How could I ever forget the first time I became familiar with the story of the House of Atreus? I was in high school and a teacher offered tickets for a trip to Broadway to see Sophocles’ Electra. Not to brag (much), but I ended up being the only one who went. To this day, I remember almost every detail of that production. However, what I remember even better are the thoughts that flooded through my mind on the way home and over the next several days. The worst feeling was summed up by the question I kept asking myself: “So it’s always been like this?” Yes, many human beings have come a long way since Ancient Greece. Many have not. And even those that have frequently end up falling back, pushed by their ignorance and pettiness into the savage cycles of cruelty and vengeance they smugly assume are safely locked in the past or confined to less “advanced” places.
As great as Sophocles’ play is, Aeschylus’ sequence of plays is even more comprehensive in its treatment of the ultimate dysfunctional family and the issues brought up by its tragedies. One of the most remarkable things about reading it is seeing how it functions on both the political and the familial level. Many authors, quite understandably, have trouble linking these two spheres of human experience. However, Aeschylus doesn’t just link them. He puts them together. We see how the torments of private life and the agonies inflicted on people in the name of ideology often spring from the same dark sources. Indifference to suffering, be it violent or verbal, public or confined to the home, is frequently the result of the refusal to let go of the past and at least try to forgive.
Aside from these thought-provoking aspects, The Oresteia is a masterpiece of theatricality. The centuries have done nothing but magnify the power of Aeschylus’ dramatic skill. In the first play, Agamemnon, the pounding, almost unbearable suspense and tension put many modern thrillers to shame. The Libation Bearers, the second play, tells the most famous part of the story, that of Orestes’ return and confrontation with his mother Clytaemnestra. It would take far too much space to list everything that makes The Libation Bearers so perfect but I will mention the finale. It is of such bone-chilling horror that I get goosebumps even thinking about it! Tragically, the fourth part, a comic epilogue called Proteus, has been lost, probably forever.
Anyone who knows The Oresteia will notice that I have not mentioned the third part, The Eumenides. Today, when there is a wonderful book or movie, I’m often both hopeful and skeptical when a sequel is announced. Sequels can be pretty awful but, when done right, they can be extremely gratifying. However, when a third part is talked about, I usually get VERY concerned. Parts three (and beyond) take uncommon talent to get anywhere near right. This was as true in Athens before the birth of Christ as it is today. As the only surviving sequence of Greek plays, The Oresteia is also the only surviving attempt to provide a satisfying solution to the problems of the cursed House of Atreus. Aeschylus uses this play to plead for a move away from bloody vengeance and towards lawful compromise. Does it work? Is it convincing? In the fine introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation, Fagles and W. B. Stanford, make big claims for The Eumenides. Fagles knew Aeschylus inside and out as his riveting translation proves. Still, I can’t agree. The Eumenides doesn’t quite come off, for all its immense poetic beauty. Still, Aeschylus’ answer is really the only one there is. Without it, one way or another, we remain in the clutches of the red-eyed skeletons of fury that we all like to think are dead or at least exiled. If Aeschylus’ noble but forced solution is rejected, then it really will always be like this.