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Review: Aeschylus' Oresteia, Translated by Ted Hughes

Aeschylus The Oresteia, Translated by Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes' Translation of Aeschylus' trilogy: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1999; isbn: 0-374-52705-9; 200 pages.
These three plays are extremely important not only because they comprise our only surviving example of a complete, thematically unified tragic trilogy, but also because they express an central element of Athenian civic ideology in the context of a major development in the history of Greek religion. Because of this importance (as well as its artistic excellence), the "Oresteia" has always enjoyed a special status as a kind of ideal example of what Greek tragedy could do to deal with grand themes and ideas that necessarily transcend the confines of any individual drama.
- [vergil.classics.upenn.edu/ ~joef/courses/myth/96/myth/ jan31.html "Two Tragic Families" accessed 10/03/2000]

Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides form a trilogy, known as the Oresteia, first performed at the Great Dionysia, in 458 B.C. When Ted Hughes adapted Euripides' Alcestis, he did more than translate it literally. He infused it with modern ideas and idioms. Hughes also translated, but did not "adapt," Aeschylus' Oresteia, perhaps because Aeschylus used a form too different from modern drama. Perhaps Hughes preferred not to create a modern world filled with cannibalism, human sacrifice, and matricide. Or perhaps he felt a modern translation supplied all the adaptation needed to make the father of tragedy appeal to a late twentieth century audience.

Aeschylus' major innovation in tragedy, the addition of a second actor, introduced intrigue and conflict to the dialogue. Before him, there was only one actor who addressed a chorus, not composed of professional actors, but 12 non-professional dancers. The actors usually represented kings, queens, or other nobles who cause the death of members of their own families; whereas, the chorus, "representing the society as onlookers, worries and bewails events, but is helpless in the face of the disasters befalling the main characters." [novaonline.nv.cc.va.us/eli/Troy/agamemguide.html accessed 10/03/2000 Agamemnon Study Guide.]

As was still true in Euripides' time, murders were behind the scenes. In Agamemnon, choral narrative depicts past events: the disemboweling of a pregnant hare, the platter served with toes and fingers underneath the steaks, and the ritual slaughter by a king of his daughter. Offstage, Clytemnestra welcomes home her husband and his prize with a bloodbath. In Libation Bearers, a son stabs his mother and her lover.

Although Hughes doesn't adapt and modernize the trilogy by, for instance, renaming Orestes Lizzie Borden, his compact translation sharpens the impact of the ancient drama.
She speaks like a man.
We have proof enough
To thank the gods.
At last we can rejoice.
Zeus, high God

Ted Hughes
Lady, you speak as wisely as a prudent man. And, for my part, now that I have listened to your certain proofs, I prepare to address due prayers of thanksgiving to the gods; for a success has been achieved that well repays the toil.
Perseus translation

In the Frogs, Aristophanes' Aeschylus defends his "magnificent" epic language.
Language is Aeschylus' juggernaut, not visual images. He uses striking, innovative words to drive an image into the mind of his audience, and this is where his true power lies. He writes epic dramas about epic figures using epic language. As his character in the Frogs explains it: "For magnificent thoughts and magnificent fancies, we must have magnificent words (1058-9)."
[web.reed.edu/academic/departments/classics/HarveyThesis/ch2.html - accessed 10/30/00 Confusing Society]
A worthy successor, Hughes' polished poetry observes the current, more mundane writer's mantras: "show, don't explain," and "use the active voice." Not Calchas, the seer who advised Agamemnon to propitiate Artemis by sacrificing his own daughter, nor even Cassandra, the accurate but never believed prophet of Apollo, can tell how long our current literary preferences will last. For now, Hughes' poetry distills the ancient story of curses, lust for power, torn alliances, and revenge, for a ("post-") modern world.

The trilogy takes place in a time when divine right of king means great-grandparents on Mt. Olympus, when punishment is meted out by haunted visions of chthonic monsters. Gods and mortals no longer trick one another into cannibalistic orgies -- that ended the previous generation, but vengeance is still a family affair.

In the first tragedy of the trilogy, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, ruling Argos [note: not Mycenae] in her husband's stead, has taken his cousin Aegisthus as her lover and co-ruler. Her husband returns with a woman in tow, Cassandra, prophet of Apollo and daughter of King Priam of the sacked city of Troy.

Double standards make adultery acceptable for Agamemnon, but not for his wife. Furthermore, to a son of Atreus like Agamemnon, no adulterer could have been more distasteful than Aegisthus. Agamemnon's father, Atreus, threw his own wife (Aerope) from a cliff when he discovered her affair with his brother Thyestes who had been trying to repay his brother for stealing the throne. Thyestes, not yet the father of Aegisthus, had two sons. To pay Thyestes back for his part in the adultery, Atreus tricked his brother into eating the two boys. No such deed went unpunished in Pelops family. Although it took some time, Thyestes produced a third son, Aegisthus, to kill his Uncle Atreus. Killing wasn't enough, though: Aegisthus wanted the throne back.

We only hear allusions to most of this story of sibling conflict. The actual events of the Agamemnon revolve around Clytemnestra's deceit filled welcome of her husband and his concubine, Cassandra, Clytemnestra's successful argument to make Agamemnon step on a red carpet he knows is fit only for the feet of the gods, and the offstage carnage an hysterical Cassandra accurately predicts.

In the second play of the trilogy, Orestes, the exiled son of Agamemnon, prodded by the oracle of Apollo, returns to Argos and tricks his step-father into holding a private meeting with him at which Orestes kills him.

The killing of a man who has usurped a throne rightfully Orestes', is justified, but not so the murder of his mother. Clytemnestra argues she gave life to Orestes and for that he owes her. She contends that Agamemnon brought home a concubine, so she had reason to resent her husband. The real crime for which she murdered her husband, which she explains to the chorus in the Agamemnon, is the killing of their daughter, Iphigenia, a sacrifice Agamemnon made for the sake of his reputation among his men.

Orestes, driven by Apollo and neither convinced by nor interested in his mother's motives, slays her. From then on he is haunted by monsters of the earth known as Furies or Erinyes. If he is ever to know peace again, he must make his way to the murder court at the Areopagus in Athens. First, however, he must cleanse himself of his blood guilt.

The third play of the trilogy puts an end to the the bloody inter-generational feud.
if the next-of-kin must avenge the blood of a murdered person, this may lead to an unending chain of retaliation where many citizens are killed, weakening the city-state, the pólis.
Aeschylus, Weaving, and Birth
The Areopagus, with Athena presiding and casting the deciding vote, absolves Orestes of the matricide on the basis of a father's being the more essential parent. Athena places justice in the hands of the court, and puts an end to the curse of the House of Atreus by persuading the powerful chthonic monsters to become benevolent Eumenides. This change from revenge to justice marks the beginning of civilization.

Modern readers may complain that in the Oresteia there is too much chorus, not enough action, and an unacceptable relegation of women to the status of second class citizens. Topical, political allusions could pose another problem for modern readers. Still, the Oresteia should be part of every (western) education. With Ted Hughes' vivid, flowing translation this should be easy.
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