The legacy of Atreus

WE ARE GOING to see a play, one of my favourites, and perhaps the greatest play ever written and performed. But we have to adjust our mind set, because this play was written two and a half thousand years ago. We are going to see a performance of Agamemnon, written and produced by Aeschylus in 458 BC.
The first thing to notice is that it’s festival time, and there are a lot of things going on. It’s the time of the Great Dionysia festival in Athens, and there are festive celebrations in the temples, processions, orators and rhapsodes giving recitals, busy markets, lots and lots of overseas visitors. The agora is crowded, country folk have brought produce to town, and the overwhelming impression is of noise. Everybody seems to be speaking at once, the dust from the street has risen into the air, and the din is accompanied by an indescribable and pungent smell, of equal parts incense and cattle dung.

It’s a holy time, part Easter ceremonies and part arts festival. For the ancient Greeks there was little difference between Town Hall and Church, religion was a civic duty as much as a private devotion, the priests were often merely leading citizens, and much of what was included in temple ceremonies we would not consider ‘religious’. Everywhere the bright red, blue and yellow facades of buildings and vividly painted statues are hung with flower garlands, and the throngs of people are also dressed in their most elaborate clothing and hung with garlands.

As we make our way into the amphitheatre we are jostled by food sellers, and disoriented farmers from the outskirts of Attica ask us questions in their thick yokel accents we can’t hear above the din. Here the noise is worse than ever. The men who built this semi circular tier of seating knew more about acoustics than we do today. During a performance you can hear a pin drop in the arena: now every sound is amplified, and comes in waves which build to a crescendo, then dies away only to raise in volume again, like the heat haze in the air. No need for any shelter at this time of year. We choose a place mid way in the rise of seats, near the exit galley, so we can leave quickly at the end of the performance. We can see clearly the stage, the orchestra where the chorus and musicians perform, and the elaborate row of seats before the altar for Dionysios near the orchestra. Here the priests and city archons sit, and notables such as the choreographer (whom we would call the producer) and the author (who was usually also the director and music director).

Slowly the seating fills up. Slowly the roar of voices fades to a murmur. The chief priest of Dionysios offers a libation and what seem endless prayers to the god. We remember that these prayers, called dithyramb, are said to be the precursors of that we are about to see today, a dramatic performance in honour of the god.

More people today read an ancient Greek play than see one, so perhaps it is necessary to point out the peculiarities of what we will shortly see. It is a holy act, a kind of Mass. The god speaks sometimes through the voice of the dramatist, who has a semi priestly standing. Today the dramatist is Aeschylus, 65 years old (he will die two years later); he has been presenting plays for 40 years and is one of the most celebrated and admired men in Athens. He has won the first prize more than a dozen times. Even more importantly, he is a man of Marathon, one of a small group of hoplite soldiers who successfully repulsed the gigantic army of Xerxes during the Persian War of a generation ago: these men have acquired hero status in Athens. When Aeschylus died the only achievement mentioned on his tombstone is that he fought at Marathon. In 458 BC it was still a miraculous achievement.

The play we are about to watch is performed by actors wearing elevated shoes or buskins, elaborate vestments reminiscent of a Catholic priest’s, and a mask set in a stylised expression. The actors make sweeping gestures like silent film stars, sing and chant their dialogue in a style similar to Kabuki or Noh players. They are accompanied by a group of extraordinarily talented singers and dancers called the chorus, and were once part of the chorus themselves in very early times. The chorus perform to a musical accompaniment, a musical orchestra performs at the side of the performance space called the orchestra. The songs in a drama performance are lyrical, like an aria in an opera performance, and very popular with the audience. The dramatist has brought together the story from performances of epic, the choral dancing from harvest festivals, and the lyric from the age of Archilochos. It’s as if we were watching an opera, a play, a ballet and an oratorio all at the same time. The dramatist was a seer, a songwriter and a musical composer combined. This was total theatre as we’ve never experienced it, and was totally immersing for the audience.

The audience knew the story, because the Homeridae had told it a hundred times. When we say ‘pride comes before a fall’ we are rehearsing the lesson first taught in this play, in which the great general Agamemnon affronts the gods by entering his palace in Argos along a crimson carpet laid down by his wife Clymtemnestra. Agamemnon had abandoned his wife to lead the Greek armies to Troy, and sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to ensure a following wind for the fleet. While he was gone his wife Clytemnestra had formed an alliance with Agisthos, the dispossessed king of Argos, and together they plotted Agamemnon’s death. So intricate was the network of wrongs, slights, murders and outrage, which went back three generations of the families concerned, that even the gods were divided, taking sides in the tale of rivalries and revenge.

This is to be a story about the mysterious meaning of evil in the world, told with the sublime simplicity of the Book of Job (which in turn is modelled on Greek tragedy). But at its heart is something we think ‘modern’, the relationship of two woman, Clytemnestra the vengeful wife, and Cassandra the Trojan seer, bought home as booty for the king’s bed. Both women have seen their families slaughtered, both blame the pride and arrogance of men, manifest in the doom driven king who has harmed them both and whom they both hate and love, Agamemnon.

The queen has directed that beacons be lit across the kingdom to signal the fall of Troy and the return of the king. A watchman sits alone on the battlements, as he has for many years and many nights, waiting for the sign. It comes:

Oh hail, blaze of the darkness, harbinger of day’s
shining, and of processionals and dance and choirs
of multitudes in Argos for this day of grace
(21-23 tr Richard Lattimore)

Fire of the night, that brings my spirit day,
Shedding light on Argos, light, and dance, and song,
Greetings to fortune, hail!
(tr E D A Morshead)

And so the play begins in celebration for the glory of the homecoming king. Only the audience know under what a terrible fate he lies.

Because the story was so well known Aeschylus can give lines to the chorus of Argive elders to sing which comment on the true situation. The main actors don’t hear these words.

Tis Zeus alone who shows the perfect way
of knowledge: he hath ruled
Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled
(tr E T A Morshead)

Zeus who guided men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering
. (76-78 tr Richard Lattimore)

The ex soldier Aeschylus gives the chorus some reflections on the cost of war.

The god of war, money changer of dead bodies,
held the balance of his spear in his fighting, and from the corpse-fires at Ilium
sent to their dearest the dust
heavy and bitter with tears shed
packing smooth the urns with
ashes that once were men
. (438-444, tr Richard Lattimore)

For Ares, lord of strife,
who doth the swaying scales of battle hold,
war’s money-changer, giving dust for gold,
sends back, to hearts that held them dear, scant ash of warriors, wept with many a tear,
light to the hand, but heavy to the soul
; (tr E T A Morshead)

Clytemnestra now speaks, and the words she utters tell truly of the conflict waging within her, the love and admiration of her brilliant soldier husband overlaid with horror at his murder of their daughter Iphigenia.

-take this message to the king:
Come, and with speed, back to the city that longs for him,
and may he find a wife within his house as true
as on the day he left her…
(604-607 tr Richard Lattimore)

Clytemnestra speaks to Agamemnon, telling how hard it is for a woman to wait, hearing rumours of treachery and outrage, how she has fought to keep his state stable and loyal to him. The words are venomous with hatred, because she knows Agamemnon has abandoned her, and destroyed his own family by murdering their daughter. She spreads a crimson carpet and invites him to walk into his palace. Agamemnon knows this is impious, a sign of lack of respect to the gods, what the Greeks called hubris, an excess of pride. Yet Agamemnon is proud, arrogant. He has destroyed Troy. He will show contempt to the gods, and walk vainly on this carpet, vaunting his glory. It seems a little thing, yet Aeschylus is saying that the fatal flaw that brings about a man’s destruction can be seen in little things.

All through this scene the captive Cassandra is standing in Agamemnon’s chariot, once a princess, now a slave. To Clytemnestra she is one more insult offered to her home. She invites her in to the palace. We know she means to kill both Cassandra and her husband. But Cassandra is a seer, a prophet gifted by Apollo, whose gift she has taken but her favours denied. Apollo cannot take his gift away. Instead he has decreed that though her prophecy be true, no-one will ever believe it to be so. This has caused Cassandra much suffering, as she has forseen the destruction of her city Troy and the death of her parents and their children in its sack. All this while she has been silent. Then she speaks.

Oh shame upon the earth!
Apollo, Apollo!
Lord of the ways, my ruin.
You have undone me once again, and utterly
. (1072-1073, 1080-1082, tr Richard Lattimore)

Cassandra speaks with the Chorus, who fail to understand her. She rails bitterly against the destiny that has overtaken her, and speaks for human frailty and helplessness at the hands of fate.

Alas, poor men, their destiny. When all goes well
a shadow will overthrow it. If it be unkind
one stroke of a wet sponge wipes all the picture out;
and that is far the most unhappy thing of all
. (1325-1328, tr Richard Lattimore)

Inside the palace comes a cry. Clytemnestra has struck the blow, and the doors open to reveal her and the bodies of her murdered husband and his slave.

He filled our cup with evil things unspeakable:
and now himself come home has drunk it to the dregs
. (1397-1398, tr Richard Lattimore)

Clytemnestra now pours out her devastating grief for her murdered daughter Iphigenia, and finds that revenge is thin satisfaction indeed. Her heart has been broken, and no act of violence can mend it. She endures the reproaches of the chorus, for whom it is glorious a soldier should kill, shameful a woman should. Agisthos has the final word, as he rehearses the atrocity which divided the two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, Agamemnon’s and his own father respectively. We are left to reflect that wrong can never right wrong.

To read this play always sweeps me up in its invocation of tragedy and pity. It seems a mixture of passion play and hothouse melodrama reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. It was one of four plays which Aeschylus offered in that year, three plays on the house of Atreus, which have survived, and a satyr play, which hasn’t. The tetralogy won the first prize. Unfortunately we have no idea of what the music sounded like, and little idea of what the dance movements were. Probably it seems more ‘dramatic’ in reading a modern translation, when we can associate it with all the plays it has inspired, than it would have in the original production, with the stylised movements, the chanting of the lines, and the music (which we probably wouldn’t have liked much if what I’ve heard of ancient Greek music being performed is anything to go by. Then again, perhaps Aeschylus was one of the world’s greatest musical composers as well as one of its greatest dramatists).

One can imagine members of the audience, perhaps wiping away a tear, forming clusters to discuss the play. They would have spent most of the day in the theatre, and watched other plays on the same day, and on subsequent days. Their memory must have been phenomenal. Perhaps some recalled Homer’s words about the daughter of Chryses from Book 1 of the Iliad: Agamemnon says, “Apollo has plagued us because I would not take a ransom for this girl, the daughter of Chryses. I have set my heart on keeping her in my own house, for I love her better even than my own wife Clytemnestra, whose peer she is alike in form and feature, in understanding and accomplishments”. This was the cause of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, which made the Trojan War the disaster it became for both Greek and Trojan. Was it here, in the first book of Homer, that Aeschylus first got his picture of the arrogant, quarrelsome Agamemnon, who alienated both his wife and his foremost general? Was the man merely a slave to the terrible legacy of his family, the Atridae, the cause of both war and his own murder? Was a woman ever justified in using violence to defend her family? Was it just that Agamemnon had been punished by the gods for his impiety when he had been lured into it by Clytemnestra? Perhaps the spectators would have remembered the chorus’ songs, and some have sung them with appreciation. All would have abhorred the crime of hubris: the golden mean was respected in Greece long before Aristotle. “Nothing too much”.

All this, four plays each by three poets, quotations from Homer, strains of the music, comments on the musicians’ skill, appreciation of the chorus’ dancing, and more plays yet, comic ones, for those with the stamina. And then they cast their vote. Aeschylus won. If only we knew who the losers were.

As far as we are concerned, this is the birth of drama, and few plays have equalled this one.
The names of 20-30 dramatists are known. These were poets, musical composers, choreographers and sometimes producers and even actors. There may have been a corpus of more than 2,000 plays, of which 44 survive. Nothing has survived of the music that was an important part of each performance and little is known of the nature of the choral dances integral to the performances. The origins of the drama are unknown in any detail, as is its religious and political place in ancient Greek life. The drama we have is from Athens; that from elsewhere in Greece is even more obscure. Almost all of what we know comes from Aristotle’s Poetics which represent notes taken by his students on what Aristotle had to say on tragedy. Citizens attended public festivals where either tragedy or comedy was presented and which lasted for several days. They were highly literate and followed the staging, songs and poetry closely. Much of what has survived was produced while Athens was at war.

530 Thespis initiates the drama
511 Phrynichus won his first competition
499 First play by Aeschylus (525-456) performed
493 Phrynichus produced The Fall of Miletus
490 Marathon
484 Aeschylus won first prize in tragedy
480 Salamis
479 Plataea
472 Aeschylus won first prize with Phineus, Persians, Glaucus of Potniae, and satyr play Prometheus
468 Sophocles (496-406) defeated Aeschylus
467 Aeschylus won first prize with Laius, Oedipus, Seven against Thebes and The Sphinx
463 Aeschylus won first prize with Suppliants, Egyptians, Danaids, and Amymone
? Aeschylus produced the Prometheia
460 Sophocles produced Ichneutae or The Trackers
458 Aeschylus gained his last victory with Oresteia: Agamemnon, Choephori, Eumenides and Proteus
455 The first play by Euripides (480-406), Daughters of Pelias
447 Sophocles produced Ajax
442 Sophocles produced Antigone. Euripides won his first victory
438 Euripides produced Alcestis, in place of the satyr play (It won second prize), and Telephus
437 Sophocles produced Trachiniae
431 Euripides produced Cretans
431 Peloponnesian War begins. Euripides produced Medea, which won third prize
430 Euripides produced Heraclidae and Bellerophon
429 Sophocles produced Oedipus Rex. Euripides produced Andromache and Stheneboea
427 Aristophanes (445-385) produced Daitaleis (‘banqueters’); second prize
426 Aristophanes produced Babylonians. The play may have won first prize.
425 Euripides produced Hecuba and Cresphontes. Aristophanes produced Acharnians (first prize).
424 Aristophanes produced Knights (Lenaea, first prize) and Farmers
423 Aristophanes produced Clouds (Dionysia, third prize) and Merchant Ships
422 Euripides produced Erechtheus. Aristophanes produced Wasps (Lenaea:second prize), Proagon
421 Aristophanes produced Peace (Dionysia); it won second prize
420 Euripides produced Suppliants and Heracles and Phaethon and Wise Melanippe
418 Sophocles produced Electra. Euripides produced Ion
415 Euripides produced Trojan Women (second prize), Electra, Alexandros, Palamedes and Sisyphus
414 Euripides produced Iphigenia at Tauris. Aristophanes produced Birds and Amphiaraos
413 Sicilian expedition
412 Euripides produced Helen and Andromeda and Captive Melanippe
411 Aristophanes produced Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae
410 Euripides produced Antiope and Archelaus and Hypsipyle and Oedipus and Philoctetes
409 Sophocles won first prize with Philoctetes. Euripides produced Phoenician Women
408 Euripides produced Orestes
407 Euripides produced a trilogy containing Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis. Aristophanes’ Gerytades
405 Aristophanes produced Frogs (Lenaea); it won first prize
404 End of Peloponnesian war
401 Sophocles produced Oedipus at Colonus
392 Aristophanes produced Ecclesiazusae
388 Aristophanes produced Plutus
387 Aristophanes produced Koskalos
386 Aristophanes produced Aiolosikon
321 Menander (342-291) produced his first play, Orge (Anger)
316 Menander produced Dyskolos (The Bad-tempered Man), first prize

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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