Background notes to the ORESTEIA
Four generations of the House of Tantalus
TANTALUS: a mortal son of Zeus who had the privilege of eating with the gods. Depending on the source, different stories follow:
- He asked Zeus for all that the gods possess, so Zeus complied but hung a huge rock above his head so that, because of the dreadful suspense, he couldn’t enjoy it (version mentioned in Orestes (7c); from Nostoi in the lost epic cycle).
- He tried to reveal the secret of ambrosia, food of the gods which made him immortal, thus his “slippery tongue” mentioned in Orestes’ prologue (from Pindar Olympian ode 1, Apollodorus, and Metamorphoses 4).
- Testing their wisdom, he fed his son Pelops to the gods, who punished him in Hades by “tantalizing” him with food and drink just out of his reach (Odys. 11.582); in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (387) the title character reports this story but questions its accuracy (several of Euripides’ characters doubt the truth of popular myths).
PELOPS: the gods recognized Tantalus’ trick before it was too late, and reassembled Pelops; only Deméter had eaten a piece of his shoulder, so it was replaced with one of ivory (Metamorphoses book 6).
- Pelops fell in love with Hippodameia, whose father Oenomaus, having heard an oracle that his future son-in-law would kill him, raced all suitors to their deaths. Hippodameia would ride in the unfortunate suitor’s chariot, distracting him. By the time Pelops came to the city, twelve suitors’ heads adorned the city walls.
- Hippodameia bribed her father’s chariot-driver Myrtilus to sabotage Oenomaus’ chariot, killing him (this race was the legendary beginning of the Olympics).
- Pelops, Hippodameia, and Myrtilus flew off in a winged chariot. But, because she had promised to “reward” him, Myrtilus attempted to rape Hippodameia, thus Pelops tossed him into the sea. As he fell from the flying chariot, Myrtilus called down a curse on Pelops’ family. Pelops and his bride settled in southern Greece (hence called the Peloponnesus).
ATREUS AND THYESTES: sons of Pelops, who were rivals for the throne
- Because of Myrtilus’ curse, his father Hermes, god of flocks, sent a golden lamb into Atreus’ flock years later. The brothers quarreled over it as a divine sign of who would take the throne. Thyestes then seduced Aerope, the wife of Atreus, who helped him steal the lamb. Thyestes boasted that he would give up his claim to the throne when the sun changes its course. Zeus complied and reversed the sun’s direction in the sky (Electra 699-742, IT 1, 193, 816, Plato Politics 269a).
- Atreus banished his brother, but later asked him to return for a “reconciliation” dinner. Actually, Atreus had revenge in mind, and to Thyestes’ horror, he served up Thyestes’ own sons as the main course. Thyestes cursed Atreus’ house.
- Exiled Thyestes learned he could regain the throne by having a child by his daughter, Pelopeia. The child Aegisthus, however, is left outside to die, and later raised as Atreus’ son. Years later, Atreus commanded Aegisthus to kill Thyestes, but when he learned of his true father, they conspired and killed Atreus.
- Young Agamemnon and Menelaus are taken to another land for safe keeping, and when grown they reclaim their father’s throne with the help of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, father of Helen (Apollodorus e2.14-15; on vase paintings, Arch Odyssey May 1999).
AGAMEMNON AND MENELAUS: sons of Atreus
- Agamemnon led the expedition to Troy to reclaim Menelaus’ wife Helen.
- Before the fleet could sail, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his oldest daughter Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis.
- The Trojan War drags on for ten years.
- After the war, Agamemnon returns only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, the surviving son of Thyestes.
A modern stage adaptation
by Larry A. Brown (1995)
Agamemnon, king of Argos
Clytemnestra, queen of Argos
Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra
Electra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra
Cassandra, prophetess of Troy
Aegisthus, lover of Clytemnestra
Chorus, old men and women of Argos
Furies, the avenging spirits
WATCHMAN: O gods, release me from this endless task! For an entire year, like a watchdog I have paced the rooftop of the house of Atreus. I know the stars by heart, the armies of the night, but I look for a different light in the darkness – signal fires from Troy to announce the outcome of the war. That’s the shooting star my queen has posted me to catch out of the skies. Queen Clytemnestra – a queen with the heart of any king. Every time I nod, fear wakes me up, and every time I sing or hum to ward off sleep, my tears start up, weeping the disgrace that hangs upon this house where honor once stood guard at every door.
But look! The beacon-light shines at last! I’ll tell my queen that daybreak is here, that Agamemnon has triumphed over Troy, and she may rise from sleep and thank the gods. My luck has changed with this roll of the dice. They’ll be dancing in the streets when the people of Argos hear the news, and I’ll be the first to join them. We’ll welcome Agamemnon home! Welcome home? But I’ll say no more. The house of Atreus could tell the tale, if it wished. I speak to those who understand. If not – you won’t hear it from me.
Exit Watchman and enter Chorus of old men
CHORUS: To the gods high and low, our altars glow. Ten years have passed since Agamemnon, lord of Argos, with his brother Menelaus departed with a thousand ships to fight with Troy for that woman, manned by many, and many have fallen to the dust because of her. Stricken with grief, as eagles who have lost their young, their cry of war circled high in the air, shrill from the heart, and the gods heard. Now Zeus, protector of host and guest, drives Atreus’ sons with a revenging Fury against the seducer Alexander [Paris].
Memory returns us to a decade ago. At Aulis where the fleet lay at anchor weather-bound, the Greeks could not sail for Troy. According to a heavenly sign – two eagles, kings of the air, preying upon a pregnant hare – Calchas the seer predicted victory for the eagle-kings, but Artemis, lover of wild beasts, took pity on their victim. “My captains,” Calchas cried, “to woo the winds, Artemis must have blood. She detests the eagles’ feast.” O goddess! Spare this house another victim, another life for an ever-waiting, unforgetting mother-Fury to avenge! Cry today but hope for tomorrow.
Agamemnon struck his scepter on the ground and wept, “Must I slay my own child? I suffer either way I turn!” But fearing to betray his men, he put on the harness of Necessity, his mind now set on murder. “Lift her to the altar,” he ordered, ignoring her cries of “Father!” His daughter Iphigenia, instead of the bridal bed she hoped for, was placed on an altar for sacrifice, naked, her saffron robes fallen to the ground. “Gag her, lest her cry curse the house.” Her lips were sealed which once sung in her father’s halls, but she spoke to Agamemnon pleadingly with her eyes. But the king, her father, turned away. The axe fell, and the winds of heaven blew.
Zeus – if such is the name of God – no words will do you justice. Zeus the Victor, who overthrew father and grandfather, names now forgotten in temples. Zeus, who decrees that only through suffering comes wisdom. In our pain, against our wills, we grow wise by the awful grace of God. Now the end of waiting is in sight.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Elders of the city, a new day shines from the womb of Mother Night. The Greeks have conquered Troy! Priam’s citadel lies in ashes. Hephaistos, lord of fire, blazed forth from Mount Ida, and beacon by beacon, hill by hill, he sent the signal flame to me. Such are the couriers that I command. Unlike foolish women I have no faith in dreams and have no time for rumors.
CHORUS: To heaven, O queen, we send up our thanks.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Troy belongs to Argos. Like oil and vinegar the great armies clashed. The Trojans now gather up their dead, their husbands, their brothers, their sons. Fathers’ corpses glare blankly at orphans. The Argive soldiers had a night of triumph and now eat Trojan food and sleep in Trojan beds. Let us hope they did not desecrate the shrines of Troy or tamper in their lust with sacred things. Victory must wait for the runner to cross the finish line and arrive home. Even if the gods grant them safe return, who knows what angry spirits of the dead await to strike in vengeance? Such are my womanly concerns.
CHORUS: A prudent king, O queen, could not speak better.
CHORUS: Hail Zeus of the master stroke, author of victory! You slung above the towers of Troy a binding net, that none might escape disaster. Some scoff and say that Zeus cares not when men tread underfoot the holy things. But those who speak thus know not Zeus. What he decides, he accomplishes. His arrow never falls short of the mark. We have seen the price they pay whose breath is pride. The black Furies bear down upon the one who prospers in sin, as the thunderbolt strikes the high mountain. He who topples the high altar of justice will never have his prayers heard; no amount of gold can protect him. May I be content with what I have, and not dishonor a host by stealing from his bed. Great daring breeds great peril. So Paris learned, so will others.
Helen brought a dowry of destruction to her new home. See how her husband sits alone in shamed silence. A ghost is mistress of his house. Her spirit haunts all his dreams. He grasps at the sheets of an empty bed, but the vision slips away, lightly on wings down the paths of sleep. Statues carved in her perfect form deepen his pain. His cries of loss echo in every house of Hellas [Greece], as women mourn for those who left as men but return as urns filled with ashes. Their curses rise from empty hearths: “All this, for someone else’s wife!”
But how can we believe the signal fires? May it not be a trick of the gods? Only a fool, or a woman, would believe a thing without proof. But look, a herald arrives from the shore. Now we will know the truth; he will give us facts, not mystic fire.
HERALD: Argos, land of my fathers, I salute you. After many broken dreams, here’s one come true. I didn’t expect to make it home again. Blessings on this land and on this sunlight, although once, Apollo, you fought against us. And praise to Hermes, god of messengers. Hail, palace of our kings. Prepare a welcome for Agamemnon who brings light out of the darkness. He swung his axe at the root of Troy. He humbled all her altars and toppled her shrines. Honor our king, a man of glory beyond any other man.
CHORUS: You do well to rejoice, herald of the army.
HERALD: I do rejoice. I no longer ask the gods for death.
CHORUS: Were you so sick for home?
HERALD: So sick I cried in pain.
CHORUS: We cried in pain as well.
HERALD: Why? What had you to fear here at home?
CHORUS: We choose not to say. Our silence has kept disaster off thus far.
HERALD: Dispense with tears now. All’s ended well. In the ten long years, some things went well, some ill. Only a god experiences good fortune all the time. Our voyage was a hardship: the quarters wretched, the beds foul, the seas rough. And when we landed it was worse; to sleep we crawled against the walls of Troy and huddled there, a target for rain and bedmate to lice. In winter we shivered; in summer we burnt like offerings. But why complain now? The work is done. We won. We live. Here with the sun hot on my neck I can boast: once upon a time the Greeks defeated Troy, and all who hear the story must admire and thank the gods. Why should the living count the dead, or murmur at misfortune?
CHORUS: You must tell the queen your victorious news.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I raised my voice in triumph when the first beacon was sighted. Some of you laughed at my news, woman’s gossip, you said. But never mind. There is no need for you to tell me more. I will hear it all from Agamemnon. I would rather spend my time preparing a fitting welcome for my lord. What is sweeter to a woman than to open the door to her husband? His country’s hero, home to find a wife as faithful as the day he left. I could no more betray my lord or cause him scandal than I could dye a sword from bronze to crimson.
HERALD: Honorable words from a noble wife.
CHORUS: She speaks so for your benefit; her words fall differently on those who know better. But tell us, herald, what of Menelaus, the other master of our land?
HERALD: It is not good to stain a happy day with evil news, but this is how it was. As we were coming home, the winds arose one night, blown by the gods, and cracked the ships together like rams in a flock gone crazed. At dawn, the garden of the sea was decked with corpses floating like lilies. Only our ship was whole on all the cadaverous waters. Some god saved us; we were the lucky ones. If Menelaus survived, only the sun who sees all can say. I have spoken the truth.
CHORUS: Who named you Helen named you well, daughter of destruction: a hell to man, a hell to ships, a hell to cities! The soft breezes that blew the delicate veils of your bed filled the sails of a thousand ships; you charmed a throng of warriors to follow in your wake, seducing them to war. Those who sang your wedding song are now wailing out a dirge in Priam’s fallen city. The poisonous Furies brought tears to her marriage bed. Like a lion cub raised from birth, what once was adorable, when young, grew to devour its keepers.
It is sometimes said that good fortune curses children, that a father’s success begets suffering for his seed. But this is not the truth. Evil comes from evil, not from good. Woe springs from sin, bringing black curses on a house. But virtue multiplies, whether the man be great or humble. And all things are guided somehow to their proper end.
Enter Agamemnon with Cassandra beside him
CHORUS: Hail, King Agamemnon of the house of Atreus, conqueror of Troy! Some may rejoice with false face and false heart, but the good shepherd knows his flock. Ask any one and you will learn who in your absence has acted justly and who has not.
AGAMEMNON: First, as is proper, I salute Argos and the gods that guard her, gods who gave their aid in my punishment of Troy and brought me safely home. They heeded the prayers of justice, not men; they cast their votes with the side of right. The lion of Argos sprang across the towered walled and fed on royal blood. They ravished our queen; we raped their city. Troy’s only memorial is a pillar of smoke, her last dying breath. For this, I thank the gods.
Now to you men: I understand how the venom of envy is a double poison to a lesser man. He hates the taste of his own humble lot and groans at the good fortune of the great. There are those who feign friendship. I will be watchful. Of all the men at Troy, only Odysseus did I trust. As for the state, I will at once call council for its management. Whatever remains healthy, I will sustain. Whatever falters, needing the medicine of kings, I will correct with surgery of fire or the swift knife. Now to my hearth, to pay my greeting to the household gods. They sent me forth and brought me safe again. May victory be with me to the end.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Agamemnon! [she kisses him] People of Argos, I am not ashamed to show publicly the love I bear my husband. Modesty is for the young. Only a woman can know how lonely I have been while Agamemnon spent his strength at Troy. It is terrible for a wife to sit in an empty house at night. A terror, too, to hear the storms of rumor, all devoted to disaster. Had Agamemnon suffered all the wounds spoken of, he would have been cut full of holes like a fishing net. Such evil stories have often tempted me to slip my head through the noose.
Such desperation will explain, my lord, the absence of our child, the pledge of both our loves, one who should be at my side – I mean, of course, our son Orestes. Do not fear. I have sent him to be safe at Phocis with your brother-in-law Strophius. I was afraid, if the war went badly, that the people might take vengeance on your son. That’s why I sent him away. As for me, I have wept and feared a thousand nights until my tears and hopes went dry together. Now all my suffering is past.
AGAMEMNON: Daughter of Leda, keeper of my house, your speech is like my absence; it goes on too long.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I pray you, my dear lord, do not set on the common earth the proud foot that trampled Troy. Come forward, servants, spread the tapestry. Strew my lord’s path with crimson. Let the red stream flow. Quickly! Let justice be done him as he walks to unexpected welcome home.
AGAMEMNON: A warrior is not a woman who needs such finery. Besides, to step upon this royal cloth would be arrogance. Give me earth to walk on as a man, not a god, or else divine eyes may become envious. Better to be wise in this, my time of glory. Though I am favored at the moment, fortune is fickle as a woman. Call no man blessed until he ends his life in peace.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Do not refuse a small indulgence to a wife.
AGAMEMNON: My will is mine. It will not bend to yours.
CLYTEMNESTRA: A conqueror should have no fear.
AGAMEMNON: Call it what you will. I act in wisdom.
CLYTEMNESTRA: What would Priam do if he were victor?
AGAMEMNON: Priam? He would proudly walk this godlike path.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Do you fear the reproach of men?
AGAMEMNON: It is not proper for a woman to be so insistent.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Even a hero may surrender when he is at home.
AGAMEMNON: Is this small thing of so much value to you?
CLYTEMNESTRA: Yield to me. All power is yours; let me be master in this.
AGAMEMNON: Very well. Remove my sandals first. This foreign woman here, take in with kindness. Zeus rewards compassion, and no one is a slave by choice. She, the loveliest of all our prizes was my army’s gift to their commander. [steps down] Let no god look down on me with envy. I know I am unworthy of this luxury. But I have bowed to your persuasion.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Of purple dye, my lord, there is no lack. I would have trampled many treasures down to bring you home again. Your presence is the warmth of the fire in winter. You are like one who crushes the bitter virgin grape into flowing new wine. [he walks into the palace] Zeus, the one true lord, who brings all plans into fruition, fulfill my prayer!
Go in, Cassandra. Zeus has ordained that you have a place at our altar, a slave among others. Don’t be proud. Even mighty Heracles was sold and ate the bread of slavery. We will treat you just as you deserve.
CHORUS: She speaks to you, maid. You are a prisoner; you would do well to answer.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Perhaps she cannot speak; or maybe she can only twitter like a bird.
CHORUS: Go with her, child. You have no choice.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I have no time to banter with a foreigner. The victims of the sacrifice are ready at the altar. Come in at once, Cassandra!
CHORUS: She’s terror-stricken, like a captured animal unaccustomed to her chains. Poor maiden, accept your servitude. There is no other way.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I will not be insulted by her silence!
CHORUS: Why does terror beat its frantic wings against my heart? Why can’t I shake off this shadow of doom? I have seen my lord come home in triumph. The evil deeds are past. But still I hear far off the Furies singing their dark, discordant music, and hope’s clear melody grows fainter.
CASSANDRA: Aieeeeee! O shame upon the earth! Apollo! Apollo!
CHORUS: Why do you call on Apollo?
CASSANDRA: Apollo, Destroyer, Ravisher! He tortures me!
CHORUS: The gift of prophecy remains in her.
CASSANDRA: Lord of travels, where have you led me now? To what house have I come?
CHORUS: This is the house of Atreus.
CASSANDRA: A house the gods hate! A house of horror where the floors are washed with blood! A slaughterhouse! Listen! Do you hear – children, little children crying – crying because their father eats their flesh!
CHORUS: We have heard of your prophecies, but we need no seer to tell us of our past.
CASSANDRA: What’s this? What new horror has she contrived? What abomination lies deep within the house? There is no escape. O woman, how can you? She leads her lord to the bright waters and there … hands darting out quickly – I cannot bear to speak!
CHORUS: I do not follow her riddles. I understood at first, but now –
CASSANDRA: No, no, see there! What’s that? a net flung out of hell! No, she is the snare, the bedmate, deathmate! Look out, look out! Keep the great bull from the mate! She traps him, writhing, black horn glints, twists – she gores him through! Look how the bath swirls red. There’s treachery and murder in that cauldron! Why won’t you listen to me?
CHORUS: What benefit are prophetic words when they speak of unavoidable death?
CASSANDRA: Ah, the pain, the agony, is mine as well! Why else have you brought me here, Apollo, except to die with him? My city lies in ashes, and I, her last ember, will soon be extinguished. Soon I shall sing my prophecies by the rivers of Hades.
CHORUS: What are you saying?
CASSANDRA: No more shall my words be veiled in riddles. Come, follow me down the path of ancient slaughter. A choir of Furies chants its unmelodious hymn in the house of Atreus. They dwell here forever, never to be cast out, engorged with the blood of men, they revel in gruesome celebration for the brother’s violated bed, the feast of children’s flesh. Do I babble now? Or do I hit the mark like a true archer?
CHORUS: You know the past as though you had seen it. I marvel at your gift.
CASSANDRA: Apollo gave me this power, though not as a gift.
CHORUS: Was Apollo stricken with desire for you?
CASSANDRA: He struggled to win me, panting like a wrestler.
CHORUS: Did you satisfy his lust?
CASSANDRA: I yielded at first, then I refused him, Apollo the god!
CHORUS: How did you escape his anger?
CASSANDRA: I did not escape. I am condemned never to be believed.
CHORUS: We believe you speak the truth.
CASSANDRA: Oh, oh! The storm in my mind comes again! Once more in agony I give birth to the truth. Do you see? Little children crouching at the threshold of the house, holding their entrails in their hands, offering them to their father to eat! One plots revenge for this crime, a cowardly beast who sleeps in the master’s lair. He has set a trap. The king of ships, the killer of Troy, walks unsuspecting, lets his hand be licked by that bitch who perks her ears in seeming gladness. She howled with glee when he arrived home. Can you understand what I say?
CHORUS: We know of Thyestes’ feast but the rest is unclear.
CASSANDRA: You will see Agamemnon dead.
CHORUS: Peace, unhappy woman! Hold your tongue.
CASSANDRA: No use. No god will heal this wound.
CHORUS: May it not come to pass!
CASSANDRA: You pray, while those inside move to slay.
CHORUS: What man would dare strike the king?
CASSANDRA: Man? You still do not see! Aieeeee! His fire sears me again! The pain, O Apollo, lord of light! You blind me! – This lioness, who sleeps with a wolf when her mate is away, will kill me also. He brought me home to die at his side. What good are all these trappings of prophecy, this staff, these flowers around my neck? I’ll destroy them before he destroys me! Watch me, Apollo! [breaks staff] Go adorn some other maiden with your curse! I have been called witch and cheat and liar; now I will be nameless in death. We will die, but not without some honor from the gods. An avenger will come, born to kill his mother. He will see his father’s hand outstretched in death and take it for a gesture to come home. Troy fell and now its captor falls. All fall. It is my turn to die.
CHORUS: If you believe your own prophecy, how can you be so calm?
CASSANDRA: There is no escape.
CHORUS: You are indeed a brave woman.
CASSANDRA: Only the doomed receive such praise. [she approaches the door but draws back] The smell – the house breathes of blood-dripping slaughter!
CHORUS: It is only the victims for the sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: No, this door is my open grave. When the avenger comes, tell him to strike for me as well: woman for woman, man for man. I die a slave, only a little thing. Pity poor humanity: at the height of his greatness, man is nothing but a sketch of simple lines, and at the end one quick sweep of a sponge wipes every trace away.
CHORUS: But the lust for power never dies. When it comes knocking, no man tells it to go away. This man who so recently conquered Troy – must he too fall to pay for the blood he and his fathers shed? And bring more death to avenge his dying? When will the curse of this dark angel end?
AGAMEMNON: [within the palace] Help! I am struck a deadly blow! Ah, help!
CHORUS: Quiet! It sounds like the voice of the king! Quickly, run get others! Tell the herald to sound the alarm! No, better that we should burst in on them at once and take them with the blood still running from their blades! Alas, I fear it is too late for action, for who can raise the dead with words?
The palace doors open, revealing Clytemnestra standing over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra
CLYTEMNESTRA: I tamed my speech before to serve my purpose. Now I can speak openly without fear or shame. I have not acted rashly. This conflict was born of an ancient crime. I planned this day for years. Now I stand above the dead and deny nothing. As fishermen cast nets, I threw about the body of my husband, fresh from his bath, a thick and heavy robe that caught his arms. Twice I stabbed him; twice he groaned, then fell on the knees, a heap of crimson tapestry. Then I struck a third time in thanks and reverence to Zeus, and his last breath sprayed me with his blood. It felt like rain in springtime. Elders of the city, rejoice with me! He filled our cup with misery and now he has come home to drink it dry!
CHORUS: You horrify us, woman, boasting over your fallen king!
CLYTEMNESTRA: Say what you wish. What does it matter to me? Here lies Agamemnon, victim of my right hand. A masterpiece of justice!
CHORUS: What potion have you taken, woman, to change you into a fiend? All Greece will hate you and cast you into exile.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Now you speak of punishment! But when Agamemnon sacrificed my daughter to charm the winds of Artemis, no man protested. She whom I bore in loving labor, he slaughtered like a beast and you were silent. Now that I have done what must be done, you are stern judges. Judge away then! Banish me – if you have the power to do it. But if the gods choose otherwise, you’ll soon learn your place.
CHORUS: Pride rules your speech, a Fury possesses your mind. But vengeance will come stroke for stroke.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I struck this blow for righteousness, a payment for my slaughtered child! I do not walk the halls of the palace in fear, not while Aegisthus lights the fires of my hearth. He remains loyal to me, while my husband did not. Agamemnon, the darling of all the daughters of Troy! Cassandra was only his latest conquest, his spear-prize. Now, they lie together for eternity, and their cold embrace gives more excitement to my bed’s delight.
CHORUS: Gods, let me die, now that our royal shield lies broken on the ground, vanquished by a woman’s hand. O Helen, your wild heart led armies to their deaths. Today’s bloody wreath crowns your achievements!
CLYTEMNESTRA: Do not blame my sister Helen for grief that will not heal.
CHORUS: The demon is to blame, the demon of destruction that haunts these halls, using women for its weapons. The Furies sing over the corpse of Agamemnon and the ruin of his house.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Now you name the culprit – the curse upon this house. The spirit of three generations claws at the ancient wounds, licking the blood, and will not let them heal.
CHORUS: I hear the heavy drops of blood raining down on the roof and fear it will collapse. And all by the will of Zeus, the one who works in all.
CLYTEMNESTRA: In truth, you cannot blame me at all for this deed. I am not Agamemnon’s wife. I am the spirit incarnate, the savage spirit of vengeance. The curse of Thyestes struck down this son of Atreus, one child for the others slain.
CHORUS: Truly you were shaped by ancient sins. But alas! our king is dead, entangled in this spider’s web. Who shall bury Agamemnon? Who shall mourn for him?
CLYTEMNESTRA: The hands that cut him down shall bury him, but we will not wash his body with tears. Let him go below to his sad daughter Iphigenia, and let her embrace him.
CHORUS: Accusation follows accusation. Who is wise enough to judge between them? While Zeus reigns upon his throne, blow shall be paid with blow. The one who acts must suffer. That is the law. But who shall purify their blood from curse?
CLYTEMNESTRA: Let the cycle of vengeance end today. I release the spirit; let him haunt another house. I have cleansed our halls of the destructive fury and am content.
AEGISTHUS: What a glorious day of doom! The gods indeed avenge the crimes of men, moving slowly perhaps but finally. I rejoice to see this man caught in a net woven by the Furies. Atreus, this dead king’s father, exiled his brother, Thyestes, my father, after he tried to take the throne. When Thyestes returned in supplication, his brother in spite and hatred set a feast for him – O horrible feast! – consisting of his own sons’ flesh. When he realized the terrible thing he had done, he spat the dead meat from his mouth with a cry, and reeled back from the table shouting, “A curse on all the seed of Atreus!” Today the son has paid for the sins of the father. It was I who rightfully planned this murder, I third-born to my unhappy father and with him driven into exile. Yet justice brought me home again so that I might piece together this cunning plot. Now I glory in my triumph.
CHORUS: Aegisthus, do not seek glory here. The people will see you receive justice.
AEGISTHUS: Who are you to condemn me? Does the slave beat the master? Remember, even old men need to learn their lessons. Pain and hunger will teach you.
CHORUS: You can never rule in Argos. You planned the murder, but like a coward let a woman wield the blade. I pray to the gods that Orestes is living still and will return to avenge his father.
AEGISTHUS: Since you persist in impudence, your lessons shall begin today!
CLYTEMNESTRA: No, my beloved, no more violence. We have harvested enough for one season. Men of Argos, go to your homes and bow your heads to destiny. What we did we had to do.
CHORUS: No Greek will ever grovel at a coward’s feet.
AEGISTHUS: Your day will come. I will be king for a long time.
CHORUS: Until Orestes comes.
AEGISTHUS: He’s far away. All exiles live on dreams. I know; I was one.
CHORUS: Feed and grow fat. You will not feast long.
AEGISTHUS: I promise, you’ll pay, old fools!
CHORUS: Go ahead, you cock! Strut and crow before your hen!
CLYTEMNESTRA: They are howling in their misery. They are impotent. You and I will rule the house of Atreus and put all things in order.
They exit into the palace as the chorus disperses
THE LIBATION BEARERS
Enter Orestes and Pylades
ORESTES: Hermes, guide of dead souls, act in your father Zeus’ role as savior. I Orestes, home from exile standing on my own land, plead with you to hear me. At my father’s tomb I dedicate these two locks of hair: one to the river god who nourished me, and one as a sign of mourning, tardy as it is. O my father! I was not here to weep for you or lend my arm to bear your body out to burial. Hear now my cry for help.
But, Pylades, trusted friend [and cousin], who are these women coming, dressed in black? More mourners? Has some fresh grief struck? There’s Electra, my sister. Grant, O Zeus, that I may avenge our father’s murder. Be my champion. Pylades, let’s step aside and learn more before we speak.
Enter Electra and chorus of women
CHORUS: Driven from the house by the queen’s striking hand, we bear libations to appease the anger of the dead. Terror echoed in the sleep of Clytemnestra, splitting the night with fear. The old ones who could understand the nightmare told the queen that down below the earth, the dead are bitter still, hating those that sent them there. Hoping to ward off evil, she has sent us – godless woman that she is – to the tomb with this offering. But the prayers she orders us to say stick in our throats. For what words can soak up blood once spilt upon the ground? No more than a defiled maiden can regain her virginity. Woe to this house! The majesty that was dazzling as the sun is now eclipsed. But justice waits in the shadows, biding time.
ELECTRA: Tell me, maidens, fellow slaves. How can I best invoke my father? Shall I say I bring these gifts from loving wife to worshipped husband? I dare not. Such words would desecrate his grave. Shall I say, “Pay back my mother with the bloody gift she gave you?” Or shall I pour this offering out for earth to drink, like my father’s blood, and cast the bowl away and go back home? Advise me, fellow slaves.
CHORUS: Say a blessing as you pour, for those who love him.
ELECTRA: Who dares to love him now that he is dead?
CHORUS: Anyone who hates Aegisthus loves him.
ELECTRA: Then I make the prayer for you and me, and no other?
CHORUS: There is another, far away. There is – Orestes.
ELECTRA: That’s the name I hoped you would pronounce.
CHORUS: Remember the murderers, too. Pray that someone, god or man, come as judgement upon them.
ELECTRA: But can it be right to ask the gods for vengeance?
CHORUS: Can it be wrong to harm those who first harm others?
ELECTRA: O Hermes, herald of the gods, carry my prayer down to those below. I pour this offering for the dead and call on my father. Rekindle the light of your house! Your children need you, homeless and destitute, while the one we called mother shares with her lover your bed and our inheritance. Guide Orestes home and grant I have a heart purer than my mother’s and a cleaner hand. So do I pray and so do pour libations. Do the same, maids, and let your voices fall on the tomb like wreaths of lamentation.
CHORUS: Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow! Let tears fall on the ground where greatness lies. Lord of Argos, hear us: though mists of death surround you now, listen and answer our cry for help. Who will deliver our home with a mighty spear? Where is the arm to bend the bow of vengeance? Who will draw the sword to thrust and kill?
ELECTRA: The earth drinks these offerings and gives them to my father – but there is something strange here.
CHORUS: What do you see?
ELECTRA: A new-cut lock of hair. It is a family custom to offer such signs to the dead.
CHORUS: But those who should mourn him only rejoice in his absence.
ELECTRA: And yet it looks just like the hair of . . .
CHORUS: Whom? Whose hair?
ELECTRA: It looks like my own. Or someone’s who resembles me.
CHORUS: Orestes – come in secret?
ELECTRA: It is like his. See the texture and the curls!
CHORUS: Do we dare hope? Has he returned?
ELECTRA: No, no. I can’t share such hope. He must have sent it by another. My mother, lacking a mother’s heart, would not mourn the dead with such a gift. It cannot be Orestes – yet I hope again. I wish this lock of hair could be a herald and speak: “Throw me away, I am a stranger’s.” Or better still: “I am a token from a son.” O help me gods! What must I believe? … but look. Footprints. Of Orestes? Doubts shake my mind, like a boat at sea.
Orestes steps forward from his hiding place
ORESTES: Thank heaven some prayers are answered. Others will be answered soon.
ELECTRA: Why should the gods respond now? What have I ever won from them? And who are you to know my prayers?
ORESTES: I am the answer to those endless petitions.
ELECTRA: Is it you . . . Orestes? Can I call you by that dear name? Or is it a trick?
ORESTES: You see me and do not believe, yet when you saw the lock of hair, your heart leapt with excitement. Look at my robe; you sewed it with your needle. Here’s the creature you made for a design. [she cries out in recognition] Not so loud! Be joyful but quietly. Our “loving” family might hear.
ELECTRA: O treasure of my father’s house, tears have called you back. In your face, I see a father come again, a sister lost in brutal sacrifice, a mother (since we have no mother), and simply a brother. May Zeus and justice drive you on.
ORESTES: Zeus, smile down upon our cause. We are the orphaned fledglings of the eagle-king. Look down on us, two children all alone and starving for our home. If you let us perish, who will ever worship your name again as savior?
CHORUS: Be careful. Someone may hear you and report your arrival to whom I hope will soon be dead.
ORESTES: Apollo will not fail us now. He sent me here to fight a bitter fight, threatening with visions of Furies and a restless father’s spirit. The dead beneath the earth grow with hate and plague the living. You can see them – their eyes burning, grim faces hovering over you in the dark, murdered kinsmen pleading for revenge! The madness haunts you, drives you on and on – no rest, no refuge! He who withholds a just vengeance, Apollo said, cannot approach his altar. I must heed an oracle like this. My reason’s are many: the god’s command, my father’s grief, the loss of my estate, the disgrace that Argive men, whose flaming souls set fire to Troy, should now simmer as slaves before these craven women – for Aegisthus has a woman’s heart. I’ll cut it out to prove it.
CHORUS: Almighty fates, by the power of Zeus, grant this prayer: let justice strike. He who acts must suffer, hate for hate, blow for blow, justice for justice. Three generations of this house prove it.
ELECTRA: Hear us, father, as we mourn and pray for you – your children, suppliants and exiles at your tomb.
ORESTES: Would you had fallen at Troy instead, an honorable death for a mighty warrior.
ELECTRA: No, your murderers should have died before committing this atrocity.
CHORUS: Now that the deed is done, blood cries out for blood. The Furies, summoned by the anger of the dead, howl for destruction.
ORESTES: Children are the words of a man, the voice of his salvation. No man is dead while yet his seed speaks for him. Save us and save yourself!
CHORUS: The house will mend itself by its own hand and not a stranger’s. You blessed ones beneath the earth, cherish your children here and give them strength.
ORESTES: Father, remember the bath where you were washed in blood!
ELECTRA: Remember the robe which wrapped you in oblivion!
ORESTES: Give me back, I pray, this throne and kingdom, yours by right.
ELECTRA: Awaken, father, to our cries!
CHORUS: You have honored this tomb with your incantations. But now it is time to act.
ORESTES: Why does this woman send you here with these libations, after seven years? It’s too late to repent, and this gift falls far short of paying for her crime. What did she hope to accomplish?
CHORUS: She sent these offerings in fear. She dreamt that she was mother to a serpent. She wrapped it in baby clothes, and offered it her breast. The serpent took in blood with the milk.
ORESTES: This dream has meaning. It is the image of a man.
CHORUS: In her sleep she shrieked. She woke in terror and all the lamps were lit to drive the vision back. Trembling, she sent at once these offerings to the dead.
ORESTES: I pray to the earth and our father that this dream comes to life in me.
CHORUS: So be it. Tell us what to do.
ORESTES: My sister must go inside, revealing nothing. With treachery they killed him, so treachery will tangle them in the same net. I will knock at the door, and Pylades and I will plead the right of guests and wanderers, pretending to come from Delphi. Aegisthus, to save his reputation, must admit us. Once inside, the sight of him on the throne will give strength to my sword arm. The Furies of the house who thrive on blood are thirsty still. Go in, Electra, and watch carefully. You, my friends, speak only when necessary. For the rest, we trust Apollo and ask that the path of the sword be true.
Orestes and Pylades exit off stage as Electra goes into the palace
CHORUS: Earth breeds frightful creatures, twisted and grotesque, and the seas are full of savage life. Strange winged things and long-necked monsters haunt the shadowy caverns – but these are nothing to the boldness of man’s pride or the recklessness of woman’s passion. Pride and passion couple in the dark like beasts, but the sword of justice edges near the heart and no transgression goes unpunished. The avenging Furies beckon a child home to guarantee that murder propagates murder.
Orestes and Pylades approach the palace door
ORESTES: Porter! Porter! Hello within! Does Aegisthus welcome strangers?
PORTER: What do you require?
ORESTES: Announce us to the master of the house. We bring news. And hurry; the chariot of night rushes on and travelers grow weary. Call the mistress if you will, but I would rather speak to the master.
CLYTEMNESTRA: [at the door] Strangers, tell us what you need and it is yours. This house is full of hospitality, warm baths, soft beds, and the eyes of Justice watch over all we do.
ORESTES: On the road from Delphi, I met a stranger named Strophius. Knowing I was bound for Argos, he asked me to deliver a message. “Orestes,” he said, “is dead. If his parents want to bring his body home or let it lie in his adopted land, convey their wishes back to me.” I know not to whom I speak, to one who loved him or not, but his parents should be told of this.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Ah, your tidings are a storm of woe. O curse that haunts our house, how far you reach! Even those hidden are found out by deadly arrows. And now Orestes! There are those who counted on his coming to bring happiness once more into the house.
ORESTES: I had rather been the bearer of good news, but I am bound to speak the truth.
CLYTEMNESTRA: You shall not be less welcome. Another would have brought the word if you had not. Porter, escort these strangers to the rooms and tend them kindly as befits our house. Meanwhile, I’ll send a servant to inform the king and we’ll decide what must be done.
They exit into the house as the nurse enters
CHORUS: How can we help Orestes? O mother earth, let us add our strength to his. Hermes, help to drive his secret sword. But where are you going, Kilissa, looking so sad?
NURSE: The master of the house bids me bring Aegisthus back so he may hear the news. The queen pretended to weep, but I could see the smile in her eyes. It’s ruin for the house, I’ll tell you that. Aegisthus will laugh out loud. I could cry myself. All the other troubles I’ve put up with, but Orestes, he was like my own son. His mother handed him to me when he was born, and I’m the one who nursed him. I’m the one he woke with his yowling in the middle of the night to change his diapers. And now he’s dead – Orestes dead, little Orestes. I must bear the message to the man who ruined his father’s house.
CHORUS: Did she bid him come with his guards?
NURSE: Yes. Why?
CHORUS: Bid him come alone. Deliver it as though the news were joyful.
NURSE: What? Do you rejoice at Orestes’ death?
CHORUS: Perhaps Zeus may blow ill winds to our advantage.
NURSE: It cannot be. Orestes was our last and only hope.
CHORUS: A shrewd interpreter might see it otherwise.
NURSE: What’s that? Do you know more than you are saying?
CHORUS: Go, give the message as I tell you. Have him come alone. The gods look after those they call their own.
NURSE: Well, I will then. I hope it’s for the best. May the gods grant it is.
CHORUS: Zeus, look fondly on this young man, who visits his father’s house as a stranger. His father was a stallion; he’s a colt harnessed to a chariot of suffering. In your power, keep a strong hold on the reins that he may not go too fast or falter, but come with steady gallop to the goal. Goddesses of this house, let the old murders of the past breed no more. Lord of light, let the gloomy veil be parted. Deceitful Hermes, cover the eyes of the victims with darkness, even though it is day. Then shall we sing in joy, with hearts like air and voices soft as clouds, because the palace is delivered from its woe. O Orestes, when the part of action comes and you face the viper-mother, do not turn away in shame when she calls you son. Cry “my father’s son” back to her and follow with the fatal, innocent thrust!
AEGISTHUS: I hear that strangers have arrived with news that’s far from welcome. Orestes – dead in such a time. To add this burden to a house already heavy with blood is hard to bear. It may be only rumor, a fancy nurtured by a woman. What can you tell me of the truth of this?
CHORUS: We have heard the story, that is all we know. Go within and find the truth. You must encounter this stranger face to face.
AEGISTHUS: He might be lying. I’ll test if he saw the body himself or only heard a rumor. My eyes are open to deceit.
Exit Aegisthus into the house
CHORUS: Zeus, Zeus, to you we pray. Now is the time of the sword to thrust and hack. Will it strike for defeat or victory? Orestes, with a double prize of birthright and revenge, faces his double enemy. Zeus, double his strength.
AEGISTHUS: [within the house] Help! Help! Ahhhhhhhhh!
CHORUS: Listen, the struggle has begun. Let us stand aside while the prize hangs in the balance that we might incur no blame in this foul business.
Enter porter from house, followed by Clytemnestra
PORTER: O sorrow! Sorrow! My master’s dead! Aegisthus lives no more. Clytemnestra must be warned. The blade’s bloody edge will be at her throat next. Help, help!
CLYTEMNESTRA: What cries are these? Who needs help within the house?
PORTER: The dead have come back to kill the living!
CLYTEMNESTRA: You speak in riddles, but I guess the answer. With treachery we killed and so shall die. Quickly, bring me a weapon. An axe! If I must die, others will go with me.
The doors open to reveal Orestes standing over the body of Aegisthus
ORESTES: You are the one I seek. I’ve seen Aegisthus; he has seen enough of me.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Aegisthus – dead!
ORESTES: You love him? You may lie beside him in the grave, faithful to the end.
CLYTEMNESTRA: My son, my son! Have pity on this breast where you sucked the milk that made you strong.
ORESTES: Pylades, what shall I do? How can I kill my mother?
PYLADES: Remember the oracle of Apollo. Remember the oath you swore. Better to have all men hate you than to defy the gods.
ORESTES: Your advice is true and good. This way, mother. Lie beside Aegisthus. You chose him while you lived, ranking him higher than my father. Prefer him now in death.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I cared for you when you were young. Can you not care for me when I am old?
ORESTES: You killed my father.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Not I. It was fate that killed him. Fate must take the blame.
ORESTES: Then when you die, mother, we’ll blame fate once again.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Do you not fear a mother’s curse?
ORESTES: I have borne your curse already; you sent me into exile.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Not exile. To a friendly home, a safer place.
ORESTES: I was sold.
CLYTEMNESTRA: What price did I receive for you?
ORESTES: The price of shame.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Your father was not blameless. Remember he lusted as well.
ORESTES: You cannot blame him for your own.
CLYTEMNESTRA: It is hard for women when they have no men.
ORESTES: A woman’s portion is to wait. You could not wait.
CLYTEMNESTRA: Watch out. The hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down.
ORESTES: If I let you live, my father’s curses will loose more frightful fiends.
CLYTEMNESTRA: I feel like one who wastes tears upon a tomb.
ORESTES: I must be stone. Allegiance to my father makes me so.
CLYTEMNESTRA: You are the serpent I brought forth in my dream!
ORESTES: Your dream has come true. You acted wickedly; now suffer the fate of the wicked.
Clytemnestra retreats into the palace with Orestes following
CHORUS: I weep even for the wicked when they fall. But since the courage of Orestes makes an end to this long heritage of corpses, what is done is good, that the eye of the house may not be closed forever. The commands of Apollo are carried out, and the old wrongs which seemed eternal are laid to rest at last. The house revives like an animal from sleep, and all pollution shall be washed away.
The doors open to reveal Orestes standing over the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus;
in his hand he holds the bloody robe in which his father was murdered.
ORESTES: Look at them, the twin tyrants of our land, who killed a king and feasted on his house. They were majestic lovers when they sat on their thrones. They have no majesty now. Now look at this: the robe they used to tie up my father, a net entangling his hands and feet. Spread it out, stand round me in a circle so that the sun may see the kind of handiwork my mother wove. Let it be a witness to the justice of my deed. I need no evidence to justify my killing of Aegisthus; the law is plain about adulterers. But what kind of woman was this – to hack the man whose children she conceived? To hate the children whose loving weight once bore her body down? Well, we have been delivered of her now. I pray to Zeus that I may never mate with such a wife.
CHORUS: A wretched death deserved. But he who lives – pain blooms for him as well.
ORESTES: There’s no doubt that she was full of guilt. This is my witness; the robe embroidered with my father’s blood. Now can I speak his praises properly. Now can I mourn him as a son! And yet I mourn for more than him. I mourn the atonement as much as I mourn the deed. I mourn the whole blood-line I come from.
CHORUS: No man lives out his days in pure serenity untouched by suffering. Today is author of one pain, tomorrow another.
ORESTES: I thought this was the end but it has all the pain of birth. Like a charioteer whose horses break the fences and go wild, my wits now whirl away and fear sings dizzy in my head. Listen to me. Be my friends and listen while I have my senses still in check. I swear to you I had to kill my mother. Apollo ordered me. And if I had not, I would suffer punishment too foul to name. Now I will go to Apollo’s shrine where I’ll be cleansed of all blame. I charge all Argos bear me witness. I must wander now but do not forget what I have done.
CHORUS: It was well done. You need not be afraid. The house of Argos you set free with your clean, righteous strokes.
ORESTES: Look! Look there! Women wearing black, their long hair twists like snakes. Who are these dark-clad women?
CHORUS: What fantasies trouble you? Do not give way to fear.
ORESTES: They are not fantasies. Clear as the sun at noon, they are the Furies of the house, the bloodhounds of my mother’s curse!
CHORUS: You imagine them because the blood is fresh on your hands. There’s no one there.
ORESTES: Lord Apollo! Now they come in legions! And their eyes – their enormous eyes drip blood!
CHORUS: Go to Apollo. He will clear your sight.
ORESTES: You do not see them, but I see. They call me, lead me, drive me. I can stay here no longer!
Exit Orestes chased by invisible furies
CHORUS: Blessings go with you then and may Zeus guard you well and save your eyes from horror. Now for the third time this house falls to a dreadful blow. First the children were eaten: the curse on Thyestes. Then a king was killed: the curse on Agamemnon. Now the curse lights on a third: Orestes the deliverer. Is he savior or sacrifice? When will the anger of the storm abate, so that the crimes may find an end, so that the house of Atreus may find its peace forever?
The temple of Apollo at Delphi
PRIESTESS: I pray first to mother Earth and to Themis her daughter, who first sat at this shrine of prophecy, followed by Apollo, current lord of this temple, and finally to Dionysos who sometimes resides here along with his Bacchants. I pray that my prophecies today will be greater than ever before. [she enters temple only to run out in terror] Horrors! A scene of blasphemy! A man, polluted with blood, his sword drawn, and surrounded by gruesome women! Their eyes run blood. The hairs of their heads are serpents. This is a matter for Apollo who is powerful and purifies all habitations.
Enter Apollo from above, as Orestes and Furies are revealed in doorway
APOLLO: You are not lost, Orestes. I will be with you to the end. The creatures who pursue you have gone to sleep like ancient children. For destruction were they born and live in gloom beneath the earth, abhorred of men and gods. But still you must run on, for they are destined to pursue you across the continent, beyond the sea and past the cities until you lead them to Athena’s shrine. There judges will consider your case and in speech inspired by heaven you will be delivered from distress. For it was my command that you should kill your mother.
ORESTES: Lord Apollo, incapable of evil, do not forget me. I believe in your power. Give me reason to believe.
APOLLO: Master the hesitation in your heart and go your fearful way. I send Hermes my brother with you as divine escort and protection.
Exit Apollo and Orestes; enter the ghost of Clytemnestra who addresses the Furies
CLYTEMNESTRA: This is no time to sleep! Because of you, I am disgraced among the other dead. I, Clytemnestra, murderously struck by my own son, can find no wrath among the gods to bring me peace. You who lazily lie around have seen the gashes on my throat and know whose flashing sword engraved them there. Remember me in the caverns of your dreams. O you were wide of eye and sharp of sense to gobble up the offerings I gave you in the darkness of night. But now you forget. Orestes has eluded you, slipping out of your nets. Awake, you creatures of hell, awake! I, Clytemnestra, shadow now, entreat you in the shadows of your dreams. [the Furies moan and stir in their sleep] Whine if you will; the man is already gone. His friends were faithful, not like my friends, heavy with sleep and light in vengeance. Orestes kills me and runs free. Awake and rise!
FURIES: [dreaming] Find him, chase him, snatch him!
CLYTEMNESTRA: You hunt him in your sleep like frightened dogs which sniff and growl and do not dare awaken. Dig spurs of memory against your hardened hearts. Take up the chase. Pursue Orestes until he feels, like running fire, your breath upon his back.
FURIES: Awake! Awake! We have been cheated and betrayed! Apollo has stolen the arrogant man who struck his mother down. Apollo is a thief among the gods, a thief who robs the old gods of their rights. But Orestes the blood-killer, though he muffle himself in clouds or burrow into the earth, shall not escape our wrath.
APOLLO: Furies! Leave this place. Go, before my golden bow string snaps an arrow at you like a flying snake. Its bite will draw from you the blood you’ve sucked from men. You have no rights in this sacred place. Your home lies among horrors, where heads are severed, eyes gouged out, limbs chopped off. and bodies are impaled on spikes. You revolt the gods. Go! No one will tend the sort of flock you are.
FURIES: Apollo, it is our time to speak. You are no mere patron in this matter. Yours is the guilt and yours alone. You told Orestes he must kill his mother.
APOLLO: I told Orestes to avenge his father.
FURIES: You gave him sanctuary when his hands dripped scarlet.
APOLLO: I led him on the way to purification.
FURIES: It is our destiny to drive to madness those who spill blood of their blood.
APOLLO: But if a woman kills her husband, you do not take up the chase at all.
FURIES: Because there is no murdering of blood by blood.
APOLLO: You dishonor Zeus and show contempt for his marriage to Hera. Oaths between man and woman are mightier than any others. Nature itself protects a union flowing with delights. Because your anger rises at the lesser deed, I declare that Pallas Athena shall decide the issue.
FURIES: We will never surrender, Apollo.
APOLLO: Keep after him then. You will find you are pursuing your own doom.
FURIES: You cannot strip us of our ancient privileges by mere words.
APOLLO: I will help my suppliant. It offends heaven and earth for a man, once purified, to be abandoned by the gods.
FURIES: We are driven by a mother’s cry, and must go on until we seize the bloody son.
Apollo and Furies exit opposite ways; Orestes arrives at the Parthenon in Athens, pursued by Furies
ORESTES: Athena, I come before your statue and your shrine to await your justice. My hands are now clean. Hear me, divine Wisdom.
FURIES: We follow the trail of pollution as hounds follow a bleeding fawn. The drops of blood accuse him as he runs. Breathlessly over the earth, we chase him on the spinning world and find him at the shrine of Athena. [they see Orestes clinging to the statue] Look there! Orestes clings to the image of the goddess and hopes to hide his guilt. But it cannot be hid. Mother’s blood is spilt and dry, a stain forever unforgivable. Neither Apollo nor Athena can contrive to save you now. Drained of blood, a shell of a man, search in vain the hollow corners of your heart for one small jot of joy. You turn from my words and are too proud to answer. But you are ours, and fattened for our feasting, not as a sacrifice upon an altar honorably but as living prey, eaten while you breathe.
Come Furies. We have justice on our side, we who defend the rights of gods and guests and parents. To our victims we sing songs of madness, songs of frenzy splintering the brain. Those whose hands are clean have nothing to fear from us. But the guilty ones like this man shall not escape our just punishment. Shadowed in the caves beneath the earth, the old gods rule and call the tune, and no man who sins in blood can cover up his ears to drown us out. Zeus may despise us and refuse our company, but we will continue to play our part in maintaining the cosmic scales of justice.
FURIES: Daughter of Zeus, Athena! We appeal to you.
ATHENA: What is this strange company assembled at my shrine, unlike any born of woman? You have come to the place of judgment and justice. What do you seek?
FURIES: We are the daughters of Night. Men call us curses. Drawn by the smell of blood, we drive killers from their homes.
ATHENA: Where does their fearsome journey end?
FURIES: Beyond the boundary of joy.
ATHENA: Is this the man you haunt?
FURIES: This is Orestes, slayer of his mother.
ATHENA: Did he kill to satisfy himself or spurred by some just motive?
FURIES: No duplicity can justify the killing of a mother.
ATHENA: I see two sides but only half of the case is heard.
FURIES: He is not willing to accept his doom.
ATHENA: The reason must be given. You seek justice, do you not?
FURIES: Perhaps superior wisdom can uncover something new. Question him yourself.
ATHENA: Do you agree that my decision shall be final?
FURIES: In deference to your father and yourself, we do.
ATHENA: Speak, stranger. If you are an honest suppliant, speak plainly and without guile.
ORESTES: I have come to you, Athena, at the command of Apollo. Take me in; I am not a sinner crying to be cleansed. My hands are pure. I have washed them at many shrines attended by Apollo. As for my history, I say with pride that Agamemnon was my father. Agamemnon, lord of ships, who hand in hand with you made Troy a desert. He came home full of honor and was made into a corpse. My mother’s heart turned black and snuffed him out. I returned from exile to avenge my father whom I loved. Thus far am I guilty. But Apollo guided me in all I did. Judge now if I was right or wrong. Your word shall be my guide.
ATHENA: No single mortal can decide a case so grave as this, and even I, begot from the head of Zeus himself, am hesitant to speak. You are cleansed and I respect your suffering. Yet these women have their office too, and I respect their rights as well. If their vengeance is forestalled, they’ll let their poison fall like rain upon this land. Let this be the way to make the judgment clear: I will appoint judges from the city and bind them by an oath and they shall sit to render a decision. They shall cast votes in favor of Orestes or the Furies, and I will guide their voices by my wisdom. If their words are just and their hearts merciful, their tribunal shall endure forever. Let the trumpet call the Athenians together.
Enter twelve jurors
FURIES: Apollo, we demand to know why you think that this is your domain.
APOLLO: I came to testify as Orestes’ advocate. He came to me as honest suppliant, and I helped to purge him clean. I am responsible for the death of his mother. Now Athena, in your wisdom, tell us how we should proceed.
ATHENA: I declare the trial begun. Let the Furies speak first, telling us what impels them to pursue this man.
FURIES: Our cause is simple; we shall be brief. Answer us truthfully, Orestes: did you kill your mother?
ORESTES: I have never denied it. I did.
FURIES: Under whose command?
ORESTES: Apollo’s. When a god commands, I do not question.
FURIES: You will question it soon when the verdict is given.
ORESTES: I am not afraid. My father helps me from his grave.
FURIES: Be careful how you trust the dead. Your mother’s in that company too.
ORESTES: My mother was marked with double dishonor.
FURIES: No doubt, no doubt. Tell the judges how you make this out.
ORESTES: She murdered Agamemnon, her husband and my father.
FURIES: Death has set her free from sin. You live and so are doomed to punishment.
ORESTES: Why did you not drive her into desperation?
FURIES: The man she killed was not of the same blood. But you she fed with her own blood while you were in the womb. Do you deny it?
ORESTES: It is time for you to speak, lord Apollo. Was my action right or wrong? Speak for the jury to hear and decide.
APOLLO: In all my oracles, it is Zeus who speaks through me. Accept the will of Zeus, for Zeus commanded me, and I commanded Orestes. The murder of a king high-born, his rule god-given, fresh from victory, is no small thing. Learn, Athena, how he met his end, how basely: in the waters of his bath was he cut down. Is this the death of a hero and a king?
FURIES: Zeus values fathers highly, says Apollo. But Zeus himself put his father Kronos in chains. Note this, judges, note it well.
APOLLO: Furies, you display all the brilliance of weasels. Zeus can do and undo what he pleases. But death is final. Once gone to dust, there is no coming back. Though Zeus can alter and reverse all other things, he has allowed no remedy for death.
FURIES: Consider what acquittal for Orestes means. Should a matricide possess his father’s estate?
APOLLO: The father is the parent, the begetter of the child. The mother is only the field wherein it grows. There can be fatherhood without a mother; we have proof at hand. Athena, child of Zeus, never saw the darkness of the womb; Wisdom sprung from her father’s brow. Athena, as I exalt you in all things, I pledge this innocent man to be your servant. He will fight for you and give you honor, he and all his descendants.
ATHENA: Does this complete the presentation? Shall I ask the judges to bring in the verdict?
FURIES: We have said all that must be said. The wind blows ill for us.
ATHENA: Apollo, do I act correctly in your eyes?
APOLLO: You have heard the truth; now let the truth be sealed.
ATHENA: Hear me, people of Athens. This is my decree, given to you at this first trial to decide a case of bloodshed. This court of judges shall abide forevermore and be immune from error as long as reverence and fear inform it. This tribunal shall be impervious to bribery and threat, a watchful sentinel for those who cannot help themselves. Now for the vote. Let each man think upon his oath and cast his ballot.
FURIES: [to the jurors as they vote] Do not dishonor us. We can bring plagues on the land.
APOLLO: The oracles of Zeus are powerful. Do not dispute them.
FURIES: If the decision goes against us, this land will feel our fury.
APOLLO: Remember the first murderer, Ixion. My father accepted him as suppliant.
FURIES: You younger gods are impudent toward those who ruled before you.
APOLLO: You have no honor anywhere, among young or old. The decision will be mine.
ATHENA: Peace! I cast my vote in favor of Orestes. Mother had I none, and I respect the argument for father as the principle parent. The death of Agamemnon was the greater crime. Quickly now. Turn out the ballots from the urn.
ORESTES: This is the end, one way or another. The light of day or else the doom of night.
ATHENA: The Athenians’ votes are even, six to six. Hence my vote makes the difference. Today is the time for justice and for law and for an end to the bloody chain of crime that causes crime. Orestes is free of guilt. His house stands up revived.
ORESTES: I can go home again. Athena, you have given me a fatherland in place of my father. It shall be said of me: he is an Argive once again by grace of Athena and Apollo and the all-deciding god who is savior. I make this pledge to Athens, city of Athena. No soldier of my land will ever point a spear in this direction. In my life this shall be so, and after I am dead, from the grave I will maintain this oath. Farewell, Athenians. I pray that you may always prosper.
Exit Orestes and Apollo
FURIES: Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden us down as with horses, you have knocked the old laws from our hands. We will keep our promise of poison; the fields of the land shall be diseased, and the wombs barren. We are betrayed and dishonored. No longer will we keep a close watch over men, but will let sin go unpunished. Men will learn evil from seeing evil prevail. From now on, let no one cry out for justice to strike down the wicked, calling on our names, as we will not listen.
ATHENA: Do not grieve, goddesses. You are not dishonored. The vote was even, remember, swayed by the hand of Zeus upon the scale. Retract your anger’s venom and be at peace.
FURIES: Justice is overthrown. Ruthless gods, powerful in your youth, you have ridden us down as with horses, you have knocked the old laws from our hands.
ATHENA: If you remain in Athens, time will add new glories to your name. You will dwell with me in radiance. Live among us as the kindly goddesses of Athens: the serene Eumenides.
FURIES: What fortune shall we bring to our new city if we accept it?
ATHENA: Blessings out of the earth and from the sea and sky. A gentle wind awash with sunlight that the crops and beasts may multiply and the seed of man be guarded safe. All these your benevolence will bring.
FURIES: We accept this place. We will live with Athena in the light and let our anger die.
ATHENA: Zeus, who guides men’s speech in council, has triumphed, and former enemies have become friends.
FURIES: Let civil war not thunder in this city nor the healthy soil drink the blood of brothers. Let them trade joy for joy and love for love, for therein lies the cure of many evils in the world.
ATHENA: Lit by the happy glow of torches, you will be honorably dressed in robes of festal scarlet, and the people of the city will know your presence henceforth by the blessings that you bring.
ALL: There will be peace forever between our people and the kindly goddesses of night turned into day. It is a time for justice and for law and for an end to the bloody chain of crime that causes crime. Zeus, who is the only hope of man, has said it would be so. Let a song of peace and joy resound forever. Joy we sing forever.
All exit in a grand processional