Wednesday, August 10, 2022

An Oresteia without Aeschylus

Last night, I saw Robert Icke's original drama Oresteia, a Euripidian meditation on the Iphigenia myth that also includes the story of her brother.

You might be thinking, "Wait, didn't Aeschylus write Oresteia? Isn't it about... you know... Orestes...? Hence the title? What does this play have to do with Euripides and Iphigenia?

The answer is everything. Icke's mis-named four-act drama, which does have some passing resemblances to Aeschylus's trilogy, begins with what is essentially an adaptation of the Euripides play Iphigenia in Aulis. This is the longest act in the play. (Or at least it felt like it.)

What's wrong with adding yet a fourth play onto the cycle Aeschylus wrote (other than that it makes the performance four hours long)? After all, Greek tragedies were originally performed as a tetralogy, with three tragedies followed by a satyr play? (Sadly, we don't have the satyr play that originally accompanied the three tragedies in Aeschylus's Oresteia.)

Nothing's wrong with it, I suppose (other than the disturbing tonal shifts it creates and the before-mentioned four-hour-long running time), but it's not what Aeschylus would have done, or indeed any other Greek dramatist, for that matter. As Aristotle wrote, the ancient Athenians believed that tragedy was the imitation of an action, not a recital of an epic tale. (That was kept for epic poetry.)

Aristotle observed in his Poetics that playwrights "who have dramatized the whole story of the Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions... either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the stage." Aeschylus's Oresteia (including its lost satyr play Proteus) tells only the story of what happened in the aftermath of the Fall of Troy. By including the the story of Iphigenia, Icke expands the play to include events that happened even before the fighting at Troy began.

Perhaps the thinking was to include the things that ultimately caused the events in the Oresteia, but Aeschylus makes it clear that ultimate causes extend back generations. If one is to include Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis, why not also include Seneca's play Thyestes, since it tells the story of how the troubles of the House of Atreus actually started? Well, never mind. Icke includes an adaptation of Euripides before sending the audience off on a 15-minute intermission.

The play's second act roughly recounts the events of Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus's cycle. Occasionally, Icke includes some sly allusions to passages Aeschylus wrote, such as Klytemnestra discussing global communications in a manner reminiscent of that character's speech about signal fires in Aeschylus. What this play lacks, however, is a chorus, though perhaps the reporters are supposed to be stand-ins for the chorus.

After Aeschylus, the role of the chorus declined, and many of the plays of Euripides can easily be portrayed with no chorus at all. The elimination of the chorus makes this play feel more modern, as Euripides tends to be in general. Icke's third act (performed after a second intermission of ten minutes) sometimes mirrors the Libation Bearers of Aeschylus, but in spirit, it feels closer to the cynical Electra of Euripides.

A third five-minute intermission in Icke's drama is followed by a trial scene somewhat similar to that of The Eumenides by Aeschylus. Icke also takes advantage of some logical inconsistencies in Libation Bearers to create an interesting plot twist that does not exist in Greek mythology. The result is somewhat interesting, but why call this play Oresteia and why list Aeschylus as the playwright?

Had this original drama not claimed to be by Aeschylus, I probably wouldn't have seen it, and therein might lie the answer. If you want to see original plays that actually claim to be original, you might instead want to go to the Secret Theatre in Queens this Saturday, August 13th for the semifinals of their one-act festival.

My play My Fellow Americans made it to the semifinals, so you'll be able to see it on Saturday if you missed it earlier in the run. For more information, watch this space!