The Voice of the Eagle

An Oresteia: Part 1: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos, Elektra by Sophokles

directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas
At the Classic Stage Company, New York City, March 22–April 19, 2009

An Oresteia: Part 2: Orestes by Euripides

directed by Paul Lazar, with choreography by Annie-B Parson
At the Classic Stage Company, New York City, March 22–April 19, 2009
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Joan Marcus
Stephanie Roth Haberle as Klytaimestra, Steve Mellor as Agamemnon, and Doan Ly as Kassandra in the Classic Stage Company’s production of Anne Carson’s translation of Aiskhylos’ Agamemnon, New York City, 2009

I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars—bright powerful creatures blazing in air,
the ones that bring summer, the ones that bring winter,
the ones that die out, the ones that rise up….

Many scholars, from Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Eduard Fraenkel, have considered that last line spurious, on linguistic and metrical grounds. It also betrays the sense. The watchman sees the stars as a “night council” (nykterōn homēgyrin), a meeting of “rulers” (dynastas)—the language is political. What Carson translates as “die out” is phthinōsin, “wither.” It makes no sense to say rulers wither (or to call them “creatures”) when you are stressing their power. The watchman crouches under the heavenly rulers as under his earthly mistress. Browning gets it right:

I know of nightly star-groups the assemblage,
And those that bring to men winter and summer,
Bright dynasts, as they pride them in the aether.

Carson rightly says that Aiskhylos favors great compound words—which is what Aristophanes caricatured him for doing. Some of these she manages well—though she overdoes it when she takes one adjective, “purple-strewn,” and gives us

Make his path crimsoncovered! purplepaved! redsaturated!

Other times she blunts the force of a compound. When the night watchman describes his mistress Klytaimestra, he refers to her “manplanning” and “hopeful” heart. Since the guard is waiting for news from Agamemnon, that might seem what she is hoping for. But in conjunction with “manplanning” we realize that she is hoping to do something sinister when her husband comes. Carson omits the “hoping” and weakens the “manplanning”:

Those are the orders I got from a certain manminded woman.

Again we need Browning:

The man’s-way-planning hoping heart of woman.

In the play’s first great choral ode, there are famous religious passages. One of them Carson renders thus:

Zeus! whoever Zeus is—
if he likes this name I’ll use it—
measuring everything that exists
I can
compare with Zeus nothing
except Zeus.
May he take this weight from my
heart.
The god who was great before
Zeus
is not worth mentioning now.
The one who came after that is
past and gone.
Zeus is the victor! Proclaim it:
bull’s eye!

Carson omits the lines describing the god who came before (Ouranos) as “bursting with the audacity of an all-conqueror,” and the god who came after (Kronos) as “having met his three-throws wrestler-down.” These are not mere filler phrases, since one point of the play is the overthrow of pride—indeed the first description may foreshadow the fate of Agamemnon and the second that of Klytaimestra. But the main problem here is one of tone.

At the New York performance of this play in March, the informal shrug of “if he likes this name, I’ll use it” was greeted …

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