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An Oresteia

Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides

Aiskhylos; Sophokles; Euripides; Translated by Anne Carson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 086547916X
ISBN13: 9780865479166

Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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Winner of the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

In this innovative rendition of The Oresteia, the poet, translator, and essayist Anne Carson combines three different visions—Aiskhylos' Agamemnon, Sophokles' Elektra, and Euripides' Orestes—giving birth to a wholly new experience of the classic Greek triumvirate of vengeance. After the murder of her daughter Iphegenia by her husband Agamemnon, Klytaimestra exacts a mother's revenge, murdering Agamemnon and his mistress, Kassandra. Displeased with Klytaimestra's actions, Apollo calls on her son, Orestes, to avenge his father's death with the help of his sister Elektra. In the end, Orestes, driven mad by the Furies for his bloody betrayal of family, and Elektra are condemned to death by the people of Argos, and must justify their actions—signaling a call to change in society, a shift from the capricious governing of the gods to the rule of manmade law.

Carson's accomplished rendering combines elements of contemporary vernacular with the traditional structures and rhetoric of Greek tragedy, opening up the plays to a modern audience. In addition to its accessibility, the wit and dazzling morbidity of her prose sheds new light on the saga for scholars. Anne Carson's Oresteia is a watershed translation, a death-dance of vengeance and passion not to be missed.


Praise for An Oresteia

"Carson calls her book An Oresteia—as opposed to the Oresteia. This isn't the trilogy of Aeschylus. Rather, the book consists of plays by three different authors: Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Orestes. Each takes up some aspect of the House of Atreus, whose members, relations and dependents included not only Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and Helen, but Orestes, Electra, Menelaus, Cassandra . . . Many of them, predictably, came to a bad end. Half a century separates Agamemnon from Orestes, and Carson, who supplies an introduction to each play, offers interesting speculation about how shifts in tone and perspective may reflect developments in Athenian history. Perhaps equally striking, however, is the continuity in her trilogy. In American poetry, anyway, 50 years is a long time (it would bridge the gulf between, say, Robert Frost and John Ashbery), and Carson's intelligent compilation—an Oresteia—attests to our enduring fascination in watching the highest-born families laid low."—Brad Leithauser, The New York Times Book Review

"Carson creates a new and very different resolution to the questions posed by Agamemnon's homecoming and murder. Her Oresteia includes only Aeschylus' Agamemnon, juxtaposed with plays by two younger Athenian contemporaries based on the same myth: Sophocles' Electra and Euripides' Orestes . . . A brilliant reimagining of Aeschylus' trilogy, which is far darker and more ambiguous in its resolutions than the original."—Emily Wilson, The Nation

"Something bloody beautiful is going on over at Classic Stage, under the poker-faced, take-it-or leave-it title An Oresteia. You should take it. Poet-classicist Anne Carson, a pedigreed academic with a barroom wit, has produced crisp, insouciant new translations of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, Sophocles's Elektra, and Euripides's Orestes, where relaxed-fit colloquialisms hang smartly on all that fine old marble . . . An Oresteia is the Oresteia for this moment: enraged, engorged, amused."—Dan Kois and Scott Brown, New York magazine

"Carson, a Canadian poet who teaches at the University of Michigan, is one of my favorites. Most people have heard of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Far fewer know the Oresteia, a story cycle that follows Agamemnon home after the Trojan War. Tragedy, blood, and caustic human blindness ensue, landing his son Orestes in an impossible dilemma. Carson translates one play each from Aeschylus (Agamemnon), Sophocles (Elektra), and Euripides (Orestes), for a brand-new cycle. Her translations are in this moment's English, drolly modern even as they remain faithful to the plays. This is not the condensed, wry idiom of Carson's personal poetry. Instead, she loosens things up, goes for the conversational, with language to work well on stage . . . A new Oresteia with rasp, sass, and pungency."—John Timpane, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"It's the go-to myth: Soldier comes home from the Trojan War, gets hacked to death by wife; the kids go bananas. At the very dawn of theater, Agamemnon, Klytaimestra and matricidal siblings Orestes and Elektra were the fodder for the ancient Greeks' greatest tragedians. And now, the scholar-poet Anne Carson, at the prompting of theater director Brian Kulick, has woven a new tapestry out of the old threads, braiding together Aiskhylos' cool-headed Agamemnon, Sophokles' psychodrama Elektra and Euripides' neurotic Orestes. Why retranslate these tragedies and stick them in the same book? Perhaps because this makes for a juicier trilogy than Aiskhylos' extant one, which ends with a sober-minded trial (The Eumenides) instead of Euripides' punch-drunk kidnapping scheme. (If Aiskhylos is Ingmar Bergman, Euripides is the Coen brothers.) As a theatrical exercise, it's daring and cool . . . Carson's informal style works like gangbusters in the Orestes. Reading her idiom-rich renditions, you can bet your sandals that somewhere a moldering Euripides is hugging himself with glee . . . Carson is a master in full enjoyment of her powers, and the individual pieces can be searing, funny and bizarre."—Helen Shaw, Time Out New York

"To those who would doubt the capacity of any 21st century poet to follow Ezra Pound's first commandment to 'make it new,' a constant, ever-jolting answer is provided by Anne Carson, poet, essayist, translator, professor of Greek. There is simply no such thing as an Anne Carson book that doesn't present us with something new under the sun. What we have here is, in response to a request by Brian Kulick, artistic director of New York City's Classic Stage company, to complete, as a trilogy a kind of Oresteia she'd already started with a translation of Sophokles' Elektra in 1987 and Euripides' Orestes in 2006 . . . And wait until you read the new beginning of her all-star Greek tragedians' trilogy—the newly translated Agamemnon of Aiskhylos complete with such newly coined compound words as 'dayvisible' and 'dreamvisible' and 'manminded' and 'godaccomplished'—not to mention, in the intro, references to painter Francis Bacon (subject of a 2007 retrospective at the Albright-Knox Gallery) who 'makes his painting as Kassandra makes her prophecies, by removing a boundary in himself.' Anne Carson is not one to genuflect at boundaries. This is NEW."—The Buffalo News

"Imagine: only four of Shakespeare's plays survive. The rest were destroyed by the Puritans or burned in the Great Fire. Hamlet is one of the survivors. It becomes so universal a myth that it is rewritten by every great playwright who follows. Then imagine someone today producing a Hamlet with the first two acts by the Bard, III and IV by Ibsen, and V by Pirandello. Welcome to Anne Carson's Oresteia. Carson takes Agamemnon, the first of Aeschylus's three plays about the house of Atreus, and follows it with Sophocles's Elektra and Euripides's Orestes. It's a wonderful concept: the three great Tragedians of classical Athens collaborating for the first time, two and half millennia later. Add to the mix her bold and idiosyncratic translation of the plays, and you have a truly fresh take on the origins of Western drama . . . Carson's language is simple and direct, in text with elegant line breaks reminiscent of modernist poetry, the emotional rhythms of the speech laid out for the eye. She preserves the rhyme scheme of the chorus's speech in places, so much so that at times the resulting singsong seems almost silly. Her innovative creation of compound words ('manminded', 'strifeplanting') is more effective. 'A dread devising everrecurring everrembering anger' sums up the three plays in one phrase. The most effective of the bold strokes is the original conceit of letting the three tragedians' essences stand out in contrast to each other. Aeschylus is all clean line of action, with only one pause in the movement toward retribution, for Cassandra's ever-unheeded warning. Sophocles dwells on the paradox of obsession, that Elektra achieves nothing by it, yet would be nothing without it. Euripides lets the madness previously contained in the characters break out in the play as a whole: Orestes goes from moaning wreck to homicidal maniac to bridegroom of his intended victim, while the chorus echoes every change in mood, becoming as unstable as the protagonist. The ever-increasing complexity of plot from play to play mirrors Athens's history during the lifetimes of the three playwrights, from leader among the Greek city-states allied against Persia to hated empire defeated by its former allies. 'Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself,' says Elektra. Could the America of the last eight years deny it? For all the darkness in these dramas, there are moments of giddy humor, banter like a knife tossed back and forth, and Carson's emphatically contemporary diction makes the dialogue snap and shine . . . In freeing the language from the lofty to flowery range in tone of so many earlier translations, she taps into the live-wire shock the plays contain: hatred a force as strong as gravity, memory an anchor that can drag you under. The ponderous pace other translations have laid over the plays is stripped away; you feel the action straining to leap to its conclusion, or, in Euripides's case, rushing to its inconclusion. Carson's brief introductions, preceding each play, are dense pleasures."—Win Clevenger, The Brooklyn Rail

"Aeschylus, the grand originator of Greek tragedy, told the whole story in his own Oresteia trilogy. But Carson translates only Act One from him; Acts Two and Three come from her previously composed versions of later plays by Sophocles and Euripides, allowing the Canadian modern poet and University of Michigan classics professor to display the history of early theatre in a single theatrical event . . . For all the three tragedians' differences—and for all the artistic developments in their approach that have been analyzed by critics for 2,400 years—there was a sure and common expression of awe in Greek theatre, a sense that man and god, however their dealings might be revered, sidelined or mocked, were part of a true mystery, presented by rituals which, whoever was writing the script, remained largely unchanged. Carson understands and communicates that truth to her readers. It would not be surprising if directors found that task much more difficult—even with the elegant tools that this fine modern translator has given them."—Peter Stothard, The Globe and Mail

"Carson's strategy is not, as it may seem, to bring these old Greeks up to date, to make them our contemporaries. It is to remind us that we are their contemporaries, that we have not left the violent domain they so fiercely drew for us. She makes us at home in their language so that we can more thoroughly understand their vision of how not at home in the world we are."—Michael Wood, The London Review of Books

"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 wit 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 feel to use it. Elsewhere, Carson has written of the painter Francis Bacon's wish to 'grant sensation without the boredom of its conveyance' . . . 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 . . . [Carson] wants her readers to read the text deeply, to understand and feel it . . . In both language and in commentary, then, Carson's intent is to force readers to experience these plays as if for the first time."—W. C. Bamberger, Rain Taxi

"The versatile poet and scholar breaks new ground by retelling an old story—the classical tragedy of the House of Atreus, as dramatized by the three greatest tragedians of Athens's Golden Age. Acting on a suggestion from a theater director friend, Carson offers a sequential version of the often-told tale of murder, betrayal and revenge performed in the aftermath of the Trojan War, in free-verse translations of plays focused on King Agamemnon, his daughter Elektra and her brother Orestes, as told by Aiskhylos, Sophocles and Euripides, respectively. Each is prefaced by Carson's brief 'Introduction.' For example, she points out Aiskhylos's emphasis on the role of captured Trojan princess Kassandra, who envisions the ruin ensuing from the war and from Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, which set his queen Klytaimestra onto her murderous path . . . the lethal velocity of 'Agamemnon,' the arc of guilt and doom that courses throughout 'Elektra,' even the Euripidean melodrama of the ferocious closure enacted in 'Orestes'—all grate on the reader's nerves with unflinching intensity. It's a great narrative, whose savage grandeur holds an undiminished power to enthrall."—Kirkus Reviews

"This is a very strange masterpiece. It is an ancient Greek tragedy, but also new, and not just because Carson is its brilliant and original translator. The work of only three ancient Greek playwrights who wrote tragedies survives: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were the voices of distinct generations. Sadly, only a few of even their plays have made it down to us. Worse, the plays were often written as sets of three, and only one full set survives: the 'Orestia,' Aeschylus's story of the blood-drenched Atreus family. The odd thing is that among the surviving plays of the other two, Sophocles and Euripides, there exist plays about this same family, at different points in the action. Putting them together—as Carson does here—gives us a whole new set. Creating an Orestia comprising a play from each of the tragedians, translated by the same person, was the idea of theater director Brian Kulick. Carson tells us in her introduction that she initially resisted. As she had already translated two of the plays in question, she happily gave in. Lucky for us. We get to witness the horror unfold while also watching the ancient style develop: ever more players, ever more of the inner life, ever more self-reflection and wit. The laws of the story go from mythic, to human, to pure chaos. The drama is all blood: Dad kills daughter (for luck in war!); and mom kills dad in revenge (and because both have new lovers); the children kill mom in revenge for dad; and Orestes, who performed the matricide, has a howling, bedridden, breakdown. Elektra tells Orestes, in the second play, that no degradation could be worse than 'to live in a house with killers.' In the third play they discover something worse: being killers. It all ends in an orgy of violence, madness, a sudden god and two marriages. Readers will find stunning expressions of the pain that grown children feel after bad parental separations and neglect. The various characters' impressions of events is psychologically enthralling, and the poetry is sublime. Carson is one of the great poets writing today and is an equally compelling translator. Her language here is clear and comfortable and the volume can be read fast, like a novel, for a weird and thrilling ride. Read it slowly and you will find grace everywhere . . . The great Greek playwrights may still be ancient, but the play is triumphantly fresh—and bloodier than a vampire novel."—Jennifer Michael Hecht, Publishers Weekly


Read an Excerpt

An Oresteia

by Aiskhylos
It's like watching a forest fire. Big, violent, changing every minute and the sound not like anything else.
Every character in Agamemnon sets fire...

About the author

Aiskhylos; Sophokles; Euripides; Translated by Anne Carson

Anne Carson is a professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, Canada, as well as a poet, essayist, and translator. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow, and has won a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Literary Award, and a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Carson's first book, Eros the Bittersweet, was named one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time by the Modern Library. Her other works include Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, and Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera.

Aiskhylos (also known as Aeschylus) was the father of Greek tragedy, whose innovations in theater included conflict directly between characters, rather than through the intermediary of the chorus. Though a prolific playwright of an estimated seventy to ninety plays, only seven of Aiskhylos' works survive. Among the most famous are The Persians and the Oresteia trilogy.

Sophokles (also known as Sophocles) was a celebrated Greek playwright who won more drama competitions than Aiskhylos and Euripides combined. He is known for his advancements in character development and for adding a third character to his plays. Though he wrote over 120 plays, only seven remain today, the most famous of which are Oedipus Rex and Antigone.

Euripides was a tragedian who revolutionized theater by presenting mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and by examining inner lives and motives as well as recounting action. He was also unique in displaying sympathy toward women and other marginalized people. Eighteen of Euripides' estimated 92 to 95 plays have survived, the best known of which are Medea, Electra, and Bacchae.