Iphigenia in Tauris

The Finite Space, at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

By Justin Hayford

In the late 18th century, at the height of Europe’s unbearably stuffy neoclassical “art should delight and instruct” age, Goethe took Euripides’ streamlined, fourth-century BC cliff-hanger Iphigenia in Tauris and recast it as a sprawling, five-act morality lesson–in blank verse, no less. Taking generous liberties with the ancient myth (the Athenian princess Iphigenia is rescued from her father’s sacrificial sword by the Roman goddess Diana), Goethe uses the actions of his title character to show how, as Charles E. Passage writes in the introduction to his 1963 translation of the play, “Reason and intuitive Love join in indissoluble union to guarantee the highest type of humanity.” Of course, Goethe’s notion of “pure humanity” helped spawn some pretty nasty German great-grandchildren a century and a half later. As Passage concludes in dry understatement, “There is…a certain distance between Goethe and the modern reader.”

Not to mention a certain distance between the modern reader and Greek antiquity. But in Chicago at least, that two-millennium gulf seems to make audiences’ hearts grow fonder, judging from the recent success of European Repertory Company’s Electra and Agamemnon, not to mention Roadworks’ Orestes. The matri-patri-fratricidal House of Atreus threatens to become as popular in the 1990s as the ill-fated House of Carrington in the 1980s.

That popularity is hardly surprising in the era of celluloid carnage and tabloid scandal–you can’t beat the Greeks for horrifying potboilers. Alexis Carrington may have been a power-hungry, stop-at-nothing uberbitch, but she never served up a slaughtered-offspring souffle to unsuspecting parents. For the 18th-century intelligentsia to find its “noble tradition” in classical Greek drama seems a bit like William Bennett culling Aaron Spelling’s oeuvre to footnote his Book of Virtues.

But in Iphigenia Goethe found a compelling moral drama, one that seems particularly poignant in our morally atrophied time. Youthful Iphigenia, snatched from harm’s way by Diana and magically transported to the island of Tauris, must assume the role of high priestess in Diana’s temple, a title that includes the nasty job of sacrificing any luckless stranger who washes up on Tauris’ remote shores. And wouldn’t you know it, the first to do so under Iphigenia’s watch are two fellow countrymen, whom she later learns are none other than her brother Orestes and cousin Pylades. To top it off, they need her to help them fulfill Apollo’s oracle, which bids them to steal Diana’s sacred icon from her temple and take it back to Athens, a blasphemous insult to the goddess who saved Iphigenia’s life. What’s a girl to do?

To a contemporary American sensibility, the answer is obvious: save your kin and your skin, do some petty shoplifting, and get the hell out of Dodge. This answer satisfied Euripides as well. In his version Iphigenia and company dupe the honorable if naive King Thoas of Tauris, swipe the goddess figurine, and hightail it back to Greece, their success assured by the direct intervention of Athena herself. Goethe, grappling with the post-Enlightenment semisecularism of his day, kept the gods sidelined and let the story play itself out on a purely human plane.

Despite the mortal risk to herself and her brother, Iphigenia can neither lie to nor betray the man who has been her benefactor and second father since childhood (his insistent amorous advances notwithstanding). Unlike most members of the contemporary American aristocracy, gearing up to zip along on their new private highways while the rest of the country’s infrastructure crumbles, Goethe’s Athenian princess defers to the good of the community rather than to personal gain. Her actions may seem laughable in a country “where it is thought foolish not to subject one’s actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability,” as Susan Sontag writes. But as our “leaders” prepare to sell out the poor–and the not-so-poor–in order to fatten their election-year coffers, Goethe’s moral exercise is anything but academic.

Actor Lisa Hodsoll understands well the stakes of Goethe’s play. Her Iphigenia goes through a titanic struggle, giving the production its unshakable moral center. At the same time, Hodsoll understands that a 200-year-old poetic drama has nothing to do with psychological realism; her struggle is emblematic, as she merely suggests the kind of superhuman agony that any actor would be foolish to try to fully realize. Ever attentive to Goethe’s fluid meter, punctuating her speech with ambiguous, highly stylized gestures, she conveys the power of Goethe’s text without having to convince us that anything she does is “real” (which of course it isn’t). Like most intelligent actors handling lyric drama, she lets the words do most of the acting for her.

Sadly, no one else in the cast shares Hodsoll’s insight, and the production as a whole ends up gummed in tortuous displays of melodramatic anguish, with bulging eyes and tremulous voices all around. The key players get caught up in showing us how deeply they feel during every moment of the neo-Hellenic tragedy, as though emotional display has something to do with forwarding the drama. As Pylades, Steven Baz creeps about for the better part of two hours, never quite standing up straight, perhaps trying to lend an air of suspense to the proceedings (or perhaps suffering the ill effects of long rehearsals in a crawl space). As Orestes, Travis Culley, who also directs, gets so lost in his own torment, reliving every moment of his family’s cursed history, that he forgets that he is telling these stories for a reason–namely to earn the sympathy of the priestess who intends to sacrifice him. Unfortunately, the play isn’t a therapy session; Orestes’ turmoil is mythic, not human.

Yes, there is a “certain distance” between the contemporary reader and Goethe. Exploiting that distance, as Hodsoll so capably demonstrates, brings 200-year-old verse to life. Trying to close that gap by deflating Goethe’s lyric expanse and shrinking it to the merely literal turns myth into prime-time soap opera. It may have made Spelling a fortune, but it kills the spirit of Goethe’s drama.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from Iphigenia.