‘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
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