Les Atrides

Théâtre Du Soleil

Created and conceived by Ariane Mnouchkine for the bare and vaguely churchlike sheds of the Cartoucherie in Paris, the stage for the Les Atrides tetrology was as essential as a ritual space. Directly in front of the audience, and arranged along bleachers, the stage was enclosed on three sides by a low crenelated wall, the wall of an ancient city, a perimeter, but also a line of communication territorially distinct from the central auditorium. From one tragedy to another, radical and unexpectedly contradictory transformations occurred. Mnouchkine arbitrarily provided a prologue for the Aeschylean trilogy (Agamemnon, The Choëphoroe, and The Eumenides) since it was preceded by Euripides’ later work, Iphigenia in Aulis. There are explicit reasons for this revival and for this “impure” use of literary chronology. In order to justify Clytemnestra—unfaithful wife of Agamemnon and his murderess, in complicity with her lover Aegisthus—it is necessary to refer back to a more ancient crime. Ten years earlier, Agamemnon in order to appease the Gods had killed his daughter Iphigenia, whom her mother vowed to avenge.

Agamemnon and The Choëphoroe chronicle this “foretold” chain of crimes in which humans are nothing more than tools of a divine plan, or perhaps, as Mnouchkine seems to suggest, of the intensity of a few, blind, elementary passions. In the first two parts of the trilogy, the chorus functions as an astonished and passive audience. However, the decorative quality of the costumes and the hairstyles, the repetitive and not always functional use of the choreographic movements, the excessively illustrative quality of the production enchant and distract the spectator, finally sapping the intellect and numbing sensation. A more severe directorial hand less preoccupied with entertaining or surprising the public, less eclectic (perhaps, for example, fewer Orientalisms), less spectacular, perhaps simply less estheticizing, would have been preferable.

And this is what happens, with clever stylistic and thematic elimination, in the final and most complex part of the trilogy. The Eumenides is a watershed tragedy between the old order of vendetta based on the rule of an eye for an eye and the new Apollonian order of justice, of mediation. Set in the present, it is a sober, lean, but extremely powerful political and social commentary, an impassioned warning addressed to those who desire civil coexistence. The chorus, until now festive and dancing, is transformed into a mute horde with monkeylike features led by three old women, Erinyes, who are more sorrowful and disoriented than furious. The themes at the center of this production are, in fact, those of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Resolved with absolute purity and sobriety on a formal level, and rendered into beautiful French by Hélène Cixous, Mnouchkine’s The Eumenides is a work that should be seen and reseen, perhaps committed to memory. All the more so today, when, particularly in Western nations that ought to have distanced themselves long ago from authoritarian and regressive hypotheses, clouds of tribalism, of racism, and of an insidious Nazi revival seem to be gathering, and when there is still no sign of the capacity or the will to stop the truly archaic atrocities that have devoured a “modern” country like Yugoslavia.

Maria Nadotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.