Iphigenia in Aulis – the play behind the play

One man’s life is worth a thousand women’s.

 

The original Iphigenia in Aulis was written around 408 BCE, by the great Greek tragedian, Euripides. It was one of the last plays he wrote.

The play takes place on the banks of Aulis, where the Greek fleet wait to set sail for Troy.

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The Anger of Achilles by Jacques-Louis David

But the ships cannot sail. Why? The Greek Goddess, Artemis, has stopped the wind. The only way to reverse this is for the leader of the Greek Army, Agamemnon, to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Ultimately, he does, and in doing so begins what will become the Trojan War: the epic story told in the Iliad.

It’s also the turning point for this doomed family. When Agamemnon returns from Troy, he will be killed by Clytemnestra, who is avenging Iphigenia’s death. Clytemnestra, too, will be killed by her other children – Electra and Orestes – and these children will be punished for their matricide, in turn. You might recognise this story of the House of Atreus, famously recounted in the plays of Aeschylus.

Agamemnon’s choice of whether to sacrifice his own family for the good of the Greek nation is the heart of Euripides’ drama. However, it is Iphigenia who emerges as the heroine, moving from pleading for her life to willingly offering it up on behalf of her country.

To a contemporary audience, the play presents a difficult portrayal of women. Iphigenia is praised for her innocence, her embroidery skills, her virginal, soft nature; and ultimately she is a pawn in the masculine world of warfare. The bitterest pill in this play, though, is her willing sacrifice of her worn life because “One man’s life is worth a thousand women’s.”

No wonder, then, that playwrights throughout the ages have been inspired to respond to Iphigenia in Aulis, and try to write a new story for Iphigenia, highlighting or upending the patriarchal power structures.

After Aulis drew particular inspiration from Gary Owens’ 2015 adaptation, Iphigenia in Splott, in which Owen transplants Euripides’ play into a working class Welsh town, centring around an Iphigenia who is foul-mouthed, hateful, but ultimately a woman who is at the mercy of the political forces at play in austerity Britain.

 

Like Owen, in After Aulis, the playwright has ‘thrown most of the original story away’, keeping the original themes, and shifting the lens in favour of Iphigenia.

Nia is a woman who seems to be already having it all and then some, but she will still be forced to make a sacrifice. At a time in which a white middle-class woman has fewer barriers to self-fulfilment than her predecessors, what choices can she and should she make for herself, and for those around her? Iphigenia can be emancipated, but does that mean she can be truly free?

And do female characters have to be good, likeable, morally virtuous, like the original Iphigenia. Or can they be like Nia – callous, selfish, self-involved – and still be the heroine of a story?

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