Echoes and Whisperings

Colin Burrow

  • House of Names by Colm Tóibín
    Viking, 262 pp, £12.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 25768 5

At the start of Aeschylus’ Oresteia a watchman sees a flaming beacon. This is supposed to be the sign that Troy has fallen and that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan war. The watchman briefly rejoices. Then he says (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation): ‘The rest/I leave to silence; for an ox stands huge upon/my tongue. The house itself, could it take voice, might speak/aloud and plain.’ Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, has taken Aegisthus as a lover. Neither the present nor the future is something anyone wants to talk about. And the future is indeed grim: Clytemnestra fulsomely welcomes Agamemnon home then tangles him in a net while he is bathing, and slaughters him. She then is killed by her son, Orestes, who is pursued by the Furies.

The reason Aeschylus belongs at the origin of the Western theatrical tradition is not just that he happens to be the earliest Greek tragedian for whom we have texts of whole plays (the Oresteia trilogy was performed in 458 bc; Oedipus Rex dates from around 429 bc). He did most of the things that have remained distinctive to drama. People (particularly Clytemnestra) speak powerfully but often don’t say what they think, and their motives are often dark in the sense of both ‘obscure’ and ‘bad’. Aeschylus sometimes implies that given a slightly different set of choices a whole different story might have emerged. Things which appear or are ‘seen’ onstage have a graphically apparent meaning, but often then become so embedded in the texture of the plays’ language that their significance ceases to be clear. So Clytemnestra welcomes Agamemnon home by asking him to step on rich tapestries (which presumably are seen by an audience). But after she traps him in a web of fabric to kill him offstage, those cloths seem as it were to enter the fabric of the verse: the language of the plays is full of nets and snares and weaving. Even clear and visible symbols like the opening beacon may not mean what they appear to mean, and may convey different things to different people.

Aeschylus made lots of different things go on in a single scene or speech or image, and in so doing established a way of representing the post-Trojan phase of Greek mythology that was both influential and adaptable. The idea, say, that Orestes might not have a sufficient motive for killing his mother is just about apparent enough in Aeschylus to enable other writers to imagine different versions of Orestes who act or hesitate for slightly different reasons. Among Aeschylus’ successors, Euripides in particular often seems to have heard things in the Oresteia that are not part of its overt content, and then developed these into alternative versions of Clytemnestra and Electra and Orestes, who are often both stranger and more sympathetic than the characters presented by Aeschylus. Once you’ve witnessed Euripides’ Clytemnestra appeal to Agamemnon not to slaughter their daughter, in Iphigenia in Aulis of 405 bc, it’s hard not to project her outrage at being betrayed by her husband back onto Aeschylus’ dark-speaking and destructive Clytemnestra, and see in the later representation of her an explanation for the actions of the earlier.

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