Friday, March 23, 2007

More on the Oresteia

When I teach the "long, boring stuff with all those funny names," from Homer to Ovid, my students ask me if there is a movie they can watch to help them through. Regrettably, my answer is generally, "No, sorry." And I am sorry. I wish, for example, that Troy had been a better movie, which I could then recommend as an introduction to the Trojan War. Of course, if students substitute the film for the reading, they are likely to be surprised, and disappointed.
I am sorry that the Oresteia has not been filmed--I always find it easier to teach drama with a film so that we can get some sense of how the words and actions are embodied. However, I do not think my students would enjoy it, and I might not even enjoy it myself, as much as I thrill when I read. The imagery itself is so rich and dense, so deep and penetrating, and so vivid, that in this case the language must substitute for most of the visual qualities which might enhance a film of the trilogy. You really do have to listen, or read substantively, for that strange interplay of sense and nonsense to, er, make sense.
If we can imagine the trilogy's first audience, they would have been stunned to locate the watchman on top of the scene building (which itself may have made its dramatic debut with this play). As with da Ponte's Don Giovanni, we open with the impatience of someone waiting through the night--only in this case it has been much longer. Anticipation is built into the scene. The audience would have arrived before the sun, which would be rising as the story commences. I expect the signal fire--lit by a far-off stagehand on one of the Athenian hills in the distance--would have appeared before the sunlight to make best use of the dramatic qualities of light and dark.
Where did that light come from? In pitch darkness
That point--that's new.
Down there, near what must be the skyline,
In the right place! It just appeared!
A flickering point. And getting bigger. A fire! (Hughes)
That might work in a movie, but it is hard to see how much else would be very cinematic. For the most part, the cinematic parts of this trilogy really take place in our minds.