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."