|art by Eric Shanower|
A few years ago, when reading my friend Eric Shanower’s comic, Age Of Bronze (his epic retelling of the Trojan War),
I came across the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. I vaguely
remembered Euripides' play, but Eric's version highlighted themes that I found both compelling and surprisingly resonant. “It's all in Euripides,” he told me. Reading the text again, there was much more in it than I remembered.
Eric and I started a graphic novel version of the play play, using images from Age of Bronze—and are still working on it. But once I had finished the translation, I wanted to stage it using images from Eric’s work.
Iphigenia in Aulis is an examination of the power of the mob. The antagonists are not onstage: neither the soldiers that force the murder of Iphigenia, nor the prophet Kalchas who incites them, nor the rabble-rouser Odysseus who leads them. Instead we see Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, struggle against fate—a fate determined not by the gods, but by an “angry horde of mortal men.”
As a playwright, Euripides expresses an unusual level of doubt. Doubt about democracy, which is often a small step away from ochlocracy (mob rule) and doubt about religiously inspired violence. Such doubts resonate today, most recently in the revolutions of the Arab Spring and their mixed consequences. Is democracy an unqualified good? When does it become a tyranny of the majority, or worse, a bloodthirsty force of a communal beast?
Although the antagonists are offstage, we see and hear a representative of the mob—the Chorus. The women of the Chorus straddle the border. They are part of “the masses,” yet they also represent the oppressed—women raped or murdered in times of war. Their songs are violent, sexual, and raw, and rock is the obvious style to convey that energy. As a fan of Aldo Perez’s music, I knew his style would allow the Chorus to be visceral, and even bestial, but also sexy and witty.
I deliberately mixed the language in this translation and gave the principals a heightened diction to set them apart from the Chorus. Their masks provide further distance, creating “second selves” that they serenely present in public, even while boiling with emotion inside. Jane Stein designed them to double as objects—a staff, a walking stick, a sword—that also conveyed status. For the faces, she transformed Eric’s images into three-dimensions that play on the historical links between masks, puppetry and comic art.
Euripides’ subject is surprisingly contemporary, and so is the way he tells it. The gods are mentioned, but their existence is ambiguous. Instead he focuses on men and the terrible acts they force each other to commit. This production intermingles the contemporary with the classical because Euripides’ ideas are alive for us today, and just as deadly, as they were 2,400 years ago.