It began casually enough. Guthrie Theater artistic director Garland Wright asked company member Isabell Monk a question he poses each year to his actors: What roles would you like to play in the coming season? Monk, who has spent eight of the past 12 seasons at the Guthrie, had an immediate answer: Clytemnestra in Sophocles’ Electra, a work she had appeared in Off Broadway a few years before as a member of the chorus. “Her choice surprised me,” says Wright. “I wanted to do a piece for her, and Clytemnestra certainly doesn’t carry that play.” But after studying a number of other Greek tragedies involving the character of Clytemnestra, Wright’s interest was piqued. “Together they made the woman and her story as complicated as I felt they needed to be. You began to understand the sense of justice out of which these terrible events arose.”
From his simple exchange with Monk an ambitious design began to take shape: a fabricated trilogy by the three Greek tragic playwrights whose work survives–a kind of alternate reading of the Oresteia with Clytemnestra instead of Orestes at its convergence point. In Wright’s words, this triptych would bring together “Euripides’s Iphigeneia at Aulis, the play of the child-killer; Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the play of the husband-killer; and Sophocles’s Electra, the play of the mother-killer.” (Following a similar hybrid approach, Ariane Mnouchkine also highlighted Clytemnestra in her celebrated version of the Oresteia by preceding the trilogy with Iphigenie a Aulis.) “I threw this idea back at Isabell and her eyes lit up for a moment,” Wright recalls, “and then she panicked. We decided to go ahead.”
While the Clytemnestra trilogy was conceived as a showcase for a specific actress, it had another point of origin–as a project for and about the company. “If the play doesn’t serve any function in regard to the company,” says Wright, “I’m rarely prone to undertake it.” Every year, in fact, the ensemble gathers in a loft in the warehouse district of Minneapolis for a pre-season lab, which functions both as a voice and movement clinic and a “summit” at which issues confronting the company are put on the table. Last year the chief topic of discussion was the four-play cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays the Guthrie had presented the previous summer. “It had been an enormous experience and we spent over a week analyzing it,” Wright says. “The male actors came away with an unqualified sense of fulfillment. But not the women.” Shakespeare’s history plays chronicle a society where men struggle with men for power, and women find themselves on the periphery. One actress recalls that on marathon days they would “literally wait around seven hours to go on stage for six minutes.”
The Clytemnestra plays provided two ways of dealing with the troublesome gender issue, Wright notes. “First, they allowed the men to support the women–a worthwhile opportunity for the males. These plays are all shouldered by women and that’s a rarity in the classical repertory. If there were no other reason for doing this project, that would be reason enough.” These plays provide extraordinary roles for women. Although they are the artifacts of a society that denied women respect and the most basic freedoms–where to be a woman was to be “nothing”–the authors of three Clytemnestra plays each created women of energy and purpose who face whatever circumstance puts before them, act decisively and, as Monk says, “take responsibility for their actions.” They are women who–regardless of their crimes and the moral judgments a modern audience may place upon them–demand respect. “The other benefit was that as the men in the company outnumber the women,” says Wright, “there would have to be a mixed chorus, with women playing men and men playing women.”
This year the subject of inquiry at the annual lab was gender, and the company’s work laid the foundation for the Clytemnestra trilogy. “For three weeks,” says Wright, “we dealt with the question of what it means to be a woman or a male.” Company members worked painstakingly on small details of gesture and comportment. “We observed each other in the mirror,” says Jacqueline Kim. “We talked about how much women use their hands and the men don’t, how women look down and men don’t. We talked about how men and women’s roles have changed. We got into some pretty sticky issues.”
“For two weeks we looked at gender and tried to get past the stereotypes,” remarks actor John Carroll Lynch, “but we found the only things that we had in common were the stereotypes.” One day Wright asked the men to walk across the room as women and the women to walk across the room as men. The results were both grotesque and dispiriting. Each group went immediately to the outside limits of masculine and feminine behavior; neither could seem to get a hold of any essential aspect of the other gender. “The women were walking hands on crotch, checking everyone out,” recalls Kim, “and the men were walking brainless.”
Another day company members went through a list of adjectives–brave, thoughtful, courageous, pensive–and tried to determine which were masculine, feminine or neutral (i.e., characteristics they would agree to share). “What became clear,” says Lynch, “was that neither group would let go of anything that was at all positive. Nothing worthwhile ended up in the neutral column.” The exercise degenerated into a bizarre tug-of-war, leaving the two sexes more polarized than ever. “What became clear,” Lynch continues, “was we didn’t believe we shared anything. Of course, later we recognized that we were being absolutely ridiculous because actually we share most everything.”
The big dogs of Chalkis
Two months later, this work becomes an integral part of the final production. To the shimmer of wind chimes, finger cymbals and girlish laughter, the chorus of Iphigeneia at Aulis moves onto the stage. They whirl around the orchestra circle in loosely flowing veils and gold half-masks, all the while their hands moving through the air with the studied grace of Balinese temple dancers. These are the women of Chalkis, a traveling party of 12 young girls who have come across the waters to Aulis to marvel at the legendary warriors and the great ships of the Greek fleet. Only gradually does one become aware of the unusual timbre of some of their voices and the width of their shoulders–for these are young ladies who are mostly not young ladies.
“Three of the eight men are over six-four,” says Lynch (himself one of them), “so we’re talking about some really big women.” While the challenges the Iphigeneia chorus presented to the male members of the ensemble were obvious, even the four women found themselves hard pressed “getting back to that feeling of innocence and zest for life.” To their surprise, they also had to admit that some of the men–who during dance rehearsals had christened themselves les grands chiens de Chalkis (the big dogs of Chalkis)–moved more gracefully and girlishly than they did.
In addition to providing a focal point for the exploration of gender-related issues, the chorus also served as a leveling force and means of fostering a tight-knit ensemble. Brenda Wehle, who played Medea in an earlier season, was assigned to the chorus, while Jacqueline Kim, who with Isabell Monk had been in the chorus of that production, received the title role in Electra. “The issue of chorus stands dead center with some big things we’re trying to grapple with at the Guthrie,” says Wright. “Chorus demands that the actor subsume his own profile in order to integrate himself with the group. This kind of selflessness and generosity is very hard to keep alive in a company situation.
No longer the wise matriarch
“People don’t understand why I asked to play Clytemnestra in Electra,” Isabell Monk confides. “I didn’t care that she wasn’t the major force in the play. I wanted to explore this woman. I’ve never really gotten a chance to play a woman who wasn’t a mother or grandmother or somebody’s aunt–the kind of person who can give advice to those whose lives are caught in the conflict.” With Clytemnestra she has finally found herself at the heart of the conflict; no longer the wise matriarch who holds the world in balance, but one who cuts a fiery path through it. “The plays demand you become a firestorm, a hurricane, a force of nature.”
Clytemnestra, the only character to appear in each play, reveals herself in three distinct guises. “Each time I change costumes,” Monk remarks, “I feel like I’m getting ready to play a different character.” In the first play, Euripides’s Iphigeneia, she is the joyous mother who arrives at Aulis on a cart piled with wedding gifts, resplendent in flowing ochre robes, her hair luxuriantly braided and banded with gold. This Clytemnestra is a proud yet vulnerable woman, passionately in love with her husband and thrilled to be escorting her daughter Iphigeneia to a noble marriage. “This Clytemnestra is neither the husband-killer of legend nor the earth mother in some terrible guise,” says Wright. “She’s a loving woman who could have been a good mother. And with Isabell you keenly feel the loss of these impulses in the plays that follow.”
Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, which takes up the story 10 years later, presents an iron-willed Clytemnestra who is no one’s victim. She is the tyrant queen: imperious, calculating and defiant, moving majestically through the play with its images of fire, blood, cold, darkness and slavery, a creature securely in her element.
In Sophocles’s Electra, the third and final play in the Guthrie trilogy, Clytemnestra is a woman living in fear and struggling to hold onto her power, haunted not so much by the past as by the future. At the end of the play, her body is unceremoniously dumped at the front of the stage, where she lies wrapped in coarse cloth, a blood-stained chrysalis with all her transformations behind her.
But not even in death is Clytemnestra’s passion entirely spent. As the lights dim for the final time her voice reverberates through the darkness of the theatre, calling upon all women to awake to the cries of “a mother betrayed by her husband, hated by her daughter, killed by her son….Arise you furies, you women–and kill my shame.” Her plea (heard only on the days when the trilogy is performed in its entirety) is taken from Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, in which the ghost of Clytemnestra calls on the Furies to seek out and punish those who wronged her. But here the speech acquires a new meaning. Monk herself hears it as a call for empowerment, for “women to stand up, take charge of their lives and cease being willing victims.”