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Inside THE ORESTEIA: Notes from the New York Workshop

Dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg shares his experience from the rehearsal room.

The first day of the workshop, like most first rehearsal days, is an unusual one. The full company, including Michael and playwright Ellen McLaughlin, are joined by a full group of designers: Susan Hilferty, Jennifer Tipton and Randolyn Zynn. “It’s an incredible group,” Michael says. It is, with members of the faculty from NYU and Yale present, many of them active in the highest New York and international theatre circles since the 1970s. It’s also, notably, a group of women, and points to the deep vein of feminism animating Ellen’s adaptation of the play.

This workshop, Michael acknowledges, is “not about putting the play on its feet and staging the play.” What we really want to do is to “leave this period really, really happy with the text.” Michael wants to spend at least the first week of two on the text. (It will prove to be a week and a half.) “There will be changes,” he assures us. “It’s been a joy to work with Ellen the last couple of years. She has done an extraordinary job in dealing with this text of Aeschylus,” adding, almost as an afterthought, “with some Euripides and Sophocles.”

Michael prompts Ellen to speak about the play before we read it, and we spend half of the six hour day just on this. It is a means of drawing out the ideas, of laying cards on the table, giving us a baseline from which to work.

“Three plays make up the trilogy of the Oresteia by Aeschylus—I’ve turned the trilogy into one play—and they all involve the final chapters of the Curse of House of Atreus, which is a story about the worst crimes that human beings are capable of, including parents killing children, a wife killing her husband, and children killing parents,” Ellen says. “Aeschylus was writing at the beginning of the Athenian Golden Age. He ends the plays by proposing that the end of that cycle of blood was a mythological basis for the ideas of the rule of law and of democracy itself. In the last play, Orestes is put on trial for the murder of his mother, with Apollo as his defense and the Furies—those ancient, atavistic female goddesses of vengeance—as his prosecutors. Athena presides as judge over a human jury of Athenian citizens. When the jury is hung—half voting to kill Orestes, half voting to release him—Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes. The Furies are, well, furious, when they lose, and threaten to destroy the city, but Athena prevails on them to allow the verdict to stand, bargaining to give them a place in Athens as revered (rather than merely feared) goddesses, though they must give up the privilege of the kind of power they once had. So there’s a lot of hope at the end of his version of the story, a suggestion that these problems are solvable through reason, through law and justice. But there’s also an inherent subjugation of the female at the end of his trilogy because the Furies are subdued and controlled by a new idea of civic justice.

“Two years ago, I had written a very rough draft of the first two acts, which involve Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon on his return from Troy and then, ten years later, Orestes’ murder of her in retribution for his father and at the urging of Apollo. I still didn’t know quite what to do yet with Part 3, which is about the trial of Orestes and which can turn into a sort of tiresome civics lesson if it isn’t done right. Not to mention that the misogyny at the heart of it is hard to deal with at the best of times. And then the election happened. I was completely flattened and bewildered—I certainly couldn’t ring the bell for the dawn of democracy and a new just age. And the idea of celebrating the subjugation of the female sickened me. But I needed hope more than ever, so I tried to think of times in human history when we’d done the right thing in the wake of human violence. The Marshall Plan is one example—enlightened investment in democracy stabilizing Europe after WWII. South Africa is another, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work to heal the wounds of a country in the wake of great violence and trauma. The idea being that both the victims and perpetrators of violence have been excluded from the human circle and that only by listening to everything both have to say do we find a way to bring them back into that fold without the need for retributive violence.

“In the Aeschylus, the Chorus changes over the course of the three plays, starting as old men, then enslaved women in the second and finally in the third play they are the Furies themselves. In this version, because it’s all one play, I decided to make them people who work in the house—the ‘help’—people who know this family and have worked and lived in the House of Atreus their entire lives. I thought that made sense and would be appropriately terrifying for the remaining principle characters if the people they’d ignored and dismissed all this time ended up having the final say about what the verdict on their fates. At the same time, in Part 3, Electra, in trying to defend her brother, turns on the Chorus and says, “Why didn’t you do anything when all these crimes were being committed? Your hands aren’t clean either. You were here.” That has to be a moment of real reckoning, an indictment of all of our complacency, our responsibility not to watch passively, our complicity in great crimes.”

After mentioning the work he did at Juilliard on Adrienne Kennedy’s adaptations of Orestes and Electra by Euripides, Michael pauses, searching for the right way to phrase his idea. This project is going to be different. “Ellen and I both want it to be human while also not being quite human. It’s tricky.”

It is. The trickiness lies in our attempt to communicate how Ellen’s is a secular adaptation of Greek tragedy, one in which none of the gods explicitly appear. As Ellen will say, to a confused actor playing Cassandra: there are no gods in this play. But there definitely are gods in Troy and Greece, just as there are new, unseen gods in America that we take for granted. Money, Power, Justice. They are not representable as such, but they need to be real in our minds.

Look for more glimpses at the process of creating The Oresteia, Ellen McLaughlin’s epic world premiere and Michael Kahn’s final production with Shakespeare Theatre Company, later this season.

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