Monday, 27 January 2014

Aegisthus - Keystone Cop?

I have just finished reading the last of the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia and although there is a sort of ‘happy ending’ in the air with the newly named Gracious ones (aka the Furies) obediently entering their generously appointed subterranean domains, Orestes acquitted of murder, the crowds at the Areopagus cheering and Athena triumphant; all this merriment, I cannot help feeling that there are a couple of odd things about the whole trilogy and more specifically the solidity of the plot framework upon which it rests.

Firstly, Aegisthus, himself the bastard fruit of a violent incestuous rape. To say that this chap has ‘form’ in the ignoble profession of rape, murder and adultery is an understatement to be sure. But more than that his presence (or absence) in the Oresteia seem s more crucial than is at first apparent. In the Eumenides during the trial scenes where the arguments for and against Orestes are being aired, we hear Orestes during his examination freely admitting to the murder of his mother but qualifying it by explaining that he was obeying the will or the oracle of the gods (Zeus), moreover Athena as his advocate declares to the jury that it is ‘not wrong’ to avenge a family blood crime and that such action is sanctioned by the gods. The fact that depending on which God sanctions it, it may either be a noble duty or terrible crime seems immaterial to the poor human pawns caught within the snares of its demands.

But hang on a minute...didn’t Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon for killing Iphigenia...his daughter, itself a horrendous and egregious case of infanticide – a blood crime requiring vengeance by the unspoken rules of honour – and a crime which must have burned in Clytemnestra’s breast and turned her against her husband? Or did it? Perhaps she considered like Agamemnon that since the victim was female it was a lesser crime than the killing of a man. This implication is further borne out in later statements made by Athena during the trial scenes to the effect that...the killing of a noble man (specifically Agamemnon) was a much more serious issue than a mere girl/woman? We must remember that Athena was herself ‘born of no woman’ but sprang out from the head of Zeus himself and is thus uniquely placed to make such pronouncements. Or is the ritual slaying of a daughter not a crime because Poseidon willed Iphigenia’s sacrifice for the sea to be calmed? Oh, she was an adulterer...oh well that’s alright then…the thinking seems to run...and what pushes Clytemnestra out of the ‘just’ category of blood vengeance is the fact that she and her lover plotted to kill Agamemnon...not for her revenge but at Aegisthus’ instigation who wanted the throne. He set fire to her murderous passions and once in full flame could not be put out save by the wisdom of the shining goddess.

The plays are awash with undercurrents of the squameous passions and furies of women gone bad/mad/vengeful… to be feared and avoided and ultimately to be forcefully controlled – or even buried underground.  Misogyny perhaps or more like gynophobia? Clytemnestra seems to be an even more powerful foe in death than she was in life when wielding the axe against the male branches of the house of Atreus. Witness the compelling scenes of Orestes’ flight to sanctuary hounded by the blood curdling Erinyes. We feel at the height of the drama that he might not make it – that the unrelenting furies will get their man.

 With the evil influence of Aegisthus removed from plot line, we would merely have a series of murders which are all ‘rational or at least justifiable acts of blood revenge’.  Without him, the trilogy would have probably run along the same lines to a similar denouement, i.e. that vigilante style revenge tit-for-tat honour killings would follow on one from the other ad infinitum until they could be resolved in a democratic way by lawful public jury trial. But perhaps then, Aeschylus could not have been able to load Clytemnestra with so much dramatic charge and make her the archetype of unjustified murder for lust or gain; sacrilegious reasons rather than acts of piety or fear of the Gods.

 Athena is laying both of these latter sanctioned motives to rest in the form of democratic trial by jury in plain sight, amongst the people, where men not Gods (albeit under her stern advocacy and guidance-more of that later) decide where justice and right shall be found and society move from chaos to law and order, its most violent crimes judged in the proper fashion. Even today we view the settling of blood feuds or vendettas to echo a more primal brutal, even lawless past. It is this past that Athenian democracy is setting out to tame to control and focus outwards like a cone of bad energy pointed firmly at future enemies rather than dangerously at its own citizens. Still, Athena warns that it could break out at any time to attack those who would be the enemies of this fledgling democracy to try to bring the times of the tyrants back for one last roll of the dice.

 So Aegisthus is crucial to the trilogy, like a tiny keystone in the centre of an archway holding the whole thing up, without him there would be no evil passions, unleashed in the form of Furies and later tamed as Eumenides, pacified, cajoled, threatened and working for us underground but still potentially dangerous to humankind..Like subterranean weapons of mass destruction. Without him there is no blue touch paper to all of this chaotic and unsanctioned bloodletting. – this unauthorized female chthonic violence and lust for blood.

All of which brings me to my second ‘odd thing’. Athena is divine advocate of reason, the trial by jury and when the verdict comes out in Orestes favour and the Furies are understandably livid with...well...fury, the goddess goes from mollification, reasoning, almost bribing and finally to a flash of divine anger and a thinly veiled death threat to get them to accept an ‘offer they can’t refuse’.

So much then for the democratic process of law and the art of persuasion by word not violence of the better more just course of action.  In this sudden outburst the key message of the trilogy is briefly overturned …we have come from the chaos of endless blood feud to the law and order of the court and the jury…only for the chief advocate to threaten to ‘do you in’ if you don’t just shut up and take what you are being offered. 

With our over-obsession with the blood and gore of these plays (almost all modern renditions seem to ‘go to 11 on the volume control’ with the sex, gore and slashing aspects more than an original performance might have I suspect) we risk overlooking these hairline structural faultlines which may in turn afford us clues to some of the deeper and often contradictory currents at work in the masterful and innovative play triptych of the Oresteia.



Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Bradfield College - The Amphitheatre

I think I mentioned this when we last met and floated the vague possibility of attending a performance there. I discover that the amphitheatre, originally built on a disused chalk pit under the directions of a former headmaster of the college, a Doctor Grey, in 1890, has been undergoing reconstruction and has just completed its final phase so it should be ready for a performance this summer 2014. I have sent an email to the headmaster to find out further details of the forthcoming performance.
You can read more about the reconstruction project and the amphitheatre here.

The last time I was there was 1983 when I went with my Greek master and a colleague to see a performance of Antigone. I remember the experience as totally engrossing so if we can pull this off as a Legendum  daytrip for the summer – I think it could well be a highlight of the year! The college is in Berkshire just off the M4 near Reading and about 2 hours by car, so although not close, it is a feasible day trip distance. I will keep you posted with any developments as to more details and once they are known we can make some logistical plans to get us all there and back.
The date of the performance is around the middle of June this year, but I will give you more accurate info the minute I get it.


Aeschylus - Father of Greek Tragedy or Primus Inter Parents?

I trust you are all well in this gelid month of Poseidon.

Aeschylus (c.525 BCE – 456 BCE) is known to most us as ‘The Father of Tragedy’ for being the first Greek playwright whose individual works survive intact (only seven of his estimated output of seventy to ninety plays have survived) and also for adding many innovations to the tragedy format such as a second actor and possibly scene decoration (skenographia), some of which went as far as full chariot with real horses entrance scenes! Not only that but amped up costumes for the actors and platform boots to make the players literally larger than life. They must have caused quite a sensation.

But were there others before him to whom we should give the title?

Theatre was still in its infancy when Aeschylus began writing plays and there is evidence of earlier innovators, such as Thespis, who added an actor to stand  apart from the chorus creating the initial -albeit limited- dramatic dynamic.  There are problems even with identifying the origins of Greek Tragedy – it is still not completely accepted that they are a development from the dithyramb (a sort of early ritual dance with singing and flute accompaniment in honour of the god at festivals) as Aristotle states.

The school of thought that has Aeschylus as the puller-together of all the pre-existent disparate elements into the new synthesis can be traced from Wilamowitz’s 1889 Introduction to Greek Tragedy through to Gilbert Murray’s book on Aeschylus in 1940. Aeschylus seemed to have gone one further and added a second actor and in the process created the dramatic triangle (chorus, actor 1 and actor 2), an essential building block for realistic character interplay with the chorus taking a more backseat supporting role. This must have seemed a radical departure from the days where the dithyrambic performances were simply a chorus or two choruses with their ‘call and response’ strophe and antistrophe recitation to flutes and measured dancing.

It hasn’t been seriously challenged since then although I am sure it has been chipped at around the edges and we find that among recent scholars the doubts have resurfaced. However with the lack of epigraphical evidence we remain in the dark on these matters with speculation as our only recourse.

Thespis is the playwright credited with starting the ball rolling with the inauguration of the tragic performances at the Dionysia (the large festivals in honour of the God Dionysos held at Athens) in 534 BCE. Sadly we have nothing other than the titles (and even these titles may themselves be spurious inventions of another writer Heraclides) of his plays from the Suda, a 10th Century Byzantine literary encyclopedia of the ancient world so it’s practically impossible to tell how much of an innovator he might have been and thus the real father of Tragedy.

There are other contenders for the title – although they seem to be even more shadowy figures than Thespis, victims of the ravages of time and the loss of their plays with only the most fleeting of references in other works. Choerilus (dates unknown but around the same time as Aeschylus?) is one and is credited in a life of Sophocles as being his one time opponent in the Dionysia competitions and a contemporary of Aeschylus. However, only two fragments of his works survive and those are obscure epithets rephrased in Aeschylus’s plays.

We also have Pratinas who was said to have competed against Choerilus and Aeschylus between the years 499 BCE and 496 BCE. Pratinus’ son Aristesias, who carried out the compiling and presentation of his father’s work after his death was well known for his satyr plays (the fourth element in the traditional tetrology format of plays and a hangover from the Dionysiac elements of the original frenzied if somewhat indecorous celebratory rites of the gods worship at the festivals) rivaling those of Aeschylus himself.

As it happens, the Oresteia is the only complete trilogy we have of an ancient Greek dramatist that is (almost)fully extant and that too had a satyr play ( the Proteus which is sadly lost apart from a couple of fragments) as was customary to complete the performance. The interesting point here is that Pratinas is listed in the Suda as being the first to write such plays, in turn derived from the original ritualized dithyrambs and if it is correct that tragedy grew out of the dithyrambic elements, this puts him in potential pole position for the title of Father of Tragedy. However we must be cautious with the Suda since a lot of its entries are often difficult to cross-reference in order to verify or are just basically incorrect.

As if two rival contenders weren’t enough we also have Phrynicus who was Aeschylus’ elder being born sometime around 530 BCE and had considerable career overlap (around 20 years) with the latter playwright. Aristophanes the comedic playwright mentions Phrynicus as his main rival in his play Frogs (908 f;1296 f) so who is not to say that  we could have a case of two writers at the top of their game, watching each other’s work, reacting to it, improving on it and trying to out- innovate each other? Phrynicus is also attributed as the first playwright to use real events from recent history and give them the dignified mantle of tragedy. He was also the first to introduce a female character into drama.

The historical event which Phrynicus decided to write about was the sack of the city of Miletus in 494 BCE as a tragic nadir to the events of the ill fated Ionian revolt against the Persians. Herodotus tells us (Histories Book VI.29) that Phrynicus was fined a 1000 Drachmas for ‘having reminded the citizens of their own misfortunes’, so horrific and realistic was the drama, leaving no bloodthirsty details out one can assume. Could Aeschylus have been inspired by this to write the Persians? I say this for two reasons; one that perhaps Aeschylus was in the audience and, like any professional passionate about perfecting his craft had one eye on the play and the other on the faces of the audience. What he saw must have electrified him.

The other reason is that he would have realized that Phrynicus had made a great discovery and a great mistake at the same time, in that real recent events have the ability to transform drama from mere entertainment into something altogether more powerful and significant, but more importantly to locate the tragedy too close to home was overkill or even politically dangerous – an artistic mistake which diminished the tragic impact and subtlety of emotion and psychological effect.

Wouldn’t it rather be more subtle to maintain the high tragedy and deep pathos of such recent events…but locate them in the breasts and hearthstones of the enemy? Surely this is where the genius of Aeschylus lies; in the perfect execution of this blinding insight in the shape of his masterpiece The Persians 472 BCE. Through his play the message resounds all the stronger ‘This is what happened to the Persians but it could so easily have been us’.

Tragically the play was to be more prophetic than either Aeschylus or the Athenians could have known…with the hubris and attendant retribution suffered by Athens as it went through the long drawn out years of mutually assured destruction of The Peloponnesian Wars.

We are in pure speculation territory here I hasten to add…in fact at its wildest shores! We are totally unclear as to who might have been borrowing from who or who was originally the traditionalist and who the innovator and for how much of their respective careers this would have been the case for either artist since surely, the creative mind and sensibility, the times and fashions themselves, would surely have been ever changing for both men. Is it the fact that because we have more work surviving on one writer of a period that we decide to crown him or her as the epitome of that period let alone its leading light?

It does worry me though that in future millennia..archeologists or literary archivists of the far future may be describing (insert mediocre but highly popular mass selling author here!) as The ‘Father of Ancient British Literature’...merely based on his/her surviving works as opposed to the 3 surviving 5-line fragments of an obscure minor writer called James Joyce.

What I am saying is that there are a lot of gaps in early Greek tragedy and we should bear that mind. I suppose though that the title ‘one of the fathers of Greek Tragedy’ sounds a bit too ‘open relationship’ plus the fact that there is only room at the top for one with these sorts of monikers. One thing is for sure, Aeschylus was certainly worthy of such a title but we cannot rule out the possibility of such a conclusion for Phrynicus too.

 Don't forget this Sunday evening on BBC Radio 3...the second part of the Oresteia..The Libation Bearers!


Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Oresteia on Radio 3

I've just noticed that starting tonight Radio 3 are broadcasting the Oresteia. It seems to be over three weeks with Agamemnon tonight. Its in a new version by Simon Scardfield.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Croesus - The Novel

Just came across this on the London Review of Books Bookshop website. A new novel about Croesus. I'm popping up there in a week or so with some Birthday money in my pocket so maybe....