thunder only happens when it’s raining
Not my idea to do this. It was the inspiration of the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in NYC, Brian Kulick. Let me say how it came about.
I translated Sophokles’ Elektra in 1987 and Euripides’ Orestes in 2006 for very different reasons: Elektra was commissioned by Oxford University Press for a series called The Greek Tragedies in New Translations; Orestes was presented as a staged reading at the 92nd St Y in NYC. To translate Aischylos’ Agamemnon had never crossed my mind. But in 2007 Brian Kulick approached me with the notion of trying my hand at Agamemnon and putting together an Oresteia that combined the 3 playwrights, which he would then undertake to produce. I said “Who needs this?”—meaning, Aischylos has already given us an Oresteia richer than rubies of which lots of good translations exist, why monkey around with it? But Kulick persisted in thinking it a good idea to make a non-foundational Oresteia. He spoke and wrote to me about this on several occasions. As I understand it, the project interested him first of all historically. To hear the same legend (the story of the house of Atreus) told by three different playwrights at three different vantage points of Athenian history would offer “a unique perspective on the Athenian moment,” he said. Kulick saw a trajectory “from myth to mockery” in the three treatments:
In Aiskhylos’ hands the story of the house of Atreus is designed to end in a valedictory celebration of Athenian democracy and its newborn sense of justice; when Sophokles takes over the tale it becomes more complex and contradictory; with Euripides the design is completely turned on its head. We follow a trajectory from myth to mockery. What happened to effect this? History happened. Aiskhylos composed his Oresteia shortly after Athens’ victory at the battle of Marathon which marked the height of Athenian military and cultural supremacy; Euripides finished his Orestes almost a hundred years later as Athens headed for ruin due to her protracted involvement in the Peloponnesian War.… The house of Atreus, for these tragedians, was a way of talking about the fate of Athens.
He was also intrigued by a stylistic differential in the three plays.
I always think of these three tragedians as being associated with different times of a metaphoric day. Aiskhylos is dawn-like, with iconic ideas, images, and action emerging into the light of consciousness. Euripides presents a twilight where everything is susceptible to tricks of a fading light, where tonalities are hard to grasp, where one moment is an azure sunset, the next a starless night. Between them, Sophokles, under the glare of a noon sun that leaves nothing unexposed.
You can see Brian was persuasive. Anyway the idea of an other Oresteia grew on me, partly because I like big translation projects; partly because it seems important to get Greek plays performed more; partly because, as John Cage says, “There are things to hear and things to see and that’s what theater is.”
From the opening movement of Aiskhylos’ Agamemnon in which Klytaimestra welcomes Agamemnon home from the Trojan War.
Gentlemen, citizens, elders of Argos, you,
I am not ashamed to tell you of my
Shyness diminishes with age.
The fact is, life got hard for me when he
was off at Troy.
It’s a terrible thing for a woman to sit alone
in a house,
listening to rumours and tales of disaster
one after another arriving—
why, had this man sustained as many
wounds as people told me,
he’d be fuller of holes than a net!
To die as often as they reported he’d need
and three cloaks of earth—one for each
So often did nasty rumours reach me,
I hung up a noose for my neck more than
Other people had to cut me down.
That’s why our boy—yours and mine—
Orestes, is not standing here, as he
Don’t worry. Strophios has him,
our Phokian ally, who warned me of
your danger beneath Troy but also anarchy at home—
the people throwing off your government.
They love to kick a man who’s down.
I’m telling the truth. This is not an excuse.
As for me,
my torrents of tears have dried away.
Not one drop left.
My poor eyes ache with weeping and
watching all the night—
I watched for those beacon fires myself.
No one else kept vigil as I did.
And the lightest buzzing of a gnat would
wake me if I fell into a dream.
There I saw you catastrophized in more
ways than there were moments of sleep.
So now, with all that over, with my mind
I salute my man: he is the watchdog
of the palace,
forestay of the ship,
pillar of the roof,
only son of his father,
land appearing to sailors lost at sea,
fine weather after storms,
fresh stream to a thirsty traveller.
Is it not sweet to escape necessity!
We’ve had our share of evils!
And now, dear one, as a special favour to me,
I pray you descend from your car without
setting foot on the ground—
O king, this foot that wasted Troy!
What are you waiting for? You have your
orders–strew the ground with fabrics,
Make his path crimsoncovered!
So Justice may lead him to the home he
never hoped to see.
Everything else I’ll arrange myself with my
usual sleepless vigilance—
exactly right, gods willing.
Offspring of Leda, guard of my house, you
have made a speech to match my
But praise of me should come from
Don’t pamper me with female ways, don’t
fuss like some grovelling barbarian,
don’t strew my path with anything at all!
You’ll draw down envy.
That stuff is for gods.
I am mortal. I can’t trample luxuries
underfoot. Honour me as a man
not a divinity.
Anyway, who needs red carpets—my fame
Here discretion is key.
Count no man happy until he dies happy.
If I keep this rule, I’ll be okay.
Oh come on, relax your principles.
No I will not. My principles are firm.
Would you have done it for the gods to
satisfy a vow?
Yes, if some religious expert prescribed it.
What about Priam, if he’d won the war?
Oh Priam would love to walk on stuff like
Still you fear the blame of common men?
The voice of the people does have power.
Unenvied means unenviable, you know.
You’re like a bulldog. It’s not very feminine.
KLYTAIMESTRA: Yet a winner must acknowledge his victory.
AGAMEMNON: And you insist on this victory?
KLYTAIMESTRA: Yes! I do! Bend to me. Please!
AGAMEMNON: Oh allright. Let someone loose my sandals,
good slaves of my feet.
and as I tread upon these crimson cloths
let no evil eye of envy from the gods strike
down on me.
What a shame to trample the wealth of the
and ruin fabrics worth their weight in silver.
Well, so it goes.
Take this foreign girl into the house.
Treat her kindly.
God looks graciously upon a gentle
master—and no one wants to be a slave.
She is choice plunder, picked out for me by
the army, my companion on the way.
And now, since I am compelled to do your
I shall proceed into the house
walking on red carpets.
KLYTAIMESTRA: There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
we use to colour our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
For when the root is alive the leaves come
and shade the house against white
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.