Agamemnon by Aiskhylos
Elektra by Sophokles
Orestes by Euripides
translated by Anne Carson
Faber and Faber ($27)

by W. C. Bamberger

The first sentence of Anne Carson’s introduction to these translations is, “Not my idea to do this.” An Oresteia includes Carson’s translations of three tragedies, Agamemnon by Aiskhylos, Elektra by Sophokles, and Orestes by Euripides. Each presents one episode from the tragedy of the house of Atreus: in the first, Agamemnon returns from the Trojan war and is murdered by his wife Klytaimestra; in the second she is murdered by her son Orestes with the collusion of her daughter Elektra; and in the third, Orestes fights madness, the two children are nearly stoned to death, and Apollo issues orders that more or less tie up all the frayed ends. Carson had translated Elektra in 1987 and Orestes in 2006. She thought herself done with the house of Atreus. But Brian Kulick, artist director of the Classics Stage Company, approached her to translate Aiskhylos’s version of the first episode and create a trilogy. Reluctant at first, Carson eventually agreed.

Kulick’s idea was that the three playwrights wrote from three different attitudes toward Athenian civilization, roughly corresponding to seeing it in sunrise, at midday, and at sunset, as Athens began to decline. This conceit is not a perfect fit for the plays, with the first two staying faithful to the tragic form and the third subverting and twisting it. But Carson uses different kinds of language to convey the divergent styles of the three playwrights. In Agamemnon, the language is at once recognizably modern and supple even as it retains the tone of Greek tragedy as we know it, as when the chorus says,

O Zeus king, O night of glory
You have thrown over the towers of Troy
A net so vast no man could overleap it,
A dragnet of alleneveloping doom.

But by the third play—that which Kulick identifies with the decline of a civilization—Carson’s willingness to employ the vernacular pushes the language in another direction, as when an effeminate slave tells how Orestes abducted Helen, meaning to murder her:

He leads her, he leads her, she follows away
and then it gets worse, Helen’s bad day.
The snaky guy jumps on the bodyguards
snarling out his lips,
     “You Trojan trash, I’ll clip your tips!”

This change of register, this willingness to insert more jarring anachronisms—from “okay” to “bad shit happening” to Helen being described as “that weapon of mass destruction” and more—can be disconcerting at first. But what Carson is trying to present in these plays is not just a translation of the words. She does not approach the plays as a linguist, but as the original playwrights did: as a storyteller. And as with any good storyteller, she is trying to convey the feeling of the experience of the story rather than the simple facts. So where she feels a modern expression will make us be more attentive to the playwright’s intended complex of emotions she feels free to use it. Elsewhere, Carson has written of the painter Francis Bacon’s wish to “grant sensation without the boredom of its conveyance”; at times in her translations here, Carson disregards the boredom of temporal fidelity in favor of evoking the sensations the plays are meant to convey.

Indeed, it’s the language, the rhetorical arias of the characters, that carries these plays. In Agamemnon, Klytaimestra boils over with the will for revenge, and Kassandra’s near-surrealistic but precise description of how Agamemnon is to die make audible the adrenaline terrors of anger and violence. InElektra, the title character mourns and laments to an extent that even she agrees is excessive, but it is also how she stays true to herself. In Orestes, the title character’s chaotic speeches convey his struggle to avoid madness, which threatens him as imminently as does death by stoning. But while excess is definition for all these characters through most of the trilogy, the third play finally offers a way out of the tragic maze: balance. As Orestes raves from pole to extreme pole, Menelaos offers to speak to the crowd that wants to stone Orestes and Elektra:

A mob lives on passion, but also compassion.


You know, when the sail is too tight the
ship goes under:
slack off a bit and it justifies itself.
God hates a fanatic. So do good citizens.

Orestes’s sail is indeed too tight, so much so that he considers Menelaos a coward and disloyal, and pushes for more confrontation. In the end Apollo appears ex machina, to save the unbalanced cast from themselves: he transports Helen to divine safety, stops the murdering, and marries off the cast in ways that diffuse old blood revenge by balancing it with new blood loyalties. He also says, evoking another, more terrible kind of balance, that Helen was only a “mechanism of the gods,” used to kill off a number of both Greeks and Trojans, to preserve their balance even while reducing their troublesome numbers. Because murder and coercion are used even by Apollo to attain his ends, it certainly isn’t about moderation, but it is about the power of balance.

Curiously, Carson claims not to see it this way. She writes of Euripides as seeming “to prefer maximum exasperation in the final scene, where all the lines of the plot have been pushed to impasse and categories like good/evil, happy/unhappy, mortal/immortal are sliding around so crazily that only a god can make things clear. . . . [But] the god in question (it is Apollo) dictates a series of solutions that make nonsense of all the actions and anguish of the characters up to that point.” She also says that the play is a “wild, heartless, unconstruable statement,” and suggests Euripides was simply throwing the pieces of his drama in the air to see how they might randomly fall. This is strange, as the point of the play’s resolution seems clear from the text—still, such a view is defensible. But other of Carson’s comments are even more curious, because they seem to contradict the texts as she herself translates them. In the introduction toOrestes, for example, she writes that the scene where Orestes lies to Elektra, telling her the ashes in an urn are his own, is “a hard nut to crack. Why does Orestes decide to trick his sister into thinking he’s dead? Why does he give it up in the middle?” Carson’s own translation makes it clear that Orestes does not recognize Elektra (they have not seen one another in many years), and so doesn’t know whether she is friend or enemy, but that as soon as he understands who she is he “gives up” the ruse and takes her into his confidence.

Perhaps this is why Carson makes some of the puzzling comments she does in her notes: because she wants her readers to read the text deeply, to understand and feel it. The mildly jarring, too-modern idioms in the spoken lines would do much the same for an audience, but readers are more inclined to see words as settled on the page, and perhaps even to believe they already know these old stories. But the (feigned, I believe) puzzlement in Carson’s comments refuses to let us read what we think we know. In both language and in commentary, then, Carson’s intent is to force readers to experience these plays as if for the first time.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009