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Iphigenia “Remixed” – A Director’s Rite of Passage – by Heather Benton

Posted in: Guest Essay

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Iphigenia at Aulis, directed by Heather Benton for the Department of Theatre & Dance in the College of the Arts at Montclair State University, opens Thursday, November 3rd and runs through Sunday, November 6th at the Alexander Kasser Theater.

[Buy tickets here and then come back and read her story.]

I have always been deeply fascinated and disturbed by the ancient story of Iphigenia. What is the psychological progression that encourages and justifies the most extreme, inhuman acts in the name of war? Last year, I began to ruminate about what it might mean for college students to enter into this material.

I wondered how an audience inhabiting a generation foregrounding individual opinion over communal experience might receive and respond to a play with roots in the solidarity of the ancient Greek culture that informed the birth of tragedy.

Inherent in the archetypal form of Iphigenia is the beauty and danger of belonging to something greater than oneself: “While so much of the secular, industrialized world has lost touch with power of rituals and myth…We still ache for the transcendent and divine. We yearn to know that we are a part of something bigger. And we are relieved to discover that we are not alone, especially across time.” [Bryan Doerries, The Theatre of War, 27-28]

I began my research by reading as many translations, adaptations, short stories and poems as I could get my hands on that were inspired by the story of Iphigenia, and gathered text and ideas along the way. But every version of the story seemed to have its own unique spin, incompatible with the others, and I ended up with little more than a sprawling collage crammed with too many ideas and lacking a defined central thematic core. My efforts at creating a fresh and relevant version of Iphigenia having come to naught, it was back to the drawing board.

I returned to Euripides’ original text and refocused my energies upon attempting to ascertain the intent of the playwright and how audiences originally received the play. Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides’ last extant tragedy, was produced posthumously near the end of the Peloponnesian War: “The audiences contained a large number, perhaps even a majority, of veterans. And we know that all three of the major tragic playwrights (including Euripides) were veterans…the plays were written by veterans, and largely for veterans – [this] makes whatever these playwrights have to say about war particularly worthy of our attention, since we haven’t had that kind of dynamic between playwrights and their audiences in theatrical literature since.” [Ellen Mc Laughlin, preface to The Greek Plays, xvii]

Fortuitously, over this past summer, a colleague recommended Bryan Doerries’s The Theatre of War to me, and I was affected and inspired by the author’s passionate, personal treatise upon the necessity of Greek tragedy in our modern world. Doerries founded his ‘Theatre of War,’ a project that presents Greek plays to service members and their families, in order to initiate a dialogue about the effects of war. My indelible take-away from Doerries was a simple definition of Greek tragedy that I couldn’t seem to shake: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Indeed, a first reading without sensitivity or understanding of the complexity of military culture could easily lead to the rationalized conclusion that Iphigenia is simply anti-military and anti-war. Although I did not grow up in a “military family” per se (my father had returned from Vietnam and left the Navy before I was born), I did bear witness to a constant barrage of military tales spun by every male member of my extended family who had served. In retrospect, I have always felt as if I were living in a kind of limbo between deep respect and deep suspicion of military culture. As I began to view the play through this new, more honest lens, both ends of this spectrum seemed to ring true in Iphigenia as well. My research took a turn into American military culture, specifically military spouse (Milspouse) websites, blogs on newlyweds facing deployment, military weddings, and training drills and rhetoric for new recruits.

I asked myself: If Iphigenia were a commander’s daughter and suddenly found herself engaged to a war hero she had never met who was about to deploy, what advice would she be receiving from her mother, and from her best friends? This path presented some compelling options for choral text that led to my reexamination of the chorus in the play.

Another personal and theatrical obsession of mine has been the power of ideology and the resultant behavior of large groups in extreme circumstances. The Greek chorus is the perfect vehicle to examine and exploit this phenomenon. In Euripides’ original play, the chorus was comprised of a group of women from Chalcis, foreigners who had arrived in Aulis to witness the glory of the Greek Army before it sailed to Troy. I re-imagined how the Greek chorus functions in Iphigenia and expanded it into two choruses: one of women (the women of Iphigenia’s court, future military wives, who would travel with her to Aulis), and one of men (the deployed soldiers of the Greek army trapped on the shores of Aulis), to create a binary effect: How might these traditional gender roles crash up against one another in this military culture within the swirling cauldron of the circumstances of the play?

Furthermore, closer in alignment with my institutional role as a university drama professor, if the chorus’s function is to amplify the action, and we are exploring the collision of young men and women on the brink of war, where better to explore these dynamics than on a college campus, with actors in their late ‘teens and early twenties?

The idea of dueling and intersecting choruses gaining momentum, I realized that in restructuring the chorus of Iphigenia I was short-circuiting a crucial function: connection with the audience. Perhaps a new character was needed to fulfill that role, a character who wasn’t a participant in the story itself, but rather an observer — a spectator. Thus did The Witness emerge, a citizen-journalist who arrives in Aulis to document the grandeur of the Greek Army before it sets sail for Troy and, in so doing, discovers the more intriguing and dangerous story unfolding around him.

Our modern fascination with documenting and capturing every moment on our electronic devices, thereby (re)constructing memory and revising history, was the perfect entry point for my additional character, The Witness. In our high-speed society, with the power to record and document every lived instant, what are the consequences that result when we distance the truth from what we choose to memorialize?

As a community grappling with the complexity of living in a violent world while pursuing our fast-paced lives, we are exposed to the onslaught of updates and newsfeeds on the latest horrific events that arrive delivered to our hand-held devices every single moment of every day. Rarely, if ever, are we given the opportunity to connect in real space and time in a shared communal experience that allows us to stop, reflect, question, and grieve.

For that reason,to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” we welcome our audience to join us as participants in the events of the play. From antiquity, the theatre has been a sacred space for honest questioning and reflection. We hope that the experience of Iphigenia at Aulis will open a path to understanding, empathy and change in the world. Buy tickets here

— Heather Benton teaches acting and movement in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts at Montclair State University, where she is an assistant professor and coordinator for the B.F.A. Acting program. An actor/ writer/ director specializing in physical and devised theatre, she has created work for the undergroundzero festival in NYC (Chasing Immortality: A Performance Lecture, Automotive with East River Commedia, Half Awake and Falling Through the Sky with Theatre Trouve); the Acting Company at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC; Kenyon College; and MSU. Recent original devised pieces include Dark Matter: Underking1 and the Code of Light as co-creator with Molly Rice (THE COLONY21, Montana Repertory Theatre); and House on Fire: Six Stories by Tennessee Williams Remixed (The Acting Company at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts). Benton holds an MFA in acting from American Repertory Theatre/ Moscow Art Theatre at Harvard University.

Iphigenia at Aulis is a partially-devised production featuring text from Don Taylor’s translation from Euripides, original text in Ancient Greek (translated by Mary English and Jerise Fogel); contributions from the modern adaptations Iphigenia and Other Daughters by Ellen Mc Laughlin and Iphigenia 2.0 by Charles Mee; selections from The Iliad of Homer; “non-theatrical” text from Milspouse websites, original text by the cast, and the writings of Heather Benton. Buy tickets here