Sunday, April 29, 2001

Suffering Into Truth

Classics Corner recently reached new heights of pretension when we decided to compose an epic trilogy based upon the Oresteia, the Aeschylean masterpiece that rhymes with wouldn’t wanna be ya. As you no doubt recall, we noted that one person’s senseless slaughter is another’s moral triumph, and that we all think we’re pretty damned smart until fate slaps us upside the head.

As Agamemnon draws to a close, the king is dead, Clytemnestra is secure in her power, Aegisthus thinks he’s the cat’s meow, and the people of Argos are less than loyal to their new leadership. They await the return of Orestes, the prince who will avenge Agamemnon and restore justice to their fair city.

In act two, known as The Libation Bearers, the people now murmur only in private. As Aeschylus puts it, “They are afraid. Success, they bow to success, more god than god himself.” It’s been several years since Agamemnon was murdered, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have defined right and wrong in the self-serving way that those in power often do.

But there’s trouble in paradise. The ruling couple has children who want to see them dead. Worse, their servants agree. The Queen has not been sleeping well. She sends offerings to the grave of Agamemnon, but the plan misfires. Her daughter Electra runs into Orestes at the tomb and prays for bloody revenge.

As Menelaus tells the story in The Odyssey, Orestes is simply the loyal son who avenges his father’s wrongful death, but in the hands of Aeschylus, Orestes becomes much more. He is the revolutionary hero who must “suffer into truth.” Justice is no easy matter of right and wrong. It is an existential ordeal of being and becoming. Right conflicts with right and nothing is simple. Orestes must kill his mother to avenge his father. This is less than an ideal situation, but “the rough work of the world” seldom is. Hard choices must be made, and these choices define who we are.

Orestes poses as a traveler with news of his own death, and prevails upon the royal family for hospitality. The servants join in the plot. Everyone but the king and queen seem to know what’s going on. Too much power, it seems, has made them a little slow. The unheroic Aegisthus is easily dispatched. Clytemnestra, however, is another matter.

Agamemnon, she reminds Orestes, killed her daughter. He left her alone for ten years while he plundered Troy, and then had the poor taste to come home with another woman. He was a no good bastard who deserved to die. Besides, she says, “I gave you life.”

These are all good points, and Orestes wavers, but his friend Pylades reminds him that Apollo has taken sides. He has just one line in the entire play, but it’s a good one: “Make all mankind your enemy, not the gods.” Clytemnestra is killed, but her avenging Furies waste no time. Orestes descends into madness.

As the chorus says, “No man can go through life and reach the end unharmed. Aye, trouble is now, and trouble is still

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