Flesh or Fish or What? Euripides' Orestes

by Victor Castellani
Department of Languages and Literatures
University of Denver
Denver, Colorado

In the introduction to his 1958 translation of the Orestes, William Arrowsmith describes what the Greek text is, and what his vigorous translation (with imaginative stage directions) permits this challenging play to be for Anglophones: 'Tragic in tone, melodramatic in incident and technique, by sudden wrenching turns savage, tender, grotesque, and even comic, combining sheer theatrical virtuosity with puzzling structural violence and a swamping bitterness of spirit.' (1)

About twenty-five years ago a student production at Princeton, using Princetonian Arrowsmith's version, demonstrated the problem of how to stage such a protean monster and suggested a solution. What began in the little auditorium--and what begins in fact--as a serious play, albeit in Euripides' best de-heroizing vein, by the end is transmogrified into virtual farce. The Phrygian slave was played very broadly (there is no other way to play him), but Orestes was comical rather than calculating and the finale more loony than lurid. Apollo at the end was a shameless joke and joker, pinching and caressing a giggling Helen in lower heaven. (On a similarly irreverent September 1994 staging at the University of Toronto see the review by Aara Suksi in Didaskalia 1,4 [October 1994].)

The startling action of this play reflects late-fifth century mythic innovation at its most provocative. What begins as antiheroic melodrama has become by the end positively manic. How to play the whole is therefore the fundamental question. An ancient notice in the hypothesis to the Alcestis of thirty years earlier indicates that Orestes, like Alcestis, was 'rather satyric' in nature; but that it was 'pro-satyric,' performed 'in place of a satyr-play,' is not explicitly stated. In a new study of Orestes John Porter summarizes the discussion of this vexed matter and concludes, rightly, that the play as a whole should not be classified as satyr-play. For one thing, he points out, at its revival in 341 B.C. it was doubtless classified as a tragedy. For another, Orestes seems to be much too long to be an 'after-piece.' It is, in fact, one of Euripides' longest plays.

It seems to me to be something more, however, than just another Euripidean experiment within the ever-widening limits of late-fifth- century tragedy, such as Helen, brought to the stage four years before, which has a double prologue and experiments with mixed modalities. Instead Orestes, like Bacchae, which Euripides wrote a year or two later, can have done double duty as end-piece of a new kind of trilogy, one that, instead of being followed by a satyr- play, in its latter part absorbed some 'satyric' features.

Alcestis did the same, of course, from the drunken bawling of Heracles that begins the 'second action' I distinguished in an AJP article in 1980 (2). Alcestis however, was the fourth member of a tetralogy, following the tragic trilogy Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus. Bacchae, on the other hand, is listed third, of three plays only, in the posthumous production: Iphigenia at Aulis, Alcmaeon [at Corinth], Bacchae.

Merrily satyr-like the last of these plays is not; and yet it has a connection with satyrs' melodrama. Tragedy and melodrama (of which satyr-play is a rowdy species) look at the same action-and-retaliation plot from opposite standpoints, respectively from that of the person who offends the gods and is punished (tragic) and from that of the offended god--for example, the endangered god Dionysus himself in the persecution myths (melodramatic) (3). From Dionysus' point of view, therefore, Pentheus is no better than the melodramatic villains Thoas, Theoclymenus, Lycus, and their ilk; and the rejoicing maenad chorus after whom the posthumous masterpiece is named are a complement to the usual satyrs, their male counterparts (as hundreds of Attic vases remind us). The god's triumph in the Bacchae can thus be understood as a 'black' satyr play, beginning perhaps with the so-called 'palace miracle,' but intensely so from that awesome moment when, saying 'ah' (extrametric line 810), the Asian stranger takes possession of Pentheus' mind and seduces his persecutor to self-destruction.

Returning to the Orestes of two years earlier, we find that something like this moment occurrs there-- twice, in fact, each time giving a new turn to the action and new hope to the embattled matricides. The first is when Pylades proposes a way for Orestes to avenge himself upon the traitor Menelaus and win over the Argives; the second, when Electra suddenly explains how they can escape Menelaus' wrath. Pylades' plan, which is, like Electra's, an attack on a woman which adds the element of capture, entails the sort of precarious, cowardly boldness that is typical of satyrs, both on stage and in vase painting.

From this point on, manic events proceed. Electra is as crazy as her brother, raving, metaphorically drunken; and, in the wild final scene, she raises and probably whirls a torch like many a painted maenad's. Between the planning scene and the finale we find the likewise un-'tragic' sequence with the panicked Phrygian castrato. Whereas his monody is broad comedy, his ensuing mouse-and-cat dialogue with Orestes recalls the menacing playfulness now of Polyphemus, now of Odysseus, in Euripides' early extant satyr-play Cyclops. It anticipates, moreover, Dionysus' grisly toying with Pentheus in the Bacchae--another likeness between the two late plays. In any case, the atmosphere and the 'feel' of the Orestes change during the long third episode that begins at line 844.

How this should be made to happen in an imaginative re- production of the play will be my eventual concern. Before getting to that, however, we must address questions of how some crucial scenes that precede and follow should be played, and how the diverse characters ought to be presented.

Five scenes are key: [1] the approach of the chorus for the parodos; [2] the 'mad scene' of Orestes Electra and hallucinated Furies in the first episode; [3] the agon between Orestes and Tyndareus before Menelaus in the third episode; [4] the Phrygian comedy that immediately precedes the exodos; and [5] the 'apotheosis' of Helen, with the settlement that Apollo imposes on the other characters at the end.

The entrance of the sympathetic chorus could be played a la Gilbert and Sullivan, but it is much more likely to be a serious scene, resembling the song between Amphitryon and the Theban chorus in Euripides' Heracles, probably written not long before Orestes, where the old man fears that if the unconscious hero awakens he may resume his murderous rampage. Heracles there, like Orestes here, stirs once or twice before waking up, to create seriously designed delay-and- suspense.

In the central part of the Orestes-and-Electra scene (from line 253) Orestes sees and fights Erinyes. Porter, whose argument minimizes the prince's guilt and madness, emphasizing instead his victimization and violent indignation at others' betrayal, has trouble with this scene. According to Porter Orestes should be quite angry with Apollo for not backing him up against the people of Argos--not to mention against the Furies; but he should not be insane. This does not account well for the action when Orestes screams to Electra to let him go, then calls for the bow that Apollo gave him for defense against the dread goddesses, and shoots arrows at--nothing. The problem is aggravated if Electra produces and Orestes shoots real bow and arrows. What really happens? Electra says not a word when she is supposed be giving him the weapons. Arrowsmith's stage directions say that she hands him bow and quiver; neo- rationalist Philip Vellacott in his Penguin translation agrees.

One may nevertheless suspect that, unlike the bow and arrows that Euripides' Ion wears and brandishes, for example, or those that Heracles sadly gathers from the rubble, Orestes' are, like his Furies, visible only to himself. A factor in his sister's distress over the fit of madness would thus be that she has had to play along with a painful dumbshow. Certainly neither bow nor arrows are mentioned after Orestes comes back to his right senses. More importantly, in this first part of the play we ought to be left in grave doubt about the interest, if not about the existence of Apollo or other gods. Orestes' and Menelaus' subsequent discussion of the prince's 'disease' should permit a non-theological understanding of everything we have witnessed in terms of mental disorder. If, however, we see a physical bow from Apollo, the poet's intended ambiguity or uncertainty is lost. We are not supposed to know yet whether Orestes' problem is divine and miraculous or human--and pathological. We should be as perplexed here as the servant who reports it in the Heracles is about Heracles' deranged behavior inside the house.

The three-way scene that develops when old Tyndareus, Clytemnestra's true and Helen's putative father, joins Orestes and Menelaus might be like one in the Andromache where ancient Peleus amusingly routs the vile bully Menelaus. A likelier comparison to the 'pre-trial' of Orestes is the sober agon in Alcestis, where old Pheres (to whom Arrowsmith compared Tyndareus here) speaks uncomforting truths to Admetus. Orestes here is tried more fairly than in the political trial before a popular Argive jury afterward. Some brutal sarcasm on both speakers' part notwithstanding, this is provocative Euripides, not comedy.

Another detail of stage-business must be pondered, in Orestes' scene with the Phrygian. Is the sword Orestes wields dripping red (some guard-slaves have been slain) or is, like frustrated Pentheus' in the Bacchae, unbloodied? The bloodless sword should probably be preferred, for several reasons, among them: [1] Bouncing trochees suggest comedy, although the first Pylades scene(729-806) in the Orestes is also trochaic, however, urgent, breathless, yet not essentially comical; a better analogy, however, might be Dionysus' mixed account of real and symbolic events at Bacchae 604ff.(4). [2] The slave's prompt proskunesis is slapstick stuff, a flop to the floor without missing a beat, to which Orestes responds with a sly allusion to the luring scene in Aeschylus' Agamemnon. [3] The fancy-dressed, gesticulating Phrygian, whom we can hardly visualize as standing still during the agitated lyrics of his singular 'messenger speech,' is, in wildness of presumable movement and in hyperbolic cowardice, rather satyr-like, though he bears not a thyrsos but a fan.

Then we have the astonishing finale. The high-flying, smiling Helen we must imagine contrasts amusingly with the low- lying, shy woman who barely steps outside the palace in the prologue-scene. Moreover, what Apollo proposes undercuts the seriousness of the attempted murder of Helen and of all present threats, because it is preposterous. That Hermione should, with her complaisant father's blessing, marry the man who is holding a swordpoint to her throat is as anti-tragic as can be, but rather anticipates and exemplifies Aristotle's statement about a proper comic outcome: 'There [in comedy] whoever are bitterest enemies in the myth, such as Orestes and Aegisthus, having become friends at the end, exit together, and nobody is killed by anybody' (Poetics 1452a 37-39). Other divinities at the ends of Euripides' plays also propose astonishing acquiescence (in both Iphigenias, probably, and in Helen), consolation (Andromache, and perhaps Electra), or reconciliation (Hippolytus and Ion); but only here is Apollonian order implausibly imposed upon what Dionysian-satyric wildness has brought to a sensational pass.

Let us look now at some characters. Hermione is especially interesting. In the prologue-scene she enters from the palace and exits to Clytemnestra's tomb without a word; in the satyric second part of the play she speaks a few lines that characterize her deftly. She is an innocent victim of a satyr-like kidnap plot. Recall where she has been and what she has been doing. She has taken some clippings of her mother Helen's and wine offerings (choai, lines 96 and 113, later 1187 and 1322) to the tomb of Aunt Clytemnestra. When she returns thence she must have an oinochoe still in her hand. When Orestes and Pylades briefly emerge from the palace to seize her at lines 1344ff. we thus find visual notes of a satyr-and- maenad skit (5). Furthermore, the entire attack-on-Helen and capture-of-Hermione campaign is satyr-like, in the brazenness but also in the underlying cowardice of the perpetrators.

Menelaus also deserves remark, speaking as he does both early and late in our play. Euripides brings Menelaus into more of the extant plays than any other character, into five (6). Nowhere is he really respectable; in Andromache and the posthumous Iphigenia he is positively villainous. In Orestes, although his initial sensitivity recalls the Menelaus of both Homeric poems, his lack of the courage to support Orestes and his collapse when confronted with Tyndareus' threats make him as unappealing as his wife. In the end, Menelaus enters in a hurry, blusters, but is completely frustrated, like other outsmarted males in Euripides, from Jason through Thoas and Theoclymenus. This in itself is not comical; no one except Medea laughs at poor Jason. Functional resemblance to the two rather stupid, melodramatic barbarian kings nevertheless suggests that all is not quite serious, especially since, after Orestes plays with Menelaus for awhile, all danger to life and limb, timber and treasure is dispelled by Apollo's sudden epiphany. Furthermore, Menelaus' hapless appeal for help from bystanders immediately before the god appears (1621-24) recalls Aristophanic buffoonery, in scenes where interlopers scream bloody murder when a Dicaeopolis, a Strepsiades, or a Pisthetaerus drives them off with insults and a beating.

To the morose and pathetic tragedy with which we began something has happened--in the middle and late parts of the second episode. First Pylades, with his proposal concerning Helen, then Electra, with hers concerning Helen's daughter, galvanize Orestes to nefarious action. After being more dragged than escorted back from the Argive court, he perks up, and proceeds to lead what I have called the satyric action of the sequel. With metaphorical madness, resembling drunkenness, Pylades and Electra propose attacks on vulnerable women. Their sudden 'inspirations' to brazen, crazy action anticipate the disguised Dionysus' proposal to Pentheus on the same stage two years later. Would you like to see the women? the wine-flushed Stranger will ask the young king of Thebes at Bacchae 811, whereupon Pentheus changes manner and plan.

Let's make Menelaus suffer with us, proposes Pylades, and Orestes, who was unconditionally resigned to death before, is all ears. 'Oh dear friend,' he addresses Pylades (1100): now he would gladly die to see Menelaus suffer. A little later, after Pylades has explained that the Argives will praise them for the glorious slaughter of the hated Helen, Orestes grandly praises friendship and a noble friend. When Orestes wishes the killers may somehow escape with their own lives, Electra, speaking for the first time in a hundred twenty lines, states that she has found a means of safety for the two young assassins and herself: by taking and holding Hermione as hostage. Orestes significantly addresses his sister in these terms: 'What a woman! The mind of a man with a woman's loveliness! If ever a woman deserved to live, not die, that woman is you!' (1204-1206; Arrowsmith). Mixed-up, perverse ideas of friendship and womanhood have stimulated Orestes to undertake new deeds worse than the first ones that have gotten him, his sister, and their banished cousin into trouble already. Tone, including musical tone, must change here.

The value of Apollo's intervention is peculiar and, space permitting, would deserve comment in relation to divine operation three others of its author's works, the pro-satyric Alcestis, the schizomythic Heracles, and the Bacchae. For now the following suffices. Disasters and near disasters in such plays seem to demonstrate that something wild in people can neither be evaded nor, by themselves at least, controlled. Dionysus, with his irresistible, irrational force, may well be 'by nature most terrible and complete a god, yet most kindly to men' (Bacchae 860f.), and therefore awesome in his very unpredictability. Apollo, in contrast, may be a nice thought, but is dubious in his own morals and, worse, unreliable (8). His settlement at the end of Orestes is not to be taken seriously; for the Delphic god's questionable program of action for Orestes has been superseded, in Phoebus' culpable absence, by an amoral Dionysian one. Grim matricide and war with the Furies give way to jolly ambushes and wacky arson. Change, yes; and alternative views, certainly. But hope? None, unless for a valedictory victory on the stage at Athens, as Euripides packed his bags for Macedonia.


For a review of the secondary literature and complete bibliography on this play through 1993 see now the monograph John R. Porter, Studies in Euripides' Orestes (Leiden and New York 1994).

V. Castellani, 'That Troubled House of Pentheus in Euripides' Bacchae,' Transactions of the American Philological Association 106 (1976), 61-83, discusses the non-literal value of the choral and trochaic portions of the play's so-called 'palace miracle' sequence.

Most modern readers would likelier agree with P. Vellacott's gods-bashing in Ironic Drama (Cambridge University Press 1975) and, more important, most thoughtful contemporary viewers were likelier to have agreed with Castor's suppressed indictment of 'wise' Apollo at the end of Euripides' Electra (1245f.).

Apollo nevertheless represents for Euripides a tendency toward order in the world that can neither be denied nor, alas, relied upon, and that therefore countervails what Dionysus embodies without being 'better' for human beings. A parallel battle is joined, but fought only to stalemate, between Apollo's sister Artemis and her opposite Aphrodite in another distressing tragedy, the extant second Hippolytus.

Victor Castellani
University of Denver