Thursday, March 1, 2012

Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Source of book: I own this.

Aeschylus (pronounced ES-kuhl-uhs) was the earliest of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose works have survived, living from about 525 BC.  The other two are Sophocles and Euripides, who live about a generation later. Aeschylus is considered the father of the tragedy as a dramatic form. Aristotle noted that he expanded the number of characters so that they could interact with each other, rather than just the chorus.

One of the notable features of Greek drama is the use of the chorus – a group of persons loosely connected with the action who comment on everything that occurs. In fact, the chorus in Agamemnon has more lines than the other characters combined. This is a bit odd at first, as it seems that there is as much commentary on the gods and philosophy as there is action. As with so many older forms of literature, the key is to embrace the form, slow down a little, and re-read any sections that are confusing. I also highly recommend the use of Bulfinch’s Mythology, or at least the internet for the background story.

Aeschylus assumes that his audience is familiar with the events the same way a modern American playwright could assume familiarity with, say, Lincoln’s assassination. The details may not be known, but the basics of the story are clear to literate people. Thus, the play assumes basic knowledge of the story.

The Trojan War is the big event in Greek history (at least prior to the time of Homer), and the war and its aftermath become the source of literary inspiration for the next millennium. For those who are not familiar with it, here is a quick summary, as I explained it to my kids. The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite quarreled over who was fairest. They selected Paris, a prince of Troy, to judge between them. Hera offered Paris political power; Athena, wisdom and skill in battle. Aphrodite offered Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Paris, as many men have done, thought with his less intelligent part, and picked Aphrodite. Trouble, of course, ensued.

Helen happened to be married to the Greek king, Menelaus. Paris seduced and kidnapped Helen and took her back to Troy. Menelaus was less than amused, and raised an army. His brother, Agamemnon joined him, along with Achilles and Odysseus and a host of other valiant and famous Greeks.

After a ten year war, the Greeks sacked Troy, killed a bunch of famous Trojans, and returned in triumph. (Except Odysseus, of course, who had another decade of adventures; and Achilles, who forgot to protect his heel.)

Agamemnon is the first in a trilogy that tells of what happened to Agamemnon and his descendents in the aftermath of the war.

There are multiple versions of many of the Greek myths, and some details differ. I will use the version Aeschylus follows. Agamemnon is married to Helen’s sister, Clytemnestra. During Agamemnon’s absence at the wars, she takes a lover, and broods in fury over the death of her daughter Iphigenia. At the outset of the Trojan War, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter in order to placate the Goddess Artemis. (See my note on Iphigenia.)

The play opens with a night watchman seeing the signal lights going from city to city. (I would note that J.R.R. Tolkien borrows this scene for the lighting of the fires of Gondor to summon Rohan. Peter Jackson did an amazing job of making this scene come to life, but give credit to Aeschylus 2500 years ago for a memorable scene.)

Soon, the chorus, a group of the elders of the city of Argos, begins to comment on the war, recounting its story. They give a lament of their own old age.

“We were too old to take our share
With those who joined the army then.
We lean on sticks – in strength not men
But children; so they left us here.
In weakness youth and age are one:
The sap sleeps in the unripe bone
As in the withered. The green stalk
Grows without thorns: so in the grey
And brittle years, old men must walk
Three-footed, weak as babes, and stray
Like dreams lost in the light of day.”

They allude to the sacrifice of Iphigenia and also to the evil portents that have accompanied the return of the Greek army. As a refrain to each section, they repeat, “Cry Sorrow, sorrow - yet let good prevail!”

The chorus considers the either war to be a useless waste: the flower of Greece thrown away to settle a private quarrel belonging to Menelaus and his faithless Helen. I would love to quote the speech in full, but it goes on for pages and pages. Here is a small sample:

“Grief yet more grievous grows,
With all our manhood gathered
So far from the earth of Hellas;
As in each home unfathered,
Each widowed bed, the whetted
Sword of despair assails
Hearts where all hope has withered
And angry hate prevails.
They sent forth men to battle,
But no such men return;
And home to claim their welcome
Come ashes in an urn.”

Fully one third of the play is gone before a major character (other than the chorus) speaks. Clytemnestra prepares to welcome her husband home, but her words are strange.

In discussing the ill omens and the news that Menelaus became separated from the rest of the fleet, the chorus begins to philosophize.

“When Earth and Time were young,
A simple ancient saw
Phrased on the common tongue
Declared that man’s good fortune, once mature,
Does not die childless, but begets it heir;
That from life’s goodness grows, by Nature’s law,
Calamity past cure
And ultimate despair.”

The chorus then rejects this philosophy, declaring instead that suffering is the result of sin, not prosperity, and that the evil that has devastated the house of Agamemnon (and his ancestors, which are a different story) is the result of all the evil done in the past.

Finally, Agamemnon arrives, along with his plunder and his captives. Among them is Cassandra, a princess of Troy. She is also a prophet, and she prophesies Agamemnon’s death and that of her own.

In one of the best scenes in the play, Agamemnon and his wife engage in an extended repartee in which both are witty, but Clytemnestra is devastatingly two-faced. Two persons who have been reduced to mortal enemies by the passage of time and the intervening events.

As the chorus wrings its hands over the terrifying prophesies of Cassandra and the unsatisfying meeting of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, a murder takes place off stage. The curtain is pulled to reveal Clytemnestra covered in blood, with Agamemnon and Cassandra both dead in the background. Clytemnestra is decidedly not repentant, as the chorus notes.

CHORUS: The brute effrontery of your speech amazes us.
To boast so shamelessly over your husband’s corpse!

CLYTEMNESTRA: You speak as to some thoughtless woman:
You are wrong.
My pulse beats firm. I tell you what you already know:
Approve or censure, as you will; all’s one to me.
This is my husband, Agamemnon, now stone dead;
His death the work of my right hand, whose craftsmanship
Justice acknowledges. There lies the simple truth.

When the chorus speaks its outrage, she reminds them of the sacrifice of the innocent Iphigenia, and claims that she is justified. Of course, this too is disingenuous, as Clytemnestra has an ulterior motive – to rule alongside her lover, Aegisthus. (He is also related to the thoroughly sordid back story of Agamemnon’s father (or possibly grandfather), which would require an entire additional discussion.)

The play comes to an end with the hint that the bloodbath will not end here. Agamemnon must be, and will be, avenged later.

Some thoughts on the play. Greek tragedy is bloody, like much of the literature from the era. I would definitely include the Bible in that statement, as it contains a fair share of sordid, bloody stories about vile men (and women). This play does invite thought. What is the true cause of misfortune? How does one stop the sequence of murder and retaliation? (The last play in the trilogy argues that divine intervention is necessary.) Why is Agamemnon punished for the sins of his father (or grandfather)? A play like this particularly resonates with me when I think of situations I have faced where there is no good answer. Sometimes, all results are bad. Agamemnon made a bad choice in sacrificing Iphigenia, but Zeus and Artemis had already been offended by Agamemnon’s father, and were therefore determined to punish him by giving him an impossible choice. At least I have never come home to a wife angry enough to murder me in my own bath.

Another good reason to read this play is the obvious influence it (and the other Greek tragedies) had on later tragedians, including Shakespeare. While the form has been expanded, the central elements remain: a hero with a fatal flaw, which combines with fate to ruin him. Through the medium of tragedy, we are invited to look within ourselves and see our own fatal flaws, and consider whether we ourselves will avoid a tragic outcome.

 After the murder (1882) artist John Collier (1850-1934) Guildhall Art Gallery (London)

Note on the translation: I have the standard Philip Vellacott version, which is readily available. I also found it poetic and readable. The notes which accompanied the text in my (very inexpensive) used paperback were helpful; although I did some additional background research to be sure I had the elements of the story clear in my brain while reading. This is the only version I have read, so I do not have a comparison.

Note on Iphigenia: Although Aeschylus indicates that Iphigenia was in fact sacrificed; there are other versions of the story in which she escapes at the last minute, replaced by a divinely provided deer. This version is the one used by Euripides in his play, Iphigenia at Aulis. She then becomes a priestess in the sequel. These two plays were later adapted into operas by Gluck. Finally, the whole thing was parodied by P.D.Q. Bach in Iphigenia in Brooklyn, which is pretty musically funny. Thus, Iphigenia, whether wholly a figment of legend, or a historical person, shows her influence over a period of 3000 years.

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