Monday, January 2, 2012

The Eumenides, by Aeschylus

I have to retract one statement from my post about The Libation Bearers.  I had said that Orestes was not an authorized executor of justice in the eyes of gods nor man, which was nearly true save for one detail which proves crucial to the final installment.  Apollo, in fact, authorizes Orestes to execute justice, a decision that makes our third act a thriller juridique.

Our title characters are The Furies.  They exist to punish those who kill blood relations.  I think more than once it comes up that The Furies didn't seem to mind that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, to which they reply that they were married, not blood related.  So, that's like having an IRS agent come to your house for an audit and accidentally leaving your bong in full view.  It's not good, but they're probably not going to bust you for it.

Orestes runs to Apollo, who is firmly advocating for Orestes.  The Ghost of Clytemnestra wakes The Furies and bullies and badgers them to chase down Orestes (so, you see, death hasn't improved her at all.)  The Furies and Orestes wind up in Athens, before the court of Athena no less.  Athena agrees to hear their cases and decide.

Apollo makes a speech which is compelling within the context of the play and sexist within the context of everything else (although it is difficult to think of any way in which Clytemnestra could be a sympathetic character.)  Apollo also plays the Zeus card.  The judges' votes tie and Orestes goes free.

The Furies are left with the problem of their function.  They repeatedly refer to the shame involved in losing the case.  The end of the play got a little weird for me.  Much like Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, there is a sort of nationalism (or, in this case, a sort of metro-centrism) that, to me, seems to have come out of left field.  The play ends with Athena raising the Furies to a position of protectors (Kindly Ones) of Athens.  The script seems to suggest that the action of the play leaves the theater and Athena, the Furies, and the audience go parading through the streets of the city at the end, blessing the people of Athens.

When I was a child, I had a week long Sea Camp that I attended in Dana Point.  We spent the week learning about sea life.  At the end of the week, one of the key features of the camp was an overnight stay on a ship which is a recreation of a 1770's privateer ship.  We gathered in the science center where we had spent the week learning about plankton and whatnot and a man came in identifying himself as the first mate.  He explained that we would be "the crew" of the ship overnight and would be lifting barrels and sleeping in cots and waking up in the middle of the night to "watch" and log and so forth.  We would eat a biscuit for dinner.  Stuff like that.  Then the captain came in.  He was a man with a booming voice and really put on the hardness of a ship's captain.  He scared the bejeebers out of me.  I have an almost unhealthy capacity to suspend my disbelief.  Through the afternoon we performed little tasks on the ship and when, inevitably, we would goof off or do something wrong, the captain would bellow "Avast!" with a voice loud as thunder.

And we spent the night in the boat.  I was woken up to do my watch which probably was only about 10 minutes, but seemed like 4 hours in the freezing ocean air.  Incidentally, this is probably the week where the ocean burned deeply into my psyche.  I love the ocean and everything to do with it.  I miss it tremendously and, every year or so, get almost an ache to visit the ocean.

The next morning, the camp had a beach party planned for us kids.  We all had our towels and so forth.  We got in lines and were walked down to the beach by the counselors and here is the reason why I'm telling this story.  The guy who was the captain half stayed in character on that next day.  I distinctly remember almost 30 years later, walking down the street, coming to a stoplight, and the man bellowing out "Avast!"  I'm not sure this was intentional, but the effect was that it really blurred the lines between what was the theatrical and what was "real."

In a way, I feel like I may have been seeking to recapture that all of my life.  I think I should like to live in that grey area.  It is why I am so delighted when Groucho or Woody Allen turn to the camera and address the audience, or when the Stage Manager from Our Town acts as a priest between the audience and the characters. 

And I think that is what Aeschylus was trying to do.  He was attempting to break the characters out of the drama and, harnessing the power of theater, force the very gods to bless the city of Athens.  I think that that is one of the aims of art.  We seek to ameliorate our condition.  In a state of such absurdity, so much suffering and loneliness, we create constructs of a more beautiful world and then kick the walls down so that we might travel back and forth between the two worlds freely. 

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