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Greek plays: Iphigenia at Aulis (BBC, 1990)

Imogen Boorman as Iphigenia, being led to her death

Imogen Boorman as Iphigenia, being led to her death

Following on from my recent posts on Don Taylor’s 1986 The Theban Plays trilogy for the BBC (links: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone), today I focus on his very last work for television in 1990, which was another Greek tragedy – Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis – and which, as it happens, appears to be the last full production of Greek drama on British television.

This post concludes my chronological journey through the best documented productions in my Greeks on Screen case study (although I may dip back in to say a few words about some BBC and ITV Schools and Open University productions). It is good timing, too, as Screen Plays will shortly be announcing the ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ season of screenings at BFI Southbank in June 2012. The season, which I have had much fun curating, will include a panel discussion with actor and director Fiona Shaw and Classics scholar Oliver Taplin on 13 June, and a related afternoon symposium of talks by experts and other events at the University of Westminster on 22 June (save the date!) Booking for the BFI season opens on 8 May 2012 (1 May for members).

Don Taylor’s requiem for the studio television play

Not only did Don Taylor direct The Theban Plays and Iphigenia at Aulis, he also worked from existing translations to create his own adaptations. His principle concerns were to create scripts that both preserved most of the lines of the original plays and worked in performance. His Iphigenia at Aulis has been published by Methuen, under the title The War Plays, alongside two other Euripidean adaptations entitled The Women of Troy and Helen. He had intended to present all three as a television trilogy but in 1990 ‘the BBC decided to cut its productions of studio drama almost entirely’ (The Times, 15 December 2003). Iphigenia, then, marks the end of his career on television, after which he focused his energies on the stage and radio. Perhaps it is appropriate to find that his Greek adaptations have proved to be reasonably popular on the stage: to name just a handful of the higher profile productions, Katie Mitchell utilised his translation of Iphigenia at Aulis in productions at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (2001) and the National Theatre, London (2004), where three years later she also directed his Women of Troy; a production of his Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay, will open at the National on 23 May 2012.

1990 was significant in another way, too, for in this year Methuen also published his Days of Vision. Working with David Mercer: Television Drama Then and Now. This book was part memoir of his thirty-year career in television drama, focusing on his work with the playwright Mercer, and part eulogy for a lost ‘golden age’ of theatre plays on television at a point when, each year, fewer plays were being produced (a trend that continued post 1990: see my colleague John Wyver’s posts on the 1990s and the 2000s). The politically charged Epilogue mourns what he sees as the lost opportunity of using television to ‘encourage working-class and deprived children of all kinds to believe that the best belonged to them and was their natural heritage’ (p. 241). He fears that television will soon become ‘merely an adjunct of the advertising industry’ if swift action is not taken to safeguard it as ‘a vivid part of the creative cultural life of the nation, and a way of access to education and cultural development for all our people’ (p. 244).

Taylor’s particular concern is for the original studio television play which he considers to be ‘the only genuine and irreplaceable TV drama’ (p. 254), distinguishable from location shooting on film. He considers that in the latter a frame is placed around reality, whereas the director of the studio play ‘starts with nothing, space and silence, and to that emptiness adds the sights and sounds that will convey his meaning’ (pp. 257-58). Taylor admits that his insistence on multi-camera continuous shooting, which he considers gets the best out of his actors, has its downsides: for example, ‘lighting men face very strict challenges and limitations within the context of continuous action. When shots have to be lit to be photographed through an arc of at least 180 degrees and sometimes more, when cameras need room to move all over the studio floor, certain subtleties of lighting are simply not available’ but he considers such challenges to be rich opportunities: the lighting man must, he says, find expression through these ‘formal restrictions’ (p. 265).

Iphigenia at Aulis as ‘mass media theatre’

Knowledge of Taylor’s position – his desire to achieve what we may call ‘mass media theatre’ – helps us to see more clearly the intentions that lay behind his productions and to ascertain whether he was successful within the parameters he set himself. I would also like to offer some thoughts about the ways in which this production made good use of televisual devices to create effects which would simply not be possible in the theatre.

In this production, he seems to make use of a much more mobile ‘fourth wall’ than in The Theban Plays. The set is more versatile than in those productions and the cameras therefore are better able to take up a wider variety of positions. There are, for example, a number of opportunities for elevating the actors to different levels – such as steps leading up to Agamemnon’s hut and two other flights of steps which, in some shots, echo the seating area of an ancient theatre. Elevating main characters to indicate power or status is used a lot in this production (as it was in Oedipus the King).

Fiona Shaw as Clytemnestra

Fiona Shaw as Clytemnestra

An eloquent use of the steps and subsequent framing of characters in the screen occurs during Clytemnestra’s speech in which she begs her husband Agamemnon not to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia in order to placate the goddess Artemis and secure fair winds for the journey to Troy. Clytemnestra, played by Fiona Shaw (adjacent), tells of how she has been a really good wife, bearing him four children. Face wet with tears, she implores him not ‘to ransom a whore with a child’s life’ (the ‘whore’ in question being, of course, Helen whom Paris took to Troy). Then she comes down the steps – from the moral high ground, you might say – to his level from where she, effectively, provides a dramatic intertext to the well known next stage of the myth (referred to in Homer’s Odyssey and staged in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon some decades earlier) in which she and her lover Aegisthus murder him on his return home from Troy. How on earth is she going to feel if he sacrifices their daughter then goes off to war for years, she wonders aloud: ‘What welcome, what homecoming for him, my little girl? We’d need no prompting, would we, the girls you left behind? And their mother, to give you the welcome you deserve?’ Now she rages, fist in the air, red in the face: surely he can only expect ‘a homecoming as filthy as your filthy departure’? Now it is Iphigenia’s turn to beg for him to change his mind. She descends the steps and as she says ‘I am the first of your children to call you father, the first you called your child’ the camera draws back to accommodate the not-so-happy but incredibly effective family tableau of daughter on the left, mother top right and father in the foreground on the right.

For all his earlier vacillating, Agamemnon’s will is now one of iron. He insists she will be slaughtered, seeming to be barely sane when he says this will prevent the ‘wives of Greece’ from being ‘ravished from their beds by barbarians!’ He takes a few seconds to regain his composure before walking away along a corridor between two flights of the (amphitheatre-like) steps. This is a moment which – with knowledge of the mythical sequel Agamemnon – resonates with his future entry into his palace, and thus to his death, on his return home from Troy.

The paradox inherent in the rhetorical use to which women’s bodies are put is made explicit in Taylor’s adaptation. Iphigenia is protected by the bleeding Achilles as the soldiers pelt him with rocks for daring to save her who must die in order that they can wage the Trojan war. He arms himself to go into battle with them and now her mother stands in front of her, guarding her daughter’s body from the violent onslaught of the men. Yet Iphigenia has already changed her mind and she unwraps herself from her mother’s protective embrace, ascends the steps and delights the troops when she says ‘I dedicate my body as a gift for Greece’. She will go to her death to set Greece free from the risk of its women being raped. ‘Freedom is our birthright!’, she yells, in a speech which Taylor (in the published translation) likened to ‘Hitler […] at Nuremberg’, a characterisation which one reviewer, at least, found to be ‘grotesque’. The soldiers punch their fists in the air, chanting ‘Greece, Greece, Greece’. Proudly permitting her body to be sacrificed allows the Greeks to go into battle; yet, earlier, she had protested about the fact that men were going to war over the body of another women, Helen. This is echoed in the ambiguous portrayal of Helen herself, at different points in the play (as suits the various arguments), as both victim of ‘rape’ (for being taken by Paris) and ‘whore’ (for going willingly). Such confusion and ambiguity, underlined by Taylor’s stark language, suggests the reading that women’s bodies are simply the territory that must be traversed for men to satisfy their blood-lust – a point I’ll return to below.

With regard to props, the actors behave as if they are on stage, according to Taylor’s desire for continuous performance. The carriage in which Clytemnestra, Iphigenia and the infant Orestes first swept onto the set is pushed ‘off stage’ by a group of soldiers (more on these muscle-men shortly) and the clothes which are taken off Iphigenia when she is being prepared for sacrifice are carried off by one of the black-clad women accompanying her (see the image at the top of this post). This latter example in particular, although lasting for only a second or two, distracts from the main event. This disrobing scene owes something both to theatre and television practices: her gown, dress and corset are (silently) ripped off in a businesslike way surely enabled by velcro, but the gaze of the camera stays fixed on the upper half of her body, naked but for her undergarment, closing in on her head and shoulders, as she is anointed with oil, and then closing in on her neck, as her head is yanked back and the neck smeared – rather inexplicably – with what looks to be shaving foam.

After her exit the group of soldiers rush to get a good vantage point on her sacrifice. They crowd at the edge of the set and the camera focuses on one pair of wide-open eyes after another. They can’t get enough of this sight which, according to ancient performance conventions, we can’t see. The music is all drums and doom, but then strings pull up sharply, indicating the sword which is about to come down on her throat, and cut to Clytemnestra’s horrified face as she breaks out in a howl. In this way does the action pay respect to the on and off stage location of action in ancient performance – but, at the same time, using superb televisual (and musical) language.

Given Taylor’s traditionalism on this aspect of ancient performance (established in The Theban Plays), it is somewhat surprising that Iphigenia at Aulis opens with an invented scene. For a full 3 minutes and 15 seconds from the opening caption (which interestingly says The War Plays, the title of Taylor’s hoped-for but unrealized ‘television trilogy’; we must wait a good couple of minutes for the title of this particular play) we are shown Agamemnon (Roy Marsden) at a desk, writing a letter by the light of an oil lamp and candle, screwing up the page and starting again, finally being satisfied and sealing it with wax. This scene, in which neither he nor the Old Man (Eric Allan) sitting with him utters a word, is interspersed with brief shots of soldiers patrolling around. It tells us little beyond setting the play in a military zone; or, rather, I suppose, it doesn’t help with Marsden’s puzzling portrayal of Agamemnon in this production. He never, for example, displays the tears which other characters attribute to him (which sits oddly next to Clytemnestra’s tear-strewn face) and his face remains blankly emotionless almost throughout the entire play, his various changes of mind being therefore even more inscrutable.

The listing for the production in the Radio Times, adjacent, gives us no clue about a further interesting and important aspect of this production – the presence of what almost makes up a male semi-chorus of soldiers. The women from Calchis (a few more than are indicated in this partial cast list) deliver the majority of the choral lines but some are attributed to these soldiers who are more numerous and put to more dramatic use than the usual small group of silent soldiers in the performance of a Greek play. We first meet them at the start of the Parodos, the first entry of the chorus. They are a macho bunch, jog-marching in a synchronised way, in khaki trousers and vests which display their muscles as well as their sweaty arms and chests. They grunt and perform exercises. The music is excitable, and their quick footwork provides percussion.

Suddenly they swoop out of shot and a smiling woman in a long red dress steps forward, and then another, and then the whole group, brightly clad in high-necked, long-armed floor-length dresses. One explains that she has ‘come to gaze in wonder at the Achaean force!’ To emphasize the point, the men in their sweaty vests jump energetically into their synchronised press-ups. Following the Greek, another says, ‘My cheeks are crimson with embarrassment that in such a crowd we should come to gawp at the Greek armies!’ Her friends gather round, excitedly talking about ‘the men!’: Ajax, ‘every inch the part of the superstar of Salamis’, and Diomedes, ‘working out with the discus and revelling in showing off his strength!’

But at several points in the production these soldiers inject an energy into proceedings – with massive cheers and football-like chants (‘Yeah! Agamemnon! Agamemnon! Agamemnon! Yeah!’) – which makes the two hours of Iphigenia pass much more quickly than one or two of the more glacial Theban Plays. In moments of dumbshow, for example, they illustrate the women’s words on the future fall of Troy. Above all, this macho male ‘chorus’ provide a potent contrast to the female chorus in this military setting where women’s bodies are the territory on and over which their battles are fought.

Fiona Shaw gives a magisterial performance as Clytemnestra. One moment she is the proud mother, encountering her future son-in-law Achilles (Graham Sinclair) for the first time then, in an instant, she is utterly humiliated on learning he knows nothing of any such betrothal. There are tears, spittle, when she clasps his knees, supplicating him to come to her daughter’s aid. ‘You do not often get a performance of this size on TV’, considered Nancy Banks-Smith (‘An Implausible Day of Judgement’, The Guardian, 23 July 1990, 37). When Achilles pontificates about how he will protect Iphigenia, it is not on humanitarian grounds nor because Clytemnestra supposed that he was betrothed to her (for ‘thousands of girls are desperate for the chance to get into bed with me’), but because Agamemnon had insulted him by using his name in connection with his plan to bring Iphigenia to Aulis. Shaw’s response at this moment is complex: she portrays Clytemnestra’s realization that he is a prize idiot and also her desperation to to flatter him to secure his continued support. His buffoon-ish character is maintained throughout and it works well, although when, later, it is coupled with a cut-away to a close shot of a soldier growling through clenched teeth, the production verges on the too comical.

A note on the text: many directors choose to end the play at line 1531, just after Iphigenia is led to her death since the one hundred or so lines that follow are believed by scholars to be a later interpolation, not by Euripides. Certainly they affect the tone of the play, for much of this extra passage is taken up with a traditional Messenger Speech (a device by which action from off stage is related to the character(s) present), delivered here by Greg Hicks, telling of how at the moment of death Artemis replaced Iphigenia’s body with that of a deer. Don Taylor includes these lines, but his Clytemnestra is suitably cynical (‘You bring me plasters for a broken heart’). This is no (partial) happy ending: as the winds pick up and people go about the business of setting sail, Clytemnestra alone remains, looking mightily angry beneath a thunderous sky.

And a postscript: as noted above, Don Taylor in Days of Vision had singled out lighting designers and operators among those who had to rise to the challenges set by his insistence on multi-camera continuous shooting. They acquit themselves very well here: lots of pathetic fallacy with the ‘weather’ / ‘sky’ lighting, some interesting darkly lit chorus sections and good spotlights on Iphigenia as she approaches the moment of death.



4 thoughts on “Greek plays: Iphigenia at Aulis (BBC, 1990)

  1. A quick point that perhaps belongs best here: Though the scholarly consensus does seem to be that the final Messenger’s speech in IA is not authentically the work of Euripides, the probability is that it replaces a Eurpidean deus ex machina in which Artemis herself appeared, and conveyed much the same information – a couple of lines from this are quoted in Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 7. Interestingly, Clytemnestra would not have been able to deny the information in the way that she does in the text that we have, which perhaps makes the surviving text more palatable for a modern audience than the deus ex machina would have been.

    Some argue that the original play actually ended with the death of Iphigenia, and for a time I was one, adhering to a more allegorical reading of the play than I would now follow.

    Posted by tonykeen46 | 28 June 2012, 12:26 pm
  2. I ardently agree with Don Taylor about the tragedy inherent in TV no longer doing great drama as a regular matter of course on its menus: “the lost opportunity of using television to ‘encourage working-class and deprived children of all kinds to believe that the best belonged to them and was their natural heritage’.”

    In their earlier days L C Knights and T S Eliot lectured in the WEA (Workers’ Education Association) and they found that their student audiences required ‘nothing but the best’ from them; both in terms of texts examined and commentary upon them. (I had these facts from Professor Knights and the poet’s widow over dinner in 1970, at first hand.)

    Now youngsters are offered ‘Big Brother’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘East Enders’. Is that the youngsters’ fault or has there been – by an older generation – a great betrayal?

    Posted by Peter Scott | 3 August 2014, 7:47 pm
  3. As Design for this, we had immense difficulties with the continuous run. Done repeatedly over 3 days the “best” run had huge camera green flash/breakdown and massive shoot offs showing studio lamps and cyc backings which actors ran through. It was my job, with a Quantel Harriet” to digitally remove /restore all of that. I recall there were 13 cameras to catch everything, more than double the usual. I thought All the actors gave incredible performances and had not needed the continuous filming, which now seems pretentious and uber costly.

    Posted by A Popkiewicz | 24 May 2021, 12:14 pm


  1. Pingback: Greek plays: Iphigenia at Aulis (BBC, 1990) | Athenian Drama - 16 September 2012

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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