The production history of the play Agamemnon
Agamemnon is the opening play in the trilogy Oresteia by Aeschylus. The latter includes two more plays, namely The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. The trilogy was written by famous Greek writer Aeschylus who adapted mythological storylines for his dramas.
The plot of Agamemnon is not an exception: it was taken from the Greek mythology, namely, from Agamemnon myth. According to the myth, Agamemnon was the governor of Argos,. The story depicts cruel deeds of Clytemnestra the wife of Aegisthus who wanted to kill her husband Agamemnon to take revenge on him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. Another character in the myth, Aegisthus, also has the motive to kill Agamemnon driven by the rage and will to avenge for the death of his brothers at the hands of Agamemnon’s father. Therefore, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus unite and cooperate in order to reach their common goal. When Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War Clytemnestra and Aegisthus bring their plan into action and kill Agamemnon in a very crafty way: they throw a blanket on Agamemnon, he tangles and Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon with an axe (Davis).
The drama by Aeschylus differs from the original myth. The first difference refers to the style of narration. The play by Aeschylus has all the features of classical plays: division into dialogues and monologues in which every character has his own role; author’s remarks and part of chorus – a distinctive feature of Greek dramas. In fact, chorus played a very important role when plays were performed: it gave explanations of the event of the plot and provided musical illustration.
Agamemnon and the history of its writing was broadly studied by different scholars and writers. Some of them state that there is no evidence of the early performances of Agamemnon, while some are convinced that these early performances took place. Though scientists claim that there is no performance record of Agamemnon between 458 BC and the sixteenth century, Pat Easterling, on the other hand, is argues the play was put on the stage due to a well-known fact that Greeks appreciated theatrical art (Marshal).
Hence, in accordance with the historical background, the first staging of Agamemnon might have taken place in 458 BC in Athens, Greece (Davis). In order to understand the details of performance of those times it is important to have some idea of the structure and of Greek theatre of those times.
As mentioned above, theatrical art was widely favored by the Greeks. Moreover, such love was revealed in special holiday – referred to as Dionysiacs, during which different plays were performed. The theatre itself was in the open air and had the following parts: the space for spectators, which was organized in the form of semicircle with layers on different levels; skena – the place where plays were staged; and orchestra – the place for chorus. At first, there was only one actor who changed masks to perform different roles. The 2nd actor was introduced by Aeschylus, and the 3d one – by Sophocles. Another distinctive feature of Greek theatre was duration of performances the which could last for two or three days or even for the whole week (Hemingway).
Though there is no description of the first performance of Agamemnon, we could derive an idea based on the knowledge about Greek theatre of those times.
Taking into consideration that Agamemnon was, probably, first performed in 458 BC, we can presuppose that there were already two actors engaged in the performance. Though, we could also presume that Aeschylus, probably, under the influence of Sophocles made an innovation in staging of his play by giving a part to the third actor (Aeschylus). Consequently, the roles in the play were distributed between three people, though, according to the text of the play, there should be at least six characters: Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Agamemnon, the Watchman, Cassandra and the person who brings the message that Agamemnon is on the way home. Let’s imagine how first performance of Agamemnon could look like.
Since it was the premiere, people must have had a burning desire to watch the piece of art. Actors were preparing for the performance: they were revising their words and rehearsing sequence of their actions. They had to do their best to impress the viewers and gain good reputation. The chorus was making last preparations, people were eager to watch the performance, at last, the play began.
As far as there is no description of the first performance of Agamemnon, our knowledge on the plot, topic and idea of the play as well as peculiarities of Greek theatre should help us to produce a clear picture of that performance.
Presumably after the performance, Agamemnon was highly appraised and acknowledged as one of the best Aeschylus’s works. Such assumption is based on a valid proof. Agamemnon, as well as the whole trilogy Oresteia, enjoyed popularity after its first display. That is why attention and interest to Agamemnon did not cease. Furthermore, in the following epochs it gained even more popularity than in the Ancient Greece. It can be explained by the fact that many writers and stage directors referred to the literary works of Ancient times, as the models to emulate (Davis).
The stage history of Agamemnon during the epoch of Renaissance was carefully studied by Inga Stina Ewback. This scholar doubts that the fact that literature and theatre of this period were based only on Latin texts and supports her argument by the fact that Greek literature was also studied and examined by Renaissance scholars. Another pro argument is that fact that this play was extremely popular among stage directors (Marshal).
In the 17th century women could take part in performances. Male and female roles were equally shared between actors of both sexes. Stina Ewback points out that there was a certain interest to Greek literature and that is why plays of Greek writers were popular with Agamemnon being not the exception (Marshal).
The 18th century introduced a lot of changes in the theatrical life. It became prestigious to attend a theatre. Moreover, it was a sign of high culture and high position in the society. As for the role which Greek literature played in the theatre of that time, it could be stated that the interest to antique literature became even bigger than it was earlier. It can be explained by the fact that classicists of the 18th century considered ancient literature as the example to emulate. Therefore, playwrights of those times used classical storylines in their works, developed and improved them in order to fit the epoch (Eighteenth Century Media). Hence, there is no doubt that the play Agamemnon was also performed during in the 18 century. In order to at least imagine how the performance might have looked like, one has to be acknowledged about the theatre of the 18th century. Organization of theatre performances considerably changed since ancient times. Actors had to be professional and skillful enough in order to catch attention of the audience. The spectators watching the play were allowed to talk to each other or appeal to the actors; they could walk around the stage; very rich people were allowed to be on the stage during the performance and give comments which showed their intelligence (Eighteenth Century Media).
The popularity of Agamemnon continued growing during the following centuries. In the 19th century, this play found a new life and underwent some modernization. Fiona Macintosh in the book Agamemnon in Performance, underlines the fact that Agamemnon was quite popular during this period. In the 19th century theater was available not only for rich people but for those who belonged to the middle class as well. Theatre of the 19th century reveals division of the society on those rich and belonging to lower classes by having separate places for representatives of the two categories.
Moreover, the play is still popular in our times and a lot of stage directors use the plot of this drama to stage their performances. What is more, this storyline undergoes some slight changes, for example, modern script writers add to the image of the characters in the play or they can just kink the plot and main ideas of the drama in order to make it more suitable and interesting. In order to see how modern play looks like, it is sensible to refer to some performances which took place in our century.
For example, in May of 2010, there was a remarkable performance by Theatre Cipher’s. The stage director – Michael Wighton in order to underline the elements of ancient Greek culture engaged only three actors in the performance: Michelle Alexander, Carlos González-Vio and Laura Nordin. An interesting fact about this performance is that the actors not only played the parts of the main characters but also the part of the chorus. Respectively, the chorus played the leading part in the play as well as in the ancient times. Acting was masterful and persuading and the effect which the play produced was unforgettable. Though, some theatre critics, among them, Jon Kaplan, underline that Nordin’s acting a character of Clytemnestra was exceptionally impressive. She nearly lived her part and that is the main ground for such a masterful play. Moreover, the play pleasantly surprises by innovations work, such as shadow play, puppetry and, of course, invisible link between words and movement (Kaplan).
In addition, it should be mentioned that Agamemnon does not attract attention of only stage producers but also the attention of composers. One of such composers, Andrew Earle Simpson, describes his experience of staging the opera Agamemnon in the article “From Greek Tragedy to American Opera: The Making of the Operatic Agamemnon.” The premiere of the opera was in March of 2006. Simpson says: “Twenty five centuries of acclaim for this tragedy have provided a fairly secure foundation on which to build!” (Simpson). From these words we can see how highly Agamemnon was appreciated during many centuries which was the reason for Simpson to connect his work with this particular play. The composer states that Greek tragedy contains a lot of emotional extremes which can be conveyed by various contemporary musical styles and techniques. Simpson states that it was not very difficult for him to set the play to music. The opera Agamemnon lasts 90 minutes, has one act and eight scenes without intermission. The opera is written in the tradition of Rossini and Mozart; choruses, arias, recitatives and dialogues are clearly separated from each other and because of that opera remains true to the spirit of Aeschylus’ tragedy. (Simpson).
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In conclusion, the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus has gained recognition and popularity during the centuries. Presumably, its first performance took place in 458 BC, though there is no detailed description of performances of that time as well as of performances which took place during the next centuries till the 16th. In the 17th century works of Greek writers were highly appraised and staged by different stage directors. In the next century playwrights preserved the interest in ancient literature and adapted ancient storylines for staging. In the 19th century Agamemnon also enjoyed success and popularity. What is more, this play is popular even in our time: though it underwent some changes and modifications, its antique style and spirit will never be lost.
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