Sometimes the translation of a tragedy can itself be tragic. A fatal flaw undermines an otherwise promising work, whisking away the greatness it might attain. Such is the case for Anne Carsons An Oresteia .
The an is there because this is not a translation of Aeschylus famous trilogy. Instead Carson has translated and combined three plays from different periods in Athenian history, all of them retelling the story of the unhappy house of Atreus.
A classicist and poet at the University of Michigan, Carson is highly regarded for her poetry and her translations, especially those of Greek tragedy. Her translation of Sophocles Electra was completed in 1987 and her version of Euripides Orestes in 2006. The director, Brian Kulick, then asked her to translate Aeschylus Agamemnon . A production of the three plays opened Wednesday night in New York. It runs until April 19 at the Classic Stage Company in two parts: Tuesdays and Thursdays with Agamemnon and Electra , and Wednesday and Friday with Orestes ¯together with marathons of the whole thing on Saturdays and Sundays.
The plots and themes of the three plays do not unite into a coherent whole. Agamemnon was the first to be written and provides the story and characters on which Sophocles and Euripides improvised. Sophocles turned Electra into a character living outside the palace, struggling to combat the depravity around her yet unable to act against it. Euripides showed Orestes sick with torment by furies, sentenced to death by the men of Argos, waiting for rescue from Apollo.
The differences of plot are not simply matters of authorial creativity. Rather, juxtaposing three plays written at different periods of Athenian history allows us to see that history played out on the stage. As Kulick notes in An Oresteia s introduction:
In Aeschylus hands the story of the house of Atreus is designed to end in a valedictory celebration of Athenian democracy and its newborn sense of justice; when Sophocles takes over the tale it becomes more complex and contradictory; with Euripides the design is completely turned on its head . . . . What happened to effect this? History happened. Aeschylus composed his Oresteia shortly after Athens victory at the battle of Marathon, which marked the height of Athenian military and cultural supremacy; Euripides finished his Orestes almost a hundred years later as Athens headed for ruin, due to her protracted involvement in the Peloponnesian War . . . . The house of Atreus, for these tragedians, was a way of talking about the fate of Athens.
This mapping of Athens and the Atreids is interesting, but it does not provide the main attraction in An Oresteia . The readers are looking to see what Carson will create with the language of the tragedians, and Carson does not disappoint. She takes the epic language of the tragedians and puts it into shorter, charged modern English verse. Mourning outside the palace, Electra says:
Yes I know sorrow. Know it far too well.
My life is a tunnel
by the sweepings of dread.
Later in the play, as her brother and Pylades enter the palace to enact their bloody justice, the Chorus cries:
Look where he comes grazing forward,
blood bubbling over his lips: Ares!
As a horizontal scream into the house
go the hunters of evil,
the raw and deadly dogs.
Carson also employs the neat trick of translating literally the compound words that the authors, mainly Aeschylus, created. Thus Clytemnestra is manminded and the Greek army at Troy a rawflesheating lion. Ordering Agamemnons path into their house to be strewn with red fabric, Clytemnestra cries, Make his path crimsoncovered! purplepaved! redsaturated!¯the last one nicely foreshadowing where this path will lead.
Beyond the poetic touches, however, a problem persists in Carsons translations: Short, colloquial verse¯no matter how charged¯cannot tell the story of heroes and villains from a superhuman age. Take, for example, the Chorus reaction when they overhear Agamemnons murder:
¯Unendurable. Death is better.
¯So from two screams were saying the kings a dead letter?
¯Well lets not get upset until we clarify one thing.
¯Thats my vote. Find out whats going on with our king.
No sooner does the Chorus finish than we see the climax of the play: Clytemnestra standing over the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra. In the hands of a traditional translator such as Robert Fagles, she says, Words, endless words Ive said to serve the moment¯ / now it makes me proud to tell the truth. But with Carson, the greatest female villain of classical literature tells us, Ive said a lot of things before that sounded nice. / Im not ashamed to contradict them now.
If Clytemnestra sounds like that, it should not be surprising that an audience would laugh at her appearance. Which is exactly what the audience at the Classic Stage Companys production of An Oresteia did the night I saw it. Translation like this opens the door to an unserious reading of Greek tragedy¯a door the Classic Stage Company merrily barges through.
The production is a reminder of just how boring the avante-garde can be. The strong acting, especially Annika Boras and Mickey Solis as Electra and Orestes, is wasted. Instead of a fascinating character study¯as New Yorkers saw in the Greek National Theaters production of Electra last year¯Electra pouts around, a goth teenager in wild mascara getting into a cat fight with mean old mom. Mom is not a murderess but an early 1960s housewife with the obligatory martini and difficult kid. Earlier in Agamemnon , Dad slouched home from the Trojan War, a midlevel officer ready to be henpecked again. After offering perfunctory thanks to the gods and his wife, he trudged into the house toward his doom. You would never guess that this man was the great victor of Troy, a descendant of Zeus himself.
Cleverness covers a multitude of sins. It allows us to look beyond what sins should force us to confront. Instead we can laugh our way through tragedy. When Helen is a drag queen, the men wear dresses under their suit coats, and most characters enter and exit with Monty-Python choreography, theres no need to look for meaning in Orestes . Moments of the originals dark humor are lost in the rumpus. The truly horrible¯which these plays should be full of¯can only come through added shock value. Thus we are horrified by Aegisthus spitting blood he has gnawed from Agamemnons body, not by any terrifying words Clytemnestra uttered after killing.
And in this we see the tragic flaw of Anne Carsons poetry. Publishing Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides together is a stroke of genius for her and Brian Kulick. But despite her clever turns of phrase, Carson’s translations lack the majesty and gravity necessary for the tale of the House of Atreus¯a fatal weakness magnified in the Classic Stage Companys production. An Oresteia s words do not terrify us or force us to examine the human condition. They are tragic in a lesser, sadder way: majesty mocked by a directors whim, the great god Apollo brought low by an accordion and a camcorder.
Nathaniel Peters is assistant editor of First Things .