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Choëphoroe (Murray 1923)/Preface

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PREFACE

The Choëphoroe, or Libation-Bearers, is the second play in the only trilogy preserved to us from the Athenian stage: Agamemnon, Choëphoroe, Eumenides. The first gives the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthos; the second the vengeance of Orestes, helped by his sister Electra; the third deals with the ultimate solution of the problem of Sin and Punishment, the purification of Orestes from the murder of his mother and the conversion of the spirits of Punishment from Furies to Beneficent Beings, from "Erinyes" to "Eumenides."

The vengeance of Orestes was made the subject of plays by all three tragedians. All the plays are in their ways masterpieces, and each highly characteristic of its writer. Euripides realizes and psychologizes the horror of the story; Sophocles, apparently from a deliberate adoption of the "Homeric" tone, suppresses the religious problem and concentrates on the elements of direct passion. Aeschylus, as I have said elsewhere, "though steeped in the glory of the world of legend, would not lightly accept its judgment upon religious and moral questions, and above all would not, in that region, play at make-believe. He would not elude the horror of this story by simply not mentioning it, like Homer, or by pretending that an evil act was a good one, like Sophocles. He faces the horror; realizes it; and tries to surmount it on the sweep of a great wave of religious emotion. The mother-murder, even if done by a god's command, is a sin; a sin to be expiated by unfathomable suffering. Yet, since the god cannot have commanded evil, it is a duty also. It is a sin that must be committed." The crucial difference is that the Choëphoroe is not self-contained, while the other plays are. They are concerned with a particular story; it is part of a trilogy dealing with the great problem which lies at the centre of Greek religion—Hubris, Dike, Soteria or Crime, Punishment and Deliverance. (I may refer the reader to my introductions to the Agamemnon and to Euripides' Electra.)

Thus, though to the Greek student this is perhaps, of all extant tragedies, the most obscure in detail of language, to the English reader it is not hard to understand. The atmosphere indeed is very ancient: it demands imaginative effort: but the sympathy goes as we would wish it to go and the story tells itself Only two points call for special comment.

The first is the name of the play.[1] The other two plays are called Electra, after the chief character: this is called Choëphoroe, or Libation-Bearers, after the Chorus. For in truth the subjects are not, artistically speaking, quite the same. The main interest of the other plays is to describe how the woman Electra felt and acted with regard to the murder of her mother and step-father; in this play it is to narrate how Agamemnon, the long dead, was awakened to help his children to avenge him. The ghosts in Homer could not speak till they had drunk the blood of sacrifice. Somewhat in the same way the dead Agamemnon here cannot gather his dim senses till the drink-offerings have sunk into his grave. The wine and milk and honey reach his parched lips. He stirs in his sleep, and in that one moment of hesitating consciousness there are crowded upon him all those appeals that have most power to rouse and sting. The first words spoken in prayer at his neglected tomb; the call for vengeance sent, as it were, unknowingly by the murderess; the repeated story of his old wrongs and the outrage done upon his body; above all, the voices of his desolate children crying to him for that which he himself craves. There is no visible apparition from the tomb, as there is, for instance, in the Persae. But as the great litany grows in intensity of longing, the dead seem to draw nearer to the living, and conviction comes to the mourners, one after another, that he who was once King of Kings is in power among them. Where in all literature, except Aeschylus, could one find this union of primitive ghostliness with high intellectual passion? One hand seems to reach out to the African or Polynesian, while the other clasps that of Milton or Goethe.

Another point which the hasty reader might overlook is the psychological treatment of Orestes. At the end of the play, of course, he goes mad. That is in the legend. But from quite the early scenes—much of the prologue happens to be lost—the shadow of the coming darkness begins to show itself. And the occasion for it is always the same, the conflict between two horrors which are also duties: the murder of his mother on one side, and on the other disobedience to the command of God.

Here, as in most cases, the development of Greek tragedy moves almost straight from Aeschylus to Euripides, with Sophocles standing aside. The character of Orestes, in particular, contains here in germ just the ideas that are so subtly developed in Euripides. The first study is grander, tenderer, and more heroic; the second, of course, more detailed and varied and more finely poignant. There is a typical difference between the two poets in the way in which Orestes' last scruples are overcome. In Euripides a whole scene is given up to it. Orestes is shaken by the first sight of his mother in the distance, and actually rebels against the god or devil who has commanded him to kill her, till he is overborne by the scorn and passion of Electra's more bitter nature. In Aeschylus Orestes' scruple breaks out in the midst of the Invocation and is swept away, not specially by Electra, but by the whole great swelling rhythm of that litany of revenge.

Of the other characters, Electra in Euripides bears the main weight of the tragedy on her own shoulders. In Aeschylus she is much less minutely and without doubt less cruelly studied: almost all her words are beautiful, and she keeps a kind of tenderness even in her prayers of hate. She hates her oppressors and her father's enemies; but the hate is based on love, and it has not eaten into her nor left her poisoned. Clytemnestra, though she appears only for two short scenes, preserves still the almost superhuman grandeur which was hers in the Agamemnon, Her simplest word has power to arrest the attention; and while she is present other people seem small and their emotions ordinary. Her own emotions lie deep and complex, fold behind fold. It is shallow to dismiss her as a hypocrite, feigning grief at the death of the son whom she fears. The hypocrisy is there, but so is the sorrow; so are all kinds of unspoken memories and hopes and depths of experience. Always the thing she says, fine as it is, leaves the impression that there is something greater that she does not care to say. Even when she calls for the axe of battle to face her son, she has room for a thought beyond the immediate fight for dear life: "To that meseemeth we are come, we two!" That touch is like Euripides, but on the whole this heroine was a figure not in Euripides' style and perhaps not within his range. He made a Clytemnestra deliberately and utterly different.

The date of Sophocles' play is unknown. But the Choëphoroe was produced in 458 B.C., and Euripides' Electra in 413. The forty-five years that separate them were years of very rapid artistic development. The Choëphoroe has both an archaic beauty and a stark grimness of speech which divide it from its two companions. There are fewer details, and attention is never long distracted from the central horror. At point after point of the action it is easy to show how the two later poets refined and developed the plain lines of Aeschylus, and exerted themselves to make the story more human and more probable. The comparison tempts one to reflect how little such technical improvements really matter, and how dangerously near to nothingness, in the last resort, are the ingenuities of realism. This play produces its illusion quite sufficiently by its mere grandeur and intensity. Yet, judged on its own archaic level, it shows remarkable skill in construction, just as, amid its story of relentless revenge, it conveys a great sense of compassion. The prologue itself is very skilful. With the last lines of the Agamemnon still ringing in our minds we see, as the play opens, a young man standing with shorn hair beside a grave mound; and half the story is told in a flash. Nor, apart from the marvellous invocation scene itself, would it be easy to find in Greek drama another play with such varied moments as the prayer of Electra, the entry of the poor, loving, half-ridiculous Nurse, the sudden onrush of the single terrified slave calling for help to the Women's House; above all, the amazing scene at the end with the blood-stained robe, the gathering of the unseen Furies, the last struggle of Orestes' reason, and the flight of the would-be Saviour as one Accursed, never to rest again. The final words of the Chorus ask the question which is to be answered, or at least attempted, in the Eumenides.

G. M.

 

  1. I adopt this traditional Latin transliteration in preference to "Choephori." Cf. Terence's Adelphoe. For readers without Greek I may mention that the word has four syllables, first the syllable "Co," then "E for E."