BMCR 2006.09.11

Agamemnon in Performance: 458 BC to AD 2004

, Agamemnon in performance 458 BC to AD 2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xv, 484 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 142942172X $125.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Agamemnon in Performance is a collection of papers deriving in large part from a conference on the subject held at Oxford in the fall of 2001 as part of the ongoing work of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama.1 The goal of this volume is to help firmly establish the systematic study of the performances of one ancient drama. The volume presents a variety of methodological approaches to reception studies, with contributions from seven different countries, examining Agamemnon in performance from its debut in 458 BC through to 2001. The bibliography alone will prove extremely valuable to scholars interested in the burgeoning field of reception studies, but the volume itself should be consulted frequently by students and scholars in diverse fields and will define the reception history of the performance of Agamemnon and the Oresteia for many years to come. Many readers will approach the book with the intention of reading only a chapter or two. As a result I have, in what follows, provided a brief review of each chapter in the order presented, while trying to point to chapters that can profitably be read together.

1. Pantelis Michelakis’ introduction, “Agamemnons in Performance”, takes on the difficult task of providing a frame narrative in which the papers that follow appear as parts of a cohesive whole, despite the, at times, vast historical and methodological gaps between them. Those who intend to read only a chapter or two ought also to read Michelakis’ introduction in order to get a sense of the larger project, and the place of individual chapters in that project.

Section I: In Search of the Sources

2. In ” Agamemnon for the Ancients”, Pat Easterling examines the available evidence regarding the reception of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon from its first performance in 458 BC to the end of pagan antiquity, asking to what extent has the play entered cultural traditions and contributed to the shaping of them. Easterling divides the available evidence into three categories—documentary and literary sources; intertextual evidence; and vase paintings and other visual evidence—and discusses each category of evidence in turn. While acknowledging the uncertainties associated with most of the available evidence Easterling provides a clear sense of the magnitude of influence which the play seems to have exerted in antiquity, while also providing a clear discussion of the possible methodological approaches to the material. Her chapter is accessible to Classicists and non-Classicists alike.

3. In “‘Striking too short at Greeks’: The Transmission of Agamemnon to the English Renaissance Stage” Inga-Stina Ewbank seeks to re-examine the general assumption that most Renaissance playwrights depended upon Latin rather than Greek texts as their sources of Classical material. In revisiting this issue Ewbank considers whether there is any evidence that would suggest that in particular the Agamemnon of Aeschylus’ Greek has found its way into the tradition of early modern English drama. While the evidence for direct influence of Classical Greek texts on the professional stages of Early modern England is by and large negative, Ewbank argues that there exist “glancingly rapid effects” which suggest the possibility that there might be more continuity between the theatre of Aeschylus and Shakespeare than has been previously allowed.

4. Edith Hall’s chapter, “Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra versus her Senecan Tradition”, covers a much broader range than its title suggests, examining the shifts in the depiction of Clytemnestra from her excessive man-like nature in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon through the increasingly feminized version of Seneca, to the depictions of her in the eighteenth century. While Hall is certainly correct in highlighting the peculiarity of the political power wielded by Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra in the theatrical tradition, the Bronze Age tradition of matrilineal succession within a patriarchal system, as outlined by Finkelberg,2 would help clarify how such a story came to be presented on the fifth-century Athenian stage, and explain how the historical context might have helped to temper the apparent ideological difficulties that we might expect the play to present to its ancient audience, as discussed by Hall. The changes that Hall traces over the centuries present a fascinating study of how a character can be embraced by literary tradition, while at the same time being fundamentally altered for cultural and ideological reasons.

5. Susanna Phillippo’s chapter, “Clytemnestra’s Ghost: The Aeschylean Legacy in Gluck’s Iphigenia Operas”, outlines the Aeschylean influence on Gluck’s late-eighteenth-century Iphigenia operas. Phillippo acknowledges the difficulty of the fact that Euripides’ influence is more obvious than that of Aeschylus, but uses that difficulty to examine the complex web of direct and indirect transmission by which the Oresteia exerted its influence. Having acknowledged and discussed the problem of direct influence, Phillippo also discusses the possible reasons for and the ways in which Gluck uses and responds to Aeschylean themes and elements in his own work.

Section II: The Move to Modernity

6. In ” Agamemnon’s Influence in Germany: Goethe, Schiller, and Wagner”, Michael Ewans discusses the availability of Aeschylus in both Greek and German translation in nineteenth-century Germany, and the influence that his work exerted on German writers of the period. Ewans argues that while Aeschylus had little impact on Goethe, and perhaps a small influence on Schiller, through the translation of Johan Gustav Droysen, Aeschylus’ Oresteia captivated the mind of Wagner, who in turn influenced Nietzsche’s high opinion of Aeschylus which was immortalized in The Birth of Tragedy. Having established the place that the Oresteia held in Wagner’s imagination and that of other German authors of the period, Ewans examines how the Oresteia came to play a vital role in shaping Wagner’s Ring.

7. Margaret Reynolds’ central argument in “Agamemnon: Speaking the Unspeakable” is that the unspeakable is in fact spoken constantly within Agamemnon. Words are used to evoke things that do not happen on stage but exist only in memory, reported speech, or things that happen off-stage, and with this Reynolds focuses particularly on the place of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. She then surveys a number of operatic works, examining how the Iphigenia story is used, or not used, and arguing that the Iphigenia story gets left out of later operatic versions because attitudes towards crimes against children, especially those committed by fathers, had shifted towards intolerance. Reynolds’ argument focuses on the use of words and rhetoric, and so it unfortunate that her own rhetoric undermines the points that she seeks to make. Reynolds chooses to quote Agamemnon exclusively from the version of Ted Hughes, which is misleadingly referred to as a translation: instead, it is a text whose additions, omissions, and poetic freedoms support Reynolds’ interpretation of Aeschylus in ways that close translations of the Greek would not. The intermittent quotation of what appear to be first person accounts of sexual abuse and incest—no source is cited for any of these passages—are by and large irrelevant to the argument at hand. While I am largely sympathetic to Reynolds’ argument that modern society needs to be more vocal in speaking out against the unspeakable, distorted rhetoric is unlikely to encourage it.

8. Fiona Macintosh’s central argument in “Viewing Agamemnon in Nineteenth-Century Britain” is that while a history of stage productions might suggest that there was little interest in Aeschylus in the mid-Victorian period, a case can be made for Aeschylus being an influence almost equal to Euripides in the development of modern theatre. Macintosh outlines the production history of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, providing not only discussions of productions, but also showing why Agamemnon was so popular in the period. Not only does Macintosh provide an excellent discussion of Agamemnon in the late nineteenth century, she also does a remarkable job relating her arguments and observations to other chapters in the volume, helping to create a sense of unity out of, what at times is, quite disparate material.

9. Yopie Prins’ chapter, “OTOTOTOI: Virginia Woolf and ‘the Naked Cry’ of Cassandra”, fits well with Macintosh’s chapter, moving from the general circumstances around the revival of Aeschylus in the late nineteenth century to his influence on one author of the early twentieth century, Virgina Woolf. Prins traces the influence of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon on Woolf, outlining both Woolf’s method in making her own Agamemnon notebook and what within the play seems to have enchanted her imagination. Prins provides a larger context for Woolf’s interest and education in Greek literature, while at the same time illustrating Woolf’s individual reception of Aeschylus, and the character of Cassandra in particular. In addition to its pairing with Macintosh’s chapter, this chapter can also be usefully read alongside Hall and Rehm’s chapters.

Section III: The Languages of Translation

10. Michael Walton’s chapter, “Translation or Transubstantiation”, provides a brief comparison of some of the English translations of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, while examining the relationship between translation, production, and reception generally. Walton discusses the difficulty of representing Aeschylus’s Greek in English, employing particular examples of translations from Potter (1777), Murray (1920), Harrison (1981), and Hughes’ 1999 version to examine how through translation and production these English Agamemnons are at once both Aeschylean and not. It is unfortunate that a fair bit of space is given to perpetuating T. S. Eliot’s dim assessment of Murray’s verse translations, while acknowledging but not exploring the fact that Murray is the most successful English translator of Classical plays for the commercial stage. To my mind, this points to a fundamental difficulty facing reception studies whereby critical responses—in this case really a single critical response written more than seventy years ago—can subsume and override the history of production and popular reception. Murray aside, however, this chapter offers an introduction to some of the issues surrounding translation which will be useful to classicists, theatre historians, and theatre practitioners alike. Those particularly interested by this topic may want to read Walton’s latest book, Found in Translation.3

11. Lorna Hardwick’s chapter, “Staging Agamemnon : The Languages of Translation”, examines, with reference to the tapestry scene in two different 1999 British productions of Agamemnon, the ways in which Greek plays can be translated for the modern stage in both verbal and non-verbal aspects. She looks at the choices regarding, and the impact of, translations on David Stuttard’s 1999 production of Agamemnon, which he himself translated, and Katie Mitchell’s 1999 production of Hughes’ version at the National Theatre. Hardwick clearly articulates the ways in which production choices, beginning with the choice of translation, fundamentally affect the possibilities for staging and interpretation, and help shape audience reception. These are issues which are too frequently ignored, and reception studies will benefit greatly from Hardwick’s clear articulation of her methodological assumptions, and from the example of two short case studies.

12. Massimo Fusillo’s chapter, “Pasolini’s Agamemnon : Translation, Screen Version and Performance”, forms part of a survey of specific productions which begins with Hardwick’s chapter and ends with Foley’s survey of American productions of Agamemnon (chapters 11-17). Fusillo examines the methods, influences, and ideologies which shaped Pasolini’s Italian Oresteia, which was commissioned in 1959, and performed and published in 1960. Fusillo also provides some context for Pasolini’s engagement with the Classical Greek tradition, outlining the other Greek plays that he worked on between 1960 and 1968, at which point he returned to the Oresteia with his Notes for an African Oresteia. Fusillo closes by briefly touching on a recent Italian production which engages with Pasolini’s Aeschylus.

13. Oliver Taplin’s chapter, “The Harrison Version: ‘So long ago that it’s become a song?'” might seem to belong more naturally between the chapters of Walton and Hardwick. He suggests in its earlier pages that he plans to use his discussion of the National Theatre’s 1981 production of Tony Harrison’s translation of the Oresteia as a springboard for discussing the importance of metre, rhythm, and dynamic in modern translation and performance of Greek tragedy. Taplin’s discussion of the nature of Harrison’s translation, its choice to use language that creates a world alien to the audience rather than familiar, and its relationship to the original Greek, will undoubtedly be of use to those who are struggling to find a context in which to compare translations, and to appreciate the uniqueness of Harrison’s work. The later part of the chapter, however, becomes something of a defense of Harrison’s translation against those who do not like it. While I agree completely with Taplin’s assessment of Harrison’s merit, and his insistence on the need to distinguish translations made from the original language from versions produced from secondary sources, I worry that the critical responses threaten to subsume the translation itself. The best defense that there is of Harrison’s translation to my mind are the simple facts of its success. By the end of its run it had played to over 60,000 spectators, it had become the first English play to be performed at the ancient theatre in Epidauros, and it set the stage for a major revival of verse translations of Classical plays on the English stage not seen in such numbers since, well, Gilbert Murray. It is perfectly acceptable not to like the style of either Murray or Harrison’s translations, but critics ought to recognize that these two have done more than any other twentieth-century authors to popularize Classical Greek drama in performance, while never wavering from their formidable scholarly standards. That said, there is much in this chapter that those interested in the nature of translation, and translations of the Oresteia in particular, will find of use.

Section IV: The International View

14. In his chapter, ” Agamemnon in Russia”, Dmitry Trubotchkin discusses in detail the two Oresteia productions which were staged in Russia before 1990: the musical opera by Sergéy Tanéev completed in 1894, and the 1926-27 Oresteia production of the Moscow Academic Art Theatre II. This chapter is particularly useful for its discussion of the 1926-27 Oresteia, a production about which nothing has been written since its original performance. There is much of value here for those interested in comparing early twentieth-century productions—particularly in terms of the aesthetics of production.

15. Pierre Judet de La Combe, in his chapter “Ariane Mnouchkine and the History of the French Agamemnon“, discusses the Agamemnon performed by Théâtre du Soleil in 1990-93 as part of their trilogy Les Atrides. De La Combe’s principle objective is not simply to give an account of the performance, but to examine a variety of factors which influenced what the performance became. A brief history of the performance of Greek tragedy in France in the twentieth century is given, providing a sense of the relationship of Les Atrides to the theatrical culture which preceded it and in which it shares (see Bierl on Les Atrides in Ch. 16, as well). The chapter also articulates the way the performance text came into its final shape, from the well informed perspective of de La Combe, who was involved in the preparation of the text.

16. In “The Chorus of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon” Anton Bierl examines how the chorus has been used in performance over the past thirty years both within the German theatre and also in relation to larger trends in European theatre, arguing that the presentation of the chorus is related to, and mutually dependant on, intellectual trends. Following a succinct summary of the functions of the chorus that will be of particular value to those readers who are approaching this material for the first time, Bierl briefly examines the use of the chorus in Ronconi’s 1972 Yugoslavian production of the Oresteia, Stein’s 1980 German production of the Oresteia, other German productions of the 1980s influenced by Stein, Mnouchkine’s 1990-93 Les Atrides (which he argues breaks with other European productions in its use of the chorus), and a 1999 Bavarian production of the Oresteia as a rock opera.

17. In her chapter “The Millennium Project: Agamemnon in the United States”, Helene Foley presents a broad historical context of the performance history of Agamemnon in the United States before turning to specific productions that respond to gender and political issues, which she argues draw upon the traditions established by O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and Martha Graham’s dance theatre piece Clytemnestra. Foley examines how a number of productions, drawing on the tradition given prominence by Graham, emphasize the gender conflict in a variety of ways. She then examines the ways in which other productions follow in the political footsteps of O’Neill in using the Agamemnon to reflect upon the United States’ own engagement in armed conflicts. While Foley states that “it is impossible to do justice to the immense volume of material available”, what she manages to cover in thirty-five pages is staggering, and provides an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the reception and performance of Classical plays in the United States.

18. In “Cassandra—The Prophet Unveiled”, Rush Rehm argues that prophecy is central to understanding the Oresteia, and that how prophecies are presented on stage—the prophesying Cassandra in particular—is a defining issue in any production of the trilogy. Rehm provides a very useful discussion of the nature of prophecy and how it is presented both in the text and in productions of the Oresteia. Having made a strong argument for the centrality of Cassandra, Rehm then discusses the phenomenon of modern productions in which Iphigenia is put on stage. Rehm argues that this obscures “the power and importance of Cassandra”, further supplementing Hall’s list of ways in which subsequent centuries have sought to redefine Clytemnestra and also providing a useful counterpoint to Reynolds’ argument in chapter 7 regarding the significance of Iphigenia.


Like any volume that comprises the proceedings of a conference, and that covers such a large time period, there are inevitable weaknesses, both in individual contributions, but also in the selection of material covered. Many of the chapters acknowledge that there are many centuries in which the reception of Aeschylus’ plays, particularly in performance, was extremely limited. Yet given the purview of this volume, the point of approach to these periods is always Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, even when other authors might yield more profitable material for reception studies. The volume does a remarkable job examining the reception of Agamemnon from antiquity to the present.

One of the most serious problems, and one that I think is a problem of reception studies in general, is the geographic isolation of the contributions which provides little discussion of how productions on one continent or in one country influence those in others. One example of this from this volume is the much-discussed tapestry scene. While Walton, Hardwick, and Rehm all mention the use of bloodied children’s dresses for the tapestry in Katie Mitchell’s 1999 production at the National Theatre in London, and Helene Foley describes how in Andrew Ordover’s 1998 New York production Clytemnestra unrolled a blood-red tapestry made of little girls’ clothes, the two are never associated with one another. Given the prominence given to this scene in discussions and reviews of the National Theatre production, especially when it has a tendency to be singled out as an example of Mitchell’s directorial brilliance, it would seem prudent to inquire whether the New York production influenced the London production in any way, and if it did not, examining whether there was some external factor which led two productions, a year apart, on separate continents, to use the same innovative imagery for the tapestry scene.

At the same time, one of the strengths of this volume is that it does set the stage for more comparison between chronologically and geographically disparate productions. This issue of international influence, and the issue raised earlier in the review regarding the privileging of critical response over production history and popular response, are not intended to be particular criticisms of this volume, but to indicate issues which the field of reception studies as a whole needs to address. This volume is rigorously edited4 and, like the previous volumes stemming from the work of the APGRD,5 will play a pivotal role in establishing the parameters and methodologies of the study of the reception of Classical drama in performance.


Introduction: Agamemnons in Performance—Pantelis Michelakis

Section I: In Search of the Sources

Agamemnon for the Ancients—Pat Easterling

‘Striking too short at Greeks’: The Transmission of Agamemnon to the English Renaissance Stage—Inga-Stina Ewbank

Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra versus her Senecan Tradition—Edith Hall

Clytemnestra’s Ghost: The Aeschylean Legact in Gluck’s Iphigenia Operas — Susanna Phillippo

Section II: The Move to Modernity

Agamemnon‘s Influence in Germany: Goethe, Schiller, and Wagner—Michael Ewans

Agamemnon : Speaking the Unspeakable—Margaret Reynolds

Viewing Agamemnon in Nineteenth-Century Britain—Fiona Macintosh

OTOTOTOI: Virginia Woolf and ‘the Naked Cry’ of Cassandra— Yopie Prins

Section III: The Languages of Translation

Translation or Transubstantiation—J. Michael Walton

Staging Agamemnon : The Languages of Translation— Lorna Hardwick

Pasolini’s Agamemnon : Translation, Screen Version and Performance— Massimo Fusillo

The Harrison Version: ‘So long ago that it’s become a song?’ — Oliver Taplin

Section IV: The International View

Agamemnon in Russia— Dmitry Trubotchkin

Ariane Mnouchkine and the History of the French Agamemnon —Pierre Judet de La Combe

The Chorus of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in Modern Stage Productions: Towards the ‘Performative Turn’—Anton Bierl

The Millennium Project: Agamemnon in the United States — Helene P. Foley

Epilogue: Cassandra—The Prophet Unveiled—Rush Rehm

Appendix: Agamemnons on the APGRD Database—Amanda Wrigley.


1. Archive of Performance of Greek and Roman Drama.

2. Margalit Finkelberg (1991), “Royal succession in Heroic Greece”, CQ 41: 303-16. There is also an expanded discussion of this issue in Finkelberg’s most recent book Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition, Cambridge University Press: 2005, 65-89.

3. J. Michael Walton (2006), Found in Translation Cambridge University Press.

4. I have noticed a few typos, though far fewer than one might expect in a volume in which so many hands are at work. Two articles referred to in Hall’s chapter have been omitted from the bibliography. Conveniently both are by my husband and so I had little difficulty in tracking down the references. On page 60, note 22 refers C. W. Marshall (2001), the bibliography for which is: C. W. Marshall, “The Next Time Agamemnon Died”, Classical World 95 (2001) 59-63. On page 64, note 38 refers to C. W. Marshall (2003), the bibliography for which is: C. W. Marshall, “Sophocles’ Nauplius and Heron of Alexandria’s Mechanical Theatre”, in Shards from Kolonos: Studies in Sophoclean Fragments, ed. Alan H. Sommerstein (Bari, 2003), 261-79.

5. Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh (2005), Greek tragedy and British Theatre, 1660-1914, Oxford University Press; Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh, and Amanda Wrigley, eds. (2004), Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the dawn of the Third Millennium, Oxford University Press; Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh, and Oliver Taplin, eds. (2000), Medea in Performance, 1500-2000, Legenda, Oxford.