‘Clytemnes­tra, Electra and their own words’ – House of Names

Colm Tóibín en­gages se­ri­ously and in­tel­li­gently with Aeschy­lus’s tril­ogy, giv­ing voices to women whose sto­ries were not told House of Names

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fiona Mack­in­tosh

By Colm Tóibín Vik­ing, £14.99

Acou­ple of years back, ru­mours cir­cu­lated in Lon­don’s the­atre­land of a star-stud­ded “Ir­ish” ver­sion of the Oresteia tril­ogy in the off­ing: a large-scale project, in­volv­ing sep­a­rate com­mis­sions from three dif­fer­ent Ir­ish writ­ers, un­der the di­rec­tion of a prom­i­nent Ir­ish ac­tor- di­rec­tor. The prospect was ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated; de­spite the ob­vi­ous the­matic par­al­lels be­tween Ire­land’s his­tory and Aeschy­lus’s tragedy of re­venge and ret­ri­bu­tion, there has only been one, largely for­got­ten, Ir­ish Oresteia: the Long­fords’ ver­sion staged at the Gate The­atre by Ed­wards and Mac Li­ammóir in the 1930s.

It may well have been the glut of Oresteias in 2015 – at the Almeida, the Globe and Manch­ester Royal Ex­change – that put this Ir­ish project on the back burner. But clearly all was not lost. Just as Ma­rina Carr, one of the ru­moured writ­ers, is sched­uled to stage her ver­sion of Clytemnes­tra next year at Lon­don’s Tri­cy­cle The­atre, so now Tóibín, an­other of the al­leged trio, shares his se­ri­ous and in­tel­li­gent en­gage­ment with Aeschy­lus’s tril­ogy in his lat­est novel, House of Names.

The ti­tle is sug­ges­tive – al­lud­ing, per­haps, to those baf­fling fam­ily trees of the House of Atreus that ac­com­pany the printed texts and pro­gramme notes of Aeschy­lus’s play. But equally, as a po­lit­i­cal thriller of in­trigues and sub­terfuge set in an­cient Ar­gos/ Myce­nae (with the oc­ca­sional nod to Ire­land it­self, with the ref­er­ence to “the trou­bles” and the myth of Lir), it re­calls the TV minis­eries House of Cards. Half­way through the novel, Electra aptly calls the palace this “house of shad­ows”, a twilight world where noth­ing is sim­ply sur­face deep.

If Aeschy­lus’s world ex­pands out­wards to the cos­mos in ac­cor­dance with Zeus’s plan, Tóibín’s claus­tro­pho­bic and god­less world of whis­per­ing gal­leries ex­pands down cor­ri­dors and, es­pe­cially, be­low stairs – to dun­geons, to un­der­ground cav­erns, where un­speak­able crimes are com­mit­ted by the tyrants who pre­side over this “house of shad­ows”. This is a world of op­pres­sive heat tainted by the “sug­ary smell” of death, the stench of hu­man ex­cre­ment, blood and in­nards.

As in Aeschy­lus’s tril­ogy we en­ter a world of per­verted re­li­gious sac­ri­fice – the world of the abat­toir. Fol­low­ing the re­turn of the Greeks from Troy, civil war de­scends upon the coun­try­side, and packs of rav­en­ous dogs prey upon the sur­viv­ing pop­u­la­tion; and in the atavis­tic world of politics, hu­man vic­tims are sub­jected to the an­i­mal de­sires of preda­tory lead­ers.

Clytemnes­tra’s story is never told in the ex­tant Greek plays. Here in Tóibín’s novel, we hear Clytemnes­tra’s ver­sion first, and in her own voice. She be­gins, imag­i­na­tively at least, stand­ing over the corpses of Agamem­non and Cas­san­dra, echo­ing that thrilling and deeply shock­ing, ex­ul­tant speech that pro­vides the cli­max of Aeschy­lus’s first play: “Maybe the smell [of death] has en­tered my body and been wel­comed there like an old friend come to visit . . . It is my con­stant com­pan­ion; it has put life into my eyes, eyes that grew dull with wait­ing . . . ” And the taste of death has given her rav­en­ous ap­petite for more: “. . . it fills the soul with sat­is­fac­tion that is fierce and then lus­cious enough to cre­ate a taste for fur­ther sat­is­fac­tion.”

Tóibín’s open­ing se­quence, as in Aeschy­lus, cul­mi­nates in an erot­i­cally charged, graphic re-en­act­ment of the mur­der:

“A knife pierc­ing the soft flesh un­der the ear, with in­ti­macy and pre­ci­sion, and then mov­ing across the throat sound­lessly as the sun moves across the sky, but with greater speed and zeal, and then his dark blood flow­ing with the same in­evitable hush as dark night falls on fa­mil­iar things.”

But Tóibín’s Clytemnes­tra is no psy­chopath; im­me­di­ately af­ter the pre­lude, she weaves her story back into the events of Aulis that lit­er­ally changed her life. Here, she re­alised that this is a god­less world, or, at best, a world where the in­dif­fer­ent gods merely watch from a dis­tance and dis­tract “with im­ages of har­mony, beauty, love”. In marked con­trast to Euripi­des’s Iphi­ge­nia in Aulis, Tóibín’s Iphi­ge­nia is de­fi­ant as she goes, bru­tally gagged, to her slaugh­ter; and, as in Aeschy­lus, the mo­ment of sac­ri­fice r e mains a myst er y be­cause Clytemnes­tra too is gagged, and then dragged into a pit where she is left to starve for two days in the burn­ing heat.

Electra at the cen­tre

Electra’s story, also told in the first per­son, oc­cu­pies the cen­tre of the novel; and in­deed, Electra proves to be the most know­ing of all the fam­ily mem­bers. But she com­munes only with the shades – with her sis­ter and her fa­ther – and she lit­er­ally lives in the shadow of her beau­ti­ful dead sis­ter: “. . . no one no­ticed me”, she poignantly ob­serves af­ter dress­ing her­self up for a ban­quet in a bid for a hus­band. Like ev­ery­one in the “house of names”, there is no fu­ture for Electra – she is al­ready more than half-dead her­self.

If Tóibín’s novel be­gins with the texts of Aeschy­lus and Euripi­des very much in mind, it in­creas­ingly moves away from both to be­come a bil­dungsro­man of sorts with Orestes at its cen­tre. Orestes’s tale is told in three parts, and al­ways in the third per­son. We watch him grow from a tod­dler, the sole wit­ness to the mo­ment of his sis­ter’s sac­ri­fice, to young man, kid­napped and then es­cap­ing and pre­par­ing for his re­turn and the ma­t­ri­cide. His awak­en­ing to adult­hood and even­tu­ally to the role of lib­er­a­tor of his house i s made pos­si­ble through his bur­geon­ing emo­tional ( and sex­ual) at­tach­ment to Le­an­der ( the Py­lades of an­tiq­uity).

If Tóibín builds on the im­plied ho­mo­erotic re­la­tion­ship in the an­cient sources, his end­ing de­parts from Aeschy­lus ab­so­lutely. Le­an­der’s sis­ter, raped and left for dead, is mirac­u­lously dragged out from un­der a pile of corpses to end up as Orestes’ wife and the mother of a child for whom “what had hap­pened would haunt no one and be­long to no one”. Just like Heaney at the end of his Myce­nae Look­out, Tóibín’s novel au­gurs an era of re­newal that comes di­rectly from the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties.

This world of op­pres­sive heat is tainted by the ‘sug­ary smell’ of death, the stench of hu­man ex­cre­ment, blood, in­nards

Fiona Mac­in­tosh is di­rec­tor of the ar­chive of per­for­mances of Greek and Ro­man drama, pro­fes­sor of clas­si­cal re­cep­tion and fel­low of St Hilda’s Col­lege at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford

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