Happy New Year, Loyal Readers, and welcome to an exciting new chapter for your favorite independent theatre company, We Happy Few! This will be a year of many firsts for us as we throw caution to the winds and, in brazen defiance of Friar Lawrence, Polonius, Gonzago, Nestor, and all those other stick-in-the-mud father figures our protagonists never listen to, we wildly experiment, take risks, and push our boundaries. Experiments, risks, and boundaries like exploring non-Elizabethan theatre, as you may have guessed from my name-drop of Nestor in my list of father figures (as well, I suppose, from the title of this blog post, which is almost universally a giveaway of the topic of the accompanying blog). First of all, well-spotted on Nestor, a fairly deep cut. But I’m prepared to cut you one deeper; the story of Iphigenia. Not old-school Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis OR Tauris, nor the avant-garde Charles Mee Iphigenia 2.0. Not even Aeschylus’ lost Iphigenia (but man, wouldn’t THAT be a coup!) But 17th-century Neoclassical Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Racine’s Iphigénie, which we are proud to bring to you at the end of this month in a totally free staged reading (follow THIS link for details). Later on, in a future blog post, we can delve into what exactly is so compelling about Racine’s interpretation of the story and why we chose to tackle it, but before we get to that I wanted to look at all these different versions of the story and address, specifically, what the deal with that was.
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR A FEW 3000 YEAR OLD STORIES FOLLOWING. ALSO TEDIOUS NAVEL-GAZING REGARDING STORY ORIGINS, LONG-WINDED DISCUSSION OF GREEK LEGENDS, AND A SENSE OF PROFOUND DISMAY ON THE PART OF THE AUTHOR THAT SO MUCH GREEK LITERATURE IS LOST.
The original story of Iphigenia, or at least the time it was probably first written down, would probably have been in the Cypria, the first ‘book’, as it were, of the Epic Cycle (a series of poems depicting the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath; the only extant portions are The Iliad and The Odyssey; we know OF the others through summaries and references in other works). The Cypria depicted the beginning of the story; as my readers will certainly remember, the Iliad is set a full 9 years into the war, while the Odyssey takes place after the war is won. Seeing as Iphigenia deals directly with how the Greeks got to Troy, the episode that tells that story would fall there. However, as with the majority of the Epic Cycle, the VAST majority of Greek Theatre (including Aeschylus’ telling of the story in his Iphigenia), and Billy Shakes’ Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won, the Cypria is lost to the sands of time, and we must, unfortunately, swallow our tears and learn to accept that.
For that reason and for the purposes of this blog post I am willing to accept Euripides’ telling of the story of Iphigenia at Aulis as the ‘canonical’, if such a thing existed, true (or at least original) story. It is also the simplest version of the story, and the version from which the other interpretations would most reasonably be
retconned adapted; also, elements of other stories, most notably the Oresteia, only work if the story plays out as Euripides has it. But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I can talk about how the story changed from version to version we have to discuss what the original story was. What, exactly, happened on Aulis at the beginning of the Trojan War?
Briefly, Agamemnon had gathered the combined forces of Greece to Aulis to stage their invasion of Troy. While there, he did something to offend Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt; to wit, killing a stag in a sacred grove, and then (exceedingly foolishly) claiming to be a better hunter than Artemis, the aforementioned Goddess of the Hunt. So she stopped the winds and stranded the army on Aulis, and sent word through the seer Calchas that she would only allow the winds to return if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to her. Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia to be brought to Aulis, and then vacillates in fine Danish fashion for a while, sending another messenger to send her home, which is intercepted by his brother Menelaus. He lets the cat out of the bag RE: sacrifice to Menelaus and continues to be wracked with indecision. Iphigenia arrives with her mother Clytemnestra and baby brother Orestes; to cover for her being there Agamemnon pretends to betroth her to Achilles. The subterfuge is shortly revealed and Agamemnon makes up his mind to sacrifice her. Her husband-to-be is understandably distraught and vows to prevent it, but discovers that literally the entire Greek army, including his own men, would rather kill Iphigenia than give up and go home. Iphigenia assents to the sacrifice, and the play ends with her marching to her death and Clytemnestra weeping.
This is what I would assert to be the original story. However, even before we branch into differing titles and interpretations, there is debate on whether or not this is the ‘true’, for lack of a better word, story. The extant manuscripts include a brief scene after the chorus, where a messenger rushes on stage to inform Clytemnestra that Artemis descended from the heavens, snatched up Iphigenia before the knife could strike home, and replaced her with a stag. This… lacks somewhat the ring of truth, even in a world where gods turn women into trees and themselves into swans. It emotionally neuters the play and is not, in my mind, in keeping with the tone of Greek Tragedy as a whole, especially considering the generally lax attitude the Atreides have toward kin-slaughter. Speaking of the Atreides, it also explicitly negates the story of The Oresteia, the conclusion of their generational curse; if Agamemnon doesn’t kill Iphigenia on Aulis, Clytemnestra has no valid reason to kill Agamemnon at the end of the Trojan War, and if Clytemnestra doesn’t kill Agamemnon, Orestes has no reason to kill Clytemnestra, and if Orestes doesn’t kill Clytemnestra, Athena and Apollo have no reason intercede on his behalf and allow trial by jury to supplant the Law of Vengeance and, at long last, expiate the sins of his house (spoilers). My research is of two minds about this discussion; the editors and translators of my copy of the play assert that scholars are more or less universal in accepting the final scene as a later addition, but they asserted that in 1958, and almost 60 years of critical analysis have passed since then. Alternatively, the fine folks over at Wikipedia are more or less convinced that the canonical answer is that she is rescued at the last second, but they are anonymous Wikipedia editors and may well be C.H.U.D.s for all I know.
In spite of my disapproval of the theory, the deus ex ending does have a disheartening number of adherents, including Euripides himself, who wrote another Iphigenia play entitled Iphigenia at Tauris. In it Iphigenia has been whisked away from Aulis, deposited in the Crimea and made the High Priestess of Artemis for the Scythians. Her brother Orestes bumbles his way there via shipwreck, seeking expiation for killing Clytemnestra, and is almost sacrificed in his turn before the siblings share a revelatory conversation about their homes which almost certainly served as an inspiration for the pay-out scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances (see HERE for more information about the Romances, written by Your Humble Narrator). It also shares a good deal in common with another Euripides play, Helen, in which another important piece of Trojan history is rewritten; we discover that Helen was not in Troy at all, but secreted away to Egypt, awaiting rescue by her True Love, Menelaus!
These alternate endings read like fan fiction, as though someone read these stories and said “no, its too sad if she dies. What if INSTEAD, God saves her, and they become BEST BUDS” (Seriously, one of the other stories floating around is that Iphigenia becomes Hecate, goddess of witchcraft and hangs out with Artemis on Mt Olympus). I know the Greeks literally invented the “deus ex machina” ending, but in general the Greek gods were not in the habit of SAVING human lives with them so much as ruining them, and it hardly seems likely that Artemis would want to let Agamemnon off the hook for his familial curse just because Iphigenia never did anything to anybody (this play was written 2500 years ago, OF COURSE the real tragedy is her father having to make a no-win choice). Having alternate endings and stories like these would seem like Bowdlerization if that weren’t such an anachronism, or if we had even the slightest indication the Greeks were concerned about the sensibilities of their kids.
The version that we’re doing also deviates from what I will increasingly desperately and inaccurately call the canonical story, but it does so in a less “Mom stops the movie right before Old Yeller gets shot” and more of a “Frenchman updates the story to account for some 2000 years of advancement in storytelling” way. A new character, Eriphyle, Iphigenia’s jealous handmaiden of uncertain parentage, is added and ends up narcing to the Greek Army about the nature of the prophecy. Achilles and Iphigenia have been betrothed for some time, in order to inject some much-needed romance into the plot. Odysseus (or “Ulysses”, as Racine wrongly calls him) is given a handful of lines and allowed to serve as the mouthpiece and ringleader of the bloodthirsty, populist army. Also, in a Shymalan-style twist ending, it turns out that Eriphyle is Helen’s secret daughter by Theseus, that her birthname is also Iphigenia, and that SHE was the necessary sacrifice all along. Eriphyle herself her quietus makes with a bare bodkin, Iphigenia is spared, and the brutal 10-year siege and subsequent sack of Troy can go on as scheduled! Everybody wins! Except for Eriphyle. And Troy.
You may notice I am cutting this new version an awful lot of slack, which should strike you as a very un-me thing to do, especially considering the scorn with which I addressed the other revisionist pieces in this blog post. To which I say, first of all, I write
what I am ordered to what I choose, I don’t have to answer to you! On a less confrontational note, the Greek plays and stories exist as part of a much larger and interconnected narrative; even what little remains extant to us displays a remarkably complex relationship between an astounding number of characters, and our modern storytelling sensibilities tell us that there must be a single correct canonical through-line (get me drunk and ask me about the difference between the Lord of the Rings books and movies sometime for a belligerent example of what I mean).
But there is little evidence to suggest that the Greeks themselves thought of them that way. In fact, given that at least two surviving plays we have represent direct contradictions of the ‘traditional’ story, it could easily be argued that the opposite was true! These are the stories that the actual Greeks actually told, and seeing as there are fewer than three dozen Tragedies still in existence (7 from Aeschylus, 7 from Sophocles, and 19 from Euripides), it would be foolish to discount them from the discussion simply because I disapproved of them. If the Greeks were opposed to deviation in their storytelling, what would be the purpose of different versions? Yet we have records of multiple tellings of the same story; Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy versus Euripides’ play Orestes, or Sophocles’ lost Clytemnestra. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or At Colonus versus Euripides’ lost Oedipus. A Bacchae by both Euripides and Aeschylus. A lost Ixion, whatever that is, by all three. We know so little of the stories the Greeks told that we treat everything we can find as precious, but they don’t seem to have felt the same. These were not the sacred relics of a dead civilization to them, they were everyday stories, the casual backdrop to their lives. Earlier I described the revisionist stories as fan fiction; that description may be decidedly apt.
And if Greek storytellers didn’t consider themselves bound into that all-encompassing narrative, French NeoClassicists were certainly under no such compulsion. Racine wasn’t creating a grand narrative with a pantheon of interconnected characters; he was updating a single story from that narrative to suit Renaissance French sensibilities. French audiences would have expected a romantic angle; he found one for them. They would expect Odysseus to matter in a story that includes him; Racine conjured him some lines. The original Greek story is largely concerned with the inevitability of the will of the gods, as Greek Tragedies tend to be. Renaissance France is not concerned with the desires of Artemis, however, so Racine created a new moral by punishing Eriphyle for her jealousy and betrayal of Iphigenia. He was making the story accessible to his audience, and if there’s one thing We Happy Few is concerned with doing, it is making classical stories accessible.
So there you have it! A laughably short crash course in Greek theatre and legend (I didn’t even TOUCH the Theban cycle, and then there’s the Titanomachia, and Herakles, and the Argo…), a meditation on the way cultures interact with their stories, and a sneak peek at our upcoming reading. Join me next time when we go much more in-depth into the whys and wherefores of Racine’s Iphigenia with my younger, smarter, and prettier colleague Bridget Grace Sheaff,who
drew the short straw and was roped into positively leapt at the opportunity to direct the reading.