Photo credit: Robert Day, at Shakespeare’s Globe, for WhatsOnStage.com
In Sartre’s bloody-minded adaptation of Orestes, the gods and furies are no heroes – they succor only the slaves of shame and fear, feeding on their humiliations as they prostrate themselves in the throes of penitence, like decadent voyeurs at a state execution.
The play is The Flies, and the action turns on the homecoming of an exiled son whose mother murdered his father, Agamemnon, when he turned up home from Troy. His sister eggs him on in the fulfillment of a vendetta she has thrust on him with all her energy – and then the furies arrive to settle the score for matricide. Zeus pokes his nose in just to get a whiff of the blood on the walls.
Orestes hesitates at first, having tasted another way of life in civilized Athens during his exile. But the force of Elektra’s appetite for retaliation is too much for him to resist. She’s been put down for her loyalty to a murdered father. Her status must be restored in this, their hideous native city, for she will not go away with him to live in peace abroad.
It all seems preordained – their ancestors started the bloodbath, and no one can come up with a convincing reason to interrupt the momentum of revenge killing after revenge killing.
This poem is addressed to Orestes on his homecoming, in the voice of the morbidly pliant Argive people, who have taken it upon themselves to worship the very gods who have taken the ruin of the Argive house upon themselves – for sport or for fair play or out of boredom, who can tell? It is based on the 20th Psalm in Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.
May the Gods vouchsafe your prayers in your anguish,
the rites of the Gods of Argos make you safe.
May Zeus touch the scales of fate in your favor,
and from Delphi may he shadow your footsteps.
May He roll his tongue in your wine offerings,
and your burnt offal tickle his white nostrils.
May He furnish your bitterest appetites,
and all your monstrous wishes may He fulfill.
Let us howl gladly for Your abrupt return
and in the name of Zeus succour the fat flies.
May the Gods cater to all your fantasies.
Now, by the light of Apollo, do I know
that old Zeus, that enabler, has been moved.
He has tramped all the way down from Olympus
in a lightshow of thunderbolts to save you.
They – the music, and they – their freedom in laws,
but we – the gut fat-smeared wooden God invoke.
They have taken up blasphemy and murder
but we rose firm in our remorse and spat back.
O Zeus, restore the Argive king to his curse.
May He do as much for us, the day we fall.