The Oresteia

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The Oresteia is a trilogy of tragedies about the end of the curse on the House of Atreus, written by Aeschylus.

It is the only surviving trilogy of ancient Greek plays, although the fourth play, Proteus, a satyr play that would have been performed with it has not survived. The trilogy was originally performed at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC, where it won first prize.


[edit] Agamemnon


Image:Murder of agamemnon.jpg

Written by Aeschylus
Chorus Elders of Argos
Characters watchman
Setting Argos, before the royal palace

[edit] Introduction

Agamemnon details the return of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War to his death. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his death as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. Furthermore, in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence, Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the scion of a dispossessed branch of the family, who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.

[edit] Storyline

The play opens to Clytemnestra awaiting the return of her husband, having been told that the mountaintop beacons have given the sign that Troy has fallen. Though she pretends to love her husband, she is furious that he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. This is not made clear here, but it would have been familiar to the audience. A servant stands on top of the roof, reporting that he has been crouching there "like a dog" (kunothen) for years, "under the instruction of a man-hearted woman." He laments the fortunes of the house, but promises to keep silent: "A huge ox has stepped onto my tongue." However, when Agamemnon arrives in his chariot, he has on board the prophetess Cassandra as a slave and concubine. This, of course, serves to anger Clytemnestra further.

The main action of the play is the agon between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. She attempts to persuade Agamemnon to step on a purple (sometimes red) tapestry or carpet to walk into their home. The problem is that this would indicate hubris on Agamemnon's part, and he does not wish to do this. Eventually, for reasons that are still heavily debated, Clytemnestra does convince Agamemnon to enter the oikos, where she kills him in the bath: she ensnares him in a robe and as he struggles to free himself she hacks him with three strokes of a pelekus. Agamemnon is murdered in much the same way as an animal killed for sacrifice with three blows, the last strike accompanied by a prayer to a god.

Whilst Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are offstage, Cassandra discusses with the chorus whether or not she ought to enter the palace, knowing that she too will be murdered. Cassandra is a daughter of King Priam of Troy. Apollo has cursed her, giving her the gift of clairvoyance, but on the condition that no one who heard her prophesies would believe them. In Cassandra's speech, she runs through many gruesome images of the history of the House of Atreus, and eventually chooses to enter the house knowing that she cannot avoid her fate. The chorus, in this play a group of the elders of Argos, hear the death screams of Agamemnon, and frantically debate on a course of action.

A platform is soon rolled out displaying the gruesome dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, along with Clytemnestra, who attempts to explain her action. Later, Aegisthus struts out and delivers an arrogant speech to the chorus, who nearly enter into a brawl with Aegisthus and his henchmen. However, Clytemnestra halts the dispute, saying that "There is pain enough already. Let us not be bloody now." The play closes with the chorus reminding the usurpers of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who will surely return to exact vengeance.

[edit] The Libation Bearers

The Libation Bearers

Image:William Blake Richmond - Electra.jpg

Written by Aeschylus
Chorus Trojan slave women
Characters Orestes
Setting Argos, at the tomb of Agamemnon

[edit] Introduction

The Libation Bearers (also known as Choephoroe) is the second play of the Oresteia. It deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge.

[edit] Storyline

In the palace of Argos, Clytemnestra, who now shares her bed and the throne with her lover Aegisthus, is roused from slumber by a nightmare: she dreamt that she gave birth to a snake, and the snake now feeds from her bosom and draws blood instead of milk. Alarmed by this, a possible sign of the gods' wrath, she orders her daughter, the princess Electra, whom in the meantime Clytemnestra has reduced to the virtual status of a slavegirl, to pour libations on Agamemnon's grave. A group of women (the libation bearers of the title) are to assist her.

Electra arrives at the grave of her father and comes upon a man by the tombstone, who has just placed a lock of his hair on the stone. As they start to speak, it gradually and rather agonizingly becomes apparent that the man is her brother Orestes (who had been sent away to the royal court of Phocis since infancy for safety reasons), and who has, in her thoughts, been her only hope of revenge. Together they plan to avenge their father by killing their mother Clytemnestra and her new husband, Aegisthus.

Orestes wavers about killing his own mother, but is guided by Apollo and his close friend Pylades, the son of the king of Phocis, that it is the correct course of action. Orestes and Pylades pretend to be ordinary travellers from Phocis, and ask for hospitality at the palace. They even tell the Queen that Orestes is dead. Delighted by the news, Clytemnestra sends a servant to summon Aegisthus. Orestes kills the usurper first, and then his mother. As soon as he exits the palace, the Furies appear and, being only visible to him, they begin to haunt and torture him for his crime. He flees in agony.

[edit] The Eumenides

The Eumenides

Image:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Remorse of Orestes (1862).jpg

Written by Aeschylus
Chorus The Furies
Characters Priestess
Ghost of Clytaemnestra
Athenian citizens
Setting before the temple of Apollo at Delphi

[edit] Introduction

The Eumenides (also known as The Furies) is the final play of the Oresteia, in which Orestes, Apollo, and the Furies go before a jury of Athenians at the Areopagos (Rock of Ares, a flat rocky hill by the Athenian agora where the homicide court of Athens held its sessions), to decide whether Orestes' murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, makes him worthy of the torment they have inflicted upon him.

[edit] Storyline

Orestes is tormented by the Furies, chthonic deities that avenge patricide and matricide. He, at the instigation of his sister Electra and the god Apollo, has killed their mother Clytemnestra, who had killed their father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and their sister, Iphigenia. Orestes finds a refuge and a solace at the new temple of Apollo in Delphi, and the god, unable to deliver him from the Furies' annoying wrath, sends him along to Athens under the protection of Hermes, while he casts a drowsy spell upon the pursuing Furies in order to delay them.

Clytemnestra's ghost appears from the woods and rouses the sleeping Furies, urging them to continue hunting Orestes. The Furies' first appearance on stage is haunting: they hum a tune in unison as they wake up, and seek to find the scent of blood that will lead them to Orestes' tracks. Ancient tradition says that on the play's premiere this struck so much fear and anguish in the audience, that a pregnant woman named Neaira died on the spot.

The Furies' tracking down of Orestes in Athens is equally haunting: Orestes has clasped Athena's small statue in supplication, and the Furies close in on him by smelling the blood of his slain mother in the air. Once they do see him, they can also see rivulets of blood soaking the earth beneath his footsteps.

As they surround him, Athena intervenes and brings in a jury of ten Athenians to judge her supplicant. Apollo acts as attorney for Orestes, while the Furies act as advocates for the dead Clytemnestra. During the trial, Apollo convinces Athena that, in a marriage, the man is more important than the woman, by pointing out that Athena was born only of Zeus and without a mother (Zeus swallows Metis). Before the trial votes are counted, Athena votes in favour of Orestes. After being counted, the votes on each side are equal. Athena then persuades the Furies to accept her decision. They eventually submit. (However, in Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris, the Furies continue to haunt Orestes even after the trial.) Athena then renames them Eumenides (The Kindly Ones). The Furies will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure their prosperity. Athena also declares that henceforth hung juries should result in the defendant being acquitted, as mercy should always take precedence over harshness.

[edit] Proteus

Although Proteus, the satyr play which originally followed the first three plays of The Oresteia, is lost, it is widely believed to have been based on the story told in Book IV of Homer's Odyssey. In 2002, Theatre Kingston mounted a production of The Oresteia in the translation by Ted Hughes and included a free reconstruction of Proteus based on the episode in The Odyssey and loosely arranged according to the structure of extant satyr plays.

[edit] Analysis

That the play ends on a happy note may surprise modern readers, to whom the word tragedy denotes a drama ending in misfortune. The word did not carry this meaning in ancient Athens, and many of the extant Greek tragedies end happily.

Worth noting here is the metaphorical aspect of this entire drama. The change from an archaic self-help justice by personal revenge to administration of justice by trial symbolises the passage from a primitive society governed by instincts, to a modern society governed by reason: justice is decided by a jury of peers, representing the citizen body and its values, and the gods themselves sanction this transition by taking part in the judicial procedure, arguing and voting on an equal footing with the mortals. This theme of the polis self-governed by consent through lawful institutions, as opposed to tribalism and superstition, recurs in Greek art and thought.

The dramatization of societal transformation in this myth (the transition to governance by laws) is both a boast and justification of the then relatively new judicial system. The concept of objective intervention by an impartial entity against which no vengeance could be taken (the state) marked the end of continuous cycles of bloodshed, a transition in Greek society reflected by the transition in their mythology--the Furies are a much greater part of older Greek myths than comparatively more recent ones. The reflection of societal struggles and social norms in mythology makes plays like these of special interest today, offering poignant cultural and historical insights.

[edit] The Oresteia in the arts and popular culture

  • Several composers have written musical treatments of all or part of Aeschylus' trilogy. From the late 19th century comes Sergey Taneyev's full-length opera Oresteia. In the 20th century Soviet composer Yury Alexandrovich Falik composed a one-act ballet Oresteia; Darius Milhaud supplied incidental music for the plays, and Iannis Xenakis wrote at least three works for voices and instruments based the trilogy. There is also the one-act opera Il furore di Oreste by Flavio Testi (from Libation-Bearers) and "Prologue," by Harrison Birtwistle (from Agamemnon), for tenor and chamber ensemble.
  • Richard Strauss, educated as Germans of his generation ever were in the Greek and Roman Classics, composed in 1908 Elektra, a startling and provocative one-act opera which kicked itself immediately into the standard repertory.
  • The Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini planned to make a version of the trilogy, set in an unnamed African colony. His goal was to use the the Oresteia to comment on the emergence of democracy in Africa. However, during a research expedition captured in the documentary Notes for an African Orestes (1975), a group of African students objected to the project on the grounds that an ancient European text would have little to say about modern African history and that Pasolini was treating Africa as a single entity and not as a continent of diverse, complex cultures. Pasolini abandoned the project.
  • A version of Oresteia, set in modern Greece, is presented in 1975 film The Travelling Players by Theo Angelopoulos.
  • Popular singers Monica Richards and Maynard James Keenan, of Faith and the Muse and A Perfect Circle respectively, have also based work in the play. "The Chorus of the Furies" appears on the album Evidence of Heaven by Faith and the Muse, and A Perfect Circle's debut album Mer de Noms included a track called "Orestes".
  • American playwright Eugene O'Neill based Mourning Becomes Electra on the Oresteia. It is likewise composed of three plays, with themes corresponding to Aeschylus' trilogy. It takes place at the end of the American Civil War as opposed to the Trojan War.
  • French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre closely based his play The Flies (French: Les Mouches) on the Oresteia. He tellingly recreates the intense persecution of Orestes by the Furies, but the reactions of Orestes are transformed by Sartre's existentialist philosophy.
  • Poet Robinson Jeffers's The Tower Beyond Tragedy is a modern, verse version of the Oresteia including references to the World Wars.
  • Poet T. S. Eliot's play The Family Reunion is based on The Eumenides.
  • In the Sandman series of graphic novels by Neil Gaiman, the Furies appear as part of a major storyline toward the end of the series, haunting Morpheus.
  • In the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert, the House of Atreus continues to exist into the far future of humanity (here called House Atreides), and they too suffer indignities, but eventually triumph.
  • Virgin Steele have released 2 concept albums based on this play, "The House of Atreus, Act I" and "Act II", in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

[edit] Translations

Image:Aischylos Büste.jpg Plays by Aeschylus

fr:L'Orestie nl:Oresteia (Aischylos) ja:オレステイア sv:Agamemnon (pjäs)

The Oresteia

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