Remember the good old days, when the standard lust affair was followed up with some old-fashioned cannibalism, human sacrifice and matricide?
Welcome to the House of Atreus, presently relocated at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, where one can taste justice à la Aeschylus by taking a refreshing dip in a bottomless ancient Greek bloodbath, then watch its revoltingly grim grip reach beyond to more modern, more insidious theatrical progeny. It’s the best of the worst in human shortcomings, with justice swaying anywhere from eye-for-an-eye to a fallen city for a fallen woman. And if you plan it right, you can start with the crowd-pleasing monstrosity that started it all.
Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia — a trilogy of tragedy from ancient Greece — uncoils a poetry of horror (presented in an easy-for-modern-ears-to-digest translation by Ted Hughes). The curse began when Atreus, king of Argos, caught his wife in bed with his brother, Thyestes, and repaid the betrayal by serving Thyestes a feast of his own sons’ flesh. Atreus’ son, Agamemnon, is now king of Argos, returning from a victorious war caused by another wayward woman, “Helen — not so much a name as an Earthquake.” In his long absence, Thyestes’ son, Aegisthus, has taken Agamemnon’s place in Queen Clytemnestra’s bed, and doesn’t plan to stop there. A veil of doom covers the city, even in the face of the long-awaited victory over Troy, because we all know what’s coming.
The play is a mourning over fate, framed and lamented by Cassandra, the captured concubine of Agamemnon. Under a sheer white cloak, she thrashes and moans her prophesies like a wound seething sex and death. She’s our direct messenger, an undulating backbone alive and lifeless at the same time — for all she sees is death. As a living crystal ball, with the past, present and future trapped within her, she sees the seeds of the curse alive in the walls of the palace. Like watching a train headed for a stalled school bus, we’re powerless against this curse of revenge, this primitive justice.
The playwright Aeschylus leaves no room for confusion as to what we’re meant to be feeling. This is a tragedy at all times, in all ways. There’s no other way to look at it — or is there?
The Oresteia is propelled by gods and fate with double-edged swords, forcing humans into impossible positions. It’s a catch-22 world chasing its own furious tail, because forgiveness and compassion haven’t made their way onto the stage yet. Cut to Jean Giraudoux’s world, about 2,500 years later, and see Aeschylus’ House of Atreus become a tragic underpainting for a modern, expressionistic spectacle, Electra, which combines elements of the two remaining plays in the Oresteia, The Libation Bearers and The Furies.
When Giraudoux wrote his play in 1937, the Nazi scourge was about to explode and swallow Europe. Like the people of Argos, France felt an impending threat. Cursed at birth, Electra and her banished brother, Orestes, (the children of Clytemnestra and the murdered Agamemnon) are faced with the task of avenging their father. Although the list of corpses stays the same as in The Libation Bearers, the reasonings and wrappings — not to mention a slew of new characters to spice up the tale — take a drastic turn.
As if a 180-degree retort to the serious gravity of its origin, Electra spills out at you in a potpourri of nonsense, mixed with fears, truths and riddles in language, and injected with Loony Toons energy and an absurdist sense of humor. The Eumenides, or Furies (originally portrayed as grotesque, harpie-like beings that torment Orestes), take the form of three mean little girls with matching Louise Brooks bobs and poofy black-and-white baby-doll dresses. They look and speak as if exiled from Alice in Wonderland for evil giggles and malicious senses of humor gained by biting the wrong end of the mushroom. If there’s anything bad to be said, they say it.
Electra’s characters speak in arguments and strands of logic that undermine themselves — such as, if a beggar looks too much like a beggar, he must be a god. As a whole, the play works like a court jester, wielding a Niagara Falls of colorful words and metaphors, always with an element of entertainment, always by the king’s side to keep the laughs coming, but at the same time able to say what others cannot, because it’s the clown’s privilege to play with ugly realities and not suffer repercussions.
Like a jester, Giraudoux was also close to a head of state. Since 1929, he had been the French government’s director of information and held similar positions under the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime. Considering his duplicitous position in those times of political turmoil, it’s no surprise that, in his version of Electra, happiness and justice are murky ventures that change paths with each character’s perspective. And his Electra is no longer a mere tool of revenge for the curse, but a representation of the truth and the danger of “total destruction” it represents for the people of Argos, who can only live in peace if the truth stays buried.
Just as the Oresteia is a foundation for Electra, The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre continues to use pieces of each while reacting to both. Electra’s Argives wear pleasant masks to cover over the crimes of the past, but in The Flies, the citizens of Argos revel in their guilt. Perhaps Sartre chose the Oresteia because his existential mind was triggered by the weak public in Agamemnon, portrayed as meek sheep who knew very well what the Queen was up to but allowed the slaughter to unfold.
Sartre wrote his text in 1943, after the Germans were already occupying France, but by cloaking the play in the guise of a reinterpretation of classic Greek theater, he was able to express his views and get them past the censors. In The Flies, an oppressed France suffers under the goose-stepping heel of the German occupation (represented by Aegisthus) and the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshal Pétain (represented by Clytemnestra). And any sense of the humor found in Electra has disappeared.
Sartre’s Argives let the ghosts of past wrongs tie their tongues and hands. They live in fear of the dead, which king Aegisthus lets loose upon the town one day a year in a manufactured horrific holiday, to haunt, hound and continually oppress the citizens with their own culpability. And the gods plague them with the flies, Sartre’s version of the Furies. In Stratford’s production, the flies are represented as gas-masked figures that twist their hands back and forth in a menacing slow motion that never lets you forget they’re there.
Freedom is a burden, and the burden of Sartre’s freedom of thought within an oppressed state turns into a buzzing metaphor, the swarm of flies clouding Argos. Aegisthus has fallen victim to the image of himself that he has created for his subjects. Electra yearns for her brother Orestes to avenge their father then take his rightful place on the throne. But Orestes is a cultivated young man with no thirst for blood, living without memories and searching for a home. Unlike the citizens of Argos, he is “as free as air,” though discontented.
At the end of the original ancient trilogy, the Furies chase Orestes all the way to the goddess Athena’s side, because they thirst for justice for his act of matricide. But Apollo drove Orestes to seek justice for Agamemnon’s death and to murder his mother. The goddess Athena, never actually having had a mother, sides with Orestes, then calms the Furies with some ego-pampering, ending the trilogy with a general sense of relief. Like taping a Band-Aid in the shape of a smile over a festering wound, Aeschylus halts the curse’s bloody torrent with a tidy and ultimately disappointing wrap-up for people living in untidy times.
In Sartre’s philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness, published the same year as The Flies, he professes that human consciousness is not bound by natural law and, likewise, Orestes isn’t bound by the law of the land. He still murders Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, but does so freely, choosing to take on the gas-masked flies (or sins) of Argos in an act of self-sacrifice. In the end, there is freedom in isolation and alienation, and in Orestes’ case, freedom takes the form of a perpetual fury-ridden hell.
Watching the plays in the order in which they were written is like witnessing justice evolve onstage from its primal and passionate bloodthirsty beginnings to a more complicated and ever-changing spectacle that corresponds more closely to today’s karma-savvy atmosphere. Major cast members remain the same from play to play, to help you pull one production into another and morph personality to epiphany, at least in Orestes’ case.
After you’ve conquered the House of Atreus, give yourself at least one more hellish treat and catch Sartre’s No Exit, the perfect topping to a full plate of abhorrent, vengeful lives.
What is hell like? In Sartre’s play, it’s a room with three people. Each has their own gaudy piece of furniture to sit on and each is custom-made to pierce the fears of the other. There are no mirrors in this hell. Estelle, Vincent and Inez only see themselves through each other, and their interweaving, unsavory agendas become an invisible prison in which we find that each of them more than deserves their cushioned seat.
Across a small space of carpet, Inez (Chick Reid) sizzles and spits her sharp words like a typewriter punctuated by her heels. Vincent (Stephen Ouimette) drags his torso and damned soul, fruitlessly appealing for a loyalty pact between the three for peace of mind. And Estelle (Claire Jullien) sashays in her blue taffeta dress and killer blond mane as if she were seducing the devil himself, but their numbers are up for eternity.
With the production’s ’40s garb and silver screen-flavored personalities, it’s as if Stratford is staging a real-life film noir with no way out for the evil-eyed fears and diabolical whims of those onstage. It’s hell for them, but a damned fine production for us still waiting to be judged — and only the gods know where each of us stands in the eyes of justice.
At the Stratford Festival of Canada 2003, Agamemnon by Aeschylus plays through Aug. 29, Electra by Jean Giraudoux through Aug. 30 and The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre through Aug. 30 — all at the Studio Theatre. Sartre’s No Exit plays through Aug. 29 at the Tom Patterson Theatre. For tickets call 800-567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.Anita Schmaltz writes about theater and performance for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org