This April, the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama group staged Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, part two of the Oresteia trilogy, in Greek. The group has performed a classical drama in the original language every spring since 1977. Supertitles provide the translation. Last year they put on Seneca’s Thyestes in Latin. The cast and crew consists mainly of classicists from Barnard and Columbia, including some undergrads.
That these ancient works remain testifies to their merit: the Oresteia itself is nearly 2500 years old. However, they often create little interest beyond the classics niche, despite what they offer. The Libation Bearers offers a coming of age tragedy. Apollo and the Furies compel the protagonist, Orestes, to kill his own mother, Clytemnestra, because she killed his father, Agamemnon. Vengeance is to be Orestes’ rite of passage. But matricide is ever monstrous and Orestes still loves his mother. Orestes’ must kill a part of himself in order to kill his mother.
The richness of the story, however, rarely affects a modern audience. Ancient drama was composed in verse. Furthermore, music and dance accompanied the poetry. The production’s very power comes from the harmony of the three arts. In translation, the poetry is lost and the whole atrophies. But an original language production does not guarantee a moving drama. An inaccessible aesthetic numbs the drama. A production faithful in all historic detail has merit as a novelty and a feat to stage, but feels as stale as a museum exhibit. Moreover artistic merit suffers because creativity holds little place in the process. A modernized production does not promise merit either. The aesthetic must balance artistic relevance and faithfulness to the text.
Directors Anna Conser and Simone Oppen, Columbia PhD students, modernized the aesthetic. “Our intention,” says Conser, “was to bring Aeschylus’ Greek text to life for a modern audience.” They aimed “to recreate the feelings which the original production might have kindled in its Athenian audience. We wanted the spectacle to be Aeschylus’ spectacle seen from the inside rather than the novelty of Greek culture seen from the outside.” Both directors are classicists but have worked on contemporary performance arts. Conser has written and directed both musical theater and film. Oppen directed original language Greek theater at UC Berkeley and has a background in modern dance. Conser worked with the actors primarily and Oppen with the chorus, although they regularly gave each other feedback.
They took a minimalist approach. The lone set piece was a mound of sand as Agamemnon’s grave. The wardrobe was simple. Orestes wore a nondescript tunic. The chorus wore plain black skirts. Color came in Clytemnestra’s cloak, in which Orestes wraps her and her lover’s body after he kills them. The cloak has a rich pattern set on a vibrant red. It strikes out from the monochromatism. The red looks like blood and blends with the pattern into a decadent mess. The color alludes to Clytemnestra’s seductive character, her murder of Agamemnon, and her coming death. The lighting simulated a 24 hour period, as suggested by mentions of the sun and time of day in the text. This served thematically as well. For instance, the play opens in the hours before dawn and the stillness captures Orestes’ innocence.
Oppen choreographed the dance sequences. She drew from the choreographer Martha Graham, who revolutionized dance in the way Picasso or Stravinsky did their respective arts. Oppen also drew from the images of mourning found in Greek vase painting. She tied the choral odes together via motifs found there, such as breast beating, arm lifting, and bending over. The chorus’ circling of Agamemnon’s grave made for another notable motif. The motif emphasized the grave’s centrality as the motive for action as well as Orestes’ uneasiness.
Brooklyn based composer Melody Loveless (MA in composition from NYU) wrote the score. Loveless worked with Conser before in composing the score for Conser’s short film. Conser herself had to prep the text for Loveless who does not speak Greek. She made rhythmic recordings of the text, fitting Aeschylus’ long and shorts into a modern 4/4 or 3/4 meter. In the more flowing lyric sections though, especially the kommos, “Melody took more liberty,” says Conser, “in interpreting the proportion of longs and shorts, (making longs longer for example). Then Melody did her magic. She has a way of using the exciting techniques of new music but creating an overall effect which is striking and accessible.” Loveless and her friend Amy Yamashiro performed the music live.
The Barnard Columbia production acknowledged historic production values in casting undergrads as the chorus. The standard in ancient Greece was to hire professional actors and cast youths from the demos as the chorus. This choice did detract from the play somewhat; the chorus sung well but their lack of dance training showed at times. Otherwise the production was very well done. Ridge Montes and Talia Varonos-Pavlopoulos were on point as Orestes and Clytemnestra respectively. The artistic design balanced taste and accessibility. Loveless’s score, in particular, carried the drama, via the voices of the chorus and actors as well as her and Yamashiro’s accompaniment. Her music animated the poetry and the dance, and the harmony between the three gave life to the drama. The production had both dramatic and artistic merit because the aesthetic remained relevant, but was accessible enough to affect an audience and did not depart from the text. The production amounted to more than just the crystallization of a passion for classics; it was an artistic discovery inspired by the classics.
By Michael Loria, YAF Contributor