The Greek tragedies by the “big three” are so formal and often over-the-top to my modern-day ear that I enjoy poking a bit of irreverent fun at them. I was looking forward to doing the same with Euripides’ Orestes but it is such an interesting play that I have to take it seriously. Mostly. I read a fantastic translation by Anne Carson. My respect for her work continues to grow the more I read it. She really is top-notch and better than Robert Fagles in my opinion.
I imagine Orestes was probably the third play in the traditional three-play cycle and we just don’t have the others. But since the introduction doesn’t mention this, perhaps Euripides placed it differently in his play cycle. Oh, wait, Euripides has an Elektra too. So much for reading in order. Anyway, the story that comes before this play is the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra when he returns from Troy. Orestes who has been fostered out, returns and kills his mother. Now, in this play he suffers the consequences: the Furies.
But Euripides does something so totally unexpected and I would love to have seen how the audience reacted when it was performed at the Dionysian Festival in 408 B.C. Whereas others like Aeschylus, portrayed the Furies as actual women flying through the air relentlessly chasing Orestes and tormenting him, Euripides turns them into a psychological metaphor for guilt. Not that they weren’t before, but the Furies in this play are all in Orestes’ head, they have no physical manifestation. Apparently Euripides introduced into Greek theatre
a concern for the solitary inward self, for consciousness as a private content that might or might not match up with the outside appearance of a person, that might or might not make sense to an observer. He lived at a time when philosophers as well as artists were becoming intrigued by this difference between outside and inside, appearance and reality, and were advancing various theories about what truth is and where truth lies.
In Euripides’ story of Orestes, his sister Elektra and his best friend Pylades helped him kill Clytemnestra at the command of the god Apollo. Nonetheless, Orestes is still being tormented with the guilt of murdering his mother even though he did the right thing according to Apollo and according to custom that the son must avenge the murder of his father. But it gets complicated when the murderer is your mother and there is a law against matricide.
This then being a psychological situation with Orestes looking inward we get conversation like this:
MENELAOS: What’s wrong with you? What sickness wastes you away?
ORESTES: Conscience. I know what I have done.
MENELAOS: How do you mean?
ORESTES: Grief is killing me.
MENELAOS: She is a dread goddess. But curable.
ORESTES: And fits of madness. Mother madness. Mother blood.
It has only been six days since his mother’s burial. Though surprised by his grief and guilt, he is still expecting Apollo to come through for him and absolve him of his crime and madness.
The town has been holding the guilt-stricken Orestes and his co-conspirators captive trying to figure out what to do with them. Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother arrives with his wife Helen and their daughter Hermione on the eve of the town taking a vote on whether or not Orestes and friends will be stoned to death. Orestes pleads with Menelaus to intercede for them but he pretty much claims he can’t do anything but that he will try anyway. Elektra, Orestes and Pylades start making a plan directed at the hateful Helen (“the weapon of mass destruction” she is called in the play by Pylades) who they see as being the one at fault for the mess they are in since she is the one who started the war and thus the whole chain of terrible events leading up to this moment in time.
The Argives vote death and the three decide they will kill Helen and then the Argives will see them as heroes and forget all about the matricide charges. They capture Helen and just when they are about to execute her she disappears! Poof! Since Helen is the daughter of Zeus she is taken up “into the sky” to sit beside Castor and Pollux. By luck they also capture Helen’s daughter Hermione. Then we get a standoff scene with Orestes on the roof of his family’s palace, a knife to Hermione’s throat, barking down demands at Menelaus.
And now, Euripides, having written himself into a corner, has Apollo appear, deus ex machina. Apollo tells Orestes to get out of town for a year, go to Parrhasia (they’ll name a town after you!) and then go to Athens and stand trial for matricide where he promises Orestes will win. This is so unlike other versions of Orestes in which during this year of exile he is chased by the Furies and arrives in Athens a half-mad suppliant. Apollo also commands Orestes to marry Hermione. Hermione, of course, gets no say in the matter, she must marry the man currently holding a knife to her throat. I bet she was thrilled! As for Elektra and Pylades, they are to get married and Apollo promises Pylades will be happy but doesn’t bother to say whether Elektra will be happy. Then Apollo tells Menelaus to go rule Sparta, enjoy Helen’s dowry, and find another wife.
With Apollo swooping in and solving all the problems, Orestes and Menelaus shake hands and the play concludes with the Chorus giving some praise to Apollo.
Of all the plays I’ve read so far, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon still holds first for me. Clytemnestra is just too awesome. This one though, I think this one has knocked Prometheus Bound out of its second place spot. There are still quite a few Euripides plays to go yet so the order of favorites could still get mixed up. Stay tuned.