Aeschylus’s ‘The Eumenides’ at the Penn Museum

A hot time in the old tomb

One of the great delights Philadelphia’s lively theater scene is discovering in some unexpected place an imaginative and stunning production — this time Aeschylus’s rarely staged The Eumenides, the third in his Oresteia revenge trilogy. The first play recounts the murder of King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia; the second concerns the murder of Clytemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus by her son Orestes for killing Agamemnon. Instead of ascending to his rightful role as king of Argos, Orestes immediately flees, pursued by the Eumenides — the avenging Furies shunned by all and disdained even by Zeus.

The not-so-furious furies: A message for our time? (Photo: Brooke Sietinsons, Arts at Penn.)

Thus The Eumenides opens in Delphi, where Orestes seeks his protector Apollo — but we’re actually in Penn’s grand Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, in a production by the gifted Theater Arts program director Marcia Ferguson and her students, recently back from a much praised Ursula at the Edinburgh Fringe. The action moves, in stately processional to tinkling music from ancient glass and ceramic instruments and beats from a current drum, through three different museum galleries, holding the audience in the museum’s ancient spell.

This play, which Aeschylus first presented in 468 B.C.E., strikes a chord with us in 2016 because it captures that moment at the very dawn of the Hellenic Age when pre-literate Greeks first turned away from revenge and looked instead to the goddess Athena for wisdom, justice and reason. It’s not a bad recipe for our present age of fear and anger.

Duty to kill

The priestess of Apollo’s temple (Olivia Leigh Matlin) opens the play, a high-stepping drummer in tall black boots and brilliant, gold-embellished cape who rehearses the history of the early Greeks. Like a circus performer she invites us to an entertainment, even in this traditionally terrifying play, dominated by the execrable Eumenides, whom the priestess quickly discovers sleeping in the temple. Their body stockings, surprising in pastel shades, are painted with black abstract snakes and spider webs and other frightful symbols of evil as these three Furies (Aliyah Harris, Connie Kang and Lisa Xingyi Wang) crouch, dance, hiss, flick heavy papier maché ropes at Orestes and stick out their tongues, eyes flashing, as they demand revenge for his matricide. This antic fun is interrupted by the majestic ghost of Clytemnestra (the statuesque Doris Hamilton), who arrives (trailing a long tangled train of abstract snakes and webs) to remind the Furies of their duty to kill Orestes for killing his mother.

In contrast to this underworld evil, the gods, all in white, invoke reason, justice, and love. Apollo, tall and august (Jonathan D’Rosario), wears a long, smooth, heavy paper surplice and headdress, priestly in its effect. Smiling, reassuring blonde Athene (Grace Hoffman) at her temple in Athens is beautiful in swirls of organdy, a bright light shining from her heart to suggest her sympathy and love.

As the trial starts in Delphi, the snarling Furies make their case to Apollo for revenge —  namely, they must drive matricides from the Earth. Apollo points out out their inconsistency in pursuing Orestes for killing his mother but not Clytemnestra after she killed Agamemnon.

Split vote

In the next museum gallery, outside the Temple of Athena, Orestes (an earnest and forlorn Ryan Berlin), presents his case to Athena: He has followed Apollo’s teaching, absolved himself for killing his mother by sacrificing many swine, and he beseeches Athena to rescue him. These arguments, intricate and eloquent on all sides, underline the attack and defense strategies of the ancient Greek court in murder cases — which haven’t changed much to this day.  Athena, who has just declared that her temple on the Acropolis will forever more be the ground where Justice is deliberated, sends 12 citizens to weigh the arguments they have heard. But their ballots are split, six and six, and Athena, who holds the deciding vote, spares Orestes’s life. 

The Eumenides, ever vindictive, skulk and howl and threaten retaliation. Athena, goddess of wisdom, reminds them that they were not dishonored; the ballot count is even. She promises them a place (albeit underground) right there in Athens, where with Zeus’s agreement they will be goddesses.  At first the Furies reject her offer, but Athena eloquently persuades them that they have much to gain by living with men in a place free of grief and pain — rights that these outcasts have never enjoyed. As the play ends, both sides rejoice in the vision of a new Hellenic world, a place of peace and prosperity guided by persuasion, compromise, love and justice rather than revenge.

The breath of gaiety we have felt from the start now prevails.

Kindly or vindictive?

By replacing revenge with dialogue and debate, Aeschylus celebrated the birth of the Hellenic ideal, which evolved into the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the true Furies will always be with us, ever shifting the balance from good to evil, as we see today from Syria to ISIS to Russia to America’s vindictive presidential primaries.

It turns out, however, that the actual translation of the name Eumenides is “the kindly ones,” and indeed in Aeschylus we see the Furies transformed by the power of Athena into cooperative — even kindly — creatures.

I stumbled onto the final performance of The Eumenides on April 11, but director Marcia Ferguson and designer/costumer/choreographer Sebastienne Mundheim, whose separate productions I have enjoyed for more than 10 years, say they plan to revive it soon, perhaps at Penn or elsewhere, perhaps in Philadelphia’s FringeArts Festival.  So watch for it. It’s ancient Greek drama for our time.

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