Dramatic works by Ted Hughes

The Oresteia (London: Faber and Faber, 1999)

Stuart Hirschberg (Associate Professor of English at Rutgers, New Jersey) on Hughes's version of Aeschylus's trilogy of plays.

Ted Hughes's posthumously published translation of Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy in 1999 continues his lifelong interest in the use of shaman, trickster, and scapegoat themes that I discussed in my book, Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes (1981). What particularly interests me is the way the three plays in the trilogy incorporate successively, shamanic elements in the Agamemnon, trickster elements in the Choephori (or Libation Bearers), and scapegoat themes and images in the Eumenides. In reality, there is considerable overlap between these three motifs or archetypes.

Hughes translation renders the rhetorical shifts of countervailing scenes, emotional moods, and concerns in forceful ways that emphasize (in what might be called typical 'trickster' fashion) the mutually undercutting and continuous tension in Aeschylus. Hughes's translation exposes the discordances, limits, boundaries, and oppositions that are a source of Aeschylus's unmistakable energy - that are the hallmarks of his unique, always dramatic, presentation. Hughes's translation is filled with sharply startling contrasts and reveals his keen dramatic awareness the Aeschylus was writing a trilogy about limits, boundaries, seemingly irreconcilable warring viewpoints (How can Orestes be both guilty - according to the Furies, and innocent - according to Apollo?). These boundaries require a Hermes inspired and guided hero to navigate the limbo region much as Hughes had described it in his 1962 radio play 'The Wound' through his main character Ripley. In fact, the beginning tone of the Agamemnon, post-Trojan War, is infused with the same sense of post wartime England that Hughes experienced as a teenager and also evokes his father's military experience in WW1. And, this is true even when Hughes seems to view the action of the play through the Chorus, in the Agamemnon - as onlookers to a great tragedy who are horrified and mystified in much the same way as Hughes presents himself in Birthday Letters.

In the Agamemnon, the impetus for the action in this play, and indeed in the whole trilogy is the display of ungoverned appetites. We learn of a terrible feast of butchered children vividly described by Cassandra. We also hear of Paris's ungoverned lust and his consequent abduction of Helen and Agamemnon's lust for power, and his callous sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia. This is the matrix in which Calchas, the prophet of the army interprets the omen seen by all, of two eagles (that Hughes renders as ‘the black bird and the white bird’) seizing on a pregnant hare and tearing its unborn young from her womb. Calchas is the Army's prophet and his judgment that the anger of the goddess Artemis, as Hughes says ‘the goddess, | The mother of the hares’ must be assuaged by an offer to appease her curse of foul winds that prevent the Army's sailing. Calchas, however, may be playing trickster in providing a scenario that fulfils his commitment to the Army and to its successful expedition.

Cassandra's entrance dramatizes in an even more acute way the shifting boundaries between shamanic prophecy and the ambiguous no man's land the tricksters inhabit. Hughes vividly renders in visceral images ('dog-headed man-eating sea-monster,/Shark ripping from beneath') Cassandra's macabre visions of Clytemnestra's savage murder of her husband.

The visible emblem of the trap is the crimson-dyed tapestry that Clytemnestra persuades Agamemnon to trample as he makes a grade entrance. Once his is defenceless, he is ensnared by a net-like fabric and butchered by Clytemnestra. Its function is highlighted by Orestes in the second play when he displays this net-like fabric to the Chorus after he has killed Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Its multifarious shifting role is, says Hughes, 'asnare for a dangerous animal,' or a device bandits might use to "drop over travellers/And makes it easy' to kill them.

Orestes enter the trilogy in the second play (the Libation Bearers) as a transformative agent reworking the fixed retributive scheme of Dike (of blood crime for blood), injury begetting vengeance, in a closed cycle of cause and effect. Hughes throughout his poetry and children's stories, has this element of fixity in poems such as 'The Contender' (Crow, p. 30) and The Iron Man. With his entry, we observe a typical trickster motif of knowing how to decipher signs and the truth they communicate. A lock of hair from Orestes's head, and the imprint of his feet on the ground near Agamemnon's grave, are the means that serve to subvert whatever defences Electra and her group of foreign serving women have to this stranger's presence (Hermes's ability to leave hard to read tracks are integral to his myth). This would no doubt resonate with Hughes who had tracked animals all his life.

Cilissa (Orestes' old nurse) is drawn into the world of deception and trickery when she is asked to tell Aegisthus to come alone (‘Tell him these men are timid merchants/Who will be too easily overawed’). After she leaves, the Chorus of Electra's foreign serving women, who are captive slaves brought from Troy, explicitly pray ‘Hermes, son of Maia,/ . . . Let the breath of your cunning/Prompt the tongue of Orestes.’ Orestes's balancing act, of following the adjurations of Apollo and the exhortations of Electra and her Chorus, leave him at the tipping point of trickster and scapegoat.

Hughes had been drawn to the liminal border crossing figure in poems like 'An Otter' in describing a creature that is ‘neither fish nor beast.’ The ‘wodwo’ whose tentative existence places it outside as an inquiring traveller seeking the meaning of its own identity also suggests that Orestes's journey represents a transition from "trickster" to 'scapegoat/saviour.'

We can observe the same tipping point in the Crow cycle in poems that begin with ‘Crow's Fall’ (Crow). Previously, in Gaudete, Hughes had been drawn to the hidden-from-view combat of the embattled Reverend Lumb as he descends into an abyss that is both personal and collective, in Jungian terms. This descent and re-emergence is alluded to but must have sounded a powerful emotional cord to which Hughes responded. In ‘Lupercalia,’ Hughes had projected a ritual of renewal, beset by the energies of the White Goddess that in the Oresteia are shown as the Furies or Eumenides.

Orestes' role changes from trickster (who customarily remains out side and unaffected by events) to that of the scapegoat/saviour. All of his wit and cunning will be to no avail against the pursuing, primeval avenging Furies that the murder of his mother has unleashed.

The contrast between the imagery with which the trilogy begins and ends makes this new reapportionment of powers visible and meaningful for the audience. At the end, the blazing flames of the opening scene's watchfires have become a procession of torches used to lead the Eumenides to their new place into the caverns under Athena's temple (the Pathenon) on the Acropolis (as Hughes tells us, 'Terrible kindly ones/Come to your rest/In the flame of torches').

It is the key feature of Orestes as trickster/scapegoat to be drawn from the periphery as an exile into the centre that redraws the boundaries of social and spiritual life. Thus, through his suffering, he is cast into the same role as Prometheus, about whom both Aeschylus and Hughes wrote plays (Prometheus Bound, 480-410 B.C.? and Prometheus on His Crag, 1973).

Hughes underscores the final sense of closure and achieved justice in ‘So God and Fate, in a divine marriage,/Are made one in the flesh/Of all our people --/And the voice of their shout is single and holy.’

Stuart Hirschberg, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers, New Jersey, is the author of books on W.B. Yeats and Ted Hughes and is the editor ofReflections on Language (OUP). With Terry Hirschberg, he has written and co-edited 28 books on rhetoric, language, and literature, the latest of which is One World, Many Cultures, 8th edition (2011). He will present a paper on Yeats, Magic and Modernism at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) convention in April 2011.