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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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Carson is a well-known poet and classicist who has produced many other translations and imitations of Greek poetry, including a fine parallel-text rendering of Sappho, If Not, Winter. Her version of Agamemnon is characteristically alert to Aeschylus' tendency to coin compound neologisms: "griefremembering pain" is a powerful literal translation of mnesimon ponos. She also injects a personal, tentative note into these words by the Chorus. Aeschylus does not specify whose heart suffers sleepy pain. Whereas Edith Hamilton has the Chorus speak with one voice, in the first person plural ("our will"), Carson fragments the group into individual speakers, lonely dreamers who seem unsure of the truth of the proverbs and clichés they cite. In the world of her Oresteia, it is uncertain whether change ought to be a cause for hope, and Aeschylus' memorable oxymoron charis biaios (literally, "violent grace") seems less a religious mystery than a threat: violence may well triumph over forgiveness.

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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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Carson creates a new and very different resolution to the questions posed by Agamemnon's homecoming and murder. Her Oresteia includes only Aeschylus' Agamemnon, juxtaposed with plays by two younger Athenian contemporaries based on the same myth: Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Orestes. The idea for this new trilogy was not Carson's but that of Brian Kulick, the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in New York City. Kulick and Carson together should be congratulated on a brilliant reimagining of Aeschylus' trilogy, which is far darker and more ambiguous in its resolutions than the original.

Neither Sophocles nor Euripides wrote a complete trilogy on the Agamemnon-Orestes story, but both did compose single plays about an episode from the cycle. Carson follows Agamemnon with Sophocles' Electra, which offers an analysis of obsessive, isolated, almost pathological grief. Most of the play consists of Electra's long, tormented laments for her dead father; finally Orestes returns to avenge his father's death. The action of Aeschylus' Choephoroi centers around the grave of Agamemnon, which dominates the stage; the dead Agamemnon is calling out for blood, and there are many signs that the gods below earth thirst for the vengeance the general's killers are destined to meet. For instance, Clytemnestra dreams that she is nursing a snake at her breast--the baby who will bring about her death. The matricide, in Aeschylus, seems to happen largely through the workings of divine will. In Sophocles' version, by contrast, the will of the gods is hard to interpret, and the focus of the play is on the turbulent feelings of human characters and the contradictory narratives they create to serve their advantage. The murder, in this play, depends on deceit: a piece of false news, that Orestes has died, is delivered to Clytemnestra and Electra by Orestes' old tutor, and Orestes himself shows them, as supposed proof of his own death, an empty funeral urn. A disguised Orestes deceives Clytemnestra into taking him into the house, where, thinking that she is at last safe from the fear of retribution, she is killed, along with her lover Aegisthus. The play is disturbing in both its emphasis on desperate grief and the suggestion that the only cure for such pain is retribution reaped with scams and lies. Unlike in Aeschylus, there is no hope of a political solution.

Carson makes use of citations from the Greek original in her version of Sophocles' Electra. Electra, with her seemingly endless moans of lamentation for her dead father, dominates the stage. In the first two-thirds of the play almost nothing happens in terms of plot, except that Electra establishes her unyielding determination to find words to express her grief, in the face of her mother's and sister's attempts to shut her up. Carson's use of Greek for some of Electra's laments could be extremely effective onstage: when told (falsely) of her brother's death, for example, she shouts out, "OI'GO TALAINA. My death begins now." The use of a language of grief that is, to us, foreign emphasizes Electra's strangeness, as well as the solipsism of her stance. But even more powerful is the attention Carson pays to Sophocles' metaphors. Electra tells Clytemnestra, "You are some sort of punishment cage/locked round my life." When the Chorus tries to persuade Electra that she is escalating the situation by responding to a violent murder with yet more violent grief, she responds with a suggestion that mourning is her religious duty and path to freedom. In Carson's version she says, "My cries are wings:/they pierce the cage." Carson arguably overtranslates some metaphors; for instance, the "cage" is an addition. But her extreme sensitivity to metaphor allows Carson to make Electra's story cohere as it otherwise might not: language is, in this play, the only way to escape the cage in which Clytemnestra has trapped her children.

Euripides' variations on the theme are, if anything, even less optimistic about the possibilities of human progress, though they are also often funny and surprising in their radical reinterpretations of the myth. His Orestes, composed in 408 BC, near the end of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta (which Athens would soon lose), introduces even more novel twists on the story, which is likely why Carson makes it the third play in her Oresteia. Euripides invents the premise that Electra and Orestes are threatened with death by stoning from the city of Argos, in punishment for their murder of Clytemnestra. Orestes pleads in vain with his uncle Menelaus (Agamemnon's brother) for help. When Menelaus temporizes, and death seems certain, the siblings adopt the suggestion of their fellow murderer, Orestes' friend Pylades, that they should take revenge by murdering his uncle's wife, Helen. Electra proposes the further scheme that they can blackmail Menelaus into helping them, by kidnapping his daughter, Hermione. The terrible cycle of crime and revenge, so familiar from the Oresteia, seems to be played here as black comedy or farce: Carson captures the disarmingly ironic tone when Menelaus complains, "I suffer terrible things," and Orestes replies, "Well, you screwed up." The plot is foiled only by the gods, who rescue Helen and take her to heaven; Apollo appears onstage, as Orestes holds his sword to Hermione's throat, and tells him to marry her instead.

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