Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!
STAGING IN GREEK TRAGEDY
(AESCHYLUS)

© 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 play?"

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.

FOOTNOTES

1. Segal, Charles. Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Greek Myth as a Semiotic and Structural System (Ch. 2, pg. 66). Cornell University Press, UK: 1986.
 
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.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY TEXTS


Aeschylus (Trans. Fagles, R). The Oresteia. Penguin Classics, UK 1977.

SECONDARY SOURCES

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, UK 1986.

Taplin, O. Greek Tragedy in Action. Routledge, GB 1997.