The Oresteia is the collective name given to the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus: The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
The story is taken from the mythical history of the descendants of Atreus in which crime led to further crime through several generations. "Agamemnon" opens in an atmosphere of hope mingled with foreboding, as the watchman on the roof of King Agamemnon's palace in Argos looks for the signal beacon which will announce the fall of Troy. After the signal is seen, the news is confirmed by the arrival of a herald. Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra appears jubilant, but the chorus recalls Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia to enable the Greek fleet to set sail, and broods over the possible consequences. Agamemnon arrives bringing with him the captured Trojan princess Cassandra, his concubine. Clytemnestra treacherously welcomes him and then leads him into the palace. Cassandra begins frenzied prophecy, she foresees Agamemnon's murder and her own, as well as having a vision of the past crimes of the house. She too enters the house, knowingly going to her death. The cries of the dying Agamemnon are heard. The interior of the palace is revealed, Clytemnestra stands exulting over the bodies of the two victims. She answers the chorus' reproaches by citing as justification Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigeneia. Aegisthus, her lover, appears, and subdues the chorus with threats. The chorus chants their hope that one day Agamemnon's son Orestes will avenge Agamemnon. Here the Greek audience would take a break, eat some breakfast, then return to the theatre for the second play.
In "The Libation Bearers," Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, after years of exile, returns to Argos with his friend Pylades, to avenge his father on orders from the god Apollo. He comes to his father's tomb and dedicates a lock of his hair. The two draw aside while Electra, Orestes' sister, and a chorus of Argive women approach to pour libations on the tomb by order of Clytemnestra, who has been disturbed by ominous dreams. Electra recognizes the lock of hair and footprints nearby as strikingly similar to her own. Orestes reveals himself and a reunion takes place. Electra and Orestes join in an invocation of their father's dead spirit calling upon his aid in their pursuit of vengeance. Another break, and some members are wishing they had remembered to bring cushions, as the marble seats are getting harder.
Next, Orestes and Pylades, disguised as travelers, come to the palace, with news of the Orestes's death. Aegisthus is summoned and on his arrival is killed by Orestes. Clytemnestra aware of what is happening, bares her breast and dares Orestes to kill her. Orestes hesitates, but Pylades, in his only speech, says "What then becomes of the oracles declared by Apollo?" Orestes embolden drags his mother into the palace and kills her. While he is justifying his action the avenging Furies arrive to haunt him. Orestes flees.
|Orestes being hounded by the Furies. Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in 1862|
The final drama of the trilogy, "The Eumenides," opens with Orestes as suppliant at the shrine of Apollo in Delphi. Apollo is the god of civilization and corresponds, some say, to the second person of the Christian Trinity. The Furies, forming the chorus, are asleep around him. Orestes is promised protection by Apollo, who tells him to go to Athens to seek justice from the goddess Athena. After he leaves, the ghost of Clytemnestra stirs up the Furies to pursue him. The scene changes to the front the Parthenon in Athens.
Then, radiant Athena descends to the stage to hear both sides of dispute. The Furies, the old order of blood for blood, want Orestes destroyed, while Apollo, representing the new order, wants him saved. Neither side is right and a synthesis is needed. Athena convenes a jury of twelve Athenians, but the vote is split; Athena must cast the deciding vote and she is up to the challenge.
Athena was born fully armed from the head of Zeus. She is the feminine incarnation of divine wisdom. She is the Greek version of the third person of the Trinity. She is the Logos, god the father's will, his word, sent to earth to assist human progress. In this play she appears in the role of patron deity of Athens. Orestes is healed and the curse on his family lifted. He leaves with Apollo. However, the Furies are, well, furious. They burst into a terrifying song and threaten to spread their venom on Athens and destroy civilization. Athena answers the song of the Furies with a speech, but they only become louder, even when she threatens employing her father's thunderbolt. Then Athena sings. Gradually, the spell of her music takes effect, the Furies are transformed into the Eumenides, the Kind Ones. The Eumenides, persuaded by the song of Athena, agree to live under the Acropolis and communicate their intuitive wisdom of the past to the new democratic civilization of Athens. The play ends with Athena leading the Eumenides across the orchestra and out of the theatre.
The audience rises to applaud and to wipe tears from their eyes. The talk after the play might focus on Athena transforming the Furies with her song; such a tribute to the power of music. They will break, then return for a short comedy, then go home for a late lunch
So, possible answer number three: Human Progress is Possible.
Then which way is it? Chance, Fate, or slow, very slow, Progress. The art of the great dramatist seems to indicate all three powers are at work in both external world and in the human psyche. Chance seems to be the strongest force in history and some individuals do seem to be born under an unlucky star. What have we learned since the time of the Greeks about the internal world? Not much, but our scientific understanding of, at least, outer space has progressed exponentially since the classical era. Science, it has been said, knows more and more about less and less.
Recently science has discovered evidence of the God particle, the Higgs boson. Does that mean we should establish an new religion, one that worships a force field, some electrical particles? Should not our religious beliefs keep pace with scientific progress? We dismiss those who hold that the world was made in six days by an all powerful deity who then rested a bit. The Episcopalians keep updating their theology to stay abreast of current scientific and ethical thought, while discarding the old superstitions. The results: a steady decline in attendance and memberships. Don't try to discard the Furies, warned Euripides, they will kick up a fuss.
|Evidence of a new subatomic particle, the Higgs boson, the God particle. Seems unlikely this one day might be an Icon in the Church of the Holy Boson.|
Although medievalist will certainly disagree, after the Greek dramatist, there is little evidence of new light illuminating our inner selves. That is, until the time of Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. Shakespeare ushers in modern man, Hamlet, gazing into the abyss, unable to act. The Romantics acclaimed Shakespeare's genius, and the Victorians approached Shakespeare with the greatest reverence, his work is repeatedly adopted and rediscovered by new movements in scholarship and performance. But as this piece involves music as well as story, we must turn to a later dramatist, Richard Wagner.