Monday, January 31, 2011

The Oresteia by Aeschylus: A Classics Circuit Review

"If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to -- Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. -- Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?" - Mr. Tilney, Northanger Abbey

I begin this review with the above quote because this is an Austen centric blog, and, as such, all things must come back to that lady and her novels - even Greek tragedy. My regular readers might be wondering (very reasonably) where I can possibly find a connection between the great authoress and the only complete trilogy we have from the Golden Age of Athens (roughly 480 to 404 B.C.E.). Quite frankly, the main similarity lies in my own education and interests. I hold two bachelor of arts degrees: the first, not surprisingly, is in English, my focus having been 19th century literature, and the second in Classical Civilization, particularly Greek tragedy. I absolutely adore theater, in all its forms, so it is logical that I would find its origins of particular interest. One of the greatest days of my life was my 23rd birthday, when I finally stood beside the ruins of the Theater of Dionysus, located on the southern slope of the Acropolis, where these plays were originally performed. Studying in Athens was the culmination of a lifelong dream, and this was its highlight. So when The Classics Circuit announced an Ancient Greeks tour, I could not resist signing up to review The Oresteia, one of my most favorite texts in the world.

Orestes killing Clytemnestra
I will come back to Mr. Tilney and other characters familiar to my fellow Janeites, but first let me drift so very far from the world of Miss Austen, into the dark and violent realms of Greek myth. As indicated above, The Oresteia is comprised of three plays, just as all Greek tragedies were: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Their subject is the very dysfunctional house of Atreus, rulers of Argos. The death and destruction that haunts this family dates back generations to Tantalus, that well-known resident of Hades, doomed for all eternity to stand up to his chin in a pool of water that recedes each time he tries to drink, positioned beneath a tree whose "tantalizing" fruit is forever just out of reach. His crime? Having slaughtered his son, Pelops, and having attempted to serve his flesh to the Gods. Pelops was restored to life and went on to sire the twins Thyestes and Atreus, who continue their family's bloody heritage when the latter kills all but one of his nephews (Aegisthus) and feeds them to their father. Atreus has two exceedingly famous sons - Menelaus and Agamemnon, who marry two notorious sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. I do hope you are all familiar with the events of the Trojan War, which serves as the corner stone of Greek literature, and so will not bog myself down in recounting all its details, dwelling only on those relevant to our purposes today. Before he is able to set sail for Troy, Agamemnon is called upon to sacrifice his daughter, the virgin Iphigenia, as an offering to Artemis, leaving behind him an extremely irate wife. Through ten years of war, Clytemnestra plots her revenge, in cahoots with her lover, Aegisthus, who is also bent on retribution for the wrongs committed by Atreus upon his line. This is where our story begins.

Actors would all be masked and male
In Agamemnon, that legendary military leader returns home to be greeted with open arms by his seemingly loyal wife, Clytemnestra. In tow he carries Cassandra, the Trojan princess who is doomed to foresee the future without being believed, as a spoil of war. Clytemnestra leads her husband inside the palace and prepares for him a bath. There she traps him in heavy, net-like robes, and kills him with a sword, before meting out the same fate to Cassandra. Aegisthus triumphs, the people mourn, and the murderous couple take their place on the throne. Several years pass before the beginning of The Libation Bearers, when Clytemnestra sends her remaining daughter, Electra, to pour libations on Agememnon's grave, after having a dream about giving birth to a snake which, in turn, kills her. That snake is Orestes, her son who has been living in exile, returned to Argos to revenge his father's death. He meets Electra at Agamemnon's grave and reveals his purpose. Parent slaughter is a sin grave enough to call upon its perpetrator the wrath of the Furies, dark and ancient goddesses who relentlessly pursue their prey and drive them insane, but Apollo has commanded Orestes to proceed anyway, promising assistance when this fate befalls him. He goes to the palace and, with the aid of Electra and her servants, kills first Aesgithus and then his mother, in one of the most dramatic scenes in the history of theater. Quickly the Furies descend and Orestes flees for Delphi. The Eumenides begins with Orestes in the temple of Delphi surrounded by sleeping Furies, who have been lulled by Apollo, giving him time to purify his supplicant of his crime. Orestes then runs to Athens and the temple of Athena, momentarily free of the Furies pursuit, but, driven on by the ghost of Clytemnestra, they soon catch up to him. He calls upon Athena's assistance, and she decides to have a trial by jury to decide whether or not the Furies are entitled to their victim. Apollo acts on Orestes behalf, arguing that the need to avenge his father's death outweighs the ties of blood he has to his mother, the woman being only the vessel in which the man's seed grows, a massive assertion of patriarchal dominance, further reinforced by the verdict. He puts forth as an example Athena herself, born from Zeus' head without a mother. The jury decides for Orestes, reinforcing the dominance of the new, male-lead gods over the more ancient mother goddesses, and the Furies are pacified by being given new rights as protectors of suppliants, remaking them in a more benevolent guise: the Eumenides. This final play establishes a foundation story for the Athenian judicial system, putting an end to barbaric cycles of blood vengeance and establishing law and order.

Libation Bearers
What is it in this horrific tale that so enthralls me? Many things. As a lover of mythologies, I find in Aeschylus a fascinating awareness and attempt to justify the emergence of male dominant theologies over the older, female orders (a trend which crosses most civilizations). There is also the hubris - usually the factor that brings down tragic heroes (like Oedipus) - inherent in the playwright's premise. Aeschylus took part in the Persian Wars that saw Athens established as the great power of the era, and his certainty that this triumph is not only ordained but endless is almost comical when we know how soon Sparta brought down the Athenian Empire, bringing a very quick end to The Golden Age. Now I find myself back in the world of Austen. Let us return to the quote I commenced on. Mr. Tilney's words reveal a similar hubris - an unshakable faith in righteousness of the English. In the face of the French Revolution, English superiority and judiciousness must indeed have seemed superior. It was a land in which order and law remained stable when the rest of Europe was falling apart. But all empires will come to an end, and even in England horrific crimes will be committed against family (the Victorian Era offers us a slew of examples, both of parents killing their children and spouses slaughtering each other). While Catherine Morlands's "Gothic" ideas of murder in the Tilney household may have no place in Austen's reasonable world, they are very much akin to the acts perpetrated in Greek myth. Irrationality may be contained by a system of justice, or even a neighborhood of spies, but it remains part of us, even if buried in our subconscience.

The so-called Mask of Agamemnon
I also think there is something to be said about the role of theater in Austen and its origins as a fertility rite. Formal theater derived from Dionysian festivals, held in the spring, in which a chorus of singers would dance around a large phallus. These became the choruses that form such a central role as narrators in Greek plays. With such beginnings, is it any wonder that, even 2000 years later, theater retained the stigma of unleashed sexuality? This can be seen in not only the sphere which actresses inhabited during the 19th century, often being the mistresses of wealthy gentleman, or in the horror any respectable family felt if one of their members was affiliated with the stage, but also in the result of the theatrics held in Mansfield Park. Modern readers often wonder why the performance of a play was so very controversial, receiving the censure of both our hero and heroine, but when we see the results of this foray into acting, their disapproval makes more sense. It is the rehearsals of Lovers' Vows that bring about three distinct romances: the illicit one between Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram, the doomed one between Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford, and the one that ends in marriage, if in an exceptional manner, between Julia Bertram and John Yates. In fact, only three members of the cast remain immune to the sexual atmosphere of the theater, one of whom is already married, and another who is engaged.

The Trial of Orestes
I could continue to draw these, admittedly, far fetched connections between Austen's texts and the topic at hand (Athena's speech at the end of The Eumenides, regarding her love of persuasion, sorely tempts me to invoke a certain impervious nut), but I will spare my readers such flights of fancy. I do not know if Austen ever read The Oresteia, but she certainly would have been exposed to Greek texts, through her father's educational pursuits. It is also highly unlikely that, being both the daughter and sister of a Cassandra, she was unfamiliar with the derivation of the name. Whether she ever read translations of these stories is unknown, but she was certainly familiar with their themes, if only through Shakespeare. Most fundamentally, the strife between the generations and between husbands and wives, so often dwelt upon in Greek literature, is central to Austen's novels. Good and bad parents, well-match and ill-suited marriages, form the core of her stories. These are universal concerns, as fundamental to Aeschylus as they were to Austen. I may be reaching, but I do not think my stretch unjustified. But regardless, it was delightful to revisit these wonderful plays, which I once studied so closely but have neglected for a decade. My tastes have certainly changed over time, but The Oresteia still thrills me to the core. I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the other posts in this Classic Circuit tour, but I look forward to doing so and urge others to do the same. Greek literature may not be your favorite topic, but it as it is the premise for Western literature, a knowledge of it is essential to fully appreciating the last 2500 years of writing.



  1. Thanks for the incredibly detailed review and comparison, you've convinced me to read The Oresteia anyway.

  2. Hi Katrina. You're welcome! Read The Oresteia anyway? Were you feeling prejudiced against it?

  3. I love love love The Oresteia. It's lucky for me that Northanger Abbey is the only Austen I've read, so I can enjoy your references to it!

  4. Hi Shannyn. I find it fascinating that Northanger is the only Austen you have read, as it is usually the last novel people discover, after having devoured her other novels. It was, however, the first Austen I ever read, and it remains one of my favorite novels.

  5. I love the connection to Austen! (Even though I am not all that familiar with the details as you are.) It really goes to show that Greek drama is a classic of modern literature for a reason, the themes are all universal in some ways.

  6. Thanks Rebecca! The survival of these stories for thousands years is certainly no fluke. I was kind of grasping on the Austen thing. I hope, in my attempt to be relatively concise, I didn't rush it too much.