“One of the great anti-war plays, ‘Iphigenia,’ exemplifies how the momentum of war can propel individuals and a nation toward the unspeakable.” This is how the website for the School of Music, Theater and Dance bills its upcoming performance of the last surviving play of the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides, written at the end of the fifth century B.C.
Iphigenia at Aulis
April 2-12 at Arthur Miller Theater
General Admission $28; Students $10
“Iphigenia” examines the story of the ethical conflict over the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, in the prelude to the Trojan War. Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, faces this decision because Athena is barring their travel to Troy and decides that a sacrifice of a family member will appease her. But he has to grapple with doubt and hesitation over this decision, and deals with a back-and-forth game of persuasion with his brother, Menelaus.
Euripides, writing against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War, had war at the front of his mind. “Iphigenia at Aulis” was performed at the state-sanctioned annual dramatic festival, the Dionysia, where it took first prize a year after the author’s death and a year before the end of the Peloponnesian War – the conflict that supplanted Athens as a major economic and political power, giving way to Spartan hegemony. Lysander, a Spartan commander, established the oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 B.C., during which time Athenians faced land expropriations, state-legitimated murder and forced exile.
“I think (war) is something I constantly react to, and I think our students do, too. I just think it’s important for art, and theater as one of the arts, to keep on reminding people that maybe we should be doing more to stop it,” said SMTD Professor Michael Tulip, director of the production.
If literature is written in the confluence of historical, political and social forces, then “Iphigenia” is no exception. Just because it was written 2421 years ago does not mean that it was written in an indeterminate then-and-not-now. And it is significant that Euripides was writing amid – or against – the Peloponnesian War, since Thucydides’s canonical account of the military conflict is one that influences military strategy and historiography to this day. Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian who introduced “The Landmark Thucydides” is also someone who praised President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and advocated for strong responses to Iran.
Tulip and students of SMTD set their production of “Iphigenia” in the 21st century, foregrounding the resonances between Euripides’s anti-war play and the immediacy of anti-war politics to our geopolitical situation.
“In terms of costumes, we are in 21st century Greece and the soldiers look like they could be in Desert Storm or Afghanistan, but without any emblems or anything to say that these are Americans or Greeks,” Tulip said. “We’re not doing any old robes or anything.”
Tulip said that he and the cast have emphasized movement and physicality in their production as a means for enacting the internal ethical and affective conflict in and between each character.
“For me, I would say that the way we’re looking at this work, it’s almost like a cross between a wrestler, a dancer and a human being who has got a lot at stake,” Tulip said.
For Tulip and the SMTD cast, their production of Iphigenia always plays out at multiple levels. On the one hand, theirs is a theatrical project that emphasizes the duality between character and that character’s allegory in an ethical conflict in the context of war. On the other hand, there is the way that “Iphigenia” emphasized Euripides as an anti-war writer, and de-historicized and re-historicized the piece all at once. It pulls Euripides’s play out of history to make comment on a time – ours – that is entirely not his. But reading his work as an anti-war play also puts Euripides into context as someone who was responding to his contemporaneous geopolitics.
The Friday performances (April 3 and April 10) will be followed by a talk-back session with the director, dramaturge and cast.