‘A man rules in his home and in war, And in a foreign land he finds recourse; Possessions gladden him, victory crowns him, He lives assured of honourable death. But strict and narrow is a woman’s fortune!’
For the Greek tragedian Euripides, writing in the 4th century B.C., Iphigenia is the ideal sacrificial offering. Cruelly deceived by her father Agamemnon, she believed she was to be married to the hero Achilles — and in the end agrees to be sacrificed in exchange for favourable winds and the start of the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis rescues Iphigenia from the sacrificial altar, but in return she is taken far away from home, to the land of the Taurians, where she has to serve as a priestess for many years. From there, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sends her — as a woman — to fight for the soul of humanity. The leverage she uses to save herself and her brother Orestes can be ascribed not only to the persuasive power of German idealism in Goethe’s 1779 play, but also to the feelings she arouses in Thoas, the king of the Taurians.
Throughout the ages, Iphigenia has remained a blank slate for projections: a woman who saves her father and all the Greeks by offering herself as a sacrifice. A woman who embodies feminine kindness and forgiveness, who speaks out against war and speaks up for the strength of the human spirit, who breaks the cycle of revenge (for fate is not written in stone!), and who goes down in history as a selfless and forward-thinking humanist.
In giving Iphigenia a modern interpretation, the author Joanna Bednarczyk and the director Ewelina Marciniak aim to make connections with current discourses. They use Goethe and Euridipes as a backdrop to their own contemporary story. What kind of young woman would Iphigenia be today? Who is the woman behind the myth, behind the collective narrative of the sacrificial victim? And how can she be freed from this narrative?
Theatre has been dealing with the subject of the family for 2,500 years, depicting people who know each other only too well and are bound to one another by circumstances not of their own choosing. And just as in the times of Sophocles and Euripides, theatre today still deals with the family as a volatile bundle of mutual dependencies and profound conflicts. How might it appear to us today when a father sacrifices the life of his daughter?
Central to this modern interpretation is the history of abuse perpetrated by Iphigenia’s uncle Menelaus on his niece, which has been hushed up for years. When Iphigenia finally gathers the strength to break her silence, she comes up against her father, a professor of ethics who has just written a book about the perverted moral logic of perpetrators and doubts in the minds of victims. He is therefore reluctant to accuse his brother Menelaus, so as not to gamble with his own reputation, career, and his family’s good name. Iphigenia also has to cope with a mother who urges her to stoically endure the situation and not let her life become overwhelmed by suffering. She is at the mercy of a family that goes through all the strategies of repression, denial, evasion and minimization — and ultimately falls apart as a result. Iphigenia is confronted with a system that protects (male) perpetrators and exhibits a certain social tolerance of violence (towards women).
Iphigenia is a young, extraordinarily talented pianist who is on the verge of a big international career. She is abused by her uncle Menelaus, becoming the victim of sexual violence — and is made a victim again by her father, who tries to sacrifice her for his reputation and career. Losing all sense of meaning, Iphigenia ends up sacrificing her future as a star pianist and her love for Achilles, even if she is forced into this position as events unfold around her.
Abused by her uncle and betrayed by her father, Iphigenia is presented in this production as a split character: one side of her persona lives in the present, while a ‘grown-up’ alter ego observes the events with a more reflective and emancipated perspective, interrupting them again and again. This Iphigenia touches on the blank slate that the character has been for centuries, serving as a projection in all the adaptations by male authors. She also challenges other constructed female roles — those of Clytemnestra and Helen — and their lives as dependent subjects within a patriarchal system.
Iphigenia decides to leave her home, and goes to an island. There, after about 20 years, she meets her brother Orestes. As in the story from Greek mythology, he is guilty of murdering his mother. She is torn between humane compassion and wanting to tell the truth, between her love for her brother and an ambivalent longing for her family, between her duty to condemn her matricidal brother and a mythologically charged desire to break the never-ending cycle of violence and usher in forgiveness. Instead of allowing the interests of (male) others to overwhelm her identity, Iphigenia frees herself from the weight of expectations and her readiness to compromise — and radically reflects on her own existence.
This new interpretation of Iphigenia by Joanna Bednarczyk and Ewelina Marciniak brings forth a modern examination of violence and morality, of inner ethical standards and their contradictions, fragility and negotiability, of the question of who we denounce and why. But above all it is an attempt to liberate the character of Iphigenia from ascriptions of victimhood, to imagine an emancipation from this framework — without denying the existence of structures that often push women into victimhood even today.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw