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Ellen McLaughlin’s THE ORESTEIA is a new take on an ancient classic

In a fitting conclusion to his illustrious tenure at STC, Michael Kahn is bringing a dream project to the stage. “I’ve always wanted to do all of the Oresteia,” he says. “When I was in college, we read the whole Oresteia, and I was completely fascinated by the story, by the form, by the relationships, by the incredible depths of what it was about—about violence, about revenge.”

The Oresteia, written by Aeschylus, is the only complete trilogy of plays that has survived from Ancient Greece. It is composed of three plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. It was originally performed at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 458 BCE, where it won first prize. The plays follow two generations of the House of Atreus, beginning with Agamemnon’s return home to Argos after the Trojan War and his murder by his wife Clytemnestra, continuing to her murder at the hands of their son Orestes and his subsequent murder trial in Athens.

Due to the epic nature of the story and length of the original text, the Oresteia is rarely performed in its entirety. Enter a newly commissioned adaptation that transforms the trilogy into one evening of theatre, which will have its world premiere at Sidney Harman Hall in the spring. “I knew that it needed an extraordinary writer to take a look at this material and adapt it, shape it, think about it,” explains Kahn. “I thought a lot about different writers who have done adaptations of the great classics, and finally there was really only one, and that is Ellen McLaughlin.”

Playwright Ellen McLaughlin is a prodigious interpreter of the Ancient Greek plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, honoring the original plot and language with a fresh take that imbues them with a modern resonance. Her play The Persians was produced at Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2006 to great acclaim, and her world-premiere adaptation of Aeschylus promises to be remarkable.

She is quick to point out that the Ancient Greeks were inventing democracy at the same time they were creating theatre. “The Oresteia are three of the oldest plays we have. They show us Aeschylus grappling with the experiment of civilization—considering, with clear eyes, its weaknesses and its hopes. The Greeks had no illusions about the fragility of society and of democracy. They knew all too well that the whole undertaking was always at risk, threatened by forces both without and within.”

What can be gained from hearing these stories written thousands of years ago? McLaughlin sees a clear reason. “We have to remember that these stories were as ancient to the Greeks as they are to us,” she explains. “They used these old stories to look at their own times and to assess their souls, the size of them, what they were capable of and what they were up against. I believe that’s what artists do, and if you’re lucky, you do it with an extraordinary company like this one.”

While this will be the first time Aeschylus’ classic is staged at STC, the plot has been explored here before. Eugene O’Neill took inspiration from the Oresteia for his Civil War-era retelling in Mourning Becomes Electra (1997). The Oresteia also continues STC’s long history of producing Greek tragedies, beginning with Euripides’ The Trojan Women in 1999 and The Oedipus Plays by Sophocles in 2001 to Argonautika by Apollonius of Rhodes in 2008 and Euripides’ Ion in 2009. And of course Shakespeare looked to the ancient world for inspiration for many plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida.

This is a massive undertaking for Kahn and McLaughlin. In fact, she recounts that he said, “‘It’s the one play I’m most terrified of.’ And I feel that way, too.” But she is buoyed by her collaborator. “It’s nice to go in holding hands with one of the great interpreters of the classics that we will ever have, and to be doing it here, which has been so important to me.”

The Oresteia runs April 30–June 1, 2019. Tickets are on sale now at ShakespeareTheatre.org. The Oresteia is made possible by a generous grant from

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