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Aeschylus and Klytaimnestra

ART TIMES September 2008

OK, I知 Aeschylus, and I知 in fifth-century Athens, and I知 busy writing my play about the house of Atreus, and I知 expecting to get it produced at the City Dionysia in a year or so. In this trilogy, I have the character of Klytaimnestra, who appears in all three plays, the only character to do so.

Now, what am I doing with, to, and about Klytaimnestra?

First of all, I知 writing about a figure who is well known to my audience, just as when Shaw wrote about Joan of Arc. Here痴 this woman who plays an important part in the story of Troy and what happened afterwards.  That story is pretty much the central myth of my culture, as central to my culture as the story of the life of Jesus would be to the culture of Christianity.

Now, to me, as I work on my trilogy, Klytaimnestra is a real person, a figure from history. I know perfectly well that there was a war at Troy, and that Klytaimnestra killed the man who led the Greeks in that war—the man who was her husband, the man who killed her daughter so that war might proceed.

I also know this woman as a cultural image, a figure who plays a role in the mythology that helped form me and my people.

Last but not least, I know her as a woman, and that perception of her is strongly shaped by what I know of women and think about women in my own life and times.

So now I have three levels to deal with: historical woman, mythological woman, everyday woman.

The facts as I know them shape my story: she rules at Argos for ten years, she kills her husband and Kassandra, she takes Aigisthos into her palace and her bed, she is killed by her son Orestes, she sends her Furies after him from the grave. I can select and arrange those facts, but I知 rather constrained by them as well.

The mythology is less refractory. She is demonic and associates with demons; she is also a prototype of a person who is so deeply wronged that nothing can stop the will to vengeance, with a great deal of justice, as I and my Greek society know justice, on her side. I can look at her from several different angles, all very potent in my society: mother, killer, ruler, wife, seeker of vengeance, suppliant for forgiveness.

The everyday woman is even more amenable to interpretative molding. How does a woman both long for and loathe her absent husband? How does a woman treat her own loved and hated children? How does she manage her cowardly but necessary lover? What does she do when faced with triumph, with loss, with death, with vengeance?

When all this is molded together, I wind up putting before my Greek audience a figure that is all three of these, a figure that blends different times, different states of being, different natures, all in one.

That痴 one of Aeschylus great achievements in this play—putting all that before us embodied in one figure. Not many playwrights have managed something comparable.

But there痴 one more level still. He does this without calling our attention to it. What we see, when we watch his play, has absolutely nothing academic, philosophical or moralistic sticking out at you. What you see is, as that not-yet-born whippersnapper Aristotle would pithily say, an imitation of an action. Everything he has to say about this woman, her husband, her son, her Furies, and the gods and people who get involved with her, is said through that action, to which every word contributes.

Now, that痴 a playwright for you.

Present-day playwrights: take note.

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