Edited by Stratos Constantinidis
409 pp. Leiden: Brill Academic
Reviewed by Amy S. Green*
In The Reception of Aeschylus’ Plays through Shifting Models and Frontiers, editor Stratos Constantinidis assembles essays from editors, translators, adapters, critics and directors, who each bring a distinct disciplinary perspective to the record. An Aeschylean play, Constantinidis asserts, comes down to us as “an open signifier with existing and potential meanings that are infinitely malleable” (7) and “attract[s] a group of specialists who . . . exert a pull on one another” (5).
Collectively, if unintentionally, these specialists cook up a rich broth of interpretation that infuses later adaptations, both on the page and on the stage. The collection aims to capture both “the evolving interplay between scholarly erudition and artistic imagination” (8) and the interplay of specialties across time and place. To facilitate dialogue among them, the editor asked his contributors to read drafts of the other entries and revise their own in response. He offers this volume as a virtual meeting space for “specialists” and invites us to join, or at least eavesdrop on, their conversation.
Thirteen chapters are arranged “systematically,” rather than in geographical or historical order (2), although I detect an implicit chronology from page to stage. Topics range from “Aeschylus and His Afterlife in the Classical Period” (Johanna Hanink and Anna S. Huslig); “Aeschylus in the Balance: Weighing Corpses and the Problem of Translation” (Rush Rahm); “Cognitive Theory and Aeschylus” (Peter Meinick); “Aeschylus and Western Opera” (Sarah Brown Ferrario); to “The Oresteia in Kannada: The Indian Context” (Vijaya Guttal). Readers who choose to dip in rather than read straight through are encouraged to check out the chapters immediately before and after.
I took Constantinidis’ advice, zeroed in on Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.’s “Pop Music Adaptations of Aeschylus’ Play,” and, then, perused the preceding and following essays. Wetmore’s four “pop-music mediated” (236) examples draw on homegrown U.S. musical genres to update and “Americanize” Aeschylean drama (238). The author posits that hip-hop, bluegrass, classic rock, R&B, gospel, punk rock, disco and the songs of ABBA (that most-American Swedish global phenomenon) attempt to create experiential equivalence between ancient and modern theatrical events, and keeps his eye on the tension between relevance and authenticity.
Musical choices set the tone for each of the four productions. Will Powers’ The Seven used hip-hop rhythms, sampling and mashups to “find the black voice” in Aeschylus’ “white text,” and connect intra-group violence in Seven against Thebes to the “legacies of violence and power” and “disempowerment in the American Black Community” (240). The chorus was reduced to a female DJ; Oedipus showed up, proclaiming himself “The Original Mutha Fucka”; and the music evolved through different iterations of the show between 2001 and 2008 to keep current with fluctuations in hip-hop music and culture. Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Review 2008 Oresteia was set at a 1930s dust bowl carnival-cum-“traveling rock-concert, with props and instruments pulled from trunks and cases” (243). Athena sang gospel; the Furies sang punk rock. “Who knew an ancient Greek tragedy could be so fun?” asked one critic, while another lamented that “Even with such bloody subject matter, the show is a comedy” (244).
LA’s Troubadour Theatre Company brought a similarly lighthearted touch to Abbamemmnon (2014). Director Matt Walker reset the action to Southern California, assumed his audience had no prior knowledge of the play, and inserted “metatheatrical” devices to orient them: “Helen of Troy is the last name you’ll recognize tonight.” Major speeches were conveyed via ABBA megahits (I wondered whether the audience sang along). Pop references included a description of Clytemnestra as “worse than the Kardashians.” “The tragedy [did] not run deep,” says Wetmore, “and the tongues of the actors [were] firmly in [their] cheeks” (248).
In contrast, Diane Paulus and her A.R.T. collaborators from the east coast took a very serious approach to Prometheus Bound. In a program essay, playwright Steven Sater called Aeschylus’ play, “the most searing indictment of tyranny ever written” (245). Indeed, Amnesty International was in the lobby recruiting petition signatures, volunteers and donations at every performance. However, according to one critic, “leather-clad performers, techno-inspired lighting, and pounding choral repetition prevented such political commentary from resonating in the dance club atmosphere” (245). Wetmore’s examples raise critical questions about relevance and authenticity: How far is too far in adapting ancient drama if the goal is approximation of the original experience? What if extraordinary measures bring modern audiences to the plays? And, if we agree that the plays’ longevity is undimmed by adaptation, how will history treat these time-, place- and style-bound performances?
The editor’s advice paid off when I looked for resonance in his sequence of essays. Dana L. Munteanu’s “Aeschylus’ Cassandra in the Operas of Taneyev and Gnecchi” is Chapter 8 to Wetmore’s Chapter 9; Paul Monaghan’s “Aeschylus as Postdramatic Analogue: A Thing Both Cool and Fiery” is Chapter 10. Wetmore had already reminded me that opera was a popular form in the nineteenth century (236). Just as his chapter raised questions of relevance for rock adaptations, Taneyev’s 1895 Oresteia and Gnecchi’s 1905 Agamemnon shared “a similar fate—i.e. they had successful initial productions; then they were nearly forgotten” until “the last decades of the 20th century” (214-15).
Rock opera pales in chutzpah when compared to Monaghan’s “postdramatic” adaptations. He argues that “while the assumptions and conventions of ‘modern’ drama are unsuited to . . . the ‘comet’s tail’ of uncertainty and resistance to illumination” in Aeschylean tragedy, “these same ‘discordant and incommensurable elements’ (Nietzsche) may be surprisingly reanimated by . . . ‘the aesthetics of undecidability’ that underpins ‘postdramatic theatre’” (Lehmann 251). For me, these before and after entries underscored two continua, the first a chronological progression from milder to more radical adaptation, the second the underlying critical/theoretical debate about what, if any, obligation, if any do we owe to Aeschylus’ unrecoverable intent.
Constantinidis describes his collection alternately as “multidisciplinary” (2), “transdisciplinary (4), and “interdisciplinary” (5). But juxtaposing disciplinary chapters does not add up to interdisciplinarity, which would require bringing to bear multiple disciplines within a single essay or methodology. I found myself imagining dialogues or round-table transcripts that would have allowed the various specialists to wrestle with one another directly.
*Amy S. Green is an Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Applied Theatre at John Jay College and the School of Professional Studies of The City University of New York. She is the author of The Revisionist Stage: American Directors Reinvent the Classics (Cambridge University Press, 1994).