Sunday, January 15, 2006

Iphigenia In Aulis



Recently, I stumbled upon the film Ιφιγενια (made in Greece during the late seventies). It was an excellent opportunity to practice my Greek (it was spoken in Modern Greek, but subtitled in English- thankfully). It was also an excellent opportunity to experience the Modern Greek interpretation of the story.

After reading Euripides' play (upon which the movie is based), I was amazed at how closely the film followed the ancient playwrite's text.

It was great to see all of our old friends before their charged arrival at Troy. It made Achilles' refusal to fight seem less petulant and more understandable. After all, Agamemnon had already "offered" his daughter to Achilles in marriage only to have it be a ruse to lure Iphigenia to Aulis for the sacrifice. Perhaps Achilles grew tired of having Agamemnon take women from him. Thus, when Briseis was claimed by the king after the initial Trojan battles, Achilles stormed back to his tent and refused to fight.

But, we're not talking about Achilles and his rage. We're talking about Iphigenia. Euripides wrote the play in 405 BCE and yet it resonates beautifully with the modern audience. I stopped myself several times during the reading of the play and thought: the words I'm reading were penned over two thousand years ago. For two thousand years these characters have done this tragic dance. Even then, it was an old story- from the Bronze Age. When I think about the inspiration and entertainment that these stories still bring, the connection with all of the generations of humanity that have gone before...but, I digress.

It's easy to see the parallel with the Old Testament story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But, it's also easy to spot the fundamental difference between these two stories of a father sacrificng his beloved child. Abraham's task is a test of faith. Once he passes this test, the sacrifice need no longer occur and a ram is killed instead. Agamemnon, on the other hand, does not face a test of faith (though he does briefly question the motives of the oracles). Agamemnon faces the far less spectacular choices of: the fortunes of his house against the fortunes of Greece, the impotence of one man against a mob, and indecision and second guessing that a man must endure when faced with a horrible situation.

My wife thought that Agamemnon displayed some of the onerous characteristics of the Ogre Father of various myths and stories, but I disagree. Here was a man forced to choose between his country and his daughter (he went back and forth on this decision throughout the play). He was forced to choose between his eldest and most beloved daughter and the rest of his family. Remember, Iphigenia's sisters were back at the palace and the mob threatened to return and destroy Agamemnon's house if he did not make the sacrifice to appease Artemis. Once the winds began to blow, they could unbeach their ships and vent their lust for battle on the Trojans.

Iphigenia's speech at her father's knees was moving and almost flew from tragedy to pathos. Euripides wisely focused on "what" was happening and not "why". He focused on "how" it was happening and how it affected the lives and emotional states of those involved. Only Iphigenia's mother was truly absorbed by the motives- her sister's infidelity. (Remember that Clytemnestra and Helen were sisters).

One last thought for the moment: knowing the Greek myths, I can't help but feel that perhaps the biggest reason for the drama being endured by Agamemnon was not Helen's betrayal of Meneleus when she ran off with Paris, nor Euripides newfound patriotism in Greece as a whole (and not just Athens), but rather Agamemnon's slaughter of Atremis' stag. Yes, I know that the episode is mentioned and given as the impetus for the specific sacrifice, but Euripides was still a man of his time. We have seen time and again that major mythical sin was overstepping the bounds appropriate for a mortal, even though he be a hero. Agamemnon overstepped those bounds for a single moment, but the gods see time differently than we do.

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