The Greek hero Orestes killed his mother to avenge her murder of his father. His crime and its penalties fascinated ancient Greek dramatists as deeply as the myth of Oedipus, and for many of the same reasons. They are stories of families in chaos, but they are also stories of a specific historical moment: the final years of the Greek Bronze Age, just before a string of mighty citadels all over the eastern Mediterranean were destroyed by fire. The attackers, whoever they were, could not restore what they had wrecked and plundered. Within some fifty years, from about 1200 to 1150 BC, trade networks, luxury arts, and writing systems disappeared from the cities of Greece (as well as places like Ugarit, Hattusa, Cyprus, Gaza, and part of Egypt), along with an entire way of life. Thebes, the home of Oedipus, was the first city to burn, a generation before the rest (circa 1220–1200 BC); Athens, significantly, may have escaped attack, but not the desperate poverty that followed so suddenly on several centuries of refined prosperity.
The reasons for the collapse are probably many, but every one of them should give us pause: they include climate change; mass movements of people displaced by drought, war, or famine; changes in weapons (iron swords replacing bronze-tipped spears); the cutting of trade routes; invasion from without; and revolt from within. The identity of the attackers is still debated: Egyptian and Near Eastern records mention warlike “Sea Peoples”; Greek myth names the sons of Heracles; Homer tells of the Trojan War.
Writing may have been lost in Greece, but it had only been used, as writing often is, for bureaucratic records, not for poetry. Greek art changed drastically with the cataclysm, adopting a wild, dramatic “pictorial” style before it reverted to the barest basics. Poetry, however, made fewer technological demands on its creators; it needed no more than a singer with a good memory and a four-stringed lyre, a Bronze Age instrument that weathered the cataclysm. Strummed with a pick called a plectrum, it made a sound more like a rasp than a harp. Sung verse must have survived through the subsequent centuries in some form or other to commemorate the life that once was lived amid the Greek world’s imposing ruins, and out of those poems of survival the Greek myths emerged.
In poetry and myth, the collapse of palace culture plays out among the rulers of Thebes and Mycenae (the home of Orestes) as the breaking of every civilized taboo within the family: Oedipus, unknowingly, kills his father and marries his mother; Orestes, fully conscious of his deed, kills his mother. In the myths, society fails first within the family, and then, in the next generation, around it: according to tradition, the sons of Oedipus slew one another over the right to rule Thebes, while Orestes’ son Teisamenos died in the futile attempt to defend his two kingdoms, Mycenae and Sparta, from invasion. The invaders triumphed for only a moment before the darkness set in.
And then Greece slowly rebuilt itself in a different spirit, in a different way, but haunted by the fear of chaos. Thanks to a Phoenician invention called the alphabet, the poetry created by these later Greeks, born of their calamities, survives. We may have only a handful of works from the multitude that once existed, but they are an incomparable gift. Thousands of years later, we can still puzzle over the dilemmas of Oedipus and Orestes, responsible people compelled by the chaos of their times to face unspeakable choices, and desperate, despite it all, to preserve their humanity.
All three of the extant tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—addressed the myth of Orestes, but the only complete trilogy of tragedies to be preserved won Aeschylus first prize at the Athenian festival called the Greater Dionysia in 458 BC. In his own day, he was already a giant. Born in the holy city of Eleusis in 525 BC, a citizen of Athens, he finally exported drama to the Greek colonies of Sicily, where he died suddenly in 456 or 455, a scant two years after composing the Oresteia (allegedly when an eagle dropped a turtle on his bald pate, mistaking it for a rock). Aeschylus took pride in the fact that he had refined an ancient religious ritual, drama, into a form of art, of which his Oresteia is the most complete expression. Yet his epitaph singled out his prowess in war rather than his dramatic gifts, for he was one of the warriors who faced down the Persians at Marathon in the year 490:
This grave covers Aeschylus son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
Who died in wheat-bearing Gela.
The plain of Marathon could tell of his courage in battle
And the long-haired Persian, who knew it well.
Tragedy was a form of religious poetry, dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and liquids, set to the music of an instrument called the aulos, a double set of pipes, each with a beating reed for a mouthpiece.1 The twin auloi, tuned half a step or so apart, sounded like a dissonant pair of oboes, despite the fact that aulos, Greek for “tube,” is often mistranslated as “flute.” The noise of the aulos, with its distinctive buzz, was thought to drive listeners into ecstatic states, from battle fury to wanton lust, just as bagpipes, which are simply an aulos with an air supply, do today in Scotland and Abruzzo. Ancient Greek warriors marched to its tune. Hindu snake charmers still use the equivalent of an aulos to charm their cobras, and so did the Pied Piper of Hamelin when he drew rats and children in his irresistible wake. A beating reed makes a clear, powerful, seductive sound with a complex undertone, and it exerts a strange attraction on the human ear.
The poets of ancient Athens took that sound and matched it to human movement and the human voice, beginning with a singing, dancing chorus of twenty-four young male devotees of Dionysus who praised the god in songs called dithyrambs. Athenian tradition declared that the poet Thespis added a soloist to this celebratory mix in 534 BC, and with the possibility of dialogue, drama was born. The soloist could speak or sing, but always did so, as in Shakespeare, in poetic meter.
Because of its origins and because it was shouted out in a public space, the language of Greek drama is elaborately stylized, but nowhere as much as in Aeschylus. The strange, riddling phrases that he uses for everyday things—“mud’s sister” for “dust,” “an ox stands on my tongue” for “I won’t tell”—turn the commonplace elements of life into something fantastic. He builds suspense in the Oresteia by having character after character confess their feelings of dread. And then there are the piercing one-liners tossed off by the chorus: “the lesson in suffering,” “war, the money-changer of bodies,” jarring combinations of words that knock his hearers (or his readers, such is his power) out of their workaday world into the realm of second sight, the place of prophets and poets and those about to die.
Although his life seems to have been a fortunate one, Aeschylus speaks with uncommon directness to people confronting the extremes of grief. On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to “my favorite poet…Aeschylus.” Kennedy went on to quote a passage from the Oresteia:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads “and in our own despite”). These changes show that he is speaking from memory, from the depths of his own experience of death and tragedy. The ancient playwright must have been one of the few writers large enough to keep Kennedy company after his brother’s death, to the point that he has slightly rewritten Aeschylus in his own head. (Unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.)
Aeschylus’s flights of word-fancy do not always work (though most of them have had the staying power of Shakespeare), but his sense of theater was flawless. He pushed fearlessly at the edges of the ritual known as drama just as he and his fellow soldiers had pushed at the limits of human endurance at Marathon, where, in full bronze body armor, bronze shields in hand, they ran across the plain toward the Persian host stationed on the beach. At first the Persians watched them trot, confident that men so heavily loaded would soon tire and make an easy target, but instead the bronze-clad Greeks kept running, relentless. Then at last the invaders panicked and ran themselves, right onto their ships and away. For a hero of Marathon, changing the rules of dramatic performance was a minor challenge.
And so he added a second actor to the traditional dramatic mix of solo actor and singing, dancing chorus, creating new possibilities for dialogue and for dramatic tension. The daring wordsmith was perhaps even greater at exploiting the power of silence, bringing on mute players who suddenly speak, altering our sense of reality as drastically as his striking imagery. The protagonist of the lost tragedy Ixion said nothing for the first half of the play. In the second play of the Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, Pylades, a character present from the outset, utters his only speech at line 900 (of 1,075).
Aeschylus may have been a model warrior in an often brutal, male-dominated society, but he endowed his female characters with a special dignity. From Clytemnestra, queen of Argos, to Atossa, queen of Persia, and from Athena, the goddess, to the captive Cassandra, these women command language with a matchless subtlety. Better than anyone (except the playwright who created them), they proclaim the power of persuasive speech, and its place at the heart of civil coexistence. The extant plays of this decorated veteran (perhaps one tenth of his output) extol the peaceful art of forging community. The Persians describes the war with Greece from the Persian point of view, portraying the enemy, the very same enemy he once chased across the plain of Marathon, as human beings who merit the same compassion as any Greek. And the great trilogy of the Oresteia lays bare the imperfect relationship between pure justice and the perpetual compromises of human society, from the slippery rights and wrongs of war to the conflicting claims of family and city.
Many classicists (and not just classicists) regard the Agamemnon, the monumental opening play of the Oresteia, as the greatest Greek tragedy of them all, with its huge, majestic choral odes to human folly and confusion. It is in one of these odes that the proud veteran of Marathon strips bare the true meaning of war:
They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome,
Come ashes in an urn.
For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.
There by the furnace of Troy’s field,
Where thrust meets thrust, he sits to hold
His scale, and watch the spear-point sway;
And back to waiting homes he sends
Slag from the ore, a little dust
To drain hot tears from hearts of friends;
Good measure, safely stored and sealed
In a convenient jar—the just
Price for the man they sent away.2
The author of this passage was thirty years older, and a good deal more clear-eyed, than the young Aeschylus who had battled the Persian invader. It was the same clear eye for politics that led him to change the Oresteia’s venue from Mycenae, the real home of Agamemnon and his family, destroyed in the Bronze Age, to the coastal city that had replaced Mycenae in the classical period, Argos. In 458, Athens had just struck a strategic alliance with Argos to guard against the growing power of Sparta, and the audience in the theater that day must have included a large contingent of Argive visitors. They could not have asked for a more thrilling spectacle.
The Agamemnon tells the story of how the Greek warlord’s wife, Clytemnestra, plots to murder him in revenge for his decision to make a human sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, at the outset of the Trojan War. In Clytemnestra, Aeschylus presents a villainess so seductive that, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, she takes the air out of the drama whenever she leaves our presence. Her sister, of course, was the beauteous Helen of Troy, but in the playwright’s telling, brains and eloquence cast a more potent spell than the face that launched a thousand ships.
Not even Aeschylus can create a man large enough to compete with Clytemnestra, certainly not Agamemnon, the pompous husband who returns from his expedition with a new mistress in tow, or Orestes, a young man crushed from the outset by his conflicting duties to parents at war with each other. The only character in the trilogy who can match Clytemnestra for forcefulness is the invisible mover behind this drama, whom the chorus addresses with an all-too-justified trepidation:
Let good prevail!
So be it! Yet, what is good? And who
Is God? How name him, and speak true?
If he accept the name that men
Give him, Zeus I name him then.
I, still perplexed in mind,
For long have searched and weighed
Every hope of comfort or of aid:
Still I can find
No creed to lift this heaviness,
This fear that haunts without excuse—
No name inviting faith, no wistful guess,
Two versions of the Oresteia have been playing in London this summer and fall, both of them the work of young dramatists attempting, like the chorus of the Agamemnon, to find some creed to lift the heaviness of a fictional story that carries all the weight of history itself. Despite their differences, both productions come to the same conclusion: the crime of Orestes is unthinkable. No matter how or why he has been called upon to kill his mother, he cannot do so without destroying his own character.
Robert Icke’s modern-dress adaptation of the Oresteia for the Almeida Theatre in Islington (now extended to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End) turns the story into an extended series of flashbacks by an Orestes in psychiatric care who has sunk the memory of his crime under deep layers of forgetting. The Trojan War assumes fairly explicit overtones of the British expedition into Iraq in 2003, with Angus Wright’s Agamemnon evoking eerie (and deliciously creepy) parallels with Tony Blair’s piety, expediency, and trimming of the truth.
Lia Williams’s Clytemnestra is more a creation of Joanna Trollope than Aeschylus, a modern bourgeois wife with a pixie haircut, clad in a practical jumpsuit that takes her from setting the family table to meeting the press to baring her breast in an attempt to dissuade the son who is steeling himself to kill her. The crucial event in this telling of the drama is Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice Iphigenia. A calm has stranded the fleet of a thousand ships, and the whole Trojan expedition seems ready to unravel before it has begun, on the way to a Troy that could be called Baghdad. The portents and prophecies that guide the action in ancient drama are here put into the hands of Agamemnon’s spin doctors, who have already decided that the war must go on irrespective of feelings, oracles, or evidence; hence Iphigenia, a little girl clutching a toy rabbit, must die. Agamemnon, in a torrent of sleazy pieties, consents out of weakness and ambition.
No wonder Clytemnestra wants to murder this unctuous, pernicious creature. But why should Orestes kill his nice blond mum? The oracles that guide his matricide are as flimsy as the oracles that drove his father to destroy their family in the first place, and perhaps this is the point of Icke’s retelling of the myth. Orestes, however, is a much less developed character than his father, and the play loses intensity as it winds to its conclusion, with Orestes wailing, “What do I do?”
The chorus in this version of Greek tragedy has been reduced to the quiet presence of the excellent Annie Firbank, who wears her eighty-plus years with serene grace even when she plays an avenging Fury in the drama’s final act. This adaptation is interesting, thought-provoking, and well acted, but a Clytemnestra who stands screaming on the dining room table has given up the essence of her majesty: her command over language. Aeschylus never lets Clytemnestra forfeit her regal composure. When in doubt, she says, “Bring me a man-slaying axe.”
The axe is meant for Orestes. That is why Aeschylus’s Oresteia is so relentlessly riveting: when his Clytemnestra bares her breast to her son, she runs the full range of human emotion from tenderness to homicide.
The Globe Theatre’s Oresteia, directed by Adele Thomas from a new adaptation by Rory Mullarkey, hews closely to Aeschylus for the most part, a decision that works particularly well with the Globe’s situation: outdoors, with a thrust stage and a large standing audience. Katy Stephens is a regal Clytemnestra, clad in gorgeous geometric robes, who conveys her character’s sheer craziness with superb elegance. The theater’s website warns: “Contains brief moment of nudity, smoking, haze, incense and bloody violence,” a telling list of the threats this drama poses to contemporary sensibilities, as if a few cigarettes (smoked by a chorus that for inexplicable reasons is dressed as if it came straight from Schindler’s List) packed the same menace as an altar piled high with dismembered corpses.
The brief moment of nudity occurs, needless to say, when Clytemnestra bares her breast to her son in a last-ditch effort to keep him from killing her. Only we, the audience, know that she has just called for a man-slaying axe to kill him and that the breast-baring, on some level, is sheer delaying rhetoric. For Orestes, this is the moment when his mother’s humanity pierces his heart and he hesitates, as any decent hero would, to break the ultimate taboo of human existence to repay life with death. At this climax of tension, Orestes’ silent partner Pylades suddenly bursts out in his single speech in answer to Orestes’ question:
ORESTES: Pylades, what shall I do? To kill a mother is terrible. Shall I show mercy?
PYLADES: Where then are Apollo’s words, his Pythian oracles? What becomes of men’s sworn oaths? Make all men living your enemies, but not the gods.
The contrast between abstract oracle and this spectacularly living mother sounds suspiciously hollow when Pylades speaks out in the Globe. Besides, Orestes’ crime does make enemies of the gods: the primeval Furies who drive him mad with remorse and become the dominant presence in the final play of Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Eumenides (which means “Kindly Ones,” the cult name the Furies receive at the play’s end).
Aeschylus cleverly conjures up the Furies in our imagination before presenting them as the chorus of his third tragedy: the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, where Orestes has come to seek ritual purification, crawls out of her temple on hands and knees, prostrated by terror. Mullarkey and Thomas omit the foreshadowing and simply present the Furies as wild-haired harridans who spit black bile and look as if they migrated into the production from The Addams Family.
As Aeschylus tells the story, Orestes, the tainted hero, is finally brought to trial in Athens, where Athena establishes the world’s first court of law to hear his case. Apollo defends the rights of fathers to be avenged. The prosecuting Furies insist that there is no greater crime than to kill one’s mother. The court’s vote results in a tie, but Athena has already voted for Orestes’ acquittal.
Her reasons ring especially hollow to a modern audience—sprung from the head of Zeus, she has no mother, so she will always take the man’s side—but the argument was already open to doubt in antiquity. Aeschylus resolves the impasse by having Athena turn to the Furies, addressing them as “Venerable Ones,” inviting them to stay in Athens, where they will receive their own cult as the “Kindly Ones” and continue to instill the fear of wrongdoing that is essential for upholding the law.
The play ends in a triumphal procession that escorts the “Kindly Ones” to their new home, the ambiguities of the previous trial swept away in a flurry of aulos music and a joyous party. In the Globe, of all settings, Athena cannot help evoking our cultural memory of The Merchant of Venice and Portia, and thus for this modern Orestes, as for Shylock, the quality of mercy is not strained (though Portia would never get to wear Athena’s divine liquid gold dress).
One detail in the Globe’s triumphal procession is jarringly out of place: a giant gilded phallus has stolen the Furies’ parade away from them, as if the Princely Pestle were the only deity either we or the ancients are permitted anymore. But there is also a compensatory touch: Clytemnestra comes back to join the dance, which is an insight of pure genius. If the reconciliation is true, she should be there to participate. All the same, Orestes, poor soul, avoids her. He is the great loser in his own story, and there is nothing that can set him right. The Bronze Age, his entire world, will always end in ashes.
Examples of auloi still survive from archaeological excavations, tuned to the same scale as contemporary versions. When I was a student at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, we flattened a paper drinking straw to create a reed, stuck it into an ancient aulos from the Agora in Athens, and played the opening lines, as one can, of “Heartbreak Hotel.” ↩
The translation is by Philip Vellacott, The Oresteian Trilogy (Penguin, 1956). The literal translation of “War’s a banker, flesh his gold” is “War, the moneychanger of bodies” mentioned above. ↩