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CJ-ONLINE  January 2010

CJ-ONLINE January 2010

Subject:

CJ Online 2010.01.02 WRIGHT, Euripides: Orestes

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Euripides: Orestes. By MATTHEW WRIGHT. Duckworth Companions to Greek and 
Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. 176. Paper, $24.00. ISBN 
978–0–7156–3714–2.

Order this text for $24.00 from Amazon.com 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
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CJ Online 2010.01.02

Although Euripides’ Orestes is often overlooked among classical 
tragedies, it has much to recommend it, as evidenced by reviews of the play 
during its run this past spring as part of the New York Classic Stage 
Company’s production of An Oresteia. Wright’s (W.) fine introductory 
treatment of Orestes highlights the richness, complexity and entertainment 
value of the play in a way that should benefit both the book’s primary 
intended audience—students and theater practitioners unfamiliar with both 
Orestes and details of Athenian theater—and more advanced scholars who 
have been without a new book-length treatment of Euripides’ tragedy for 
14 years.

The first two chapters are prefatory. In “Setting the Scene,” W. 
provides background information on Euripides, tragedy, and tragic 
festivals, and explores why Orestes has received so much less attention 
than other tragedies in the 2400 years since its initial production. One of 
the main problems, he suggests, is that Orestes does not correspond to many 
people’s sense of what tragedy is. There are no murders or suicides; 
there are comic elements; and the play ends happily (at least on the 
surface). Furthermore, there is a sense of absurdity in the extent to which 
traditional portrayals of heroes have been stretched to fit the innovative 
plot. Chapter 2, “Dramatic Structure and Performance,” provides a 
cursory summary of each scene and a brief yet effective explanation of its 
value to the play as a whole. It also gives numerous illustrative examples 
of how productions, from the Reading School’s in 1821 to that of 
London’s Shared Experience in 2006, have set the tone of the play and 
dealt with ambiguous or challenging scenes.

At this point the book moves more to matters of literary interpretation, 
and the author’s thoroughly reasonable point of view becomes clearer, 
even as he gives respectful space to his scholarly colleagues and 
predecessors. In Chapter 3, “Humans and Gods,” W. attempts to interpret 
the play as a classical Athenian might have, with “heredity, reciprocity, 
familial love, revenge, guilt,” etc. brought to the fore (p. 52). He 
examines each character with the aim of bringing to light the ethical and 
moral complexity that, he claims, many scholars, starting with the 
scholiast, have overlooked. W. then looks at three issues that complicate 
the characters’ choices: the conflict between loyalty to friends and 
enmity to enemies that confronts characters who often fall into both 
categories at once; the dubious portrayal of the gods, who are absent for 
most of the play and are accused of malevolence toward their human wards; 
and the ambiguous deus ex machina appearance of Apollo, which resolves 
matters on a practical level while leaving many tensions simmering.

W. next addresses more theoretical approaches to understanding the play. In 
Chapter 4, “Late Eurpides,” he explores ways in which Orestes’ status 
as a work produced late in Euripides’ life, in extant Athenian tragedy, 
and in the Peloponnesian War has influenced its interpretation. While 
appropriately skeptical of the veracity of the biographies’ portrayal of 
Euripides’ late life, including his supposed flight to Macedon, W. 
examines how the identities the biographies attribute to the poet in his 
old age—as an embittered outsider or a rebellious innovator—have 
affected and perhaps distorted critics’ interpretation of the play. He 
cites Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy as an influential view that Euripides 
was reshaping tragedy so radically late in his life that he was effectively 
destroying the genre. W. also notes a perspective common among contemporary 
scholars that Orestes reflects a moroseness common to depictions of 
Athenian life at the time of the play’s production: Athens was on the 
brink of falling, tragedy was on the wane (in the estimation of later 
observers), and Orestes was full of mythical figures humbled. Thus, 
according to many, the play pessimistically reflects the finality of 
everything the now-resentful artist once held dear. While W. admits that 
the symmetry of Orestes with these events is somewhat compelling, he 
cautions readers not to take the parallels too far—Athens was still 
several years away from losing the Peloponnesian War, new tragedies 
continued to be produced well past Euripides’ death, and Euripides 
himself produced later tragedies, like Bacchae, that suggest an attachment 
to traditional tragic forms that some would see Orestes overthrowing. W. 
concludes the chapter by exploring how the play corresponds to “late 
style” in authors throughout history, as Edward Saïd identified it in 
his 2006 book on the subject. [[1]]

W. starts Chapter 5, “Politics,” by laying out various scholars’ 
thoughts on whether Athenian tragedy as a whole should be taken as 
political, and if so, whether its political content was focused on Athens 
of the time of production, or on more universal political issues. W. claims 
that the whole of tragedy is so diverse that it would be difficult to 
classify the genre as a whole as political, though individual plays likely 
were both broadly political and specifically attentive to events of the 
time of their production. A particular message along those lines, however, 
he argues, is difficult to discern, due to the dialogic nature of the 
genre. While Orestes offers many anachronistic reflections of 
contemporaneous Athens, it is among those W. contends is devoid of an 
obvious message, since no one group or point of view comes away looking 
particularly good. The cowardice of Menelaus, for example, works against 
any sense of heroism or martial glory, perhaps reflecting Athenian fatigue 
over the prolonged Peloponnesian War. The mastery of the assembly by 
honey-tongued speakers who convict Orestes despite reasonable objections 
also seems parallel to an exasperation with the Athenian democratic process 
like that expressed by the Old Oligarch. And Orestes’ friendship with 
Pylades can be likened in many ways to the murderous hetaireiai that caused 
havoc in Athens before the oligarchic revolt of 411. Based on this 
uniformly unflattering portrayal of all groups, W. claims, “There are no 
political lessons to be learnt from Orestes” (p. 114). If political 
messages require both a protagonist and an antagonist, that is a valid 
interpretation. But someone else might contend that this uniformly 
malignant portrayal is its own political message—everything is amiss, 
both in Argos and, likely, Athens—but that difference of opinion is 
better addressed in another venue.

The final chapter, “Euripides’ Cleverest Play,” appears to be one in 
which the author took particular pleasure. While W.’s conclusion is 
aporetic (“In the end, it is … hard to find a philosophical 
‘meaning’ in Orestes,” p. 136), the chapter is full of his 
explanations of apparent (or at least possible) references to Presocratic 
philosophers, sophists, Euripides’ own prior work (particularly Electra 
and Helen), genre expectations, etc., all of which W. takes as guided by a 
principle of novelty. W. peppers the chapter with unanswerable questions 
(“Is the tone of this ‘clever’ scene comparable to comedy?” p. 
124), tentative assertions (“Electra’s strange remark seems to have an 
additional … level of meaning if interpreted…,” p. 122, italics 
mine), and recognitions of the limits of interpretive speculation (“Even 
if no particular philosophical point were being made here, this description 
would…,” 134). Some of the best observations scholars and teachers make 
are those that cannot immediately be packaged into tightly coherent 
arguments, and this chapter seems to be W.’s collection of such 
observations. The questions are carefully researched and eruditely 
presented, but are generally left open for readers to reach their own 
informed conclusions.

As with many ostensibly introductory works from scholarly presses, W.’s 
book is not just for beginners. Beyond its explicit objectives, it also 
serves as an efficient overview of academic approaches to Orestes for 
scholars needing to be current on it. W. has written several articles on 
(or at least engaging with) the play in the past few years, and has been 
active on others tragedies of Euripides as well. [[2]] His immersion in the 
play and its author is apparent in his lucid engagement with contemporary 
scholarship and his admirable coverage of pertinent work. Though the 
bibliography omits a few notable articles and books (for which W. can 
certainly be forgiven in a work of this sort), his attention to scholarly 
work relevant to contemporary study of this play makes his book a valuable 
source for professional academics. [[3]] It serves as an update of sorts to 
Porter’s Studies in Euripides’ Orestes (Leiden, 1994), which has much 
more specific scholarly objectives, but which was the last book-length work 
dedicated to the play.

W.’s Duckworth Companion to Orestes, well-researched, accessibly written 
and carefully edited, is a welcome addition to the field on a number of 
levels. It deserves a place in the library of nearly every institution in 
which Classics and/or classical theater are taught, and at its reasonable 
paperback price, it should also affordable to many individuals who teach or 
conduct research on the play.

ROBERT HOLSCHUH SIMMONS
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
[log in to unmask]

[[1]] E. Saïd, On Late Style (London, 2006).

[[2]] Among W.’s relevant scholarly works are the following: Euripides’ 
Escape-Tragedies (Oxford, 2005); “Orestes, A Euripidean Sequel,” CQ NS 
56 (2006) 33–47; and “Enter a Phrygian (Euripides, Orestes 1369),” 
GRBS 48 (2008) 5–13.

[[3]] Most notable among the (again, entirely forgivable) omissions in are: 
W. Biehl, ed., Euripides’ Orestes (Berlin, 1965); H. Erbse, “Zum 
Orestes des Euripides,” Hermes 103 (1975) 434–59; T.M. Falkner, “The 
Conflict of Generations in Euripides’ Orestes,” in K.V. Hartigan, ed., 
From Pen to Performance (Lanham, 1983) 13–22; C. Fuqua, “The World of 
Myth in Euripides’ Orestes,” Traditio 34 (1978) 1–28; M. Hose, Drama 
und Gesellschaft (Stuttgart, 1995); M. Hose, Euripides: der Dichter der 
Leidenschaften (Munich, 2008); O. Longo, “Proposte di lettura per 
l’Oreste di Euripide,” Maia 27 (1975) 265–87; J. de Romilly, 
“L’Assemblée du peuple dans l’Oreste d’Euripide,” Studi Classici 
in Onore di Quintino Cataudella 1 (1972) 237–51; and B. Zimmermann, 
“Die Krise der Polis im Spiegel der attischen Tragödie (Euripides, 
Orestes; Sophokles, Philoktetes),” in J.V. Bañuls, et al., eds., El 
teatre classic al marc de la cultura grega i la seua pervivència dins la 
cultura occidental (Bari, 1998) 369–80.


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