Aeschylus: Agamemnon (1-267)

Bear the συρτός movement in mind. In the opening strophe and antistrophe, turn and counter-turn, of the Agamemnon, after the long processional entrance, when the group becomes an actual circle, there are, unusually, a number of lines of dactylic hexameter. The Homeric evocation is striking and we often ‘quote’ the modern dactylic dance (click here for a demonstration of the συρτός movement accompanied by Homeric verse). A case could be made that the mythic/historic fantasy Aeschylus tells in his extended parodos is mirrored in a kind of history of the development of choral rhythm and style, as the strophic systems unfold.

In the great age of lyric poetry that succeeded Homer and Hesiod, the chorus began to sing. The poet, who was still not called a poet, became a χοροδιδάσκαλος, a chorus teacher. The poet’s words came from the dancers’ mouths and guided the movement of their feet. Where once it was an autonomous dance pattern, now it was the rhythm of the very words they were saying that carried the chorus round in a circle.

The epic poet was able at times to be passive to the rhythm, to surrender his speech to the repeating movement, and sit back, as it were, while his limpid phrases turned into music; Homer in particular learned to exploit the evocative power of a recurrent phrase, so that the stylistic imprint of circling music also served him in the advancement of a story and the conjuring of its vivid, sonorous presence.

In lyric, by contrast, every aspect of the rhythm and its strophic repetition is, in a fundamental way, chosen. Hence every word in a lyric sequence, by means of which the rhythm and repetition come to light, is also perceived to be specially chosen. For the lyric dancer, the words are elements of a distinctive choreography; unlike the epic dancer, if he is to learn his particular movement, he must concentrate (consider that word’s etymology!) on each word as it passes by, whether it links up with its predecessors in a rhythmic phrase, or perhaps passes in transition toward a new motion, or comes to a cadence. For the spectator or the critic, from that day to this—even without an obvious connection to a peculiar, virtuosic, one-show-only dance—each word in a lyric poem is read with a demand upon it which is not so felt in more song-like forms, where the rhythm is imposed from without: it must justify its chosen place in the total order of rhythm and meaning. Lyric poets themselves expect no less of their words or their interpreters.

We circle and counter-circle for strophe and antistrophe, and we avoid the Euripidean (and Gregorian) melisma (more than one step or gesture per syllable). Each step or movement is coordinated with a syllable, in an attempt to follow a prescription of Plato’s; there is no stretching a syllable over many notes, in the style of Euripidean as well as modern song. But we stake no further claim in arguments about the shape of the original theatre space, about the relation of that shape to the form of the dance, about scenes and props, about costumes, about masks, or even about musical accompaniment. We also enthusiastically embrace the modernity of a mixed chorus and a female in the role of Clytemnestra. All of our ‘reconstruction’ consists in expressing the metrical, rhythmic, and harmonic information that is explicitly present in Aeschylus’ score; and in Miriam Rother's reading a variety of depictions from vases and statuary more and more confidently as though they themselves contain or even were intended as a choreographic notation. The postures depicted are definite and precise—the placement of the hands and the feet, the twist in the torso, the attitude of the head—self-consciously rendered in mid-motion; we can infer where they have come from and where they are going, and with what energy.

Agamemnon was produced in 458 BCE. What a time it was. Athenian ships were masters of Egypt. It was dawning on the rest of the Greek world, and on the Athenians themselves, that the Delian League, formed as a protectorate in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, was becoming an Athenian empire. The Oresteia is a visionary thinking through of the significance and the prospect of this moment of arrival, rooting the Athenian institution of the court on the Areopagus in the sweep of myth and history that begins in the fire that consumed Ilium. That fire signals a pan-Hellenic relay of torches that connect Clytemnestra to the event. The realities of the performance space suggest, however, that the sacred fire on the Athenian Acropolis itself is the ultimate resting place of that flame.

The πάροδος, or ‘choral entrance,’ of the Agamemnon—so extraordinary in its dimensions, its deployment of significant metre, and its rhythmic variety and vigour that no one, not even Sophocles or Euripides, dared imitate it—takes us even further back than that conflagration of Troy to the seminal event that made it possible: the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia. Perhaps one could compare Aeschylus’ estimation of this event in the progression of Greek history to the place of the sacrifice, or near-sacrifice, of Isaac in the Hebrew progression.

Once the dear old nightwatchman has vacated the stage, the chorus enters in anapaests, bá da dum ba da dúm. Usually this rhythm serves as a brief trot to get the chorus on stage, or to move them from one place to another. Aeschylus extends the anapaestic entrance to over sixty lines, an unprecedented, and never imitated dramaturgical exploit. The anapaests are a thing of wonder in themselves, but also a setup, in narrative theme as well as rhythm, for the intensity of the strophes and antistrophes that follow.

Note that we followed our intuition in several dramaturgical and choreographic decisions, all of them reconcilable with the text, but not all of them necessarily prescribed by it. The second strophe and antistrophe are performed solo, for example, by the chorus leader or χορηγός. The nature of this theological interlude seemed to call for such a rendition. The third strophe is also performed solo by another dancer from the chorus. The final strophe and antistrophe were still works in progress; the first was performed by a solo dancer—Iphigeneia’s ghost, if you will; in the answering system, the exigencies of our preparation time forced me to recite to a simple group movement.

Earlier, during the long anapaestic entrance, the chorus addresses Clytemnestra. We decided that she should be on stage, and hence that she had had to have entered with the chorus. Aeschylus was notorious for having characters on stage doing nothing. Rather than correct his supposed naiveté as a dramatist, we explore the effect. Our most interpretive move is to have Clytemnestra’s actress perform the epode in response to the first strophe and antistrophe. The chorus is actually here in the midst of narrating a portentous speech by the prophet Calchas. But he is describing his fear of the consequences of Artemis’ wrath, and of the vengeance for the sacrificial blood of Iphigeneia that must appease it. We thought that Clytemnestra’s actress could most potently earn her place on the stage by embodying this wrath of the goddess, and the mindful, unforgetting Fury that will be the animating maternal spirit behind the mask of Clytemnestra herself.

Allow me to point to the real discovered treasures of our work: those moments in the text, that turn out to be structural and pivotal, which only reveal themselves in performance—not at all in translation, but not even in the philological, textual reading of the Greek original. These are the first fruits of a re-envisioned χορεία.

In the opening strophe watch and listen for the word φανέντες. It is an aorist passive form, meaning simply ‘they appeared’. It is apparently redundant from the perspective of meaning; translators tend to avoid a direct rendition. The chorus have been telling of the furious bird omen sent the ships, the king of birds to the kings of men, twin eagles who appeared, φανέντες, near the steading on the spear-throwing (right-hand) side, on perches visible to all. What does it mean to dance this word, to ‘step into’ it—this word that does not attract the attention of the translator or the philologist?

Φανέντες is an amphibrach:  ba dúm ba. In the world of dactylic rhythm, dactyls often and effortlessly modulate to anapaests: bum ba da bum ba da bum ba da, can turn into ba da dum ba da dum ba da dum, without one’s particularly thinking about it. The amphibrach, on the other hand—ba dum ba—is the third logical possibility in this universe: the arrhythmic one. Try stringing them together: ba dúm ba  ba dúm ba  ba dúm ba. The two shorts have been split by the long, and the rhythm hobbles along and can never get going.

To compose an amphibrach in such a context is therefore a rather marked thing to do. When the chorus steps into φανέντες, they call attention to themselves. They have been describing, narrating, representing the eagles; when we step into this word, arresting the flow of the rhythm, coming to an unstable equilibrium, we become the poetic moment and the fulcrum: we are no longer representing, we have become the manifestation we are speaking of. Φανέντες means ‘they have been manifested’. This word shows that Aeschylus’ poetry is not only after meaning and representation; it shows that the circle-dancing of verse is after a real presence. This is a poetry of epiphany.

The antistrophe matches its corresponding strophe in rhythm almost syllable for syllable, but not word for word; that is, the sequence of longs and shorts is the same, but they are divided up between the words in a different way, and they are usually differently stressed. In this case, however, Aeschylus composes another amphibrach at the exactly corresponding place to φανέντες. Watch and listen in the first antistrophe for στρατωθέν. (Yes, the stress this time is on the final short:  ba dum bá.) There is a verb στρατόω, meaning to ‘make an army’; Aeschylus has here coined an aorist passive, to mean, apparently, ‘they became an army’—literally, they were ‘armified’. As we step into this word, arresting the rhythm with an amphibrach, the chorus becomes the cohesive unit that is the Argive army drawn into unity from the disparate ships, and at the very same moment and in the very same gesture, is the great iron bit forged for the mouth of Troy. In performance, metaphor becomes transport.

Another striking amphibrach occurs in the final strophe, where the realities of the toughest curriculum in America—we ran out of time folks— forced us to use a soloist—an apparition of Iphigeneia. We are remembering her in happier times, singing and dancing for her father and his friends, who have become the brutal umpires calling for her blood. The word is ἔμελψεν, ‘she sang and danced’. Often the epiphany of χορεία is achieved just this simply: the poet merely has the dancer sing and tell us what she is doing, while she is actually doing it. The effect to my mind is even more striking than the dart from the piteous eyes in a painting, a different and differently transgressive medium of art to which Aeschylus also refers.

The final antistrophe also responds with an amphibrach, but it is the innocuous word πέλοιτο, which is not the rhythmic focus of its line. This is instructive: the meaning of an amphibrach is not somehow symbolic or absolute. Perhaps I should venture the general claim: that there is almost never any absolute meaning to rhythm; rather, rhythm achieves meaningfulness by contrast, by creating expectations and then either fulfilling them or cheating them. What is absolute about these rhythms is that they mean to achieve a presence in the moment of performance, by our stepping into them. Welcome to the epiphany, that is Aeschylus’ χορεία.

© A P David 2019