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The Oresteia in Northfield: Carleton to Stage Local Poet's Adaptation of Greek Tragedy
Submitted by Rob Hardy on Tue, 04/24/2012 - 6:01pm
Standing in front of Bob Gregory-Bjorklund’s theater class at ARTech, I asked the students what they enjoyed most about being involved in theater. Half a dozen hands shot up. I called on a boy in the back row.
“I like how everyone works together,” he said.
The other students agreed: the best thing about being involved in theater is the sense of community it creates.
This was exactly the response I was hoping to get from the students as I embarked with them on a six-week exploration of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the cycle of three Greek tragedies which are among the earliest surviving dramatic works in the western tradition. Community is at the heart of Greek drama, in the dramatic chorus which represents the values of the ancient Athenian city-state, and in the ancient dramatic festival of Dionysus that brought the Athenians together to celebrate those values. Greek tragedy arose with the birth of democracy, and still has much to say to modern audiences about living together as a democratic community.
First performed in Athens in 458 BC, the Oresteia is a story of murder and revenge set in the aftermath the Trojan War, as the cycle of violence engulfs the family of Agamemnon, the general who led the Greeks to victory against the Trojans. It’s a challenging work of art that explores the costs and rewards of forming a community, and attempts to dramatize the shift from tribal justice to the justice of the state—from the rule of blood to the rule of law. It’s a work that’s both relevant and strange, dealing with issues that still resonate with modern audiences, but coming out of a culture that flourished almost 2,500 years ago.
In the words of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda:
Above all, the Oresteia shows us the burdens of a culture based on the lex talionis—an eye for an eye—and the blessings of a jury trial in a court of law. After seemingly endless bloodletting—in just one family a man ritually sacrifices his child, a wife murders her husband, and a son executes his mother—there is a final cauterization, and the butchery stops for good. Quite literally for good. In every way, it is a foundational literary work for examining the crucial place of law in society.
“That said,” Dirda continues, “the Oresteia’s widespread reputation for solemn grandeur may scare off some modern readers.”
Aware of that daunting reputation, and of the more than five-hour playing time of the original trilogy, Carleton College theater professor Ruth Weiner commissioned me to create an adaptation of the Oresteia—a much shorter play that would retain the story and the themes of Aeschylus’s original in language that would be much more accessible to a modern audience. The result was an adaptation of the Oresteia that will be performed at Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity Theater on May 11, 12, 13, 18 and 20. The running time is approximately two hours, including one intermission.
The production is a huge undertaking. The cast includes 14 actors, who are joined by 16 members of Carleton’s acclaimed Semaphore Dance Company. The set was designed by professional Twin Cities’ designer Joe Stanley, who was enlisted this term to teach a set design course at Carleton, and the music was provided by composer Mary Ellen Childs. Carleton dance professor Judith Howard is the choreographer, and Ruth Wiener directs. The production is also supported by a course at Carleton, “The Oresteia Project,” co-taught by Ruth Wiener and Professor of Classical Language Clara Hardy, which explores issues related to the production of Greek tragedy, and involves class members in various aspects of the production.
This is my second collaboration with Ruth Weiner on a production of Greek tragedy at Carleton. In May 2000, Ruth directed my translation of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis in Carleton’s old Arena Theater.
Greek tragedy is in many ways very different from contemporary drama, with a chorus that both provides commentary on the onstage action and interacts with the actors, and a highly rhetorical style that contemporary audiences may find challenging. But this production attempts to make the drama more accessible and more exciting for a modern audience, while remaining true to the spirit of the original.
Because the play is about community, and because Carleton College wants the new Weitz Center for Creativity (“the old middle school”) to be a cultural center for the entire Northfield community, the production has also spun off several “community outreach” opportunities. In addition to meeting on Wednesdays with the theater class at ARTech, I’ve been teaching a spring term course for the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium (CVEC) on the Oresteia, and on from noon to 1:00 on Monday, May 7th, Ruth Weiner and I will be presenting a talk on the production at the Northfield Senior Center (room 106).
If there are any other groups in town that would like to arrange a presentation on the Oresteia, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The production at Carleton College is free and open to the public, and seats can be reserved here.