Trafalgar Studios, London, August 22–November 7, 2015
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…
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