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About the Author
Peter Meineck is Clinical Associate Professor of Classics, New York University, and Artistic Director of the Aquila Theatre Company.
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THE ORESTEIA: INTRODUCTION
Perhaps the best way to start is to make a rather simpleminded examination of what is described as the causes of action by different characters, including the Chorus, in the course of the three plays which constitute the Oresteia. These three plays are three acts of a single play. This one can be sure of because the last lines of each of the plays clearly refer to the next as a further step. The end of the Agamemnon has Clytemnestra saying to Aegisthus, "I / and you together will make all things well, / for we are masters of this house." This certainly looks forward to the return of Orestes, of which we already know from Cassandra's prophecy. In fact, we know that they will surely not make all things well, nor will they continue as masters of the house. The second play ends with the choric utterance, "In the beginning was the child-eating / and the sufferings of Thyestes. / Then came the murder of the king, / ... cut down in his bath. / And now ... / Is it a rescuer, or must I call him a destruction? / When will it find completion? When will it end? / When will the fierceness of our ruin / fall again to its sleep?" And the last words of the third play are, "For Zeus ... who Sees All and the Fates / on these terms have come together." These are certainly the three great steps in the fulfillment of fate that Aeschylus bids us observe, and they are contained in the three plays in sequence.
But we find out other things about the causes of the action if we look at what we learn from Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon. In conversation with the Chorus after the murder, she claims that she killed Agamemnon because of his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia. She also speaks of her support from Aegisthus, her lover. Only finally, when the Chorus mentions the "Spirit that attacks the house of the sons of Atreus," does Clytemnestra declare that indeed she is that spirit, thrice-glutted demon of the house. She is prepared to see herself in this role, bearing her part in the vendetta of family murders. But although in this last function she is the agent of fate, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and the love of Aegisthus belong also in her motivations. We must add her resentment at Agamemnon's love affair with Cassandra. As an additional factor in the plot, it turns out that Aegisthus is Thyestes' son, and his part in the murder of Agamemnon is largely due to his personal desire for revenge.
The several blocks of events which are the dynamic of fate are, then, if we look at the end of the three plays and Clytemnestra's own assumption of the part of Evil Spirit, the eating of the children, the murder of Agamemnon, the matricide. Yet even at this level of determinism comes Zeus's decision to change something. In this sequence of murder, the killing of Clytemnestra is to have no bloody sequel. The vendetta is to be stopped there by a change in the order of the world. Hitherto, there has been no way in which the blood of the murdered victim would not automatically invoke the Furies who waited on the murdered — provided that the murdered were of blood-kin with the murderer. "The black blood of a man, when once it has fallen to the earth in his death, / who shall conjure it back again?" is a sentiment voiced throughout the plays. But Zeus has decided that there shall be such a ritual devised by Apollo, one of the new gods, which will sacramentally abolish the taint of blood. Furthermore, Athena, acting presumably under Zeus's orders, or at least by his sanction, sets up a new legal court of human jurors to investigate the motives of the crimes and the degree of guilt involved. The end of this is to supersede the function of the Furies, who are the representatives of the old gods.
All of this rather confusing scenario is important in the tale Aeschylus is giving us, and also exceedingly important in the world that Aeschylus is going to dissect and dissolve. All great events are partly conditioned by massive movements in a distant past — Fate. But partly also by all sorts of particular motivations working on individuals inside a given situation (Clytemnestra's relations to Iphigeneia, Aegisthus, Cassandra). There is also a set of nonhuman controlling powers other than Fate and identifiable as various gods — for example, Zeus or Apollo or Pan. These to a degree can distort the events, even within the pattern of Fate, in time or in their particular shape at least.
Look at the following rather confusing sequence. Agamemnon and Menelaus are likened to vultures robbed of their nestlings. Their complaints are heard by "some" Apollo or Pan or Zeus who treats them as "settlers in his kingdom." So a Lord greater still, Zeus, god of guest-friends, sends the Atreidae against Paris. Here, apparently, the Chorus's sense of the Atreidae as robbed vultures has some particularly illuminating emphasis. In the first place, the assistance is rendered by "some" god, among the three, to the vultures. In the second place, "a Lord greater than the kings, Zeus, god of guest-friends," sends the Atreidae against Troy.
Confusing as this is, in the dual personality of the vultures as birds and as the Atreidae, and in the dual personality of "some Zeus," and so forth, alongside another and greater Zeus, a similar passage a little further on is even more puzzlingly insistent on the doubleness of the agents involved. Two eagles are described in detail, as to their appearance, as the decisive omen which sends the Atreidae to Troy. These eagles are seen by Calchas catching and eating a pregnant hare with her unborn brood. Calchas "knew" that the Atreidae were the eagles. He then prophesies that Artemis, hating her father's winged hounds for their killing of the hare, will inflict on Agamemnon the disastrous choice of killing his daughter or failing his allies. Because Artemis sees the birds differently, primarily as hare-devourers, they are different, they are hare-devourers, and she forces the fleet to a standstill by contrary winds and sets the trap for Agamemnon in which he falls and sacrifices his daughter ("to charm the contrariness of Thracian winds"), thereby adding one more reason for Clytemnestra to murder her husband. So — no sinner is ever free to sin quite freely. He bears with him the weight of the past to which he in a sense belongs. As Virgil says, "Quisque suos patimur Manes" — we each one suffer our own ghosts. It is the nexus of motives and past history which carries along with it Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Aegisthus, Iphigeneia, Orestes, Cassandra. We must add to this weight of the past (which is the main predisposing element of fate) the almost chance and whimsical intervention of those the Greeks called gods. We must also add to the package the voluntary or semivoluntary acts of the individual. When these all converge, you get, in Aeschylus's terms in the Prometheus Vinctus, kairos, the moment when all the potentialities converge in action.
Nor is any single great crime free of the weight of the social setting in which it arises. Agamemnon and Menelaus involve their country in total war. The Chorus is composed of old men — there are none left in Argos save the very old and the very young. And Helen and Clytemnestra are sisters and are twin disasters to the two cities to which they came. We must remember Aeschylus's tremendous denunciation of war leaders and all the private lives they wreck. In the last play, the community is again called into the equation — to decide for themselves some of the issues of the past that formerly depended on the private interests of sovereigns. (We remember, too, that alone of the three dramatists — Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides — Aeschylus served several campaigns as a regular soldier.)
What else does this simple separation of the various strands of causation tell us about the first and second plays in the light of the third? Surely, the curious but undeniable process of a growing abstractness, as the play moves from the first to the second to the third. Agamemnon gives you all the complexity of human action, in its compulsive personal motivation and the force of the past and the distorting accidental direction of the gods' especial will. The second play is very bare. It deals with the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to answer the murder of the king in the Agamemnon, but it adds no further motives, no further characteristics, except the influence on her brother of the mourning Electra, turned savage murderess. In the Eumenides, Orestes alone of those prominent in the first play is alive. But he is now only a legal defendant in a trial. The issues that tore our minds apart in the Agamemnon, with Clytemnestra claiming some degree of our sympathy and Agamemnon some of our pity, have become legal matters and state matters; they are also turning into basic matters of human behavior in general terms. The one passionate element is the macabre presentation of the Furies and the goading influence on them of the nightmare Clytemnestra. They engage in a symbolic chase after the wretched Orestes, but, after that, they become prosecutors in the court. When they become those prosecutors, the issue is the change in the purification procedure, which implies the new construction of guilt, and, more doubtfully, the shift from the predominance of the female to the male in the gods and Attic society.
The Oresteia is perhaps the most unusual tragedy in the theater of the West, and certainly one of the very greatest. But are we right to call it a tragedy? The Eumenides changes the vividness of the personalization of the characters in the first part of the story. We were involved with these characters, all right, as we might be in the story of Othello or Macbeth or Julius Caesar. The institutionalization of the court of the Areopagus and the alteration in the cult and importance of the Furies, and their renaming as the Kindly Ones, are indeed the follow-up of that first act, the Agamemnon. But can we speak of that third act (or third play, if one is literal about it) as a tragic climax? As we speak of the end of Othello or Julius Caesar or Macbeth? Surely, the end of the Oresteia might be described as reassuring. The play stops on the note, "For Zeus who Sees All and the Fates / on these terms have come together." Can a tragedy end with a reassurance?
Yet the reassurance lives in the context of issues so huge and a presentation so huge that we catch our breath — as we do at the end of Lear, because we and our world are completely involved and because till the last moment the end is in dubious balance. We are present at the untying of elemental knots — how the curse of an unending and inevitable sequence of deaths and blood-guiltiness can be cured; how the shift from the old to the new divinities may imply a whole reevaluation of the male and female in society. How all this is attached to the great figure of Clytemnestra in the first play, so that she is both the agent of the evolution of the story and an example for the third play of what the female of that Amazonian mold could be. In all of this, the solemnity of tragedy is conjured up, and the sense of escape from what so nearly might have been. It is an even vote. What decides it are two factors both connected with sexuality — the pseudoscientific explanation that the mother is only the nurse of the seed, not its parent, and the ambiguous sexual character of the Athena figure, with its emphasis on male, not female. What one has here is the histrionic recreation of a fundamental moment of crisis in man's emotional history at such a depth that our awareness of the issues and the narrow chance separating one conclusion from another constitutes tragic feeling, even if we have to differentiate between tragic feeling and tragedy itself.
Part of the difficulty we experience in dealing with the Oresteia centers in the Eumenides — and this whether we are readers thinking theatrically or an actual audience at a theatrical presentation. The difficulty is there because the actors are nearly exclusively gods. Only Orestes is human, and his dimensions are shrunk to his legal persona. The Furies are demonic, however one decides to put them on the stage. It is indeed the staging of the gods, even if the staging is only in our minds, that causes our trouble. In the English-speaking theater we have hardly any tradition of presenting divine figures on the stage. (The medieval miracle and moralizing plays are a long way back and not in our direct theatrical line.) And surprisingly enough, we are without much material on how the Greeks might have thought of doing so at the time of the Oresteia. Indeed, through the whole of Greek tragedy, later plays included, there are not many divine figures on the stage. Most of what we have are in Euripides' prologues and epilogues and are not especially objects of mystery or awe. So it is hard for a modern director of a play to say to himself: The Greeks thought of their gods in such a way that their physical presentation was naturally this, and so we may make of them something like this. Yet Apollo, Athena, and the Furies must here appear on the stage as the totally convincing histrionic presences which will, between them, bring about the change in purification given as the high orders of Zeus himself and so lead to Athena's institution of the human jury. They must in fact mediate convincingly between the vision of the audience and Aeschylus's ideas. The divine agency involved implies a major break between the old gods and the new. A tremendous weight therefore lies on the coincidence of the deepest feelings of the Athenian audience in regard to gods, and how these gods occur on the stage. One would think the effect of those gods, as the actors played them, must have reserves of dignity and a superior potency emotionally over that of the human figures. Of course, the appeal of the ghost of Clytemnestra to the Furies must have been strong on the side of mystery. It is noteworthy that the masks of these are alleged to have been Aeschylus's special addition and to have been peculiarly terrifying.
The Greeks are without gospel or sacred book. There is moreover hardly an accepted manner of representation of the gods that carries anything like the weight of the Byzantine iconic versions of scenes in the New Testament, whether one takes these on the level of the iconoclasts or their opponents. Herodotus says, "I believe that Hesiod and Homer were four hundred years before my time — and no more than that. It is they who created for the Greeks the theogony [birth of the gods]; it is they who gave to the gods their special names for their descent from their ancestors and divided among them their honors, their arts and their shapes." It is possible, of course, that the legends of a more distant past than that of Homer and Hesiod were carried over in the rites and worship of the gods and may have contributed to the manner of their presentation on the stage. But one wonders, in the face of the statement in Herodotus, which would seem to discountenance just such an idea. The treatment of the gods by Homer and Hesiod is poetic, just as is their treatment of the heroes, as far as claims on our acceptance go. The Theogonia of Hesiod embodies many stories older than Hesiod's own period; still, it is pulled together and given coherence by the poet. There is no sacred text. Therefore, artistic treatment claims a total elasticity of response. Aeschylus in the final act of the Oresteia is dealing with an element supremely religious; the decision rests with nonhuman powers, but the dramatist is dependent very largely on his own poetic innovation for rendering the moment of the trial, as well as the fact of the trial. True, Athena has the attribute of a kind of androgyny; true, Apollo is the god of healing and prophecy. We know from other sources that Aeschylus's creation of the masks for the Furies was supremely original and terrifying. I think we can be sure that his stage version of Apollo and Athena was equally terrifying, and equally his own.
It is interesting to reflect that in the recent performance of the Oresteia at the Court Theatre, Nick Rudall wrestled with the problem of how to produce the necessary awesome effect of the Furies and tried to solve it with an amorphous raiment of sacks, each one covering two Furies, and tried to enhance the further uncanny effect of their movement with trick lights and so forth. He also sought exotic effects in the appearance of Athena in the final scene. He may only have been following what must have been the procedure of Aeschylus himself to achieve a new and completely imaginative effect for the supreme moment of the play. This want of a traditional visual presentation of the gods, at least in more than the simplest of attributes like Athena's aegis or Apollo's prophetic decorations, leads one most probably to the imaginative originality of his treatment of the stories.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Oresteia"
Copyright © 1989 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
|A Reading of 'The Oresteia': The Serpent and the Eagle||13|
|The Libation Bearers||173|
|The Genealogy of Orestes||279|
|The Libation Bearers||305|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I definitely liked Aeschylus's style better than Euripides' (in "Iphigenia at Aulis"). There's something that he did that brought me right up close, face to face with each character. He made things intimate. It was as if I was having a conversation with the guard at the beginning, and with the herald, with the chorus, with Clytemnestra and then Agamemnon and definitely with Clytemnestra again. When she ranted on about how she was right to kill her husband, it was as if I was standing over her shoulder, nodding away. And then, when the chorus rebuked her and told her why she was abhorrent and should be exiled, I moved next to them and was nodding again. And then back again. And again. I don't know what it was. Perhaps it was the depth of the characters. I thought that they had much more soul than in "Iphigenia at Aulis." Aeschylus paid attention to each character, whether they were main or not.There was also a kind of sly wit in the Agamemnon which was lacking in Iphigenia. I won't say that I laughed out loud, because I didn't. No chuckling was involved. It just made me smile; the subtle turns of phrase which he peppered all around the play. Definitely amusing, to say the least.Agamemnon is surely my favorite of the three in the Oresteia. I didn't really like "Libation Bearers," actually. Agamemnon simply seemed to have more drama and problems in it. Libation Bearers had people whining, 'Woe is me! Whatever am I to do?' with Big Good Orestes killing the Evil Villains With No Heart in the end. It was too predictable and, to me, didn't even come close to the depth of Agamemnon, with its turns and twists and deceit and intimate wishes for personal...personal something. Saving. It sounds bad to say that. Perhaps I can come about this a different way.In Agamemnon, every single character seemed involved and (to me) interesting. We could peer into their soul and see who they were, and why they should be spared from harm. The Libation Bearers seemed too two-dimensional. I thought that it was all right, as far as these things go, but the others which I've read before were much more satisfying.I knew that Clytemnestra was going to kill Agamemnon (as the play-goers in Athens would have known, who went to see it performed for the first time). I was still gripped by the tension. In Libation Bearers, that tension wasn't there for me. Orestes comes back and saves the day by being male and being able to kill two women. (If we're assuming that Aegisthus is female in marrow.) Granted, two harmful women who killed his father, but the issue of Iphigenia wasn't addressed at all, not even by Clytemnestra.I think it was just of Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, but only because it seemed that Clytemnestra had done wrong in the way she managed the people. She misused them, her own daughter included. Her killing Agamemnon wasn't *right*, but it wasn't all that terrible (for fiction), considering Iphigenia.I suppose I just rooted a lot more for Clytemnestra than Orestes. "Bring me my man-killing axe!" If that doesn't say it all for Clytemnestra, I don't know what does."Eumenides" was ok. I loved the part where Clytemnestra yells at the Eumenides/Furies for sleeping on the job. The whole play is sort of a let-down at the end, though, with its deus ex machina. Meh. Anyway, the four stars I gave for the Oresteia are almost completely for "Agamemnon." It is my favorite Greek play, and there is much delight to be found in it. And blood. Lots and lots of blood and massacre.
I am not a classical scholar. Only a person who likes a good story. This is that. It has some of the most vivid language I've read in a long time. The Furies are absolutely terrifying. The rage and venom of Clytemnestra is touching and nauseating. I have very little to no sympathy for Agamemnon, and not much for Orestes. It is purported to be a wonderful example of the first show of justice and mercy in its day. Well, not so far as I can see. To me, it seems to say that the murder of a man is more important than that of a woman, and even the darkest avenging gods can be bought if you know their price. Still, a rattling good tale.The presentation of this by the actors was very good. I liked hearing it more than reading it.