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An Oresteia (thoughts)

January 11, 2011

Have you entered my giveaway? Four more days!

Y’all, I think this has finally broken my weird, subconscious expectation that the ancients are more hassle than they’re worth. I say weird because, if you ask me, I couldn’t name an ancient classic that I’ve read and disliked…Gilgamesh, Odyssey, Iliad, Aeneid, Metamorphosis; works of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, Aurelius (all of this philosophy was read in my earnest late high school/early college years, which is why you’ve never seen me talk about it on my blog); even when I don’t agree with the author (do not get me started on Aristotle), I’ve enjoyed the reading. And many of those I’ve actually loved. So when I saw Emily’s marvelous post on An Oresteia trans. by Anne Carson (a new version of the three play cycle), my conscious mind immediately requested it from the library. But my sneaky little subconscious just stared at it for a good couple weeks, unwilling to open the pages in case it was too hard, or too boring, or too I don’t even know what. Eventually, I managed to catch my subconscious sleeping, and opened the cover with a mix of curiousity and trepidation to find:

Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching
waiting watching waiting-
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my
paws like a dog.

And I was away, carried along by the sheer power of Aiskhylos’ (aka Aeschylus) “Agamemnon.” I knew the basic story, because I was really into Greek mythology as a kid, but I’d never seen those bare bones fleshed out before. But now I’m just in awe of Aeschylus’ writing: it literally gave me goosebumps. Here is one of the most powerful passages, from early in the play, as the Chorus sets the background:

Her father said a prayer and bid them seize her
high above the altar like a goat
with her face to the ground and her robes
pouring around her.
And on her lovely mouth-

to check the cry that would have cursed his house-
he fixed a bridle.
Her robe fell to the ground.
She cast a glance at each of her killers,
like a figure in a painting speaking with her eyes,
for she used to sing to them around her father’s table,
blessing their libation in her pure girl’s voice

It gave me the shivers just typing it out again! Man could write, and Carson can translate. I felt like I was right there with Clytemnestra, preparing for her husband’s arrival. I gave a little squeal when Kassandra appeared, one of my favourite figures from Greek legends. And I confess myself surprised at the Chorus’ role. I knew, of course, that the Chorus always exists in Greek drama. But not having read an actual Greek play before (I did read Jean Anouilh’s Antigone for a French class), I didn’t realise how much the Chorus interacted with the other characters! I thought it was more of an ‘addressing the audience’ type thing, so I was delighted to see such word games on display. There were moments of humour too, such as Agamemnon’s response when Clytemnestra is badgering him to do something:

You’re like a bulldog. It’s not very feminine.

Heehee Truly, I just adored every moment of “Agamemnon.”

But this is a new Oresteia, so rather than continue with Aeschylus’ other two plays, it includes Sophokles’ (aka Sophocles) “Elektra” (aka “Electra”) and Euripides’ “Orestes.” While “Elektra” had a very different feel to it (it reminded me very much of the Anouilh’s retelling I just mentioned, which obviously makes a lot of sense!), I connected with it as well. Rather than the majestic inevitably of “Agamemnon,” this one seemed all too human, with the characters struggling to reconcile competing ideas of justice. Elektra is very much the central character, and Sophocles made her anguish leap off the page.

By dread things I am compelled. I know that.
I see the trap closing.
I know what I am.
But while life is in me
I will not stop this violence. No.
Oh my friends
who is there to comfort me?
Who understands?
Leave me be,
let me go,
do not sooth me.
This is aknot no one can untie.
There will be no rest,
there is no retrieval.
No number exists for
griefs like these.

Her determination to do what’s right, even though it will likely get her killed, touched me. And the dishonourable act her sense of honour leads her to commit…well, the contradiction there felt all too real. Sometimes, when our moral codes come up against all the complexities of the real world, things crack.

After falling in love with Aeschylus and Sophocles, I turned to Euripides’ “Orestes”. And as I said in my comment on Emily’s post, I felt like I’d suddenly fallen into a Monty Python skit! Everything was very sarcastic and world-weary, the plot was screwball (to put it lightly), and while I couldn’t help giggling, it felt a bit hollow after the richness first two. Although, the scathing portrayal of deus ex machina at the end showed off Euripide’s talent. Here’s a taste:

Helen, whom you were so hot to kill,
is here. In the heavens.
I saved her from your sword. Zeus’ orders.
She is after all Zeus’ daughter. Can’t die.
She will sit in the folds of the sky beside
Kastor and Pollux.
Sort of a savior for sailors.
Find another wife, Menelaos.
This one, by her beauty, was a mechanism of the gods
to kill off a lot of Trojans and Greeks,
lighten the burden of excess population on the earth.
So much for Helen.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure he intended it to feel hollow (and from reading the introduction, I know he wrote this while Athens was in decline), but since I have difficulty connecting with satire in the best of times, I couldn’t help wishing for some more Aeschylus or Sophocles instead. That being said, I’m curious as to what I’d make of Euripides in a different context, and I’m reading Carson’s translation Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripedes for the Classics Circuit tour. So I’ll be able to find out soon! ;)

In sum, I am now dying to read more Greek drama! Euripides is up next, but after that I want to read the original Oresteia. Carson hasn’t translated the other two Aeschylus plays, so I’ll be going with Fagles or Lattimore (help me decide!). And I want to read more Sophocles this year as well: Fagles has a translation of his three complete Theban plays, as does Fitzgerald (and many others I Haven’t heard of). Once again, translation advice would be helpful! And I’ll probably read If Not, Winter, Carson’s translation of Sappho at some point. Just as soon as I master my more-than-subconscious fear of poetry. ;)

If the ancients make you nervous, pick this up! It’s such a treat and very accessible.

37 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2011 5:07 am

    Thank you for reminding me of the power of the Greek plays. I am giving a short course on Greek “Ancient Arts” this spring and I have a description in my blog, In the Greek theater section there are links to some modern interpretations.

    • January 13, 2011 6:42 am

      Thanks for the link! And that sounds like a fun course. :)

  2. January 11, 2011 5:58 am

    I studied and acted in Greek Tragedies when I was a drama student too many years ago to say, but we focused much more on Euripides and Sophocles than Aeschylus. However, given the blend here that shouldn’t matter too much. Next on my list of Greek texts is ‘The Odyssey’ (I read The Iliad before Christmas) but after that I’d planned to go back to the drama and this sounds as though this would be an excellent way of bringing something fresh to my studies in that area. Thank you.

    • January 13, 2011 6:43 am

      I think you’ll definitely enjoy it! :) My college put on Lysistrata, but I think that was the only ancient one, at least on a big scale.

  3. January 11, 2011 6:25 am

    The ancients make me run for the hills.

    • January 13, 2011 6:43 am

      lol! I just find I connect with them so much more easily than one might expect.

  4. January 11, 2011 6:40 am

    Normally I wouldn’t even look at a book like this, but that passage about his daughter is entrancing and easily imagined. I always thought that this style of book would go straight over my head, but I could actually envisage myself reading it.

    • January 13, 2011 6:44 am

      I really think you should give it a go; I thought it would go over my head too, but it didn’t at all.

  5. January 11, 2011 8:51 am

    I hadn’t realized that Carson had translated this work. She is a favorite of mine and I will have to find a copy. Thanks for a wonderful review!

    • January 13, 2011 6:44 am

      Can’t wait to say your thoughts on it! :)

  6. January 11, 2011 10:33 am

    I read your whole post hoping it would ignite some deep down desire for the ancients, but alas, this would likely sit on my nightstand for months before I finally put it back on the shelf. Loved your review though!

  7. Joan Kyler permalink
    January 11, 2011 11:02 am

    Now look what you made me do! My library doesn’t have this, so I HAD to buy it! Along with two other books my library doesn’t have. Thanks a lot, Eva! (Fake moans and groans in the background from my husband as he envisions once again being buried in books after my really sincere New Year’s Resolution to just read the books I already have or get from the library.)

    • January 13, 2011 6:45 am

      Heehee: blame it all on me. ;)

      Does your library offer interlibrary loan services for free? That might help with your resolution!

  8. January 11, 2011 1:24 pm

    I definitely prefer Fagles to Lattimore! But enjoy either way. These are some of my favorites, too. Thanks for propping them up. :)

    • January 13, 2011 6:45 am

      Oh good: I’m more of a Fagles than Lattimore girl too!

  9. January 11, 2011 1:45 pm

    I really must get some greek myths and plays read I like earlier commenter am a bit scared of greek classics ,all the best stu

    • January 13, 2011 6:45 am

      I was scared of Greek classics too! But there’s nothing scary about these. :D

  10. January 11, 2011 2:19 pm

    Yay, so glad you loved this like I did! Also glad you pulled that passage involving the bridle, because I noticed in Agamemnon that the bridle was a recurring image, applied to Iphigenia as well as Troy, and used in one more place as well. There’s so much about oppression and submission going on, and how that relates to justice. And the language! So amazing.

    I am much more of a fan of satire than you seem to be, so my reaction to Euripides was more tempered. That said, I completely see where you’re coming from – when Orestes goes up against Agamemnon, it’s just difficult for the quieter, more cynical/disillusioned play to stand up to the blazing fire of the earlier work. That said, and even though I haven’t read The Eumenides, the end to the original Oresteia, I have to say that I might find a more self-righteous/idealistic portrayal of the events therein to be even less satisfying than Euripides’ version. I mean, there will be a deux ex machina in all versions because, as Carson points out in her introduction, in Greek eyes That’s What Happened: the possibility of a play in which, for example, Paris does NOT abduct Helen, was just never considered, nor a play in which Orestes and Elektra are put to death after all. Which, that being a given, I almost think a cynical treatment of those events might work better than an idealistic treatment. But I am pulling all of this out of my ass since I haven’t actually read the original! :-)

    Anyway, love your post and love the book.

    • January 13, 2011 7:57 am

      I didn’t dislike Euripedes; I’m sorry if I gave that impression! I was just disoriented, lol. The deus ex machina ending doesn’t really bother me; I’ve always loved stories that play with the ideas of fate. So I’m curious to see what I make of the original ending! And your last bit made me giggle.

  11. January 11, 2011 5:38 pm

    I haven’t read the Lattimore translation of Aeschylus, but surely Fagles is the place to go, lovely Fagles, our boyfriend Fagles. :p I like Euripides a lot, I hope you do to — if I had any recollection at all of what translations I read, I’d tell you straightaway. But Trojan Woman: fantastic.

    • January 13, 2011 6:47 am

      LOL Originally, when I wrote that paragraph, I was all “Fagles has translations of both! I heart him! Woohoo!”. But then it occurred to me that maybe someone who could actually read ancient Greek would have a different suggestion and be too nervous to mention it because of my Fagles fangirliness. So I made it sound neutral. But yeah, since no one has spoken against Fagles, I shall DEFINITELY be going w him!

  12. January 11, 2011 7:34 pm

    Yikes. I’m impressed that you love this, I really don’t know if I could get in to it!!

    • January 13, 2011 6:48 am

      The plays are short, so you could give them a go! ;) I think we have slightly different fiction tastes, though, so I hesitate to tell you you MUST read it (the way I do with nonfiction, lol).

  13. January 11, 2011 7:45 pm

    I was simply astounded by Agamemnon when I first read it in college, and I was fortunate to read it in a class with a professor who loved the play (he even called Aeschylus the Shakespeare of the Greeks). Your review makes me want to read it again and finish the Orestia. Thanks!

    • January 13, 2011 7:54 am

      That sounds like a marvelous class! :)

  14. January 11, 2011 11:26 pm

    You make me wish I had this book right here with me now to read!!! It sounds so good. I really enjoyed reading Beowulf, so I really should get reading Homer soon (they are on my TBR mountain permanently it seems). Now I’ll add this one, when I find it. Excellent review, Eva!

    • January 13, 2011 7:54 am

      I read Beowulf when I was in high school and enjoyed it too. I want to reread it this year!

      These plays are much shorter than Homer. :D

  15. January 12, 2011 2:48 am

    I loved this and the original Oresteia so much when I read it late last year. I’ve only read the Fagles translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, but I recommend it! And his translation of the Oedipus cycle. Truly heartbreaking.

    Definitely read Carson’s If Not, Winter. It’s really incredible. It’s mostly fragments, so don’t be afraid of it!

    Greek drama lends itself to more reading, because the stories are the same but the facts differ. There’s so much to glean from just the few extant plays..

    • January 13, 2011 7:55 am

      Oh yay! I’m a huge fan of the Fagles translations I’ve read, so I’m glad to see you recommend him. :)

      The fear of poetry is not something I can rationally control; I actually had If Not, Winter from the library last year and just stared at it. Silly, I know! One of these days, I hope to become a poetry reader.

      And I love the fact that it’s the same stories told different ways!

  16. January 13, 2011 7:30 am

    yeay for classics! I think this sounds wonderful! I was able to pick up a copy of Grief Lessons. I am so very excited for the Classics Circuit tour. can’t wait to hear about all the great Greek stuff I haven’t read yet.

  17. January 13, 2011 12:07 pm

    The ancients always make me nervous. I read a few things in college because I had to. It’s nice to know that there are translations out there that make the work accessible. I’d certainly be willing to give these a try to see if they hit me in the same way they hit you or at least made me feel less “nervous”. :)

  18. January 13, 2011 2:34 pm

    My favorite non-science class in college was classical mythology (which though I think they should have included more than one flavor) was all classical greek mythology. This included reading the dramas – it helped that the professor for this class was incredibly passionate about the subject and it really rubbed off on me. I still have all my copies of many of the classics … makes me want to go back and read them. I think the most fun with the dramas is reading them out loud — of course I do that with Shakespeare too … and to just about any book that has interesting language in it :)

  19. January 17, 2011 6:53 pm

    Oooh, sounds marvelous! I’d like to get back to some of the ancient classics, as I don’t think I’ve read any for quite a while. This sounds like a good edition to add to the list.


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