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Violent Grace: Anne Carson's An Oresteia | The Nation

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Violent Grace: Anne Carson's An Oresteia

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JOAN MARCUSStephanie Roth Haberle in Classic Stage Company's production of An Oresteia

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Emily Wilson
Emily Wilson is an associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is...

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Aeschylus' Oresteia, composed and first performed in 458 BC, is the only complete dramatic trilogy we have from ancient Athens. Not all Athenian trilogies were fashioned from related stories, but the Oresteia was: it tells what happens to the family of Agamemnon when the great general returns home to Argos, victorious from the Trojan War, with his concubine, Cassandra, and spoils from the conquered city. In the first play, Agamemnon, the general arrives with blood on his hands: that of the victims in Troy and that of his daughter Iphigeneia, whom he sacrificed to the gods so that the winds would blow his fleet to war. Agamemnon, along with Cassandra, is killed in turn by his wife, Clytemnestra, with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. In the second play, Choephoroi, these murderers are killed by Orestes, Clytemnestra's son, with the help of his sister Electra. The house of Agamemnon is again defiled.

The final play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, is named for its extraordinary Chorus. The "Eumenides" means the kindly ones, the euphemistic, apotropaic name for the Furies, who appear onstage in the play. They must have been an amazing sight, dressed in black, snakes in their hair. Divine agents of vengeance who stand opposed to the gods of the upper world, the Furies yearn for blood and defend the bonds of family over the newfound bonds of society and political allegiance. The Furies curse Apollo, protector of Orestes: they claim that the blood of Clytemnestra demands that Orestes must die. The cycle of killing seems ceaseless.

But then, in an extraordinary conflation of myth and history, the setting of the play shifts from Argos to Athens, to the court of the Areopagus, where murder trials were judged. The court was near the Theater of Dionysus on the Acropolis. The goddess Athena appears as representative of Zeus, to judge the trial of Orestes for matricide. Athena insists that the case be judged by a jury: democratic due process seems to have been introduced as the solution to the endless round of revenge. The jury is evenly split, and Athena, a goddess who has no mother, casts her own vote to acquit Orestes.

The Oresteia tells a story about political and cultural stasis and transition. What happens when the crimes and mistakes of one generation seem to repeat themselves in the next? After a long history of oppression, marginalization or victimization of one group by another, can equality be restored? Can justice be upheld without revenge? Can a bad inheritance be overcome? At the same time, Aeschylus' trilogy moves from a system of private justice to one of public law; from the family to politics, tyranny to democracy, matriarchy to patriarchy; and from perplexing signs to revealed truth, as the shady, densely metaphorical and ambiguous language of the Agamemnon yields to the clarity of the Eumenides, and deep metaphysical and theological doubts are answered by the manifestations of gods onstage. In each case, the change is represented as progress. The Oresteia is a great work of art but also a dangerous piece of social propaganda that suggests that the only way to create a safe state society is to limit and suppress the power of women and the family.

In the United States, the most famous political use of Aeschylus is the spontaneous eulogy for Martin Luther King Jr. given by Robert Kennedy during a campaign stop in Indianapolis several hours after King's assassination. Standing in the bed of a truck before a crowd, mostly black, that had gathered to hear a stump speech, Kennedy broke the news about King. He then spoke of Aeschylus as offering a message of hope, a promise of reconciliation and progress, even after a seemingly endless cycle of racial violence and revenge.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with--be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my--my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

The passage Kennedy recited is from Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and the translation was clearly Edith Hamilton's version, slightly misquoted ("despair" for "despite"). Kennedy, perhaps inspired by Hamilton's The Greek Way, interpreted the trilogy's central ethical concept--that learning comes by suffering (in Greek, the words "learning" and "suffering" rhyme, mathos/pathos)--in the most optimistic terms: suffering can teach us not only how to suffer but how to prevent more suffering, through love, wisdom, justice and compassion. It was a striking moment, not least because Kennedy invoked a play that tightens the screws on women and the family as a plea for racial equality.

Anne Carson's new version of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, which begins her powerful An Oresteia, offers a very different rendering of Kennedy's favorite lines:

Yet there drips in sleep before my heart
  a griefremembering pain.
Good sense comes the hard way.
  And the grace of the gods
   (I'm pretty sure)
 is a grace that comes by violence.

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