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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Alex Hawkins
Department of Drama
University of Alberta

Orestes One and Two: Modern Stratagems to Address Intertextuality in Euripides' Orestes

During the period September to November 1996, the Department of Drama rehearsed and presented Euripides' play Orestes as a production of the BA, BEd, and MA students in Drama. The play was sponsored by the BA Division of the Department of Drama, and was put on under its production wing called Abbedam Productions.

The Department of Drama at the University of Alberta produces many plays during the academic year, most of them as part of the curriculum for the BFA and MFA conservatory programs. The organization of the Department is such that the main stage spaces, technical and production staff time, and Department resources such as costumes, props, and set construction areas are devoted to these conservatory productions. Alternatively, Abbedam Productions produces its work in the Second Playing Space in the new Timms Centre for the Arts. The Second Playing Space is an unequipped "black box" type of theatre, necessitating the considerable talents of students in creating theatre with minimal resources and Department support. Abbedam Productions and the BA Division regard this situation positively as a challenge and an opportunity.

Orestes was the second major project of Abbedam Productions. In November 1995, the company did a play by Newfoundland playwright Michael Cook, called On the Rim of the Curve, which tested the limits of what was possible in the Second Playing Space. We once again tested those limits with our production of Orestes.

The main problem with staging the Orestes in North America in the 1990s is that the intertextual reference points for the original audience — that is, earlier depictions of the sequence of events that take place in the play, and the characters of Orestes, Electra, and Pylades — are not present for the modern-day audience. Euripides makes constant use of previous depictions of these events and these characters in this play. For example, the offstage murder of Helen repeats the physical arrangement of Electra, Chorus, and audience from Sophocles' Electra at the moment of the offstage murder of Clytemnestra in that play. The references by Tyndareus in Orestes to Electra, "who stuffed [Orestes'] ears day in and day out with her malice..., telling [him] her dreams of Agamemnon's ghost and what he said" call to mind the depiction of Electra in both Aeschylus and Sophocles. The Chorus' reference early in the play to the murder of Clytemnestra — "Just the act, crime unjust. Right and wrong confounded in a single act" — reiterates Euripides' own line from his Electra, spoken by Castor — "It was right that [Clytemnestra] should die, but you [Orestes] did wrong by killing her." And the references to the physical appearance of Orestes — "matted hair", "tangled hair, so snarled and dirty", "froth around my mouth and eyes", "dry, cold eyes", "sick eyes glowing like coals" — are clearly reminiscent of Aeschylus' descriptions of the Furies in the Oresteia: "they themselves a mass of writhing snakes", "from their eyes flow streams of loathsome blood", "from their eyes trickled a loathsome gum". In addition, the depiction of Orestes' torment at the hands of the (invisible) Furies in Orestes repeat the motif established by Aeschylus at the end of The Libation Bearers. The fact that the original audience for Euripides' Orestes would have been able to draw on these previous references would have formed a core part of their experience of the play. Because of these connections, the original audience would have had a means to critique the actions of Orestes, Pylades, and Electra in the Orestes at the same time they were experiencing the play. In other words, the play in performance would have enabled the audience to question the issues at work in the play: what responsibility Orestes bears for his own actions; to what extent Apollo's command to kill plays a role in Orestes' (and Pylades') actions; whether or not, and in what manner, Helen deserves to die; and whether or not the audience, because of its own stance on the events depicted, can escape culpability for the unforeseen outcomes of those events. These are but four such issues. The question for us was how we could provide some reference points for a modern audience that would duplicate some of the experience of the original audience.

The original plan for our production was to cast four actors for each of Orestes, Electra, and Pylades, in order to put onto the stage each of these characters from the four plays — The Libation Bearers, the two Electras, and the Orestes — and to incorporate sections of each of these four plays into the basic Orestes script, in order to "replay" certain moments, at pertinent times, from these earlier plays to provide the audience with specific reference points. In the dramaturgical work done on the play over the summer, however, we realized that we required only that each of these characters be equipped with a "referent" who would give the audience the means to critique the actions of these characters in the play, somewhat in the manner that Euripides uses the prosopon of Pylades in his Electra to accomplish this task in his depiction of Orestes in that play. So we cast two actors as Orestes 1 and Orestes 2, two as Pylades 1 and Pylades 2, and two as Electra 1 and Electra 2. With these actors, we experimented with the staging of various scenes in order to provide the audience with the actions of the characters themselves, and "character referents" who could provide the means for the audience to critique those actions even as they experienced them.

We realized that this stratagem would potentially be a source of confusion for the audience and worked to resolve any potential confusion by exploring parallel movement and speech patterns, analogous or similar dress, etc.

I will discuss the challenges we set for ourselves, our process of exploring solutions, and the ways in which the solutions themselves were or were not effective in conveying something of the original audience experience to the modern audience.

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Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:34 CST
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