Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon’ in its Original Poetic Meters

Valois Mickens as Klutaimestra in Agamemnon. The costume design by Rebecca Bernstein derives from an ancient Athenian vase painting of a satyr play, which showed actors in robes with elaborate graphic designs that are quite different from the plain white chitons and draping that are commonly associated with Greek tragedy. Photo by Zita Bradley.

Historically, English adaptations of “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus have rendered its ancient Greek poetry into proven English poetic forms. The results have been often good and occasionally brilliant. Yet the original Greek meters provide clues as to how a section of a play was performed (sung, spoken or spoken to musical accompaniment). This has prompted Alexander Harrington, a director known for his mastery of oratorical theater, to attempt something radical: approximating Aeschylus’ actual, original poetic meters in a new translation. This intrepid idea has resulted in a script of surprisingly clear stage speech and unusual poetic quality.

La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in Manhattan’s East Village will present the world premiere of Harrington’s adaptation November 12 to 29, 2009. The piece will be performed by The Eleventh Hour Theatre Company.

The production will also feature an original score by Michael Sirotta, a principal composer of La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory, who is setting the sung and chanted sections to music.

Greek tragedy combined song, speech and musically accompanied speech (whether it was chant, recitative or underscored speech is unknown). The plays were written in verse, but of a different nature from ours. Greek meters are based on vowel length, while English meters are based on syllable stress. In more lyrical sections, the chorus uses a variety of meters. It makes the translation trickier, but it also presented Harrington and Sirotta their greatest opportunities for creativity, since it is the most evocative in a musical sense. Approximately half of the play belongs to the chorus.

The “authenticity” idea in the poetry will be extended into the play’s visuals. Scholars have deduced that the heroes of Greek satyr plays were costumed similarly to those of tragedies. The costume design by Rebecca Bernstein derives from an Athenian vase painting of a satyr play, showing actors in robes with elaborate graphic designs that are quite different from the plain white chitons and draping that are commonly associated with Greek tragedy.

The actors’ faces will be painted to achieve the sculptural severity of masks while allowing for facial expression. This technique was used in Harrington’s 2007 production at La MaMa, “The Burial at Thebes,” Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of “Antigone.” The severe makeup enables The Eleventh Hour to adhere to the three-actor rule. Athenian tragedies were performed by an all-male chorus and three male actors who played all the principal roles, including women. In this production, some of these male roles will be played by women.

Alexander Harrington (director, translator) is the founder and artistic director The Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, for which he has directed “The Burial at Thebes,” “Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2,” “Henry V” and his own adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov (Part 2),” all at La MaMa. His Eleventh Hour Theatre productions outside La MaMa have been “Richard II” at HERE and “The Brothers Karamazov, Part 1” at The Culture Project. His first production at La MaMa was the Richmond Lattimore translation of “Agamemnon” in 1997, before he founded Eleventh Hour Theatre. His other directing credits include “Billy Budd,” “Twelfth Night,” “Much Ado about Nothing” and the premiere of Edward Einhorn’s “Linguish.” His adaptation of “The Brothers Karamazov” was published in the New York Theatre Experience’s anthology “Playing with Canons.” As a scholar and critic, Mr. Harrington’s work has been published in “Dissent” magazine, “First of the Month,” “Upstart Crow,” “Shakespeare Criticism, Vol. 89” and “Literary Themes for Students: War and Peace.” Along with David Mamet, he is contributing an essay on political theatre to the upcoming anthology “New Threats to Freedom.” Harrington teaches acting Shakespeare at HB studio and has taught at Clemson University and the Gallatin School at NYU. He was an original member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and a participant in The Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit.

His productions have been widely praised for their simplicity, resourcefulness, expert acting and clarity of vision. The New Yorker (Liesl Schillinger) deemed his “Brothers Karamazov, Part I” a “gem of a production,” adding, “the cast is remarkable.” The New York Times (Margo Jefferson) wrote that part II of the adaptation was “resourcefully staged and intelligently dramatized.” The New York Post (Donald Lyons) described his “Henry V” as “superb,” deeming it “a riveting meditation on the heart of the matter – the simultaneous cruelty and glamour of power.”

Michael Sirotta (Composer) has collaborated frequently Elizabeth Swados; their productions together include “The Beautiful Laey” and “Missionaries.” He has a long-standing association with La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory, having been a composer, musical director and performing musician in “Danton’s Death,” “Mythos Oedipus,” “Jerusalem,” “The Monk And The Hangman’s Daughter,” ” Fragments of a Greek Trilogy,” “Seven Against Thebes,” “Dionysos Filius Dei,” “Carmilla,” ” Seven,” “Perseus,” “Herakles,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Raven.” He is a composer in Residence at La MaMa and has been a frequent international traveler with the company, composing, directing and performing music at theater festivals in Italy, Greece, Croatia, Austria, Serbia, and Japan. Since 1985, he has directed the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Kids on Stage program on Staten Island, for which he received the 2000 Achievement in the Arts and Humanities Award, presented by the Council of the Arts & Humanities of Staten Island. He is on the faculty of The College of Staten Island (CUNY), where he lectures on World Music. He received nominations for outstanding musical score at the New York Innovative Theater Awards ceremonies in 2005 and 2007.

Harrington has long admired the ritual nature and visceral power of La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory. For “Agamemnon,” he sought out Great Jones veterans Michael Sirotta, Renouard Gee, Valois Mickens, and Shigeko Sara Suga, who are used to working on sung-through pieces with demanding movement and no spoken text. In the production, Harrington and the Great Jones Rep veterans aim to meld textual precision with physical rigor and visceral power. The play’s principal actors are Valois Mickens (as Klutaimestra), Robert Ierardi (as Watchman, Agamemnone and Aigisthos) and Jessica Crandall (as Herald and Kassandra). The actors of the chorus are Jason Reiff, Patrick James Lynch, Michael Peterson, Peter Tedeschi, Chris Caron, Shigeko Sara Suga, Sarah Vasilas, Alyssa Wilmoth, Georgia Southern, Gillian Wiggin, Margaret O’Connell and Marcie Henderson. Choreographer is Renouard Gee. Scenic/Lighting Designer is Solomon Weisbard. Costume Designer is Rebecca Bernstein. Attic Greek consultantsare Scott Emmons and Susan P. Johnson. Stage manager is A.J. Dobbs.

The show will run from November 12 – 29, 2009. Show times are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2: 30 PM; there will be no performance on Thanksgiving Day. The show runs for two hours. La MaMa E.T.C. is located at 74A East Fourth Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery. General admission is $18, with students and seniors at $13. Tickets can be purchased by telephoning the box office at (212) 475 – 7710 or online at