By Eleni Sakellis
NEW YORK – A World of Emotions continues to draw visitors to the Onassis Cultural Center in Midtown Manhattan with fascinating talks and tours of the exhibition featuring such distinguished speakers as co-curator Dr. Angelos Chaniotis and Irish actress and director Fiona Shaw in conversation with philosopher Simon Critchley- the Hans Jonas Professor at the New School for Social Research.
The tour on Wednesday, March 29 offered insights into the ancient Greek art on display that only philosophers and a talented theatre professional could provide. Having trained with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Shaw had performed in several productions, playing Shakespeare’s female characters in the comedies. As her time at the RSC was coming to an end, she was asked to join a production of an ancient Greek tragedy.
The contrast between the female characters in the ancient play and the female characters in Shakespeare is profound. Shaw observed that the women in Greek drama are lost in the universe not only in relation to their husbands, pointing out that some of Shakespeare’s women simply stop talking once they get married.
Playing the role of Electra at a time after Shaw’s own brother was killed in a car accident brought her face to face with the incomprehensibility of death for the first time. She realized about ancient Greek drama that “this stuff is made of granite” and the plays and life are powerfully connected.
The understanding of the emotions, the psychology of the characters transcends time, and Shaw observed that the distance in time makes it easier to relate to the ancient emotions today.
The emotions are, in fact, clearer. Shaw said that in the present, we might not be sure how we feel about a certain politician from day to day, but the emotions in the ancient plays are clear.
In the discussion on the painting of Iphigenia being sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, Shaw noted that this moment sets off all the events of the Oresteia, the only extant ancient Greek trilogy.
First, there is the lie Agamemnon tells Clytemnestra (that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles) so she will bring their daughter to Aulis to be sacrificed so he can go off to the Trojan War, followed by the betrayal and horrific killing of their child which Clytemnestra cannot forgive. Her anger leads her to plot the murder of Agamemnon with her lover Aegisthus.
When Agamemnon returns, he is murdered, as is Cassandra, Orestes returns to avenge his father’s murder and must then commit the unnatural act of murdering his own mother, inciting the wrath of the Furies or Erinyes. The goddess Athena appears at the end to stop the madness. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth punishment is done away with, replaced by nominal punishment for murder, but as Shaw noted “it doesn’t quite work.”
Clytemnestra remains murdered, her death never avenged and in our violent world, Shaw pointed out that most murders are committed by men against women. She compared the appearance of Athena at the end of the Oresteia to the Good FridayAgreement in Northern Ireland, as both say “let’s stop this.” Having visited Northern Ireland recently, Shaw said that, “still, they’re all very cross with each other… In the end, politics is personal. Details matter.”
Shaw is directing an upcoming production of Medea at the Wexford Festival Opera and talked about the process and the fascinating things she discovered in her research on the ancient play and the Cherubini’s opera version of 1797.
The year is significant since the French Revolution was going on at the time, the violence, the guillotine, and the executions of so many people, including Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, along with the story of Medea, remind us that “the line between civilization and barbarism is so thin,” Shaw said. Callas’ Medea also defined the way the role is performed to this day. Shaw observed that now, everyone wants to make their entrance as Medea the way Callas did.
Professor Chaniotis offered his insights into the vase painting depicting the story of Medea, pointing out the extraordinary attention to detail. He observed that the works included in the exhibition are not only beautiful objects but are also meant to be a point of departure, inspiring thought and conversation like that of Critchley and Shaw during the evening’s lively discussion.
More information on the exhibition A World of Emotions, and Let’s Walk, the public conversation series in the gallery at the Onassis Cultural Center, is available online at www.onassisusa.org.