The play I’ve been involved with for a couple months now is an adaptation of The Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. This parred down version of that story is by Northfield Poet Laureate, Rob Hardy, and only runs about two hours.
Those three original plays of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides tell the story of how Orestes is compelled to avenge his father, Agamemnon, after he is slain by his rueful wife, Clytemnestra. Yes, Clytemnestra is also Orestes’s mother and that’s where things get tricky. With the help of sister Electra, Orestes finally does commit matricide and order is restored to the city of Argos. Or so is thought. The final act is basically a courtroom drama where Athena descends to earth and gathers a jury to decide whether or not Orestes was justified in his actions.
This is a big deal as Aeschylus was dramatizing the cultural shift from personal vengeance to procedural litigation in Western philosophy. The playwright garnered as much ire as admiration, however, as he was also questioning his society’s fundamental belief in the gods.
History aside, it has all the elements you’ve come to love in a good Greek tragedy: Blood! Sex! Graphic knife murders! All of which I haven’t actually performed yet in my professional career. High school was the only time I’ve ever done anything Greek (nearly falling off the stage as a blindfolded Oedipus…) so it certainly has been a thrilling challenge to embody Orestes and be a part of a story that is both so relevant and completely foreign to a modern audience.
At the end of the show we have the audience members vote themselves on whether to convict or acquit little old me. In the end, every single time, I have been acquitted of my murder and what’s so fascinating is that when pressed, the audience will say that it wasn’t because they necessarily sympathized with the character – it was to end the cycle of violence. To actually show mercy to an individual no matter how cruel his crime. I know it’s Minnesota and all, but this thinking does parallel the current national mindset when it comes to the death penalty.
That and so many other themes of what constitutes “justice” is what gives this play and other classics of the era their appeal. It’s literally the beginning of our Western beliefs and the foundations of everything we’ve come to build and rely on. It’s a testament then to Aeschylus that he’s still around and still making us question what really is fair when it comes to the law.