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In this issue:
-Orestes and Pylades, Part Three
Sophocles' play, "Electra," is in progress. The mood has been set by the appearances onstage of the old Paedagogus, manservant and caretaker of young Prince Orestes; of Orestes himself, and of his devoted male lover, Pylades.
The audience in the amphitheater on the outskirts of Athens already knows, of course, that this play will be a tragedy. That's the sort of drama for which Sophocles is famous---a bit of a laugh here and there, but always a damn good cry!
Smart theatergoers tuck a small scarf somewhere about the person when attending a Sophoclean play, for dabbing at tears and an occasional blow of the nose. One does not wish to be caught short on a long cry!
It is afternoon on a day in 405 B.C. (Before Christ). Well, not really. This is the pre-Christian era, and no one has ever heard of J.C. No, the Greeks use another system of dates. By Greek reckoning, it is actually afternoon on a day in the fourth year of the 93rd Olympiad.
This premiere of Sophocles' new play, "Electra," is the opener of a long string of his plays---the old bird has written at least 118 by now---celebrating his 85th year!
Oops! No, wait! Is it the 85th or the 84th?
Let's see, he was born in the second year of the 71st Olympiad (495 B.C.), and if the Olympic Year counts as the FIRST year of the Olympiad, and the Olympics fall every four even years, and....Oh! In the name of Aphrodite! The man is OLD! Let it go at that!
Ahhh...LOOK! That must be Electra coming onstage now! How dreadful she looks! Poor thing hasn't had a new gown for....well, you couldn't count the Olympiads on one hand!
Do be quiet, puh-LEEZE!
Stage direction: "Enter Electra, from the house. She is meanly clad."
Yes, the lady shows the wear and tear of seven years of worry and fear and outright rage over her father Agamemnon's tragic end at her mother's hands. Mom gave him double whacks with a double axe, and OFF rolled his head! Ill treatment from the mother of your children after taking her lover's sword in the belly!
It's outrageous what a woman will do for power and love, and not even her husband's love at that, and then to neglect her daughter like this. What a bitch!
Still, Electra has an ethereal quality about her that almost overrides the tragic look of doom and gloom. She speaks: "O thou pure sunlight, and thou air, earth's canopy, how often have ye heard the strains of my lament, the wild blows dealt against this bleeding breast, when dark night fails! And my wretched couch in yonder house of woe knows well, ere now, how I keep the watches of the night,- how often I bewail my hapless sire; to whom deadly Ares gave not of his gifts in a strange land, but my mother, and her mate Aegisthus, cleft his head with murderous axe, as woodmen fell an oak. And for this no plaint bursts from any lip save mine, when thou, my father, hath died a death so cruel and so piteous!"
She continues, tearing her hair for full effect: "But never will I cease from dirge and sore lament, while I look on the trembling rays of the bright stars, or on this light of day; but like the nightingale, slayer of her offspring, I will wail without ceasing, and cry aloud to all, here, at the doors of my father."
Deep beneath the character she plays onstage, the female actor assaying the role of Electra casts an appraising eye at the size of the audience and thinks: "I should have asked for more money from the old tightwad, to judge from the looks of this crowd. He asked me to do him a favor. Ha! I'll never work so cheaply again!"
But she goes on with her lines: "O home of Hades and Persephone! O Hermes of the shades! potent Curse, and ye, dread daughters of the gods, the Furies, Ye who behold when a life is reft by violence, when a bed is dishonoured by stealth, come, help me, avenge the murder of my sire, and send to me my brother; for I have no more the strength to bear up alone against the load of grief that weighs me down."
A titter of excitement ripples through the audience for they know, as Electra does not, that her brother is already there!
A man in the audience thinks: Can't wait to see him again. He's truly an Adonis. I wonder if the one playing Pylades is available? That Orestes is so hot EVERYBODY wants him! Better to sniff at the ones who will give you a chance!
Electra is joined onstage by a chorus of virgins. Hmmm. Taking no bets on "virgins" in a theatrical troupe, but they are a rather refreshing dramatic device. They are there to give her consolation. In alternating song and speech with the chorus, she makes known her unabatable sorrow, the contumely of her oppressed life, her hopelessness on account of the delays of Orestes, notwithstanding her frequent exhortations, and gives faint hearing to the encouraging arguments of the chorus. Girl talk, but it fills in some details the audience may not know.
Suddenly, the other sister hardly anyone knows trips onstage.
Stage direction: "Chrysothemis enters from the palace. She is richly dressed."
Look at that gown! You can tell she's mama's little girl! No Electra, she! This is the submissive one who really cannot understand what her eldest sister's constant fussing is all about. She scarcely remembers the third sister, whom her father sacrificed at Troy to the Trojan gods to get his hands on the priestess Cassandra, but she does remember how glad she was at the time that he hadn't sent for HER!
For obvious reasons the favorite daughter of Clytemnestra, Chrysothemis has been ordered by her mother to carry a funeral offering to Agamemnon's grave. An altercation arises between Electra and Chrysothemis concerning their different sentiments: Chrysothemis tells Electra that Ăgisthus, now absent in the country, has come to the severest resolutions respecting her, that if she does not stop lamenting all the time, her mother and her consort will "send thee where thou shalt never look upon the sunlight, but pass thy days in a dungeon beyond the borders of this land, there to chant thy dreary strain."
Shocked, Electra responds, "Have they indeed resolved to treat me thus?"
"Assuredly, whenever Aegisthus comes home," replies her sister, which leads into a marvelous dialogue, with the audience hanging on every word.
Electra: "If that be all, then may he arrive with speed!"
Chrysothemis: "Misguided one! what dire prayer is this?"
Electra: "That he may come, if he hath any such intent."
Chrysothemis: "That thou mayst suffer? What? Where are thy wits?"
Electra: "That I may fly as far as may be from you all."
Chrysothemis: "But hast thou no care for thy present life?"
Electra: "Aye, my life is marvellously fair."
Chrysothemis: "It might be, couldst thou only learn prudence."
Electra: "Do not teach me to betray my friends."
Chrysothemis: "I do not, but to bend before the strong."
Electra: "Thine be such flattery: those are not my ways."
Chrysothemis: "Tis well, however, not to fall by folly."
Electra: "I will fall, if need be, in the cause of my sire."
Chrysothemis: "But our father, I know, pardons me for this."
Electra: "It is for cowards to find peace in such maxims!"
The crowd is on its feet, cheering. What a woman! What bravado! What loyalty, courage, faith! Sentiments worthy of a Joan of Arc, a maid who would not be born for another 2500 years, but heroes occupy a space outside time, in galleries of memory populating the collective human mind.
When all quiets down, Chrysothemis reveals her real purpose in coming here. Their mother has had a worrisome dream---that Agamemnon has come to life again, planting his sceptre in the floor of his house, whence there springs up a tree overshadowing the whole land.
Terrified, Clytemnestra has sent her youngest daughter with an offering to placate the dead Agamemnon. Chrysothemis is essentially a frightened child, perhaps seeking out her older sister for assurance that all will be well.
Despite any differences they may have, they are sisters, after all. With deep compassion, Electra advises her not to regard the commands of her wicked mother, but to offer up at the tomb a prayer for herself and her brother and sister, and for the return of Orestes as the avenger. They will stand together. All will be well, for the gods are on their side. Wait and see.
Relieved, Chrysothemis promises to follow her advice and departs.
Stage direction: "Orestes enters, with Pylades and two attendants, one of them carrying a funeral urn."
They don't know each other, Electra and Orestes. He was a little boy when he went away. These years have left her older, ravaged by grief. During this poignant scene, the practical members of the audience will thank their gods for bestowing upon them the foresight to bring an extra crying scarf. If you knew the work of Sophocles, "Electra" promised to be a two-scarf play.
Pretending to be a stranger in town, Orestes asks if he has come to the right place. "I have been searching for the home of Aegisthus." The leader of the chorus of virgins confirms that he got it right. Electra, off to the side, comes forward now and, with her eye on the urn, asks if "Surely ye are not bringing the visible proofs of that rumour which we heard?" Her gaze never leaves the urn.
The audience knowingly stares at her, waiting for the full impact of the news. Orestes says, "I know nothing of thy 'rumour'; but the aged Strophius charged me with tidings of Orestes."
Apprehensively, Electra looks from the urn to his eyes: "What are they, sir? Ah, how I thrill with fear!"
The audience waits with bated breath. Electra stands stock still. Orestes, with a very straight face, answers: "He is dead; and in a small urn, as thou seest, we bring the scanty relics home."
The actor portraying Electra may have been working for peanuts as a favor to the parsimonious Sophocles, but she earned herself a bonus with the stricken expression on her face when Orestes delivered that line.
A woman screamed and fainted in the third row, fourth tier, toppling down to the next tier of stones, despite knowing that Orestes was telling a lie. Sophocles turned around from his stone bench in the front row (specially cushioned with two dozen hides of rabbit's fur, thank Zeus, on account of his hemorrhoids---it was in the contract for the run of the play) and looked more pleased than sorry at the woman's plight. The poor thing had broken a wrist in the fall. Not to worry! The play must go on!
Go on it does. There are tears enough to float a boat when somewhat later Orestes reveals himself as himself to Electra. "O blissful day!" Electra cries.
Orestes: "Blissful, in very deed!"
Electra: "Is this thy voice?"
Orestes: "Let no other voice reply."
Electra: "Do I hold thee in my arms?"
Orestes: "As mayest thou hold me always!"
Electra: "Ah, dear friends and fellow-citizens, behold Orestes here, who was feigned dead, and now, by that feigning hath come safely home!"
The actor portraying Electra reads this line turned full-face to the Athenian spectators and sweeps wide her shapely arms to include them all, "dear friends and fellow-citizens." She has brought them into the play. They go wild, sharing Electra's joy. There is even dancing in the tiers.
Sly old Sophocles, putting into effect the "bonus" that "Electra" has earned, stands and ostentatiously tosses a golden coin her way. Others in the audience follow suit. Thus showered with gold, the actor lifts her long skirt to pirouette happily around her "brother," coming to a graceful halt in position to acknowledge Sophocles with a gesture of her arm, the inimitable poet who has composed the play's deathless lines---and enriched her beyond expectation today.
Pleased, he rises to bow to the audience in turn, graciously accepting shouts and applause before seating himself in time to catch a conspiratorial wink from the handsome stud playing Orestes. The old man, dignity unruffled, smiles inwardly, knowing in whose strong young arms he will lie to be worshipped tonight.
Still, the deed all have come to see has not yet been done---the bloodletting of Agamemnon's assassins. Oh, yes, do let us go on. Say what? The brass gong? Announcing the intermission? Oh, no! Will we never taste the blood?
Oh, well, perhaps it is time to visit the public privy. These tragedies always get me in the bowels. But there will be such a line! Therefore, I shall betake myself up there, to that empty tier, and relieve myself while others seek refreshment outside.
See, here is my picnic pouch. Observers will think I have squatted behind yonder bench to snack on black olives and feta cheese. Dare I diddle myself as well, with a vision of Orestes in front of my eyes? Or Pylades? Why not both? One before, and the other behind!
Ah, fantasy! Truly, I could be a Sophocles!
(To be continued)
The spectator who closed Part Three is thinking: Intermission is over. I didn't have to relieve myself after all. Just gas, I guess. I did, however, get some relief from the potent imagery in my head inspired by those two numbers playing Orestes and Pylades. All it took was thinking of them making love to each other. Pylades came knocking at Orestes' back door, and Orestes was only too happy to let him in. That got me off in a trice. I scarcely touched myself! Maybe now I can stop thinking about sex and just relax and enjoy the play.
Another spectator chats with a much older man: Oh, no! There's old Paedagogus! I suppose he comes on first. Got to get him while he's sober! Ha! Ha! My, he gets more beautiful every year. His hair is really silver, now. The old fool dyed it for years with some tar-like stuff he got from Egypt. What a stink! But with a dangler like his, he could annoint himself with goat piss and still get a man! I had him once, the actor, I mean. He's rather a drunk, you know. He was old even then, when I did him twenty years ago. He likes them young, you see. He would never look at me now. I'll wager he has a tender piece waiting on him hand and foot backstage. Would you like to bet he got drunk during the intermission? I've this coin from the last Olympic Games. Look, it's got those hot wrestlers you liked on it! I'll toss. You choose. Heads if he's sober; tails if he's drunk. You want tails? Here goes! TAILS! If he's drunk when he comes on, you win. I'll take you up my ass after the play. Observe carefully now. Here he comes!
The scene has changed from the street to inside the palace. Old Paedagogus is giving his all to the false story of Orestes' tragic death in the chariot race. It is one of the most stirring accounts in theatrical history, and the ancient actor knows it. It is the best monologue he has ever been assigned in his long career. He must be completely convincing so that Clytemnestra will believe that her son is truly dead. He must bring the race to life to make Orestes' death more real.
The queen sits before him on the throne feigning grief, but sedately, as befits a royal person. Yet every word that echoes in her vixen's heart unlocks another door until soon the last door will open, and she will be released from the cruel prison of fear that has been her only true palace since she struck the blows that severed her husband's head.
Drawing himself up to full height, Paedagogus clears his throat and declaims:
"Cheering all Their steeds at once, they shook the reins, and then The course was filled with all the clash and din Of rattling chariots, and the dust rose high; And all commingled, sparing not the goad, That each might pass his neighbor's axle-trees And horses' hot hard breathings; for their backs And chariot wheels were white with foam, and still The breath of horses smote them; and he, come Just where the last stone marks the course's goal, Turning the corner sharp, and letting go The right-hand trace-horse, pulled the nearer in, And so at last the chariots keep their course; But then the unbroken colts, their sixth round or their seventh, Dash their heads right against the chariot wheels Of those who came from BarkÚ. And from thence, From that one shock, each on the other crashed; They fell o'erturned, and Crissa's spacious plain Was filled with wreck of chariots.
(NOTE: This passage clearly served as the inspiration for the chariot race in General Lew Wallace's novel, "Ben-Hur," written in 1880 A.D. Compare, for instance, the accident, "where the last stone marked the goal's course," with that described in "Ben-Hur": "Messala having passed, the Corinthian was the only contestant on the Athenian's right, and to that side the latter tried to turn his broken four; and then, as ill-fortune would have it, the wheel of the Byzantine, who was next on the left, struck the tailpiece of his chariot, knocking his feet from under him. There was a crash, a scream of rage and fear, and the unfortunate Cleanthes fell under the hoofs of his own steeds.
"At the moment chosen for the dash, Messala was moving in a circle round the goal. To pass him, Ben-Hur had to cross the track, and good strategy required the movement to be in a forward direction; that is, on a like circle limited to the least possible increase. The thousands on the benches understood it all; they saw the signal given---the magnificent response; the four close outside Messala's outer wheel; Ben-Hur's inner wheel behind the other's car--all this they saw. Then they heard a crash loud enough to send a thrill through the Circus, and, quicker than thought, out over the course a spray of shining white and yellow flinders flew. Down on its right side toppled the bed of the Roman chariot. There was a rebound as of the axle hitting the hard earth; another and another; then the car went to pieces; and Messala, entangled in the reins, pitched forward headlong."
You may have seen this very race in the two MGM films of "Ben-Hur": the 1925 silent version with the gay Mexican star, Ramon Navarro---then a gorgeous hunk age 26, who was brutally murdered in his Hollywood home as a handsome silverfox at age 69 by two young street-huster brothers---or the 1959 wide-screen Technicolor version starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as the Centurion Messala. The chariot race was as spectacular in the one as in the other.)
The audience in the amphitheater is enthralled, as is Clytemnestra, when Pedagogus describes the race. A line from Wallace's book would also have hit them hard: "There was a crash, a scream of rage and fear, and the unfortunate Cleanthes (substitute 'Orestes') fell under the hoofs of his own steeds."
Clytemnestra can scarcely conceal her joy at the death of Orestes, although at first a slight touch of maternal grief comes over her, and she invites Paedagogus, whom she has not recognized because his hair has gone silver and he is stooped with age, to partake of her hospitality. But he turns her down, suggesting that he go forth and fetch in the messengers with the ashes of Orestes. He exits and reappears outside, where Electra is almost skipping about with unbridled joy at her brother's return.
The wise old silverfox tells her to be more circumspect. There is great work to be done, and it must be done quickly before the guards are alerted. Electra recognizes him with some difficulty, but Orestes assures her that it is indeed the manservant who has so faithfully served the family before and after the bitter day of Agamemnon's death.
On the advice of the old man, Orestes and Pylades rush with him into the house to surprise Clytemnestra while she is still alone. Electra offers a prayer in their behalf to Apollo; the ode of the chorus announces the moment of retribution inside. Electra waits outside, on the watch for the return of Aegisthus from the country.
The Sophoclean audience sits expectantly, almost holding their breath. In the offstage style of Greek tragedies they will now experience the vicarious thrill of vengeance, blood, death!
Issuing from the palace are Clytemnestra's agonizing cries. The chorus of virgins offers a collective shudder at the dreadful sounds.
Not a spectator in the amphitheater remains unmoved. Some wince, imagining the rain of blows. The friends who placed a bet on the sobriety of Paedagogus cling together in genuine horror. The lady with the broken wrist has momentarily forgotten her pain, lost in the drama onstage.
The cries continue from within. Sophocles glances about him, even after so many plays not too blasÚ to derive a thrill from the effect his work has on the common clay.
The piteous cries grow more desperate, and louder still: "Ah me, woe, woe! Aegisthus, where art thou? My son, my son, have pity on thy mother!"
The vixen cries for pity now! Oh, the sweet satisfaction of retaliation, blood for blood !
The irony is not lost on Electra. Hands clasped to her breast in an ecstasy of revenge, she cries out as though Cytemnestra could hear, "Little pity hadst thou on him or on his father."
Clytemnestra groans loudly in the throes of death. It is chilling, but that part of the twofold deed is done!
"The curse is now fulfilled," chants the chorus. "For those who died long since now drain the blood of those who slew them."
Orestes, dripping with blood, appears at the door, clinging for support after his efforts to his Pylades.
Queen Clytemnestra is dead, and now her lover Aegisthus is seen approaching. Unaware of the danger to himself, he asks for the Phocian who brought the tidings of Orestes' death. Electra bids him go within the house, where he will hear and see much which will rejoice him.
Not knowing that "Orestes" has been reduced to ashes, he commands instead that the body be brought forth and shown to the citizens, that they may no longer cherish empty hopes of Orestes; return, and will henceforth render due obedience to himself.
Orestes, still unrecognixed by Aegistus, enjoins Pylades to assist in bringing out the body of Clytemnestra, covered with a sheet. Thinking it Orestes, Aegisthus rejoices in his heart at the sight.
"Withdraw the veil from the face, that I may mourn his death," he commands of the true Orestes, but Orestes bids him lift the veil himself, suggesting that the pleasure should be his alone.
"Thou givest good counsel, and I list to thee," Aegisthus replies, "and thou, if yet she tarries in the house, call Clytemnestra."
As Aegisthus lifts the covering, Orestes says, with grim satsfaction: "Here she lies before thee! Seek her not elsewhere."
Struck with terror, Aegisthus draws back. "Into whose snares, whose closely tangled mesh, have I, poor victim, fallen?"
In triumph, Orestes reveals his true identity as Electra bids her brother lose no time. He leads Aegisthus to the very spot where the evil lovers once slew heroic Agamemnon, there to die himself.
Orestes: "Thou must not die the death thou wouldst desire; I needs must make it bitter. Doom like this Should fall on all who dare transgress the laws, The doom of death. Then wickedness no more Would multiply its strength.
He lifts his sword. It falls on Aegisthus' head. The deed is wholly done!
The chorus closes the play with the words: "O seed of Atreus, after many woes, Thou hast come forth, thy freedom hardly won, By this emprise made perfect."
The curtain does not fall. It is made of stone! But the play is over. Go home. Not you, dear reader. Only the play, not the tale is finished. Those who sat in the amphitheater with Sophocles today may leave.
You over there, the gentlemen who placed a bet on the sobriety of Paedagogus, let me tell you that even now he is passed out backstage. He was drunk all through his last big speech on the chariot race, but he pulled himself together for the sake of Sophocles. He's an old trouper, that one! If the sex you commit in his honor is half as good as the man himself, it will be the best you've ever had!
And you, he who shot his wad during the intermission over the thought of Orestes and Pylades having at it---your penis pouch needs laundering. You've got cum rnnning down your leg!
And will someone get a doctor for that lady who fell off the tier and broke her wrist? Dr. Hippocrates has an office downtown. Nobody better. He's the father of medicine, you know! He'll take anyone who is in need. You never heard of the Hippocratic Oath?
End of silverfoxesclub-digest V1 #207