Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.5.21

Anton Bierl, Die Orestie des Aischylos auf der modernen Bühne. Stuttgart: M & P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1997. Pp. 124. ISBN 3-476-45170-4.

Reviewed by Gregory Hays, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,

"As the lights go up, wartime scenes recalling Picasso's Guernica are projected by video onto the fourth wall... Clytemnestra, nude and portrayed as a large-bellied, full-breasted mother animal, is brought onto the stage on a riser which moves back and forth in a wave-like motion.... The role of Agamemnon is played by a mongoloid actor ... [who] enters equipped with a royal crown and, seating himself upon a chair, mumbles unintelligibly into a distorted and overamplified microphone.... Cassandra, another full-breasted primordial woman, is rolled in in a transparent plastic container (representing the imprisonment of the Tragic Self).... Clytemnestra now re-enters and slaughters Agamemnon, as a kind of white linen scrim is quickly drawn across the stage. It suddenly turns blood red. Clytemnestra then positions herself beneath a shower-head from which blood flows, turning visibly browner. With obvious pleasure, she rubs her naked belly with the liquid and screams 'merda!' repeatedly over the corpse of her slaughtered spouse ... Following this horrific tableau, Aegisthus wildly attacks the leader of the rabbit chorus, who is lamenting the death of his king; he comes through the scrim of the fourth wall onto the apron, places the crown on his head, and apostrophizes the still weeping chorus leader as 'You shitty little rabbit'" (95-6).

Romeo Castellucci's 1995 Italian version of the Oresteia is the most recent of the modern productions surveyed by Anton Bierl, and without doubt the most eccentric. After a description like this, one is scarcely startled to be told that the actors' voices were electronically distorted in order "to relate Bachofen's conception of primordial matriarchy to the world of the mysterious whale in Melville's Moby Dick," or that the chorus is led by the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who makes his entrance exclaiming "Goodness gracious me, how late it's getting! Ten years already since the Atreidae set sail for Troy!" Yet not the least of B.'s achievements in this brief book is to make a convincing case that even these peculiar goings-on have something to do with Dionysos.

B.'s essay is explicitly designed as both supplement and complement to Helmut Flashar's magisterial Inszenierung der Antike, soon to appear in English translation. Flashar is B.'s Doktorvater, and his shadow looms large here, extending even to the book's dedication. But whereas Flashar took a broad and essentially documentary approach in chronicling "das griechische Drama auf der Bühne der Neuzeit," B. studies the recent production history of a single work, and with a single thesis in mind: "the multiple significative potential of Greek tragedy offers to the modern actor or director in any given social context a screen ideally suited to the projection of his own ideas and preconceptions" (13f.). His book is thus intended as a contribution not only to reception history but also to reception theory, and in some respects is more reminiscent of George Steiner's Antigones than of Flashar.

Specifically, B. here focuses on ten European incarnations of Aeschylus's Oresteia, ranging in date from 1900 to 1995, with the aim of showing how the staging of each reflects the ideological assumptions of its producers.1 This emphasis in part determines the choice of the Oresteia, and within the trilogy the concentration on the Eumenides, a manifestly ideological play whose exact political message has consistently frustrated attempts at interpretation. As B. points out, the play seemed so problematic to earlier producers that it was often heavily cut or even omitted altogether. And certainly, as B. demonstrates, the staging of the crucial concluding scenes requires a director to make choices that often reveal with particular clarity his or her own ideological presuppositions.2

After a brief chronological survey of the trilogy's production history in this century, B. proceeds thematically, dividing the productions he studies into three main ideological groups. The first is what he describes as the "evolutionary" or "affirmative" model, in which the trilogy's movement from a dark world of blood guilt and disorder to a new and more just society is taken as a kind of charter myth for whatever political order the producer cares to endorse. Thus for B., Hans Oberländer's famous 1900 Berlin production (in Wilamowitz's translation) served as a celebration of the newly-created Prussian state with its emphasis on law and order (B. notes significantly that the trilogy was staged only four years after the promulgation of the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch). By contrast, in the 1960 production of the Teatro Populare Italiano (TPI) the victory of Athena looked forward to the final triumph of communism and the establishment of the classless society. For Peter Stein's 1980 production, the trilogy encapsulates the progress from blood feud to the rule of collective law in the modern Bundesstaat.3 What unites these ideologically incompatible stagings, on B.'s view, is their essentially optimistic focus, their reading of the trilogy as an affirmative movement from chaos to order, from darkness into light. For all of them, the voting scene in the Eumenides, with its final rejection of the past, is the climactic moment of the work, redeeming all that has preceded, and providing a solid basis for a bright new future.

B.'s second grouping presents a more ambivalent (for B., "open") view, one in which the triumph of Athena remains fragile and provisional -- perhaps not even wholly desirable. Here B. examines first the changing responses of the poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, from his translation of the trilogy for the 1960 TPI production, through his 1966 Aeschylean "sequel" Pilade [Pylades], to his 1969 film Appunti per una Orestiade africana. The Pasolini of the 1960 production had shared the leftist agenda of the producers, and the optimistic reading of the trilogy they endorsed. The later Pasolini, disillusioned with the Italian Communist Party, instead came increasingly to idealize the archaic powers of blood and soil, as embodied in the peasant life of his native Italy (42). In Pilade the title character is forced to choose between the cold rationality of Athena and Orestes and the more primitive and vital world of Electra and the Erinyes. His sympathies, like Pasolini's own, clearly lie with the latter. In the 1969 film the Erinyes are symbolically associated with the vibrant ritual of African tribal rites, to which Pasolini contrasts the soulless modernity of the post-colonial African city.

Second thoughts also seem to characterize Peter Stein's 1994 restaging of his original 1980 production -- not in Berlin this time, but in post-Communist Moscow. Where the earlier production had offered an unproblematic affirmation of western-style democracy, B. now sees a more complex response. The Erinyes, two-dimensional froglike monsters in 1980, are now more realistically -- and more threateningly -- presented as "old women ... who beneath discarded military jackets wear the black housewife's underwear of the old Soviet period" (50). Meanwhile the affirmative ritual of voting which formed the triumphant climax of the earlier production now becomes a frenetic, comic roundabout in which the Athenian citizen-judges cast their ballots over and over, to no discernible effect. The ritual of elections, Stein seems to suggest, is not in itself enough to preserve democracy, nor are the Erinyes who threaten it so easy to co-opt. As B. notes, Stein's production opened only a few months after Yeltsin's violent dissolution of the Duma in October, 1993.

The third of B.'s "open" interpretations is that of Ariane Mnouchkine's Les Atrides, whose Eumenides B. sees in explicitly Foucauldian terms as dramatizing the confrontation of an Apollonian Enlightenment with a violent and marginalized Other. The protagonist of the Eumenides is portrayed as a Pierre Rivière-like figure ("Moi, Oreste, ayant égorgé ma mère ..."?) ultimately subdued by the structures of judicial power, which are yet unable to silence completely the discourse of alterity. This reading informs B.'s interpretation of the controversial final tableau of Mnouchkine's staging: "Athena remains on stage with her back to the audience. ... There sounds once more the horrifying barking. ... From the background the avengers of Clytemnestra ... turn threateningly on Athena and the spectators. Just before they reach the goddess, she suddenly raises her arm, and as the spotlight fades the primeval beings remain as if kept at a distance, reared-up on their hind-legs. ... Whether they will remain at bay, and whether the utopian realm of democracy can count on a continued tenure of peace and freedom, remains an open question" (62-3).

The last three productions discussed take an openly pessimistic view of Athena's triumph; B. sees them as embodying a distinctively post-modernist rejection of the forces Athena had represented for earlier interpreters -- progress, reason, and the optimism of the Enlightenment.

The mise-en-scène of Luca Ronconi's 1972 staging would certainly seem to invite a Foucauldian reading. The Agamemnon was presented as a ritualistic mystery play with Fellini-esque touches, the Choephoroe as a naturalistic nineteenth-century domestic tragedy, with the shift between them representing for B. "the threshold between the middle ages and the beginning of the modern era, with its radical shift in mentality from an old to a new 'discursive formation'" (80). The progression continues with the staging of the Eumenides in an abstract, utopian future: "Athena, in a provocative spangled costume, ends by pronouncing Orestes's acquittal. He had previously been rolled into the courtroom on a hospital bed. The acquittal has no effect upon him; his individuality destroyed, he exits stammering incoherently" (85). The optimistic ending of the trilogy is here presented as a mere charade, "empty propaganda" (ibid.).

A similar approach to the final play informed Franco Parenti's 1985 Oresteia. Parenti's made use of a translation by the philosopher Emanuele Severino, who interprets the trilogy along the lines of B.'s "affirmative model" (albeit with a specifically philosophical spin). Aeschylus, on Severino's reading, aimed to depict the triumph of rationality over the pre-philosophical forces of unreason and raw will. The trilogy, for Severino, is thus a key forerunner of an Enlightenment discourse -- one that Severino himself, as a good post-modernist, decisively rejects. Parenti's Eumenides, accordingly, is staged against the grain of the text as director and dramaturge understand it. Rather than a ritualized triumph, the atmosphere of the final scene is depressing and melancholy. The victory of the arrogant Athena and the marginalization of the Eumenides are presented as no cause for celebration. "We are all deindividualized Erinyes, hemmed in by our very existence" (88).

Romeo's Castellucci's Orestea (una commedia organica?), already discussed above, offers a still darker vision. Here, evidently under the influence of Artaud's 'Theater of Cruelty,' Aeschylus's world has become a nightmare vision of blood, torture and excrement (one can well imagine pregnant women having miscarriages at this production). The forces of order are represented by the parodically ineffectual white-rabbit coryphaeus and an armless Apollo. The mongoloid Orestes has to be walked through his role in the Choephoroe by Pylades. Following a twenty-minute Eumenides, which B. compares to a poorly projected porn-film, he ends confined in a giant uterine oval; the Erinyes (played by live apes) remain Erinyes. What Wilamowitz would have made of it all we can only guess, but certainly we have come a long way from the bourgeois optimism of the 1900 Berlin production.

B.'s discussion of each of these productions contains much of interest, as well as a number of points that seem to me more problematic. Before I draw the balance, let me briefly outline some objections that seem to me to arise from B.'s approach.

The essay is subtitled "Theoretische Konzeptionen und ihre szenische Realisierung." Theoretical concepts are certainly much in evidence, but the second half of the subtitle gets less than its due. Part of the difficulty is, of course, inherent in the subject matter. If B.'s analysis of the Oberländer/Wilamowitz staging suffers from a lack of concrete illustrations, that is natural enough in discussing a production that took place almost a century ago. Even for more recent stagings, B.'s analysis often has to be grounded not in the actual productions but in such contemporary documentation of them as exists (photographs, reviews, etc.), or in the self-justifying statements of directors and producers.4 And even where B. himself has seen the production, a reader who has not will often have a difficult time getting a sense of exactly what B. is analyzing. More illustrations would have been helpful here, and might have been worth the extra cost (B. regrets their absence in the foreword, and he does include an extensive list of references to photographs in other published sources).

B.'s central thesis -- that all of the productions under review reflect contemporary ideological trends -- seems plausible enough, but is not always adequately argued. B. is often frustratingly vague on how exactly the ideology behind a given production is realized on stage. Thus with reference to Ronconi's "semiotic" Oresteia, we are told that "in the Eumenides, modern man goes to pieces against the new episteme ... the cosmos of similarities collapses, inasmuch as signifier and signified are jumbled. The mentally ill Orestes is caught in a kind of 'double-bind' situation and without the authoritative leadership of the logos, the world appears hopelessly fragmented" (82). All well and good, the reader responds, but how was all of this conveyed in actual performance? The discussion of Parenti's "philosophical Oresteia" operates at an equally abstract level. By contrast, the section devoted to Castellucci's bizarre production, which is unusual in containing a rather detailed description of what actually happened on stage, is clear and compelling.

Even if one accepts that directors are influenced by the world around them, the relationship is not necessarily a direct or uncomplicated one. B. at times flirts with a rather simplistic and reductionist view, in which actors and directors are little more than passive transmitters of the Zeitgeist. Thus Oberländer's production reflects the triumph of the Prussian state, while Parenti's stems from an atmosphere in which "belief in ... progress ... has been dissolved by a position of cultural pessimism which first made itself felt in the environmental movement but later also in the growth of the extreme right." While perhaps not wholly meaningless, such a statement has fairly limited explanatory value.

Potentially more fruitful are attempts to establish specific channels of influence. B. notes, for example, that Thomson's Aeschylus and Athens was translated into Italian in 1949, and "became quite popular in the fifties and sixties" (36); it seems not unlikely that it influenced the left-wing producers of the 1960 TPI staging. Similarly, B. notes the compatibility of Stein's 1980 production with the interpretation put forward in Christian Meier's Die Entstehung des Politischen bei der Griechen, published in the same year. Is this merely a coincidence (the Zeitgeist at work once more), or are there closer links between the two?

Certainly directors do read books, and some even read post-modernist theorists. Castellucci, for example, claims the influence not only of Bachofen and Rohde but of Burkert, Vidal-Naquet and Svenbro. And yet one ought to be cautious before jumping to conclusions. B.'s elaborately Foucauldian reading of Les Atrides has a certain prima facie plausibility; Mnouchkine knew Foucault, and, as B. points out, had worked with him as part of the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons (GIP) in the 1970s. Yet Mnouchkine herself has elsewhere rejected suggestions of influence.5 And indeed, I suspect that apparent similarities between the two are more probably traceable to a common interest in the work of Artaud -- a philosophical interest in Foucault's case, a theatrical one in Mnouchkine's. This last is a point worth noting. In general, I think B. tends to underestimate the force that specifically theatrical influences exert on even the most politically committed of directors.6 Theatrical ideology is still ideology, of course, but ideology of a rather specialized and subtle kind; greater acknowledgment of this might have resulted in a more nuanced treatment than B. presents here. Mnouchkine's admiration for Meyerhold and her own exploration of Asian theatre practice ultimately account for much more of the overall effect of Les Atrides than her involvement with Foucault and the GIP does.

Such objections are not meant as damning criticisms; it is one of the book's strengths that it provokes one to reflect on such topics. The other main strength of B.'s discussion seems to me to lie in his insistence on the value of performance studies even to interpreters of the original texts. As B. puts it, "staging is ... nothing but a special form of reading" (12), and this is perhaps, if anything, too defensive. Taken at face value, B.'s statement implies that Les Atrides is nothing more than a 'reading' of the Oresteia, albeit a particularly elaborate, noisy, and colorful one. But in fact Mnouchkine's production is the Oresteia, in a way that even the subtlest article or the best-constructed critical text cannot claim to be. This holds for each of the productions B. discusses (even Castellucci's), and it means that his discussion should be of interest not only to those concerned with modern productions of Greek tragedy, but to students of Greek tragedy per se. Classicists of all ideological stripes have always been prone to confuse a play with its script, and their response to modern productions has too often been confined to snide comments on the director's failure to measure up to some imagined standard.7 The appearance of works like B.'s is a welcome counterbalance to that attitude.


1. Strictly speaking, B. discusses 8 productions (counting Peter Stein's 1980 and 1994 stagings separately), plus an original play and a film, both by Pasolini.  

2. B. points particularly (32n59) to the controversial question of Athena's vote -- is it a casting vote that resolves a deadlock, or does it create the deadlock that results in acquittal? A director has to opt for one or the other, and the implications of either answer will significantly affect the message of the play as a whole.  

3. B.'s suggestion that Athena is to be identified with the American occupying forces, though ingenious, is perhaps too literal-minded.  

4. This may account for some of the extraordinary rhetoric that pops up from time to time, e.g. Cassandra in the plastic container "representing the imprisonment of the Tragic Self." Much of this material derives from B.'s own discussions with Castellucci, and I am half-inclined to wonder whether someone's leg was being pulled.  

5. Cf. Adrian Kiernander, Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil (Cambridge, 1993), 142: "K[iernander]: I know that you knew Michel Foucault, for example, who's been very influential in a number of areas. M[nouchkine]: Yes [...] I met him several times, I liked him, I knew him, but he was a very good friend of Helene [Cixous]. K: But he's had no particular influence? M: Not for me, no, because I'm not a philosophy reader. I'm not a reader of philosophy, so, no. I liked him as a man naturally."   B. himself seems aware of the danger, conceding at one point that "Mnouchkine ist freilich weit davon entfernt, in ihrer Inszenierung einfach die Theorien eines führenden französischen Intellektuellen getreu zu übertragen" (73). He nevertheless goes on to argue for a "Nähe zu Foucault" (ibid.) that seems to imply more than simply an assertion that the play can be read in Foucauldian terms.  

6. B.'s index is revealing in this regard: the reader will find entries for Gorbachev, Popper and Paul de Man, but not Grotowski, Piscator, or Peter Brook.  

7. For a recent example of this depressing genre cf. Herbert Golder, "Geek Tragedy? -- Or, Why I'd Rather Go to the Movies," Arion 3rd Series 4.1 (Spring, 1996).