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Representations in Art

Iphigenia in Aulis. The sacrifice of Iphigenia was depicted in J-L. David’s painting The Wrath of Achilles at the Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1819). The American painter Mark Rothko was inspired by Aeschylus’ lines preceding the sacrifice of Iphigenia (Agamemnon 104–21) in his painting The Omen of the Eagle (1942). The versions of Aeschylus and Euripides (Iphigenia in Aulus; Iphigenia in Tauris) are the essential foundation of all subsequent interpretations.

The Legend of the Oresteia in Literature and Art. 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. Again, Aeschylus has influenced all subsequent interpretations. A striking nonrepresentational meditation on Clytemnestra is the pair of neon tube sculptures by the Greek-American sculptress Chryssa—the preparatory one (1967) now in Washington, D.C., and the final version (1968) in Berlin. 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, by hatred of her mother and Aegisthus, and by jealousy as well as by love and justice. Homer in the Odyssey has Zeus praise Orestes for his piety (in avenging his father’s death), while Sophocles focuses less on the horror of matricide than do the other tragedians. The saga of Orestes and Electra has given rise to innumerable interpretations: 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 two other plays: Jean Giraudoux’s Electra (1937) and The Prodigal (1960), by an American playwright, Jack Richardson.
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.).

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