Discover Aeschylus With Virginia Woolf

The writer’s notes on Greek tragedy are as stimulating as her novels — so she’ll be Daisy Dunn's guide at a feast of ancient drama in London this summer

(photo: MS THR 560 (57), courtesy of Harvard University)

When I do the rounds of this year’s Greek plays, I’ll be taking Virginia Woolf as a guide. We’ll sit tensely in the stalls to “bruise our minds upon” Aeschylus’s Oresteia at the Almeida and the Globe, smile at Sophocles “gliding like a shoal of trout” in the Barbican’s Antigone, and tiptoe into “the world of psychology and doubt” in Euripides’s Bacchae and Medea, also at the Almeida.

And why not? They may not be as celebrated as Mrs Dalloway or Orlando or any other of her dazzling novels, but Woolf’s notes on Greek theatre are not a bit less penetrating.

She liked the sneering manner of it, the choruses which “sing like birds in the pauses of the wind” but stand aloof from us on some middle ground between then and now, teasing, baffling, sublime. She liked the way the tragedians conveyed their characters’ suffering despite the constraints of theatre: “every sentence had to explode on striking the ear.” But it was the feeling that she had never quite grasped what they were trying to say that kept them in her thoughts.

She even blamed the weather for the English inability to understand them. Our climate, she supposed, simply isn’t conducive to imagining the outdoor society of the classical plays and playwrights. A trip to Greece in 1906 — the first of two in her lifetime — gave her occasion to observe something of their “out-of-doors manner”. Greece had suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Ottomans in 1897, but when she heard a group of noisy Corinthians outside her window she suspected that its people were prone to squeal through joy as often as through sadness:

A band of wailing women are singing beneath my window. Do they lament the nations [sic] fall, or some private woe, or are they merely celebrating the new restaurant which opened with fireworks this evening?

How could this tragic chorus possibly appeal to “the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to live more than half the year indoors”? After all, the audience who watched Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy in the 5th century BC sat in an open-air theatre. Those who watched it in the early 20th century were almost always under full cover as the curtain went up to reveal the forecourt to the palace of Agamemnon, King of Argos. In the opening scene of Agamemnon, the first play, the king’s watchman perches on the palace rooftop, gazing at the stars.

Will Adele Thomas have the upper hand when she stages Rory Mullarkey’s adaption of the Oresteia triology in the open air of the Globe this summer? Or will Robert Icke circumnavigate this gulf between interior and exterior through his modern take on the myths at the Almeida?

It will be a challenge to capture the peculiar continuity in Agamemnon’s journey. The trilogy sees him return from the scorched fields of the East to his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken a lover in his absence. Seeking to punish him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in exchange for a friendly breeze, Clytemnestra plots his murder. Only their son, Orestes, aided by his sister Electra, can avenge his father’s subsequent death. Uncompromisingly domestic though it is, the tragedy is fuelled by emotions born in wartime.

Determined to unravel the clever metaphors Aeschylus used to describe the legacy of Troy, Woolf armed herself with the Greek she had learned in private lessons at King’s College, London, and sallied forth. While she found that Sophocles’s Greek “is really not hard”, Aeschylus proved another story entirely.

“Have bought two wild duck and six snipe just shot,” she wrote in her diary on November 13, 1922, “and now I must try to make out what Aeschylus wrote.” Two weeks later: “I need not say that my wild duck stank like old sea weed and had to be buried. But I cannot dally over this incident, which in tamer days might have provided some fun, because I have such a congeries of affairs to relate, and have to steal time from the Agamemnon.” December 3: “I should be at Aeschylus.”

In the process of translating the play, she obsessed over a particularly difficult line in the Greek, in which Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus views the sculptures in his hall. “Without eyes, their every Aphrodite goes to waste,” the Chorus of elders utters. Did they mean that the sculptures’ beauty was wasted because they lacked eyes? Or were the eyes those of Helen of Troy? Or could Menelaus simply not appreciate beauty after the casualties of war? “The meaning is just on the far side of language,” Woolf wrote. His dialogues were lightning-quick, but Aeschylus was also very much the master of suggestion — and all the more vulnerable to misinterpretation as a result.

This worried Woolf more than it does many playwrights today, who favour “versions” as well as translations of ancient plays. Robert Icke is to offer a modern version of Aeschylus’s trilogy, rolled into one play; Anne Carson has produced a new translation of Euripides’s Bacchae. If they are to work, both must retain the lustre of the original dialogue, but render it in such a way that it still resonates. In the wild outdoor environment of Euripides’s play, this will be a particular challenge.

Woolf was stunned by the cruelty of this play, in which Dionysus (Bacchus), that most androgynous of gods, returns to his native Thebes, where King Pentheus has banned worship of his godhead. Pentheus succumbs to the temptation to watch the Bacchic rites in all their ecstasy, but falls prey to their spirit. Raving in fury across the mountains, his own mother rips his body asunder, while Dionysus is victorious. For Woolf, Pentheus was “that highly respectable man, made ridiculous”. For today’s audience, he is more likely to be seen as a pompous hypocrite.

While every age imposes its own sensibilities upon the past, Woolf was decidedly ahead of her time when it came to assessing Antigone. The eponymous heroine of Sophocles’s play stood up against her resolute uncle in order to secure the burial of her brother. Discerning the irony in the fact that, in ancient theatre, forthright women were played by men, and for men, Woolf found herself in awe of Antigone’s heroism and fidelity. Antigone, like Ajax and Electra, she wrote in her essay “On Not Knowing Greek”, behaves as we all should in such situations. No doubt Woolf would have been more at home watching Juliette Binoche at the Barbican than parleying with Sophocles’s first audience.

As these productions sweep London, Woolf herself will also be taking to the stage. At the Royal Opera House this month, Wayne McGregor is to present a ballet inspired by the highs and lows of her life, as well as by her novels.

In these vicissitudes, too, Greece played its part. While her first trip there ended with her brother Thoby fatally contracting typhoid, her second trip decades later was “far the best holiday we’ve had for years”. Accompanied by her husband Leonard and friend Roger Fry and his sister, she toured the sites and museums until she was convinced that she should leave London and pitch up in Crete instead.

Greek literature remained a more convenient means of escapism. Woolf thrilled to realise that her mind was not so very unlike those of the ancient authors, even if she did despair at how quickly those little sparks of recognition faded, leaving her feeling, once more, a world away from them. After suffering a breakdown, she confessed she had been prone to believing “that the birds were singing Greek choruses and that King Edward was using the foulest possible language among Ozzie Dickinson’s azaleas”. Was the Greek so haunting, so unwilling to leave her at the end of each day? Was the dialogue in her mind as braying and ambiguous as a choral ode? Her nightmare could just be every Greek theatre director’s dream.

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