Violent Grace: Anne Carson’s An Oresteia

Violent Grace: Anne Carson’s An Oresteia

Violent Grace: Anne Carson’s An Oresteia

Anne Carson’s An Oresteia offers a dark vision of violent grace.


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

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.

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.

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.

Sophocles and Euripides were consciously responding to Aeschylus, and there are often verbal and metaphorical echoes of the earlier plays in the later ones. Carson doesn’t hear a few of these reverberations. For instance, it is a pity that she does not pick up on the quotation of the Argive Chorus’s wail of despair in the Agamemnon by the campy Phrygian house slave in the Orestes: “ailinon ailinon,” they both cry, though the house slave claims that his phrase is taken from his own, barbarian language. In Carson, the first mourning cry is taken seriously: “Sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.” The second is played entirely for laughs: “Where I come from people say bad shit happening/ when they mean death.” Carson thus misses an important irony: to the characters in Euripides’ Orestes, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon seems itself like a foreign tongue.

But Carson includes enough resonances between the three plays to allow readers or audiences to feel the shocks of analogy and contrast. For instance, Euripides’ murderers seem deliberately to present their decision to threaten Hermione with death as parallel to that of Agamemnon when he killed his daughter Iphigeneia. The Agamemnon Chorus had said, in Carson’s version, “Then he put on the yoke of Necessity./His mind veered toward unholiness,/his nerve turned cold.” Euripides’ Electra tells Hermione there is no point in begging for mercy, even though she is her cousin: “It is fixed. We stand in the yoke of necessity.” What had in Aeschylus been presented as a conflict of incommensurable values–loyalty to the fleet, or loyalty to family–becomes in Euripides merely the self-interested clash of different special-interest groups.

Nor can the city-state solve the problem of revenge: rather, the city at war is the root of the problem. Orestes claims, with comic disingenuousness, that matricide is an act of public service: “Picture this: wanton women throughout the land/murdering husbands, running to sons for refuge,/hunting pity with bared breasts–/they’d be killing their men at the slightest pretext./I put a stop to this. You call me unjust?” An extra layer of irony is added by the fact that Euripides’ work was often seen–as was Aristophanes’ Frogs, produced three years after the Orestes–as encouraging the antics of wanton women. The Orestes offers a dizzying lack of centralized perspective from which to make appropriate moral judgments. Apollo’s arbitrary final decision is hardly a solution, but it is as good an ending as any. The play invites us to look back with new eyes at the trial of the Eumenides, which now seems equally rigged: Apollo comforts Orestes by saying, “Go to Athens and stand trial for matricide./Trust me, you’ll win.”

Carson is acutely conscious of the differences, in mood, worldview and style, among the three tragedians she translates. It is, then, a disappointment that she does not entirely succeed in making them sound properly distinct from one another. In Greek, Aeschylus is a far denser, more difficult writer than either of the others, fond of strange syntax and puzzling neologisms. Carson tends to eliminate a lot of the difficulties. For instance, when Agamemnon decides to kill Iphigeneia, he frames his decision in oblique, confusing language that perhaps speaks to his unwillingness to face up to what he is doing. A literal translation might go, “For hyper-enragedly desiring in angry lust for a wind-stopping sacrifice and girlish blood is right. May it indeed go well.” Carson gives a version of these lines whose only fault is clarity: “Their desperation cries out for a sacrifice to change the winds,/a girl must die./It is their right./May the good prevail!

Carson suggests that “violence is intrinsic” to Aeschylus’ work, just as it is to that of the painter Francis Bacon, because both reinvent realism, trying to “trap the living fact alive” through “symbolic overabundance.” But her instincts as a writer seem to tend much more toward paring down, dissecting one body rather than piling up a heap. In contrast to all three Greek tragedians (who adhered to strict metrical forms), Carson’s language is prosaic: it isn’t quite like ordinary speech, but it isn’t verse, either. She includes a few experiments with rhyme (which was not, of course, an element in any ancient poetry); but these serve, if anything, to bring the tone down rather than to elevate it. Electra’s exchange with the Chorus over her mad brother’s condition, in Euripides’ Orestes, sounds like a weird bit of preschool-level doggerel: “CHORUS: Where does the end of his suffering lie?/ELEKTRA: Of course he’ll die.” Carson’s lines are usually much shorter than those of the original, and there are fewer of them. She gives a speed-reading version of Greek tragedy, almost worryingly thin but still, in outline, beautiful.

The Cassandra scene in the Agamemnon is particularly revealing of a translator’s method because it is itself preoccupied with issues of translation. Carson says she has spent years trying to grasp it. Agamemnon’s Trojan concubine is an inspired prophetess who knows the future but suffers the curse, inflicted by Apollo, that her prophecies will never be believed. When she first appears onstage in Aeschylus’ play, the audience may well believe that she is a nonspeaking character; Clytemnestra expresses doubt about whether she will be able to speak Greek. But Cassandra does speak, and she gives an extraordinary series of broken lyric utterances that hint at her knowledge of her own death; her language is Greek but seems like a bad translation, not from the Trojan but from the divine.

Carson’s Cassandra sounds strange partly because Carson–as she does with Electra–includes some of the Greek cries in her English version. Cassandra screams, “OTOTOI POPOI DA!/Apollo!/O!pollo!/Woepollo!/O!” The wordplay does not correspond to anything in the lines translated, but it seems entirely in keeping with Aeschylus’ method. Somewhat less successful, to my ear, are the moments when Carson’s Cassandra breaks into a professorial disquisition and provides helpful glosses on key words in her prophetic screams: “I with my thermonous/thermonous means hot soul, burning mind,/brain on fire.” It seems jarring to make Cassandra into her own interpreter. Carson’s Agamemnon does too much of the work for us and doesn’t leave alone enough of what Carson has described, in a recent essay, as “the deliberately untranslatable.” Her approach is more supple in the most powerful play in her trilogy, Euripides’ Orestes, whose strange provocations owe little to linguistic difficulties but much to the slipperiness of its tone. Carson gamely invites some contemporary resonances: for instance, Pylades asks of Helen, “Where is she, that weapon of mass destruction?” Helen is a WMD not only because she has been the cause of thousands of deaths but also because she is, by the end of the play, not there at all.

It is hard to imagine President Obama citing Carson’s Oresteia in a speech any time soon. But the movement of Carson’s trilogy, away from the clear ideology of Aeschylus’ Oresteia toward the much more complex, ambiguous world of Euripides’ Orestes, seems pertinent to the current political climate. The characters are saved only by divine intervention, and Euripides mocks the notion that law or politics, or any pre-existing system, could prevent catastrophe. Clytemnestra’s father, Tyndareus, protests that there was, of course, already a system of law in place that ought to have prevented his daughter’s death: Orestes could quite easily have thrown her out of the house without resorting to murder. “All this killing, it’s like animals,” he complains. “How can civilization survive?” Civilization seems to survive only by the skin of its teeth, and only on those rare occasions when people are able to choose not to behave like animals. Politics, laws, even divine bailouts can’t help us if we insist on behaving badly.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy