous, who has authored a number of scripts for the Theatre du Soleil and is a major theorist of l'ecriture feminine, Mnouchkine has been part of the feminist movement for two decades, and has often lashed out against the sexism and misogyny she has witnessed as a female director in a field dominated by men.(10) By simply prefacing the Oresteia with Iphigenia at Aulis, Mnouchkine opens the work to a feminist perspective. Indeed, she sees sympathy for Clytemnestra and a critique of the patriarchal Greek empire as already inherent not only in Euripides but even in Aeschylus - with the work of Les Atrides being to strip away the layers of time and convention and let the text speak for itself. Barthes and many others have also found it significant that the old matriarchal gods are defeated by the new patriarchal state, but have fallen back on essentialist poles of gender in place of historical explanations. Barthes writing in 1955 and theatre historian David Grene in 1987 both call for a historical outlook yet uncritically accept polarities of masculine and feminine, patriarchy and matriarchy, not recognizing - though Barthes seems very near - that this gender inscription itself is the myth that naturalizes specific power arrangements:
[A]ntique tragedy . . . makes sense only if we . . . clearly respond to two questions: what exactly was the Oresteia for contemporaries of Aeschylus? And what have we, men of the twentieth century, to do with the antique sense of the work? . . . The politics of Aeschylus was moderate . . . The Oresteia was a progressive work. It testifies to the passage from a matriarchal society, represented by the Furies, to a patriarchal society, represented by Apollo and Athena. . . . It is enough to convince oneself that the Oresteia is a profoundly politicized work [that] . . . unites a precise historical structure and a particular myth. Let others . . . discover an eternal problem of evil and judgment . . . That will never prevent the Oresteia from being above all a work of a precise epoch, of a socially defined state and a contingent moral debate. . . . Men of that era tried to pass from obscurantism to enlightenment. . . . They enthroned the same gods that we conquered in our time . . . They tried to lift away barbarism.
- Barthes(11) (my emphasis)
There is . . . Athena, unmothered, all father. Against these [qualities] must be set . . . the terrifying element of Clytemnestra's sexual drive, twisted, perverse, but deeply recognizable - because we understand her as a complex human being . . . . in a . . . similar way we should remember the wolfish Electra, driven by her intense love of her dead father to the enjoyment of the murder of her mother and Aegisthus. . . . A change is made from female to male, seemingly voluntarily. . . . Did Aeschylus feel that . . . there was a moment when Attic human society shifted its emphasis . . . from female to male, and that the true image of that was . . . the trial of Orestes? . . . . The Furies . . . stand . . . for something frightening in femaleness, though they are not exactly women. They are the exaggerated . . . nightmare expression of what is terrifying in Clytemnestra herself.
Staging social constructs:
The mise en scene, whether historically responsible or not, is fundamentally signified through culturally constructed human bodies. These bodies are materially anchored in the actors on stage but touch every other element of the production. The bodies of actors and characters belong to two discrete yet interweaving sign systems; the bodies are both real and fictional and operate both on the level of the signifier and the signified as a primary nexus where signs of gender, race, and political power intersect and seem to be generated. The actors' bodies in Les Atrides are most heavily marked by the signs of the exotic and of gender, yet the gendered and "oriented" bodies are not limited to actors or characters but dispersed throughout the mise en scene, marking its boundaries, shapes, and rhythms. Moreover, the body-as-sign is not simply in the theatrical time and space of the production but constitutes it, mapping out the Greek imaginary as a geopsychic territorial body to be defended and contested. The concrete semiotic processes of the historical mise en scene outlined here can also be elucidated in the socio-critical terms of feminist philosopher Judith Butler who borrows heavily from theatrical paradigms to theorize the gendered body as actor and stage in the social and political performance of real life.
For Butler as for Foucault, ideology is inscribed on and by means of human bodies in order to support particular "technologies," or arrangements of social and political power.(13) This ideological inscription is materialized especially clearly in theatre, and in the productions of Mnouchkine it is the conscious purpose. Four terms employed by Butler In Gender Trouble and other works are relevant here: embodiment, impersonation, the performative, and mise en scene.(14) These concepts relate directly to theatre, and can be used to analyze how all elements of the staging - the casting, the actors' gestures, costumes, and makeup, their movement and placement, and the scenography - participate in inscribing power. Butler defines impersonation and embodiment as processes by which discourses of gender, class, and race are signified through and on the human body to privilege some groups and marginalize others. Such semiotic operations regulate cultural signs and meaning, promoting some and suppressing others. Impersonation and embodiment in the staging of Les Atrides, and just as strikingly in its critical reception, are used in the construction of social positions marked by gender and race, but also foreground that construction. Gender identity is an "imitative structure," and impersonation, like embodiment, is a "key fabricating mechanism through which the social construction of gender takes place" (Butler, 136). Whereas impersonation implies a mirroring, a pretended sameness that stays on the surface, embodiment goes beneath the mirrored surface and stakes out difference. Embodiment here is the ideological marking out of real or hypostasized human bodies as positions in a social hierarchy in post-colonial terms, embodiment is used to imagine oneself or one's group as a complex interior territory of the same, set apart from an undifferentiated exterior territory as other. Butler uses two other terms also drawn from theatre: the performative and the mise en scene. The performative is defined as acts by which identities are constructed. We are all actors and spectators who use available scripts, roles, and costumes to perform real social exchanges with real effects. The mise en scene is the site of this performance where identities are constructed. Yet precisely because the mise en scene is a "construction site" of multiple identities it can also be the site of historical agency Only through constructing and being constructed can we act as agents for social communication and historical change.
Embodiment as socio-semiotic construction often involves the hypostasized feminine body, making of it the so-called ground of representation itself, as Teresa de Lauretis has also noted.(15) Historically, the concept of "grounding" itself has a mythical past, an old association with the masculine as sky and the feminine as earth, energetic but chaotic subterranean matter that threatens to rise up and displace the order above it. In The Oresteia this myth is connected to the Furies, matriarchal goddesses who literally go underground at the end of the trilogy to become the Euminides, benign guardians of reproduction within lawful marriage, and to give up their old power which terrified, challenged, and sometimes even checked the patriarchy. David Grene's reading of Clytemnestra and the Furies as demonic forces of female sexuality reproduces this mythic view. But Les Atrides strongly implicates the myth as a self-serving invention of the patriarchy, a way to naturalize the politics of an empire trying to establish itself. Mythic embodiment of this Idea of the West is exposed as politically expedient, and juxtaposed again and again with a social gestus that says: in this moment the sign of gender determines a specific power arrangement, but it need not be so.
Construction sites and performative acts
The concept of the mise en scene as a historical construction site is evidenced in the theatrical space as soon as the spectators enter the building of the Theatre du Soleil (at least in Paris). On the back wall of the spacious salle d'acceuille, or reception hall, and illuminated as the focal point of the whole hall is a large political map of the ancient Mediterranean world, with a red line representing the voyages of Agamemnon. Around the room on the walls, stands, or tables are photos and books on Greek history and culture. At a long counter and from small carts, Greek food is prepared, sold and eaten on site. Mnouchkine herself is often seen clearing tables and chatting with the "guests" and all company members take a turn mingling and working during the breaks between plays (in addition to the two hours daily of cleaning, mending, and other chores). On their way to the performance in the adjoining hangar, spectators must walk along a path above what resembles excavation sites filled with life-size terra cotta statues of people wearing the same costumes as the actors, facing one direction and either standing alone or leading horses, recalling for many the famous army of ancient Chinese warriors. Sculpted by Erhard Stiefel, the statues have been affectionately nicknamed "the crowd" by the company, and seem to be frozen in the act of walking up out of the earth. The spectators, having crossed this "excavated" transition space and taken their seats in the steep bleachers, wait a time, then the lights dim as the sound of a kettle drum rises to a thunderous roar, and suddenly the dancers of the chorus rush on with exuberant shouts in a whirling blaze of red, black, and yellow costumes as if the crowd of statues had returned to life and found their way to the stage.
According to Mnouchkine, the chorus is the key to achieving a historical perspective, of distancing what is too near and recalling the past to life. The stage-filling energy of the dancers with their bounding leaps, cries, richly elaborate Kathakali-like costumes and their faces an expressive circle of white makeup, black-lined eyes and curved red lips, is the most startling departure from conventional stagings of Greek plays. The physical presence of twelve to fifteen men and women of the chorus accompanied by the live percussive music of Jean-Jacques Lemetre electrifies the theatre. Because it was crucial for Mnouchkine that the audience hear the text clearly it was never sung and only chorus leader Catherine Schaub or other single voices spoke the chorus's lines. Moreover, the chorus never danced while dialogue was being spoken. The principal actors often joined them, either as characters or as anonymous chorus members. Convinced of the importance of the choral dance to ancient tragedy, Mnouchkine aimed to restore its vital role, not by reconstructing it from iconic or textual evidence but by imbuing it with the still living energy of the Kathakali and Bharata Natyam dance theatres whose forerunners almost surely had confluence with those of Greek theatre.(16)
The space mobilized by the decor, music, light, and the voices, gestures, and movements of the actors, all set up a historical writing, above all what Mnouchkine calls an ecriture corporelle, a writing with the body, a gestic vocabulary of signs that reappear throughout the plays, not just delineating a style or illustrating the text but haunting the ongoing action so that there can never be the sense of a pure present. The performance space is the discovery site of a buried story The bare simplicity of the set and scenography express this site as a cosmos waiting to be historically specified. The playing space has no curtains, flies or wings but is a wide expanse of terra-cottacolored floor surrounded by a wall of the same material and color, crumbling in spots and broken by several recesses and by a double-doored gate in the upstage center. The space of the Greek cosmos is defined as enclosure within enclosure: the terra cotta wall encloses the stage, and this inner wall in turn is enclosed by a high wooden wall painted the bright blue of sky and sea, in the middle of which is a second lar-ge gate that opens at times to reveal darkness beyond. Suspended above the stage is a white canvas "tent" roof decorated with Greek designs, through which bright sunlight (actually flourescent) seems to shine. Several spectators have compared the playing space to a sunbaked bullfighting arena, connecting it to the matador-like costumes worn by several of the characters: Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and Orestes. For portentous entrances or exits, large box-shaped platforms on hidden wheels carry the main characters and define the locale: in Iphigenia at Aulis, a glide brings Iphigenia, Clytemnestra, and Orestes to Aulis; a second becomes the altar of Iphigenia's sacrifice, and a third carries Agamemnon to war; in Agamemnon, it brings Agamemnon and Cassandra to Argos; and finally in The Libation Bearers, it is the tomb of Agamemnon. Only these platforms, pulled by ropes that have no visible operators, pass through the outer wooden doors beyond the blue wall. Thus they alone seem able to traverse the space between life and death, the known and the unknown worlds. In the course of the productions, the gliding platforms come to signify the movement of a fate whose drivers remain a mystery.
The psychic and social space of the Greek world is also created by other scenographic signs. A sound of vicious dogs is heard at the end of three plays, and for two of them it is accompanied by a tableau of the murder that has just taken place. Each tableau is a mattress with life-sized mannequins of the murdered couple lying together as if caught in sexual embrace, and each time it is dragged with increasing difficulty on and off the stage by actors. Whereas the platforms glide seemingly without effort through the two sets of gates, the mattresses are always dragged through a central vomitorium from under the audience, emphasizing their significance as deathbeds, all too human vehicles of fate connected expressly to sexual relations. The mattresses visibly replace the ekkeklema used in Greek theatre for such violent and fateful tableaux, but their difficult maneuverability contrasts with our image of the rolling ekkeklema, as it does with the gliding platforms.
Throughout the plays the wind is also a less obvious but important sign, closely bound to the plot and the movement of the gliding platforms. Wind functions as a signifier of history-making phallic power, "phallic" because it is the male agents (above all Agamemnon, but also Menelaus, Achilles, Orestes, and Apollo) who are marked for power and whose acts of expediency are justified as a force of nature. Even though the winds are often embodied by the feminine, they coincide with operations of male power. They are nearly always marked by a struggle involving gender and sexuality: Artemis avenging pregnant animals, or the "truth-bearing" winds of Apollo piercing the unwilling body of his priestess Cassandra. Whenever wind appears, it is connected with "fate" but coincides with some "necessary" act, such as waging war or committing murder:
I am slain, I perish, foully slaughtered by a godless father. I wish that Aulis had never received ... the fleet that speeds the host to Troy. Why should Zeus raise winds on the Euripus to bar our voyage? He sends pleasant winds to other men, for happy sailing. Many are his winds: winds of sorrow and winds of hardship, winds to set sail in and winds to drop sail in, and winds of waiting. [Iphigenia, Iphigenia at Aulis, 368(17)
I call on Apollo the Healer / to keep [Artemis] from setting against the Greeks / those contrary winds, winds that hold ships / staying winds, winds that stop sailing altogether. [Chorus, Agamemnon, 146-149](18)
The hurricane that came from Strymon, / breeding deadly delays, starvation, lost anchorages, / driving crews to aimless wanderings, / ... wore down the flower of the Argives ... [Chorus, Agamemnon, 190-194](19)
Helen means death, and death indeed she was, / ... as she sailed out of the delicate fabrics of her curtained room, / fanned by the breeze of giant Zephyr. [Chorus, Agamemnon, 690-693]
[Helen] came to the city of Ilium / a spirit of windless calm [Chorus, Agamemnon, 736-737]
Now my prophecy [from Apollo] shall no longer peer from behind veils / like a newly married bride. / No, it will rush on, a wind brightly blowing / into the sun's rising, / to send disaster surging like a wave to meet the sunbeams [Cassandra, Agamemnon, 1178-1182]
May Hermes ... help [Orestes]; / may he give him a fair wind for what he does! ... Then for the deliverance of the house's wealth / we shall raise the shout of female voices; we shall strike up the magic cry, "She sails well!" [Chorus, The Libation Bearers, 813-822]
On the stage this "wind of fate" is represented by sound, music, and above all by the fluttering of drapery that covers the gliding platforms. Significantly, wind is created not by any visible machines, but by the movement of these gliding platforms that are maneuvered by visible ropes and invisible hands. In sum, the stage becomes a site on which the actors and a few stage machinae write the sharp, clear lines of the story.
The concept of the mise en scene as a site where identities and scripts can be tried out is concretely applied in a rehearsal practice shared by Brecht and Mnouchkine. All the costumes from the company's past productions are laid out together and the actors browse at will choosing their own costumes, like the bit player in The Threepenny Opera who after two days of searching and weighing every possibility, finally decided on the perfect hat. Mnouchkine goes further, not only encouraging the actors to improvise their own costumes (the chosen articles serve as basis for the final costumes), but allowing them to choose the roles they will rehearse. The final casting is gradually and collectively decided, often with one actor taking more than one role as in Les Atrides.
This practice of actors' trying on roles and costumes to generate the mise en scene is also a way of turning identifications to agency: not essentialist identity as a unity of character with actor or spectator but identification as a performative social act in Butler's sense. This is especially important for the spectator watching Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Cassandra, and Athena through the plays, aware that these characters are not autonomous subjects with whom one can simply identify or not, but subject positions constructed through gender, placed strategically to mark out a progressively cohering ideological system combining patriarchy with empirial hegemony. Not despite but because of this the mise en scene is a site where roles and costumes can proliferate, and thus a site of potential agency Historical agency is claimed by the actors in choosing their own costumes and roles, and by the spectators in reading meanings that go "out of bounds" to reflect upon rather than accept as fate the dominant social system being presented on stage. As is shown in the following remarks by Mnouchkine and costume designer Nathalie Thomas, the company tries in many ways to facilitate such agency for the spectators, but never to dictate the exact form that it takes:
In the theatre it isn't the same as in the cinema, where the spectators don't work but [are] bottle fed; in the warmth and dark one lets oneself be fed. In theatre one is much less in the dark ... and one works. The public peoples the stage. Thus I believe that the stage should be as empty as possible, so that the spectators can people it with the pictures they expect. ... My dream would be to photograph the 600 stagings that the public produces in one evening! - Mnouchkine(20)
The spectator sees in the appearance of the actor the evocation of an Assyrian frieze ... This isn't deliberately willed, but is an effect of the actor's will to find a heroic stature. For another spectator, a hairstyle carries a reminiscence of Crete ... That is the richness of a mise en scene, the capacity to set the imagination of the spectator into play. - Nathalie Thomas(21)
In studying Mnouchkine's work, one becomes aware of a distinction between her depiction of feminine and masculine gender (and even sexuality itself) as something often destructive that is imposed by a power structure, in contrast to Cixous's rather more universalizing feminism that claims female sexuality as a repressed natural power potentially liberating for women. Unlike the proponents of L'ecriture feminine and others, Mnouchkine doesn't propose a "femimesis" to replace Platonic-Aristotelian mimesis, but through stage practice systematically revises its major assumptions. The idea of tragic catharsis remains, but it is not reached through the spectator's "identification" with the individual character as an uncovering of a hidden mirror reflecting back the secrets of the spectator's own interior psyche. Rather, as Mnouchkine explains, the actors plunge into the interior of the work and of their characters and then express every emotional state in the most exterior manner possible. In contrast to psychological naturalism which blends the actor's emotions together in a smooth causal "motivated" development, the Theatre du Soleil aims to represent one fully explored and exteriorized emotional state after another. The etats, as they are called, are as separate from each other as the mudras of classical Indian theatre, and present the spectator with the elements and the freedom to join them into a history.
For Les Atrides as for all other productions, the actors work closely with the musicians in creating a distinctive ecriture corporelle, in this case inspired by the Kathakali, yet unlike it in that a new corporal vocabulary is created for each play with Western audiences in mind - though elements are passed on from one production to the next. Mnouchkine has deeply explored the emotional athletism that Artaud could only invoke. In Odette Aslan's words, the Theatre du Soleil has evolved a mode of "recounting a history with the body, constantly addressing that narrative to the public, a way of speaking the text... that has nothing to do with the actor's ... simply playing a situation with a partner.... [The theatre has evolved] a mode of narrating founded on the body, a vocal expression wrested from the text to become a pure rhetoric. Body and voice are transposed, elevated in a gigantic effort of generosity."(22) Mnouchkine explains further:
[For] Les Atrides, except for Catherine Schaub who had learned it in India [and Franco-Indian Nirupama Nityanandan who had spent twenty years training as a Madras dancer], Kathakali is a source of inspiration but completely imaginary. It isn't the techniques that are important for us, but the demands of clarity, of form, of minutia of detail. In certain rehearsals, I sensed the bodies shaken, aggressed by the feelings that were unleashed; the dances, like chills or frictions, were liberating. We felt them like a vital, necessary element. Nietzsche perceived this very well intuitively.... The tragic characters are in anguish to their entrails, the chorus of Les Choephores [The Libation Bearers] is full of hatred and cries of vengeance. One must take the works head on and go to their depths. Push to the depths the interior feeling and the exterior form. Thus the emotion is born and the catharsis produces itself.(23)
Aslan and Mnouchkine explain, for example, that Simon Abkarian's tall stature and straight-backed posture was particularly effective for embodying, after the manner of the gods and heroes of Kathakali, an almost superhuman masculinity. He becomes even more imposing through the voluminous black costume, stylized beard and wig, and white face with red mouth and black eyeliner magnifying the slightest change of expression. With his body and face weighed down and encased in the signs of his powerful status, he seems not simply unwilling but unable to bend. Standing beside Agamemnon, Clyternnestra and especially Iphigenia look tiny and vulnerable, but far more mobile. Their makeup is also white with black and red lines, but more transparent, while their clothing is lighter in weight: Iphigenia as played by Nirupama Nityanandan looks like a fourteen-year-old in black knee pants and a white shirt, while Clytemnestra wears a matron's black dress. As Clytemnestra, Brazilian actor Juliana Carneiro da Cunha has the same white makeup and red lips but without the heavy eyeliner of the rest of the cast. She thus seems more fragile and exposed, inviting greater empathy. Everything about the mother and daughter emphasizes their vulnerability and naivete (qualities that will mark the feminine as powerless) in contrast to the unbending, massive quality of Agamemnon (which defines the masculine power). Clytemnestra will not wear a dress again, but matador-like trousers reminiscent of Iphigenia's. While masculinity is magnified, there are no magnified representations of femininity until the Furies appear at the end of The Euminides, but they are demonic and bestial rather than outsized.
The politics of gender and empire: Iphgenia at Aulis
With Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, Mnouchkine brings new historical evidence to an old crime case. The recovery and playing out of lphigenia's death, the murder of a virgin daughter by the sword of her father, becomes a historical mise en scene that will never go away. Whereas Aeschylus has the chorus in Agamemnon open the play with a narration that includes lphigenia's sacrifice, Euripides' play gives a different account of this event, opening the Oresteia to new readings. In Aeschylus Iphigenia is depicted as struggling against her sacrifice, while in Euripides she chooses to accept it. To use Butler's sense of the term, this creates a new mise en scene which in turn allows a proliferation of meanings that further undermine the trilogy's unequivocal idealistic interpretation as the victory of democratic law over blood revenge and civilization over barbarism. After Iphigenia at Aulis, where we witness Clytemnestra's trust shattered and her fight for her daughter's life defeated, she can no longer so easily embody the patriarchal fear of women's power. Stranded at Aulis with the whole Greek fleet which can't sail to attack Troy because the winds of Thrace have died, Agamemnon as commander hears from his priest that Artemis is angry: his "winged hounds" have killed a pregnant hare, and since she protects wild mothers and their young, she will restore the winds only if he sacrifices Iphigenia. He vacillates but finally is persuaded by his brother Menelaus; their reasons are political fears: looking unmanly and indecisive before the army and giving advantage to their rivals in Athens. Even Achilles is comically vain and not very bright, not his usual heroic self. Agamemnon has written for Iphigenia to come to Aulis to marry Achilles, and a pleased Clytemnestra soon arrives with her daughter and baby son Orestes to arrange the joyful celebration.
The first meeting of this family as played out in the corporal writing of the actors illuminates the interlocking politics of gender and empire. After entering on a gliding platform, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia am helped down by the chorus of excited young women who have traveled here to see the glorious Greek fleet. Simon Abkarian as Agamemnon enters and sits cross-legged on a low stool, spreading his voluminous black robes, facing forward as Iphigenia runs to him impulsively, dances around him and embraces him. Clytemnestra pauses from across the stage to greet him formally, then goes smiling to him to sit on the floor before him, taking one of his arms and putting it across her breast. Both are facing forward in an iconic family pose. In Agamemnon, she will go through We same ceremonious greeting, running to take her wifely position at his feet - but this time with a forced smile and at a faster, almost frantic pace. She places his hand across her breast as before but he soon takes it away. Standing up abruptly, he informs her that he has brought his mistress Cassandra to the palace, and sweeps his hand down past his genitals in a gesture of disdain. This "genital sweep" will be repeated later by other characters, including Clytemnestra and Cassandra, but with different meaning. These gestured states one after the other "write" the sign of gender as it intersects with social power.
In Iphigenia as Agamemnon's plan to sacrifice Iphigenia becomes known, both wife and daughter plead with him against it. Ironically, he argues that Iphigenia would die to save Greek women from barbarians:
There rages a passion in the Hellene host to sail with all speed to the barbarian land and to put an end to the rape of Hellene wives. They will kill my daughters in Argos, they will kill you, and me, if I break the gods' oracles ... It is Hellas for whom I must, whether I wish or not offer you as sacrifice ... We are Hellenes; we must not allow our women to be violated and carried off by barbarians. 
Agamemnon's decision unearths Clytemnestra's memory of the past, and she reveals the violent pre-history of their marriage: Agamemnon killed her first husband, raped her, and crushed her baby to death for fear he would grow up to avenge the father's murder. Clytemnestra's father then married her to Agamemnon against her will. (This same man was also father to the famous Helen, making her suitors pledge to defend the honor of her chosen husband, and when Paris abducted Helen, these men mobilized the entire army to defend a Greek husband's honor - in a war for which Helen was blamed.) Thus Clytemnestra connects past to present: men's acts have determined her history. In the production the mother and daughter crawl on their knees like children before the unbending figure of Agamemnon. But Iphigenia, hearing her mother's outrage at her father, unexpectedly decides to accept her death, the war, and all their spurious justifications:
The whole-might of Hellas depends on me ... Shall my single life be a hindrance to all this? ...It is not right that [Achilles] die for a woman's sake [hers]. One man is worthier to look upon the light than ten thousand women. If Artemis has willed to take my body, shall I, a mortal woman, thwart the goddess? ... I give my body to Hellas ... That will be my monument,... my children, my marriage ... It is natural for Hellenes to rule barbarians, and not, mother, for barbarians to rule Hellenes. They are a slave race, Hellenes are free. 
To this Achilles admiringly replies, "Noble were your words, and a credit to your fatherland," offering to marry her, now that it is too late. Clytemnestra gives way to grief but Iphigenia suddenly breaks away with a defiant cry to join the chorus in a frenzied, exultant dance, while Cunheiro da Cunha crawls on her knees to stop them, grasps at their flying feet and is nearly trampled. As the dance ends the chorus recedes along the walls, the great outer doors open and a platform-altar rolls in silently, its white drape fluttering gently as an ominous sign that the winds are beginning to stir. As Iphigenia walks towards the platform Clytemnestra rises to stop her, but is held back by Achilles who puts his hand over her mouth. She faints and falls backward, caught by two chorus women, as lphigenia stands on the white-draped platform and calls the single word "Pere!" All exit but the mother and daughter, with Clytemnestra left lying on her side on the floor in the peaceful pose of a sleeping child or an unarmed protester in front of a tank. High on the altar, Iphigenia also lies down as if to sleep, taking the same position as her mother but heading the opposite direction. The platform glides out into darkness as the gates close behind it. Clytemnestra lies in her sleeping position throughout the speech of the Messenger who narrates the scene of Iphigenia's death: how the girl expressed her love of her father and "the Greek fatherland," offered her throat to the sword "with courage, without a cry." All closed their eyes "meduses" (literally medusa-ed, figuratively turned to stone) as they heard the sword descend.(24) When they looked up again in the next moment the blood was spurting up from a wild deer's throat onto the altar of Artemis. Kneeling on the floor in a white robe and headdress spattered with blood, Georges Bigot as the Messenger delivers Agamemnon's news in a cold ringing voice: "I tell you what fortune he receives from the gods, and what imperishable glory he has won in Greece." A few lines later, on the words "This day has seen your child dead and alive," Clytemnestra finally opens her eyes. Agamemnon is rolled in standing proudly on a platform and orders her to return home and be joyful because lphigenia has had "commerce with the gods," then rolls away to war. As the great vehicle exits Clytemnestra is left alone on stage. The drums begin as the lights dim except for the flourescent "sun" above the tented ceiling, she begins to move slowly, the lights go dark, and the sound of vicious attacking dogs rises louder and louder and then blends into the audience's applause.
Thus the stage and actors are mobilized for a historical writing, a vocabulary of stage signs and relationships that will continue through the coming plays, mirrored and recast but with traces of the same, a construction/deconstruction/reconstruction of the forms this history has adapted. The two conflicting versions of lphigenia's sacrifice do not cancel out but proliferate its significance, which from the start cannot be confined to memorializing Agamemnon's glory and the rightness of the Greek war. Indeed these meanings intended to serve the patriarchal empire were already being undermined at the "original scene" of sacrifice, which no one dared to witness but only represented.
The casting of actors: gendered boundary markers.
The characters in the plays and the actors on stage defend, challenge, and progressively delineate the boundaries of the Athenian body politic as mise en scene. The actors' reappearance in more than one role emphasizes the functionality of the roles within the history being written. The materialist feminist distinction of gender as social construct and sex as biological is not quite sufficient here, because sexuality also involves a performance of power. Juliana Carneiro da Cunha first appears in Iphigenia at Aulis as a woman content and proud in her place as a king's wife and loving mother to their children. When this idyll is shattered she discards her subservience and confronts Agamemnon and the army to save her daughter; returns in Agamemnon as worldly, embittered ruler of Argos, sarcastic and defiant against patriarchal disapproval, her blood-spattered face at the end grimly and sensually satisfied as she stands over the corpses. She continues on this defiant course through The Libation Bearers, her "unnatural" power signified by her unlawful sexual pleasure with Aegisthus, alienated from Electra and the chorus of harpy-like slave women zealously loyal to the patriarchy; and appears twice more in The Eumenides, first as a ghost still in the bloody clothes in which she was murdered, and finally as the goddess Athena. The last role becomes an ironic sequel to all preceding it, and a symmetry becomes apparent with the obedient wife at one end and the divine mouthpiece of the patriarchy at the other: one woman, the exchanged, is passed through the system challenging and defining its positions and borders along the way. Likewise the roles of lphigenia, Cassandra, Electra, and finally a leader of the defeated Furies are played by Nirupama Nityanandan, underscoring their function as daughter roles within the patriarchy. The overall pattern that emerges for women is one of suffering betrayal, rape, sacrifice, infanticide, matricide, and separation from each other, with daughters repeating the experience of mothers. There is no escaping the story. The costumes of Clytemnestra and lphigenia reflect the performance of gender, and their attempts to perform against it: Clytemnestra first appears in a matron's dress in Iphigenia at Aulis while lphigenia wears matadorlike knee breeches. When Clytemnestra next appears in Agamemnon, she wears similar breeches, while Nityanandan as Cassandra wears a heavy Asian robe. This repetition with-variation suggests a flight not to "freedom of sexual identity" but from one constructed position to another, creating a sense of narrative displacement, of a history rolling past to expose a social landscape. Iphigenia's boylike costume ironically "fits" her decision to die like a male hero by the sword for "father and fatherland." After the death of Iphigenia, with similarly "masculine" decisiveness, Clytemnestra discards her feminine subservience and takes over the rule of Argos. Both women shift positions within, and challenge the limits of the gendered political system even as they reaffirm it. Likewise, Simon Abkarian plays the father, son, and military men - Agamemnon, Achilles, the Emissary, Achilles, Orestes, and even the drag role of Orestes' old nurse. As Orestes, Abkarian shows that his inherited role as champion of the patriarchy is difficult for him. This is clear when Abkarian hides behind his father's tomb, the same platform that carried his father to war and lphigenia to death. In a sense the platform too is the same "actor" in different clothes - its human (and sexual) quality is evoked by a tail of long black hair that hangs down over it (Orestes'? Electra's? Agamemnon's? The whole family has such hair) The chorus includes both men and women, but for the plays they all take on one male or female gender. Although their dances retain the same basic moves, signs of gender, age and class are added, emphasizing the "added on" quality of identity itself. To theatricalize this identity, each chorus adds certain gestures, carriages, and costumes. The positionality of their group identity is evident in the chess-like spatial patterns of the dancers, the red-black-gold "exotic" costumes worn by all, and by the false beards of the old men's chorus - who perform the dances dutifully but in somewhat stiff and lumbering fashion, collapsing on the floor in exhaustion after each is completed, especially the one led by Clytemnestra.
Women also deceive, betray, and murder, but unlike the men they never carry these off with success. They are what is trafficked in the exchange of power between men, and their flight or challenge is stopped by the limits of the system: Clytemnestra is passed from father to husband, dares while in power to take Aegisthus as a "woman," only to be murdered by her son; still resisting even as a ghost, she is finally stopped by Apollo and, in a more profound way, by Athena. Iphigenia is passed from her father to Hades, her choice being to trade children for the fame of patriotic sacrifice. Electra repudiates her "female half" and marriage but submits her life to her dead father and then to her brother: she thinks his hair is her own, walks in his footprints, and is in effect absorbed by him. Cassandra is forced to be Apollo's prophet and "birth" his visions, then captured and enslaved to Agamemnon. Yet there is a counter-discourse created by the movement of these characters within the power structure, a movement illuminated by the multiple casting.
Speaking through death
Nicole Loraux contends in Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman that the scenes of women being sacrificed are sites of unstable social meaning, because this death could be a way for them to speak, to condemn the patriarchy even as they submit to it.(25) In Gayatri Spivak's sense, Iphigenia is a subaltern who speaks through her manner of death, in the very act of being silenced. Although real women in ancient Greece were allowed no social definition outside of the household of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, in myth and tragedy they attain a certain subjecthood. To be sure, this subject is a fictional construct, yet historical agency for the character and the spectator is generated in their mises en scene. The discrepancy between Euripides' and Aeschylus' versions of the sacrifice opens the way for a counter-discourse. Through the old men of Argos Aeschylus tells a much more brutal tale than we have heard in Euripides:
Her prayers, and her cries of "Father," and her maiden life they set at nothing, those military umpires. Her father ordered his servants to lift her / carefully over the altar after the prayer, swooning, her clothes all round her, like a young goat, and with a gag on her beautiful lips to restrain the cry that would curse his house. Constrained to voicelessness by the violence of the bit, ... She stood out, like a figure in a picture, struggling to speak ... What happened after that I neither saw nor tell. [lines 230-245, Agamemnon. Emphasis mine.]
Because this narrative is told by men loyal to Agamemnon, it casts more doubt on the one in Euripides which the Messenger delivered at Agamemnon's command.(26) In Iphigenia at Aulis the Messenger delivers the following account:
Every man clearly heard the sound of the stroke, but no one saw where in the world the maiden vanished. The priest cried out and the whole army echoed his shout as they saw an amazing prodigy from some god, incredible even if they saw it. A deer was lying on the ground, gasping: she was very large and handsome to see, and the goddess' altar was thoroughly sprinkled with blood ... Calchas said with joy ..." Do you see this victim which the goddess has laid before her altar, this deer of the mountains? More acceptable than the maid by far she welcomes this offering, that she may not stain her altar with noble blood." [353, Iphigenia at Aulis. Emphasis mine]
Loraux explains that Iphigenia's sacrifice violated the law and would have shocked Athenians. In Aeschylus she is hoisted upside down "like a goat" while in Euripides she is replaced by a deer. It was not only illegal to sacrifice humans, but also an abomination to sacrifice a wild animal or any animal who fought back. Only a "willing" offer was proper (32). In either case, the manner of Iphigenia's death proclaims that a murder has been committed under the guise of sacrifice - the horror of a father's murdering his own daughter is repeated in Euripides by cutting the throat of a wild animal. For the men, the death means that a virgin's blood is exchanged for that of warriors. But another exchange also occurs: when Iphigenia is transformed into a deer "the savagery of the victim takes over from the savagery of the act.... When Artemis substitutes a mountain hind to die, untamed nature is now in the sacrifice" (35). The sacrifice is also a kind of reverse marriage and deflowerment by the father:
[S]acrifices in tragedy illuminate the ritual in marriage where the virgin passes from one ... guardian to another, from the father who "gives her away" to the bridegroom, who "leads her off." Hence the tragic irony of those funeral processions that ought to have been wedding processions.... They are weddings in reverse in that they lead toward a sacrificer, who is often the father, and ... toward the home of a bridegroom called Hades.... The sacrifice ... is ironic in that it resembles, all too closely, a marriage. [Loraux, 36-37]
Iphigenia seizes for herself a heroic death reserved only for men, yet in doing so also proclaims its savagery. In tragedy and real life, the proper death for Greek women was strangulation, poison, or hanging. Electra takes a sword to guard the palace while Clytemnestra is being slain, and stands ready to kill herself with it. Taking the prop of the male gender becomes a performative act. Orestes kills Clytemnestra with a sword in the text, but uses a long theatrical wooden dagger in the production, underlining the murder itself as a gender-sex performance. Cassandra is the subaltern subject par excellence: she manages to speak through her "barbarian" sounds and through her death to condemn her violators: As the visions from Apollo penetrate her, she screams out and, through the downward motion of her hand over her body in the "genital sweep," we witness a rape. Foreseeing her violent death, she throws her prophet's scepter to the ground and spins screaming with her white robe flying outward in a circle. Significantly, her costume is a white embroidered robe of Noh theatre, as befits her position of exotic foreign woman captured from the enemy land to the East.
Even though the chorus leader in Agamemnon describes Iphigenia's murder in brutal detail, the chorus refuses to credit this as Clytemnestra's reason for murdering Agamemnon. They ascribe her act to two paradoxical qualities: her masculine greed for power and her feminine sexual passion. They believe that
her usurpation of male rule will destroy Argos. A long tradition of critics has accepted the chorus's demonic, misogynist view of Clytemnestra, and judged the story of Iphigenia as an irrelevant excuse. For them as for the elders of Argos, her crime is not only murder but proclaiming her female sexuality openly during the act of impersonating the male. Significantly, the chorus scornfully calls Aegisthus a "woman" because he lets Clytemnestra take responsibility for the murders. The Greek audience would also have recognized scandalous dishonor in Agamemnon's murder itself: to be killed with a sword was a proper hero's death, but death at a woman's hands, even one who used a sword, signified social descent (Loraux, 10-11). In contrast to Aeschylus and the staging by Mnouchkine, iconic depictions of the myth show Aegisthus killing Agamemnon with a sword while Clytemnestra kills Cassandra with an ax, indicating an impulsive act and a domestic setting. In playing a role not assigned to women, Clytemnestra violates the patriarchal order of the state. Her murder of Agamemnon is the climax of her crime and brings her sexual enjoyment:
(Clytemnestra to the Chorus:) Now it's against me that you proclaim banishment but in the old days you brought nothing against that man, who ... had no care for the death of a lamb. He sacrificed his own daughter, dearest pain of my womb. to charm the contrariness of Thracian winds.... By the justice due to my child, and now perfected, by the Spirit of Destruction and the Fury, in whose honor I cut this man's throat.... There lies Agamemnon, this girl's [Cassandra's] seducer - he was the darling of all the women of Troy - and there she is, our prophet, prisoner of war, that shared his bed, a faithful whore that spoke her auguries for him .... He died as I said, and she has sung her swan song in death, and lies with him, her lover. But to me she has brought an additional side dish to my pleasure in bed. [lines 1413-1417 and 1431-1446, Agamemnon]
Her sexual enjoyment of the revenge is taken as proof of her demonism and far outweighs Iphigenia's death. The politics of gender and empire are ironically complicit in this act: in obtaining justice for Iphigenia's death, she punishes the Trojan Cassandra who is as innocent as her daughter. And whereas Iphigenia died to protect Greek women from being taken by Trojan men, here the Greek man has taken a Trojan woman.
The production of Les Atrides underscores in several ways the sad irony of Clytemnestra's murdering Cassandra: most important, Cassandra, Iphigenia, Electra, and a leader of the Furies are played by the same actress. In Agamemnon the chorus has just described the death of Iphigenia: how she struggled and tried to cling to the ground but was tied, hoisted up and held face down "like a goat," gagged and silenced, then her throat cut with a sword. Listening to this, Clytemnestra is doubled over, a signal gesture for pain that will be repeated by several characters. Just at this moment, Cassandra appears upstage at the outer gateway on a chariot-platform, and Clytemnestra hesitantly takes a few steps towards her as if she recognized her, but the chorus blocks her path and the moment is gone. Later the same platform is taken into what seems to be the palace grounds, and the two women have a moment alone. Clytemnestra tears down the red cloth behind which the girl is sitting with her back turned, unwilling to come out. Clytemnestra tries to speak to her, asks her to use sign language, and even climbs up on the platform with her, but finally gives up. Recognizing the actress, we sense that somehow it is Iphigenia, and that if she only turned around or spoke she and Clytemnestra would see it too.
Embodying the foreign
As characters, all these women are "foreign" in their personal histories, having been taken by force or lured by deception from their native cities. In having the women embody foreignness and then display silence or submission, the threat of the foreign is contained, at least momentarily. The chorus of young women in Iphigenia at Aulis are the first foreigners we see, and after their initial dance they remark excitedly on the "foreign women" Iphigenia and Clytemnestra whom they are eager to meet. The sisters Clytemnestra and Helen are foreign in their new cities, and Cassandra is captured by the Greeks from the "barbarian" Troy to the East and brought back to Argos. Cassandra is marked as the most oriental by her white robe from the Noh theatre, the only "authentic" Asian costume: she is a nexus where signs of empire, gender, class, and race intersect. Most tragic is the foreignness of women to each other; this is played out many times in the encounters between Clytemnestra and the daughter figures, first Cassandra and then Electra. Indeed, the women's failure to recognize each other is part of the whole avoidable history that feminism - and this production - tries to show us. In The Eumenides, the problem of foreignness is settled by divine decree: Athena forbids the Greeks to fight each other, but sanctions their communal hatred of others because (as the Furies now agree) this sort of hatred is good for the City. The trial scene officially celebrates the colonization of women, barbarian cultures, and all else that is a useful threat to the patriarchal Athenian city state.
In both Aeschylus and Euripides, we see a radical but productive split in the author's positions vis a vis women: as usual, women serve an anchoring and embodying role in structuring the socio-political ideology into the image of a male-dominated body politic. But both authors seem critical of militarism and war, and set Iphigenia's innocence against it. In Euripides, her selflessness and patriotism contrast sharply with the men's brutality in the name of saving civilization. Their specious argument that the sacrifice will save thousands of Greek women from the barbarians makes it plain that to the men who deal in military, political, and colonial power the world is a game board divided into territories, and women are dispensible objects who can be moved into any position - other or same, familiar or foreign - that suits their immediate quests for power.
Aeschylus has traditionally been thought less sympathetic than Euripides to Clytemnestra, though this picture may have been different if his play Iphigenia had not been lost. In any case, in Agamemnon the arrogant machismo of war leaders comes under bitter attack in the first speech of the chorus, and then in that of the exhausted Emissary who recounts the great losses (the lowly Emissary and the powerful Agamemnon and Achilles are all played by Simon Abkarian). The brutal murder of Iphigenia and the war's devastation of the lives of ordinary people are thus the immediate frame of reference through which Clytemnestra's own bitterness is presented. This context undercuts the chorus's later misogynist depiction of Clytemnestra as a power-hungry sexual demon usurping the role of a worthy husband and ruler.
Mnouchkine's production of The Eumenides strongly historicizes the text's depiction of the feminine Furies/Eumenides and by implication of women themselves as elemental irrational forces that must be tamed and submerged by rational male forces. Through the striking addition of contemporary costume elements, the Furies are exposed as a constructed embodiment of demonic femininity, a monstrous foreign other against which the patriarchal state defines itself. When the Furies finally appear, they are revealed as the "real" source of the sound of raging dogs we heard at the close of each of the preceding plays. The Furies chorus wear fierce dog-ape masks, snarl and move with an ape-like gait, and whereas in the preceding three plays the choruses were free to climb over, sit on, or stand behind the inner wall, to retreat to its recesses and go in and out of its entrances, the openings are now blocked by metal grates behind which the Furies are trapped. The quality of anachronistic pastiche in the costumes is suggested by critics' comparing of the Furies to creatures from 2001 Space Odyssey or Planet of the Apes.(27) The three leaders by contrast wear rags and tennis shoes and resemble Brechtian characters - or in the words of one critic, "Brechtian bag ladies,"(28) with Nirupama Nityanandan dressed like Mother Courage. As Clytemnestra's ghost, Carneiro da Cunha appears in a bloody Karate-like white shirt and pants, reappearing as Athena in the same costume minus the blood. Likewise, Apollo's white robe resembles the Messenger's in Iphigenia - except that the blood is now gone. The repetitions in costumes and multiple casting creates its own historicizing comment. Juliana Carneiro da Cunha soon returns as Athena to address Nirupama Nityananda, now a leader of the Furies. Through this counternarrative created by the discourses of casting and costume, and the anachronisms of the final scene, the unified image of the Greek cosmos is shattered, and along with it the discursive unity of the myth itself.
We recall that two of the preceding plays ended with a violent tableau of two mannequin corpses lying in sexual embrace on a bloody mattress. In this context, the voices of attacking dogs gave a sense of recurrent human brutality in which both sexes
participate. With all this preceding The Eumenides, it is difficult to believe our eyes when all the violence is attributed to the feminine elements gathered here, represented by Clytemnestra and the Furies. Textually, the winged hounds of Agamemnon are never quite forgotten even though the Furies are set up as the source of the violent sound. As increasingly contemporary embodiments of violent feminine forces they expose their semiotic function of grounding the patriarchal Greek state. Athena herself, recognizable as the same actor who played Clytemnestra, ironically stands on another white mattress, a clean one this time, as if it were a throne or pedestal. When the Furies finally accept their new role as guardians of the hearth, Athena gives them the honor of standing on it. The stage narrative of the mattresses culminates in this last play. We recall that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra managed only with difficulty to drag the mattress off by themselves, whereas Electra and Orestes had to be assisted by the chorus. At the end of The Eumenides, Clytemnestra stands alone onstage on her mattress, trembling arms outstretched, facing back towards the again-imprisoned Furies as if to restrain them. The gliding platforms of "inevitable fate" never reappear here at all.
This staging of the women's final defeat does not totally serve the patriarchy however, nor erase the threat it feels. The barring of the performance space by metal grates is only the final concretization of along historical process, the open admission of what the signs have told us all along: Greece is a militaristic patriarchal empire, and Athens a city state and an Idea whose borders must be policed. Athena, standing on her white mattress, notes that the site of the trial which will soon exonerate Orestes and disempower the Furies was also the spot where the Amazons fought against Theseus, legendary founder of Athens. Here where the iron gates stand was a city within the City.
Athena [to the assembled men of Athens, who are about to vote] ... For this is Ares' hill, place of the Amazons; here their tents stood when they came here campaigning in hatred against Theseus; here they built tower against tower, a new city against the City. [lines 684-687, The Eumenides, 159](29)
It is my task to render final judgment: this vote which I possess I will give on Orestes' side. For no mother had a part in my birth; I am entirely for the male, with all my heart, except in marriage; I am entirely my father's. I will never give precedence in honor to a woman who killed her man, the guardian of her house. [lines 733-740; 161-162] are still perceived. In the text the threat literally goes underground, as the Eumenides are escorted to their subterranean home by a crowd of Athenian women and girls, by association joining the Amazons. In the production, Clytemnestra lifts the bars and the Furies are "freed" temporarily to enter the arena, where they first rush towards the audience in their ape-like gait, screaming and gesturing from the edge of the stage, then gradually take a more human posture, as they engage in a dance that resembles those in the preceding plays. Then they are reimprisoned. Thus a kind of terrible peace is reached. The mise en scene is a body politic closing in as it becomes visible. In the production when Athena embraces the leader of the Furies who is about to be led away, it is one more ironic sealing of the women's defeat. However, since we know that these two actresses also played Clytemnestra and Iphigenia, the gestus of their closing embrace is a mise en scene with multiple meaning. The irony of both mother-daughter and goddess-demon trapped definitively in this system becomes even sharper. Yet at the same time the embrace also is very moving, because we have watched these two since they were a mother torn apart from her daughter in the first play, seen them pass by each other, each fighting her battle alone, needing and yet failing to recognize each other. Thus along with the bitter irony, there is a joy that they are reunited because this moment has been long in coming. (The stage image of ragged women embracing each other has recurred at the end of several of Mnouchkine's productions over the years, and has become a kind of signature.) The spectator's identification of the women's tie has become a performative act in itself, a counter-discourse to the master narrative that is inscribing defeat. As a whole, the mise en scene illuminates the violent theatrical scenario through which the City still inscribes itself as the dawn of democracy and the victory of civilization, law, and rationality over barbarism, revenge, and irrationality. Yet the text of Aeschylus in identifying the site of this inscription as the same site where the Amazons also fought, enables another story and space to be constructed, a kind of hidden city in the shadow of the patriarchal one.
The critical reception
Although the critical and public reception for Les Atrides was in general overwhelmingly positive (see the review in the October 1993 TJ), not surprisingly, the response to this as to other Mnouchkine productions frequently mirrors the very mindsets that the work tries to theatrically interrogate: apolitical universalism, obliviousness to colonialism, and a subtle or open bias towards women in power. The addition of Iphigenia at Aulis, the seemingly abrupt shift to modern times in The Eumenides, and the attention given to sexual politics in Les Atrides as a whole has caused divided reactions among the critics: some think that this has "distorted" the plays (from what norm is not stated).(30) Some think a feminist interpretation is long overdue; others see it pragmatically as "good theater and good feminism,"(31) and still others believe that the performance succeeds in spite of Mnouchkine's feminist outlook because good theatre overcomes feminist dogma.(32) Mnouchkine is impatient with anyone who infers from the staging an ahistorical, apolitical struggle between "man" on one side and "woman" on the other. In several interviews such as the one below for Theater Heute, she takes the historicizing stance of materialist feminism without naming it as such:
Eberhart Spreng: Agamemnon seemed to lean towards his right side in Iphigenia, as if leaning towards the rational: was this meant to indicate the battle between reason and feeling, and the battle of the sexes?
Ariane Mnouchkine: [reacts with amusement to the notion of the actor leaning to the right] ... The battle of the sexes was not a theme for me in rehearsal. Naturally it is an important motif in the plays. Most tragedy again and again reports murders of women. When one produces Iphigenia and the Oresteia, naturally one notices that in the first play a woman [Iphigenia] is murdered, in the second Agamemnon and Cassandra, in The Libation Bearers Clytemnestra, and in the Eumenides it is the absolute defeat of the Furies that is shown. With this one doesn't need to put a special emphasis on it. [Iphigenia] tells of the battle of a woman, Clytemnestra, for the life of her daughter, and against the greed for power, fame, dominance, and the leadership of an army.(33)
Spreng's linking of the "battle of the sexes" to the polarity of "reason versus passion" through the familiar equation of men with reason and women with passion is the kind of essentializing that Mnouchkine critiques. His formula draws from the same pathriarchal gender disclosure that has been used to naturalize historically contingent political and social relations from ancient Greece until today, and which the Les Arides tries - obviously not with total success - to illuminate by theatrical means.
Mnouchkine's adaptations of Asian and Indian theatre forms, her periodic return to Western classics, and her insistence that the mise en scene retain an imaginative distance and a fantastic theatricality have led some to accuse her of abandoning her political ideals in favor of an escapist, decorative, irresponsible, ultimately safe high-art theatre. A comparison of her work and its reception with that of Peter Brook is instructive on such questions. On the surface her work parallels his: he too has been on an "Orientalist" quest for over a decade (with Africa added to India and Asia). However, while critics often fault Mnouchkine with being an ideologue, Brook is perceived as non-ideological. Patrice Pavis, for instance, who offers a useful conceptualization of interculturalism in Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, views Mnouchkine's L'Indiade and Twelfth Night with obvious hostility as failed inter-culturalism, while he unconditionally praises Brook's adaptation of the Mahabharata as "charming" and universal. Of L'Indiade he writes: "All the formal theatre research has given way to a rather sterile exercise in imitation ... of historical figures and ethnic groups"; and of The Mahabharata: "For Brook, the actors are involved in ... almost a ritual search for authenticity ... they do not attempt to imitate the world [of India], but try to preserve the sacred quality of their performance". Striking also is Pavis's language which subtly colors Mnouchkine as a tyrant and Brook as a liberator: while Mnouchkine "delegates a member of the [Indian] lower classes ... to comment on the action," Brook "gave two French actors the roles of narrator and intermediary between myth and audience"(34) [my italics]. In describing this use of mediators between the "source culture" and the "target culture" in the two productions, Pavis overlooks the privileging, even unintentionally colonialist effect of Brook's using two white, French-speaking men as narrators while the other actors were nearly all people of color from non-western countries. This pattern was exactly repeated in the English-language production and in the subsequent film by placing two white British men in these same positions. Les Atrides has more in common with Brook's Marat/Sade than with the Mahabharata, because the first two expose to historical critique ideological constructs and power relations formative of our own society. Thus the difference between Brook and Mnouchkine at present is analogous to that between Barrault and Brecht in 1955: one approach wants to stage a universalizing, dehistoricized, "history of man" while the other disavows universality and tries to historicize "man on stage."
The playing out of historical power relations through embodiment and impersonation even went beyond the limits of the performance itself. The Theatre du Soleil's production toured internationally, appearing in the English mill town of Bradford, in New York, Berlin, and Montreal, each time in widely different physical spaces and environments.(35) Though, as stated, the overall critical response was very positive, whenever negative criticism did appear there was a distinct pattern discernible in many of the (male) critics' reports from the various sites of the tour: they tended to experience the staging, the performance area, the theatre building, and even the outside environment as a projected embodiment of the female person (or persona) of Ariane Mnouchkine herself. The most striking reviews were those that sensed in the whole event the displaced but ominous qualities of a controlling feminine (and foreign) ideologue, a "forbidding French intellectual,"(36) or even a "champion control freak" who forced the audience to endure "punishing bleacher seats" in an "airless" atmosphere on stage and in the auditorium.(37) Their reception of the performance seemed to involve being enveloped in a woman's presence that was diffused throughout the theatre space - at worst a hostile, foreign, militant atmosphere, and at best a cozy maternal one. The director herself is thus conflated with the theatre space - just as the chorus attributed the still air of Aulis and the oppressive atmosphere of Argos with the fact that a woman was in power. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?!
In summary, through the signs of a fantasized Asian theatre, Les Atrides sets a double Verfremdungeffekt into dialectical motion: in attempting to keep the text "as we know it" from dissolving into its new "Oriental" context, we can hear it with new clarity. At the same time, the interlocking sexual and empirial politics are brought to light through many nonverbal stage discourses, so that we can retrace the familiar Oresteia story as a playing out and legitimation of a set of power relations that we recognize all too well because they still exist today. Although the multi-racial cast and the Kathakali-inspired dances, costumes, make-up, and bodily language of gestus in Les Atrides do make the performance appear exotic, the East becomes a stage sign that is exposed as such, as a repertoire of images used to write a story in the space/time of a theatrical arena. Yet in being written the unity of the myth is not shored up but visibly disintegrates. Signs of the East share this arena with signs from the West, from Greek theatre to contemporary film. In its cumulative effect, the borrowing does not repeat the reduction of India or Asia to a colonized other, but illuminates this Orientalism as a borrowing of living traditions in order to retell and interrogate a founding story of the West. Wherever the colorful figures originated, and whatever their proportion of Eastern and Western ingredients, the abiding memory is that they unearthed themselves to walk up from the past, dance for us, and rewrite the old new story of the House of Atreus.
I am indebted to the Theatre du Soleil and to photographers Michele Laurent and Martine Frank for their permission to reprint these photos, and to Georges Baal for his help in obtaining them. Thanks to M. Carmel and the Centre National de Documentation Pedagogique. (1) Ariane Mnouchkine, interview with Eberhard Spreng, Theater Heute, Heft 6 (June 1991), 9. See also Peter von Becker in "Die Inszenierung: |Les Atrides,'" 1-10, in the same issue. All translations from German and French sources are mine, unless otherwise indicated. (2) Roland Barthes, "Comment representer l'Antique?" Theatre Aujourd'hui No. 1. La Tragedie Grecque. Les Atrides au Theatre du Soleil (Paris: CNDP, 1992), 48-51. Originally in Theatre Populaire, 1955, reprinted in Les Essais critiques, Editions de Seuil, 1964. (3) Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 4-5. See also Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965); Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1978); and Gayatri Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-313. Spivak is perhaps the preeminent post-colonialist, deconstructive feminist critic. (4) Barthes, 51. (5) Ariane Mnouchkine interview with Adrian Kiernander, in Kiernander, Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 142. (6) I am grateful to Mary Angiolillo for her invaluable help in supplying me with information and documentary materials, and to my colleague Robert Dahlstrom for sharing his insights and materials. For Les Eumenides I have relied on documentary material, slides, personal accounts, press reviews, and special publications, since I was not able to see the production in person. Brian Singleton's paper for the IFTR Helsinki conference, "Reading Les Atrides Intertextually: An Act of Productive Reception," and Georges Baal's information and paper, "Author les Atrides," have also been helpful sources. (7)Artaud's influential view of Balinese theatre as an exotic, opaque and thus universal language is opposed to that of Brecht who admired Chinese theatre because he thought it allowed an escape from the trance effect and universalizing of Western naturalism. Both Artaud and Brecht misunderstood what the Asian theatres meant to their own cultures and used them to imagine all that Western theatre was not. The reaction of critics to Les Atrides is also symptomatic of this split. An informative article on Western borrowing from Indian theatre is Rustom Bharucha's "A Collision of Cultures: Some Western Interpretations of the Indian Theatre," Asian Theatre Journal 1 (Spring 1984): 1-20. (8) Said, 2-3. (9) Said, 6-7. (10) On occasions in the past disaffected company members, critics, and others have severely criticized Mnouchkine for being authoritarian and thus betraying the company's collectivist ideals, to which Mnouchkine remarks that authoritarianism is never perceived as a fault in male directors. See Adrian Kiernander, Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil. Kiernander quotes Mnouchkine in a revealing remark: "A man who knows that he is double [part feminine] is a complete man. The men I work with have overcome the misogyny which permeates our society. They are, I would say, more civilized. The boys of the Soleil are very careful not to let themselves fall back into misogynist reflexes" (131). (11)Barthes, 51. (12)David Grene, "Introduction," The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Trans. David Grene and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (Chicago and London: U of Chicago Press, 1989),15. (13) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1980). Also see Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender (Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1987). (14) Judith Butler discusses the terms embodiment, impersonation, and gender performance in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). The term mise en scene is used in the essay "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," Theatre Journal 20 (Winter 1988). The term proliferation appeared in a lecture on the Mapplethorp/Helms debate at the University of Washington in April, 1992. (15) Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender (Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1987); and Alice Doesn't (Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1985). (16) V. P. Dhananjayan, A Dancer on Dance (Madras, India: Bharata Kalanjaali, 1991). Dhananjayan, head of a national dance institute at Madras, writes: "Kathakali is an indigenous ... dance drama from Kerala on the south west of India. Kerala, situated as it is on the coast of the Arabian Sea, claims ancient contact with countries like Egypt, Syria, Rome and Greece and to a certain extent, these contacts are reflected in the art, literature and society of that area. It is said that even Kathakali shows traces of the influence of other countries" (26). Of course, there is also the opposite possibility: that the Indian influence made its way to Greece as it did to Asia. (17) Iphigenia at Aulis, in Euripides. Ten Plays. Trans. Moses Hadas and John McLean (New York: Bantam Books, 1960), 354. (18) Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in The Oresteia. Trans. David Grene and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (Chicago and London: U of Chicago Press, 1989), 368. (19) Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 41-42. (20) Ariane Mnouchkine, Theater Heute, 7. (21) Nathalie Thomas, Theatre Aujourd'hui, 32. Thomas has designed for the Theatre du Soleil for six years, from the Shakespeares on. She also designed for Mnouchkine's film Molire and the production of Mephisto. (22) Odette Aslan," Au Theatre du Soleil les acteurs ecrivent avec leur corps," in LE COPS EN JEU, ed. Odette Aslan (Paris: C.N.R.S. Editions, 1993), 294. (23) Ariane Mnouchkine, "Ecorchement et Catharsis" (Flaying and Catharsis), in LE CORPS EN JEU, 296. (24) [The Messenger quotes Iphigenia during the account:] "... 'Sans cri, j'offrirai mon cou, avec courage.' Voila ce qu'elle a dit. Tous etait meduses en entendant." From the translation commissioned by Mnouchkine: Euripide, Iphigenie a Aulis. Trans. Jean and Mayotte Bollack (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1990), 91. For this article, I also consulted Mnouchkine's own translation of Aeschylus' L'Orestie. Agamemnon (Paris: Theatre du Soleil, 1990). Mnouchkine also translated Les Choepores. She and the Bollacks, the latter classics scholars, consulted the plays' earliest versions from the ninth century. These texts also contain very informative critical notes. (25) Nicole Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman. Trans. Anthony Forster (Cambridge and London: Harvard U Press, 1987), 10-11. (26) Some scholars point to evidence that in Euripides' original version Artemis spoke directly to Clytemnestra saying: "I shall put a homed deer into the Achaeans' dear hands, and they shall imagine, as they sacrifice it, that they are sacrificing your daughter." Iphigenia at Aulis, 354. (27) Linda Winter, in "The Splendid Pageantry of Greek Tragedy," New York Newsday. 6 October 1991, 11, compares the Furies to "goofy ghouls [who] seem a bit too much like something from Oz or "The Planet of the Apes." Frank Rich thinks they look like creatures from Kubrick's 2001 (see note 28 below). (28) See Jack Kroll, "Blood and Bones of Tragedy," Newsweek. 5 October 1992: "Mnouchkine turns the three chief Furies into bag ladies, dressed in tattered duds and sneakers." John Rockwell describes them as "three harpies straight from a Brechtian proletarian netherworld." ("Behind the Masks of a Moralist," 5. See note 27 below.) (29) The Eumenides, in The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Trans. David Grene and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (Chicago and London: U of Chicago Press, 1989), 159 and 161. (30) Benedict Nightingale, in "Epic Rewoven in Human Terms," Life and Times (London) 20 July 1992, reviews the Les Atrides production at Bradford, England, and writes: "When Simon Abkarian's Agamemnon trundles back from Troy like some pristine Nazi, his smug face just visible above the red drapery of his moving platform - well, what decent mother would not stick a spear into him? That is a distortion and causes some awkwardness in this all-French Oresteia (Italics mine). As Marvin Carlson notes, Nightingale is so influenced by being in Bradford, a mill town, that he uses terms such as "the original story has been lovingly reknit" by one of the world's great directors. (See note 35 below.) I would only add that Nightingale uses a distinctly maternal image. (31) The exact line is: "Her grief at the sacrifice of her daughter makes her murder of her husband more understandable. It's better theater and better feminism." John Rockwell, "Behind the Masks of a Moralist," New York Times. 27 September 1991. (32) Linda Winter, in "The Splendid Pageantry Greek Tragedy," New York Newsday. 6 October 1991, 11, writes: "This is not to suggest that Mnouchkine has reduced the works to anything as one dimensional as dogmatic sexual politics." (33) Ariane Mnouchkine, interview with Eberhard Spreng, Theater Heute, 10. (34) Patrice Pavis, Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). The generally useful concept of a "source culture" and a "target culture" is very difficult to apply to a performance like Les Atrides. First, there are at least two "source cultures," India and Greece (Assaph, C (8), 1992). More important, from a post-colonialist standpoint, these ostensibly neutral terms simply equal status of two cultures while the critic actually centers on his own "target culture" and marginalizes the other. What is called the target is the critic's source position. Because these terms are already polar, they cannot remain neutral. (35) My thanks to Marvin Carlson for sharing his documentary material on Les Atrides and for his useful essay "Accueil on the Road: Mnouchkine's Les Atrides in Context," which concerns the diverse reception of the work by critics reacting to the different physical and social environments at various cities where the production toured. (36) John Rockwell, in "Behind the Masks of a Moralist," New York Times, 27 Sept. 1992, writes: "She combines the images of a ... nurturing mother and forbidding French intellectual." (37) Frank Rich, "Taking the Stage to Some of Its Extremes, The New York Times. 6 October 1992, B1 and B4. Rich has a marked tendency to project hostility towards Mnouchkine as a woman director onto the theatre environment and vice versa: he calls her a "champion control freak" and remarks on the "strict rules to be obeyed" and the "punishing bleacher seats," and the "militaristic atmosphere" of the theatre "which even extends to the director's choices of venue, whether an armory in Brooklyn or a former munitions factory outside Paris - it is easy to imagine the chilling authenticity she will bring to [her next project.]" He seems misinformed on almost everything concerning the Theatre du Soleil's home venue in Paris.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 1994|
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