Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus

This drawing is an early Cliff's Notes for the first two plays.
My step-daughter recently returned from the Republic of Georgia and, somewhere in the days that followed her return, she acquired the first season of a contemporary television series.  It is called Desperate Housewives.  In the ensuing days, our television (normally off) was employed in the task of bringing Gina up through the first season of that series (to my chagrin, I am given to understand that there are about 18 more seasons.)  In passing through the room, I found myself amazed that the matter of the show was unfiltered, old-fashioned melodrama.  I was further surprised, as I was reading The Oresteia, by the similarities.  Rampant adultery, revenge plots, murder, family drama.  There are differences, of course.  The contemporary show is marked by incessant music to indicate that something funny is going on, and there is, germane to the culture from which it sprung, absolutely no reverence toward, nay, nor much in the way of mention of, the gods, save in mocking religious people who live on Wisteria (as in the name of the street.  The people on the show don't live on Wisteria like the Lotus Eaters live on Lotus.)

I do not wish to suggest, by any stretch of the imagination, that Desperate Housewives is high art and destined to rise to a throne in the halls of posterity as one of the pinnacles of our age.  However, it is important to remember that so much of what we look to in art is a connection with issues that we all deal with, the universal drama, albeit so often a heightened version.  Indeed, the dramatic tension calls for consistent heightening of the emotional hooks in order to drag the audience through the action of the piece.

When Gina had to read Hamlet for a college course a few years ago, I strongly urged her to rent a film version (although seeing it live would be even more ideal) because plays are meant to be seen.  Shakespeare is wonderful to read, wonderful to pour over those gooey, but perfectly molded lines.  But the author's intention with the piece was for you, his audience, to go into a room full of other people and see the work on a stage.  I believe that we are meant to feel the pull of sitting 20 some feet from a man kneeling at the grave of his slain, cuckolded, humiliated father and identify with the feelings of rage and vengeance, to be in the room with the tension as Orestes talks with Clytemnestra, to feel the gut revulsion at the pile of butchered human that Orestes walks over at the end.  Drama is literature made tactile.  It is a means by which an author can sweep a reader directly into his or her work.  We ought to apply the lessons gained from those experiences to our lives.  We are expected to identify with them.  If we are to get anything out of the experience, we must enter the world and glean the lessons therein.

Like so much of drama, this is also a cautionary tale.  If I were to mount a production, I would probably adopt as the theme of the trilogy that phrase often attributed to Gandhi that an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.  I almost feel as if the trilogy ought to be performed in one night as one show, rather than producing each individually.  The moment at the end of The Libation Bearers where it is awkwardly obvious to everyone, especially, it would seem, Orestes, that the tableau is the exact same one as at the end of Agamemnon (the killer stepping over two butchered bodies) sets it up for what is most likely to come (judging from the title of the third play, I have my suspicions about where this is going.)

I don't want to be flip and I am well aware that I am treading on the very thin ice of speaking about aspects of American culture which are entirely alien to me, but I was instantly reminded of the contemporary street culture practice of "pouring a 40 out on the curb for one's fallen homies."  I am assured that this is a thing that actually happens in gangster culture, which I am also assured is actually a real thing.  I've heard tell of such things and, in fact, observed a bit of it in my years in public school.  Otherwise, I am about as alien to that culture as one can get.

The parallel that sprung to my mind was that Clytemnestra sends Electra to pour wine out on the grave of Agamemnon.  Clytemnestra, it seems, is having horrible nightmares and mistakenly assumes that it is from the angry tomb of Agamemnon rather than severe guilt over murdering her husband.  Funny how projecting works.  It is not lost on us, the Chorus, nor the two children, that were the much sinned against dead able to speak, he would be much more demonstrative over Clytemnestra having killed him than interested in having a bit of a tipple.

Likewise, in the gangster cultural practice of actually physically pouring out a portion of malt liquor, one imagines that the hypothetical fallen in the territorial combat of gangs, given the opportunity to speak from beyond the grave (regardless if it holds oblivion or damnation) would more likely call for a plague on both their houses, perhaps with choice words for the structure of class which gives rise to such cultures in the worlds of those to whom opportunities to prosper are barred.  Those attempting to honor are still possessed of those effects for which the murder occurred, namely a culture revolving around guns, bitches, and bling.

Enough of that, though.  Clytemnestra shows no sign of repentance, but rather simply wants physic for the tempests in her skull.  Orestes delivers that outcome by more active means, but the play would have us understand that justice has still not been served.  Orestes now takes up the mantle of "wrong" and runs off to Delphi with it.

I wonder about the author's intent and the many places one could choose to take this material if one mounted a production.  I mentioned the "justice" theme, but I think there is also an anti-vigilante twinge.  Orestes is not, in the eyes of gods or man, an authorized executor of justice.  He is, therefore, in the wrong on a cosmic scale in attempting to deliver justice.  But what would justice really look like in this case?  In America, the police would arrest the couple, they would appear before a judge and jury of their peers, they would, most likely, be sent to death row in most states where they would, eventually, be executed.  An argument could be made that the only difference between that and what Orestes does is a matter of time, hands in the pot, and cost.  Surely, being stripped of their gains and removed from society would be entirely appropriate to the crime.

Ultimately, and I think the next play will bear me out, the thesis of Aeschylus is that justice is the domain of the gods ("Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord) and not for the hands of man.  But how far can one take that view in a universe where the gods are so quiet?

I think another possible theme is that of the great wheel of karma.  Orestes is both the reaper and sower in this case, sort of caught between the cogs of the wheel.  

Needless to say, I am enjoying these plays a great deal.


  1. Very nice post on these plays. They have been on my TBR list for some time.

    Desperate Ho-bags, as it is known in our house, is in it's final season. I don't mourn its passing, but would rather watch it than the Kardashians or any of the other "reality" shows which seem based on a Leery Springer concept. However, one of the best, and most under-utilized, things about television is the off-switch.

  2. 'Drama is literature made tactile'- Great line. The ancient Greeks had a word for everything under the sun, hubris and nemesis, atrophy and even a chorus to the drama.

    There's a copy of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides ed. J.Mersri 1619 in Sir T.B.'s library of course.

  3. I imagine Sir T.B. didn't have the same problem I had with translations as he probably could read it in the original Latin. I covet that sort of education.

  4. In truth Paul, Browne not only read the Greek drama's in their original Greek but also was fluent in Latin, French and even Hebrew. He was educated at Oxford, Padua, Montpellier and Leiden. An education well worthy of coveting !