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Authors: Aeschylus

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The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies (7 page)

BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
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But her Fury is a staggering moral force. ‘The heavy rains of blood will crush the house.’ The old men pray to Mother Earth for their own oblivion and burial for the king, and Clytaemnestra will conduct the rites of death, hand Agamemnon back to their daughter waiting in Hades to embrace her father’s ghost. And the chorus breaks into a hymn for even more destructive unions: the law of Zeus reverts to the
lex talionis,
the prayer to Zeus becomes an invocation of the curse. It is a bold verdict. Zeus can be the arbitrary king no longer; if he wants to be
all-achieving, he must be
all-responsible too. He cannot use the Furies without suffering their recriminations, the Titanic law he had suppressed, yet his complicity here will mark his first step towards a more conscientious, communal form of justice. And the verdict is not without some credit to the judges. Brought face to face with the hopelessness of trying to foresee - much less effect - an end to the chain reaction of murder, the old men also suffer into truth. It is the Furies however, not the gods and the cautious precepts of Olympus, that have inspired them. Through Cassandra they have seen that history is a process; through the queen that process shatters them yet serves to make them whole. For her private crime has become a tremendous public burden, yet as they accept it the elders build their greatest lyric outburst in the play. They ‘sing of human unsuccess/in a rapture of distress’, in Auden’s words, and they end the trial by insisting on their own complicity in the misery of the race. ‘Broken husks of men’ at first, they could only narrate Calchas’ prophecy - now they are the prophets.
Clytaemnestra commends them for their vision, then acts to save them all from ruin. Her confidence leads her to strike a pact with the spirit; a lavish sacrifice should persuade him to depart, ‘once I have purged/our fury to destroy each other - /purged it from our halls’. What she tries to form, in short, is a marriage contract with the curse. And all the blood-weddings that went before - of Iphigeneia, Helen and Troy, even Agamemnon and herself - become
like the slaughter of the suitors in the Odyssey that consecrates the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope. But here the king is murdered, the suitor weds the queen, and the queen assumes command; and here the crux of
lies. The master of irony has become its target - Clytaemnestra’s ‘marriage’ is a death pact. She is locked within the chain, another instrument of revenge who must become a victim in return. That is what it means to dedicate oneself to vengeance. The queen is a repetition of Agamemnon, as Kitto sees her; she vainly hopes ‘that the
now achieved shall be final’, provided only that she lives a pious life. Yet there is a difference too. As she accepts her yoke she may also express a premonition of the Fury that will end her life and purge the house at last. Standing in her husband’s steps, she may repeat his weakness less than she enacts her own potential. Witness the moral power she generates in the chorus, and her position in the closing scene.
We have reached a vision almost too intense, as if we were looking at the sun in its eclipse. We must come down to earth, and in a later Greek tragedy a deus ex
a god swung down from Olympus to resolve the future, might have intervened. But Aeschylus is composing on a larger scale than Sophocles or Euripides. The curse has far to go before it is laid to rest, and here he introduces a prologue to a new play. Called forth, it seems, by Clytaemnestra’s evocation of the spirit, Aegisthus enters with his bodyguard, praising the gods because they bring him glory, gloating over Agamemnon’s body as a product of the curse. We have never heard its history told so fully, not because Aeschylus has been saving it for last but because Cassandra, Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra have embodied it so uniquely. Aegisthus relies on the common version ot its origins - Thyestes’ feast - and it reflects his vulgarity. What a confusion it is. He tells it to indict the Atreidae and justify himself, but he seems to relish both the virtuoso cookery and his father’s vomiting and trampling on the children’s flesh. He is trampling on his father, degrading the curse, the human complexity of Thyestes who was both abusing and abused.
History is cannibalism to Aegisthus, and he tramples on his victim too. He and Agamemnon are related in their excess, yet Aegisthus is mere front: he claims to have planned the murder, then he claims the throne, but he has done precisely nothing. He is a parody of the traditional Aegisthus, the hardy swordsman who shares the killing of the king with Clytaemnestra, and his recital of the curse is finally self-defeating: ‘Now I could die gladly, even I.’ Yet his entrance marks the dawn of a mediocre present that is hard to limit; when he says, ‘Let me make this clear’ (and the Greek made this translation almost irresistible), we may hear our own political leaders, too, and run for cover. When he alludes to culture, he is reaching for the knife. He speaks political language in Orwell’s sense; it is ‘designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’, and it may usurp the place of poetry itself. The chorus is speechless for a moment, but they are so revolted by Aegisthus’ cowardice they quickly rise against him. Troy left them behind, not this conflict. Now they seize on the coming of Orestes like a weapon - fighting, in their old age, with the courage of the liberator.
What keeps them from striking out against Aegisthus is the queen, for as he declines in power she increases. Contrary to legend, she is the single-handed executioner of her husband, and she alone suspends hostilities at the end, girding for a conflict that will rage around herself. She has tried to form a liaison with the spirit of the house. Her lover makes a mockery of that spirit, yet he may also represent how low the queen has had to stoop. To lash herself into an act of murder may have required valid rage and guilty passion, Fury and the curse. Now she accepts her union with Aegisthus for what it is, a coupling of righteousness and degradation. Without him she is a self-deluded victim like her husband. With him she becomes a combatant struggling to transform her guilt into a kind of strength:
If we could end the suffering, how we would rejoice.
The spirit’s brutal hoof has struck our heart.
And that is what a woman has to say.
Can you accept the truth?
She cannot end the suffering, she knows that she must suffer most, and she rises to a majesty of endurance. Her language has become as clear as what awaits her, and her clarity is a legitimate source of pride. Clytaemnestra is at last no more conciliatory than Oedipus or Lear. She undergoes a change in awareness, not a change of heart. True to herself, she blazes out against the chorus calling for Orestes, and together they bring the play to its grating but prophetic close. Orestes will arise from the clash between his fatherland that cries for justice and the Fury of his mother, and hers may be the greater force. She alone can generate her destiny in the person of her son. That will be her achievement years from now, but we may sense it here as she embraces her fate. From that union comes her death, from her death the liberation of the race. The play is named for Agamemnon, but the tragic hero is the queen.
All that now remains of the
is the written word. We should remember that the text leaves much unsaid about the total impression of a Greek dramatic work. Its religious, social and theatrical impact greatly increased its power. The Athenians who attended the
came to worship Dionysus and receive the sensuous fullness of the performance - perhaps to be overwhelmed, as Yeats was overwhelmed, as if he were present at ‘a terrible sacrament of the god’. The Greeks used every medium they had. And now so much is irretrievably lost - the music, the choreography, the scenery, the timbre of the actors’ voices, what must have been their memorable gestures. But we have not lost the essence. Our text, Aristotle encourages us to believe, is not a thin libretto. The words alone may hold the life of the thing itself. The music they create, the scenery, the acting, the complete consort dancing together in the theatre of our minds may well be all we need. Perhaps - but this may be too daring - a performance of the Oresteia in the mind of a twentieth-century reader may be even more moving than it was in that crowded, often restive Theatre of Dionysus at the first performance. At least we can do with the written words what no Athenian could do when they were spoken on the stage; we can stop and wonder and look back and tease apart the subtleties and pregnancies of Aeschylus’ style, so that while we lose theatrically we gain in imaginative power. As Keats has said about a different
of Greek art, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ And perhaps with Greek drama, richer, too.
But injustice to Aeschylus, no summary of his tragedy, or translation, can convey the sensuous impact of his language, the superbly rich and flexible language of fifth-century Greece which he employed with a power few other languages could achieve. It is the flesh and blood in which his meaning lives. We cannot forget its vitality any more than we can hope to reproduce it. It threatens, always, to make our reactions to his work as lifeless as a paraphrase of
The Wreck of the Deutschland
The Bridge.
Hart Crane found the substance of Aeschylus ‘so verbally quickened and delivered with such soul-shivering economy that one realizes there is none in the English language to compare him with’. He is so far from us, and further from our ingrained, often cramped and icy standards of classicism than almost all of his successors. He is as far from the lucid control of Sophocles as a Gothic cathedral from a Doric temple, Michelangelo from Leonardo. There is reason for his eccentricities, to be sure; he uses archaisms to root his action in the past, and neologisms that serve to make it new. But he uses them so freely that at times he is bizarre, his metaphors grotesque. At times he gives the impression of finding the Greek language, despite its richness, inadequate to the flood of his characters’ feeling in a crisis. Poets have felt this inadequacy before and since - Homer, Virgil, and Tennyson, for instance - but they generally speak of it in terms of calm regret. The old men of Argos (probably speaking for Aeschylus in his later years) feel it viscerally, like a woman in childbirth. They fill with terror, they strain to give it voice, but their cries erupt in silence at the last, ‘never to ravel out a hope in time/and the brain is swarming, burning—’
The language is explosive, volcanic. It is giving birth to a new drama and a new poetic voice. The Oresteia is not a restatement of a tale of murder and revenge; it is a
a re-enactment, a recreation of it in a new mode that concentrates
builds its older epic power, that requires ‘soul-shivering economy’
elevation, or what Longinus called ‘the reverberation of the grandeur of the soul’. Aeschylus created tragedy, but he also used it to express himself. And between his public mission and his urge for personal release, his style bears all the marks of struggle - the far-fetched plays on words, the muscle-bound constructions, the breakings-off before a sentence is completed that led most classical critics to call him ‘incoherent’.
Perhaps, but there is a distinction between the rudeness of a new convention and the rudeness which a poet chooses for himself. When Aeschylus strains for grandeur and it turns to grandiosity, there may have been a failure of technique. Greek tragedy had far to go before it reached a flawless classicism; Aeschylus was a pioneer, and like Schliemann at Troy, he could be faulted by the next generation for the occasional roughness of his methods. But again like Schliemann, he was the first to give his
a universal status. When Aeschylus strains for self-expression and it turns to baffling obscurity, there may be a lack of technique, though more likely there is too much ‘self’. Aeschylus is proud to grapple with concepts that are new, inchoate, mystical, tremendous - like the mind of Zeus, as he tried to penetrate it, ‘tangled, thickly shadowed stretch the paths of Zeus’s mind, blinding to the power of our words’. But arrogance and magnificence,
are the two thrusts of Aeschylus’ style, and what is essential is how his arrogance may magnify his work. He is continually turning the dangers of his language into strengths, its roughness into power, its cries of inadequacy into copiousness and song, an exultation he must struggle to control. Few, if any, poets can rival him in this. Again and again he re-creates the world of appearances - the animal world, the world of storms and calms, the sunrise on the ocean rolling with a glistening bloom of corpses - by some sudden flash of imagery that utterly recasts its meaning.
Aeschylus creates a world of violent paradox. We see this in his most intense expressions: in his ‘desperate’ compounds as perplexing as his characters; in his mixed metaphors that grope towards the ineffable and reflect just how remote it is; in his oxymora that are acts of reverence in themselves, containing a mystery without explaining it away. Aeschylus transforms his genius for obscurity into an indispensable factor in his Oresteia. He is dramatizing passions and fears beyond analysis, even psychoanalysis, wrestling with problems whose roots go deeper than logical formulation can go - the conflict of family loyalties with state loyalties, the tortured relationship between our freedom and our fate. A century or so later Plato and Aristotle would give these matters philosophical solutions, yet as history has shown too clearly, the problems remained unsolved, perhaps because they had been immunized, for a time, by the cures of rationality. But Aeschylus
the problems in the problems of his style. He does not diagnose our illness and prescribe a cure. He uses homeopathy: he re-creates the symptoms in a newly created world; he compels his audience to relive their lives in that fresh light, and in the end, like a god in his own creation, he can establish a resounding, final harmony. Aeschylus is not simply a religious poet. He is a wilful, headstrong, visionary poet. He does not belong with the more self-effacing Sophocles and Spenser. He breathes the air of Pindar, Milton and Isaiah - men who sing with arrogance to magnify the glory of their gods. He exults in the service that is perfect freedom. He is the Dionysiac artist, possessed by
divinus furor.
BOOK: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers & the Furies
13.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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