“Letter to Orestes”

Themes 

Ancient Greek quotations and translations are taken from:

 D. Kovacs (1998), Euripides ΙΙ: Suppliant Women, Electra, Heracles [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London.  

 _________ (2002), Euripides V: Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London. 

________  (2002), Euripides VI: Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, Rhesus [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.

H. Lloyd-Jones (1994), Sophocles I: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.

A. H. Sommerstein (2008), Aeschylus II: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London. 

Quotations  from  Kambanellis’ “Letter to Orestes” are from: 

Iakovos Kambanellis (19942), Θέατρο, τόμος ΣΤ, Κedros Publications, Athens.

 

Plot

The play, a single-act monologue, constitutes Clytemnestra’s apologia for the murder of Agamemnon. It forms part of the triptych The Supper which also comprises the plays “The Supper” and “Thebes Byway”. The apologia takes the form of a letter, which Clytemnestra addresses to her son Orestes, desperately begging him to return home and rescue her from Electra’s matricidal impulses. Even though the play clearly draws on ancient Greek tragedy, it is also infused with modern sensibilities and departs from the well-known myth in many respects, thus offering new insights into Clytemnestra’s motives and her murderous act. As Clytemnestra confesses to her son, her married life had always been a living hell; her husband was a drunkard, had extramarital affairs, mistreated her, showed no affection towards her or his children, so that she ended up thinking of life as a kind of martyrdom. Indeed, Orestes himself was the fruit of Agamemnon’s rape of Clytemnestra. Enraged at his lack of male offspring, Agamemnon neglected both Clytemnestra and his daughters. Her rejection by her father made Electra hate her female nature and blame Clytemnestra for making her a woman. In her apology, Clytemnestra also makes reference to her genuine and affectionate love for Aegisthus, a noble man who stands at the exact opposite to Agamemnon’s brutality, shallowness, and empty pride.

When Clytemnestra is about to finish her letter, the door of her room opens and Orestes and Electra appear on stage. Unnoticed by Clytemnestra, Orestes moves towards her and raises his hands as if holding a knife, ready to stab her. The play ends here.

 

 Page 25

ἔρχεται στή σκηνή ἡ ἠθοποιός πού θά ὑποδυθεῖ τήν Κλυταιμνήστρα. Κρατᾶ καφέ, τσιγάρο καί πλησιάζει ἕνα μεγάλο ξύλινο κιβώτιο πού θά τό χρησιμοποιήσει γιά τραπέζι. Πάνω στό τραπέζι ἕνα κηροπήγιο, ἕνα τασάκι, μολύβια, ἀρκετά χαρτιά γραμμένα, λευκά, τσαλακωμένα, ἄλλα ὄχι. Παίρνει μερικά χαρτιά καί τά τοποθετεῖ σάν «δῆθεν» σκόρπια μπροστά καί πλάι ἀπ᾽τό τραπέζι, στό πάτωμα.  Ἀνάβει τό κερί, κάθεται σέ σκαμνί καί σβήνει τό τσιγάρο της. Παίρνει ἕνα ἀπ᾽τά τσαλακωμένα χαρτιά καί ἀρχίζει νά διαβάζει ἀργά καί καθαρά σάν γιά νά ἐπιβεβαιώσει ὅτι αὐτά πού ἔχει γράψει εἶναι καλά διατυπωμένα.

 The letter as such and Clytemnestra’s psychological distress while writing it clearly echo the opening of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis (28-48), where an anxious Agamemnon keeps writing, erasing and rewriting a letter aiming at preventing his daughter’s sacrifice. Likewise, Kambanellis’ Clytemnestra, writing under the lamplight. keeps writing, erasing, and rewriting her own letter to Orestes — a letter she never has the time to dispatch, just as in Iphigenia in Aulis Agamemnon’s letter, albeit dispatched, never reaches its recipient.

Clytemnestra’s appearance on stage with a cup of coffee and a cigarette signifies the contemporary setting of the play.

 

 Page 25

’Oρέστη, ἀγαπημένε μου γιέ

The adjective “ἀγαπημένε” attached to Orestes casts Clytemnestra in a different light from her tragic counterpart and programmatically stresses Kambanellis’ departure from his tragic predecessors. Throughout the play Clytemnestra is very much the mother figure, and her letter is replete with affectionate appeals to her children; see, e.g., Page 26: Ἐγώ εἶμαι μάνα σας. Δέν πρέπει, οὔτε στιγμή, νά σοῦ περάσει ἀπ᾽τό νοῦ ὅτι ἐπιδιώκω νά σέ παρασύρω πρός τό μέρος μου. Εἶστε καί οἱ δύο παιδιά μου, εἶσαι ὁ ’Ορέστης μου! καί ἡ ἀδελφή σου, ὅ τι κι ἄν ἔχει κάνει, εἶναι ἡ ᾽Ηλέκτρα μου!

 

Page 25

ξέρω πώς οἱ μέρες μου εἶναι μετρημένες καὶ τρέμω ποὺ δὲ βλέπω να ᾽ρχεσαι. Δέν εἶναι μόνο ἡ λαχτάρα μου νά σέ δῶ, ἔστω καί γιά τελευταία φορά, πού μ᾽ ἔχει κάμει νά στοιχειώσω στό παράθυρο πού βλέπει στό δρόμο. Πιό πολύ εἶν᾽ὁ φόβος μου ὅτι μπορεῖ νά ᾽ρθεῖς ὅταν θά ᾽ναι ἀργά πιά. 

Clytemnestra’s remark that Orestes’ procrastination puts her life in danger is a reverse allusion to Greek tragedy, where Clytemnestra contemplates Orestes’ arrival with fear and anxiety, as she knows that he will return to avenge his father’s murder. See, for instance, Soph. Electra 778-87 (Clytemnestra is informed about her son’s supposed death): CLYT: “After he [Orestes] left this land he never saw me, but he reproached me with his father’s murder and swore to do terrible things, so that neither by night nor day would sweet sleep cover me, but from one moment to another I lived like one about to die. But now¾for on this day I have been freed from the fear inspired by this woman here and him¾yes, she was a worse mischief, living with me and all the time sucking my very life-blood¾now we shall spend our days, I think, securely, for any threats of hers”.  

 

Page 25

Έγώ ἔκαμα αὐτό πού δέ θα μποροῦσε ποτέ κανείς νά φανταστεῖ, ἐγώ ἀναγκάστηκα νά σκοτώσω.

Kambanellis’ Clytemnestra confesses that she was “forced” to kill Agamemnon; she murdered him in (pre-emptive) defense, rather than in revenge, for otherwise Agamemnon would have killed her and Aegisthus instead. In Aeschylus and Sophocles, Clytemnestra views her actions as entirely legitimate and shows no remorse; see, e.g., Soph. Electra 525-34: CLYT.:(to Electra) “Your father, and nothing else, is always your pretext, because I killed him. I know it well: I cannot deny it. Yes, Justice was his killer, not I alone, and you would take her side, if you happened to have sense. Why, that father of yours, whom you are always lamenting, alone among the Greeks brought himself to sacrifice your sister to the gods, though he felt less pain when he begot her than I did when I bore her. So explain this!”

A somewhat different stance is adopted by Euripides’ Clytemnestra: “for, in fact, my child, I do not feel such great joy at the deeds I have done. Ah, how wretched my plotting has made me! How excessively I raged against my husband!” (Electra 1105-10). 

 

Page 26

Ποῦ γυρίζεις, Ὀρέστη, γιατί ἀργεῖς…; ἄν ἐρχόσουνα γρήγορα, θά τήν προλάβαινες, ἐσένα θά σ᾽ ἄκουγε… Θά τήν ἔπαιρνες ἀπ᾽ τούς παλιανθρώπους πού τήν ἔχουνε περικυκλώσει καί ἐκμεταλλεύονται τό πάθος της γιά τόν πατέρα της. Ξέρεις τί τῆς εἶπε τήν ἡμέρα πού ξεκινοῦσε γιά τὴν Τροία, ἔξω στήν αὐλή, μπροστά στόν κόσμο, φορώντας τή μεγάλη του στολή, καβάλα στό ἄλογό του: “Τί κρίμα, ἄν ἤσουν ἄντρας, θ᾽ἄφηνα ἐσένα νά μοῦ προσέχεις τίς Μυκῆνες”…κι ἀπὸ τὴν ὥρα ἐκείνη βάλθηκε νά τοῦ ἀποδείξει πώς εἶναι ἱκανή νά τό κάμει…! μίσησε θανάσιμα τόν Αἴγισθο πρίν ἀκόμη τόν δεῖ… ὀργάνωσε τήν ἀπαγωγή σου στή Φωκίδα, γιατί λέει ὁ Αἴγισθος κι ἐγώ εἴχαμε σκοπό νά ξεκάνουμε κι ἐσένα… τρέχει ἀπό πλατεία σέ πλατεία, μιλᾶ γιά ἐκδίκηση, μέ καταγγέλει σάν διεφθαρμένη, διεστραμμένη, ἀρχομανή, αἱμοχαρή…

Possibly an allusion to Sophocles’ Electra 516-22, where Clytemnestra refers to the accusations that her daughter hurls against her in public. In Sophocles, however, Clytemnestra’s tone is entirely different; there, it is she who reproaches Electra, and her attack takes the form of a “prosecution speech”: “You are ranging about once more, it seems, at large; because Aegisthus is not here, he who always used to prevent you from shaming your family at least outside the house. But now that he is away, you show no respect for me; and you have declared often and to many people that I am insolent and rule unjustly, doing violence to you and what is yours.”

 

Pages 27-30

Τόν πατέρα σου, ’Ορέστη, δέν τόν διάλεξα ἐγώ γιά ἄντρα μου… […] Ἐμᾶς τίς γυναῖκες μᾶς ἀφήνουν νά διαλέγουμε μόνο τό νυφικό μας, ὄχι καί τή ζωή μᾶς. […] Καί ὕστερα ἦρθε ἡ ὥρα μου γιά σένα, ’Ορέστη. […] εἶχε μεθύσει ὅπως τό συνήθιζε, ἀλλ᾽αὐτή τή φορά… δέν ἤξερε οὔτε ποῦ εἶναι οὔτε μέ ποιάν εἶναι […] Την ἄλλη μέρα πῆγα καί τοῦ τά εἶπα γιά νά τά ξέρει. Ἀλλιῶς, ἄν ἔπιανα παιδί, θά ἦταν ἱκανός νά πεῖ ὅτι τό ᾽κανα μέ ἄλλον. Εἶπε ἁπλῶς πώς θά τό ᾽χει ὑπόψη του.

Kambanellis’ Clytemnestra paints a bleak picture of her husband, whom she describes as arrogant and egocentric, an authoritative man who shows no respect or affection towards his wife and children. His relationship with Clytemnestra becomes all the tenser, the longer she fails to produce a male heir, who would secure the continuation of Agamemnon’s name and kingship. Eventually, she gives birth to Orestes, whom she conceives as a result of her rape by Agamemnon.

 

Pages 28-29

ἔτσι σημαδιακά ἄρχισε ἡ ζωή τῆς Ἠλέκτρας. ῞Οταν ἄρχισε νά μεγαλώνει καί νά καταλαβαίνει πιά, ἡ μόνη τρυφερή κουβέντα πού ἄκουγε ἀπ᾽τό στόμα του ἦταν τό “πόσο θά τήν ἀγαποῦσε ἄν ἦταν ἀγόρι”. [….] Αὐτός τήν ἔκαμε νά ντρέπεται πού εἶναι κορίτσι, νά μισήσει καί τόν ἑαυτό της καί μένα. Ξέρεις ὅτι δέν ἔχυσε οὔτ᾽ ἕνα δάκρυ γιά τή θυσία τῆς Ἰφιγένειας…; καί ἀσφαλῶς γιά νά μή φανεῖ ὅτι πάει κόντρα στόν πατέρα της…. Οὔτε καί τώρα θά εἶχε κάμει σκοπό τῆς ζωῆς της τό θάνατό μου ἄν ἦταν ἄντρας. Γιά τό γυναικεῖο της φύλο θέλει νά πάρει ἐκδίκηση, ὄχι γιά τόν πατέρα της…

Kambanellis interprets Electra’s obsession with her father in terms of the Jungian ‘Electra syndrome’: Electra perpetually seeks her father’s approval, even though the latter was perpetually absent or remote (he rejected her because she was a girl). This, according to Clytemnestra, made her blame her mother. For inklings of Electra’s ‘manliness’ in Greek tragedy cf. e.g. the Sophoclean Electra, who tries to convince her sister Chrysothemis to assist her in murdering Aegisthus, with Chrysothemis warning her not to violate social norms and the limits of her gender: “Why, with what aim in view do you arm yourself with such rashness and call on me to second you? Do you not see? You are a woman, not a man, and your strength is less than that of your adversaries” (Electra 995-8). See also Soph. Electra 983, where Electra claims for herself the quality of ἀνδρεία, or ‘man-like virtue’.

  

Page 30

Ξέρεις τί ἄκουγα νά λένε οἱ ἄνθρωποί του ὅταν κάλεσα τόν Αἴγισθο στίς Μυκῆνες…; “σῶστε τό γιό του, πάρτε της τόν Όρέστη, αὐτή ἡ μέγαιρα θά τόν σκοτώσει.” “Tό γιό του.” Καί σέ πήρανε, μέ πρωτεργάτη τήν ’Ηλέκτρα, γιά νά μή σέ σκοτώσω, ἐγώ…

A clear allusion to Sophocles, where Electra is actively involved in Orestes’ rescue  (Electra 293-298).

Aeschylus and Euripides provide different versions. In Euripides, Orestes is entrusted to an old male servant, who manages to rescue the boy. Moreover, in Euripides it is Aegisthus (rather than Clytemnestra, as in Kambanellis) who intended to have Orestes exterminated: “As for the children he left behind when he sailed to Troy, his son Orestes and his daughter Electra, the old servant who raised Agamemnon snatched Orestes away as Aegisthus was about to kill him, sending him to Strophius in Phocis to raise” (Electra 14-18).

In Aeschylus, Clytemnestra is the one who sends Orestes away to Strophius, under the pretext of wishing to protect Orestes from potential civil unrest (Agamemnon 877-86, Cho. 693, 913).

 

Page 31

Γι᾽αὐτό σοῦ τά λέω ὅλα, ἀγόρι μου, καί ὁρισμένα ἔτσι ὠμά! συγχώρεσέ με… Μά ἄν τό ξανακάμω, θά ᾽ναι σάν νά σοῦ ἀφήνω κληρονομιά μιά σιωπή πού ταϊζει φίδια…

The snake imagery could be an allusion to Clytemnestra’s dream in Aeschylus’ Choephori 523-50. According to the Chorus, the queen dreamt that she gave birth to a snake which, enfolded in swaddling-clothes, was suckling milk from her breast, until it drew blood (an obvious symbol for Orestes’ imminent revenge).

 

Page 31

‘Η Ίφιγένεια ἦταν βέβαια τρία χρόνια πιό μικρή, τό χρυσό μου μόνο στή μουσική ἦταν καλή.

Clytemnestra’s reference to Iphigenia’s music talent brings to mind the heroine’s dramatic appeal to her father to show mercy in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis (1211-5). There, Iphigenia wishes she were possessed of Orpheus’ mesmerizing voice, so that she might charm her father into sparing her life: “If I possessed Orpheus’ power of speech and could persuade by incantation so that rocks would follow me and I could charm anyone I pleased, I would use that power. But now all the skill I have is in tears, and these I will give you; that is all I can do”.

 

Page 31

Καί οἱ δύο Ὀρέστη, σ᾽ἀγαποῦσαν πολύ, κάνανε σάν τρελές. ‘Ωστόσο αὐτό πού ἔδειχνε νά νιώθει ἡ ᾽Ηλέκτρα, ὅταν σ᾽ἔπαιρνε ἀγκαλιά, ἦταν κάτι παραπάνω ἀπό ἀγάπη. Μαντεύεις τί; Μόλις μεγάλωσες τόσο πού νά μπορεῖ νά σέ πάρει ἀπ᾽τό χέρι νά σέ πάει περίπατο, ἔψαχνε νά βρεῖ ποῦ εἶν᾽ὁ πατέρας σας γιά νά περάσετε ἀπό κοντά νά σᾶς δεῖ. Ἦταν σάν νά τοῦ λέει «νά, ὁρίστε, τώρα ἔχεις γιό, μή θυμώνεις πιά ἐπειδή ἐγώ εἶμαι κορίτσι».

Electra’s excessive, practically motherly, love for Orestes is well expressed in Soph. Electra 1143-8: “Alas for my care for you long ago, gone for nothing, the care I often rendered, delighting in my labour! You were never your mother’s more than you were mine, and the women in the house were not your nurses, but always you called me nurse and called me sister!” Kambanellis, however, traces a latent motive in Electra’s care for her little brother, namely her illusion that the birth of Orestes would change her father’s feelings towards her.

 

Page 32

Αλλά ὅταν τόλμησα νά τόν ρωτήσω μέ τρόπο ἄν ἄξιζαν τόσες θυσίες, ἔγινε θηρίο, οὔρλιαξε πώς μοῦ ἀπαγορεύει νά ξαναθίξω αὐτό τό θέμα, πώς “σέ τέτοια ζητήματα μιά γυναίκα δέν εἶναι σέ θέση νά ᾽χει γνώμη.”

A sharp contrast with Clytemnestra’s stance in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, particularly in the “red carpet” scene, where she cunningly manoeuvres her husband into complying with her wishes. Upon Agamemnon’s arrival at Argos, Clytemnestra orders her slaves to lay down a red carpet for Agamemnon to step on, as it deserves to a triumphant victor. At her husband’s remark that this may attract public resentment, Clytemnestra replies that “he who is not envied is not enviable”. It is then that Agamemnon makes a reference to her gender, indicating that “It is unwomanly… to be eager for a fight.” 

 

Pages 33-35

Ἄς ἔρθω λοιπόν στήν ἐνοχή μου γιά τόν Αἰγισθο… Θά βρεῖς χίλιους ἀνθρώπους στό Ἄργος πού θά σε βεβαιώσουν ὅτι δέν τόν ἔφερα ἐγώ στίς Μυκῆνες. ‘Ο λαός τόν ἤθελε, Ὀρέστη, κι ὁ λαός τόν ἔφερε. […] Τήν ἀπόφαση τήν πῆρα ἐγώ, ὄχι ὁ Αἴγισθος. ᾽Αναγκάστηκα νά τήν πάρω. Θά ᾽δινα καί τή ζωή μου γιά νά σώσω τό δάσκαλό μου, τόν ἔρωτά μου, τόν ἄντρα μου. […] Ναί, γιέ μου, ἀγαπῶ τόν Αἴγισθο, ἄν τόν εἶχες γνωρίσει, θά καταλάβαινες … νά γιατί λέω ὅτι αὐτός μέ γέννησε, μοῦ ᾽δωσε φῶς, ἄν τόν ἀφήνανε ἀνεμπόδιστο, θά μποροῦσε νά γεννήσει ἕνα ὁλόκληρο ἄλλο Ἄργος, νά σοῦ παραδώσει ἄλλες Μυκῆνες, καθαρές ἐπιτέλους καί ἥσυχες… Δέν ἔγινε, κι οὔτε μπορεῖ πιά νά γίνει. Εἴχαμε κάνει τάμα νά μή χυθεῖ πιά σταγόνα αἷμα. Δέν τό ξεφύγαμε. Τώρα μᾶς ἔχουν κυκλώσει ἀπό παντοῦ. ᾽Αποχαιρετήσαμε τό ὄνειρο νά φύγουμε καί νά ζήσουμε ἥσυχα στόν Πάρνωνα. Καί περιμένουμε…

Clytemnestra’s portrayal of Aegisthus is diametrically opposed to the latter’s image in Greek tragedy. In Kambanellis, Aegisthus acts both as Clytemnestra’s lover and as her mentor, who helps her take a more humanistic, as well as better informed, view of the world. Moreover, Kambanellis’ Aegisthus is a ‘democratic despot’: having come to power at the people’s behest, he is willing to yield his authority to Orestes, as soon as the latter becomes of age. Finally, unlike Sophocles’ Aegisthus, who helps Clytemnestra perpetrate her husband’s murder (94-99), in Kambanellis the murder is perpetrated by Clytemnestra alone.

 

Pages 35-36

Ὅμως… πρός Θεοῦ, μήν παρασυρθεῖς κι ἐσύ ἀπ᾽τά καμώματά τοῦ παπποῦ σου καί τοῦ πατέρα σου! ἐλευθερώσου, ᾽Ορέστη. Καὶ ἀκόμη, γιέ μου, σῶσε τήν Ἠλέκτρα μας, δὲ φταίει ἡ ἀδελφή σου.

Clytemnestra’s desperate appeal to Orestes alludes to the notion of the cycle of reciprocal violence that dooms the House of Atreus and which is dominant in all tragedies dealing with the Atreidae. In Kambanellis, however, the murders perpetrated by the members of Atreus’ family are rather provocatively reconfigured as “caprices” and “foolishness” rather than as the workings of destiny.

 

Page 36

(Ὁ ᾽Ορέστης τήν ἔχει πλησιάσει καί σάν νά κρατᾶ μέ τά δυό χέρια μαχαίρι ἑτοιμάζεται νά τή χτυπήσει. Τά φῶτα σβήνουν στήν τελική κινησή του.)

Orestes enters the room, approaches Clytemnestra and is about to stab her. The play ends here, and we are left to wonder whether the strike was fatal, or whether there was a fight, or whether Clytemnestra begged her children to show mercy, etc. The answer is provided in the second play of the trilogy, “The Supper”, where we are informed that Orestes killed his mother with one fatal strike. Seen from this perspective, Kambanellis’ version is in accord with Clytemnestra’s fate in Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, Kambanellis diverges from the three tragedians in one significant point: his Orestes stabs Clytemnestra from behind; his Clytemnestra does not have the chance to beg him to show mercy as is the case in Aeschylus (Choephori 894-930), Sophocles (Electra 1410-7) and Euripides (Electra 1212-5).

 

 

Mythic Characters 

The larger-than-life mythic characters of Greek tragedy appear now as ordinary people, unglamorous and lusterless perhaps, but hardly bland or forgettable.

Clytemnestra

Kambanellis’ Clytemnestra is a highly sensitive woman with strong motherly feelings — thus, a far cry from the manly, power-hungry, and implacable Clytemnestra of Aeschylus (Oresteia) and Sophocles (Electra), and much closer to her Euripidean counterpart (Electra). In Kambanellis, however, the emphasis on Clytemnestra’s love for her children is much stronger. 

Agamemnon

Agamemnon is a brutal, arrogant and egocentric person, with an obsessive desire for power and influence. A drunkard and a philanderer, he mistreats his wife and shows no affection towards his children. 

Aegisthus 

At the polar opposite to his tragic counterpart, Kambanellis’ Aegisthus is a benign, honorable, and noble man. A philosophical man of letters, he prefers to lead a peaceful life away from politics. If he assumes power in Argos, it is at the Argives’ behest, and with the proviso that he will eventually hand over the city, purged and restored, to the rightful occupant of the throne. He shows sincere affection towards Clytemnestra and helps her to adopt a more positive stance towards life. As Clytemnestra herself confesses, Aegisthus has been for her not merely an affectionate partner, but also a teacher and a mentor. 

Electra 

Electra’s portrayal is reminiscent of her tragic profile. She adopts an aggressive and bitter stance towards her mother, constantly barking out at her insults and accusations. She nurtures great admiration for her father and craves his love, which is perpetually denied to her.

 

Language

 

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