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Reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht
This is a very strange masterpiece. It is an ancient Greek tragedy, but also new, and not just because Carson is its brilliant and original translator. The work of only three ancient Greek playwrights who wrote tragedies survives: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were the voices of distinct generations. Sadly, only a few of even their plays have made it down to us. Worse, the plays were often written as sets of three, and only one full set survives: the "Orestia," Aeschylus's story of the blood-drenched Atreus family.
The odd thing is that among the surviving plays of the other two, Sophocles and Euripides, there exist plays about this same family, at different points in the action. Putting them together-as Carson does here-gives us a whole new set. Creating an Orestia comprising a play from each of the tragedians, translated by the same person, was the idea of theater director Brian Kulick. Carson tells us in her introduction that she initially resisted. As she had already translated two of the plays in question, she happily gave in. Lucky for us. We get to witness the horror unfold while also watching the ancient style develop: ever more players, ever more of the inner life, ever more self-reflection and wit. The laws of the story go from mythic, to human, to pure chaos.
The drama is all blood: Dad kills daughter (for luck in war!); and mom kills dad in revenge (and because both have new lovers); the children kill mom in revenge for dad; and Orestes, who performed the matricide, has a howling, bedridden, breakdown. Elektra tells Orestes, in the second play,that no degradation could be worse than "to live in a house with killers." In the third play they discover something worse: being killers. It all ends in an orgy of violence, madness, a sudden god and two marriages. Readers will find stunning expressions of the pain that grown children feel after bad parental separations and neglect. The various characters' impressions of events is psychologically enthralling, and the poetry is sublime.
Carson is one of the great poets writing today and is an equally compelling translator. Her language here is clear and comfortable and the volume can be read fast, like a novel, for a weird and thrilling ride. Read it slowly and you will find grace everywhere. When Helen of Troy explains how some widows of soldiers are angry with her and Elektra says, "No kidding." The great Greek playwrights may still be ancient, but the play is triumphantly fresh-and bloodier than a vampire novel.
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a historian and poet, author of Doubt a History and Funny: Poems, among other books.Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.