When Michael Kahn approached me with the commission for this adaptation of Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays, The Oresteia, he gave me surprisingly few limitations. He told me to trust my instincts and to feel free to step as far from the source material as I needed in order to make a new version of these ancient plays for our times. The only thing he stipulated was that the three plays be turned into one unified arc of action that could be performed in one night by a single cast. He spoke about why these plays, in a new version, seemed right for his final project at STF. They are, after all, among the oldest plays we have, the only complete trilogy; and the story of the House of Atreus is one of our most ancient myths, one that’s been disinterred and retold again and again–durable, dramatic stuff. It seemed right to him that the last thing he did in the classic theater he had long loved and nurtured would be, as far as “classics” go, the epitome of the form. But he also said that what had engaged him from the first time he read The Oresteia as a very young man was the supreme issue of the trilogy, namely–what do we do about the human compulsion toward violence? How do we transcend the cycles of blood that have created so much of the misery of human existence since our very beginnings?
Aeschylus considers this problem most deeply and coolly in the third play, his The Eumenides, which is my third act. In it, he presents us with the trial of Orestes, the matricide, which Aeschylus depicts as the first trial in history. He gives us a happy ending, in which the bloody cycle is brought to an end with the establishment of order and the triumph of the sky gods over the older, brutal forces of blood vengeance, the Furies.
I began writing my version of The Oresteia in the summer of 2016 in what seems another world, and got a draft of the first two acts together fairly quickly, passing them in by late October. I was puzzling over how I might approach the third act, the one everyone agrees is the hardest because it can become a kind of tedious civics lesson, when the unthinkable happened with the election of the latest American president. I came to a dead stop and could see no way forward, not only in the play but in my life.
While commiserating with a friend who works in human rights, mostly in Africa, I said, “This is not the first time people have felt this way. Indeed, TheOresteia is about how a people moves on after having seen the worst human beings are capable of—what do we do once we have become morally unrecognizable? People in the past have sometimes recovered the best of human nature, even when they thought it had been lost forever. Let’s think of times in human history when, even after the worst has happened, people have done the right thing.” She mentioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa without which, she maintains, that country would be in a state of perpetual civil war, embroiled in a bitter past they could never escape. The principle at work is that both the perpetrators and the victims of violence have been exiled by those experiences from their community and that something must be done to reinstate them into the circle of the human. She spoke about what was borne out time and again when the glorious simplicity of the concept was honored. It’s not about absolution, it’s not about forgiveness, though that can sometimes happen. It is simply about gathering in a public space open to all. Everyone concerned, both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence, is present. Nothing is promised, but all will be heard. Everybody gets to speak their truth. And in so doing, we, all of us, recognize each other. It’s an ancient concept, a Greek one in fact, that notion that in recognizing each other in all our confusion, pain, and jagged moments of violence and cruelty, bravery and kindness, we draw ourselves back to the circle of what we share, what gives us a stake in each other, our happiness and our enlightenment. It’s born of the belief that only by bringing us all into the same place and hearing the truth if we can speak it, can we heal. Which is of course the basic principle at work in theater. I thought, if I can find a way to bring that essential grace to the third act of my play, I might be able to write my way to something like hope in these dark times. So that’s what I have tried to do. We don’t offer judgement at the end so much as the mystery of mercy, born of the act of listening and recognition.
Athens in her ancient glory may have fallen, as her playwrights and poets always warned she might, but the scent of her lingers all these centuries hence with the handful of plays we are still marveling at. The world has kept some of that beauty and the memory of her best dreams. They survive in us, and they can serve us as we serve them in our own bad times, knowing that something of us too will last, even if the worst happens, even so.