Have decided to do some remedial accumulation of cultural capital (RACC). Back in the day, there was a time when I read aloud to myself in order to plough through some Big Fat Works. I’m thinking particularly of Paradise Lost (Milton) and Don Juan (Byron). There may have been others. Well, new year, new resolutions, and over the last few days, amidst bingeing on Breaking Bad with Dr Wifey, Aeschlyus’s Oresteia has kept me thinking (or, at least, reading).
For those of you who, like me, had only a dim-to-zero understanding, this: Aeschlyus was an ancient Greek tragedy writer (see also Euripedes and Sophocles). Very few of his plays survive, but a trilogy about a guy called Orestes – thus the Oresteia – does.
Here’s the capsule version. In the first play, Agamenon, the Greeks have finally beaten the Trojans and the boss of the Greeks, Agamemnon, makes it home but with very few men. His wife Clytemnaestra is waiting for him, and makes a big deal over how good she has been. But, well, no. Agamenmnon is murdered in his bath by Clytemnaestra (who wears the pants in her new relationship with Agamemnon’s cousin, Aegisthus). She is pissed that her husband sacrificed their daughter Iphegenia ten years previously, when the Greek invasion fleet had run out of puff. Cassandra, a Trojan princess who pissed off the gods and was condemned to see the future but then not be believed when she spoke of it, has been brought back as booty for whenever Agamennon wanted to make a booty-call (sorry). She ends up dead too. Clytemneastra and Aegisthus are then top dogs…
Eight years later, the second play, The Libation Bearers sees the avenging son Orestes turn up in disguise, tell his sister Electra – who has been reduced to drudgery/Cinderellaness – what he is gonna do, and then very bloodily dish out rough justice. At the end of the play he is having an attack of the guilts….
The final play, Eumenides, shows the Erinyes (aka “The Furies”) literally baying for Orestes blood. His initial line of defence is “god told me to do it” and this is true, because Zeus and Apollo had been mucking about, egging him on. It all ends up with Athena saying “boff, too tricky for me” and convening a jury. The jury is tied, Athena’s casting vote gets Orestes off and he is gonna sorta live happily ever after. The Furies are extremely pissed off, and threaten all sorts of mayhem. Athena basically buys them off with the promise of becoming part of the normal order of justice in Athens.
The End. They all live happily ever after. Ish.
So, the conventional way of thinking about this is it’s about the coming of organised “justice”/democracy and the end of blood feuds. And generation after generation of male translator and thinker has gone down this route…
Two things here. One, Professor Emily Wilson has written a corking piece for the London Review of Books about how this dominant view could/should be subverted, and about the politics of translation and three recent (pale, male and kinda stale) translations – the best of which is by a chap called Oliver Taplin.
Two- Wairimu Njoya (2020) The Progress of Law: Aeschylus’s Oresteia in Feminist and Critical Theory. Political Theory, Vol. 48(2) 139–168
Oh, the Sartre? Well, ol’ JP, in the midst of the Occupation, used the basics of the Oresteia to get around the German censors, and write a play-version of his Being and Nothingness shtick (i.e. agitprop for the whole existentialist freedom thing). That play, “The Flies” comes in three acts, and has lots more dialogue between Orestes and (the rather wet) Electra. Properly comes alive once Orestes has done the deed.
Next up – some Sophocles and Euripedes, and then to treat myself with some Aristophanes (the Clouds, the Frogs).
And I suppose this time next year, may treat myself to the Taplin version of the Oresteia, unless Prof Wilson has followed up her Odyssey translation…
Mariko Hori Tanaka (2013) THE ‘FREEDOM’ OF SARTRE AND BECKETT: The Flies versus Eleutheria Vol. 25, Beckett in the Cultural Field / Beckett dans le champ culturel (2013), pp. 59-73