“The Human race works so hard, and suffers so much, and still it always must find an evil fate.” These were Iphigenia’s words just before she offered herself as a sacrificial victim in front of a large audience in a dimly lit hall at the Yale Centre for British Art on Wednesday.
The play, Iphigenia at Aulis, considered by some scholars as Euripides’ messiest, was chosen for this 18th annual faculty-staged reading partly in remembrance of the often willing self-sacrifice of millions of young people in World War I a century ago. It also echoes the more recent embrace of suicide as a religious or political statement. According to the Director, Murray Biggs, most people don’t know this play and it is very seldom read. “I have never seen it staged,” he said.
Iphigenia at Aulis was left incomplete at the poet’s death in 406 BCE, and was finished by Euripides’ relative for a performance in 405 BCE. It unfolds when Agamemnon summons his daughter from home under the pretext of marrying her to Achilles, a prince in the Greek force. Unknown to Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, Agamemnon had planned to sacrifice their daughter to Artemis so that the Greek expedition could proceed to war. Achilles, upon learning of the planned sacrifice, offered to defend Iphigenia, but she decided to offer her life willingly.
The play raises many questions that have been the subject of debate for many years: what is the value of an individual life, and under what circumstances can that life be taken? Is Iphigenia’s sacrifice really a sad necessity? Dressed as a bride’s maid, Iphigenia (Miranda Rizzolo ‘15), had come prepared for a wedding. Her sweet voice at first embraces her father: “Father, I’m so happy to see you after such a long time!” She then solemnly begs for life -—“Don’t kill me before my time!”— and then courageously offers her life for Greece: “All of Greece, great Greece, is looking at me now! In me lies the setting forth of the ships.” Rizzoli’s speech begging for her life was perfectly delivered, but when she later decided to offer her life, the performance no longer felt real.
Achilles (Jacob Osborne ‘16), the great hero in the Iliad, impressed the audience with his powerful voice and revealing gestures. He made them laugh, breaking the somber mood that reigned in the hall. With no props and most of the cast dressed in black, the performance appeared like a funeral ceremony. The lighting did not help; it was just bright enough for the actors to read their lines, but even so, some kept tilting their bound scripts toward the strongest ray of light.
Iphigenia offered her life for Greece to continue being free, but was Euripedes’ Greece free? Agamemnon (played by Professor Paul Fry) appears confused. He is a General but his voice lacks the matching authority. He is a man caught up between family and state affairs. His wife Clytemnestra (Professor Toni Dorfman) advises him to take charge of the public matters while she takes care of the family. Why is Greece going to war? Is the war a just cause or a quarrel between individuals? Agamemnon claims to fight for Greek freedom, but the only one free enough to reprimand him is his slave (Professor Lawrence Manley). Yet his exchange with Agamemnon did not portray his real position in the Greek hierarchy; Manley seemed too confident for a slave, even a wise one.
The play’s sadness was broken from time to time by the chorus, but instead of singing together in harmony, the actors took turns reading. When the chorus finally sang together at the play’s close, the effect was beautiful, but at the same time raised questions as to why they had not sung together earlier. For instance, Peleus and Thetis’ wedding and Iphigenia’s sacrifice should have been sunng or at least read in unison to portray the changing atmosphere.
The cast of this 18th annual faculty staged reading was drawn from Yale faculty and students from the English, Classics, and Theatre studies Departments. “They are not professional actors,” Murray Biggs told me. But Dorfman played Clytemnestra excellently. Her voice varied with the circumstances. She was happy when preparing for her daughter’s marriage and solemn when mediating for her life. The other actors similarly succeeded, especially Osborne, who connected well with the audience.
Iphigenia’s speech saying that the gods are more powerful that men, that Greeks must prevail over barbarians, that males are more valuable than females, makes ss wonder whether her death is necessary for defending these values. Artemis, just like what God did to Patriarch Abraham, substituted the human sacrifice with a lamb — Iphigenia was saved. Euripides leaves us with a question, one that has continued to resonate through World War I and through the present day: must we ever sacrifice ourselves?