I Learnt About Writing From That: The Oresteia

I am a writer, but have not read enough. As part of my self-education I am spending a large chunk of my reading time catching up on a sort of overview history of literature. Being white, male and British I’ve opted to get an overview of the western canon first, to wit I have given myself a list of about forty books to get through between 1st August 2015 and August next year. This month is the Ancient Greeks and first up was Aeschylus.

The Oresteia of Aeschylus, is a trilogy of plays that were written for performance together at the Dionysian festival in 458BCE. The Greek way of doing things would be to run three tragedies in a row and then a comedy: in this case Proteus which has not survived history to reach us.

The three plays: Agamemnon, The Choephoroi (or, The Libation Bearers) and The Eumenides (literally The Kind Ones, a somewhat ironic term for the Furies of Greek myth), come shortly on the heels of the Greek victory at Ilium. In the first we see the homecoming and mariticide of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra; in the second, the god driven, matricide of Clytemnestra by Orestes, her son, in vengeance; and in the third the cycle of violence is broken by the invention by Athena, god of wisdom, of a jury trial by which she appeases the furies who are hunting Orestes.

The particular translation I read was this one by Ted Hughes and where I refer to Aeschylus I really mean ‘Aeschylus, in translation by Ted Hughes’ a caveat you always have to bear in mind.

The BBC had previously aired a series of radio adaptations (available for free here, at the time of writing), and given my current project, it in this light I was reading the plays. What really struck me was firstly that Greek theatre is a whole lot of telling, rather than showing. In every play the murders occur off stage for example. But the issue of exposition which is so difficult in radio where one has to get your characters to describe what is happening in as natural way as possible, is done largely through the telling of tales.

For example the trilogy opens with a watchman looking out to sea, who in a long monologue sets the scene, the time and the place, with a prayer:

“You Gods in heaven –

You have watched me here on this tower

All night, every night, for twelve months

Maybe it will never come –

A beacon-flare that leaps from peak to peak

Bringing news from Troy –

‘Victory! After ten years, Victory!’

The one word that Clytemnestra prays for.

Queen Clytemnestra – who wears

A man’s heart in a woman’s body,

A man’s dreadful will in the scabbard of her body

Like a polished blade. A hidden blade.”

As well as declarations to the gods, other tales are told by Clytemnestra to the chorus, by the Chorus (in the Agamemnon these are the Elders of the city, in the second they are servants in the palace, and in the last they are the Eumenides themselves) often to each other, either as part of celebrations, or rants, or an airing of their fears. All of it is a bit stilted and has a mixed degree of success.

One stand out example of clever telling in Agamemnon there is the trick of having the murders described to the audience before they happen by the seer Cassandra (she of the famous curse: to always speak the truth, and never be believed) after Clytemnestra and her husband has gone into the palace Cassandra goes into a trance and tells them among many other things:

“She is washing her husband

In his own blood.

He reaches from the bath for her hand

As it jerks him into pitch darkness.

Chorus

What is she talking about?

Who can unravel this?

Cassandra

Now the net – the fish-eye terror:

Death is bundling him up, like a mother

Swaddling a child.

The woman who shared his bed

Is driving the bronze through him.”

Additionally everything is foreshadowed in language choice, allusion and in a couple of cases prophesy: take the reference in the watchman’s speech to Clytemnestra’s character (‘A man’s dreadful will in the scabbard of her body’), to Cassandra’s foretelling of  Orestes’ return (‘…the Gods are watching these deaths, / They are sending one to avenge us. / A true son of his father’s justice / Who will punish his mother.) and the Furies’ anger (the quoted section above continues: ‘The Furies crowd into the house / Gorged with the blood of this house, / Ravenous for the blood of this house – / Look at the Furies. Look – Look –’). This foreshadowing ties the trilogy together in a way that really makes it one work.

Also notable is the strength of the themes: men and masculinity vs. women and femininity,  family ties and the idea of the sins of the parent being visited unto the next generations are all there from the level of word choice up to the backstory in which these murders are part of a curse triggered when one brother fed the other brother his children putting them in a pie with their hands and feet at the bottom. One among many gruesome images in the series. However not enough of them to prevent the BBC from adding a moment in The Libation Bearers where Orestes appears wearing the head of Clytemnestra’s lover as a hat.

It is particularly striking (possibly attributable to Hughes’ work in translating it) that the piece feels quite modern and accomplished in a way that, for example, more ancient texts like The Tale of Sinuhe or the Gita do not. The Ancient Greeks are closer to the writers of those pieces in time, but Aeschylus feels much more like one of us.

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