Sunday, April 15, 2001

The Oresteia: Gettin' All Epic n' Shit

Having decided to compose our very first epic, we at Classics Corner have struggled with the question of form. One method would be to distill the bulk of human experience into a few thousand lines of perfect poetic expression. We could do this, but we don’t feel like it right now. Another possibility is to grasp the universal within our particular selves. This seems immodest.

Thus we inevitably arrive at the trilogy, everyone’s favorite epic shortcut. Recent examples include StarWars, The Godfather, and Lord of the Rings, all of which, by the mere fact of their tripartite natures, are epic. Having no actual ideas, we will not compose a trilogy of our own. Instead, we will discuss Aschylus’ Orestes, his only tragedy that survives complete.

The three plays of The Orestes — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — tell the sordid tale of the House of Atreus, the family where everyone is screwed but no one knows it. As the first play opens, a messenger learns that Troy has fallen and King Agamemnon is on his way home. The city is filled with joy but a cloud looms. This is, after all, a tragedy.

As it turns out, Queen Clytemnestra has been miffed at Agamemnon ever since he made a blood sacrifice of their firstborn daughter. The queen has taken on a new lover, Aegesthus, who happens to be her husband’s first cousin. Apparently, Agamemnon’s father once slaughtered Aegesthus’ siblings and served them for dinner. The queen’s new lover still bears a grudge.

To make things worse, Agamemnon has some explaining to do. Ten years ago, he sailed off with all the young men to rescue Helen from Troy. Now, on the day of his return, his only company is Cassandra, the psychic concubine with a credibility problem.

A smarter man might wonder just how welcome he is. He might, like Odysseus, spend a week or so undercover, exploring the lay of the land. But not Agamemnon. He is the Labrador Retriever of epic heroes. He thinks everyone loves him. Sadly, they do not.

To make a long story short, Clytemnestra gives her husband a hero’s welcome and then offs him in the bathtub. In the final scene, she and Aegesthus stand over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra and exult in their revenge. Justice, they believe, is on their side. This is what gives the Orestes trilogy its charm. Everybody, no matter how heinous, believes they are right.

We suppose most of us do. We imagine that mayoral candidate Mark Sidran felt right was on his side when he tried to rent a campaign office in his own Pike Market building. He probably said to himself, “Mark, you deserve this.” But instead of pocketing a symbol of Seattle, he suffered a humiliating defeat. Aschylus would say that we are blind to our own circumstances, but are steered by painful events toward true understanding. Some people, however, just can’t take a hint.

Join us again next time for part two of Classics Corner, the epic trilogy.

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