Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Oresteia

The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides by Aeschylus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And now we enter the world of Greek gods, and the heroic age that to the Greeks of the 5th century B.C. was in the not so distant past. To the Greeks, this was an age when gods still walked the earth and communed with the locals. It is in short the story of the birth of civilization as told by a man who himself fought for the survival of the Greek way of life in more than his plays, Aeschylus. His self-penned epitath reads nothing of his fame as a playwright, but proudly boasts his service in the Greek armies victory against the invading Persians at the battle of Marathon. His plays are a proud celebration of the civilizing aspects of Greek culture.

As Aeschylus famously stated that his works were "slices from the banquet of Homer", this can be read as being between the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is the story of the cursed house of Atreus, the triumphant and doomed return of King Agamemnon from his victory at Troy. He has enraged his Queen Clytemnestra by sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the goddess Artemis. She has had ten long years to brood over this, and to add insult to injury Agamemnon returns with a literal trophy wife, none other than the daughter of Troy's King Priam, the priestess of Apollo Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders them both, and this is something that Aeschylus' contemporary audience knew well, so he bring the sense of foreboding and doom to nearly unbearable heights. Everyone knew of the curse on the house of Atreus, but the Oresteia is much bigger than the story of Agamemnon or his son Orestes vengeance and matricide. Aeschylus seeks not to extirpate the bloodguilt of Orestes, but to reconcile the order of gods to a just life for mankind.

It's difficult to express just how important Aeschylus is to western culture. He is the founder of the art of performance drama, and produced the only extant trilogy we have of the ancient Greek theater, here contained as the Oresteia of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. His touch contains something extraordinary that he was notoriously unable to quite express, as satirized by the great comic dramatist Aristophanes. This is understandable considering the subject matter, nothing short of the establishment of the Greek concept of justice, which encompasses a uniting of the forces of heaven and earth.

This volume contains an imperishable essay of about 100 pages by Professor Robert Fagles of Dublin University entitled The Serpent and the Eagle. This essay alone almost makes the book worth the cost. His blank verse translation of the Oresteia conveys the range of expression to a pitch so terrifying as to make the story come alive in your hands, and the redemptive call for eternal vigilance expressed in the Eumenides is like walking out of a house on fire into a crisp Autumn night.

The Oresteia is a call to action, a reminder of the dangers of hubris, and above all a celebration of freedom and the Greek way of life. As Robert Fagles phrases it, "the Oresteia is our rite of passage from savagery to civilization." For a fan of western literature, this is an indispensable source of joy, and a key insight into many of the themes that dominate the genre of drama.

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