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Behind the façade: Staging the house in Euripides’ Orestes

Megan Wilson

In the Oresteia, Aeschylus posits a compromise between democracy and the ruling classes by  situating elites as civic leaders for ordinary citizens to emulate (Griffith).  A major symbol is the house, representing the elite family who dwells within it and, by extension, the order they impose upon the masses.  But in Orestes, Euripides divests the house of its symbolism, leaving an empty shell.  Whereas Aeschylus inscribes the metaphor of dynastic democracy into the skene, Euripides reduces the house to its purely physical structure.  This act becomes clear in performance when the actors clamber onto the set and use the façade as a prop.  Studied in performance and alongside Agamemnon, Orestes takes on a new dynamism as its movements are revealed to be a choreographed response; through juxtaposition of the two dramas, the student can more clearly see and better contextualize the inversions Euripides offers.

Euripides wrings the symbolism from the Aeschylean house by engaging with Agamemnon’s rooftop episode and the revelation scene wherein Clytemnestra brings the house’s innards onstage.  He then reveals his own house to be empty and leaves its deflated skin to crumble before the audience’s eyes.  His primary tool is inversion: both dramas were performed in the same theatrical space, using similar wooden skenai in front of the ikria (Hamilton, Meineck).  Both use the skene door and roof, and stage machinery to effect their drama (Mastronarde, Padel).  But the plays use the stage-space to construct vastly divergent narratives.

Aeschylus begins with the Watchman on the roof (Taplin); later Cassandra describes the façade before entering the house.  Then Clytemnestra rolls out the corpses on the ekkuklema, baring her intimate revenge onstage.  In contrast, Euripides leads his audience to anticipate a murder that never arrives.  The Phrygian slave bursts out of the house, then describes the facade, but his monody does not lead to an ekkuklema scene.  Instead, Orestes appears on the roof, threatening to burn it down.  The murder is botched and the ekkuklema conspicuously absent: Euripides’ revelation is structural rather than physical, namely, that everything there is to see is already laid out on the visual plane.  The revelation is that there is no inside, a deconstruction of the Aeschylean political model even if it stops short of suggesting an alternative.

These inverted trajectories are difficult to visualize from the texts alone but become obvious once the plays are staged.  With Orestes, Euripides offers the student a different kind of intertextuality, a physical one, in which his characters’ movements mirror and ultimately contort Agamemnon’s famous staging.  It may be tempting to call Aeschylus’ stagecraft more utilitarian and Euripides’ more spectacular, but this reductive comparison ignores the fact that the staged product is a visual manifestation of the ideological questions and vicissitudes that underpin the dramas’ respective plots.  What Plato might call decadence can be framed as not an aesthetic choice but a tool to help the audience make sense of this play, fitting its unresolved tensions into the wreckage of their own recent history.

Orestes was staged on the 50-year anniversary of the Oresteia’s first performance.  It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that Euripides would mark the occasion by revisiting not only the ideas but also the visual stage business of Aeschylus, and by re-inscribing the stage with his own perspective.  The fact that Orestes became wildly popular might indicate a simple shift in audience tastes, but it could also suggest that the grand democratic ideals of 458 no longer resonated with the weary and war-torn Athens of 408.  The performance context is critical not only to understanding the composition of Orestes in apposition to its predecessor, but also to teaching how such interaction between plays would have affected the ancient audience’s experience of the drama.

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Performance as Research, Performance as Pedagogy

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