An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides

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9780865479166: An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides

In An Oresteia, the classicist Anne Carson combines three different versions of the tragedy of the house of Atreus ― A iskhylos' Agamemnon, Sophokles' Elektra and Euripides' Orestes. After the murder of her daughter Iphigeneia 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 is driven mad by the Furies for his bloody betrayal of family. Condemned to death by the people of Argos, he and Elektra must justify their actions ― or flout society, justice and the gods.

Carson's translation combines contemporary language with the traditional structures and rhetoric of Greek tragedy, opening up this ancient tale of vengeance to a modern audience and revealing the essential wit and morbidity of the original plays.

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About the Author:

Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches Ancient Greek for a living. Her publications include Eros the Bittersweet (1986), Glass, Irony and God (1995), Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), Economy of the Unlost (1999), The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001), If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002), Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005) and Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (2006).

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

An Oresteia
AGAMEMNON by Aiskhylos INTRODUCTION It's like watching a forest fire. Big, violent, changing every minute and the sound not like anything else. Every character in Agamemnon sets fire to language in a different way. Klytaimestra is a master of technologies, starting with the thousand-mile relay of beacons that brings news of the fall of Troy all the way from Asia to her in the first scene. She reenacts the relay in language that is so brilliant and so aggressive, she is like a conqueror naming parts of the world she now owns. She goes on to own everyone in the play--the chorus by argument and threat, Agamemnon by flattery and puns, Aigisthos by sexy cozening--with one exception. Kassandra she cannot conquer. Kassandra's defense, which is perfect, is silence. When Klytaimestra demands to know whether this foreign girl speaks Greek, Kassandra does not answer--for 270 lines (in the original text). Klytaimestra exits. There is no reason why Kassandra should speak Greek. She is a Trojan princess who has never been away from home before. In fact, she will turn out to command all registers of this alien tongue--analytical, metaphoric, historical, prophetic, punning, riddling, plain as glass. But Apollo has cursed Kassandra. Her mind is foreign in a much deeper way. Although she sees everythingpast, present and future, and sees it truly, no one ever believes what she says. Kassandra is a self-consuming truth. Aiskhylos sets her in the middle of his play as a difference you cannot grasp, a glass that does not give back the image placed before it. As a translator, I have spent years trying to grasp Kassandra in words. Long before I had any interest in the rest of Agamemnon, I found myself working and reworking the single scene in which she appears with her language that breaks open. I got some fine sentences out of it and thought to publish them, but this seemed vain. I dreamed of her weirdly mixed with the winters of my childhood and imagined a play where someone like Björk would sing wild translingual songs while sailing down a snowy river of ancient Asia Minor. But other people have tried such things and anyway the play already exists. It is Agamemnon. Eventually I accepted that what is ungraspable about Kassandra has to stay that way. Aiskhylos has distilled into her in extreme form his own method of work, his own way of using his mind, his way of using the theater as a mind. The effect is well (if inadvertently) described by the painter Francis Bacon, who (talking about his own method of painting) says: It seems to come straight out of what we choose to call the unconscious with the foam of the unconscious locked around it ... Francis Bacon makes his paintings, as Kassandra makes her prophecies, by removing a boundary in himself. He wants to access something more raw and real than the images articulated by his conscious mind. Interestingly, he finds reading Aiskhylos especially conducive to this end: Reading translations of Aeschylus ... opens up the valves of sensation for me. Perhaps this is because Aiskhylos knows how to get these valves open too. Not just in the Kassandra scene but everywhere in Agamemnon there is a leakage of the metaphorical into the literal and the literal into the metaphorical. Images echo, overlap and interlock. Words are coined by pressing old words together into new compounds--"dayvisible" (54), "dreamvisible" (308), "manminded" (9), "thricegorged" (1116), "godaccomplished" (1127). Metaphors come, go and reappear as fact; for example, the figurative "dragnet of allenveloping doom" that the Greeks threw over Troy (267) materializes as the very real "dragnet--evil wealth of cloth" in which Klytaimestra snares Agamemnon to kill him (1138-39). Real objects are so packed with meanings both literal and metaphoric that they explode into symbol, like the red carpet or cloth over which Agamemnon walks as he enters his house (608-49).1 Francis Bacon says that his own images "work first upon sensation then slowly leak back into the fact,"2 and he speaks of a need to "return fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way."3 He means a violence deeper than subject matter: When talking about the violence of paint, it's nothing to do with the violence of war. It's to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself ... the violence of suggestions within the image which can only be conveyed through paint ... We nearly always live through screens--a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.4 This violence is intrinsic to Aiskhylos' style. He uses language the way Bacon uses paint, especially in the Kassandra scene where he stages the working of her prophetic mind--the veils, the screens, the violence, the clearing away. She is a microcosm of his method. Francis Bacon thinks of himself as a realist painter, although he admits this requires him "to reinvent realism."5 Aiskhylos is a realist too. They both have an instinct "to trap the living fact alive" in all its messy, sensational, symbolic overabundance. Let's return to the red carpet that Aiskhylos unrolls as if in slow motion in the famous carpet scene (608-49) that carries Agamemnon into his house and his death. This amazing red object can be interpreted as blood, wealth, guilt, vengeance, impiety, female wile, male hybris, sexual seepage, bad taste, inexhaustible anger and an action invented by Klytaimestra to break Agamemnon's will. As a woven thing, it reminds us that women are the ones who weave and that weaving is an analogy for deceptiveness. Klytaimestra will use cloth again when she snares Agamemnon to kill him. As a red or purple-red object, the cloth is bloodlike but also vastly expensive and ruined by trampling. Agamemnon fears that this action will look insolent or impious or both--he feels all eyes upon him. As a cause of dispute between husband and wife, the red cloth unfolds her power to master him in argument and outwit him in battle. For this is a battle, and when he enters the house, he has lost it. Notice he enters in silence while she comes behind. Then she pauses and turns at the doorway to deliver oneof the most stunning speeches of the play ("There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?" 650ff.). It is a truism of ancient stagecraft that the one who controls the doorway controls the tragedy, according to Oliver Taplin.6 In Agamemnon this is unmistakably Klytaimestra. The carpet scene is like a big red arrow Aiskhylos has painted on the play to underscore the fact. Violence in Agamemnon emanates spectacularly from one particular word: justice. Notice how often this word recurs and how many different angles it has. Almost everyone in the play claims to know what justice is and to have it on their side--Zeus, Klytaimestra, Agamemnon, Aigisthos and (according to Kassandra) Apollo. The many meanings of the word justice have shaped the history of the house of Atreus into a gigantic double bind. No one can stop the vicious cycle of vengeance that carries on from crime to crime in its name. The bloodyfaced Furies are its embodiment. I don't think Aiskhylos wants to clarify the concept of justice in any final way, although lots of readers have seen this as the intention of his Oresteia overall. So far as Agamemnon goes, no definition is offered. The play shows that the word makes different sense to different people and how blinding or destructive it can be to believe your "justice" is the true one. This is not a problem with which we are unfamiliar nowadays. As Kassandra says, "I know that smell" (886, 983). DRAMATIS PERSONAE (in order of appearance) WATCHMAN  
CHORUS of old men of Argos  
KLYTAIMESTRA wife of Agamemnon  
MESSENGER  
AGAMEMNON king of Argos  
KASSANDRA Trojan princess, prophet, prisoner of war  
AIGISTHOS paramour of Klytaimestra  
SETTING: The play is set at the palace of Agamemnon, also known as the house of Atreus, in Argos. Agamemnon has been away for more than ten years at the Trojan War. It is the middle of the night. A watchman is lying on the palace roof.  
WATCHMAN : Gods! Free me from this grind! It's one long year I'm lying here watching waiting watching waiting--propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my paws like a dog. I've peered at the congregation of the nightly stars--bright powerful creatures blazing in air, the ones that bring summer, the ones that bring winter, the ones that die out, the ones that rise up--and I watch I watch I watch for this sign of a torch, a beacon light sending from Troy the news that she is captured. Those are the orders I got from a certain manminded woman. But whenever I take to my restless dreamless dewdrenched bed I cannot close my eyes--fear stands over me instead of sleep. And whenever I think to sing or hum a tune to stay awake then my tears fall. This house is in trouble. The good days are gone. How I pray for change! A happy change. A light in darkness.  
[Light appears.]  
Hold on! There you are! Fire in the night! Blazing like day! You make me dance for joy! I must send news to Agamemnon's wife to rise from bed, to shout aloud for this amazing light--if Troy is really taken as the beacons seem to say. I myself will start the dancing. For if they are in luck, I am in luck--we're throwing triple sixes! Oh how I long to see the master of this house and touch his hand! For all the rest, I keep silent. Ox on my tongue. This house if it could talk would tell a tale. But me--I talk to those who know and then I lose my memory.  
CHORUS : Ten years now since Priam's one great adversary-- Menelaos plus Agamemnon: twin royal power sanctioned by Zeus-- sent forth from this land a thousand ships to fight their fight. Loud was the cry--they screamed "War!" as eagles scream when they wheel in air and thrash their wings for grief high above the nests of children lost. All that care lost. But some god hears the cry, some Apollo or Zeus or Pan, and sooner or later sends down vengeance. So it was Zeus--god of host, guest, strangers, hospitality--sent the sons of Atreus against Alexander for the sake of a woman with too many husbands. There were heavy struggles and knees pressed in the dust, Trojan spears smashed and Greek spears smashed. Now things are where they are. And will end where they're destined to end. Not by burning things in secret, not by libations poured in secret, not by tears will you turn away the wrath of offerings that were unholy. But we, old and useless as we are, left behind by the army, bide our time here, propped on childstrength. The marrow leaps not in our breast. Ares is absent. Old age goes its way withered, on three legs,weak as a child or a dream dayvisible, wavering.  
But you, daughter of Tyndareus, Queen Klytaimestra, what's happened, what news, what rumor, what message persuades you to send round orders for sacrifice? All the altars in the city high and low, heavenly and earthly, blaze with offerings. Everywhere torches shoot up to the sky, coaxed by holy unguents and royal oils. Tell what you can. Heal my anxiety for it flashes from darkness to hope and chews me up inside. Power comes into me! I am breathed full by the gods of strong song: how the two Atreid kings, the twin command of Greece, were sent with spears against the land of Troy by this one omen--the king of birds appearing to the king of ships. A black eagle and behind it a white one, whirling in the open air to drop upon a pregnant hare. They ate the hare, they ate her womb, they ate her unborn young. Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.  
Then the prophet of the army saw the haredevouring birds were two, saw the warmongering Atreids were two, and he unfolded the omen: In time this expedition will capture Priam's city, will slaughter all its cattle before its walls. Only let no hatred from the gods darken down upon this army--this bridle forced onto the mouth of Troy. For holy Artemis you know feels pity and anger at the predators of Zeus who fell upon a cringing hare. She hates the feast of the eagles. Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.  
Gracious as she is to the tender cubs of lions, delighting as she does in savage beasts still helpless at the breast, she calls out for this omen to be realized--both its favor and its blame. But I pray Apollo will prevent her raising adverse winds to keep the Greeks from sailing: she wants to instigate another sacrifice, a lawless joyless strifeplanting sacrifice that will turn a wife against a husband. For there lives in this house a certain form of anger, a dread devising everrecurring everremembering anger that longs to exact vengeance for a child. So spoke Kalchas to the kings. Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.  
Zeus! whoever Zeus is--if he likes this name I'll use it--measuring everything that exists I can compare with Zeus nothing except Zeus. May he take this weight from my heart. The god who was great before Zeus is not worth mentioning now. The one who came after that is past and gone. Zeus is the victor! Proclaim it: bull's-eye!  
Zeus put mortals on the road to wisdom when he laid down this law: By suffering we learn. Yet there drips in sleep before my heart a griefremembering pain. Good sense comes the hard way. And the grace of the gods (I'm pretty sure) is a grace that comes by violence.  
So then the captain of the Greek ships, blaming no prophet,chose to veer along with the blasts of fortune. His men could not sail, his men were starving, on the shore of Chalcis in the region of Aulis where the roaring tides go back and forth.  
Winds from the north came bringing idle time they did not want, bringing hunger and days at anchor enough to drive men mad, sparing neither ships nor cables, every minute longer than the last, grinding this flower of Greek men to nothing. And the seer cried out Artemis!--an answer more bitter than the question. The sons of Atreus smote the ground and wept.  
And Agamemnon spoke: Hard for me to disobey. Hard for me to cut down my own daughter, prize of my house, defiling a father's hand with a girl's blood at the altar. Which of these is apart from evil? How can I desert my ships and fail my allies? Their desperation cries out for a sacrifice to change the winds, a girl must die. It is their right. May the good prevail!  
Then he put on the yoke of Necessity. His mind veered toward unholiness, his nerve turned cold. It is delusion makes men bold, knocks them sideways, causes grief. Sacrificer of his own daughter he became.  
To further a war fought for a woman. To pay off his ships.  
Her prayers and cries of Father! her young life they reckoned at zero, those warloving captains. Her father said a prayer and bid them seize her high above the altar like a goat with her face to the ground and her robes pouring around her. And on her lovely mouth--  
to check the cry that would have cursed his house--he fix...

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Book Description Farrar, Straus Giroux Inc, United States, 2010. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 Iphigeneia 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 is driven mad by the Furies for his bloody betrayal of family. Condemned to death by the people of Argos, he and Elektra must justify their actions - signaling a call to change in society, a shift from the capricious governing of the gods to the rule of man-made 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. Carson s Oresteia is a watershed translation, a death dance of vengeance and passion not to be missed. Bookseller Inventory # ABZ9780865479166

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