Greek Dramas on Film
Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)
Oedipus Rex (1967) – Pasolini
Medea (1970) – Pasolini
The Trojan Women (1972)
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
There are a number of Greek dramas that have been committed to film, almost all of them box office non-performers. It can be a powerful experience to see one of these ancient plays in an impressively restored theater such as the one at Epidaurus, just below the Gulf of Corinth. But they do not translate well to film, and efforts to modernize their presentation have generally fallen flat. The ancients had far more tolerance for artificiality, the simulation of ourselves, than we do today. The first of these plays would have been seen at the world’s first major theater, on the side of the Acropolis in Athens, about 2400 years before the first movie theate,.
The dramas written by the Greek playwrights took up where Homer and Hesiod left off, either enlarging on the ancient myths or carrying the stories of post-war Greece forward. How many people who went to see Brad Pitt in Troy (2004) and may know the fate of Odysseus (Ulysses) after the war, have wondered what ever happened to Agamemnon?
Does it come as a surprise that the foundational drama of the Greek theater has no movie? This was a work in four parts by Aeschylus (525 – 456 BCE),* called the Oreastia. The three parts that have survived are tragedies and the fourth, now lost, was a comedy, called a satyr play. The tragedies tell the terrible tale of how the great General Agamemnon returned to Mycenae from the Trojan War only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. The legacy of that murder is carried by their children, Electra and Orestes (say, Orest-ees).
These works mark a turning point in human history. Set against the appalling toll of the Trojan War, the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus argues for the rule of law as opposed to the passionate exercise of vengeance and avarice. It is a public discourse that began perhaps on the agora at Athens a mere 2500 years ago and has lasted into our own time.
Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) is a film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 trilogy of stage plays. It is an American updating of the classic Greek Oreastia, and it moves slowly. The Greek general has become a Civil War general, returning to his New England mansion after the war. Here the problem of turning a play into a movie is compounded. O’Neill’s six hours in the theater become a three-hour movie, which suffers from the inherent difficulty in all of O’Neill’s works, too much drama and too little theater.
Antigone (1962) – The next great playwright who stepped into the light left by Aeschylus was Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE), and he has done a bit better at the movies. The most famous of the plays of Sophocles is Oedipus Rex. The best film of a Sophocles tragedy is Antigone (say An-tig-ony). She is the daughter of the deceased Oedipus who defies the law of her king to follow her heart.
Oedipus Rex (1967) – Roberto Pasolini made two very personal films based on classic Greek plays. The first of these, Oedipus Rex, folds the drama by Sophocles into a modern Italian context as the ill-fated hero attempts to overcome a prophecy that he will sleep with his mother and bring down the kingdom. This is the classic world at the end of its energies. Members of the Living Theater company were employed to emphasize the elements of cathartic cultural ritual.
Medea (1970) – Pasolini takes up the terrible tale of Medea, in the play by Euripides, and the awful outcome of her marriage to Jason. She has been displaced from her Asian homeland to live as a queen in newly civilized Greece, and it is a difficult transition. Maria Callas plays the title role, delivering flashes of intensity leading to an unsatisfying ending.
The Trojan Women (1972) – Katherine Hepburn heads an array of powerful actresses in this rendering of the Euripides classic. This is the fall of Troy from the feminine point of view. It is an unforgiving world where the imposing of reason over passion is a work in progress. The royal wives of Troy, and their daughters, are to be delivered to the Greek victors as concubines. Euripides is at his best, challenging the male dominant model and holding the popular mythology to account for its perversions of heroism.
Iphigenia (1977) – Once again, Euripides holds the feet of Civilization to the fire. This time it is the ritual of human sacrifice as it has survived on Mediterranean shores long after the time of Abraham. Agamemnon, paragon of civilized practicality, is faced with the horrible necessity of sacrificing his young daughter to the gods in order to assure the success of the Greek invasion of Troy. It’s the story behind the Iliad.
Bacchantes (1988) – Here is Euripides yet again, airing issues of human sacrifice (displaced by a goat), intervention of the gods, and the matter of human responsibility for the consequences of its actions. This is an Italian-French production and will be difficult to find.
I have included the movie, Phaedra (1962) in Modern Greece: Reclaiming the Past because the myth has been updated to contemporary times.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – This Woody Allen film has little to do with Greek tragedy, except that the contemporary foibles of the writer-director-star are framed by a masked Greek chorus making commentaries from the Greco-Roman theater in Taormina, Sicily. Mount Etna looms in the background, standing in for Olympus. This is the humor of anachronism.
* Checking Aeschylus in Wikipedia, I discovered that he was alive during the Persian invasion of Greece and participated in the Battle of Marathon. See his play, The Persians.