Thursday, March 22, 2007

Aeschylus in class

The Oresteia is a tough one. I've assigned it to some of my humanities classes, but after taking the students through two Homers, now that it's time for the Aeschylus I am having second thoughts. I think they may have had enough Greek myth. Instead of having them read the whole thing, I plan to skim gingerly with them over some of the work and then turn to art to finish out the semester.
I chose the Meineck translation, because I like Hackett publishing and because I've enjoyed listening to some of his lectures on Greek myth and Greek drama in the car. But its a tough one, like I 'splain above. I would prefer to teach from the Ted Hughes translation--a poet I am getting to know better and enjoy more after his death. It is, like the Tales from Ovid, done in short lines with good, expressive clarity and poetic power. The Helene Foley introduction to the Meineck translation, though, is good--for my purposes; most of my students look askance at such things; there are no helps or notes with the Hughes work. Here is how Meineck's watchman opens the play:
Gods! Free me from these labors!
I've spent a whole year up here, watching,
propped up on my elbows, on the roof
of this house of Atreus, like some dog.
How well I've come to know night's congregation of stars,
the blazing monarchs of the sky, those that bring winter
and those that bring summer to us mortals.
I know just when they rise and when they set.
So I watch, watch for the signal pyre,
the burning flame that will tell us, Troy is taken.

Meineck always has the theater directly and importantly in mind; he is artistic director of the Aquila Theater, and I am grateful for that. Here is the Hughes version:
You Gods in heaven--
You have watched me here on this tower
All night, every night for twelve months,
Thirteen moons--
Tethered on the roof of this palace
Like a dog.
It is time to release me.
I've stared long enough into this darkness
For what never emerges.
I'm tired of the constellations--
That glittering parade of lofty rulers
Night after night a little bit earlier
withholding the thing I wait for--
Slow as torture.
And the moon, coming and going--
Wearisome, like watching the sea
From a deathbed. Like watching the tide
In its prison yard, and its two turns
In and out.
I'm sick of the heavens, sick of the darkness.
The one light I wait for never comes.
Maybe it never will come--
A beacon-flare that leaps from peak to peak
Bringing the news from Troy--
Victory! After ten years, Victory!

I prefer Hughes' version, with its sharp beacon flare that leaps from peak to peak, and the cries of victory after ten years waiting. Maybe if I was using that text I would be assigning more of reading this time. Doesn't matter. They will get a good introduction to this powerful, astringent work and I am not sorry I added it to the list. Though I will remove it next year. I think students prefer the Gilgamesh, particularly in Stephen Mitchell's translation.

I wonder about how each version opens, with Meinek's having the watchman speak of his own watching--which is, after all, what he does--while Hughes seems to take that for granted and has him turn to indicate that he himself is being watched by the gods.