By Vicki J. Yiannias
Fashions change. Hip-hop can reign, starvation can be performance art and tattoos can define today’s man, but the profound poetry of ancient Greek drama cannot be supplanted. The recent production of “Agamemnon” by the Aquila Theatre Company, starring Olympia Dukakis as Clytemnestra, can be considered to have been equally relevant to its contemporary New York audience as it was when first performed before the citizens of Athens.
The original play, which is the first in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, was played by male actors to an all-male audience, and Clytemnestra was the ruthless adulteress who repays her husband, King Agamemnon in kind for having sacrificed their young daughter, Iphigenia, in his push toward victory in war, but Ms. Dukakis’s Clytemnestra had good intentions, and her husband, Agamemnon, played by Dukakis’s real-life husband, actor Louis Zorich, was not a heartless father.
Olympia Dukakis and the classicist Mr. Peter Meinicke, a translator of the play and artistic director of “Agamemnon” answered a wide range of questions about their production at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture on February 25.
Meinecke told the audience that from the beginning, he wanted his Clytemnestra, “an incredibly powerful, strong woman that destroys the strongest man…Agamemnon, the greatest warrior,” to be played by the prolific Ms. Dukakis, winner of an Academy Award for her performance as Rose Castorini, Cher’s Italian-American mother, in the 1988 movie Moonstruck.
But Ms. Dukakis was initially reluctant to play Clytemnestra, telling Meinecke that she was “not going to play that role” because of her disagreement with what she considers to be the play’s double standard, which is that it was acceptable that Clytemnestra be murdered by her children, but unacceptable that Clytemnestra had murdered Agamemnon. Dukakis found that Meinecke was of like mind concerning the motives and personality of Clytemnestra’s complex character, however. “She was justified,” said Meinecke. “I always felt that Clytemnestra was right. And wrong….but I always thought that she had a right on her side. And for that matter, so was Agamemnon. They were both right…and wrong. I find both Clytemnestra and Agamemnon to be sympathetic characters.”
The original title of this archetypal story of murder and revenge (the play is thought to have been named “Agamemnon only in the 15th century), said Meinecke, might well have been “Clytemnestra”, because he feels that the work is really about her.
Meinicke, who had served in the military in England, was fascinated to find while studying the Classics in England, that Aeschylus, “one of the greatest playwrights of all time – and who wrote the Oresteia at the age of 68 (Aeschylus himself played Clytemnestra on stage) – chose to be remembered as a great soldier, as is evidenced by the epitaph on his gravestone stating that he fought at Marathon and vanquished “the long-haired Mede.”
Stating his great affinity for Aeschylus, Meinecke said “he had fought in a war, and knew the costs of war… what was necessary and what was not necessary.” He went on to say that Aeschylus left Athens under some unknown circumstance during the civil strife in Athens and went to Sicily, where he died, and where there was a cult to him.
Meinecke began translating the Oresteia, for which he has a great love, ten years ago (his translation was published in 1998). “We realized when we were working on the drama that it is not just about the glory of Zeus, and the patriarchy, and the democracy. There’s something else going on here that’s fascinating, something that Aeschylus tapped into that was frightening, and difficult, and uncompromising, and so we decided that we wanted to do a production that would tackle these frightening and uncompromising events.
It was decided that the actors would not perform wearing masks, not to make it amusing, like a quasi-comedy, and not to deconstruct or adapt it in order to make it work. “I’m really proud that we did it,” he said of the play, in which contemporary clothes, rather than clothes of the ancient period and a jeep, instead of a chariot, carried Agamemnon back to his palace in Argos. “We really presented some truths. We came a long way, even more than I thought we would actually, into unleashing the power of this play.”
Both Meinecke and Dukakis were emphatic on the topic of the “danger” of presenting a play like “Agamemnon” to an American audience, not only because it is about relationships men and women, said Meinecke, “but primarily because it is about a strong woman, which is still a sensitive subject today.” Drawing a big laugh from the audience Ms. Dukakis echoed, “They still don’t want to know that that’s really a part of the play.”
Meinecke went on to say “It has been an interesting journey just trying to figure out what this woman was about, because people have strange ideas about ancient drama; they still don’t want to hear a feminine voice from the ancient world. It has been so successfully stifled that now when you put it on stage it frightens the hell out of them.” One magazine however, said that it was the play to see just to hear Olympia Dukakis say, ‘Take me on!’, to the chorus.”
It is interesting, said Meinecke, that Clytemnestra “doesn’t just kill Agamemnon. She takes over…for seven years. My analogy is,” he said to the great amusement of the audience, ”let’s assume that you hadn’t read the newspapers for seven years, and suddenly you read that Laura Bush had killed George. That she had not only killed him, but taken over and runs the country…that’s pretty scary.”
Meinecke’s primary concern while translating is to retain and convey what he believes to be the playwright’s objectives. One example of this adherence to the objectives of religion is his substitution of “God”, for Zeus, “Angel of God” for Apollo, and “Angel of Death” for Artemis, in “Agamemnon”. “The names of the Greek gods when heard in a play don’t mean anything to the contemporary audience, or they mean something academic, and comfortable, nice, and classical and distant. But when you say ‘Surely, this must be the plan of God,’ instead of the plan of Zeus, we all know what we’re talking about. When the Greeks heard the name of Zeus on stage — Zeus was never portrayed by a character in a play — the idea that the chorus were questioning the power of Zeus, and that Clytemnestra had performed an act [the murder] and justified it to the point where their belief in Zeus was crumbling, was amazingly powerful on stage. I wanted to convey to an audience, who knew nothing about ancient drama, that this play is shaking the foundations of religion; that everything you believe is being attacked.”
Importantly, Meinecke informed the audience that in this play, the gods are not manipulating the characters as if they are chess pieces. “Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are twisting religion to their purposes, and confusing the chorus.
“It’s amazing to me how many times the word ‘justice’ is used in the play, Ms. Dukakis said, “When Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s lover) comes on at the end, he says it at least six times in his speech. Everybody’s view of justice, and who is supporting their justice, who is supporting their view of how life should be, is, of course, their reference to ‘God’, and it seems to me that that idea is so prevalent now, for us, here in this country — as well other countries in the world…but that idea was well served by Peter’s insisting that the names Apollo, or Artemis not be used. I felt like that connection between their lives and our lives…the politicizing of law, the politicizing of religion that is so prevalent today, the Greeks were preoccupied with it too…it is something that plagues our species.”