STAGING IN GREEK TRAGEDY
© Emer Higgins 2000
"How much is known about the original staging of Aeschylus' Agamemnon?
What contribution would the staging have made to the overall effect of the
To judge from existing sources, the ancient world had little interest in
documenting the activities that took place during the threatre festivals
of the 5th Century BC. However, we can know much about the original playwrights
intention (and hence about the original staging) from the many of the text
hints given within the plays themselves. But, before we broach the idea of
staging in a Greek play like Aeschylus' Agamemnon, it is important to consider
the mechanics of physical space in the Greek theatre, and to give an outline
of the relevant elements in staging, as it is found to permeate the texts
in hints and stage directions.
The extant Theatres of Delphi, Dionysos, and Epidaurus
(the later the best preserved of the three) are well known examples of the
type of theatre in the round that was used in Greek tragedy. These particular
sites held a maximum audience of approx. 7,000, 15,000, and 12,000 respectively
and seated the spectators nearly three-quarters of the way around the main
areas of the Stage and Orchestra. How plays were supposed to be performed
effectively to such a large audience is a good question. One obvious problem
in this style of theatre is the manner in which sound and vision diminished
the farther away the audience sat from the action on stage. One theory is
that drama was more of a 'spectator sport' than anything else, and captured
audience attention by focusing on visual gambols (e.g. the 'deus ex machina').
While this is true in the sense that Greek tragedy incorporated more visuals
-such as song and dance, than does our drama (perhaps confined by its 'empty
space'), this leads interpretation away from the complexity of the texts
and away from the aural/oral tradition which lies its roots (1) . Plays which
survive from Greek tragedy are complex in their ideas, in their language
and their plot, -such was the expectation of the first Athenians who witnessed
them. But realistically, did the dynamics of such a large audience work?
Or did the actors employ a specific means of voice projection e.g. masks
amplifying the voice via a mouth-piece?
One thing about the Greek Stage is that it had limits
on the way a dramatist could present the action. There were certain rules
that had to be followed. For example, the Chorus, a group of 12-15 Athenian
citizens chosen to take part, had to remain in full view of the audience
in the orchestra area for the whole show. They were not allowed to follow
the actors 'backstage’ and behind the doors of the 'skene' (scene) area,
which was built of wood at the top of the stage. Aeschylus in his play Agamemnon
manipulates this limitation creatively by using it to suggest a spiritual
or psychological boundary existing both within and outside of the Atreidai
Palace doors, -a visual translation of the doors into the skene area of the
stage. Therefore Cassandra, before she meets a fate similar to Agamemnon's,
addresses the doors into the house as "the Gates of Death" (2). These ‘Gates
of Death’ are the doors through which the actors exit.
The staging not only had to accommodate itself to this
physical space in the theatre but also to the structure of the texts as plays.
No more than two actors existed in Aeschylean tragedy; the idea of a third
actor is attributed to Sophocles (3). Having two actors limited the
kind of action you can have, and you will find characters speaking to one
another on a 'one-on-one' basis, excluding the Chorus that is. The interplay
between characters -though it may be metaphysically or ideologically many-leveled
is at its most ‘dialogic’ by way of the action. We are now moving towards
discussing textual structure. This is paralleled by the speech of the actors
either in dialogue (usually stichomythia) or a rhesis (long speech). The
arrangement of the Chorus’ lines, expressed through a lyric meter in the
form of strophe and anti-strophe is a typical form of technique singular
to Greek tragedy and derives from the genre's origins in Lyric Poetry, but
also in the enactment of religious rites associated with Dionysos. Again,
the playwright had to find imaginative ways of suggesting dramatic tension
within constraints such as the afore mentioned speech of the chorus.. In
Agamemnon Aeschylus does this by staging the male chorus with the image of
a 'powerless witness-body' in mind. They are old, un-allowed to go inside
the Palace or view -albeit they hear through Cassandra's words- the action
going on inside until it is nearly too late. Even then, when they hear Agamemnon's
death-cry and realize the regicide taking place, they are powerless to do
anything about it; "Chorus: Right with you, do something -now or never!…Yes,
we're wasting time…Confusion on all sides -one thing to do. See how it stands
with Agamemnon, once and for all we'll see-" [italics my own] (4).
The limited function of the chorus in Greek tragedy and the fact that they
can’t move beyond the orchestra area is manipulated to suggest the powerlessness
of a body-politic when it comes to matters of the hearth. This hearth or
domus, in this case is the royal house of the Atreidai (5).
The physical layout of the theatron and the structure
and content of a Greek play can tell us a lot about the action of a performance,
what also tell us about how a play was to be performed are the objects, tokens
and symbols mentioned within the texts, -stage properties and literary devices
that are imbued with greater meaning when given a physicality on stage. And
there are vital images which occur: the doors to the Palace –used as symbols
on many levels, or the images of blood and clothing that are embodied by
the red-purple carpet Clytaemnestra uses to lure her husband to his death.
A vivid metaphor is the physical presence of Cassandra mute on stage in her
eye-catching regalia as Priestess of Apollo. Even the Chariot which Agamemnon
steps down from so he can stand again on the land of his ancestors, his home,
is imbued with a deep significance whose full pathos is brought to light
only when staged. To further explain say, the purple-red carpet, let’s look
to the first exchange between Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon (lines 898-965)
and the subtle meaning in 'rolling out the red carpet' for Agamemnon's long
awaited return; Clytaemnestra (l. 901) : Quickly. Let the red stream flow
and bear him home!" -visually we can imagine the women rolling out a woven
carpet (6) across the floor of the stage whose end could only lie at
the entrance into the Palace, -in reality the skene doors. The carpet is
symbolic in several ways; it is the blood-spilt battle ground upon which
Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon wage war with each other (7) but it is
also the bloody piece of meat that Clytaemnestra uses as bait to lure Agamemnon
into her lair (the domus). This bait is ironically Agamemnon's hubris, his
pride and the pride of man, which his wife uses against him and which serves
to illuminate the true poetic justice of the huntress Artemis (also Goddess
of Childbirth) against one who was impious. It is the moment in the play
where all the ironies and parallels between blood ties and marriage bonds
are juxtaposed and where the price paid for committing a crime against the
laws of Nature or against the laws of Zeus is greatly highlighted (8).
Cassandra's mesmerizing presence on stage for nearly 130
lines before speaking a word practically makes her a visual object in her
own right and reflects importantly how Aeshylus wanted the character to be
staged and then interpreted by the spectators. Action-wise, perhaps the most
climatic (and the darkest) part of the play occurs when in desperation the
booty-prize of Agamemnon casts her religious attire to the floor and exclaims
(lines 1285-1300); "Apollo himself, his fiery hands -I feel him again,/ he's
stripping off my robes, the Seer's robes!…/He brings me here to die like
this, /not to serve at my father's altar. No/ the block is waiting. The cleaver
steams/ with my life blood, the first blood drawn/ for the king's last rites."
This is the most consuming point in her lines but equally fervid are the
sentences she utters building up to this speech with their repetitive use
of exclamatory sounds such as 'ai! ai!'. They indicate how confused and indeed
shambolic Cassandra is in the scene, a fact which surely would have been
communicated visually by agitated movements around the stage (9).
So while we do gain occasional glimpses into the semiotics
of drama in Greek tragedy (and that of Agamemnon) via the texts themselves;
they really give us very little information on the actual staging and first
performance of the play. Little history is available on the original staging
of Aeshylus' Agamemnon; it is known that The Oresteia was the last trilogy
written by the dramatist before he died, and that it was performed in the
Theatre of Dionysos around 458 BC (10) but other than these factual
details (which relate more to the records of the festivals and their prize
winners than to the performances (11]) there is little information except
what Aeschylus hints at in his plays. For that we would need some other kind
of record and more than what the existing ancient documents and pieces of
pottery depicting tragedy provide. We can learn a certain amount about the
tragic genre from sources such as Plato and his comments on Art in The Republic
and more specifically in Aristotle's Poetics, but again there is no mention
of any staging (or acting techniques). But these are technical details which
do not undermine the power of the plays and their subtextual meaning or else
they would not be plays performed today. However little is known about original
staging, one thing holds true is no doubt contemporary directors will be
just as inventive with less, as the first dramatists were creative with their
legacy in the birth of tragedy.
1. Segal, Charles. Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Greek Myth as
a Semiotic and Structural System (Ch. 2, pg. 66). Cornell University Press,
2. Aeshylus (Trans. Fagles, R). The Oresteia: Agamemnon (pg.
156/ line 1314). Penguin Classics, GB: 1977. -Also, look to lines1330-35
(pg. 157 of same edition) in which the theme of boundaries and of being witness
or privy to what is secretly going on 'behind the doors of a household' is
further explored and held in contrast to the 'outside'; Aeschylus states
at the beginning of the play and almost in reference to the Athenian audience
themselves (seated as they are in the "house"/ real-life theatre of Dionysos)
"-the house and these old stones, give them a voice and what a tale they'd
tell...I speak to those who know; to those who don't my mind's a blank. I
never say a word" (lines 39-43, pg. 104).
3. One reason put forward by P.E. Easterling in his essay on 'Form and Performance
in Greek Tragedy' is that few actors were of the high standard needed to
perform these plays in the large theatres. It is also worth remembering that
shows put on in the year were performed in the same time at the same festival
contests; actors may have been 'passed around' and used in different plays
entering for the same contests. An obvious factor must be the question of
finance and simply the more actors you use, the more money has to be spent
on pay, costume, etc. Perhaps Aeshylus' and Sophocles' inclusion of an additional
actor to the repertoire and that they could do this without being financially
slapped on the wrist is a sign of the rising importance of Greek tragedy
in Athens. Or maybe it was an indication of the increasing power of the dramatists
themselves. (See Esterling. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy:
Form and Performance (Ch. 7, pg. 153). Cambridge University Press, UK: 1997.
4. Aeshylus (Trans. Fagles, R). The Oresteia: Agamemnon (pg.
159-60/ lines 1376-90). Penguin Classics, GB: 1977.
5. It is relevant to note that violence was forbidden to occur in front of
an audience in Greek theatre. Any crime such as murder was enacted off-stage
by the main actors. They would leave the stage space and move into the skene
area to commit the crime). This makes matters clumsy when attempting to include
the Chorus into important scenes of violence because they are in effect 'blind'
as to any event occurring beyond the skene doors (as are the Athenian audience
themselves, but it is a more problematic issue with the chorus.
6. Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action: Objects and tokens
(Ch. 6, pg. 81). Routledge Publishers, GB: 1997.
7. Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action: Objects and tokens
(Ch. 6, pg. 82). Routledge Publishers, GB: 1997.
8. Zeus seems to represent the male-orientated civic way of life in The Oresteia.
But the way in which the chorus of old men constantly supplicate to him might
also suggest a parallel between the laws of Zeus and a more oligarchic from
of governing. The gods in the Oresteia are either retributive to the point
of exhibiting a form of vengeance that does justice to the despotic spirit
of the Furies and killer instinct of Artemis or, they deal out a 'trial by
jury' judgement, -Athena's fine edged sword of intellectual logos which is
so emphasized in the Eumenides. However Athena's law is not Zeus' law, she
is a generation down, her father's daughter. Aeshylus is reminding his Athenian
audiences that their sacred democracy, like the justice of Orestes, has its
roots in a lesser form of democracy - albeit an oligarchic one but a form
of isonomia all the same. Just as his contemporary Athenian audience wanted
to abolish the function of their Areopagus, so too had the Areopagus abolished
the earlier undemocratic form of government which proceeded it.)
9. Taplin, Oliver. Greek Tragedy in Action: Actions and gestures
(Ch. 5, pg. 59). Routledge Publishers, GB: 1997.
10. Fagles, R. & Stanford, W.B. The Serpent and the Eagle:
Introductory Essay to the Oresteia, pg.14/ 1st paragraph. Penguin
Classics, GB: 1977.
11. This is excluding non-factual or anecdotal accounts which are connected
to the theatre and alluded to by chance in different ancient documents and
also excludes the popularizing of certain scenes in the plays on vases of
the period. This is because, though they refer to drama it is debatable whether
they are faithfully depicting an original staging of a play. Even if certain
vases do show scenes from a play (like the Lucanian vase showing Euripides'
Medea) which perhaps relate details of a first performance, no such scene
survives in relation to Aeschylus' Agamemnon.
Aeschylus (Trans. Fagles, R). The Oresteia. Penguin Classics,
Easterling, P. E. Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge
Press, UK 1997.
Fagles, R & Stanford, W.B. The Serpent and the Eagle. Introduction
to the Oresteia. Penguin Classics, UK 1977.
Segal, C. Interpreting Greek Tragedy. Cornell University Press,
Taplin, O. Greek Tragedy in Action. Routledge, GB 1997.