OLD & NEW
[HOW CAN A PLAY BASED ON AN ANCIENT SOURCE BE CALLED 'NEW'?]
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Matthew Travisano's Oresteia is a new play. But it's based on a previous version which happens to be one of the cornerstones of western theatre. How can a new play call itself new if it's based on someone else's work?
For much of theatre history, playwrights have routinely used narratives created by other playwrights, poets, or novelists. Historically, a playwright's task has been to improve upon an existing story and use it to speak to issues of their day. In ancient Greece, playwrights borrowed almost all of their storylines from existing sources (such as the epic poet Homer, see "Context: History and Legend" below). Their task was to reinvent what came before. Audiences went to the theatre in ancient Greece already knowing the story of the play they were hearing and seeing. The sense of anticipation came from wondering what Aeschlyus or Sophocles would do with it.
Given that theatre is a literary genre focused intently on characterization, a playwright's success has largely been judged based on their skills in creating memorable characters.
"I'm a huge fan of Tennessee Williams" says Travisano. "And you could argue that he essentially wrote the same plot a dozen times: someone has a secret, tries not to spill it, it gets spilled, and they're punished." Travisano goes on to say that he wouldn't dare quibble with Williams' propensity to reinvent the same storyline. After all, it worked. "That's because Williams' characters are unforgettable."
He adds: "Of course, to cover myself, when I wrote The Oresteia I used one of the best narratives ever constructed to take as my point of departure. I'm was in good hands with Aeschylus."
Ancient Greece & American Theatre
The American theatre has routinely looked to ancient Greece in particular for its narratives. Eugene O'Neill - credited with being the first truly great American playwright - wrote his own version of The Oresteia, moved it to the Civil War era, and premiered his three-part epic Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931. He was far from the last American playwright to source plots from ancient Greece.
Lorraine Hansberry, Arthur Miller, Sarah Ruhl, and Edward Albee have all borrowed storylines and figures from ancient Greek theatre and epic poetry to tell distinctly American stories. More recently, two of the most celebrated of contemporary American playwrights have continued this tradition. Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home from the Wars and Marcus Gardley's black odyssey look back to The Odyssey for inspiration. Both of these plays will receive productions in the Bay Area in the coming months.
Like the works of the playwrights mentioned above, this new Oresteia is not merely a re-translation of an ancient text ("I haven't the slightest idea how to read Greek, let alone translate it," says Travisano). It's a new work inspired by a previous one.
A NEW PLAY
While we can say that The Oresteia is a new play, it might not seem so right away.
Travisano has retained the character names and the locations from Aeschylus' plays and some others from Homer. Even the basics of the plot come from these sources. Travisano mentions that, particularly in the first two installments, the links to our world may seem a bit hidden. "I've opted to make contemporary connections more subtle in Agamemnon and Electra. In a way, I'm following Aeschylus' lead. His critiques of Athens were subtle, but definitely present. I wanted to leave things oblique enough for audiences to make their own links to what's happening today."
He adds: "By contrast, The Furies (the third installment) is a straight-up satire. In keeping with the norms of that genre, the connections to our world today are overt and unmistakable." So, in the end, what's the most different from Aeschylus' original?
Travisano notes wryly: the words.
"Aside from a few times where I directly quote other writers (Maya Angelou, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare), everything that comes out of these characters' mouths is new."
So are the characters' backstories. For example, Clytemnestra is now a woman of color, with roots in Ephesus. We also get the story of how she came to marry Agamemnon and when she arrived in Argos. Orestes is a transgender male in addition to being multiracial. Electra sees her father's murder. The Watchman is an immigrant in a city hostile to immigrants. And most everything about Apollo's persona is wholly invented.
"Some of the changes are meant to bring the story in line with modern acting practice. In Aeschylus' time, the acting theories of Constantin Stanislavski were over 2000 years into the future. Acting in ancient Greece was stylized, presentational, and aided by masks. An actor in our program, in keeping with current practice, is trained more deeply in emotional truth and in how past circumstances affect their character's present. I wanted the text to be a vehicle for the actors to do what they've been taught to do."
He goes on to explain: "I also wanted to reflect our country's (and our city's) diversity. At the same time I want to draw attention to the anxieties in our culture around those whose identities are not so easily pinned down - and to which we've attached all sorts of assumptions."
Some of the issues this new Oresteia raises, however subtle (such as transgender equity, police misconduct, misogyny) would be alien to ancient Athens. "I've tried to toe a fine line, to leverage the ethos of Aeschylus while making is serve the needs of the directors and the actors who have to embody these lines and the realities they are facing today," says Travisano.
In the end, he acknowledges that without Aeschylus, his Oresteia wouldn't exist. "I am forever indebted to perhaps the most influential playwright in the western tradition. I have incredible reverence for Aeschylus. He remains my personal favorite among the Greek tragic playwrights.
Travisano is clear to mention that he stands on the shoulders of other giants. "My own literary voice in these plays is profoundly indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, Patricia Smith, William Blake, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, and so many others."
Travisano adds that he lists so many poets because "this is a poetic script, in keeping with the tradition of ancient tragedy. The entire trilogy is in verse (poetry)." While influence isn't always apparent, there places where it's more overt. "In The Furies I outright thieve the lyric-writing styles of Sir W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) and Bertolt Brecht. I wanted the feel you could only get from their work."
He sums up: "No playwright - no writer - writes in a vacuum. I acknowledge all of these writers as my teachers just like later playwrights acknowledged Aeschylus as theirs."
[Pictured above: Suzan-Lori Parks, Eugene O'Neill, Marcus Gardley]
History & Legend
[THE STOrIES behind The ORESTEIA]
The Story of the Trojan war
It all began with a wedding to which Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited (think Maleficent in the original animated film of Sleeping Beauty). As revenge, Eris cast a golden apple into the festivities. It landed among three goddesses: Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. The apple was inscribed with the cryptic message: “to the most beautiful”. Eris knew a conflict would ensue between the three goddesses, that they would argue over whom the apple was meant for. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. The three goddesses asked Hermes to decide the question.
He opted not to get into the middle of it. He took the three goddesses to the Trojan prince Paris and passed the issue off to him. Each of the three goddesses tried to buy Paris' vote for most beautiful goddess. But Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. That woman was Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus who was king of the Greek city-state of Argos.
Not surprisingly, Paris deemed Aphrodite the most beautiful, given the prize she offered him. Paris sailed to Greece and claimed Helen in the middle of the night (accounts differ as to whether or not she went willingly). He returned to Troy with his new wife, who would be forever known as Helen of Troy. The Greeks did not take kindly to any of this. And the war began.
A unified nation called Greece did not exist during the Trojan War. Menelaus jointly ruled Argos with his brother Agamemnon. Argos was one of many independent city-states on the Greek peninsula. To get Helen back, Menelaus achieved military support from other city-states on the Greek peninsula. Agamemnon led the combined forces.
But Agamemnon and Menelaus had family baggage of their own, even before Helen's flight. A brief aside is warranted here. These brothers belonged to the House of Atreus and their family history was a grotesque one. Their father Atreus had an ongoing feud with his brother (their uncle) Thyestes. To end the feud once and for all, Atreus murdered Thyestes' sons, hacked them apart, made dinner from their flesh, and served it to his brother. After realizing what had happened, Thyestes laid a curse on Atreus and his sons Agamemnon and Menelaus, promising that their part of the family line would meet with disaster. You will hear about the Curse of Atreus in Agamemnon and find out exactly the consequences. You will also meet Aegisthus, the only one of Thyestes' sons who managed to escape being killed.
Returning to the war, it took place entirely outside the gates of Troy which held strong for a solid decade. But a decisive event changed the course of the war. The Greek engineer Epeius constructed a wooden horse (later dubbed the Trojan Horse). Once finished, it was filled with a regiment of foot soldiers. The rest of the Greek army sailed around a nearby outcropping of seaside land and waited. The Greek solider Sinon accompanied the horse to Troy's city-gates, posed as a Trojan, and persuaded Troy to accept it as a gift to Athena. He promised that Athena, in return for the gift, would make Troy invincible. The Trojan priest Laocoön and priestess Cassandra warned their fellow Trojans not to accept this gift. But their warnings were ignored. The Trojans wheeled the horse into the city and left it sitting in the main square. At nightfall, the Greeks climbed out of the horse, helped their army breach the city walls, and the invasion of Troy began.
The Greeks were led in battle by Agamemnon - who Homer tells us was a fierce warrior with a notoriously prickly temper - and with equal vigor by the warrior Achilles. The Trojans were led by Hector and their king Priam. The battle inside Troy was horrific, leading to the city-state's complete destruction and the enslavement of its women (the men were killed or escaped to the sea). The Trojan queen Hecuba was left to hold the city together with her daughters and her sons’ wives.
Agamemnon returned to Greece with the Trojan priestess Cassandra as a war prize. He reunited with his wife Clytemnestra at the royal palace in Argos. Clytemnestra was still enraged that Agamemnon killed their daughter Iphigenia in return for the winds he needed to push the Greek fleet to Troy. The reunion of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon is one of the most tense and electric scenes in all literature.
Did the war Actually Happen?
For being such a central event in western literature it’s a bit surprising to consider that the Trojan War probably never happened in the ways the legends tell us it did. There is certainly no evidence that any of the people mentioned by Homer in The Iliad ever lived outside the realm of fiction.
But that doesn't mean that something like the Trojan War never happened. And evidence suggests there was, in fact, a Troy.
In 1868 the German history enthusiast Heinrich Schliemann traveled to an ancient site in Turkey which locals called Hisarlik, but which an American named Frank Calvert claimed was where the city of Troy was located. Armed with excitement and a copy of The Iliad, Schliemann did some rather clumsy digging and uncovered various precious objects we he claimed proved that Troy existed there. He was onto something. But what he didn't know was that he found objects dating to before the Trojan War. His assistant kept up the exploration and located no less than nine different layers of Troy built up and destroyed over thousands of years.
Even today archaeologists are still uncovering walls and fortifications which indicate different states of a walled Trojan city stretching back to 3000 BCE. But was the city involved in a war?
We know that the Hittite Empire (of Troy would have been a part) quite likely had a conflict with the city-state of Mycenae, located west across the Aegean Sea near where Argos is located. It's possible that the Trojan War narrative is a romanticized version of this Hittite/Mycenaean conflict.
On the Greek side, the influential city-state of Mycenae was uncovered by archaeologists beginning in 1841 (before Troy was unearthed). Mycenae could help prove the existence of a Troy that it may have defeated in battle. Objects of Mycenaean origin found at the Troy archaeological site suggest a conflict between the two cultures, or at least that Troy was involved in a larger war.
[Source: CERHAS Project, University of Cincinnati]
Homer: did he exist?
All of the narrative details of the Trojan War are legend, and there are numerous sources. The most famous source is the poet Homer. According to legend Homer was born not far from Troy in modern-day Turkey somewhere between 1200 and 800 BCE. For centuries he was credited with writing The Odyssey and, more importantly for us, The Iliad (meaning ‘Tale of Troy’ using the alternate form of Troy’s name ‘Ilium’).
Homer probably didn’t exist. It’s far likelier that the stories of Troy and its fall were passed down orally for generations before being written down by several different hands sometime between 800-700 BCE. The blind poet ‘Homer’ was possibly created in order to assign a flesh-and-blood person to what was probably a documenting of Troy’s fall across generations. An interesting theory states that the name “Homer” is from a seafaring Mediterranean language in which the root of the name means “to tell”. At some point, so the theory goes, the name “Homer” was applied to whoever wrote down what we know today as The Iliad and The Odyssey.
The Homer Question is debated by scholars today. Some believe a single poet of genius (Homer or not) wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. Other scholars strongly doubt Homer’s existence, or that a single poet wrote these epics. They believe his poems were stories passed down orally and were only eventually written down. This follows a pattern of other national epics around the world which began in the oral tradition and were eventually (and anonymously) written down.
Famous examples include The Epic of Gilgamesh in Sumer, Sundiata in Senegal/Gambia, the various sagas of Iceland, and Beowulf in England.
Theatre in ancient Athens
[A playwright and his enormous impacT.]
the Birth of theatre in ANCIENT athens
The earliest form of Greek theatre began as hymns chanted by a chorus at religious festivals in honor of the fertility and wine god Dionysus. Eventually the City Dionysia festival was founded in Athens to celebrate the god with public displays and performances. A wandering poet named Thespis was one of the more remarkable early winners of the festival. According to legend, he was the first actor and playwright. The story goes that one day Thespis leapt up onto a wagon and instead of intoning chants with a chorus he began reciting lines as if he were someone else. This would have been the first play. Scholars have not verified whether Thespis ever actually existed. Even so, his name is the source for the word thespian still used when referring to actors today.
A tradition that may have begun with Thespis was the use of masks. The theatre for which Aeschylus wrote featured actors who were fully masked. Both tragic and comic actors wore them, with specific designs for each genre. Each mask was also designed to project the voice into theaters already known for their remarkable acoustics. Only men were allowed to act in ancient Athens, and masks help create the illusion of femininity (as it also did for age). Masks also allowed actors to play multiple roles within the same play.
Click here to see a clip from Peter Hall's famous production of Agamemnon and what the original masks worn by Clytemnestra and the chorus might have looked like.
AESCHYLUS: life & Work
After Thespis, the most important transitional figure in Greek theatre was Aeschylus (pronounced EES-kuh-lus). He was born in 424 or 425 BCE in Eleusis, a small town northwest of Athens, the city where he later settled. We know few concrete details about his life. According to legend, the god Dionysus visited Aeschylus while the young playwright-to-be was working in a vineyard. The god compelled him to write for a newly formed genre of performance art called theatre. Aeschylus wrote his first play at 26 and wrote no less than 70 plays before his death in 455 (though only seven of his plays survive today). But playwriting wasn't Aeschylus' only career. In fact, most in the theatre business in Athens had other professions.
Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus were soldiers, fighting the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. It was during that battle that Cynegeirus died, an event which apparently affected Aeschylus profoundly. Aeschylus went on fight at the famed naval battle at Salamis. War and political conflict feature prominently in his surviving work. After ending his military career, Aeschylus went on to write some of the most respected plays in the western tradition. When he died in 456 BCE he was buried with a tombstone that mentioned nothing of his success in the theatre. He was simply acknowledged as a soldier.
AESCHYLUS: THEATRE INNOVATOR
Importantly for the development of theatre as we know it today, Aeschylus freed a second actor from the chorus so that dialogue and conflict could happen between named characters. Aeschylus created the standard style of Greek tragedy, with two (later three) named characters, a chorus, and a chorus leader.
Not all trilogies performed at the City Dionysia featured three interconnected plays. Aeschylus is credited with the notion of the sequel, writing series of tragedies whose plots were integrated with each other. Then again, without him George Lucas would not have created the sequel-prequel confusion of the Star Wars films and we would not be on our eighth Fast and Furious film, so perhaps unswerving praise isn't due.
Eventually, a young upstart named Sophocles - famous for his Oedipus cycle of plays - added a third named character into scenes. Aeschylus was significantly older than Sophocles, but he was willing to learn from the younger generation. By the time he wrote his Oresteia he borrowed Sophocles' innovation, added a third named character, and won top prize at the City Dionysia for his final known trilogy of plays.
Compared to the work of younger playwrights of his time, Aeschylus' style is rather conservative. He wrote strictly in verse (poetry), violence never happens onstage, his plays have distinct moral overtones, and they can seem rather stiff and talky. There is a certain ceremonial feel to an Aeschylean play. Yet he was considered perhaps the greatest poet among playwrights, and was widely acknowledged as something of a genius even in his own time. After he died, Aeschylus was accorded the unusual honor of having his plays revived in Athens (most plays were not).
GOING TO A TRAGIC PLAY IN ANCIENT ATHENS
In ancient Athens (as in other city-states) tragic playwrights presented their works as trilogies at festivals, such as the City Dionysia. Aeschylus wrote his plays for performance at the Theatre of Dionysus, which you can still visit in Athens today. Theatre festivals were competitions. The most important audience members were the judges sitting in the front row who would decide which trilogy was the best for that year.
While there is some debate about exactly who made up the rest of the audience for the works of playwrights like Aeschylus, most scholars believe that all free-born male citizens of Athens were required to attend the City Dionysia (though some have suggested that women, children, even slaves may also have attended). From the 5th century BCE onward, the festival was free to those who attended. Such was the importance Athens placed on theatre as a sign of civic health.
Audiences would watch all three plays in a trilogy in one day. At some point in the day the audience would be treated to some comic relief in the form of a satyr play. In this genre of comedy, a group of the mythical half-goat/half-men would do rude and crude things. This is where we get the word satire used today for comedy with a crude or subversive edge. Because they were considered disposable, satyr plays have not survived, the exception being one by Euripides that is rarely, if ever, performed today. Eventually, satyr plays gave way to standalone comedies of more sophisticated structure and characterization. We know that the satyr play Aeschylus wrote for the Oresteia was called Proteus, but only two lines from it have been found.
For our new Oresteia, the playwright has built the satyr play into the final installment (The Furies). While there are no actual satyrs, there are showgirls, a Temple of Apollo casino, and musical numbers.