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  • Ancient Drama Illuminated By Contemporary Stagecraft:Some Thoughts on the Use of Mask and Ekkyklēma in Ariane Mnouchkine's Le Dernier CaravansÉrail and Sophocles' Ajax
  • Peter W. Meineck

In July 2005, the Lincoln Center Festival presented Théâtre du Soleil's epic production of Le Dernier Caravansérail, a six-hour performance divided into two parts that articulated the plight of contemporary refugees from predominantly Muslim countries and their attempts to seek refuge in the West. Conceived and created by the French auteur Ariane Mnouchkine, the production split audiences, critics, and commentators. 1 Always controversial, Mnouchkine's bold theatricality and collaborative creative process with her metamorphic Théâtre du Soleil brought a work to New York with a sweeping sense of on-stage dynamics, scenic movement, and visual dexterity that evoked Athenian staging devices of the fifth century b.c.e. and created astute parallels between the ancient and modern stage. Focusing on the use of the mask and the ekkyklēma in the suicide scene of Sophocles' Ajax, I will discuss the ways in which an understanding of the creative process of a contemporary dramatist such as Mnouchkine offers another paradigm for the comprehension of ancient texts.

Mnouchkine's connection to the dramatic form of ancient Greece seems, at first sight, to be marked. In 1992 the Brooklyn Academy of Music [End Page 453] presented her version of the myth of the House of Atreus, Les Atrides, where Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis was staged prior to the three parts of Aeschylus' Oresteia. Rehearsed and refined over several years, Les Atrides ran for over ten hours in the non-traditional space provided by the vast Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn. But Mnouchkine's method was not a recreation of Greek tragic theatre or even an updating to accommodate a contemporary audience; rather, it was a theatrical attempt to discern the nature of one of the great foundation myths of the West and to extrapolate the meaning of the myth as it relates to modern political and social institutions. In a 1990 interview, when Mnouchkine was asked if she drew inspiration from Greek theatre space, she responded, "Not at all! First of all, I wasn't familiar with it, and didn't want to be. I prefer to work by confirmation, to have my work confirmed by documents after the event." 2 Mnouchkine adopted an approach to Greek tragedy that was markedly Brechtian, a process of verfremdung (defamiliarisation), utilizing the dramatic styles of Asian theatre. In the case of Les Atrides, she adapted the Indian Kathakali tradition, which deeply infused the production's impressive choral work. Yet Mnouchkine believed that total alienation was a misnomer; her version of Greek tragedy must not become self-reflective or derisive, or use aesthetic realism to "sterilize" the imagination of the audience. In "translating" the techniques of Asian theatre to distance her audience from their preconceived notions of Greek drama, Mnouchkine may have brought us closer to an understanding of staging ancient theatre in her use of masks, scenic devices, stage machinery, choral delivery, and physical acting techniques. 3

Théâtre du Soleil's intensive work in Kabuki, Kathakali, and Commedia (whose origin she also sees in the East) has been influenced by the physical theatre movement encapsulated by artists such as Jacques Lecoq and the expression of the mythic elements of drama inspired by directors like Peter Brook. These elements, combined with a refashioning of some of the fundamental staging traditions inherent in Eastern theatre, have infused Mnouchkine's work with a mise en scene that not only transports her own drama but also can help form a greater appreciation of similar theatrical devices employed by the Athenians. After all, Greek drama was created, first and foremost, as a performative craft; any subsequent [End Page 454] life as a written text was a secondary effect of the presentation of the drama to a live audience in the theatre at one given time and place. With this in mind, what can Le Dernier Caravansérail reveal about a play such as Sophocles' Ajax?

Ajax is a good choice for this discussion because the staging issues of the play continue to confound. 4 Ajax...


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