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Chapter 18: The Mycenaean Saga

The Legend of the Oresteia. The narrative of the deaths of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, is based on the first two plays (Agamemnon and Libation-Bearers) of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Oresteia (458 B.C.). The pursuit of Orestes by the Erinyes and his trial and acquittal at Athens are the subjects of the third play in the trilogy, Eumenides. Aeschylus has influenced all subsequent interpretations.

Orestes and Electra were also the central characters in tragedies by Sophocles (Electra) and Euripides (Electra and Orestes). The three tragedians portray Electra as variously motivated by love for her father and brother, hatred of her mother and Aegisthus, a sense of justice, and sexual disorientation and jealousy.

Thus, most rewarding is a study of these three versions of the Electra story in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. We are fortunate to have this singular opportunity to compare the individual and unique treatments of the same legend by these three master playwrights. Through the manipulation of plot and with divergent purposes in the delineation of the human characters and the divine action, these three “Electra’s” could not be more different from one another (MLS, pp. 449–468).

The Elektra of Richard Strauss. Among many musical compositions pride of place belongs to the opera Elektra by Richard Strauss (1909), with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, adapted from Sophocles’ version. Both Hofmannsthal and Strauss were fascinated by the new and startling revelations made by Sigmund Freud, particularly in his writings about hysteria. Hofmannsthal, seeing in Electra a classic study of neurosis, brilliantly adapted Sophocles’ play to highlight its psychological insights for the twentieth century. Sophocles’ superb recognition scene between Electra and Orestes becomes even more overpowering when enhanced by Strauss’s music that evokes the passion of a love duet. In this scene in Sophocles, Orestes expresses his concern that Electra’s intense emotions might overwhelm her. In the opera, after the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and amidst the triumph of Orestes, Electra actually dies after an ecstatic dance of joy, succumbing to physical exhaustion and psychological devastation, wrought by cruel injustice, ingrained hatred, and the engulfing fulfillment of brutal vengeance.

Other Versions. The saga of Orestes and Electra has given rise to innumerable interpretations. In Euripides’ drama Orestes (408 B.C.) Orestes is condemned at Argos for the murder of his mother but saves himself by taking Hermione hostage. Apollo orders Orestes to marry Hermione and foretells his acquittal at Athens. The death of Neoptolemus and Orestes’ marriage to Hermione are themes in Euripides’ drama Andromache (ca. 430 B.C.).

In the twentieth century especially memorable are Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), where the saga is set in nineteenth century New England, and T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939), where the setting is the house of an English family. A collection of plays with related essays (Orestes and Electra, Myth and Dramatic Form, edited by William M. Force, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968) includes the versions of the three Greek dramatists, plus Jean Giraudoux’s Electra (1937) and The Prodigal (1960), by an American playwright, Jack Richardson.

These are brilliant examples of a phenomenon that we witness again and again. The eternal rejuvenation of Greek and Roman myth and legend to delight and instruct anew each generation. The Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre in his play The Flies transforms Orestes into a paradigm of existentialism; in the ingenious novel Angel of Light, by the American Joyce Carol Oates, Orestes and Electra have become students in Washington D.C., descendants of the abolitionist martyr John Brown, who are convinced that their father, a Director in the Ministry of Justice, has been murdered by their mother. More of these inspired and inspiring transformations are discussed below. What a shame that Cacoyannis’ film of Euripides’ Electra (with the great Irene Papas in the title role) has not yet appeared on video! There is more hope that the movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra will be released on video (it was once on Laser Disc).

The Banquet of Thyestes. Aeschylus twice refers to the banquet of Thyestes in the Agamemnon, first when Cassandra sees the murdered children in her vision before entering the palace, and later when Aegisthus justifies the murder. Seneca, in his tragedy, Thyestes, portrays Atreus as a cruel tyrant, gloating as he watches Thyestes’ meal.

Iphigenia in Aulis and among the Taurians. The sacrifice of Iphigenia was narrated in the lost early epic, Cypria. In the opening Chorus of his tragedy, Agamemnon (458 B.C.), lines 192–249, Aeschylus shows Agamemnon caught between two intolerable alternatives (to sacrifice a daughter, or incur the wrath of Artemis and abandon the expedition) and choosing the one that breaks the most sacred laws of the family. The hybris (“arrogance”) of Agamemnon is further shown by his destruction of the temples of the gods at Troy and his entrance into the palace treading on purple carpets. Iphigenia’s sacrifice was also narrated by Lucretius (ca. 55 B.C.) as an example of the evils that religion can bring (De Rerum Natura 1.84-101). In Euripides’ last tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis (406 B.C.), Iphigenia, brought to Aulis on the pretext of marrying Achilles, first tries to avoid her fate but finally goes to her death willingly for the sake of the Greeks. Euripides’ drama was adapted by Michael Cacoyannis in his film, Iphigenia (1977), portraying Iphigenia both as tragic victim and patriotic heroine. A reading of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis is greatly enhanced by a viewing of the great movie adaptation by Cacoyannis. And Gluck’s operatic version (admired and revised by Richard Wagner) is one of his best works.

The sacrifice was the subject of a famous painting (now lost) by the Greek artist Timanthes (ca. 425 B.C.) showing Agamemnon veiled, because the artist could not portray the father’s emotions. “The veil of Timanthes” became proverbial for emotional restraint. Of the many interpretations of the myth of Iphigenia some of the most important were created in the late 18th century: Iphigenie in Aulis, Schiller’s adaptation of Euripides’ play (1790). The escape of Orestes and Iphigenia from the land of the Tauri is the subject of Euripides’ drama, Iphigenia in Tauris (414 B.C.) and the inspiration for another work of the late 18th century the drama, Iphigenia auf Tauris by Goethe (1779, revised by Goethe in 1788 and by Schiller in 1802). The operatic version by Gluck is full of beautiful melody and intense passion.

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