Tragically Now


You can’t get away from the Greeks. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and most of all Euripides embody the meaning of the word “classic”: At every moment in history, one or another of their plays provides a matrix for what we’re living through. Find your country trapped in a meaningless war carried on by feckless and dishonest rulers, and Euripides is right there with all the necessary materials to put your dilemma onstage for all to see. Only a little intelligence, a little outrage, and a little craft are needed to make him seem completely up to date.

Charles Mee, to whose plays the Signature Theatre is devoting its 2007–08 season, has plenty of intelligence and way more than a little outrage. If the latter has sometimes combined with his peculiar methodology, in the past, to outbalance him on issues of craft, you need feel no such worry about Iphigenia 2.0, his latest foray into the ongoing venture of making Greek tragedy part of contemporary life. Mee’s methodology will still not be to everybody’s taste, but this time around his intelligence, guiding his outrage, has wielded the upper hand. This is Greek tragedy; this is our life. If that situation stinks—and it does, to high heaven—don’t blame Mee. Nor should you blame director Tina Landau:Iphigenia 2.0‘s text, like many of Mee’s scripts, contains assaultive opportunities that, if crudely carried out, can make audiences feel more victimized than informed. Hewing to a careful line drawn just this side of the appalling, Landau animates the agony involved without wallowing in it; the effect is to direct your attention away from the horrors onstage and toward those responsible—Alberto Gonzales’s former employer and the party that put him in power. (A simple legislative solution to the Iraq War: Conscript anyone who donated a million dollars or more to the Republican Party over the past 10 years, including the CEOs of all corporations that did so, to serve as a foot soldier in Baghdad. It’s their war; let them fight it.)

In adapting the myth to our own time, Mee has made one astonishing change at the very heart of the story: In his version, Agamemnon, co-commander of the Greek armies that are sailing to Troy to recapture his sister-in-law Helen, does not sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods who have refused his fleet a favorable wind, but to satisfy a demand made by his own men: “they will not sail to Troy/they will not put their lives at risk/unless you make a sacrifice that means as much to you/as their lives mean to them.” The issue thus becomes not one of destiny and placating the gods, as in Euripides, but of placating the rebellious troops, a premise that eerily entangles notions of military honor and public opinion in a democracy with the pagan concept of sacrifice that underlies the original myth. The change makes no rational sense, but it carries tremendous power as a salutary shock, jolting the story into modernity by going back to the irrationality that gave it mythic power to start with. Those funny old Greeks who would sacrifice a king’s daughter to the wind gods—it’s easy to distance yourself from them, even while getting caught up in the twists and turns of connivance with which Euripides surrounds Iphigenia’s plight. Distancing yourself from the democratic will of your soldiers while living in a republic governed by the democratic will of the people—that ain’t so easy.

Connivance is indeed one of the main subjects of Euripides’ original, along with evasion and dishonesty: Iphigenia in Aulis, the war play with no war in it, is one of the world’s great studies of official lies and the bureaucratic tangles of cover-up they spawn. Agamemnon has summoned Iphigenia to the island by telling her she is to be married to Achilles (probably a buried gay joke, since Achilles’ love for Patroclus was also part of the myth). When she and her mother Clytemnestra find out the truth, Agamemnon has to stave off the latter’s wrath while simultaneously curbing the princely fury of Achilles, who doesn’t object to the sacrifice but resents having his name used as bait. Pressure from Menelaus, eager to get his abducted wife back, gives Agamemnon more grief. The double-talk, half-truths, and barefaced lying to which everyone except Clytemnestra resorts mount higher and higher until Euripides provides the capper, which many miss and which Mee, to his credit, has glowingly preserved: Iphigenia herself falls for the whole thing. The naive, idealistic adolescent princess thinks dying for god and country, with a permanent niche in history and Daddy’s everlasting gratitude as her rewards, would be the optimal way to go. And so she does, devastating Clytemnestra, and irrevocably setting the family on its path to destruction.

Mee and Landau don’t look that far ahead: For them—justifiably, given our situation—the destruction being wrought today is devastating enough. Mee’s Agamemnon (Tom Nelis) meditates not on his own familial dilemma but on the fate of empires that overextend themselves. His Menelaus (Rocco Sisto), sporting a chestful of medals, answers every objection with a war-crime anecdote culled from all-too-familiar recent history. Here, as at other points in the text, Mee’s collage technique, which in his earlier plays has often seemed an impertinent intrusion, registers as perfectly apposite. This is not Euripides’ Athens, where audiences sat fascinated by the tricky nuances of legal and philosophic argument; this is Shrub’s America, land of blatant dishonesty, attention deficit, and endless wallowing in media detritus. I hate it, it’s disgusting, but as I watched it unroll, in Mee’s globs of interpolated text, heightened by Landau’s brain-jarring juxtapositions of affluent wedding-schlock with desert-war grit and frenzy, all I could think was, “This is true.” As Wallace Stevens famously asked about Picasso’s Guernica, “[Is] this hoard of destructions/a picture of ourselves?” Yeah, it is, goddammit. (The quote, which is from “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” continues with a line that might be the production’s epigraph: “Is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood/and whichever it may be, is it mine?”)

Mee chooses his collage elements deliberately to disconcert, and they can get campily outré: self-help manuals on leadership and the conduct of bridesmaids; descriptions of dream vacations; George Washington’s reflections on gentlemanly behavior. The weird selection feeds seamlessly into Landau’s staging, which builds not toward a tragic intensity, with everyone onstage focused on the title character’s fate, but to an orgiastic wildness in which everybody seems splintered and diminished, with Agamemnon, weeping over his daughter’s corpse, the smallest and most irrelevant figure of all. The difference between Landau’s and the more traditional directorial approaches can be summed up in two images: Ariane Mnouchkine’s powerful production, seen at BAM a decade ago, ended unforgettably with Clytemnestra sprawled in a dead faint center stage, while masked soldiers danced, ignoring her, in unison jubilation. At the end of Landau’s production, Kate Mulgrew’s Clytemnestra—after a performance of stunning force, variety, and daring—ends as a shapeless, keening lump, wrapped in a sheet somewhere upstage right, while the soldiers and bridesmaids engage in what looks like a continuation of the asylum riot from the end of Marat/Sade. Yes, this is your country. This is the way we live now. You might want to consider doing something about that before we move on to version 3.0.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2007

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