Anne Carson, An Oresteia (Faber and Faber, 2009)
Imagine: only four of Shakespeare’s plays survive. The rest were destroyed by the Puritans or burned in the Great Fire. Hamlet is one of the survivors. It becomes so universal a myth that it is rewritten by every great playwright who follows.
Then imagine someone today producing a Hamlet with the first two acts by the Bard, III and IV by Ibsen, and V by Pirandello. Welcome to Anne Carson’s Oresteia.
Carson takes Agamemnon, the first of Aeschylus’s three plays about the house of Atreus, and follows it with Sophocles’s Elektra and Euripides’s Orestes. It’s a wonderful concept: the three great Tragedians of classical Athens collaborating for the first time, two and half millennia later. Add to the mix her bold and idiosyncratic translation of the plays, and you have a truly fresh take on the origins of Western drama.
A plot summary: Agamemnon gets killed by Clytemnestra on his return from Troy, for having made a human sacrifice of their daughter ten years before. Elektra spends the following years not letting anyone forget her mother’s crime, until her brother Orestes returns and kills Mom and her lover. Then he goes mad with remorse and is threatened with execution, until Apollo shows up and absolves him.
Carson’s language is simple and direct, in text with elegant line breaks reminiscent of modernist poetry, the emotional rhythms of the speech laid out for the eye. She preserves the rhyme scheme of the chorus’s speech in places, so much so that at times the resulting singsong seems almost silly. Her innovative creation of compound words (“manminded”, “strifeplanting”) is more effective. “A dread devising everrecurring everrembering anger” sums up the three plays in one phrase.
The most effective of the bold strokes is the original conceit of letting the three tragedians’ essences stand out in contrast to each other. Aeschylus is all clean line of action, with only one pause in the movement toward retribution, for Cassandra’s ever-unheeded warning. Sophocles dwells on the paradox of obsession, that Elektra achieves nothing by it, yet would be nothing without it. Euripides lets the madness previously contained in the characters break out in the play as a whole: Orestes goes from moaning wreck to homicidal maniac to bridegroom of his intended victim, while the chorus echoes every change in mood, becoming as unstable as the protagonist. The ever-increasing complexity of plot from play to play mirrors Athens’s history during the lifetimes of the three playwrights, from leader among the Greek city-states allied against Persia to hated empire defeated by its former allies. “Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself,” says Elektra. Could the America of the last eight years deny it?
For all the darkness in these dramas, there are moments of giddy humor, banter like a knife tossed back and forth, and Carson’s emphatically contemporary diction makes the dialogue snap and shine. Occasionally, the tone drops and the contemporary usage edges to the point of flippancy. “Fabulous.” says the Trojan slave spared death by Orestes. “Unless I reconsider.” says Orestes. “Not fabulous,” replies the slave.
But if Carson pushes it too far at times-—and it’s hard to imagine Cassandra saying “okay” or Elektra “payback”—then that’s her right as a contrarian, a revolutionizer. In freeing the language from the lofty to flowery range in tone of so many earlier translations, she taps into the live-wire shock the plays contain: hatred a force as strong as gravity, memory an anchor that can drag you under. The ponderous pace other translations have laid over the plays is stripped away; you feel the action straining to leap to its conclusion, or, in Euripides’s case, rushing to its inconclusion.
Carson’s brief introductions, preceding each play, are dense pleasures. She writes that Orestes “seems to unfold like a bolt of cloth falling downstairs,” and of Elektra: “she is a torrent of self.” But let’s leave the last word to Aeschylus, who came first:
Zeus put mortals on the road to wisdom
when he laid down this law:
By suffering we learn.
Yet there drips in sleep before my heart
A grief remembering pain.
Good sense comes the hard way.
Win Clevenger lives in Manhattan and is working on his first book.