The program for Court Theatre’s Iphigenia in Aulis features a chart tracing the house of Atreus through five generations, from Zeus on down to his three miserable great-great-great-grandchildren. And theres’s a handy little biographical comment under each name. The blurb on Tantalus, for instance, notes that he cut up his own child Pelops, cooked him, and served him to the gods. Not to be outdone, Pelops’s boy Atreus made an entree of his two nephews and presented it to their father, Thyestes, for dinner. (Dessert? Their heads, hands, and feet on a platter.) Go on a generation and you’ve got Atreus’s heir Agamemnon getting assassinated by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus—although, to their credit, they don’t eat him. These murderers are murdered, in turn, by Agamemnon’s offspring Orestes and Electra. Agamemnon had earned Clytemnestra’s wrath by sacrificing their firstborn daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in order to assure fair winds for the invasion of Troy.
Laid out on the chart, the whole thing looks so ridiculously absurd you’ve got to laugh. Get in close, though, and it’s so bitterly absurd you can’t help but weep.
Take the case of Iphigenia, as Euripides did in 405 BCE. We first see Agamemnon doing his feverish best to correct the greatest mistake of his life. King of Mycenae and supreme commander of the Greek armies that have massed at Aulis for the sea voyage to Troy, he’s been told that he has to give the girl up if he want to get a breeze for his thousand ships. So he’s written to Clytemnestra, telling her to send Iphigenia because—and here comes the big lie—he plans to marry her off to Achilles before embarking. Agamemnon had imagined a quiet little bloodletting, out of Clytemnestra’s sight. But now that he’s realized the obvious—that she’ll be accompanying Iphigenia to Aulis as mother of the bride—he’s writing a second letter telling both of them to stay home.
But of course it’s too late. Mother and daughter arrive, along with the baby Orestes, and the consequences start clicking off one by one.
To their vast embarrassment, Clytemnestra and Achilles learn about the wedding ruse together, when Clytemnestra greets the unsuspecting warrior as her prospective son-in-law. A chastened Agamemnon resolves to set things straight. Honorable Achilles resolves to do the same. But yet again it’s too late. The armies are raring to go, and they know something’s up. They’re hyped to get at the “barbarian” Trojans, who dishonored Greek womanhood by kidnapping Helen. They want their wind—and, no, they don’t mind the irony of slitting a Greek woman’s throat to get it. Offstage, master intriguer Odysseus has made the mob his own. And so, like so many Greek kings in so many Greek tragedies, the leaders become hostages to the led.
In Charles Newell‘s fierce, cold, beautiful (and, at 90 minutes, brief) staging from a translation by Nicholas Rudall, Mark L. Montgomery gives us an Agamemnon who’s nothing more nor less than the wrong man for the job. We know he was bloodthirsty once—he killed to win Clytemnestra. Yet at this point he seems, well, just awfully middle-aged. Everything about him says he wishes he were home. As he remarks, he never asked for this quarrel; it was his brother Menelaus who was cuckolded when Paris took Helen. Dishevelled in camp, he’s out of his element. His longing for hearth and family is made no end of clear when he hugs his beloved Iphigenia. And just as he can’t hack military life, he can’t summon the pigheaded strength demanded of a commander. My wife called him a “people pleaser,” and that seems about right. Someone convinced him of the necessity of war, someone else convinced him of the necessity of sacrifice, yet when the counterarguments are posed by his wife and daughter—or even by his faithful old slave, engagingly played by Christopher Donahue, whom I’m very happy to see back on a Chicago stage—he’s convinced of them too.
Clytemnestra would make a much better king. As embodied by Sandra Marquez, she’s obdurate in asserting her responsibilities, not to say her privileges, as a woman and a mother. Yet Marquez never lets us forget that she also has a warm understanding of the job of wife—right up to the moment when her husband does the unthinkable. Stephanie Andrea Barron is pure, painful youth in the title role.
It’s said that in ancient Greek drama the chorus represented the voice of the community, which was precisely the same thing as the audience. Newell makes exquisite use of a six-woman chorus here. They express ritual delight through dance in one moment, bewildered disarray in the next. But there’s another chorus at work in Iphigenia in Aulis, and that’s the one in our educated heads, reminding us how the story will end. Iphigenia will be sacrificed. Agamemnon and his army will go off to a ten-year war in which Achilles will die. Troy will burn. Odysseus will find it almost impossible to get home. And though Agamemnon will survive and return, he’ll be ambushed by his wife and revenged by his children. Greece will eat its young only slightly less literally than Thyestes ate his. Knowing all this makes us witnesses to both the necessity and the uselessness of every action. That’s the bitter absurdity of Euripides’s play.