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

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.