By Fabrizio O. Almeida
The children at the end of Roman playwright Seneca’s “Thyestes” are slaughtered and dismembered by their score-settling and cuckolded uncle Atreus, served up to their father Thyestes in a feast to end all feasts, and their blood is used to lace the “family” wine. And if you know your Greek history, it only gets worse, since “Thyestes” is the prequel to what will become one of the best and bloodiest family soap operas in history—that of the House of Atreus, in which child murder begets filicide begets homicide begets matricide and so on. “It’s a very violent play,” director Joanne Akalaitis says, her workday afternoon uniform consisting of glasses and a black V-neck sweater over a crisp white button-down shirt, exactly what you might imagine the chair of the Theater Department at Bard College, a position Akalaitis currently holds, to wear. “It’s about violence in the family. I think we are living in extremely violent times where values are corrupted on every level from the government on down. When the government is corrupt it seeps down into all of society and into families. And Seneca is relevant because of that.”
Having first directed at Court ten years ago with her production of Euripides’ “The Iphigenia Cycle” (a later part of the Atreus story), returning to Chicago is always something of a personal and artistic homecoming for Akalaitis, a graduate of the University of Chicago who has family in Oak Park. “I’ve known [Court artistic director Charles Newell] for a long time, since he was my assistant on productions at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the Public Theatre in New York. Then he became famous and important and hired me. Charlie knew about this play, I didn’t.”
Having personally been given the rights to the Midwest premiere of this version of “Thyestes” by translator and playwright Caryl Churchill, Akalaitis has been waiting two years to do it, an opportunity that also seems to incorporate her emphatic love of the classics and of Rome, the city in which she began her research earlier this year for this production. (“I think it’s the greatest city in the world besides New York. It’s fantastic.”)
A typical argument against staging Seneca is that he, unlike the Greek playwrights and poets, wrote for the page and not the stage. And despite the fact that a Greek “Thyestes” is non-existent, English-speaking productions of Seneca are rare. There is Peter Brook’s famed 1966 production of Seneca’s “Oedipus” at London’s Old Vic, staged around the time of the Vietnam War. In 1994 British Director James McDonald staged this translation of “Thyestes” for London’s Royal Court amidst the slaughter in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. And now Court Theatre sees a noteworthy revival in 2007. This interesting production history makes me wonder if Akalaitis thinks that as a society we’ve reached a point of barbarism that only Seneca can reflect. And if with this production she might be holding up a mirror to twenty-first-century America, a YouTube nation that makes it possible to view the beheading of an American journalist at the touch of a button and where football players are expelled from the NFL for murdering dogs. While refusing to sanction such a thesis, she is nonetheless quick to respond. “They [Roman society] were the greediest. People were living in a society where people were going to the Coliseum to see Christians dressed in dog skins, mauled by beasts and killed. That was entertainment. Thousands of people saw that. It was their daily television. They had this kind of snuff theater where real criminals were cast in a play and at the end of the play they were crucified or executed in front of the people. That was the end of the play. And so death and violence was very much a part of the daily life of this society and probably more than any society, with the exception of Africa and Cambodia.”
And on the subject of stage violence? “Susan Sontag says that all evil, all horror can be assimilated by a contemporary audience. She may be right, I don’t know. I think when you get involved in the murder of children and the eating of children that then you may have crossed a line. And there are kids in this production.” She pauses. “There are some laughs in this, too, oddly enough. Working with this company and working on this script I have utter exhilaration about it because it’s a chance for an audience to listen to poetry.”
“Thyestes” is in previews at Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis. The show opens September 29 and runs through October 21.