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The Oresteia


Publisher:Farrar Straus & Giroux (T)



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About the book:

During the final years of his life, Ted Hughes poured much of his energy into translating the classics. Given the triumph of the Birthday Letters, some readers may regret this canonical moonlighting. Yet it's hard to feel shortchanged by the work Hughes did produce: his version of Ovid was a brilliant blend of Latinate suavity and contemporary grit, and he negotiated the alexandrines of Racine's Phèdre with spectacular ease. Now we have his translation of the Oresteia, which was commissioned by the Royal National Theater in the late 1990s. Has Hughes done right by Aeschylus?

The answer would have to be yes--with a couple of qualifications. Hughes made no secret of the fact that he was after an "acting version" of the trilogy, one that would convey the power of Aeschylus's classic bloodbath to a modern audience. He has therefore taken more liberties with the text than we might expect, chopping and channeling the original to fit his own conception. Perhaps the result is closer to what Robert Lowell called an "imitation"--an attempt to capture the work's spirit without precisely mimicking its form. In any case, this Oresteia succeeds on both counts. The darkness and destructive movement of the original remain intact in the Hughes's free-verse lines:

The men of Troy are a litter of corpses,
Rubbish-heaps of corpses. Troy on its hill
Cascades with blood, as under a downpour
Of bodies from the heavens,
Shattered and entangled with each other
In every passage--mutilations,
Amputations, eviscerations. The women
Are kneeling, shoulders heaving, with eyes hidden,
Over what were yesterday
Husbands, fathers, sons.
They labour at a grief that is already
The first labour of slaves.
Yet Hughes has also left his elemental imprint on the play. Always drawn to violence in his own verse--particularly the impersonal assault and battery of the natural world--he has made his Oresteia more bloody-minded than the original (and that's saying something). There's nothing sensationalistic about this extra quantum of wrack and ruin. It's merely Hughes's personal response to Aeschylus--and a necessary preparation, perhaps, for Athena's clarifying cameo at the end of The Eumenides: "Let your rage pass into understanding / As into the coloured clouds of a sunset, / Promising a fair tomorrow. / Do not let it fall / As a rain of sterility and anguish / On Attica." Her plea for conciliation is as powerful as the horrors that have preceded it, which may (to tread on some rather thin biographical ice) reflect the poet's own final impulses. In any case, this is passionate, memorable, deeply human poetry--i.e., what becomes a classic most. --Anita Urquhart

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