Live From 458 B.C., What the Greeks Mean to Me
“This is not an ‘Oresteia’ for classicists,” Ms. McLaughlin — a playwright, actor and old friend from college — told me later in New York.
She was understating. For one thing, her version, which runs through June 2, is a swift two hours and 20 minutes instead of the dawn-to-dusk event it would have been back in the day. (She estimates that the three plays lasted three hours each, with breaks and a now-lost satyr play filling out the run time.) Her version is also performed unmasked.
But those are superficial alterations. To understand how powerfully urgent this new telling is, and how it speaks to our time in a different voice, you have to look to the reasons Aeschylus wrote his version and Ms. McLaughlin wrote hers.
There weren’t Tonys back then, but Aeschylus did win first prize for “The Oresteia” at the Dionysia dramatic competition in 458 B.C. (According to some sources, Sophocles came in second.) The Dionysia was fundamentally a religious festival, and there’s no reason to think the playwright was anything but a man of literal faith in the gods. In his version of the Orestes tale, the immortals play a crucial role, both inciting the tragedy and trying to corral it.
Humans are their pawns. The goddess Artemis basically blackmails Agamemnon, who insulted her, into sacrificing his daughter as expiation. In turn, his wife, Clytemnestra, kills him; their son Orestes, egged on by Apollo, kills her; and the vengeful Furies drive Orestes mad.
It’s only then, near the end of the third play, that Athena enters with a novel proposition. Instead of further killings, she suggests, why not have a trial? Let a jury of humans — men, that is — decide human fate.
Aeschylus, writing at the start of the Greek Classical Age, was describing what he saw as the recent emergence of organized justice from the spilled guts of vendetta. Though officially a tragedy, his “Oresteia,” in that sense, has a happy ending.