Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004

Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004

Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004

Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004


Aeschylus' Agamemnon, the first play in the Oresteia trilogy, is one of the most influential theatrical texts in the global canon. In performance, translation, adaptation, along with sung and danced interpretations, it has been familiar in the Greek world and the Roman empire, and from the Renaissance to the contemporary stage. It has been central to the aesthetic and intellectual avant-garde as well as to radical politics of all complexions and to feminist thinking. Contributors to this interdisciplinary collection of eighteen essays on its performance history include classical scholars, theatre historians, and experts in English and comparative literature. All Greek and Latin has been translated; the book is generously illustrated, and supplemented with the useful research aid of a chronological appendix of performances.


Pantelis Michelakis

8 November 1816. the Emperor read out to us the Agamemnon of Aeschylus
which he strongly admired for its extreme force combined with great simpli
city. We were struck above all by the amplification of horror which character
ises the theatrical productions of the father of tragedy. and yet there, one could
observe that initial spark to which our beautiful modern light is linked.

This brief extract from the Memorial of Saint Helena, a work in eight volumes providing a day-by-day account of the last eighteen months of Napoleon's life, is striking for a number of reasons. There is an unmistakable echo of the judgement of Aeschylus as forceful and simple to be found in Aristophanes' Frogs, as well as an allusion to Clytemnestra's beacon speech (A. Ag. 281–316) intertwined in the vocabulary of the Enlightenment with its celebration of progress. But perhaps nothing is more fascinating than the very image of Aeschylus' Agamemnon recited by one of the greatest political and military leaders of nineteenth-century Europe, in front of an audience of a few faithful companions, some four thousand miles off the shores of Europe, in the South Atlantic. the exiled Napoleon would not have failed to notice the profound irony of his impersonation of the various characters in a drama of power and fall so similar to his own. But this recitation is fascinating for yet another reason which can easily be missed today. Aeschylus' Agamemnon,

I am grateful to my co-editors as well as Pat Easterling, Helene Foley, Charles Martindale, Kostas
Valakas, and Vanda Zajko for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this piece. I am also
thankful to audiences in Bristol, Chapel Hill, London, and Oxford for stimulating discussions, and
to Tim Duff, Ioulia Pipinia, Chris Weaver, and Amanda Wrigley for their generous help with
practical issues including the gathering of out-of-print material.

'L'Empereur nous a lu l'Agamemnon d'Eschyle, dont il a fort admiré l'extrême force, jointe à la
grandé simplicité. Nous étions frappés surtout de la graduation de terreur qui caractérise les
productions de ce père de la tragédie. Et c'est pourtant là, faisait-on observer, l'étincelle première à
la quelle se rattache notre belle lumière moderne.' Quoted in Nostrand (1934), 14. All translations
are my own unless otherwise stated.

Allusions to the beacon speech are common in 19th-cent. literature. See Macintosh, Ch. 8, text
to notes 16 and 69.

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