I am surprised at how taken I was when reading this play. Last week I sat through the night reading it, after having listened to a lecture on the play as part of the La Trobe University in Australia on-line iTunes University course on Ancient Greece: Myth, Art, War. You may remember that I worked through a full course on Greek Mythology over the summer, when my right leg was in a cast and I was house and garden bound.
Once I finished the lecture I was spell-bound by the story and the fate of Iphigenia, and although the lecture recommended the Charles Walker Translation (which is now on my wish list as a hard copy – this series of plays is published by the University of Chicago Press and looks brilliant) I did not want to wait and just wanted to read the play. What better way than downloading a 69p copy on my kindle and start reading.
I love working through this course and some of the ancient plays; the characters are beginning to find their place and the lectures are opening up a new world.
The play was written by Euripides around 405 BC, and Euripides in fact left Athens in 408 BC in despair about the moral codes. The play poses moral questions about war and justification for war.
Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and brother of Menelaus, king of Sparta. The brothers are in Aulis, ready to sail with their troops and fleet to Troy and take revenge on the city and retrieve Helen, Menelaus’ wife who has eloped with Paris, son of Priam. However, there is a strange lack of wind and the fleet cannot sail. Calchas the seer informs Agamemnon that this is due to the fact that the goddess Artemis is seeking retribution for an offence committed by Agamemnon and that there will only be the necessary winds to sail once Agamemnon has sacrificed his first-born daughter Iphigenia. The army is restless, ready for mutiny, whilst the heat is unbearable.
The play brings out the powerful contrast between a murderous and hideous army, intent on war and destruction, and the innocent Iphigenia who is lured to Aulis under prefect of a marriage to Achilles. Although Agamemnon insisted she come alone, Clytemnestra her mother accompanies her as well as her young baby brother Orestes. Achilles knows nothing about this pretext of marriage.
The play is only short, but the interactions and dialogues between the characters and the unravelling of what is happening, create a dramatic effect. So may questions come up: how is Agamemnon capable of allowing to sacrifice his own daughter? What arguments does he use to convince himself that this is the only way, even though at one point he tries to revoke the letter and writes another letter to tell Iphigenia not to come – but this letter is intercepted by Menelaus, who at that point insists that the shame of his wife’s abduction and betrayal is a shame that Greece cannot bear. Later he changes his mind and tells Agamemnon to go ahead and disband the army because it is not right that his niece should be sacrificed. By that time Agamemnon cannot see a way out of the decision and he feels trapped between sacrificing his daughter or seeing his whole family and all of Greece destroyed by an army intent on revenge.
There is also the role of Achilles, who appears more upset about the possibility of a slur on his good name than about a young girl being sacrificed for the greater good of Greece. Nevertheless, he wants to fight on her behalf even though his own army deserts him and he will be one against the fully might of army and generals.
It is amazing how dramatic and gripping these myths still are – they are myths, yet they speak to us and make us thing about moral questions, relationships and dilemmas that are just as much part of today’s life as they were of the time and place in which they are set.
The film by Michael Cacoyannis with Irene Papas as Clytemnestra is no longer available on DVD (in England) but I found it on U-tube and was able to watch the full movie with English subtitles. It is tough, full of dana and makes you want to weep. Nothing changes really: we may think we have progressed to a better place but we haven’t. The moral dilemmas are all played out with great performances in this film: being stuck between a rock and a hard place (Agamemnon), disbelief at her father’s seeming callousness and utter desolation (Iphigenia), a mother who does everything in her power to try to change her husband’s decision and who screams at the injustice of the face of her daughter (Clytemnestra), is one girl’s life worth less than that of an adulterous woman? (Helen); is honour worth more the life of a young girl?; and what about war, can it ever be justified?
Euripides is a brilliant story-teller, and this is a very powerful film – both raise many questions.