- Directing as Political Act:The "Dangers" and "Fears" of Mounting Aeschylus's Oresteia in Contemporary Periods of "Tyranny"
Performed in its particularity, in its monolithic aspect, progressive in relation to its own past but barbarous in relation to our present, the ancient tragedy concerns us in that it allows us to understand clearly, by all the means of the theatre, that history is plastic, fluid, at the service of men, if only they try to make themselves its master in all lucidity. To grasp the historical specificity of the Oresteia, its exact originality, is for us the only way of making a dynamic use of it, a use endowed with responsibility.1Roland Barthes
Theatre as Resistance
The conviction that Aeschylus's Oresteia (458 BCE) is political theatre par excellence has been thoroughly shared by theatre scholarship, even though the concluding trial scene of the third play has repeatedly posed problems of interpretation.2 A universal depiction of progress and political maturity from the tyranny of brutality and moral chaos in Agamemnon and Libation Bearers to the establishment of civic law in Eumenides, the tragedy is a shockingly bold validation of democratic process as an arbiter of homicide and conflict. The theme of retributive justice, in its twofold manifestation on human and divine scale, drives the plot, unifying the three different parts. The immutable law of the gods is eventually replaced by a democratic system of rule: at the end of Eumenides, goddess Athena establishes the Areopagus, the fifth-century Athens Supreme Court of Justice. In his closing tour de force statement on [End Page 159] the changing status quo of the city, Aeschylus advocates his strong faith in democracy as a guarantor of the nation's moral identity. The celebratory acquittal of Orestes through trial by jury marks the beginnings of a new era, the transition from the realm of gods and the supernatural to the age of rationality. In this respect, the Oresteia has functioned as a very early model of political drama, which can educate its audiences, revise existing cultural norms and offer new societal and administrative insights.
In discussing the dangers and fears of staging the Oresteia in contemporary periods of tyranny, we should bear in mind that any form of political theatre ultimately focuses on specific structures of power that must change. More importantly, as Susan Bennett argues, one must consider the "implications of the relationship between theatre as cultural institution, sharing or challenging the dominant ideology, and the audience's collaboration in the maintenance or attempt to overthrow that ideology."3 In other words, we need to examine how the political dimensions of the text have been used (and often abused) historically by production and performance choices intended to reinforce (or even impose) essentialist attitudes of the ruling authority. The degree to which a director or a given audience shares or challenges an autocratic state's views inevitably informs the production's point of view, its thematic axis and the aesthetic stipulations that are explicit or covert in the mise-en-scène. This confirms that context influences both conception and reception, and in this sense, while plays can be political, performances become politicized as soon as they meet the "right" community of spectators or occur in a setting fraught with political tension.
More than anything, it is important to investigate the dangers that lurk behind any staging of the Oresteia, especially in light of the fact that its complex political aspects are also a little ambiguous, and as such, prone to extremely diverse interpretations. While we can readily acknowledge the trilogy's democratic scope, interwoven into its dramaturgy, we should pay heed to the manner in which, as the play's production history attests, its concluding proposition of "order versus anarchy" has provided ample ground to authoritarian regimes to promulgate their extremist views. Much more so than some other revolt tragedies, such as Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound or Sophocles's Antigone, the Oresteia has often served the rhetoric of Western continuity, nationalism, and state order. For [End Page 160] example, as we will soon examine, the staging of the play in Berlin in the 1936 German Olympics was commissioned to...