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July 13, 2004

Iphigenia At Aulis

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Iphigenia At Aulis
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
July - September 2004

Every General going to war knows that people will be killed. It was the unfortunate destiny of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek Armada setting out for Troy, to discover that in order to persuade the gods to grant them the wind that would take their ships to Troy, he would have to sacrifice his own daughter to Artemis. The drama that Euripides made out of this situation is painful to watch. Distracted father and distraught mother seek to evade the decree of the notoriously savage Greek divinities. In Athens 2500 years ago, the audience was in the last stages of a disastrous war against Sparta. Katie Windsor who directs has set this new version in a rather bare aerodrome in our wartime forties.

Those Greeks in the fifth century BC were close enough to us to recognise that human freedom was mixed up with divine decree. The Greek army believes that only the sacrifice of Iphigenia can get them to Troy and will turn nasty if they don't get it. It is this kind of political calculations that will impact most powerfully on a modern audience, for whom the fate of Iphigenia may well be understood in terms of the religious mania of Islamic suicide bombers. It is harrowing to watch this young girl first recoiling in terror she is too young to die and then suddenly finding the role of sacrificial pivot in this grand historical enterprise too tempting to resist. But the horror of her fate is not concealed.

Iphigenia at Aulis might be taken as illustrating the horrible choices involved in war, for political life is full of the requirement of sacrifice. Euripides plays the famous story for pure horror, though other versions of the famous story (which he presents in the play as an unlikely miracle) suggest that Artemis snatched Iphigenia away at the last moment and that she became a priestess for Artemis (and even in one version, actually married Achilles). That our religious scepticism would save us from having to take the priestly command seriously in no way detracts from the power of the drama.

Modern directors have a problem in dealing with this material. A dreadful impulse to make drama relevant to our own time often takes them over. They want to leave us in no doubt that war is hell. Katie Windsor has equipped the play with the suggestion of offstage military hardware. The chorus runs helter-skelter around the stage and every so often lurches into clumsy formation dancing. I was not sure how to read their commentary on the action. It may have been to express the hysteria of screwed up emotions, but there was no doubt about the meaning of the fact that they responded to every posturing speech with mechanical clapping. Public opinion is banal! Directors come and go, however, and there is no doubt of the immense power of the words, even if scholars are not too sure how many of them actually came from Euripides himself.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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