Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.29

Ewans, Michael, Aischylos: The Oresteia. [Everyman] London: J.M. Dent. 1995. Pp. xli+240. ISBN 0-460-87548-5.

Reviewed by C.W. Marshall & I.C. Storey, Ancient History & Classics
Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, CANADA, K9J 7B8
Word Count: 4,084

Michael Ewans' new translation of the Oresteia is predicated on understanding the text as performance, and as such is overdue and welcome. Such an emphasis yields a very different result from Cookson's 1906 Everyman translation, an unsuccessful mixture of high style and a Shakespearian colloquialism. The translation is accompanied by an introduction (xv-xli) and a lengthy section of "Notes" (125-222) which combines interpretative and dramaturgical comments in a scene-by-scene analysis, though the best material often is found in the footnotes. E. has tested his translations in performance, and has evidently been satisfied with the result, but more information about the nature of E.'s own productions would help to clarify some of the assumptions that underlie these observations, and would go far in explaining the way in which these notes impede an appreciation of Aischylos' performance, which is surely the more relevant production in a book of this type which is intended to become a definitive undergraduate text.

As this is clearly intended for a wide audience and as a text for students, there are places in the introduction where E. is misleading or even inaccurate, and where students would need to be warned. He assumes far too confidently a date of 501 for the introduction of tragedy, citing Connor (1989) as if that settled the case (xvii n. 4). But the arguments for a 501-date are not decisive, nor is the evidence for 534 as weak as E. suggests. This is all part of recent efforts to make tragedy a child of the democracy, not of the tyranny, and to see in tragedy some essential and innate link with the Athenian democracy, and it is not fully convincing. The total male population of Attica is not 6000, clearly (xviii); Ewans has confused a quorum number in the assembly with the total. Gomme suggested there were about 30,000 in the late fifth century. On the same page he does cite Henderson (again as if this was the last word) on women in the theatre; he could have added Podlecki (Ancient World 21 [1990] 27-43), and more recently Goldhill argues for their exclusion (in Ritual, Finance, and Politics). Again E. assumes the existential link between tragedy and the state (xviii, xxiii), but there are other approaches; Stanford, Heath, and most recently Jasper Griffin in the 1996 Stubbs Lecture (Toronto, March 1996) all stress the entertainment value.

E.'s use of "standard version" and "near canonical" is misleading since there was no real such thing as a standard version (xxvii-xxviii). In the case of the Orestes-story a developing story can be traced, but this is not done. In his discussion on innovations, E. neglects the stream of material between Homer and Aischylos (Nostoi, Xanthos, Stesichoros, Pindar); he does not mention Robbins' article in the Conacher volume (Greek Tragedy and its Legacy) or Prag's iconographical work (the last a serious omission). More contentious still is his denial of a "progressive" view in the trilogy (xxxi), a conclusion students will have to take with a grain of salt. Whether we are completely happy with the ending of the third play--see Goldhill's excellent discussion in Aeschylus: The Oresteia (1992)--Aischylos <i>was</i> showing something significant happening and he <i>was</i> giving us a solution at the end of the trilogy. E. says, "A. was well aware that no law court could solve a dilemma like Orestes'" (xxxi); however solve the dilemma is precisely what Aeschylos does do in Eumenides. The case for "progress" is well put by Conacher and Sommerstein (E. does not deal with the latter's exegesis of hazetai in v.1002). E. can even find an "ultimately affirmative view of mankind" (xxxiv), which is seemingly at odds with his earlier non-progressive reading of the trilogy. Similarly, E. passes over without comment the very significant LB 120 with its opposition of dikephoros (the reality of the past) and dikastes (the promise for the future). The line is translated "To judge them, or to be the instrument of Justice?" (58); the implications do not square well with E.'s anti-progressive view.

Even though E. does state that all staging comments in the "Notes" are only "further suggestions" (xxxviii) they are presented with a confidence that will confound many in the intended audience. For example, throughout the notes, E. suggests particular locations in the playing area (which rightfully is thought to include both skene and orchestra) where characters stand or move--E. rejects a low stage on performance grounds (xx), but does so in the face of the comic evidence which does suggest something there, even if it is not very high. Obviously these locations cannot be prescriptive; for example, Klytaimestra's initial entry (at Ag. 258) is accompanied with a movement, where we are told that the extreme right centre or extreme left centre of the orchestra (ERC or ELC in E.'s shorthand) "work best" (136). Such a judgement is of course subjective and based on modern aesthetics concerning balance and symmetry. Even if these notions were shown to be part of the theatrical aesthetic of the fifth century, the presentation of an alternative does nothing to tell the reader what the audience saw one spring morning in 458. Visualization of a play's action is important, but such dicta are less helpful than an explanation of why he is disregarding Taplin's notion that she stays near the door as a guardian, which is not included, but would potentially be relevant to E.'s otherwise helpful description (xxv-xxvii, and 217) of the dualism between male/outside v. female/inside and how the oikos/polis theme works. E. regularly footnotes his own works at the expense of, e.g., Conacher, Denniston and Page, Heath, Sommerstein, Taplin, which means the student does not have access to the best discussions. A diagram would have been of great help to explain the staging shorthand to the non-expert.

Even if his regular use of "must", "best", and the like, is disregarded or at least softened, it seems that E. is content to have performers regularly and repeatedly turn their backs on the audience, which many who have used full masks in production have found to destroy dramatic illusion. How E. avoided that problem (which would make many of his suggested moves at least plausible) is missing. E. has removed a notion of tragedy as "static, ritualized, obscure and hard-to-stage" (xvii) but has not replaced it with something altogether convincing. It is certainly not something easy-to-stage, nor should it be. Play-testing a translation is a valuable practice, but it does not convey certain truths about how the play was originally staged. This is especially true when the text in a modern production is cut, to make it easier or more palatable for an audience. It seems that at least some of E.'s productions did contain cuts (xxvii n. 32) despite his arguments against the practice at 171 and 220. A central difficulty with the translation is E.'s implied confidence that his dramaturgy and Aeschylos' are the same.

In general, the translation is clear, presenting Aischylos' imagery in simple terms with an often helpful clarity:

Today the Greeks hold Troy. And I would say
that in the city sounds are heard that do not blend.
Put oil and vinegar in one bowl, and they fight
so that you'd call them anything but friends:
just so you'd hear the cries of the conquerers
and conquered, very different as befits their fates:
the women falling to embrace the bodies of their men--
husbands and brothers; children at the side
of aged fathers; throats that are no longer free
cry out in anguish for the fate of those they loved.

(Klytaimestra, Ag. 320-9)

The directness is couched in awkward punctuation, and this does not facilitate oral delivery, and the overall effect is perhaps a little flat. The variety of the Greek vocabulary for screaming is varied, and E. may be right to suggest cries with a stage direction in various instances instead of an oimoi. For Kassandra's momentous and long-delayed initial utterance, however, such a gloss--"(Shrieks)"--does not fairly represent the intensity of ototototoi popoi da at Ag. 1072 and 1076. Some words are overtranslated: agalakton in Ag. 718 becomes "robbed of its mother's milk"; chlide in Ag. 1447 becomes "sexual ecstasy". E. puts far too much stress on his translation of pathei mathos (130 n. 14). When it comes right down to it, his "learn by experience" is not too far from "learn by suffering" and E.'s rejection of any hint of the latter is too sweeping.

E.'s view of the language and level of Aischylos will be very controversial. He distances himself from "a poet of rugged, awe-inspiring grandeur" (xxxiv) with another of his over-confident dismissals--"there is no justification for holding to this view today" (xxxiv-xxxv). This affects his overall translation, since presenting Aischylos "clearly and lucidly" (xxxv) is not always appropriate. E. grudgingly admits that Aischylos is elevated at times, but the overall translation rarely achieves any heights at all. E. attributes the view that Aischylos was a sublime and difficult poet to the "wicked caricatures" of Aristophanes (xxxiv n. 53), but the latter was not inventing a tradition; he was working within one, a common stereotype on which Aeschylus was conceived as rugged, awe-inspiring, and grand.

At its worst, the translation is very difficult to speak or understand. Confronted with his mother's breast (an action that receives neither stage direction nor commentary), Orestes at his most Hamletish hesitates and asks Pylades to give clarity to his chaotic world. Pylades responds in three pivotal lines:

Would you destroy the standing of Apollo's oracles,
for all the rest of time, and of his solemn oath?
Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods. (LB 900-902)

Huh? Discontorting the English question is difficult, but evidently Orestes is about to destroy the standing of oracles and of an oath. Even if "and of his solemn oath" were not postponed in the English sentence, what this means is far from clear. E. is right to quote Jones on Pylades as "god-possessed" (185), but surely Kassandra, and what Apollo has done to her, is also relevant.

These lines are also important in that they threaten the so-called Rule of Three Actors. E. does list "The Actors and Their Roles" (xli) in a potentially helpful list outlining his suggested role-division for the trilogy. It is however not discussed or explained. Three actors are listed as a maximum on 127. The expression "silent face" will be opaque to any reader not familiar with the Greek term, and help is not forthcoming until 185, where the problem of Pylades is covered as a "remarkable breach of convention". More remarks would help. E. believes Elektra apprears in the second half as a "silent face" (175). This claim is without foundation, or probability. E. needs to make it clear to the novice why she disappears and never speaks again--the actor is needed for other roles. (And if Elektra can appear as a "silent face", why not Hermes in Eum. [198]?) In his assignment of roles, E. suggests, for example, that Actor 1 plays Klytaimestra in Ag., Orestes and perhaps Aigisthos in LB, and Priestess, Klytaimestra, and Athena in Eum. (128). Actor 4 plays only Pylades. All of this is possible (though we would say improbable), and potentially significant, but in the absence of a methodological discussion, it is of no use to students.

Stage directions are also not equally useful. Some, such as the description of the set of LB (162 n. 3), belong in the text of the translation. However, here and elsewhere some clarification of what E. means by "preset" in a stage direction would help. Actually, what E. means is clear; what this would mean on Aeschylus' stage is not. "Preset the Watchman" (3) is straightforward enough: the actor is in position on the skene before the audience is admitted, or at least for a good while before the opening line is spoken (again, a reference to Taplin's discussion would help). "Preset Agamemnon's grave" (55) before LB begins is comparable. It is when such technical terms, drawn from modern theatre parlance, are to be applied midway through a play--"Strike Agamemnon's grave" (72, LB 585); "Preset an image of Athena" (101, Eum. 235)--that the application to the Greek stage is no longer clear.

Sometimes the directions are complemented with suggestive descriptions in the notes: at Ag. 901, E. believes Klytaimestra prostrates herself full-length before Agamemnon (27, 145). Some bibliography for the sword at Ag. 1372 would help students, as would a note on the inversion of the Greek marriage ritual at the play's end (as Klytaimestra leads Aigisthos into her house). The servant at LB 657 speaks "reluctantly through partly open doors" (176, cf. 74); this might be implausible given the scale of the Greek theatre. (An intimate audience might also be implied by the suggestion of Elektra's holding of the lock of hair [169 n. 16]). Here, and in the use of the ekkyklema (xix, 42, 85, 159, 187 etc.) a reference to Taplin's discussion of "mirror scenes" is missing. The Furies moan from inside the skene (97), which is weak, given that the ekkyklema is available. Apollo has picked up a golden bow and arrows from his temple, between Eum. 93-179 (99). The Furies do not change their appearance at the end of Eum. (220-221). How a Secondary Choros is able to deliver the closing lines of a trilogy needs more explanation (124, 222). What is meant by a "quasi-aside" (144) or an "almost surrealistic tempo" (184) is not clear.

In general, E. does present a consistent visual picture of the Oresteia which is often at odds with the opinio communis. At times it is not clear his suggestions would function on the ancient stage: they do remain potentially helpful to would-be modern producers. Much is left unsaid, in particular concerning the use of properties. During the performance, it seems that stagehands first turn the chariot of Kassandra and Agamemnon (148 n. 39) and then remove it (149 n.40). Apparently Kassandra is herself a type of property (127). Extras rather than dummies wear the clothes and masks of the deceased Klytaimestra and Aigisthos (187). Some significant interpretative problems remain, without sufficient reference to the divergence of scholarly opinion.

The character of Klytaimestra is a case in point. It is possible, and many would say desirable, to see in Klytaimestra a strong character: at the end of Ag., she and Aigisthos are apparently victorious, and the bleak and fragmented departure of the Choros emphasizes her command; in LB her unseen erinyes overwhelm Orestes so that in no way can he be seen to have reclaimed power from her; even before the trial in Eum., Apollo is not able to rouse the erinyes at Delphi, but the ghost of Klytaimestra is. It is only with the trial that the chthonic, feminine powers are displaced. In E.'s view, Klytaimestra is always weak. The Herald disobeys her order when he leaves at Ag. 680 (21, 141 n. 29). At the end of E.'s Ag., Klytaimestra kneels "as if imprisoned" (156): "The drama has run down to an unresolved conclusion, which Aigisthos has done nothing to change" (156). In LB, she is reluctant to "sally into a public arena which is increasingly controlled by her enemies" (177). E. requires Klytaimestra and Aigisthos to awkwardly step around the corpses at the end of Ag. (159). This undermines her authority needlessly. Surely far easier is to have the ekkyklema retreat before the two enter. This would allow the Choros to exit into the skene at the end of LB (190), which is also perhaps better. The tenor of all of this will strike many readers as being simply wrong. Klytaimestra is not a weak, defenceless woman, desperately clinging onto power that she holds but tenuously. She is "the waiting, hopeful woman who plans like a man" (3, Ag. 11) whose power perseveres beyond her death, until the trial in Eum. Klytaimestra is not some petty despot; she is a mortal whose power can be removed not by her death, but only with a re-ordering of dike in the cosmos. It is perhaps E.'s unusual appreciation of Klytaimestra which leads him to downplay the Ephialtic reforms and the events of 462 (mentioned on xiii and 212) in his evaluation of the trial scene.

In fact the trial scene is one of the least satisfactory parts of E.'s work. He seems to want a very authentic staging (e.g. two pebbles per juror, two urns--how big? where?), which is part of his hyper-naturalization elsewhere. He assumes eleven jurors (213), as usual with too much confidence, without alerting the reader that this is a matter of considerable dispute, which means Athena creates a tie rather than breaks it. In practice, this gives her two votes, which is so against Athenian democratic practice that it should not bear serious consideration, and if she (only) created a tie, we would expect the Furies to be angry with her and content with the Athenians who voted 6-5 to condemn. E. needs to consider the dramatic factors at work here. Trial scenes are good theatre (just watch any episode of Perry Mason or Law and Order), and this may explain why Apollo's case is rather weak and the Furies' rather strong--see E. on 210--but conclusions need not extend beyond the dramatic. Athena's vote will only be cast if there is a tie; there can be no doubt that a tie will result. Good theatre demands it. E.'s summary (214) is steered by the assumption that humans voted to condemn Orestes.

E.'s presentation of the Choros deserves attention, for he is very conscious of the difficulties of presenting such a group on the modern stage, but does not fall back on exculpatory claims typical in modern translations. His early insistance that a translation should identify the Choros by role (marking, e.g., "Elders" rather than "Choros") is a good methodological point (xxii), but he does not tell his reader what a "Libation Bearer" is (56), though one can discover that they are women and slaves on 166. E. presents some interesting comments about choral dance style (142, 148, 176). E. seems not to believe in the possiblity of ensemble delivery (whether sung or spoken) and presents a choros which is fully individuated: "their lines can be assigned to the actors in the choros in such a way as to bring out a particular temperament or attitude to the action in each of them, which can be developed over the duration of a drama" (xxiii). In the translation of Ag. for example, lines which are traditionally assigned to the Choryphaios are given to "1 Elder".

Extended lyric passages are not so divided, though it is clear that this is the intent. These divisions are meant to be common-sensical, where individuals take subsequent clauses: so much is clear from his three-way division of Ag. 1331-1342 (152); the only other explicit division of a lyric section is LB 855-869 (183 n. 45), where there are five speakers, who are assigned sections of very different length. This can work on a modern stage. Most directors do choose to individuate the choros because modern, naturalistic theatre performers are trained to expect a character with which to identify. One chorister can be sympathetic, another can be political; choral individuation is an easy solution which avoids the problem of a collective character. A collective character is what the ancient choros is, however, and E. and many others do not do their audience a favour in disguising this. Lengthy lyric passages are not pre-divided, no doubt because it would look aberrant on the page (compare the inelegant Four Maidens in Witter Bynner's Iphigeneia in Tauris). This is however what E. believes, even for passages such as the Binding Song of the Furies (103-105) where the loss of the collective would surely endanger the significance of what is being said. E.'s dismissal of others' arguments on the chorus as "influential nonsense" (xxii) is infelicitous. Even this is not without difficulties, however. Individuation did occur, rarely. At Ag. 1346-1371 (41-42), the twelve choristers must divide 14 speeches marked "1 Elder".

Anxiety is expressed about about the length of the parodos of Ag.: "Aischylos took a calculated risk when he asked his choros to sing and dance their most extended song in the entire trilogy immediately, before they have warmed up" (131). That the performers appear on stage without adequate warm-up is improbable. The more important point however is that E. does not consider the festival context of fifth-century with this claim. Athenians were used to extended lyric delivery by a choros (as traditionally conceived) through the dithyrhambic tradition, where individuation certainly did not occur. E. attempts to sidestep the portent of the hare by insisting that no-one in the play asks why Artemis is angry (133). He also should acknowledge that some (Conacher, Page) play down the connection between the hare and Troy.

The translation of the words of the choral passages is clearer than many other translations, and perhaps best in the Binding Song, or the Hymn to Zeus:

Zeus--whoever he is,
if this name pleases him,
I use it to call on him:
when I take stock,
there's nothing to refer to
except Zeus, if I'm to cast away the burden of
these futile thoughts once and for all.  (Ag. 160-166)

Line division does represent the Greek closely, but often results in unpleasant prepositions at line ends. What is often lost is strophic responsion. While this is marked with stage directions (captions of A1, A2, B1, B2 ...) the translation does not indicate the precise metrical equivalence present in the Greek; for example, an extra line creeps into LB 466-475:

(K1) Oh suffering innate within the race
  and bloody, hideous, discordant stroke
  of utter ruin,
  moaning weight of grief,
  unbearable disease.

(K2) The house must find

  the dressing for this wound,
  and not from others from outside
  but only from its own,
  through savage, bloody strife.
  This hymn is for the gods below the earth.

The choros E. presents is veiled with a vague precision. At times the information is useful, and the translation clear. This could lead readers to think that they are being given more Aischylos than in fact they are.

At times, E.'s interpretation is enlightening. His view of the first half of Ag. as "a series of rehearsals for Agamemnon's return" (135) is helpful. And E. does continually keep stage practice in mind. But a claim such as "it was not customary to represent the gods in Greek Tragedy" (192) is so misleading one doesn't know where to start; there are gods in Prometheus, Aphrodite in Danaides, Dionysos in Lykourgeia, in Aischylos alone. E. is intent on showing that Aischylos is unique, using "without parallel" or the like when parallels do exist (e.g., 157 and 195, cf. Hec.; 191, cf. IT). E. depreciates interpretations or details with which he disagrees as "comic" (e.g. xxvi, 146, 150, 152, 180, 202, 203) which is not always fair. The "Notes" often disregard important sections: Orestes' great speech at LB 269-305 (which corresponds to Agamemnon's dilemma) deserves more than two sentences (170). E. attempts to dazzle his reader with his understanding of the stage action. Yet his complicated shorthand is ultimately only one of many possibilities, and will not be clear to many readers; at its worst is his assertion that Eum. 179-234 "divides into five beats, requiring up to 45 separate moves to realize its ebb and flow effectively in performance" (200). By keeping his stage action obscure and secret, E. fails his reader. A similar mysticism is imposed by his continual reference to his own published writings when others are more germane. Finally, inclusion of the Proteus fragments in this particular volume, with discussion, would be relevant.

The translation is good and clear, but not great. His use of colloquialisms and short forms bring down the tone of tragedy, which was something grand and mysterious to its original audience. E.'s overall interpretation of the trilogy as non-progressive is a controversial one, and students should be informed that others have taken a different line and that most critics see Klytaimestra as a strong character. Too often those familiar with the Greek will be left with a sense of let-down and disappointment in the great speeches. Especially for a translation that is at pains to show the connection to the stage, there must be more to Aischylos than this.