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An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra…

An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by… (2009)

by Anne Carson

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First off, be aware this is not the Oresteia but an Oresteia. Aeschylus' Oresteia, about the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytaemnestra, and her death in turn at the hands of her son Orestes, is the only tragic trilogy to reach us complete from antiquity, and is generally honored as the foundational text of Western drama. Anne Carson, at the behest of Brian Kulick, Artistic Director of the Classic Stage Company in NYC, produced not a translation of Aeschylus' tragedy but an alternative (she calls it "non-foundational") trilogy made up of plays by each of the three great Greek tragedians, reflecting their divergent sensibilities and historical situations. It's an intriguing idea, and Carson brings it off. A few pages in, I was utterly spellbound, and when I turned the final page a few hours later, it was with the conviction that I had never read an English rendering of Greek tragedy as powerful as this one.

A few words on the individual plays (for the names below, I use the conventional spellings I grew up with; Carson's spellings are slightly different):

Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Carson's rendering of Aeschylus's Agamemnon filled me with awe. I'm so accustomed to earnest stolidity in English Aeschylus that Carson's translation stunned me with its fire, its music, its rich shadings of mood, conflict, characterization. Especially characterization. The characters do not all sound alike, speechifying in stilted, unidiomatic English (I'm looking at you, Richmond Lattimore!). Their language is alive and highly individuated. This is most obvious in the case of Cassandra, for whom Carson concocts a fantastical English that powerfully conveys her magnificent otherness, but Carson is equally successful at giving voice to the joy of the messenger, the tongue-tied diffidence of the chorus, the weariness of the watchman, the bitter majesty of Clytaemnestra. But Aeschylus's characters are not Euripidean; they have a sublime remoteness, which Carson conveys not through stilted Lattimorese but through exotic, vivid, mellifluous coinages: "rawflesheating," "allenveloping," "dreamvisible," "purplepaved," "godnonsensical," "thricegorged," etc. I'd have to make up words of my own to do justice to how wonderful this Agamemnon is; Carson convinced me that this is not only one of the greatest plays ever written but one of the most thrilling.

Sophocles' Electra

The advantages of Carson's "non-foundational" Oresteia is apparent as you turn to the next play in the trilogy: the shock of the contrast between the Homeric Agamemnon and the emotionally claustrophobic Electra is bracing. Unlike the dutiful mourner who plays second fiddle to Orestes in Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Sophocles's Electra dominates the stage as she hurls insults at her risk-averse sister Chrysothomis (shades of the pragmatic Ismene in Antigone) and frantically obsesses over her mother's sex life. Carson's translation (and commentary) made me conscious of disturbing details I'd missed before--just how pointlessly sadistic Orestes' treatment of Electra is; the way Electra's words during her mother's murder mirror words spoken during the Agamemnon; etc.--that darken the play for me. All three Athenian tragedians left us an Electra play, and Sophocles's play, with its apparently tidy and "sunny" ending (no furies, etc.) had previously struck me as the weakest of them; in Carson's hands, however, it's an undeniably great play.

Euripides' Orestes

The trilogy concludes with Euripides' Orestes, which turns out to be a zany, screwball tragedy climaxing with a deus ex machina so colossally absurd that you know Euripides is screwing with you. Here's the real payoff of Carson's "non-foundational" conception. Aeschylus' Oresteia ends comparatively "happily" with the founding of Athenian democracy, the rule of law supplanting retributive violence. By swapping in Orestes, Carson concludes her Oresteia not with a glorious Athenian origin story but with apocalyptic moral confusion and absurdity. Carson has Euripides' characters speak a slangy, even pulpy English: Princess Hamlet has turned gun moll, barking out terms like "payback," "a.k.a." and "no kidding." I disliked the heavy bombardment of contemporary slang in Grief Lessons but in this "non-foundational" context, I appreciated the way the change in linguistic register marked the slide from Aeschylean sublimity into the staccato world of corrosive Euripidean irony.

Final Thoughts

I loved Carson's An Oresteia--loved it so much, in fact, that I am going to revisit Grief Lessons, about which my feelings were more mixed. I can only hope that somebody somewhere persuades Carson to tackle a few of the twenty-odd Greek tragedies she has not yet translated; I'd love to read Carson's take on The Bacchae. ( )
  middlemarchhare | Nov 25, 2015 |
Ah, it kills me to do this: An Oresteia is not that great.

What it wants to be is great. It wants to weave the three great Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) into a collaboration about the House of Atreus that will allow its readers to get a feel for all three, as well as a coherent story. And by a terrific poet and translator, to boot! Sweet!

And it gets off to a promising start, too, with a terrific rendition of Agamemnon. I've read two other translations - Fagles and Hughes - and this one stands up just fine with them. Closer to Fagles: more accessible than Hughes, with the occasional terrific punch of a line that people never seem to acknowledge when they talk about Fagles.

But it goes downhill from there. Elektra just isn't Sophocles' best; it's a retelling of Aeschylus's Libation Bearers, and it's not as good. Not the fault of the translation, just the way it is.

And by the time we get to Euripides' Orestes...I kinda felt like Carson was losing interest. Euripides is a brilliant playwright - sly, nasty, modern, complicated and brash - but Carson picks up on his impish habit of upending themes and tropes and takes it as simple mischief, instead of the deadly serious commentary Euripides intended it to be. She includes modernizations that are badly out of place. (I marked one or two, but my book's not with me - will try to get them in later.)

So in the end I think Carson's Oresteia more or less fails. It's fine to read, but its goals are higher than its reach. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
I intended to write about each of these plays individually, but the power of the famous stories and the language as rendered by Anne Carson's stunning translation job, meant that I devoured the whole volume in three sittings and never got the chance to sit down at my computer before the book was over. I've gushed about Carson's own work and her beautiful Sappho translation, and this alternate Oresteia lives up to all my high expectations of her offerings.

But first, a little background: the original Oresteia is a tri-play cycle—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—by ancient Greek playwright Aiskhylos (often transliterated Aeschylus), which chronicles the murderous fall of the house of Atreus after the Trojan War. Carson's alternate play cycle tells the same basic story and begins with the same play, Aiskhylos's Agamemnon (c. 458 BCE), but then diverges, offering a progression through time: the second installment of the cycle is Sophokles's Electra (c. 401-9 BCE), and the third is Euripides's Orestes (c. 408 BCE). Thus the reader can sense the shifting attitudes toward the same myths over the course of fifty-odd to a hundred years, as Athenian society became less optimistic, darker, more corrupt. Carson writes that the idea for the alternative cycle was originally brought to her by Brian Kulick, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in New York City, who wrote:

In Aiskhylos' hands the story of the house of Atreus is designed to end in a valedictory celebration of Athenian democracy and its newborn sense of justice; when Sophokles takes over the tale it becomes more complex and contradictory; with Euripides the design is completely turned on its head. We follow a trajectory from myth to mockery. What happened to effect this? History happened. Aiskhylos composed his Oresteia shortly after Athens' victory at the battle of Marathon, which marked the height of Athenian military and cultural supremacy; Euripides finished his Orestes almost a hundred years later as Athens headed for ruin, due to her protracted involvement in the Peloponnesian War...The house of Atreus, for these tragedians, was a way of talking about the fate of Athens.

Kulick makes a fascinating case, but I was concerned that, as a relative novice in ancient Greek literature, I wouldn't be able to pick up on the progression he outlines here. I needn't have worried. The stylistic differences among the three plays are so pronounced that, despite Agamemnon's messy end and Orestes's ostensible resolution, the reader is left feeling much surer of herself and the universe after finishing Aiskhylos's inferno of a play, than after making one's way through Euripides's altogether more ironic, darker offering.

For those not familiar with the famous story being told, it goes thusly: after Paris abducts Helen, her husband Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon, king of Argos, gather their forces to sail to Troy and get her back, beginning the Trojan War. But the goddess Artemis refuses to send the desired wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own child, continuing a long history of child murder in his family. Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, earning the hatred of his wife (her mother) Klytaimestra, and the ships set sail. Fast forward ten years, and Klytaimestra receives word that Troy has fallen; she and her lover Aigisthos, both intent on revenge for their own reasons, murder the returned Agamemnon and his prophetess sex-slave Kassandra, planning to rule Argos themselves in Agamemnon's stead. These are the events of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

As I mentioned, despite the bloody murder that makes up the body of this play, Aiskylos's language as rendered into English by Carson is such a bonfire blast of virtuosity that I finished it feeling almost giddy. The sense of gut-clenching foreboding and inevitability is pitch-perfect. The malignant patrimony lurking in the House of Atreus is a force of nature, and all the stories anyone tries to tell—be they about the war, or an allegorical tale, or a supposedly happy homecoming—are infected by it. The Greek invaders at Troy "beached in blood"; the chorus claims of one man's pet lion "That thing was a priest of ruin Bred in the / house. Sent by god." When the Chorus tells the story of Paris and Helen, the image of a house cursed by a phantom resonates between Klytaimestra and Agamemnon:

Alas for the house! Alas for the house and the

men of the house!

Alas for the marriage bed and the way she loved

her husband once!

There is silence there: he sits alone,

dishonored, baffled, mute.

In his longing for what is gone across the


a phantom seems to rule his house.

The idea of infection, of seepage from one evil to another, is everywhere in Agamemnon. Klytaimestra, after she convinces Agamemnon to enter the house on a red carpet, against his wishes, gives this masterful speech suffused with rage and grief for the "roots and leaves" of her own family that will never return, a vision of a happy homecoming that is irrevocably perverted by Iphigenia's murder and the consequent murder Klytaimestra herself is planning; a vision of perfection that only infuriates by its distance from the truth.

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?

It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye

        we use to color our garments,

costly as silver.

This house has an abundance. Thanks

        be to gods, no poverty here.

Oh I would have vowed the trampling of

        many cloths

if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this

        man's life.

For when the root is alive the leaves come


and shade the house against white dogstar


Your homecoming is warmth in winter.

Our when Zeus makes wine from bitter


and coolness fills the house

as the master walks his halls,

righteous, perfect.

Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,

accomplish my prayers.

Concern yourself here.

Perfect this.

There are so many amazing and exhilarating passages in Agamemnon that I could continue quoting them all day, but in brief: the predominant feelings are of white-hot fury and dread, and of conflicting, equally strong concepts of justice. Everyone in Agamemnon believes with absolute certainty that he or she knows what justice is, and the tragedy comes out of the clashes between these mutually exclusive justice concepts.

In Sophokles and especially Euripides, on the other hand, people struggle to decide what is just, or sometimes knowingly act in opposition to what is just. In a few cases, they even seem to stop caring about justice, or about the tragedy unfolding all around them. (In the second two plays of the cycle, Agamemnon and Klytaimestra's son Orestes returns from exile, and he and his sister Elektra murder their mother and her lover. The citizens of Argos then must decide what to do with the two siblings.) Elektra, for example, finds the title character arrested, unable to either marry out of her mother's household or avenge her father on her own, crippled by her never-ending grief, which she admits is excessive by any social definition. "There is no pity / but mine, / oh Father, / for the pity of your butchering rawblood death," she cries, and "Lament is a pattern cut and fitted around / my mind" Unlike her mother before her, she witnesses herself becoming the next tool of the curse of the house of Atreus, but cannot avert the coming disaster:

By dread things I am compelled. I know


I see the trap closing.

I know what I am.

But while life is in me

I will not stop this violence.

"Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself," Elektra says. At the end of Agamemnon Klytaimestra believes she has ended the cycle of violence; she attempts to call a truce with the lineage's curse. But Elektra has no such illusions; part of her grief trap is that she recognizes she has been shaped to evil by the evil around her. The fact that Klytaimestra may deserve to die for the deeds she has committed, doesn't absolve Elektra and Orestes from their own guilt; there seems no escape from the cycle. But because the house's cycle of violence has become part of Elektra herself, to break it would be to go against her own selfhood; "I need one food," she says: "I must not violate Elektra." And to Klytaimestra:

Shame I do feel.

And I know there is something all wrong

        about me—

believe me. Sometimes I shock myself.

But there is a reason: you.

You never let up

this one same pressure of hatred on my life:

I am the shape you made me.

Elektra's tragedy is that of someone who has been made into the wrong shape, but who cannot now act against her nature.

From Aiskhylos's cleansing fire and Sophokles's self-regenerating corruption, Euripedes's vision seems almost farcical in its irony. Instead of an Elektra wracked by grief, her opening monologue in Orestes seems almost bored:

It's a known fact,

when the gods asked him to dinner he shot

        off his mouth.

So Tantalos begot Pelops, Pelops begot


you know all this don't you? the strife, the


We've heard it all before, she seems to say, and here we go again. Whereas Sophokles's Elektra is often sickened or horrified by the ways in which her evil situation has shaped her to itself, Euripides's Elektra is either too broken or too cynical to continue surprised at her family's bloodbath. Elektra and Orestes's tragedy in this last play seems, not so much that they have been sentenced to death for their mother's murder, but that the world in which they live is devoid of any overarching meaning or justice. Even the deus ex machina that saves them in the end seems ridiculous and almost random, much like the further murders they're attempting when Apollo arrives to sort them out, or the messenger's report on the democratic meeting called by the citizens of Argos to decide the siblings' fate. It's a far cry from the savage yet conflicting visions of justice held by the cast of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

There's far more in these three plays than I can do justice in a single blog entry, but suffice to say I fell utterly in love with the entire cycle, and can't wait to look into Carson's other Euripides translations, published in Grief Lessons. A note on her translation: as you can tell from the many excerpts above, it has a very modern feel, yet (I think) also gives the impression of agelessness. I've heard a few criticisms of places where people feel the language gets too modern, but I found it absolutely galvanizing; I could read Anne Carson's Aiskhylos all month and never wish myself elsewhere. That said, I believe in the usefulness of having multiple translations, especially of works as influential as these plays. If you love the excerpts above, you will love the whole book. If you prefer a different, more Victorian or Modernist feel, you have many translations to choose from. Personally, I only regret that Carson has not yet translated the rest of Aiskhylos's original Oresteia, as I would love to compare and contrast with this alternate version.
  emily_morine | Dec 7, 2010 |
The new translation of these three plays brought modern language into ancient phrases. Granted, the translator wanted to keep the integrity of the plays intact; I thought that she did a fantastic job with the graphic imagery with the murders of Agamemnon, Kassandra, Klytaimestra, her lover Aegisthus, and Helen. It was a fun read that resembled the best horror-slasher films. ( )
  philae_02 | Oct 26, 2009 |
I didn't find these translations particularly engaging. Strange mixture of modern phrasing and untranslated cries of woe (PHEU!). The stories weren't as interesting to me as the Theban Plays, so that might have had something to do with it. ( )
  AndrewL | May 6, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 086547902X, Hardcover)

A Bold, Iconoclastic New Look at One of the Great Works of Greek Tragedy
In this innovative rendition of The Oresteia, the poet, translator, and essayist Anne Carson combines three different visions—Aischylos’ Agamemnon, Sophokles’ Elektra, and Euripides’ Orestes—giving birth to a wholly new experience of the classic Greek triumvirate of vengeance. After the murder of her daughter Iphegenia by her husband Agamemnon, Klytaimestra exacts a mother’s revenge, murdering Agamemnon and his mistress, Kassandra. Displeased with Klytaimestra’s actions, Apollo calls on her son, Orestes, to avenge his father’s death with the help of his sister Elektra. In the end, Orestes, driven mad by the Furies for his bloody betrayal of family, and Elektra are condemned to death by the people of Argos, and must justify their actions—signaling a call to change in society, a shift from the capricious governing of the gods to the rule of manmade law.

Carson’s accomplished rendering combines elements of contemporary vernacular with the traditional structures and rhetoric of Greek tragedy, opening up the plays to a modern audience. In addition to its accessibility, the wit and dazzling morbidity of her prose sheds new light on the saga for scholars. Anne Carson’s Oresteia is a watershed translation, a death-dance of vengeance and passion not to be missed.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:02 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In this innovative rendition of The Oresteia, the poet, translator, and essayist Anne Carson combines three different visions -- Aischylos' Agamemnon, Sophokles' Elektra, and Euripides' Orestes, giving birth to a wholly new experience of the classic Greek triumvirate of vengeance. Carson's accomplished rendering combines elements of contemporary vernacular with the traditional structures and rhetoric of Greek tragedy, opening up the plays to a modern audience. --from publisher description.… (more)

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