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A review of Aeschylus for Sandman fans. (10/1/94)
So, I just finished reading the trilogy
of plays by Aeschylus "The Oresteia"
("Agamemnon", "The Libation Bearers", Written around 400 BC,
and of course, our friends "The roughly contemporary
Eumenides"). I was reading the Penguin with Plato, but 400
edition, translated by Robert Fagles. years after Homer,
and 400 years before
I thought they were pretty good: I was Aristotle.
most impressed by "Agamemnon", though
they all have good things about them.
You can easily imagine every line of
these plays shouted out on stage, they
all seem to speak or sing in
proclamations, exclamations, and so on.
This is in sharp contrast to modern
plays, where the actors are expected to
learn how to do "natural" dialog at the
tops of their lungs. In fact it all
kind of reminded me of a somewhat
classier version of Marvel comics dialog
(all exclamation points, never a
period). I mean, check this line from
"The Libation Bearers":
Both fists at once
come down, come down --
Zeus, crush their skulls! Kill! Kill!
Now is that Frank Miller, or what?
I was also impressed by a lot of the
staging in general. For example --
(*** oh, here's a ***SPOILERS*** warning.
Just in case you want to be surprized by
all the twists, just like Aeschylus'
original audience was. ***)
In "Agamemnon", there's a lot of dialog
between two characters (one of them the
"leader") which is punctuated by the
"Chorus" who represent the will of the people...
But then as the tension builds, the
Chorus comes in, singing *in sync* with
the leader... this must be a really
spooky effect the first time you see it.
And what the play is about is
"Agamemnon" being murdered by his
wife. But instead of having the
murder take place on stage, what you
actually have is this Seer
(Cassandra), babbling semi-coherently
about what's going to happen, as the
Leader questions her. And then you
hear Agamemnon cry out inside from
off-stage when the murder happens.
The Chorus breaks up into a mass of
individuals, yelling different things,
representing the chaos that breaks out
after the murder.
Now that's Theater.
But what does all this have to do with
The Sandman? Well, we're all reading
about "The Kindly Ones" right now, aka
"The Eumenides". Briefly this is the
story of the Orestia:
Agamemnon goes off to war with Troy
because Paris has kidnapped his I remember hearing some
brother's wife Helen. In order to win skepticism that a real
this war (to escape a storm at sea, nation state would
really), he sacrifices his daughter actually go to war over
Iphigeneia to the gods. In the first a woman. Perhaps this
play, after winning the war, he returns was their excuse, but
home and is murdered by his wife there must have been some
Clytaemnestra (because he killed their economic motivation also,
daughter). In the second play, their yes?
son Orestes returns from exile, having
been prompted by Apollo to kill his On the other hand...
mother (because she killed his father). perhaps this is a
In the third play, the Furies are after symptom of our own
Orestes' ass, but they are held off by nation's sickness,
the intervention of Apollo, who gets that we refrain from
Athena to save him, essentially by war even when our
establishing what is apparently supposed citizen's have been
to be the first murder trial, where taken hostage.
Athena gets to cast the deciding vote. If the hostage
They also manage to get the Furies to strategy is allowed
chill out and not destroy the world in to work, then it will
anger at being defied by the younger happen over and over,
gods like this. right?
There's a bunch of things going on here. But then, Helen
One is a theological issue, a territory was not just
dispute between the older beliefs (the The any citizen.
Fates, the Furies) and the newer gods forerunner
(Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc.). But this of the Would we go to
also evidentally conicides with a civic split war with Iran
issue, the supression of blood feuds in between if Iranian
favor of a trial by jury system. Xtians terrorists
& Jews? kidnapped
And there are all sorts of amazing side Madonna?
issues... for example, when Apollo is ((Huh?))
arguing for Orestes, one of his points Hillary
is that killing your mother isn't really Clinton?
a blood crime, because the mother is
just an incubator for the father's seed.
And the Furies couldn't care less about
a woman murdering her husband. After
all, they're not related, right?
And the justice of springing Orestia for
killing his Mom, when his Mom thought
she was similarly justified in offing
his Pop for commiting a similar blood
crime is all very peculiar. No one
cares that Agamemnon killed his
daughter, because that was a sacrifice
to Artemis, and very good statesmanship
But anyway, there are lots of puzzles
here for loyal Sandman fans trying to
follow what Neil Gaiman is doing with
this material. "The Kindly Ones" is a
translation of "The Eumenides". Can we
expect Gaiman to follow Aeschylus?
There are some parallels: Morpheus has
committed a blood-crime, but our
sympathies are with him. What he's done
seems just, it's just a technical
violation of the rules.
Apollo is only a minor figure in
Gaiman's cosmology, though Morpheus
often seems to play Apollo's role. But
he can hardly appeal to himself for
protection, and no one really urged him
on to kill his son... except Delerium?
Or perhaps Destruction?
If the "Eumenides" is any rough guide,
though, the things in store for us are
not just personal changes for Morpheus
(death and/or retirement), but
fundamental changes in the "rules", the
definition of the "responsibilities"
that the endless live by.
Well, in conclusion, I recommend these
plays to any sandfans hanging around,
awaiting the almost mythical next issue.
They aren't all that difficult to get
into (I had to check the Glossary a
number of times to get the relationships
of all the characters straight, but I
mostly ignored the notes, and I've only
skimmed the long and rather beserk &
breathless introductary essay in the That's Robert
Penguin edition). Fagles for you.
Here's a parting quote, from early in
Agamemnon, where the Chorus is filling
us in on the historical background of
Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter:
'Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will
crush me! --
Oh but doom will crush me
once I rend my child,
the glory of my house --
a father's hands are stained,
blood of a young girl streaks the altar.
Pain both ways and what is worse?
Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?
No, but stop the winds with a virgin's blood,
feed their lust, their fury? -- feed their fury! --
Law is law! --
Let all go well.'
And once he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate,
his spirit veering black, impure, unholy,
once he turned he stopped at nothing,
seized with the frenzy
blinding driving to outrage --
wretched frenzy, cause of all our grief!
Yes, he had the heart
to sacrifice his daughter,
to bless the war that avenged a woman's loss,
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