Jill Sharp on a new version of the Oresteia

Jeffrey Scott Berstein’s Oresteia reviewed by Jill Sharp

The Oresteia of Aeschylus, translated by Jeffrey Scott Bernstein £16.99 Carcanet ISBN 978 1 78410 873 1

The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays (Agamemnon, Choephori, Eumenides) written some 2500 years ago by Aeschylus, is a founding text of world dramatic literature, still widely read and performed. Set in the time of the Homeric epics, its three plays tell the story of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at the Trojan War, moving from conflict and revenge through expiation to resolution and peace. It’s extraordinary to recall that these plays were performed in daylight hours to an audience of many thousands, a truly communal experience for the Athenian populace. Tom Phillips’ haunting, asymmetric masks on the cover and throughout the text, remind us that this was the manner in which these pays were originally performed, and recent directors and actors of Greek tragedies have had the opportunity to rediscover the freedom which the wearing of a mask can afford the performer.

It’s a huge challenge, to convey the ritualistic and formal qualities of these plays, whilst making them readable and accessible to a contemporary readership, and Jeffrey Scott Bernstein meets it admirably. Rather than trying alternative ways to present the varied verse forms and metres of the original texts, he uses blank verse throughout, and it proves a flexible choice – at times formal, and at others more loose and free, as the dramatic moment demands. Aware that the Athenian audience will have known not just the background but the outcome of each play from the start, Bernstein presents an excellent brief preface to the trilogy, informing us in a few succinct paragraphs of the essential and gory history of the House of Atreus to which Agamemnon and Orestes belong. The salient fact at the beginning of the opening play, Agamemnon, is that this man killed the first husband and young child of Clytemnestra before taking her as his wife, and then sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in order to placate the gods for a fair wind to Troy. Without this knowledge, it would be natural to take her opening utterance at face value:

What, in woman’s eyes,
Is sweeter light than to unbolt the gates
For her man returning from war, whom God
Has preserved from death? Relate this message
To my lord: Come with all possible speed
Back to the city that desires him.
He shall come to find his faithful wife at home
Just as he left her, a very watchdog.

This is so far from the underlying reality of the situation that the speech may even have raised a laugh from its audience. For Clytemnestra’s eagerness is not to welcome her lord, but to murder him. And she is certainly not ‘just as he left her.’ She has taken a lover, Aegisthus, and spent ten long years brooding over her beloved daughter’s untimely death. Clytemnestra is no Penelope, the wife of Odysseus who spent twenty years weaving away her life till his return from Troy. She is a bold and resolute woman who wreaks what she sees as rightful revenge on Agamemnon. In this play, the Chorus are neutral observers of the action, responding with apparent belief and trust in what she says – a counter-weight to the dramatic irony of the exchanges between the central characters with their, ‘Lady, you speak the good sense of a wise man.’ And they are ambivalent towards Agamemnon:

How shall I address you? In what manner
Shall I honour you, without over-reaching
Or falling short of due measure of language?

What makes all these plays so riveting is precisely this ambivalence and ambiguity, for characters are multi-layered, and actions can be both right and wrong within the context Aeschylus presents, so that our sympathies and understanding are constantly shifting and being challenged. Perhaps, though, audiences both ancient and modern will have had similar responses to the sheer audacity of Agamemnon’s final command to Clytemnestra, to look after his war-trophy mistress, Cassandra:

This woman stranger
Take in with courtesy; for God from far
Looks favourably upon the gentle master.

When Agamemnon ends, swift slaughter in a hot bath can seem a merciful ending for such a man. But this is far from the end of the matter. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon have two other children, Orestes and Electra, and we meet them in the second of the plays, Choephori.

Choephori, or The Libation Bearers, has a very different tone and pace to Agamemnon. As Bernstein himself comments, it feels like the middle slow movement, the adagio, of a symphony, with the other two plays carrying the driving force of the narrative. In this play, which takes place some years after the action of the first, the siblings are reunited after Orestes’ exile, and the heart of the piece is a dirge, the mournful kommos, spoken by Orestes, Electra and a Chorus who are now very evidently sympathetic to Orestes and his plight. As the son of a murdered father, it falls to him to exact vengeance, and Choephori presents a slow reveal of what Orestes has been told by Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi:

With raised voice
Loudly he spoke of plagues to make a winter
Of my heart’s warmth should I not pursue those
Guilty of my father’s murder. He said
I should become as savage as a bull
And, deprived of my wealth, must kill the killers.
But if I fail, he said that I would pay
With my own life, with many evil torments.

No ambiguity there, then, despite the oracle’s reputation for cryptic utterances. Orestes and his friend Pylades arrive at Clytemnestra’s palace disguised as strangers, and announce the news that Orestes is dead. Aegisthus, with the suspicion of the guilty, seeks them out:

I indeed wish to meet and test the messenger,
Whether he himself was there and witness
Of the death, or only speaks of vague rumours
He’s heard. He will not deceive a clear-eyed mind.

But sounds of his death at their hands are heard from offstage, and the scene is set for the encounter between mother and son:

You love that man? So then in the same grave
You shall lie, and never desert him in death.

Stop! O son, have pity, child, for this breast,
Upon which many a time you had drowsed,
Draining with your gums the milk that nourished you.

Pylades, what shall I do? Shall I spare
My mother out of pity?

What then is to become in future of
The prophesies of Loxias delivered
At Pytho, and the pledge of faithful oaths?
Let all men be your foes, but not the gods.

In the ensuing quick-fire dialogue between them, Orestes confronts his mother with her infidelity, but she is unrepentant: ‘Why not speak of the like follies of your father.’ Orestes’ response feels heartless but not unexpected: ‘Do not judge him who toiled while you sat at home.’ She warns him of the ‘hounds of wrath’ that will avenge her, and we witness Orestes’ dreadful dilemma, caught between pity and revenge. Yet once he has committed the deed that has been demanded of him by Apollo, he is not at peace:

I feel like a driver
Of horses carried far beyond the course,
For ungovernable thoughts are bearing
Me away overmastered.

The tormenting aftermath of Orestes’ matricide is the subject of the final play, Eumenides. The title is translated as ‘the kindly ones’, but the Eumenides are the Furies, gods older than the Olympian pantheon, pursuing and punishing those who have sinned. The Chorus now take on the role of these avenging spirits, implacable in their desire to torment and destroy Orestes for the murder of his mother:

But in repayment you must allow me
To suck red blood from your living limbs…

We are skilful in craft
And powerful in act. We remember
Evil deeds, and mortals cannot appease us.

But appearing in defence of Orestes are Apollo and more significantly Athena, the presiding deity of Athens. She establishes a court, with a democratic jury to sit in judgement:

I will select judges of homicide
Bound by oath, and establish a tribunal
For all time.

What follows is probably the first courtroom scene in literature, with speeches from all parties. The Furies, though, threaten harm to the city of Athens itself if the judgement goes against them, and in a remarkable exchange, we see Athena patiently addressing their anger and persuading them to a more considered course:

I will be indulgent with your anger,
For you are the elder, and in that respect
You are far more wise then I…

I will never tire, telling you of good,
So that never will you say that you, an
Ancient Goddess, were driven out, dishonoured
And banished, from this land, by me, a younger,
And the dwellers of this city.

Her persistence pays off, so that when the outcome is an equal decision from the judges, they accept Athena’s casting vote to exonerate Orestes. What has been played out, though, is far greater than the deciding of one man’s fate. We have witnessed the establishing of a new, more enlightened order of law and justice in which peaceful resolution counters the old way of violent revenge. It’s why these plays resonate so powerfully in the modern world, and still have so much to say psychologically and politically to a contemporary audience. Bernstein’s excellent notes, helpfully placed after each individual play, assist with unfamiliar references and enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

In his acknowledgements, Bernstein mentions that the draft of this translation sat in the darkness of a drawer for nine years. One can only feel pleased that, in this thoughtfully-presented, lively new edition, it has finally come to light.

Jill Sharp was an Open University tutor for many years. Her poems have appeared this year in Prole, Stand and Acumen, and are forthcoming in Envoi, Under the Radar and Poetry Salzburg. Her pamphlet Ye gods was published by Indigo Dreams in 2015 and she was one of 6 women poets included in the volume Vindication, from Arachne Press, 2018.

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