Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Revisiting a Murder

This past weekend I attended a reading of Aeschylus's Agamemnon. You remember Agamemnon, don't you? Couldn't sail to Troy without sacrificing his daughter Iphegenia so the gods would provide wind. Came back victorious after 20 years, with the prophet Cassandra as his war prize, only to be stabbed in his bath by his wife, Clytemnestra, who'd had 20 years to brood about Iphegenia and plot against Agamemnon with her lover, Aegisthus, who had his own good reasons to lie in wait for Agamemnon's return.

Yeah, that Agamemnon.

I'd read it a number of times over the years, but had never seen it performed. This was a semi-performance, with no set, minimal costuming, and scripts in the actors' hands. But it was really, really good.

I'd forgotten a lot about it. For one thing, it's extremely talky. Lots of exposition at the outset, NOTHING happening, then it kind of blows up at the end.

Even so, all the action occurs off-stage. We just get to hear Clytemnestra gloat about how she stabbed the defenseless Agamemnon and the blood gushed out everywhere. Whether he deserved it is somewhat open to debate.

For another thing, the chorus (supposedly ordinary citizens of the kingdom) is really, really slow on the uptake. They spend a lot of time refusing to believe what's going on, even though by the time things start happening, we ALL know the story.

Here's a greatly reduced sample of how it goes:

Clytemnestra: I'm going to go into the palace and stab the murderer of my daughter, and his little slave girl, too. (Goes inside.)

Chorus: Gee, what could be happening in there? We hope it's nothing bad.

Clytemnestra (returning, covered in blood): Okay, that's done! They got what they deserved, both of them, and I enjoyed it.

Also, people haven't changed very much. The watchman who has the first speech is good and tired of waiting to see the signal fires that mean Agamemnon is arriving home at last. He just can't wait to get off work, you know?

At this production, they did a wonderful job with the minimal costuming. All wore black, and then after the murder, Clytemnestra appeared in a startlingly red dress. But even when she was wearing black, she wore garnet earrings and a garnet necklace, so the whole time she was lying about what a faithful wife she's been for 20 years, the theater lights were making little flashes of blood red around her face. It was a stroke of genius to create that.

Somehow they brought out very clearly the contrast between the women: the princess Cassandra, now enslaved, whose curse is to speak the truth in prophecy, but never to be believed, and the queen Clytemnestra, who lies and plots but is always believed. At the end, Cassandra goes to her death knowing full well what awaits her inside the palace. Afterwards, Clytemnestra speaks, in triumph, about how she and her lover will continue to rule benevolently over a peaceful, prosperous kingdom. She thinks she's telling the truth, that good times are at hand.

Of course, we know better. Revenge requires revenge, and Clytemnestra's son Orestes will come home to repay his father's murder.

That's the next one.

1 comment:

  1. That would have been worth seeing....and we think the soaps are dramatic, no?


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