Last Friday I gave a paper at the Institute of Classical Studies’ ‘Early Career Seminar’, titled ‘‘Well-played, Fluttershy…’: Defeating Discord and Dragons in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’. I started this little project because I thought it would be fun, and challenging, to do something that has nothing to do with my ‘real research’. With Greek religion I am on pretty stable ground – never more than a few shaky steps from shore, but here I was in the middle of a lake on a rapidly melting layer of ice. Without wanting to give too much away, I ended the paper by talking about my personal feelings about taking on a topic like this – broadly classical influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – and that I felt it was probably not the right thing to look at. Now that I’ve done it, I don’t think deconstructing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as a reception of classical mythology is a valid thing to do.
Let me explain: there is no doubt that there are classical influences in the show. Not only is that obvious from watching the show, but also from listening to interviews with creator Lauren Faust, who talks explicitly about classical mythology as an influence. But, if you were to actually look properly at the way the show was made there’s a lot more to say about other influences. A show like My Little Pony gives children the beginning of their cultural vocabulary, and that it includes classical mythology is important, but I’m not sure it’s the point. What makes a show like this important for building cultural vocab is the sheer myriad of influences incorporated into the show (just have a look at the ‘List of Allusions’ on the MLP wiki!).
Part of what I took away from the experience of doing this work was that I couldn’t divorce myself from my ideas about what was happening on the show. I notice the classical influence because I am an ancient historian – that is what I am trained to do. If I were a geologist, I might be thinking about the Pie’s rock farm. What at the beginning of the project had felt like the important parts of the show were, in fact, very unimportant to the wider cultural scaffolding that is built around the show.
It has made me think more closely about the scholarly desire to divorce yourself from the research – summed up really well in Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s 1978 article ‘Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion' in JHS:
Too often in the study of Greek divine personalities assumptions about deities’ nature and development have been reflected in the methodology adopted and have thus introduced distortions, forcing the evidence into inflexible interpretative frameworks which may be logical without being correct. I believe we must aim at a ‘neutral’, bias-free approach which does not allow the operator’s convictions to distort the evidence by casting it into a preconceived mould.
Is it possible to adopt a ‘’neutral’, bias-free approach’? I am starting to believe that it’s not, and perhaps it’s not desirable to remove oneself from the equation. If we acknowledge our own cultural biases, rather than attempting to hide them behind neutrality, then at least we start from a position of openness.
I have been putting off writing this post because it wasn’t hugely relevant, since many of these thoughts came after the second time I went to see the Almeida Theatre’s production of Oresteia, which was right at the end of the season. But, with the news that Robert Icke’s adaptation of Aischylos’s trilogy is being moved to the West End, it has indeed become relevant again. Some notes on spoilers: there will be some. Not so much in the sense that I think anyone reading this will not already be familiar with Aeschylus’s story, but that I am going to discuss things from Icke’s script and the Almeida staging.
I saw the Oresteia at the Almeida twice, once during the previews and once right at the end. There were several things which struck me about the production the first time and (somewhat shamefully?) a huge amount that I didn’t really pick up on until the second viewing. I think this had a lot to do with how I approached the experience. I wrote my (50,000 word research) MA thesis on the subtext of Orestes’s coming-of-age in Aischylos’s Eumenides, so I am quite familiar with Aischylos’s script, although I haven’t looked at it in great detail since finishing my MA. Prior to the Almeida, the only other time I had seen the Oresteia staged was Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 production, which was surreal and weird, and to me it felt very disassociated from Aischylos. I really did not want these things to colour my potential enjoyment of this production (how naïve of me!) and so I attempted to watch this production ‘fresh’. I’m not sure it was entirely successful but I didn’t try to connect what I was seeing on the stage to the background in my own head. My immediate impression at the end was ‘I want to read the script’, and then ‘I must see this again’. I don’t think I enjoyed that first viewing, but something stayed with me. I was moved and overwhelmed.
The second time I was alone, and it was the end of a very long, very tense, very emotional day, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend four hours watching a play I had already seen. But off I went (actually, I ran from Angel tube to the theatre, so sorry to anyone who I may have bumped into). I arrived at the moment the door closed, and so I watched the first act on a tiny screen in the foyer of the Almeida. Actually, I am infinitely grateful for this. The screen closed in on Iphigeneia’s face as she slowly slipped away into death, and it was moving and breath-taking and beautiful to watch. Agamemnon was very secretive about it, insisting that it should never get out that he had killed Iphigeneia. He even says: ‘I don’t want it public. We cover it up. We bury it down so no one ever finds out.’ In Euripides’s Iphigeneia at Aulis it becomes clear when Klytaimestra and Iphigeneia arrive in Aulis that the throngs of Greeks don’t know about the prophecy. They, like the two women, assume that Iphigeneia is to be offered to someone in marriage, but then it becomes clear that the truth is about to come out:
Agamemnon: ‘… we have reached the point where we are forced to commit the bloody murder of my daughter’
And then Agamemnon lays out that Klytaimestra should not find out about the plan until Iphigeneia is dead. There is a marked difference between this girl and the one who appears in Icke’s play. The very young child of Icke’s Oresteia would not have been called for a wedding, this is partly taken care of by staging – the sacrifice occurs at ‘home’ (wherever that might be) rather than away in a military camp, but for those who had preconceived ideas about what is happening in the ancient tradition and what’s going happening on the Almeida stage there is a very large disconnect. It heightens the connection between father and daughter, perhaps, because of her absolute reliance on him – this connection is repeated several times in Euripides’s play, and also in Aischylos. The chorus in Agamemnon quotes him as calling Iphigeneia ‘the delight of my house’ (Aisch. Ag. 207), so there is certainly the assumption of closeness from our perspective.
In Aischylos, it becomes clear that everyone knows that Agamemnon was involved in Iphigeneia’s death. After Agamemnon’s slaughter, Klytaimestra accuse the Argive elders of unjust judgement, throwing out at them: ‘but you didn’t show any opposition at all to this man at the former time, when, setting no special value on her – treating her death as if it were the death of one beast out of large flocks of well-fleeced sheep – he sacrifices his own child, the darling offspring of my pangs.’ (Ag. 1415-1418). At this stage, Klytaimestra isn’t shy about shouting out about Agamemnon’s crime against her. This is not the impression that Icke’s Klytemestra gives off, she is not a raging, mad woman even when she spits out so fiercely after the actual killing of Agamemnon (the script includes the stage direction Klytemnestra is entirely rational, quiet, collected, forceful, and Lia William’s beautiful, poignant, empathetic Klytemnestra is all these things, but there is a moment that she falls apart. It is just a moment, and then she is again recollected.)
I got the strong impression that the trial was the first time that all of this background came out. For full disclosure, I actually am not completely sold on the end of Icke’s version of the play. The first time I saw the Almeida Oresteia I actually quite strongly didn’t like it. But, I think it serves a wonderful purpose in creating the openness of Aischylos’s trilogy, which necessarily takes place outside the palace doors. Icke’s play predominantly takes place inside, in a sparse and alienating home. The public knowledge of Iphigeneia’s death mirrors this internal/external dichotomy perfectly, and creates an anticipation that really swept me, as an onlooker – more than an audience member – into the action of the play in a memorising and thoughtful way.
*The savy among you might have noticed that this post contains two different spellings of Klytaimestra/Klytemnestra. The first relates to Aischylos's character, whose name does not include the nu. Icke's Klytemnestra includes an 'n', and so I have included it here (particularly given my Twitter rant about reviews of Icke's play calling the character 'Clytemnestra' when it was obvious from a quick glance at the website - not to mention actuallyon screen during the show - that this wasn't what Icke has called her at all...).
 P. 46 of the Oberon Classics printing of the script, which was available for purchase from the Almeida during the run (and now available on Amazon). Translations from Euripides are David Kovaks 2002 Loeb, and Aischylos is Alan Sommerstein’s 2008 Loeb.
 Which, of course, is not cited in Icke’s adaptation but must have, at least in part, influenced Act One of his play. Icke does mention Euripides’s version of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice in the talkback session that was held after the performance on June 29. There’s a transcript available here: http://www.almeida.co.uk/oresteia-talkback
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a pinch of fairy dust.