Friday, September 30, 2022

Orestes by Euripides - And what had seemed so right, / as soon as done, became / evil, monstrous, wrong!

I want to invite anyone interested to join me in reading Aristotle’s Poetics, the foundation of Western literary criticism, influential to the present day and bizarrely dominant, almost sacred, for centuries.  I hope to write about it at the end of the month, having just reread all of the Greek tragedies.  Anyone who has been reading along this year will find Poetics easy going.  It will raise many curious questions.

This week, the play at hand is Euripides’s late masterpiece of despair and nihilism, Orestes (408 BCE).  I had forgotten how long it was, likely the longest of the surviving Greek plays.  Euripides makes room for the story we know from other plays, with the Furies tormenting Orestes soon after he murders his mother:

And what had seemed so right,

as soon as done, became

evil, monstrous, wrong!  (162)

New parts of the story include a major new plotline featuring cowardly Uncle Menelaus and shallow Aunt Helen.  I have included a photo from a 2018 Greek production of Orestes that must be the meeting of Electra and Helen.

I want to include some quotes from William Arrowsmith’s introduction to the play:

What we get in the Orestes is, in fact, very much like what we get in Troilus and Cressida: tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched disfigured, and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.  (106)

It is that crescendo that requires the greater length.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, for the effect to work the thing has to keep going.  It takes time, plus the big swerve in the plot when Pylades convinces Orestes and Electra that their lives will be saved if they murder Helen and perhaps her daughter, too, why not, after murdering your mother why not your aunt and cousin.  If we have learned anything from the myths of the house of Atreus it is that more murders, “murder displacing murder” (162), is always the answer. 

ELECTRA:            If then, seeing Helen

lying in a pool of blood, he decides he wants

his daughter’s life at least and agrees to spare you,

let the girl go.  On the other hand,

if he tries to kill you in a frantic burst of rage,

you slit the girl’s throat.   (180)

Electra is as nuts as any of them.  The characters all start out bad and become so much worse.

Arrowsmith calls Orestes “a kind of negative tragedy of total turbulence” where “nothing but the sense of bitterness and alienation survives the corrosive effect of the action” (106).  The deus ex machina that ends the play is similar to yet opposite of the one that ends Sophocles’s Philoctetes.  The set, the palace, is on fire, the characters doomed; Orestes has his sword to the throat of his cousin, on the verge of murdering her when Apollo drops from the sky and ends the apocalypse.  Orestes and Hermione will marry! 

I imagine Apollo as one of those articulated artist’s dummies, dangling from a rope, or some other kind of bizarre puppet, delivering his lines through a tinny loudspeaker.  “Go and honor Peace, / loveliest of goddesses,” Apollo says as he escorts Helen to the stars.

ORESTES:   And yet, when I hear you speak,

I thought I heard the whispers of some fiend

speaking through your mouth.

                                                         But all is well

and I obey.  (206)

After the performance of Orestes, Euripides went into voluntary exile in Macedonia, about as far as he could get from Athens while staying in Greece.  He only lived for a couple more years.  He wrote at least three more plays before his death in 406 BCE.  They were directed at the 405 Dionysian festival by his son, or perhaps nephew.  Two of them have survived.  Next week, the greatest of them all: The Bacchae.

The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are also, I should note, now that I am paying attention, long plays, although I think not as long as Orestes.


  1. The music for one of the stasima in "Orestes" has survived, and is worth listening to. There are several realizations of it on YouTube. We know so little about the music in the Greek theater, but there is this tantalizing bit.

    (Doug Skinner)

  2. The survival of that bit of music is astounding. Yes, easily worth hearing, and easy to find now on Youtube. The interpretations vary quite a bit.

    1. There are, at last count, 61 fragments of Ancient Greek music extant. Fortunately, there are also some musical treatises to help us read the notation. Oddly enough, there's not a single scrap of music from Ancient Rome. Go figure!

      (Doug Skinner)

    2. I see, I see. Even the Roman-era music that has survived is Greek. Interesting. Basically all from fairly recent (late 19th C. on) Egyptian sources, if I understand it correctly.

  3. This play is insane, and all the better for it. I think you're right in calling it a masterpiece. It feels like the next logical step from Aeschylus' Oresteia to Euripides' Electra is made here - whereas his Electra prods at the Oresteia, sometimes parodying it and sometimes teasing out new angles, this feels like Euripides is totally dismantling even the idea of an Oresteia, or of the entire genre of tragedy. You could say his Electra turns the characters into humans, and his Orestes turns them into monsters, except that I think the play (and lots of Euripides) argues that the difference between a human and a monster is not at all clear.

    I'm glad I read the play before reading Arrowsmith's introduction, because it allowed the craziness to sneak up on me, as I'm sure was the intent in the original. (After a few pages of noble talk about self-sacrifice, Pylades' "But since we have to die, let us think and see if there is any way of making Menelaus suffer too" was a great turn of the screw.) But Arrowsmith is bang on the money throughout. I love his line about how the play derives its power from "the exposure of the aching disparity between the ideal and the real".

    I happened to read an Agnes Callard essay this morning claiming that "art is for seeing evil" ( While I don't agree (in part because I would much rather reread Anna Karenina with Anna's parts taken out than the novel with Kitty's parts removed), I guess this play makes a point in her favor. It probably contains more evil than almost any of the tragedies, and is one of the best for it.

  4. I'm so glad you experiences the crazy effect of Orestes, the way it constantly gets worse. It is unrelenting.

    And I agree the humanness of the characters, of the whole setting, is part of the horror. The more mythic setting of the Oresteia is made all too human.

    The Callard essay is quite interesting - thanks! - but I am baffled by her insistence on the word "art." Art does, and includes, many things, obviously, yes? And very few Monet paintings or Dvorak symphonies or Cunningham dances have anything to do with "seeing evil."

  5. Yeah, the Callard essay doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, even if it's thought-provoking. I guess a more accurate thesis statement would be that "art is useful to philosphers in its ability to depict evil", which seems to be more what she's getting at.

  6. Martha Nussbaum is my go-to champion for philosophers taking literature - fiction - seriously; it was quite interesting to see another philosopher who uses literature so extensively in class.

  7. I'm holding my pace of being a week and a half behind on my reading, and just now finished Orestes. What a madhouse, what a work of genius and invention. Wow.

    I'm not sure Euripides is dismantling the idea of tragedy so much as he's dismantling ideas about destiny (unless they're the same thing, which they might be). As you say, "Apollo drops from the sky and ends the apocalypse," but does he really? Does anyone expect these guys to behave well from here on out? Or, more along the lines of Arrowsmith's ideas (I read his excellent translation), does Apollo really drop from the sky and end things? Is the audience supposed to believe it, or is Euripides pointing to the myths and asking "how could any of that be true, and isn't it more likely that everyone would just keep on killing their relatives and burning down their own houses, oh ye citizens of Athens?" As Electra says in her opening speech, "Or so the legend goes. I do not know." Why should we believe the legends? Why should we believe anything except that
    in endless long parade,
    the passing generations go,
    changing places, changing lives.
    The suffering remains
    Change and grief consume our little light.

    A masterpiece of pessimism.

  8. Yes, I think you're right. There's the dramatic function - the play is over now - but it is obviously all fake, some kind of scam, completely unbelievable.

    Orestes is among the greatest.