Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Greek Play Seminar: "Agamemnon"

With "Agamemnon" I truly entered the stage of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus' first three plays dealt with sad events, requiring much moaning and crying and beating of breast. Good people died, stupid people lived, all surrounded by shadowy portents of woe. The language was poetic, but the emotions -- well, they were interesting, but did they feel real? The answer, for me at least, was no.

That all changed with "Agamemnon," Aeschylus' first play of a trilogy called "The Oresteia." It begins with a watchman, sitting alone at night on a roof.

"I've prayed God to deliver me from evil
Throughout a long year's vigil, couched like a dog
On the roof of the House of Atreus."

Atreus is Agamemnon's family name, and what a family. The House of Atreus is cursed, beginning with Atreus himself. Atreus' brother Thyestes seduced his wife, so Atreus killed his brother's sons and served them to Thysestes as dinner.

Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus are Atreus' sons, sometimes called the Atreidae, and are both powerful Greek kings. When Menelaus' wife Helen is stolen by a Trojan prince (Why can't these guys hold on to their wives? Everyone would have benefited if they came home for dinner more), the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus gather a bunch of Greeks to invade Troy and get Helen back. This is, of course, the famous Trojan War, and it's been going on for 10 years now as the play begins.

The opening speeches in Aeschylus' plays have been real yawners so far, but the Watchman's is different. This guy has been sitting on the roof for 10 years, watching for a sign that the war is over, hardly able to sleep, weeping as the the city-state of Argos becomes less honored and honorable without its king. A fire blazes and he cries with joy. Troy is taken! King Ag is coming home!

The Chorus (as usual, a bunch of old guys) show up, but they don't feel like celebrating. The victory was dearly bought. Before the Greek ships sailed for Troy, King Ag and his brother had offended the goddess Artemis. (They killed a bunny; it really didn't take much to irritate a Greek god.) Artemis would not allow the Greek ships to sail unless Ag killed and sacrificed his oldest daughter, which, sadly he did.

The girl's death, of course, did not go over well with King Ag's wife, Clytemnestra. She's been seething for 10 years about it, and the Chorus knows it, and they doubt the king's homecoming will be a happy occasion:

"The black Furies wait, and when a man
Has grown by luck, not justice, great,
With sudden overturn of chance
they wear him to a shade ..."

Queen Clytemnestra turns up with what another blogger calls a cool bit of "information technology." She and King Ag had arranged beacons from Troy to Argos, each one lit after the other when Troy falls (remember that scene in the Lord of Rings when one of the hobbits lights a fire and beacons on mountains light up one after the other?) It's like that. The blogger I mentioned earlier even mapped out all the beacons, so if you care, check it out here.

Anyway, Clytemnestra doesn't really need the beacons, because a herald runs onstage, telling her that King Ag is almost to the palace. (Aechylus never explains how the Greeks traveled from Troy to Argos so fast.) Clytemnestra starts bragging about what a great wife she is:

"Delight from other men and ill-report
Are strange to me, as strange as tempered steel."

You can almost the the Chorus rolling their eyes and elbowing each other, because Clytemnestra has been carrying a torrid affair for years with King Ag's cousin. The Herald looks at her confusedly for a minute, then runs off again.
Clytemnestra sweeps back into the palace, leaving the Chorus with some time to kill.

The old men don't have the nerve to gossip about Clytemnestra, so they spend a happy page or two abusing Helen of Troy, who just so happens to be Clytemnestra's sister. (It's a really small world in Greek mythology.)

"Helen," they snarl. "Hell indeed she carried unto men and ships and a proud city."

A cloud of doom hangs over this palace as well, they continue, a "horror of dark disaster," and on this bright note, King Ag makes his victorious entrance in a chariot.

Ag hops out. He sounds completely neurotic at first, trying to be triumphrant and humble at the same time, but we must forgive him for that. The Greek gods were really touchy about too-proud mortals.

Clytemnestra comes forward to meet him and it's a typical wife greeting: You've been away forever, I've been worried sick about you, how come you didn't write more, and so on. Then she spreads out a purple sheet for him to walk on. King Ag is pretty haughty and cold to her and he just hates the sheet she laid out -- he's never liked purple, the gods might not approve -- but Clytemnestra talks him into it and they enter the palace.

The men of the Chorus just shake their heads, sounding a bit like Charlie Brown: "I don't know, Linus, Christmas is coming but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel ..."

Meanwhile, King Ag's chariot is sitting there and it's not empty. He's brought a Trojan princess named Cassandra home as his personal sex slave. Cassandra has a terrible story: She was once loved by the god Apollo and he gave her the gift of prophecy, but when she refused to bear him children, Apollo turned the gift into a curse. She could still predict the future, but nobody would ever believe her. Everyone called her a crazy witch. She predicted again and again the fall of Troy, but nobody listened. She told them not to let the Trojan horse into the city, but nobody listened. So Troy was destroyed and all the men killed and all the women and children killed or enslaved. The ashes are still burning at Troy, and this poor princess has been picked up by King Ag and brought to Argos.

The Chorus tries to get Cassandra to leave the chariot, but she just shakes her head wildly and curses Apollo. Cassandra asks the Chorus where she is and hearing that she's joined the House of Atreus, she freaks out:

"Palace abhorred of God, conscious of hidden crime,
Sanguinary, sullied with slaughtered kin,
A charnel-house that streams with children's blood!"

She suddenly sees the death of Agamemnon by his wife's hand and her own death, following a line of blood leading from father to son.

The Chorus sighs. That's what you get with a prophet, they say, always bad news. "When did a prophet's voice ever issue in happiness?"

But it's too late for Cassandra, she walks knowingly to her death, entering the palace with a final word:

"Alas, mortality! when fortunate,
A painted image; in adversity,
The sponge's moist touch wipes it all away."

A pause, and then the Chorus hear Agamemnon crying out in horror and pain. They stage a quick little debate about what to do, and bravely decide to creep closer to the palace door.

Now Clytemnestra triumphantly enters, throwing the doors of the palace wide, holding a bloody sword. Behind her is Agamemnon, stabbed dead while wrapped in the purple sheet and Cassandra dead beside him. The queen does not deny killing her husband, she feels no shame. She considers herself an executioner, dispensing justice on her daughter's murderer and his prostitute.

She must be banished, the Chorus says, shocked.

Why do you judge me? the queen asks. Why did you not judge the king, who killed his daughter and carried on adultrous affairs with every women he could?

"Why did you not drive him from hearth and home
for that foul crime, reserving your stern judgment
until I acted?"

But the Chorus cannot forgive her and they cry for Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, to avenge the murder. But Orestes is out of the city at the moment (probably seeing a therapist), the Chorus is in the power of Clytemnestra and her own lover, who has finally arrived now that the dirty work is done.

The Chorus sneers at the lover, calling him a coward, and they have huge argument, which Clytemnestra finally stops. She has a headache now and is ready for a nice bath.

"Do not heed their idle clamour," she tells her lover in the play's final lines. "You and I, the new masters of the house, henceforward shall direct it well."


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Greek Plays: Seven Against Thebes

Greek plays always start in the middle of the story and Aeschylus' "The Seven Against Thebes" is no exception. Like "The Persians," it is a martial play, more set on reading the rolls of heroic soldiers than exploring character and plot.

Thebes was an ancient Greek city founded by Cadmus, who was out looking for his sister Europa, who'd been carried off by Zeus. He never found Europa, but he did find a great site for a city. Cadmus killed a dragon and the goddess Athena had him plant the dragon's teeth in the ground. An army of men popped up and started fighting and the survivors became the founders of Thebes.

Cadmus' descendents had the most terrible luck and nobody had it worse than poor Oedipus, who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The play "The Seven Against Thebes" begins after Oedipus is blinded and driven out of Thebes and his twin sons are fighting over the throne.

Eteocles is the son ruling the city and his brother Polyneices has gathered an army to attack. The play begins with a looong speech by Eteocles to his people describing the situation. A spy enters and gives a lengthy report: seven great chieftans are outside the gates, offering sacrifices to Ares, god of war.

Thebes has seven gates, you see, each with its own name. For reasons best known to Polyneices, he's decided to send one warrior chieftan against each gate, rather than massing all seven against one gate. Not the greatest military strategy (Clausewitz would never approve), but Poly is the leader, so they all go along. So now Poly's chieftans are busy playing paper-scissors-rock to see who will attack which gate.

Eteocles prays to Zeus, then leaves. And here comes the Chorus, a group of Theban women who are absolutely terrified:

"I wail in the stress of my terror, and shrill is my cry of despair ..."

They shriek for a good two pages, crying for the gods' protection, and finally irritating Eteocles, who hustles over to shut them up.

"Your flying feet, and rumour of your fears,
have spread a soulless panic on our walls"

He yells at them for a good long while, telling them that women are stupid and a pain, that the gods won't help them, to keep their voices down, to just shut up already. "Beshrew your cries!" he shouts. "In silence face your fate!"

This, of course, does no good at all, and Eteocles stomps out in disgust. The Chorus of women give a harrowing account of what happens to conquered people, working themselves into a real frenzy.

Eteocles finally returns, accompanied by six buddies who will defend the gates of Thebes. The Spy turns up and describes each of seven champions attacking Thebes -- each man's name, who his daddy was, what he's wearing and how much he can bench-press. Eteocles arranges his own champions to meet the enemy but saves the best for himself -- the Seventh Gate, to be attacked by his brother Polyneices. Eteocles will fight his brother at the gate.

The women start shrieking at the news, but Eteocles marches off. The defenders defeat the attackers, but at the Seventh Gate, the two brothers kill each other in battle. Says the Spy:

"So is the city saved; the earth has drunk
Blood of twin princes, by each other slain."

The bodies of Eteocles and Polyneices are brought in by their sisters, who sing a nice long dirge with the Chorus. A Herald arrives and says the City Council has decided to bury Eteocles (the defender) in all honor, his attacking brother Polyneices will be left out for the dogs.

The sister Antigone will not agree.

"I, I will bury this my brother's corpse
And risk your wrath and what may come of it!"

This, of course, sets up the famous Greek play "Antigone," where heroine must decide whether to bury her brother Polyneices despite certain execution for it. But "The Seven Against Thebes" ends here with the chorus carrying off Eteocles' body for a big funeral.

"He saved us from a foreign yoke,
A wild assault of outland folk,
A savage, alien wave!"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Benny at Golden Gate Bridge

Click on the picture to see Benny on a beautiful day at Golden Gate Bridge.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Greek Play Seminar: "The Suppliants"

Well, I read "The Suppliants" and I gotta say I wasn't a big fan. It's a very early play, where the Chorus was still the main character. All the characters are pretty sketchy and the plot, well, it's pretty weak.

The action starts with 50 girls and their dad turning up on the shore in Argos. They are fleeing their 50 male cousins, who are trying to force a mass marriage. The 50 girls are the Chorus, although I assume the Greeks didn't actually crowd 50 actors on the stage.

Anyway, so the girls are scared and pitiful and possibly a little seasick. They know their 50 cousins are pursuing them, so they pray to Zeus (who is always so helpful to young girls) and wave little olive branches. The girls are called the Danaids after their dad Danaus (he's there too) and they hope the king of Argos can help them out.

The Danaids are still really freaked. "From my living lips my own sad dirges flow!" they moan, vowing to kill themselves if forced to marry their cousins.

Dad doesn't try to calm them down -- instead he points out that an army is approaching and reads a little lecture to the girls on how to behave. The King of Argos strolls over, checks their identification and listens to their story. "I need to talk to my advisers," he says, stalling.

A real king doesn't need advisers, the girls say.

Well, I need to talk to them, the King snaps, sounding a little defensive.
"Yea, I have pondered: From the sea of doubt
Here drives at length the bark of thought ashore."

(That sounds like he's made up his mind -- a bark is a boat -- but he really hasn't. I guess the King just likes nautical images.)

If you don't help us, we'll hang ourselves on these statues of the gods, the girls cry.

"My bark goes forth upon a sea of troubles," the King says, sticking to his theme. But in the end he agrees to protect the girls from their cousins. He leaves to tell his city the joyous news that he's committed them to a war with Egyptians to protect a lot of strange girls.

The girls sing happily, but Dad stops the celebration quickly. The cousins' ship is approaching the coast, he says. Stay by the gods' shrine and I'll run after the King of Argos and he'll bring back an army.

"O father, leave us not forlorn!" they cry.

Don't worry, says Dad. It will take some time for the cousins to land. They're not great with the ropes.

So Dad leaves and the girls freak out again. A herald from the cousins arrive, and he's definitely an unpleasant fellow. Come along or I'll beat you all up, he says. The King, of Argos, however, arrives in the nick of time, chases off the herald and escorts the girls to his city. But the trouble has only started.

"Alas for the sorrow to come, the blood and the carnage of war," the girls sing.

The play ends here, but there are certainly woes ahead. This play was apparently part of a trilogy, with the rest lost. According the Wikepedia, the story continues with Argos fighting the cousins. The king of Argos is killed and the girl's dad becomes the tyrant of Argos. The marriage is still forced on the girls, but Dad tells them to murder their husband on their wedding nights. All the girls do that except for Hypermnestra, who refuses, and she and her husband kill Dad and they become rulers of Argos.

According to another myth, the remaining girls are punished for their crime of murder. In the Underworld, ruled by Hades, they must constantly bring water from a stream with jars full of holes.

The moral of the story? In Greek mythology, you're screwed no matter what you do.