I am certainly no expert on Orestes. A Homerian character, son of Agamemnon of Argos and his wife Clytemnestra, he became a featured character in plays by Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and a subject of at least one of Pindar’s odes.
According to Euripides, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon, and Orestes, with his sister Electra and friend Pylades, in retribution kill Clytemnestra, thus being guilty of matricide. Their fate is to be decided by the city of Argos; they are condemned to death, having failed in their effort to be defended by their uncle Meneleus, husband of Clytemnestra’s beautiful sister Helen, whom they blame for Argos having been involved in the bloody ten year Trojan War.
Other authors tell the story somewhat differently.
The version of the play at the Folger Theatre is the Euripides version, in a new adaptation (not translation, because she worked from older English translations, not from the Greek) by Anne Washburn, a 100 minute, no intermission “tragic romp”.
I must admit that I found the “romp” hard to locate, and the “tragedy” not much clearer, and the whole thing sort of silly. Having said that, I also thought that the acting was quite good – particularly as always Holly Twiford’s Electra. But if the acting was good, what was wrong? The directing, the script, the story line?
Actually, I think the story line is fascinating. You have two parents. You don’t expect one of them to murder the other one, but this is what happens. What is the appropriate reaction? Of course, this being a Greek tragedy – I don’t think Euripides called it a romp, but am not sure of that – the characters themselves had little choice as to their actions. They were all forced, one way or another, by the gods and/or the fates/furies to do what they did. Even so, they can’t escape the consequences of their actions – isn’t this the real meaning of tragedy? Someone who gets himself into trouble simply by choosing to do bad things, you can’t have much sympathy for. But if they had no choice, if they were forced to do bad things, and if they still have to suffer the consequences, this is tragic.
And this is clearly Orestes’ situation. There was no insanity defense in ancient Argos. There was no mitigating circumstance defense that would lessen the charge or the punishment. The fact that the victim Clytemnestra was herself guilty of the capital crime of regicide did not affect the decision of the Argives. Even the overwhelming guilt of Helen in leading Greece and Troy into a war replete with death and suffering did not stop Apollo from deifying her, and giving her eternal life with the gods. After all, said Apollo, Helen did just what she was supposed to do, what she had been led to do by the gods. As, of course, did Clytemnestra (perhaps) and Orestes and Electra (certainly). And perhaps the entire jury composed of the citizens of Argos.
But the Folger performance, I thought, cut the tragedy, without replacing it with anything worthwhile. I don’t think that the Washburn adaptation works.
Before the show, we stopped at the venerable Capitol Hill bar, Hawk and Dove, for something to eat. I think that the last time I was there was during the 1972 presidential elections. Nothing seems to have changed. The food was more than acceptable, as long as you are not after “fine dining”, and it is a friendly and comfortable place, with several silent screens focused on hockey, basketball and more. It was a good choice.
It is also only about two blocks from the Folger, which was lucky because we got to the theater at about 7:25, more than early enough for our 8 p.m. curtain. But when we got there, the first thing we heard was the 5 minute warning. The show began at 7:30. Who knew? (Apparently, everyone else).
A little about parking. In front of the Folger, there are no parking meters, just a sign that says that you can only park for 2 hours until 8:30 p.m. That means, you can’t park until 6:30 to attend a play; we arrived on Capitol Hill about 6. Along the sides of the Folger, there are parking meters, which must be operated until 6:30, with no restrictions after that. Across the street from the Folger on East Capitol, about 2/3 of the block also has the 2 hour limit before 8:30, but there are exceptions. There are about two parking spaces that are designated drop-off spaces. No parking until 11 p.m. There is an equivalent space, in front of a church entrance, that simply says: “No Parking – Entrance”. And between them, there is one parking place which has a sign that says: two hour parking until 6:30 (not 8:30). It was empty, and that’s where we parked. Why would there be one space marked like this? I don’t know. Ask Apollo.