The Oresteia (458 BC): Aeschylus

The Oresteia


(The Globe, London, 6 September 2015)

Seeing this the day after Hamlet, I definitely feel that I’ve met my Great Tragedy Quota for this month. Written in 458 BC, when Aeschylus was in his late sixties, this feels like the Dane’s ancient counterpart: if Hamlet is the great modern exploration of the self, then the Oresteia is a monument not just to human nature, but to civilisation itself.

There are three plays: first, Agamemnon. The eponymous great king has returned to his land of Argos from his campaign in Troy. In his entourage comes Cassandra, the captive Trojan princess cursed with prophecy, whom Agamemnon plans to make his mistress. The people welcome him home, delighted to have their lord back with them after ten long years. And Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra comes to add her welcome. But Clytemnestra’s warmth is feigned: she’s been waiting for her husband’s return, oh yes, but for only one reason. For ten years she has been nursing her fury at Agamemnon’s actions before the war, when he sacrificed their eldest daughter Iphigenia to raise the winds that would take his ships to Troy.

It’s likely that Clytemnestra, passionate and strong-willed, did love Agamemnon once. But her love has curdled and withered into something entirely unforgiving, and now he must pay the price. She slaughters him in his bath – kills Cassandra too – and displays their butchered bodies to the multitude. Her lover Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin, has connived with her in the murder. He has a blood-debt to exact from Agamemnon, as payment for a murder in the previous generation: Agamemnon’s father Atreus killed two of his brother Thyestes’ sons (Aegisthus, another son, escaped) and served the boys up to Thyestes for dinner. That act sparked off a spiral of death and counter-death, a curse that hangs over the House of Atreus. That curse is destined to be repeated again and again, blood upon blood, and so the second act begins.

The Oresteia

Agamemnon (George Irving)

In The Libation Bearers, Agamemnon’s young son Orestes finds his way home from exile, having been raised in safety by a family friend. He comes to avenge his father’s murder, following the command of the oracle at Delphi (who speaks for Apollo), and is further urged on by his sister Electra. Once again kin kills kin: Orestes slaughters Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the grisly tableau of dismembered limbs is repeated.

But then, in the final part, The Eumenides, there’s a pause from killing. Pursued by the Furies, Orestes flees to Delphi where he begs for absolution from the Oracle. Apollo (despite having advised this course of action to begin with) finds the case a tricky one and refers it on to the wisdom of Athena. The play cycle ends in Athens, where the goddess assesses the evidence and assembles a law-court to judge Orestes’ guilt (perhaps the first courtroom denouement in the history of theatre?). Democracy, fairness and the justice of the people triumph over the blood-soaked vengeance of the individual. Presumably all the Athenians went home at the end brimming over with civic pride, but I found the third instalment the least compelling of the lot. Here I felt Aeschylus had moved away from the psychological power of the earlier parts, and was simply trotting out propaganda saying how marvellous Athens was; but each to their own. (I also find that very few plays or films work as well when the gods start appearing in the flesh.)

I’d never read or seen any of the plays before today, although just before leaving the house I discovered that I owned Robert Fagles’ translation of the cycle. I slipped that into my bag to take with me, and I’m glad I did: it suggested some interesting themes to watch out for. Fagles argues that the Oresteia is about transitions: not just personal transitions, like Orestes maturing from boy to man, but the greater transition of a society moving from ancient savagery to modern civilisation. (A lot of what he says reminded me of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which I’m reading at the moment.)

Even if I hadn’t read the introduction beforehand, this point would have been hammered home by the final instalment of the cycle, The Eumenides. Here the Athenian law-court acquits Orestes, only for the Furies to rise in protest. They argue that Athena and Apollo are new gods, with no understanding of the correct order of things. How can the Furies be denied their right to justice? They govern men by inspiring fear; they dissuade crime by promising the certainty of retribution; they represent the most ancient, darkest, deepest places of the human spirit. They are placated in the end, but I was struck by Aeschylus’ marked contrast between the primal savagery of antiquity and the cool reason of modernity.

The Oresteia

Orestes (Joel MacCormack) and Electra (Rosie Hilal)

Even more interestingly, the Furies claim that Orestes’ crime is unforgivable because he has killed his mother: the flesh that sheltered him and birthed him. Apollo counters this with a rather misogynistic speech about the womb being merely an empty space; a shelter: when the child is born, he joins the house of his father and what is a mother to him then? Athena tends towards a similar point of view, arguing that Orestes’ guilt in killing his mother is outweighed by the fact that he was pursuing just vengeance for his father’s death. Thus two very different modes of thought collide: the archaic world of matriarchal rule and blood-feud, set against the newly rational, patriarchal society of Athens.

It struck me rather suddenly that Clytemnestra isn’t necessarily a criminal in this context. Think of The King Must Die, for example. Clytemnestra, like Renault’s Theseus, is teetering on the brink between two worlds. Her actions could be seen as an effort to recover the royal authority her female forebears had exercised: she tries to return to a time when queens ruled in their own right and kings were given a brief period of power before they were sacrificed to appease the gods, and another man was chosen by the queen to take their place. In this matriarchal society of king-sacrifice, Clytemnestra’s actions are pious rather than shocking: in sacrificing her husband, she hopes to wipe out the curse on the House of Atreus, to answer for his earlier sacrifice of their daughter, and to show remorse for his violent subjugation of Troy. She’s a powerful woman taking control of her country’s destiny. Is this why Orestes is so horrified, I wonder? Not just because his mother’s killed his father, but because she’s toying with the idea of overturning the very patriarchal system on which he relies for his own succession and security?

I’m not going to talk about the entire cast, although I do want to praise Joel MacCormack’s personable, sympathetic Orestes and the calm command with which George Irving made his brief appearance as Agamemnon. But I have to say that the men don’t stand out in this production, which rather leaves you marvelling at the fact that Aeschylus wrote some incredibly strong women. Although Electra (Rosie Hilal) is young, her sense of grievance against her mother has been honed to a killing point, and her maiden sweetness is underlaid by a fierce, implacable resolution. Cassandra (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), though she has barely a few lines, is not a quailing slave but a forceful woman who foresees her own death and faces it with admirable resolution.

Yet there’s one who dominates: Clytemnestra, in a superlative performance by Katy Stephens. Statuesque, composed and falsely sweet, she infused each word and glance with a simmering sense of formidable danger. She was terrifying; and she was most terrifying not when she exalted, blood-drenched, over Agamemnon’s dismembered corpse, but when she simply stood in all her regal finery and waited for her moment to come. I’ve read about some pretty scary ancient women recently (Amestris foremost amongst them), but Clytemnestra towers over them all as an example of fearsome female potency.

The Oresteia

Clytemnestra (Katy Stephens)

One interesting tidbit. Fagles draws parallels between Agamemnon and Xerxes: two conquerors who have been overcome by hubris and incited the anger of the gods. Aeschylus had already written a play about Xerxes, of course – the Persians, seven years before the Oresteia – and perhaps it would have been natural for the Athenians to think of this more recent conqueror who returned home having razed a foreign city to the ground. If that thought was at the back of Aeschylus’ mind, then there are other interesting parallels. In both cases (albeit on different timescales) we see a mighty king returning home from an extended campaign, intending to bring a younger woman into his house and bed, and his formidable, insulted wife conspiring to take his life. Aeschylus would have known about Xerxes’ murder. Were there whispers that the king’s wife had been involved? Was there a piquant nod to recent foreign politics alongside the ancient legends? It’s a tantalising thought.

The Globe’s usual decoration is all but hidden for this production: rough sheets of MDF have been nailed over the gilding and the curlicues, to give a plain unadorned backdrop. With the tiered ranks of seats and the sky above, it doesn’t take much to imagine yourself in a bona fide Greek theatre. The use of incense burners, thickening the air, and vast braziers add to the ancient feel, and the costumes are an effective mix of ancient and modern. Agamemnon and his troops come on in full Greek finery, with hoplite helmets and red crests nodding; Clytemnestra wears a sheath dress with a striking Greek pattern; the Chorus wear shades of grey, in suits and dresses that suggest a 1950s setting; Orestes himself wears modern clothes. The gods appear in splendour and the ghastly Furies have long straggling black hair and shapeless black dresses (they reminded me of the ghost-girl in Ring). It sounds like a mish-mash, but it really works. There’s also very effective music which helps to ratchet up the tension, and some chanting and singing from the Chorus to emphasise moments of ritual or prophecy. Everything was tied together by Rory Mullarkey’s sensitive, perfectly-honed adaptation, which cut the cycle down into a manageable three-hour event and kept the momentum bowling along like an out-of-control chariot.

It’s a great achievement for the Globe and a deeply engaging way to experience these ancient plays for the first time, charged with idiomatic but powerful translations. We’re blessed at the moment with a fine Greek season in London and, if it’s possible, I’d like to catch the other Oresteia currently being performed by the Almeida company. I doubt I’ll have time, but it would be marvellous to compare the two. And I hope the Globe are encouraged to try some more classical plays in the future alongside their usual Shakespearean rep.

The Oresteia

Costume designs for the Chorus in Part 2, The Libation Bearers

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