In the Prison House of Myth and Culture: Rereading The Attrides

"Goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in woman or slave." Thus spoke Aristotle in his Poetics about women. What makes the statement surprising is that, not quite aligned with what Aristotle says, the Athenian stage was full of impressive female personalities, women who possessed the ability to challenge male authority and oppression. Many of them were committed to higher values and ready to sacrifice themselves in order to remain loyal to what they respected or valued most. Others had the will and determination to fight back at all cost. The purpose of this paper is to show how Ellen MacLaughlin re-contextualizes and re-historicizes the performative potential of four classical heroines, four totally different female personalities, Iphigenia, Electra, Chrysothemis and Clytemnestra (in her trilogy Iphigenia and Other Daughters, 2005) to enhance their relevance to contemporary gender concerns and thus strengthen their general appeal to postmodern audiences' aesthetic and ideological expectations.

"Our information age has made us a curious breed indeed," Svich soundly observes in her introduction to Eight Contemporary Plays Inspired by the Greeks; "it has changed the way we view the past and increased our desire to retrieve more and more knowledge that has been seemingly buried in the great quest for progress" (2005: 11). The Greek classics are a case in point. Especially since Richard Schechner's Dionysus 69, Greek tragedy has proven very attractive not only to those practitioners and/or theoreticians interested in ritual performance styles and themes, but also to those interested in postdramatic (Heiner Muller, Robert Wilson), postcolonial (Soyinka, Rotimi, etc.) and feminist issues. The tapestry is indeed huge and diverse.

Tragedy is still tempting because it gives people the means of talking on eternally relevant issues unapologetically. It provides ground for asking the hardest questions: What is it to be human? What do we owe to each other? How do we negotiate with the divine? Tragedy talks about suffering and war; about victors and losers, womanhood and manhood. "It offers us," as Kushner says, "the possibility of returning to origins [...] where one is both shocked and gratified to see that certain aspects of our wretchedness and our greatness have altered very little in three thousand years" (2005: xi). Some of the rewritings of contemporary women playwrights betray affection and understanding, others impatience, anger or even loathing for our common past and present. Yet no matter what channel or what ideological platform artists choose, they all seem to place at centre stage their own awareness of theatre as a cultural artefact that "contains a tension between the past and the present, the given and the possible, the enduring and the ephemeral, between what has been made and what can be re-made" (Mee2005: 9).

Most feminist readings seem to be in accord with Althusser's idea that says, "what is represented in ideology, is not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live" (in Rabinowitz  1993: 11). Starting from there, women artists go on to argue that the tragic myth is "a mechanism" that creates individuals and "arranges body hierarchies" according to certain established socio-economic and gender specifications (Zeitlin 1985: 63-94 and 1996: 363).

My intention here is to use Ellen MacLaughlin's trilogy entitled Iphigenia and Other Daughters (Iphigenia at Aulis, Electra and Iphigenia in Tauris) in order to discuss how a writer of our times de-territorializes the original story in order to re-historicize it and thus enter contemporary debates about patriarchy and its residues as well as debates about international politics. The play, commissioned by The Actors' Gang (Tim Robbins, Artistic Director) in Los Angeles, premiered in New York (Classic Stage Company) in 1995 under the direction of David Esbjornson.

Of course one may naturally ask: of all extant myths, why this one? What's so special about it that makes it, to this day, the most popular among ancient Greek myths? There are many answers, one of which says that the myth is still attractive because it is "most clearly about Big Lie Theory, about politicians' ability to spin into existence the justification for a war, almost from nothing, but also about human beings’ tragic inability to use their vast intellectual potential in order to protect themselves from doing inexcusable things to each other" (Hall H 2005: 26). Especially for women writers, the myth gives them the opportunity also to discuss their position in a grand social, political and mainly war narrative (The Trojan War) in which they never took part, simply followed from afar and yet were asked to pay the price. Chrysothemis, one of the play's heroines, makes the point very clear when she says:

It is odd to go through your day and nothing out of the ordinary happens and at the end of it one hears that, yes, during that day enormous events have taken place—stock markets crashing, landslides, train wrecks, handshakes—and one thinks, what was I doing at that time? Ironing? Planning dinner? Folding sheets? While millions died, while the world came to an end, what was I up to at the time? Making a sandwich? (57)

MacLaughlin uses the story to show in practice how false rhetoric inaugurates the theatre of violence and sacrifice, by persuading individuals to do things quite contrary to their own best interest. The moment her Iphigenia sets foot to Aulis, she immediately enters representation—that is, she enters a world already fixed ("everything is eternal and bland [....] like something stared at too long" , 19), a "place of dead air," 19).

Iphigenia the actress, the daughter and the wife to be, is trapped within the otherness of a performative code that forces her to look at herself with the eyes of others. In her own words:

I am some phantom
No one in this dress,
I am not here (24).

MacLaughlin sees nothing heroic in her sacrifice, only group rape, the act of violence on behalf of institutional forces, an act that stimulates the psychology of the soldiers prior to the real violence of the battlefield. As Rabinowitz makes the point, the availability of Iphigenia's fetishized body helps Agamemnon's soldiers confirm their power and regain their self-confidence, pretty much the same way the spectators confirm their own prejudices while watching (1993: 24). After all, Iphigenia has all the credentials: she is a virgin, beautiful, obedient, willing. She is no different from an animal prepared for sacrifice. She is an offering to the gods, a gift as well as a feast for the community (Rabinowitz 1993: 34).

The Enigmatic Electra

In the second play of this trilogy, the highly theatrical Electra—one of the most controversial and difficult to interpret tragic myths that have come down to us—the leading roles also go to women (Clytemnestra, Chrysothemis, Electra), all of whom claim to be "enacting roles they do not wish to play" (Ringer 1998: 152).

The action's takes place on the heels of the First World War, a war related to the twilight "of a certain type of aristocracy" as well as to "the history of so many women who waited, standing at the margins of discourse and life, to hear the news from the war front, to find out whether their dear ones are still alive or dead (MacLaughlin 12). The play's spatial arrangement (in the courtyard) signifies nothing heroic, which is in accord with the original play's hubristic world where "all boundaries are violated, where what is just unavoidably contains elements of injustice" (Ringer  1998: 128).

Electra enters. She is exuberantly filthy and presumably smelly. She wears the remnants of a girl's dress, circa 1900. "Look at me," she says, thus placing the gaze in a position of power.

I am their creation
They cannot get rid of me. I cannot get rid of me. (30)

As the spectator cannot get rid of the spectacle while present, so Electra-the-actress cannot get rid of her role while on stage. And as long as she cannot get rid of the role, she cannot get rid of the history of the role. To torment us with her images, she has to be tormented first by the memories of the role she carries. As long as she suffers from the traces of the crime she experienced, she will always be somewhere else. "I make everything happen," (30) she says, meaning that after so many years she knows very well how to stage through discourse her enemies and their deeds. She is a charismatic orator who can take on her side the spectators of her drama. She knows how to bestow on words special inner power and turn them into immediate stage action. Now she is in a state of waiting, waiting for someone to take revenge and thus restore her sleep. And this someone is a male who will make for her, in her name, the great, masculine gesture that she is not capable of making herself (MacLaughlin  2005: 7).

The interesting thing in the transcription of the myth is MacLaughlin's choice completely to leave out Aegisthus. In her mind, Clytemnestra's hatred is "tremendously clear," it does not need the alibi of adultery to explain it (6). Her Clytemnestra "commits murder as an outraged mother" (6), and although she is fully aware that whatever is gained through blood it will end in blood, she still performs the act of violence. She knows that if the fetishized woman is sacrificed and thus turned to a heroine—since she ameliorates the fears of men—the strange, mysterious woman is punished because her excesses severely test the system and its performative and structured truths. This is the kind of knowledge that makes her action look heroic. MacLaughlin wants her Clytemnestra to live and die as befits a queen unfairly treated (Ibidem: 6).

On the other hand, Chrysothemis, the least known and discussed character in the original story, the "good girl" that everybody "pities,” the "reliable" and "unremarkable" girl, is the one MacLaughlin finds "the most terrifying.” She is the one who says: "Who do you think you are, anyway?”—an awful voice that is in the writer's head and "present in so many women's heads" (Ibidem: 8). She "enunciates the truths I fear the most," MacLaughlin confesses (Ibidem: 9). She is "no less intelligent or strong than her mother or sister." She knows where she stands in the world. She has no illusions that

Everything of importance has happened and happened long ago, elsewhere and without us. We are not part of history. [....] We are never part of the great drama. [....] We are always at the edge of importance. We learn our news from mud-spattered boys, days late, stammering rumors. We wait out our lives. Waiting for action, waiting for judgment. Houses of women (35).

As for Orestes, the only male presence in this trilogy, he is "someone who unsuccessfully tried to become a monster," the writer imforms us. "He knows that he did not choose his role. He'd rather have a more ordinary life. His true identity is as an exile and a veteran." According to MacLaughlin, he is "the first modern hero in Greek literature [....] a veteran of the first modern war that toppled the notion of heroism and ushered irony into the vocabulary of western civilization" (Ibidem: 13). He feels so much hatred for history that only someone who was part of its making could have. He knows that he is a tragic figure, but that does not move him. Having experienced a major war, he no longer believes in honour and justice. He is tired of killing, as much as Electra is tired of waiting.

The legend performs us

MacLaughlin looks at the male as a fabrication of patriarchy as well—an idea she makes very clear in the last part of her trilogy that focuses on Iphigenia in Tauris, a play about "the obscure sorrows of timeless adolescence" (11) and about the demands of culture. Iphigenia, a high priestess now in Artemis's temple, confesses that just when she "started feeling things out of the ordinary," she was "put away" (63). In similar fashion her brother, Orestes, admits:

I was always a sacrifice. Since I was a child. Beaten into submission to the tune of fathers all my life [....] What did I know about mothers? Everything I've learned about mothers is what they have been screaming into my ears since the moment I did it. [....] What did I know about nature? It was not in my training Iphigenia: I was schooled in sacrifice as well. Just of a different kind. The girl. The virgin Orestes: Oh, yes. The exchange. [....] We are the necessary payment of the people Iphigenia: The negotiation with the mystery (68-72).

"We are performing a legend,” Iphigenia says; "and the legend is performing us," Orestes responds. A non-stop process that makes Iphigenia and Orestes wonder "For what?" and "In the name of what?" They both want to find out whether it is possible to "live without a script,” a prescribed role. That is, to live without the restrictions of culture.

MacLaughlin's Althusserean look does not simply describe but mainly analyzes the ideological codes embedded in the story and in dramatic representation. To live in this world means to play a role, she says. Subjectivity is a text that learns to desire and represent to serve the general circulation of commodities within an imaginary field upon which ideologies are based, whether this is the ideology of patriarchy, of communism, of capitalism, or globalization, etc.

Orestes, a popular cultural icon like his sister, feels that he reached a point where he no longer wants to carry on his prefabricated story, the weight of history and duty which demands of him to play the role of the avenger of wrongs he had no hand in, like so many young people who are called to sacrifice themselves for things their elders "write with the blood of others" (11). Iphigenia, on the other hand, is willing to give her brother the chance to liberate himself from the prison house of culture and disappear into the crowd. She asks him to carry her to the city centre where she will improvise whatever people expect from her:

I will be what I have always been
Visible and mute (75)

In conclusion

Iphigenia is still important for contemporary writers because she represents millions of people literally spun to death. It "speaks to a world where innocent victims of international war—many still children and teenagers—have no power even to protest against their fates; they are at the mercy of international wars justified by the orchestration of public opinion in both domestic politics and global news enterprises" (Hall 31), an orchestration that presents people as walking up to their altar or death of their own volition—otherwise the very act of sacrifice would seem to be murder or slaughter. Those in power know that consent is important because it transforms war violence into an act of heroism (Rabinowitz  1993: 20-25). Thus the Iphigenias of the world, by practicing patriotism and understanding, "strengthen the ties with the existing order" (Foley 1985: 91, 102), that is, they legitimize a symbolic marriage and thus lessen the original reactions, as usually happens with all myths and the rituals that follow them (Levis-Strauss 1967: 221-26).

I think Kushner's words from his “Foreword" to MacLaughin's Greek plays are very appropriate for our conclusion. MacLaughlin's voice is "feminist, pluralist, anti-war in the most modern sense. Though it is impossible that it should be so, we discover a similar voice in myths and plays 2,500 years old. Ellen's appropriation of the plays helps us hear that voice" (2005: xi).


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