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Most people are (hopefully) familiar with at least some part of the story of the war of the Greeks against Troy; caused when the Trojan prince Paris sails back to Troy with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Sadly this lovely lady was already married to Menelaus, the Greek king, and Menelaus has lots of friends with big swords who are willing to sail off and kick some Trojan bottom with him. As the Greek (Argive/Danaan etc) heroes sail off into the distance and prepare for war against Troy (Ilium) and spend ten years fighting, what happens to those they left behind and what happens when they return? The Oresteia is a series of three plays dealing with exactly this subject, focusing on the other Atreides, the other member of the accursed house of Atreus, Menelaus brother- Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnaestra, their children and the conclusion of the curse of the Atreides.
So who is Aeschylus and what is Greek tragedy?
Otherwise known as the founder of tragedy, he was a nobleman born just outside Athens a couple of thousand years ago, in 525/4 BC. He fought the Persians at the famous battles of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea and still found time to write over 70 plays (only seven of which survive, sadly). If you do a Google image search on the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, you will be able to see where the majority of his plays were performed. The Theatre is on the side of the Acropolis, a major focal point of key temples in Athens, with the main one-the Parthenon- dedicated to Athene. Ancient Greek theatres from this time are associated with religious sites (e.g there is a lovely small theatre at Delphi-well worth a visit) because religious festivals were times when plays were performed, they were part of the worship to the gods. The main festival Aeschylus wrote for was the Dionysia which took place in Athens, which was dedicated to the god Dionysus (god of wine, women and song-also known as Bacchus). At the Dionysia tragedians presented their plays in sets of three e.g the Oresteia trilogy, which were judged and awarded prizes.
Greek tragedy is a form of poetic drama in which there is a plot device in the form of the group of actors in the Chorus, who would remain onstage throughout and provide a sort of character narration. They are usually seen to be giving a normal point of view in these plays and reflecting the audience reaction to events, they also remind the reader of certain events crucial to the story that we have not or will not be seeing. Topics for Greek tragedy are often brutal, extreme and bloodthirsty, usually involving the full gamut of negative human emotions.
So what happens in the Oresteia? Is it particularly gory?
The first play (Agamemnon) deals with the return of Agamemnon from war with his spoils (including a very beautiful royal princess/prophetess, Cassandra) and the reaction of his aggrieved wife Clytemnestra to his return. Agamemnon had lured his daughter to Aulis (the Greek port where all the ships were waiting to go to Troy), ten years previously and promptly sacrificed her to the goddess Artemis for fair winds. Add in ten years of abandonment of his wife, children and kingdom, plus the queens rather weedy lover Aegisthus and you have a recipe for trouble.
The second play (the Libation Bearers) is about the consequences for Clytemnaestra and Aegisthus (sorry am trying to give away as little plot as possible) at the hands of her exiled son, Orestes and his embittered and enslaved sister, Electra.
The third play (Eumenides) deals with the consequences for Orestes and the final release of the family from all torment by the gods.
Yes, it is very gory, although no killings are carried out on stage (because thats irreligious-the stage is a sacred space even for fake killings), but its the language that makes it so.
So why should I read it?
The language. Pure and simple. Grene and Lattimore have done the most amazing translation of these plays, that just cries out to be read aloud. In preparation for this review I read this book again and after the first few pages my blood was pumping, my heart was racing and I was completely identifying with the emotions of the participants. Its layout is superb, short, quickfire sentences fusing poetry with drama, with dramatic language to blow your socks off. Its fresh, exciting, it puts fire into your veins and a poker up your bum! I thought Shakespeare was a master dramatist until I read these plays and could see where he got so many of his ideas from. I have been searching my copy for lines to demonstrate this power but came back always to these, my favourite lines, the lines I can recite by heart, spoken by Clytemnaestra in the Agamemnon, standing over the body of her husband, preening, glorying, giving vent to all of her vitriol:
Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
and as he died he spattered me with the dark red
and violent driven rain of bitter savoured blood
to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.
Its not an easy text to read in one go. I read parts aloud and then sit down and consider the lines, turning over the words to understand the meaning. There are also many references to people and events, which are unfamiliar or are called unfamiliar names eg Ilium for Troy. The text does have an excellent introduction to Aeschylus, Greek tragedy, the story and the plays which makes it easier.
This is one of the series The Complete Greek Tragedies edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore and is also listed as Aesychus I, there being also an Aeschylus II.
The other eight books in this series (which I can 100% recommend-especially Euripedes I and Euripedes V-containing the plays Medea and The Bacchae-my other two favourite plays) are:
Euripedes I, II, III, IV, V
The Oresteia is available in the Grene and Lattimore translation from Amazon.co.uk for the bargain price of £7. Amazon Marketplace prices start from 38p.
Includes Oresteia, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.