Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Live from Epidaurus: The Persians

"The Persians" by Aeschylus Live from Epidaurus:

For the first time ever a live ancient Greek drama performance will be streamed globally from the ancient theater of Epidaurus. 🎭

Saturday, July 25, 2020 | 2:00pm (EDT) | 9:00 pm (Athens)

By the Εθνικό Θέατρο / National Theatre of Greece, with the support of the Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού  (Ministry of Culture and Sports). In partnership with Google Greece.

As countries around the world are still exploring ways to restart theater in the post- COVID era, and as most festivals across Europe have been unfortunately canceled this year, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival will still take place, albeit in a condensed form, titled "Fragment," adhering to the strictest safety measures.

The play is in Greek with English subtitles and lasts approximately 90 minutes.

It will be streamed through https://www.livefromepidaurus.gr/ and will also be available at the websites of the National Theatre of Greece, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and the Ministry of Culture and Sports, as well as the National Theatre of Greece’s YouTube channel.


Persia and Greece - The Persians





Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Notes on Persuasion in Eumenides

Regarding the Fury: Persuasion and detheatricalization in Eumenides

The scope and object of the Oresteia is simply huge. Prior to Dante's Commedia, perhaps no other literary work sounded the matter of Justice to such depths. Its relevance to the survival of the polis in ancient Greece and its occurrence in aftertimes is unending.

From the beginning of Eumenides, Orestes is in crisis:

Πυθιάς
ἐγὼ μὲν ἕρπω πρὸς πολυστεφῆ μυχόν:
40ὁρῶ δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ὀμφαλῷ μὲν ἄνδρα θεομυσῆ
ἕδραν ἔχοντα προστρόπαιοναἵματι
στάζοντα χεῖρας καὶ νεοσπαδὲς ξίφος
ἔχοντ᾽ ἐλαίας θ᾽ ὑψιγέννητον κλάδον,
λήνει μεγίστῳ σωφρόνως ἐστεμμένον,
45ἀργῆτι μαλλῷτῇδε γὰρ τρανῶς ἐρῶ.

Pythia, Priestess of Apollo
I was on my way to the inner shrine, decked with wreaths; I saw on the center-stone a man defiled in the eyes of the gods, [40] occupying the seat of suppliants. His hands were dripping blood; he held a sword just drawn and an olive-branch, from the top of the tree, decorously crowned with a large tuft of wool, a shining fleece; for as to this I can speak clearly. [45]

In this frozen image, Orestes sits at the fulcrum of the Earth. A suppliant at the Omphalos, he holds the sword with which he killed his mother in one hand, and a "high-born" olive branch wrapped in a shining tuft of wool in the other.

Orestes has come at the direction of Apollo; the hideous Erinyes sit sleeping a few feet away. They are at the Earth's center. How will this portentous balance tip? More than just one mortal's fate clearly is at stake here.

In describing the Furies, the priestess of Apollo speaks of their resemblance to the Harpies she once saw in an image that depicted the filthy bird/women afflicting Phineus. As tempting as it is to explore this allusion in detail (all allusions in Aeschylus fascinate), suffice to say Phineus' tale is another royal house horror show. Thanks to his second wife's lies, he either blinds, entombs, or has his two sons killed; he in turn is blinded and daily endures the Harpies' despoliation of his food.

The priestess's description of the Erinyes smacks of Apollonian taste. Unlike the winged Harpies,
these are wingless in appearance, black, altogether disgusting (πᾶν βδελύκτροποι); they snore with repulsive breaths, they drip from their eyes hateful drops; their attire is not fit to bring either before the statues of the gods or into the homes of men. [55]

The word Smyth translates as "disgusting" is βδελύκτροποι -- it's more a "turning into a loathing for food" - Sommerstein has "nauseating." Thyestian echoes abound.

Treacherous husbands and wives lead to destroyed children -- such tales might lead us to question the sustainability of the oikos. Whatever may be the case with the Harpies, the Erinyes, however nauseating, are not "evil." They do the dirty work of vengeance in a world populated by autocratic Houses that owe allegiance to no one, unless they happen to believe in the gods.

If Orestes on first view appears torn between nauseous vengeance and a high born peace, this is not new. Royal houses are scenes of horrific actions and reactions arising from the capacity of humans to err. For the Greeks, humans have godlike minds and lizard spines -- split natures that make for great stories, but no universal power of Evil is at work. Neither Satan nor Calvin is on offer here.

At the end of the Oresteia, the women, children and Furies of Athens dance out of the theater (on the path of good speech) to the Areopagus. There, where Amazons once nearly took down Theseus and his city, the Erinyes will dwell at a glowing hearth within Ares' rock. The fulcrum of the play's opening has now tipped toward the olive branch.

Is there something further the play tells us about how this portentous turn takes place? Are we persuaded that we understand what Athena means by Persuasion?

I'm not sure. Here's a strictly hypothetical stab at it:

The structure of Eumenides is designed to go beyond logic, reasoned argument, silky rhetoric and legal citation. The institution of Justice only works if all parties -- including the agents of vengeance -- accept something more basic than Reason. To accept, they must understand the power to choose; to reach that understanding, they first must have standing.

One way to look at it: Orestes stands between bloody vengeance and the olive. But it's not about his turning from one to the other -- it's about a turning of vengeance and the olive until they are both on the same side of Orestes.

This re-positioning, or superpositioning of Furies and Citizens, gives them each the power to choose.

For Aeschylus, Persuasion can occur suddenly and wholly, changing the world. Peithous makes that which is unlike what one believes into the reality one cannot disbelieve.

The play's skein of images involving dreaming and waking, image and reality, figure and substance present the performative effect of Persuasion in phenomenal terms.

The first moment we "see" the Furies comes through the eyes of the Priestess: even asleep they're hideous. Then the former Queen of Argus tries to wake them to avenge her murder, but she herself is part of the dream, and vanishes in their awakening. Clytemnestra has no "standing" outside of the dream she is desperate to disrupt.

When Athena arrives at her temple and sees the Furies and Orestes, she notices the suppliant holding the hallowed wooden image of herself. She compares him to Ixion (the text is unclear as to whether Athena says the young man is like Ixion, or unlike him, but it's moot here).

The allusion is to a notorious suppliant driven insane after murdering his father in law. Ixion came to Zeus and was purified. In gratitude he sought to cuckold the Father of Gods and Men, but Zeus saw him coming a mile away. The scapegrace bedded a cloud that looked like Hera, and begat the race of Centaurs, the Ixionidae. Then he got affixed to his ever-turning wheel.

Regardless of what Athena meant by her Ixion reference, what matters is that Orestes goes from holding a wooden image to addressing the goddess. Where Clytemnestra dwindled from murderous Queen to dream image, the statue her murderer clings to brings Athena, who helps restore him to a lordly life.

Clytemnestra is a signifier within a system of signifiers, a dream. Athena, coming from outside, is the substantial referent of the wooden signifier. Their totally different standings lead to distinctly contrary outcomes of their efforts at persuasion. One instantly vanishes; the other achieves the crucial persuasive act that resolves the crisis of Eumenides. 

One would expect Athena's decisive act of persuasion would bear the hallmarks of an unforgettable oration worthy of St. Crispin's Day. Yet as we have seen, the prose exchange in which Athena and the Furies work out their deal stands out precisely for its flat style, spliced between the high strains of tragic kommos that precede and follow.

Within the genre of tragic verse, to sound like "everyday" is to sound like how people talk when they are not in a play -- the vernacular of now. This "modern" scene in the Oresteia is not something that happens as a sequel to an archaic "before." Rather, consonant with its root sense, modern now means "now," when '"now"' is any moment not under the theatrical spell of the archaic.

Think of the citizen assembly. It's not some enchanted event set to rhythm and sung -- it's the ordinary speech of the process of democracy. Yet, says Athena,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκράτησε Ζεὺς ἀγοραῖος: (973)

but Zeus of the assembly has prevailed.

Consider the issue between Athena and the Furies as posing a choice of genre -- do we stay in the archaic song of automated blood vengeance, or leave it behind?To leave is to wake into the now of modernity. It may happen in an instant, and in fact does so when Eumenides suddenly drops from the sturm und drang of its heightened kommos to the prose parley of Athena and the Furies.

Beginning with line 881 the entire play steps out of its powerful rhythms, emotions and furious mythic violence into prosaic modernity and negotiated choices. (More on that scene here.)

When Athena expresses gratitude to Persuasion (whether goddess or facility of language), she says:

στέργω δ᾽ ὄμματα Πειθοῦς,
ὅτι μοι γλῶσσαν καὶ στόμ᾽ ἐπωπᾷ
πρὸς τάσδ᾽ ἀγρίως ἀπανηναμένας:
I am grateful to Persuasion, that her eyes kept watch over my tongue and mouth, when I encountered their fierce rejections. (Eum. 970-72)

Thanks to watchful Persuasion, the goddess chooses civil forebearance.There is no coercion of divine power, no magic spell, no shock associated with peripeteia, yet there is no question her momentous equanimity turns into the decisive act of Eumenides. It doesn't seem irresponsible to define what she achieves here as a de-theatricalization of the tragic sublime. The choice is no longer Bloody Sword or Olive Branch -- one chooses the new complex entity comprised of both.

The Furies sing:
δέξομαι Παλλάδος ξυνοικίαν 
I will join the house of Pallas   (Eum. 916),
The "house of Pallas" now is altogether different from the archaic oikos. To the extent her citizens model wisdom, the goddess of the play and the people of the House of Pallas coincide. Erasing the "fourth wall," the sign we name the Oresteia points beyond itself to the polis, godlike so long as it can be
κερδῶν ἄθικτον τοῦτο βουλευτήριον,
αἰδοῖον, ὀξύθυμον, εὑδόντων ὕπερἐγρηγορὸς φρούρημα γῆς καθίσταμαι.
. . . untouched by greed, worthy of reverence, quick to anger, awake on behalf of those who sleep, a guardian of the land. (Eum. 704-06)
Together the Oresteia's cast and audience pour joyously into the streets of everyday Athens. Their eyes turn to regard the face of the fury.



Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. James Baldwin.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Clytemnestra vs. Athena: Two peripeteias in the Oresteia

The peripeteia of Eumenides has at least two remarkable features. First, Athena's "act" involves none of the archaic acts of vengeance that are the stuff of tragedy -- no banishing, cursing, death or bloody stroke of violence resolves the tension. Second, the brief scene of Persuasion is notable for its stylistic plainness, unmarked by the rhythms and myth-borne intensities of other portions of the trilogy.

The formal plainness suits the work modeled by Athena -- no axes are wielded in reaching a new definition of Dike and of the polis itself, though these new signifieds will yield revolutionary changes.

Before examining these features of Athena's work, let's compare her peripeteia with that of Athena's "other" in the Oresteia, Clytemnestra.

In her moment of triumph, the Queen discloses the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra whom she has just killed secretly in the oikos. She then publicly proclaims that her warm reception of the king was all an act, a necessary and well played fiction:

Κλυταιμήστρα

πολλῶν πάροιθεν καιρίως εἰρημένων
τἀναντί᾽ εἰπεῖν οὐκ ἐπαισχυνθήσομαι.
πῶς γάρ τις ἐχθροῖς ἐχθρὰ πορσύνωνφίλοις
1375δοκοῦσιν εἶναιπημονῆς ἀρκύστατ᾽ ἂν
φράξειενὕψος κρεῖσσον ἐκπηδήματος;
ἐμοὶ δ᾽ ἀγὼν ὅδ᾽ οὐκ ἀφρόντιστος πάλαι
νείκης παλαιᾶς ἦλθεσὺν χρόνῳ γε μήν:
ἕστηκα δ᾽ ἔνθ᾽ ἔπαισ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἐξειργασμένοις.
1380οὕτω δ᾽ ἔπραξακαὶ τάδ᾽ οὐκ ἀρνήσομαι:

Clytaemestra
Much have I said before to serve my need and I shall feel no shame to contradict it now. For how else could one, devising hate against a hated foe [1375] who bears the semblance of a friend, fence the snares of ruin too high to be overleaped? This is the contest of an ancient feud, pondered by me of old, and it has come, however long delayed.I stand where I dealt the blow; my purpose is achieved. [1380] Thus have I done the deed; deny it I will not.

"To serve my need" is καιρίως - the kairotic moment, knowing and using it to make the most of the opportunity. It is not something one controls - one seizes it when it comes.

The "feud" was ancient; the Queen waited. As she describes how she bound the naked king and struck him with her ax three times, clearly she feels she now possesses his power. She glories in the deed:


Κλυταιμήστρα

ὡς μήτε φεύγειν μήτ᾽ ἀμύνεσθαι μόρον,
ἄπειρον ἀμφίβληστρονὥσπερ ἰχθύων,
περιστιχίζωπλοῦτον εἵματος κακόν.
παίω δέ νιν δίςκἀν δυοῖν οἰμωγμάτοιν
1385μεθῆκεν αὑτοῦ κῶλακαὶ πεπτωκότι
τρίτην ἐπενδίδωμιτοῦ κατὰ χθονὸς
Διὸς νεκρῶν σωτῆρος εὐκταίαν χάριν.
οὕτω τὸν αὑτοῦ θυμὸν ὁρμαίνει πεσών:
κἀκφυσιῶν ὀξεῖαν αἵματος σφαγὴν
 Clytaemnestra
Round him, as if to catch a haul of fish, I cast an impassable net—fatal wealth of robe—so that he should neither escape nor ward off doom. Twice I struck him, and with two groans [1385] his limbs relaxed. Once he had fallen, I dealt him yet a third stroke to grace my prayer to the infernal Zeus, the savior of the dead. Fallen thus, he gasped away his life, and as he breathed forth quick spurts of blood, [1390]

Her narrative of the murder vividly acts it out. It's as if now that she has usurped Agamemnon, Clytemnestra is able to say -- to signify -- anything she wishes, likely expecting the citizens to applaud her performance for its theatrical effects.

The coup de grace brings an extraordinary simile comparing Agamemnon's blood striking her to Zeus-sent raindrops that rejoice the birthpangs of flower buds (or husks of corn):

Κλυταιμήστρα

1390βάλλει μ᾽ ἐρεμνῇ ψακάδι φοινίας δρόσου,
χαίρουσαν οὐδὲν ἧσσον  διοσδότῳ
γάνει σπορητὸς κάλυκος ἐν λοχεύμασιν.
Clytaemnestra 
he struck me with dark drops of gory dew; while I rejoiced no less than the sown earth is gladdened in heaven's refreshing rain at the birthtime of the flower buds.

Peak triumph comes in an orgasmic explosion of new life. The murder of the King gives Clytemnestra not only usurpative political power, but the generative power, literally, of expression -- of the signifier.

Having replaced the King as ruler of the oikos, she assumes the right to declare what is just. She now instructs the Chorus to rejoice:


Κλυταιμήστρα
ὡς ὧδ᾽ ἐχόντωνπρέσβος Ἀργείων τόδε,
χαίροιτ᾽ ἄνεἰ χαίροιτ᾽ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἐπεύχομαι.
1395εἰ δ᾽ ἦν πρεπόντων ὥστ᾽ ἐπισπένδειν νεκρῷ,
τῷδ᾽ ἂν δικαίως ἦνὑπερδίκως μὲν οὖν.
τοσῶνδε κρατῆρ᾽ ἐν δόμοις κακῶν ὅδε
πλήσας ἀραίων αὐτὸς ἐκπίνει μολών.

Clytaemnestra 
Since then the case stands thus, old men of Argos, rejoice, if you would rejoice; as for me, I glory in the deed. [1395] And had it been a fitting act to pour libations on the corpse, over him this would have been done justly, more than justly. With so many accursed lies has he filled the mixing-bowl in his own house, and now he has come home and himself drained it to the dregs.

In telling the old men of Argos to rejoice (χαίροιτ᾽ ἄνεἰ χαίροιτ᾽), Clytemnestra is dictating how they should respond -- the exuberance is all hers.


Death mask of Agamemnon


If we juxtapose this highly theatrical peripeteia of Agamemnon with that of Athena in Eumenides, interesting contrasts emerge.

Like Clytemnestra, Athena seizes the kairotic moment, although it doesn't seem like one, given the degree of resistance she encounters.

Where Clytemnestra used deceit, binding force and murder to win control of the oikos of Argos, Athena uses restraint, dialog and practical negotiation. She replaces coercion and murder with choice, presenting the Furies with the option taking her offer or leaving Athens. Unused to autonomy they take time, but the more they learn and negotiate, the more beguiling it seems. They choose to become shareholders in a new political order.

Stylistically the differences are radical. Not only does Athena not act out any triumph, but as we have noted previously, what is at stake in Eumenides' peripeteia is not a generative birth of some natural young growth, but the composition of a new order that's transparently deliberated and agreed on by both Furies and citizens.

If we return to our tools of cognitive rhetoric, we can say that Clytemnestra's peripeteia enacts the power of metaphor to replace one signifier with another. Usurping Agamemnon, the Queen takes his place over Argos. Blood spurting from Agamemnon's dying body generates the nurturing "gory dew" that feeds burgeoning life. Metaphor is showy -- it heightens signification by the violence of one signifier supplanting another's drained corpse with daring novelty.

Catachresis is otherwise. For Athena's act of persuasion to succeed, a shared acceptance of new meanings for old words like Dike and polis is necessary. New wine is poured into these old wineskins, as the traditional example has it.

Metaphor may dazzle with gaudy show, but catachresis succeeds only through common assent. Anyone can say that this or that parole possesses a new meaning, but unless the langue shared by the community accepts it, that person could be labeled an idiot or worse. Metaphor is poetic; catachresis political.

Athena's scene offers other interesting differences: In contrast to the bloody glimpse of nature in labor given us by Clytemnestra, Athena offers a distinctly different view, in which the "blessings from the earth and from the waters of the sea and from the heavens" mingle with the breathing winds, sunshine, fruits and beasts:


Athena 
Blessings that aim at a victory not evil; blessings from the earth and from the waters of the sea and from the heavens: that the breathing gales of wind may approach the land in radiant sunshine, and that the fruit of the earth and offspring of grazing beasts, flourishing in overflow, may not fail my citizens in the course of time, and that the seed of mortals will be kept safe. May you make more prosperous the offspring of godly men; for I, like a gardener (φιτυποίμενος), cherish the race of these just men, free of sorrow.  (Eum. 903-12)
As noted in the last post, the word translated here as "blessings" is more commonly understood to mean songs or chants. No blood-soaked births, but an intertwined earth, sea, and sky whose breathing gales seem inseparable from human song. At least one scholar has noted that thanks to a curious agrammaticality, the winds in the passage run off with the sentence.*

One further parallel:

When Clytemnestra discloses her private act to the men of Argos, she tells them to rejoice if they feel like it (they don't): χαίροιτ᾽ ἄνεἰ χαίροιτ᾽ (Ag. 1394).

To Athena's resonant words
Are they minded to find the path
of fair speech?
From these fearsome faces
I see great benefit coming to these citizens;  (Eum. 988-92)

comes the spontaneous response:

Χορός

χαίρετε χαίρετ᾽ ἐν αἰσιμίαισι πλούτου.
χαίρετ᾽ ἀστικὸς λεώς,
ἴκταρ ἥμενοι Διός,
παρθένου φίλας φίλοι
1000σωφρονοῦντες ἐν χρόνῳ.
Chorus
Rejoice rejoice, in the wealth you fitly deserve. Rejoice, people of the city, seated close to the virgin daughter of Zeus, loving and loved, wise in due season!
 (Sommerstein)
To which Athena crowns the kairotic moment:
χαίρετε χὐμεῖς -- you too, rejoice!

One last post will bring this to a close, si spera.

*Aeschylus Eumenides Introduction and Notes, A. Sidgewick says of this passage: