Clytemnestra – Further Discussion


The two main points that I would like to briefly explore here from the recording of Clytemnestra are Gwyneth Lewis’ use of ancient source material and the translation of ancient concepts for a contemporary audience.


Gwyneth Lewis’ Clytemnestra got me thinking about how certain playwrights, in the adaptation of ancient drama, elect to make use of a range of ancient sources rather than just a single play, piecing together a new narrative. While the reviews of Clytemnestra generally focus on its ties to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, I think there is more to Lewis’ work than this. Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis and perhaps even his Orestes provides subtext to the action onstage.


I mentioned in the session before reading week about the effect that the Iphigenia story can have on Clytemnestra’s characterisation, paying particular attention to productions like Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides that include Euripides’ play as a sort of prequel to Aeschylus’ trilogy. Lewis’ Clytemnestra is deeply indepted to the story surrounding Iphigenia’s sacrifice and its role as the genesis for Clytemnestra’s anger and need for vengeance. Iphigenia even appears on stage as a ghost to Agamemnon, taking the place of Cassandra on their journey back from Troy.


Lewis’ Clytemnestra also exploits the potential to read the sacrifice of Iphigenia as quasi-pornographic, with its uncomfortable blend of violence and sexuality. Her Clytemnestra makes it clear that Iphigenia was gang raped as part of her sacrifice. A standout translation that emphasises the pornographic in Iphigenia’s sacrifice is from Ted Hughes’ 1999 translation of the Oresteia – see the first extended speech from the Chorus (231-47).


Did the attention paid to the sacrifice of Iphigenia make Clytemnestra’s actions more understandable? This certainly seems to have been Lewis’ objective, as a quote from her piece in the Guardian suggests:

‘So have I avenged Clytemnestra? No, but I hope that after spending three and a half years in the company of an adultress and husband-killer – a woman who compares the feel of her husband’s blood on her face to refreshing spring rain – I have made her a more human character’.


My thinking about Euripides’ Orestes and in particular its depiction of madness is tied in with what I consider to be Lewis’ staging triumph. The first scene in which we encounter Clytemnestra, she is a broken woman, driven mad by the loss of her daughter Iphigenia and her overwhelming need for revenge. This may be just me, but this really reminded me of the earliest scenes in Euripides’ Orestes where the title character, now a matricide, is pursued to madness by the Furies. Are the similarities between Lewis’ Clytemnestra and Euripides’ Orestes portentious? Looking forward to Clytemnestra’s upcoming crimes or perhaps even further, to Orestes’ own?


Several weeks ago (week 2), I suggested that a great resource to start thinking about the difficulty of interpreting things like gods and ghosts for the stage is Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, entitled ‘Gods, Ghosts, and Helen of Troy’ (p.189-223). Lewis’ representation of the Furies serves as a practical alternative to Goldhill’s text.


The first question you may want to ask yourself is: what do you think the Furies are? We know the basics: goddesses of retribution, but what does this really mean? What form do they take? Do they even take a form or are they simply what are used to refer to internal impulses of revenge? To what extent is revenge in the Oresteia an internal impusle and to what extent is it enshrined in custom? Do the Furies represent retribution in the emotional or custom/legal sense, or both?


Gwyneth Lewis’ Furies straddled the line between psychic manifestations and actual beings. I was never quite sure whether the characters on stage could see their Furies or whether they were just constantly aware of their presence. Lewis’ Furies took human form but through grotesque body movements and gargled voices, remained clearly distinct from the human cast of characters.


What I particularly liked was how the Furies followed their respective characters around on stage, sometimes guiding their movements and speech. To me, it gave visual representation to the form of vengeance that the likes of Clytemnestra are moved by – ever present, insatiable, overwhelming. Clytemnestra literally could not escape from her Fury following the death of Iphigenia. Her entire being was consumed by thoughts of revenge and this was made visual for the audience.


The way that Lewis found a way to represent the impulse of revenge also made the ending all the more poignant. After Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon we find Electra back on stage with her own Fury. Even if you aren’t familiar with the Oresteia, you know that this isn’t the end of the story….



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