Greetings all! Hope everyone had a pleasant and relaxing weekend...it is extraordinary that tomorrow is already Thursday. Sorry for my absence, I had a relaxing weekend but at the same time, I have been getting my ass handed to me by Aeschylus!
The Oresteia is perhaps the oldest extant playscript we have. It is the only trilogy still around...in the Ancient Greek theatre, plays were performed as part of a religious festival, a couple of times a year, and each performance consisted of 3 plays, built around a theme, and followed by a satyr play which basically spoofed the trilogy that came before it...Of all the Greek plays still around, including Sophocles' Oedipus plays, The Oresteia is the only remaining trilogy....
Basically, the story of The Oresteia is the worlds oldest family feud...the Fall of the House of Atreus...
Play One: The Agamemnon
The Greeks await anxiously the word from Troy, it has been 10 long years since the Greek armies departed, determined to recapture Helen and destroy Troy. Suddenly (actually there is a lot of talking first), a signal fire blazes from across the sea! Success...Troy has fallen and the great king (or "Clan-chief" in Tony Harrison's extraordinary tribal adaptation/translation) Agamemnon will be returning to Argos!
However, there is a problem...10 years prior, his army was stuck on the shore, unable to get a favorable breeze to lead his forces to Troy. In order to do so, the Gods made him sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia...which naturally has pissed off his wife Clytemnestra. Perhaps the first villain-ness in dramatic literature, Clytemnestra has been plotting her revenge (and shacking up with Aegisthus) since Agamemnon departed...upon his return, Clytemnestra feigns joy, he steps on the purple carpet, goes into his palace...and is whacked!! Welcome home, Agamemnon!! In addition to this, his trophy from the Trojan War, the poor Cassandra, is also murdered. Has any character had it worse in history than Cassandra? How would you like to have the ability to see the future but never have anyone believe you because Apollo has also made you appear to be completely nuts? So, play ends with Agamemnon dead, Cassandra dead and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (who has his own issues with Agamemnon: his family, particularly his father and brothers, was essentially destroyed by Atreus, Agamemnon's father) ruling Argos and the citizens, represented by the chorus, in despair.
Play Two: The Choephori (The Libation Bearers)
Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra is home! He stands before his father's woefully distended grave. No honors have been laid out for him, no proper mourning...as he mourns, he cuts off a lock of his hair and places it on Agamemnon's grave. Suddenly, a group of women appear and he moves off to overhear them. The women, led by Electra, are bringing libations to pour over the grave of Agamemnon, a little too late, but I guess better late than never. Electra is clearly reluctant to do anything, as she hates and curses her mother for the murder of her father. Clytemnestra, like Lady Macbeth down the road a ways, is wracked by guilt and nightmares about the murder. She keeps dreaming about giving birth to a serpent that will come for revenge. At the grave, Electra notices Orestes lock of hair, realizes it is just like hers and begins to surmise that her brother has returned, because, clearly, all it takes for recognition in ancient Greece is a lock of hair! Orestes and Electra reunite, they hatch a plan for revenge, and hijinks's ensue...(every synopsis of every play ever written can include the phrase "hijinks's ensue"). Orestes disguises himself and pretends to deliver word to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus that Orestes is in fact dead....he then avenges his father's murder by killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. And immediately feels guilty and exits, pursued by the Furies!
Play Three: The Eumenides
The third play in the trilogy (Episode Three if you will) is in effect a trial. So we have a bunch of murders...Agamemnon murdered Iphigenia, for that Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon, for that Orestes murdered Clytemnestra...quite the family tree! Orestes has been pursued by the Furies to the Oracle at Delphi and has sought refuge with Apollo. When we discover Orestes, he is surrounded by sleeping Furies and under the protection of Apollo, who is actually responsible for the Furies falling to sleep. Apollo takes responsibility for having Orestes murder Clytemnestra and urges him to flee to Athens, where he will essentially have a trial before Athena.
The Ghost of Clytemnestra appears before the sleeping Furies and tries to roust them up to avenge her murder...after her exit, the Furies awake and debate Apollo over which is the worst crime: a wife murdering her husband to avenge her daughter or a son murdering his mother to avenge his father...and there is the conundrum of the plays...Orestes arrives in Athens:
Athena, high she-god, I was sent by Apollo. Look on me kindly, I'm cursed and an outcast. Though still a cursed outcast there's no need of more cleansing. My bloodguilt's been blunted enough by my contact with places and people who helped my purgation. All this was decreed by Apollo at Delphi. I've crossed land and sea to your house and your statue. Until the issue's decided, I stay beside you.
The Furies arrive to kill Orestes ("seek seek scour the ground/the mother-killer's got to be found") and are preparing to kill Orestes when Athena arrives, fresh from Troy. A trial begins, with Athena has judge. The Trial of Orestes takes place in the Acropolis and is presided over by Athena, with a jury of 12 Athenians...and Apollo essentially serving as Orestes' defense attorney and the Furies the prosecutors.
The argument of Apollo and Orestes essentially boils down to Clytemnestra had it coming to her simply because she was a woman. She had no right to murder Agamemnon and his death outweighs hers, since he was a guy and all plus he was a hero during the war with Troy...and she was just a woman. (Sorry ladies, it was a patriarchal society, although Apollo does say it would be ok for a woman to kill a man if she is an Amazon!)
Ultimately, we see the first hung jury in the history of the world, Athena as the judge votes to acquit Orestes, he is thrilled and before he returns to Argos pledges his never ending support to Athena and Athens. The Furies are pissed! The third play concludes with a long debate between Athena and the Furies where she convinces them not to pursue revenge on Orestes, but rather stay and make Athens a great city...which they agree to do...THE END!!
Now we have tragedy...everything that comes after, from Sophocles and Euripides to Shakespeare and Ibsen to Brecht and Beckett to August Wilson and Arthur Miller, comes from the roots of these plays...Aeschylus expands the number of characters onstage, thereby allowing for conflict to happen more easily (even though the violence happens offstage) and the rest, as they say, is history.
I love these plays...I expect in our modern day and age they are difficult to do well, I am wondering if this Tony Harrison translation/adaptation is from Peter Hall's 1981 production, which I believe was performed in Greece.
Questions about the plays:
1. Do they need to be performed only be men, as listed in the script? (they originally would have been performed by men for men, since women didn't attend the theatre)
2. Do they need to be performed in masks, or does it work without masks?
3. They are extraordinarily talk-ey...do they move well as theatre? And can you do all three in one sitting in this day and age?
I'd like to tackle them one of these days. My friend Chazz and I have been chatting about one day doing our own version of the Trojan War, pulling from all the myths and creating our own telling of it. I love the Trojan War, I admit I've always hated it when Hector dies at the hands of Achilles but if I have learned anything over the last few years, it is that I am apparently a sucker for lost causes...But unlike, say, Shakespeare's History plays that have been adapted into the War of the Roses and such, I believe the Greek tragedies work on levels beyond even Shakespeare because they are so primal. What makes Harrison's translations so interesting is how primal and even savage they are. This is not the Greece of Pericles the great orator...this is primitive, dangerous, tribal Greece...
It is a hard read but I urge you to check them out....The Oresteia...the birth of tragedy, the development of character and the start of our 2,500 year theatrical tradition.
While we are here, if I could go back in time, I would love to go to one of the Festivals of Dionysus and see an original performance of a Greek tragedy (probably The Trojan Women by Euripides) at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, I'd like to sit in on a rehearsal and the original production of Hamlet at the Globe and I'd like to see Brecht in rehearsal...
Where would you go? What would you see?
Until next time: "Let the terriers yap, all bark and no bite!/You and I, we'll rule this house, and set it right." Clytemnestra to Aegisthus, final line of The Agamemnon...
Rick St. Peter