john_j_enright (john_j_enright) wrote,

Rereading the Oresteia

The "Oresteia" is a set of three plays from ancient Athens, written by a guy named Aeschylus. The plays are set up as a trilogy of fairly continuous action. A killing occurs in play one. A revenge killing occurs in play two. A trial occurs in play three. That's a strong basic structure. It's called Oresteia because it ends up being about Orestes, who does the second killing, and then stands trial. It's a typical Greek tragedy, all about relatives killing relatives and getting the gods all worked up. Aristotle credits Aeschylus with the innovation of putting two actors on the stage. Up till then there was just one actor and the chorus. Which means he invented the emphasis on dialog in the Greek drama.

I'm reading it for my book club. But I've read it before, several times. I first read it in college, where I was unhappy with the translation we were using. Aeschylus poses translation problems, more than the other big two Greek tragic playwrights. He makes vague allusions, uses vague diction, bandies obscure metaphors, coins new words... that sort of thing! What's more, the text is bad, missing lines, garbled in places. Ugh.

I'm the kind of person who really prefers to know what the vague allusions refer to. Call it obsessive if you will, but that's me all over. So this time around I bought a copy of the Greek text, with antiquated English on the facing page. I also borrowed from the library a fairly literal translation that has detailed on-the-page footnotes explaining what the allusions are likely to mean. It's slow going, but very enlightening, kind of a mini-course on Greek religion to boot!

My brief layperson's recommendations are as follows.

First read John Lewin's acting adaptation "The House of Atreus." It will get you through the whole action without bogging you down.

Then if you want to know altogether too much about the play, the way I did, try "The Oresteia" as translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones.

If you can read Greek, or can sort of make out a few words like I can, there is always the Loeb Classical Library "Aeschylus II" which includes some fragments as well as the Oresteia. Be forewarned that the English contains lines like: "Know that thou shalt make me atonement for thy insolent folly."

If you are dying to see a production of the plays, you may be able to track down a set of tapes based on Tony Harrison's translation. These vhs tapes are available at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, but I think borrowing may be restricted to city residents. Some university libraries have these tapes too. I wasn't crazy about this production. It was done using masks, which is true to Greek dramatic methods, but in other respects the production felt modern in its more depressing sense. Also, perhaps most telling, the production felt like it lacked dramatic tension, at least to me. This is fatal. (I don't think this lack of dramatic tension was the translation's fault, but I haven't sat down and read it separately. It's always hard, when watching a film for the first time, to judge the script separately.)

One of the things I like about the plays is the appearance of Athena, goddess of wisdom, as a major character in the last play of the trilogy. I just like her as a character. I even wrote a poem to her once, which should prove my devotion to the grey-eyed goddess.

For fans of Rattigan's "The Browning Version", I should mention that the first play in this trilogy was indeed translated by Robert Browning. This is the translation that the young student gives to the old schoolmaster as a token of appreciation.

You can look at the actual Browning Version here:

Rhyme of the day:

Sometimes he writes like he's in a fog,
But hey - he invented dialog!

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