Cacoyannis' Iphigeneia (1977). Irene Papas (Clytemnestra)

Marianne McDonald

Films are mythical: they allow us to fly across time and space, and yet the camera can zoom in on a face and allow the soul to become visible. The camera functions Like a Greek chorus and adds its own commentary. Myths try to make sense of the senseless and impose order on chaos and death.

They allow us to look at the face of the Gorgon and not turn to stone. The most vital modern political commentary today comes from ancient Greek tragedy, and to illustrate this I shall concentrate on the final film by Michael Cacoyannis in his Trojan Trilogy, three films based on plays by Euripides: Electra (1961), Trojan Women (1971), and Iphigenia (1977). Each of the films in its own way relates to the politics of the day and the oppression of one person or groups of people by others.

Myths are timeless, and the great Greek tragedians tap into the heady brew of myth. They depict the hard lessons learned from suffering, and how the one who abuses will in turn suffer. We see these myths’ relevance to modern times. Euripides does not survive as a revenant, or an archaic curiosity but as someone whose insights illuminate the present darkness. The atrocities of the former Yugoslavia, tribal wars in Africa, resistance against continued imperialism in Ireland, the civil wars in Greece, and terrorism, with its concomitant ‘wars’, all find resonance in modem productions of Euripides’ plays. Myths catch the constant truths that transcend the vagaries of specific circumstances. Myths also show the human suffering involved in political or cosmic change.

Films can also be parables. Wag the Dog tells about a president who creates an international crisis as a diversion from the scandal of his private life, which might lead to his impeachment. This tactic was well known to Nixon. If a country is strong enough, it bombs with impunity and claims it is keeping the world safe from terrorism. Iphigenia shows a father willing to sacrifice his own child for the sake of power; it is only a variation on the theme of what a leader will do to keep that power. The power of the powerless is merely to show the reality behind the myth, and perhaps hope that that revelation will inspire change. Cacoyannis takes a classic with universal concerns and brings in the particular historical moment.

Michael Cacoyannis

Electra’s messages can apply to the bloody Greek Civil War following World War II (roughly 1947-49). The Trojan Women was produced during the Greek dictatorship of 1967-74 and shows the abuses of people in power misusing that power. Iphigenia’s plight resembles that of Cyprus which was invaded by the Turks in 1974. Both were bargained away by corrupt leaders for reasons of power and wealth.

Nevertheless Cacoyannis never loses sight of the universal. In Electra he shows how political abuse does not go unpunished. The revolution that follows can often be bloody. One wonders when there will be an end of the cycle of vengeance. In the Trojan Women he shows how the victors victimize those over whom they have authority. Euripìdes’ Trojan Women has been called the greatest anti-war play ever written, and Cacoyannis has been faithful to this theme. In Iphigenia he shows the price that anyone who chooses war should be prepared to pay: namely the death of children. Every nation sacrifices its own children when it fights a war. Often the elderly or corrupt leaders are the people who vote for war for reasons of self-aggrandizement and wealth. Films and plays sometimes can be more effective than the media for showing the violation of human rights.

Many others have done films based on the classics, but Cacoyannis has made films which not only use the ancient myths of Greece, but shows how they apply to Greek modern historical experiences[1]. He maintains that he wants to abstract and express the universal in the ancient myths; but nevertheless one sees how these stories apply in particular to Greece, and in general to the world.

There are similarities between Michael Cacoyannis’s films and Euripides’s plays. They show the world the extent to which “civilized” men can be barbaric. The new heroes are women, slaves, and children, and many times their heroism consists of how they suffer as victims. Both Cacoyannis and Euripides disclose the dialectic of power. Euripides was a critic of his society, and his dramas were not popular (We are to believe that he won only four victories during his lifetime, in contrast with Aeschylus’ thirteen and Sophocles’ twenty-four.) Possibly out of disgust with Athens at the end of his life, Euripides went to Macedonia to the court of Archelaus, who seems to have appreciated him more. It may be that critics of social situations are never appreciated in their own countries in their own times. We can accept their universal truths only when we do not feel the pressure of practical politics. Cacoyannis retired to England during the Second World War, and went into exile during the Greek Junta (1967-74). He new spends time in Greece and France, another place where he is also appreciated. He, like Euripides, is a Socratic gadfly. He begins his film Trojan Women saying Euripides «created a timeless indictment of the horror and futility of all wars». His closing statement is: «We who have made this film dedicate it to all those who fearlessly oppose the oppression of man by man». It is obvious that he had the Greek Junta and its abuses in mind.

Cacoyannis has always been interested in the strength of women — to suffer and to change. He hates hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy of the strong in abusing the weak. These two interests align with the structural relations of large truth and contingent reality: women (and small countries) suffer in their own peculiar ways while men apply impersonal general rules for domination.

Cacoyannis’ approach is not to alienate his audience. He does not go for the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. As ho says in an interview he gave me, «The degree of stylization in my films is dictated by the emotional impact I am aiming at, I don’t just want to dazzle people’s eyes. I want to get to their hearts, to move them – shock them and move them. That way I arrive at a kind of cathartic experience»[2]. I think this is what Aristotle meant about Euripides when he called him the most tragic of the tragedians (Poetics, 1453a29). Both of these artists aimed at the heart, and they brought forth tears: we weep for the victims, but we also weep for ourselves.

Trojan Women (1971). Vanessa Redgrave (Andromache)

I shall concentrate on Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia, since it seems to speak most urgently to the world new. Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis was performed posthumously in 405 B.C. just before the end of the Peloponnesian War. It shows disillusionment with the idea that glory can be aligned with war that kills so many of the innocent. What can be more perverse than killing one’s own child for one’s prestige? Or sacrificing one’s country for personal gain?

Iphigenia is a study of the victim, and Cacoyannis is a master at showing us how the victim feels. He adds a prologue in which a deer is hunted down; the camera allows us to share the deer’s perspective, and we see the forest trees sway before us as we fail to bleed out our lifeblood. A similar sequence later in the film draws the parallel between this animal and  Iphigenia; she is hunted down in the woods like this deer, and we also share  her perspective. Cacoyannis manages to capture the terror of the innocent victim, and that is his emphasis at the end when Iphigenia tries to escape. He also suggests the contradiction between rationalized violence – we must kill this child to wage this war successfully, i.e., what men think to justify their actions — and the sense of the suffering of the victims and the crimes one commits against humanity, theoretically to save humanity.

The issues here are plain. Euripides has shown us the price of war: our own children. A country always sends its young to fight its wars. Agamemnon’s agreeing to slay his own daughter is the same decision made by every political leader who declares war. Only they think war’s tragedies will strike others, and the death they suffer will not be their own, nor their child’s. As the Herald says in Euripides’ Suppliants, «When a people vote for war, no one thinks of his own death, but thinks this misfortune is someone else’s, for if death could be seen at the time of voting, never would spearmad Greece destroy itself» (Supp. 482-86).

Euripides puts death before our eyes. Clytemnestra sees the obscene decision of the Greeks to kill her daughter for the crime that it is, and says that this criminal murder is an evil choice (IA 1265). Calchas is the only source of the oracle, and the oracle gave a choice: Agamemnon’s daughter’s life or victory. He was torn but opted for victory and the longer he waited the less he could change his mind. When the army heard about the oracle, it was too late, and by the time Agamemnon makes the excuse to Clytemnestra that the whole family could be murdered, he may be right. Earlier he had a choice. Both he and Menelaus unveil their weaknesses, one for power (Agamemnon) and one for a woman (Menelaus, IA 317-413). Neither really has the people’s good at heart, nor his family’s. Euripides unmasks the men and shows them changing their position, reversing their roles as to who is in favor of the sacrifice. These are the corrupt people described by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian war:

War was a stern teacher… To fit in with the change of events,

words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to

be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now

regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party

member; to think of the future and wait was merely another

way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was

just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to

understand a question from all sides meant that one was

totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark

of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back

was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent

opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected

to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of

intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was

hatching… Family relations were a weaker tie than party

membership, since party members were more ready to go to

any extreme for any reason whatever[3].

This is how Calchas operates, and the sons of Atreus as illustrated in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. This is the type of politicking that took place between Greece, Cyprus, America and the Turks as was described by Cacoyannis in Attila ‘74. We are still living with the consequences of that disastrous power brokering. This is the type of negotiation that leads to so many wars. A political motive prevails over justice. This is the story of Iphigenia.

Everyone in this film and play uses language to justify their actions. It is only Iphigenia who speaks the truth and believes her father. At first Iphigenia reacts reasonably in saying that she does not want to die, but at the end she says that she embraces death for the good of the people. Her father gave her rhetorical reasons for the sacrifice, in line with the shift of language described above, but she idealistically embraces this rhetoric. Rather than violating Aristotelian principles (according to the Poetics her change is too abrupt), she follows his ethics[4]. To say it simply, Iphigenia may not suit Aristotle’s dramatic fiats, but she exemplifies his ethics by following philia, and the duties it entails. She is a devoted daughter.

Cacoyannis makes his film more human through a love story, and he introduces a charming Achilles, instead of the egotistical prig we find in Euripides. Cacoyannis makes all his young men more appealing: Orestes is more charming and resolute and Achilles is now a devoted lover. His eyes meet Iphigenia’s slowly, and it is love at first sight. I suppose Cacoyannis thinks that in a popular film, there has to be a love interest. Many of the French reworkings of Greek tragedy add this, as Racine did Lo his Phèdre, and Dassin retained this in his film, Phaedra. Many operatic versions of the classics add lovers that were not there in the originals.

There is much that can be done with the camera that cannot be done with words, and alterations are made. The egotistic speech that Achilles makes to Clytemnestra, claiming that he has learned how to be temperate in his defeats and his joys (919-21), is cut. Whatever happened to the Homeric Achilles whose wrath fueled the Iiiad? Euripides’ Achilles tells Clytemnestra when she appeals to him for help, «Don’t call me, I’ll call you», and advises her to reason with Agamemnon. He shows that the main concern he has is not that her daughter is to die, but that he was not consulted in advance. He is therefore insulted. All this is elided by Cacoyannis, who shows us a young, brave Achilles willing to fight to the death for his love.

In the final shot of Cacoyannis’ film we see Clytemnestra looking at the fleet sailing away with the favorable breeze purchased with her daughter’s life. We share her perspective, and see hair blow over our eyes. Clytemnestra’s eyes blaze with hatred, and hurt. We see the future through her eyes. It is not pretty. A new cycle of vengeance will begin – something familiar in so many accounts of national histories.

Cacoyannis shows us a clearly corrupt Calchas, plotting with Odysseus, making lphigenia’s sacrifice something due their personal honor (after all, Agamemnon had killed their sacred deer). An earlier mythical account somewhat exonerates Agamemnon from the crime, because it shows Agamemnon compelled by Artemis to sacrifice his daughter (S. Ei. 563-72). Aeschylus also speaks of Agamemnon putting on the yoke of necessity (Ag. 217). Euripides and Cacoyannis do not give us such an easy way out. They show that Agamemnon must decide whether to lead a victorious army to Troy, or to sacrifice his daughter. Agamemnon is truly a modem political leader. Cacoyannis shows us him weak and wavering, with fear in his eyes, and the moment that he gives in, when the men are cheering him with a war song (one of the early choruses, IA 751-800): he cedes to the crowd as many modem politicians do when addressing a public rally. Cacoyannis’ chorus speaks of barbarian blood flowing. Euripides’ chorus was made up of young women from Chalcis, come to see the fleet. Cacoyannis transforms them here into the army; in other places the chorus becomes young girls who have accompanied Iphigenia. Cacoyannis handles the chorus with great skill, and these girls are like Iphigenia, innocent young people who understand nothing about war. They believe the lies they are told.

The British coolness that Vanessa Redgrave exhibited in her role as Andromache in Trojan Women is the antithesis of the passion of Irene Papas as Clytemnestra in Iphigenia. When Papas/Clytemnestra hears from her loyal servant that her daughter is to die, she screams in a way that no one in the audience will ever forget: this is the cry of the Irish banshee: the cry of a bereaved mother. It is the cry of so many mothers who suffer in war:

the cry of those who suffered from the Turkish atrocities that followed the occupation of Cyprus; it is the cry of women who watch their children die in modem Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Ireland, Palestine or Afghanistan. In wars, women are the ones left to cry and mourn their dead.

No one in the audience can remain dry-eyed at the end of the film. Cacoyannis has us in his grasp, and will not let go. He cut out the spurious “happy ending”, the messenger speech that tells us that Artemis saved Iphigenia, and made her into her priestess[5]. Cacoyannis makes us face the total horror of killing an innocent child.

Euripides shows us corrupt leaders, a loving mother, and a heroic daughter Cacoyannis follows this for the most part, but he adds an even more corrupt Calchas in league with the self-serving Odysseus. At the end of Cacoyannis’s film, Clytemnestra’s blazing gaze predicts the Oresteia, and a cycle of vengeance. By adding a love interest in Achilles, Cacoyannis shows us another innocent victim of the corrupt leaders. This is a film about corruption, suffering, and vengeance.

Cacoyannis keeps Iphigenia more an innocent young victim, whereas Euripides had made her more heroic. Cacoyannis chose a twelve-year-old actress, and her emotions are graphically written on her face. Cacoyannis shows her running away from Calchas when he is about to sacrifice her. She goes to her death with cheeks dirtied from her flight in the woods, recalling the opening flight of the deer.

Euripides’ Iphigenia does not run away. She is a forerunner of the brave women throughout Greek history that gave their lives because in this way they could preserve their freedom and dignity. One thinks of the women of Souli who danced off a cliff rather than fall into Turkish hands. She is like Euripides’ Polyxena, Makaria, the daughters of Erechtheus, and all the others who gave their lives nobly and heroically. We also think of the brave women of Cyprus and their freedom marches. We think of brave women throughout the world who devote their lives to their countries. In Ireland the women not only march, but fight for peace.

Cacoyannis humanizes, expecting even less from his characters, thus making them easier for the audience to identify and empathize with. We feel protective towards his Iphigenia, and share Clytemnestra’s indignation. The villains are so black that we cannot resist hating them. Ambiguity may be lost, and we note a bit of melodrama, but the emotional strength is still there, if not intensified[6].

Euripides and Cacoyannis are closely aligned in this work, criticizing war and the corruption of leaders. It is strong social criticism. Both also created great and moving drama. They shift our focus from the frustration and resentment we feel against corrupt regimes to the suffering of individual victims and there we see the tragedy. There is a vast difference between our moral outrage at the idea of injustice and the abject horror we feel when we see the murder of a child. Although they differ in their approach, both Cacoyannis and Euripides point up social evils, and raise questions about what we want in our leaders. They ask about the price of war, and they show the price of power. The power of the powerless in Euripides shines above that of the corrupt people who are the leaders. The Homeric heroes are unmasked as self-aggrandizing criminals. The victims, like the leaders, have the power of choice, and they can die with their honor intact. Agamemnon and Menelaus will not attain Achilles’ goal of kleos aphthiton, “immortal glory”, but rather the opposite: deathless infamy for their cowardice.

The classics are vitally modern, and should be taught that way. In a class I taught on Greek tragedy and film in 1990, besides reading Euripides’ play, my students saw Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia. Several of these students were going off to fight the Gulf War: the class identified with Iphigenia and performed this play as their final project. It was staged outdoors, and jets flew over our heads during the performance. We, the audience, saw our children being sent off to fight a war that did not concern many of us, but mainly leaders in Washington. We see this throughout the world. Now. We are all Clytemnestra, and we weep. We, the powerless, at least still have a film by Cacoyannis and Euripides’ play, and their artistic catharsis empowers the human heart.

Published in Dioniso, 1995 (Atti del XVI Congresso, Euripide, futuro del teatro. Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico)


[1] See M. McDonald, Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made visible, Philadelphia 1983 (rpt. Boston 1991); Kakojanisova i Euripidove Ifigenia: Moc Nemocnih, «Pozorište LVI (1989) 10, pp. 54-57; Cacoyannis and Euripides’ Iphigenia: The Dialectic of Power, and Interviews with Michael Cacoyannis and Irene Papas, in Classics and Cinema, ed. M. Winkler, in ‘Bucknell Review’, Lewisburg 1991, pp. 127-142, and 159-184; and an article I co-authored with K. MacKinnon, Cacoyannis vs. Euripides: Tragedy into Melodrama, in “Drama: Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption”, vol II, Stuttgart 1993, pp. 222-34.

[2] Classics and Cinema, op. cit, p. 170.

[3] Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, (trans. R. Warner, 1956; rpt. Great Britain 1971), Book III. 82, pp. 208-9.

[4] See my Iphigenia’s Philia: Motivation in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, «Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica», N.S. XXXIV, (1990), 1, pp. 69-84.

[5] It is possible that Euripides died before he wrote the ending for this play. Most scholars agree that the ending that we have is very late. There is much dispute among scholars about the extent of interpolations in the rest of the play. See DL. Pago, Actors Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, Studied with Special Reference to Euripides Iphigeneia in Aulis, Oxford 1934.

[6] See the article Cacoyannis vs. Euripides: Tragedy into Melodrama, which I co-authored with K. MacKinnon, cited in note 1.