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Greek for the Greekless

The Oresteia

by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles
Viking, 343 pp., $15.00

The Bacchae of Euripides, A Communion Rite

by Wole Soyinka
Norton, 97 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Thirty-two Greek tragedies have come down to us intact, a pitiful remnant of the Athenian theater’s great century; it is about one-tenth of the known work of the three great tragedians, who were, however, only three among many. The composition of this remnant was determined by factors which are hardly ideal from a purely aesthetic standpoint; suitability as school texts in early Byzantium was a governing consideration, for example. And it was blind chance which decided that over half of our sample should be from the pen of Euripides; one volume of a complete edition of his work somehow survived the sack of Byzantium by the licensed brigands of the Fourth Crusade and their destructive fifty-year occupation of the city. Given this hit-and-miss process of selection, it seems almost miraculous that though three of the Aeschylean plays we still possess are dramatic fragments, torn from the trilogic frame for which they were composed, three others, Agamemnon, Libation-bears, and Eumenides, constitute the trilogy Aeschylus produced in the competition of 458 BC, the Oresteia.

We have very little evidence (apart from its survival) that the ancient world thought very highly of it, and in modern times it had to wait until the nineteenth century for full appreciation. Swinburne’s praise—“the greatest achievement of the human mind”—is well known, and Swinburne, witness his admiration for Baudelaire, was a better judge of poetry than some of his own compositions might suggest. Wagner, working on Lohengrin in 1847, read the Oresteia (in Droysen’s translation) and found himself over-whelmed: “…right up to the end of the Eumenides I lingered in a state of ecstasy from which I have never fully returned to reconcile myself to modern literature.”

In our own century its prestige has risen as fast as the number of people able to read it in the original has declined. The modern liberal conscience recognized themes that echoed its own aspirations: the law of learning by suffering seen as a force driving toward human progress under a divine dispensation mysterious, apparently merciless, yet ultimately benevolent; the transition from vengeance exacted by the family of the victim to the assumption of responsibility by society, the court of law which allowed consideration of motive and extenuating circumstance; the voices of both Athena and the Furies raised in praise of democracy, the mean between anarchy and despotism. The fact that the dark past is associated with the female principle—Clytemnestra, the Furies—and the new democratic justice with male domination—Apollo, Athena—was accepted, not without a certain complacency, as a reflection of fifth-century historical conditions.

We are no longer so sure of ourselves and our reactions have changed. Progress is no longer a word to conjure with, especially when it is associated with national aggrandizement; modern audiences may feel nothing but apprehension as Athena proclaims the greatness of Athens to come: “As time flows on, the honors flow through all / my citizens…. Let our wars / rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy / our powerful lust for fame.” At a performance of the trilogy by Guthrie’s Minnesota Company in New York some years ago it was very noticeable that the audience in the trial scene of the Eumenides was roused to a high pitch of emotion not by the pleas of extenuating circumstance and the acquittal of Orestes for murder but by the Furies’ warning, later repeated by Athena: “There is a time when terror helps…,” “Never / banish terror from the gates….” Apollo’s male biology—“the woman you call the parent of the child / is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed…the man…the source of life…”—though it has been accepted as historical necessity by Marxist interpreters (it can be reconciled with Engels’s imaginative anthropology) has not found favor in other quarters—Kate Millett made an understandably savage attack on it in her Sexual Politics.

And yet the trilogy still imposes itself as one of the great dramatic achievements of all time. For one thing it is close to the sources of power that lie hidden in myth. In the Eumenides, the gods, men, and Furies meet face to face in alliance or enmity, trade attacks and promises, all with a grave simplicity which can only have existed in the first days of the world; there is no trace of the Sophoclean barrier between heroic and divine, of the Euripidean ironic distance from both. The Aeschylean characters converse in a language honed to perfection before the invention and triumph of formal oratory; innocent of the rhetorical patterns which, insistent in Sophocles, dominant in Euripides, and obsessive in Seneca, came to life again on the Renaissance and classical stage, the speeches of Aeschylus’ awesome figures are shaped exclusively by the poetry of their emotion and the logic of the dramatic movement—they have a disconcerting originality, a constant unexpectedness.

Above all, the Oresteia is the work of a great poet composing at the height of his powers to produce not only, in the choral odes, some of the greatest lyric poetry in Greek but also, throughout the whole trilogy, a dense pattern of magnificent images which, like the repetitive revenges of the action, return again and again, always with renewed significance—“images which yet / fresh images beget….’ The language of the trilogy is as convoluted, overloaded with meaning, and rich in cross-reference as that of the great Shakespearean tragedies, Antony and Lear.

Robert Fagles’s translation is the product of many years of experimentation; a preliminary version of the first 300 lines of Agamemnon was published in Arion as early as 1966. Fagles does not discuss his aims as a translator; he would have the work “speak for itself instead of introducing it with any principles.” Speak for itself it does, and eloquently; the praises of Robert Fitzgerald, Kenneth Burke, and others, printed on the dust cover, are fully merited. But the question most readers will want an answer to (and which must have been on Fagles’s mind throughout) is this: what is the difference between this Oresteia and that of Richmond Lattimore, a version which, greatly (and justly) admired, has been the authorized version for the postwar years?

The first impression that emerges from a comparison of individual passages is that Fagles is more solicitous of the needs of the Greekless reader. Aeschylus can be difficult and obscure, often is so in fact in his most magnificent flights of poetry (at times of course the obscurity stems from corruption of the text). In many such passages Lattimore presents the reader with a tour de force, English lines which uncannily reproduce the mantic denseness of the original—this, one feels, is what Aeschylus would have written if he had been one of us. This is of course one of the qualities in Lattimore for which Greek scholars feel professional admiration; but it must be admitted that many an American student has reacted with something less than enthusiasm to passages such as: “The female force, the desperate / love crams its resisted way / on marriage and the dark embrace / of brute beasts, of mortal men.” The context, a lyric recital of notorious female crimes, sheds some general light but the details are hazy (as they are indeed in the Greek).

Fagles, with the Greekless reader in mind, is clearer: “Woman’s passion, overpowered by lust, / twists the soft, warm harness / of wedded love that strengthens man and beast.” And so throughout the trilogy—Fagles has, in the last analysis, asked himself: “Is this passage fully intelligible English, without reference to the Greek?” I suspect that Lattimore was intrigued not only by the problem of bringing over into English the murky magnificence of the original but also, poet that he is, by the poetic dividend, the unprecedented English combinations that may emerge from the process. “Crams its resisted way on marriage” is a phrase hard to forget, and that would have been hard to invent.

The over-all result of Fagles’s bias toward the Greekless reader is not only greater immediate intelligibility but also, as Fitzgerald rightly claims, English verse which is “actable.” It has been the experience of many directors of the play that Lattimore’s version is not easy material for actors. And this is mainly due, once again, to Lattimore’s desire to preserve as much as he can of the form and texture of the original. For the dialogue he developed a line corresponding in length to the Greek—one based roughly on twelve syllables instead of the usual (for English) ten. Incidentally, it is the same line Droysen used in the German translation Wagner read. This line enabled Lattimore to reproduce the architecture of the Aeschylean dialogue, the building blocks of the speeches corresponding closely; it is especially useful where the actors converse in stichomythia, the thrust, parry, and riposte of line for line dialogue, where Lattimore is able to reproduce the archaic strictness of the form in all its strangeness.

But the line has one great disadvantage. In spite of Lattimore’s skillful efforts to make it a unit, it is always in danger of fragmenting at the point where the ear, especially the actor’s ear, raised on Shakespearean cadences, expects it to end. “Almighty herald of the world above, the world / below: Hermes, lord of the dead, help me: announce / my prayers to the charmed spirits underground, who watch….” Fagles turns to the normal English length, variable, resolved, relaxed but still recognizably Shakespeare’s: “Herald King / of the world above and the quiet world below / lord of the dead, my Hermes, help me now. / Tell the spirits underground to hear my prayers….”

One more difference. Lattimore aimed at a modern English which, while fully idiomatic, would still preserve the decorum of Aeschylean tragic diction, that onkos (literally “weight, bulk”) which was the poet’s distinguishing mark. Sometimes the result seems a little stiff and artificial. “We have been sold, and go as wanderers / because our mother bought herself, for us, a man, / Aegisthus, he who helped her hand to cut you down. / Now I am what a slave is, and Orestes lives / outcast from his great properties, while they go proud / in the high style and luxury of what you worked / to win.”

Contrast Fagles. “We’re auctioned off, drift like vagrants now. / Mother has pawned us for a husband, Aegisthus, / her partner in her murdering. / I go like a slave, / Orestes driven from his estates while they, / they roll in the fruits of all your labors, / magnificent and sleek.” It does seem more like what Dryden aimed at in translation—“the living language of the day.” Though perhaps the difference is simply a reflection of the fact that the translations are two decades apart.

There can never be too many good translations—the chairman-poet of Peking called for “a hundred flowers” (in a different context, it is true)—and in any case each generation calls for its own. Fagles has given us an Oresteia for the Seventies. He has also, “with W. B. Stanford,” given us a brilliant (if sometimes erratic) introductory essay over eighty large pages long, and some very useful notes at the end of this beautifully designed and produced book.

The Oresteia, produced as Athens moved into an age of radical democracy at home and naval empire abroad, celebrated mankind’s emergence from the anarchy of individual violence to the civilized order of the city state. Fifty years later as Athens, near the end of a long war, faced defeat and possible extinction, Euripides wrote a play, the Bacchae, which presents the overthrow of the city state’s order by a god-priest of emotional anarchy and ecstasy. It was a subject Aeschylus had handled in a play now lost; perhaps it was a legacy from the Dionysiac origins of the theater itself (but about that we know next to nothing); in any case, the Euripidean play is a terrifying masterpiece. The Dionysiac cult, non-Greek in origin and in its primitive form a threat to social stability, had long since been institutionalized in Athens; the dancing on the mountains, the feasts of raw flesh had been replaced by city festivals, the most splendid of them the theatrical contests in the spring. But Euripides in the play brings back to terrifying life the raw savagery of Dionysos as he once was.

The play’s action is a ghastly ritual sequence: the mockery of the god, his escape from prison, his assertion of power over his oppressor, who becomes a substitute for him and, clothed in the god’s attributes—long hair and female dress—is torn apart by the wild women, led by his mother, who in Dionysiac ecstasy has no more idea of his identity than of her own. As a counterpart to this frenzied action, the chorus celebrates, in some of the most exquisite of Greek lyrics, the peace, the ecstasy, the joy that come from total surrender to the god.

We do not know what moved Euripides to re-create this Dionysiac frenzy; E. R. Dodds has suggested that the impulse may have come from the growing popularity in Athens, during the desperate last years of the war, of new foreign deities worshiped with orgiastic rites. What one can be fairly sure of is that it had nothing to do with industrial mining, as suggested by Wole Soyinka in the introduction to his adaptation of the Bacchae. “Silver and gold mines were opened up,” he says, “and with them a group consciousness among urban labour…. And when, in the wake of the wars of Greek colonialism, the mining industry expanded in Attica, a similar Dionysiac movement swept through mainland Greece…. Dionysos…was eminently suited to the social and spiritual needs of the new urban classes….”

This is of course hopelessly unhistorical, but it does not matter. Soyinka’s Bacchae is not Euripides’ but his own—a third-world revolutionary communion rite, in which Dionysos sometimes speaks with the voice of Frantz Fanon. The stage for the opening shows “a road…lined by the bodies of crucified slaves mostly in the skeletal stage…,” and the audience sees “dim figures of slaves flailing and treading.” Grafted on to the Euripidean text (based on the Arrowsmith and Murray translations—Soyinka disarmingly admits to “a twenty-year rust on my acquaintanceship with classical Greek”) are scenes and characters drawn from Soyinka’s own imagination to flesh out his vision of “a prodigious barbaric banquet…the more than hinted-at cannibalism” corresponding “to the periodic needs of humans to swill, gorge and copulate on a scale as huge as Nature’s….” Soyinka is a dramatist of great power, and his own contact with Dionysos is a real one, as his fascinating description of the Yoruba deity Ogun in his introduction makes clear. The play was commissioned for the Old Vic and first staged in 1973. It must have been an electrifying performance.

It was not the first time the Bacchae was resurrected in exotic circumstances. Three and a half centuries after Euripides’ death the Roman multimillionaire Crassus led a Roman army into Syria, was defeated by the Parthians, and killed. When the messenger arrived at the Parthian capital with his head, the court was watching a Greek company perform the Bacchae. They had reached the scene in which Pentheus’ mother Agave, still in Dionysiac frenzy, comes on stage carrying her son’s severed head. The head of Crassus was thrown on the floor; Jason, the actor playing Agave, substituted it for the prop he had been carrying and resumed the performance, singing the famous aria “I bring from the mountain, this bough fresh-cut….” The audience went wild.

One cannot help thinking that Euripides, who had a penchant for baroque violence and an interest in odd religions, would have been fascinated by both performances and, in particular, would have been very eager to question Soyinka more fully about Ogun, the Yoruba “god of metals, creativity, the road, wine and war.”

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