Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Theater Musings
Cassandra, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon
A character study for directors and actors


Gary Beck
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New York, NY 10016
212 481-8220

©  2016

Cassandra is a minor, but vital character in Aeschylus’ drama, Agamemnon. She informs the audience of the forthcoming death of Agamemnon, as well as herself, precipitating the action to come. Presumably the audience knows what’s coming, since it is a tragedy. The challenge to the director is to make the prophecy of imminent death theatrically dramatic to an audience visually saturated by the incredibly sophisticated imagery of film and tv.
In order to construct the emotional involvement of the audience in a scene that is critically important, Cassandra must compel a range of feelings. This can be facilitated by the chorus, who can express qualities of scorn, derision, mockery, pity, for the possessed woman. The actor, by creating tension before, during and after prophecy, completes the stage requirements for furthering the action.
The source of developing the depth of character necessary for Cassandra to evoke tragic awareness is in the pre-history of the Iliad and the myth of the House of Atreus. The director and actor should presuppose that the audience may be familiar with the tale of Troy, and possibly even the play itself. They should assume the audience will not know the myth of Apollo and Cassandra, which could be the key to initiating the foundation of constructing the character. Cassandra, a young royal princess (12-14?) of the house of Priam of Troy, is desired by the god Apollo. She agrees to have sex with him, if he’ll give her the gift of Prophecy. He does. Then she mocks him and refuses to keep her part of the bargain. He can’t take back his gift, so he curses her with not being believed.
This is where the actor’s work begins. This once privileged personage is now an embarrassment, a demented creature, possessed of madness, yet still a beloved member of the royal house. All these qualities must be examined and included in the character. The curse began before the Trojan War, which lasted for ten years, followed by the capture and destruction of the city. Then Cassandra was awarded as a slave to Agamemnon and presumably was his bedmate during their return to Argos. By building the character’s emotional life for at least ten years before she comes on stage, the actor may arrive with a three dimensional persona that will stir the audience’s emotion.
The exploration of pre-character should not be a day to day diary, or a chronicle. There should be some invented salient facts or experiences that will lead to the tormented emotional state of a character alienated from the world around her. It is vital to understand that Cassandra has been disbelieved many times. She has probably been treated as a privileged, demented member of the royal household, yet was considered harmless.
Cassandra surely prophesized the fall of Troy, which largely had to have been laughed at. The inner torment at being mocked and pitied would be a constant. It is useful to be aware that prophecy is a ‘divine’ gift, not an act of reason, therefore, the prophet will be possessed/transformed, while in a state of inspiration.
A physical transformation when in the state of prophecy must be carefully created so as not to be contrived, grotesque, silly, etc. Any implausible quality that might make the character unbelievable to the audience must be eliminated. The complication for the director is how to get the chorus, whatever format to use them is selected, to sustain disbelief in the prophecy, despite the fact that the audience knows it’s true. Since the curse of disbelief is on Cassandra, she must be convincing, or the scene will be contrived and the audience involvement with the play will deflate.

Of course very few actors will have the opportunity to play Cassandra, at least in a serious theater setting. Yet the same general outline of character development can be applicable to other roles. Create who you are, then you will be, of course pre-supposing you have the talent and skills to be.

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