Electra and Orestes by Alfred Church
ORESTES, son of Agamemnon and CLYTEMNESTRA
ELECTRA, sister of ORESTES
CHRYSOTHEMIS, sister of ORESTES
AN OLD MAN, formerly the PAEDAGOGUS or Attendant Of ORESTES
CHORUS OF WOMEN OF MYCENAE
PYLADES, son of Strophius, King of Crisa, the friend Of ORESTES.
A handmaid of CLYTEMNESTRA. Two attendants of ORESTES
At Mycenae, before the palace of the Pelopidae. It is morning and the new-risen sun is bright. The PAEDAGOGUS enters on the left of the spectators, accompanied by the two youths, ORESTES and PYLADES.
Son of him who led our hosts at Troy of old, son of Agamemnon! — now thou mayest behold with thine eyes all that thy soul hath desired so long. There is the ancient Argos of thy yearning, — that hallowed scene whence the gadfly drove the daughter of Inachus; and there, Orestes, is the Lycean Agora, named from the wolf-slaying god; there, on the left, Hera’s famous temple; and in this place to which we have come, deem that thou seest Mycenae rich in gold, with the house of the Pelopidae there, so often stained with bloodshed; whence I carried thee of yore, from the slaying of thy father, as thy kinswoman, thy sister, charged me; and saved thee, and reared thee up to manhood, to be the avenger of thy murdered sire.
Now, therefore, Orestes, and thou, best of friends, Pylades, our plans must be laid quickly; for lo, already the sun’s bright ray is waking the songs of the birds into clearness, and the dark night of stars is spent. Before, then, anyone comes forth from the house, take counsel; seeing that the time allows not of delay, but is full ripe for deeds.
True friend and follower, how well dost thou prove thy loyalty to our house! As a steed of generous race, though old, loses not courage in danger, but pricks his ear, even so thou urgest us forward, and art foremost in our support. I will tell thee, then, what I have determined; listen closely to my words, and correct me, if I miss the mark in aught.
When I went to the Pythian oracle, to learn how I might avenge my father on his murderers, Phoebus gave me the response which thou art now to hear: — that alone, and by stealth, without aid of arms or numbers, I should snatch the righteous vengeance of my hand. Since, then, the god spake to us on this wise, thou must go into yonder house, when opportunity gives thee entrance, and learn all that is passing there, so that thou mayest report to us from sure knowledge. Thine age, and the lapse of time, will prevent them from recognising thee; they will never suspect who thou art, with that silvered hair. Let thy tale be that thou art a Phocian stranger, sent by Phanoteus; for he is the greatest of their allies. Tell them, and confirm it with thine oath, that Orestes hath perished by a fatal chance, — hurled at the Pythian games from his rapid chariot; be that the substance of thy story.
We, meanwhile, will first crown my father’s tomb, as the god enjoined, with drink-offerings and the luxuriant tribute of severed hair; then come back, bearing in our hands an urn of shapely bronze, — now hidden in the brushwood, as I think thou knowest, — so to gladden them with the false tidings that this my body is no more, but has been consumed with fire and turned to ashes. Why should the omen trouble me, when by a feigned death I find life indeed, and win renown? I trow, no word is ill-omened, if fraught with gain. Often ere now have I seen wise men die in vain report; then, when they return home, they are held in more abiding honour: as I trust that from this rumour I also shall emerge in radiant life, and yet shine like a star upon my foes.
O my fatherland, and ye gods of the land, receive me with good fortune in this journey, — and ye also, halls of my fathers, for I come with divine mandate to cleanse you righteously; send me not dishonoured from the land, but grant that I may rule over my possessions, and restore my house!
Enough; — be it now thy care, old man, to go and heed thy task; and we twain will go forth; for so occasion bids, chief ruler of every enterprise for men.
Ah me, ah me!
Hark, my son, — from the doors, methought, came the sound of some handmaid moaning within.
Can it be the hapless Electra? Shall we stay here, and listen to her laments?
No, no: before all else, let us seek to obey the command of Loxias, and thence make a fair beginning, by pouring libations to thy sire; that brings victory within our grasp, and gives us the mastery in all that we do.
(Exeunt PAEDAGOGUS on the spectators’ left, ORESTES and PYLADES the right. — Enter ELECTRA, from the house. She is meanly clad.)
O thou pure sunlight, and thou air, earth’s canopy, how often have ye heard the strains of my lament, the wild blows dealt against this bleeding breast, when dark night fails! And my wretched couch in yonder house of woe knows well, ere now, how I keep the watches of the night, — how often I bewail my hapless sire; to whom deadly Ares gave not of his gifts in a strange land, but my mother, and her mate Aegisthus, cleft his head with murderous axe, as woodmen fell an oak. And for this no plaint bursts from any lip save mine, when thou, my father, hath died a death so cruel and so piteous!
But never will I cease from dirge and sore lament, while I look on the trembling rays of the bright stars, or on this light of day; but like the nightingale, slayer of her offspring, I will wail without ceasing, and cry aloud to all, here, at the doors of my father.
O home of Hades and Persephone! O Hermes of the shades! potent Curse, and ye, dread daughters of the gods, Erinyes, — Ye who behold when a life is reft by violence, when a bed is dishonoured by stealth, — come, help me, avenge the murder of my sire, — and send to me my brother; for I have no more the strength to bear up alone against the load of grief that weighs me down.
As ELECTRA finishes her lament, (the CHORUS OF WOMEN OF MYCENAE enter. The following lines between ELECTRA and the CHORUS are chanted responsively.)
Ah, Electra, child of a wretched mother, why art thou ever pining thus in ceaseless lament for Agamemnon, who long ago was wickedly ensnared by thy false mother’s wiles, and betrayed to death by dastardly hand? Perish the author of that deed, if I may utter such prayer!
Ah, noble-hearted maidens, ye have come to soothe my woes. I know and feel it, it escapes me not; but I cannot leave this task undone, or cease from mourning for my hapless sire. Ah, friends whose love responds to mine in every mood, leave me to rave thus, — Oh leave me, I entreat you!
But never by laments or prayers shalt thou recall thy sire from that lake of Hades to which all must pass. Nay, thine is a fatal course of grief, passing ever from due bounds into a cureless sorrow; wherein there is no deliverance from evils. Say, wherefore art thou enamoured of misery?
Foolish is the child who forgets a parent’s piteous death. No, dearer to my soul is the mourner that laments for Itys, Itys, evermore, that bird distraught with grief, the messenger of Zeus. Ah, queen of sorrow, Niobe, thee I deem divine, — thee, who evermore weepest in thy rocky tomb!
Not to thee alone of mortals, my daughter, hath come any sorrow which thou bearest less calmly than those within, thy kinswomen and sisters, Chrysothemis and Iphianassa, I who still live, — as he, too, lives, sorrowing in a secluded youth, yet happy in that this famous realm of Mycenae shall one day welcome him to his heritage, when the kindly guidance of Zeus shall have brought him to this land, Orestes.
Yes, I wait for him with unwearied longing, as I move on my sad path from day to day, unwed and childless, bathed in tears, bearing that endless doom of woe; but he forgets all that he has suffered and heard. What message comes to me, that is not belied? He is ever yearning to be with us, but, though he yearns, he never resolves.
Courage, my daughter, courage; great still in heaven is Zeus, who sees and governs all: leave thy bitter quarrel to him; forget not thy foes, but refrain from excess of wrath against them; for Time is god who makes rough ways smooth. Not heedless is the son of Agamemnon, who dwells by Crisa’s pastoral shore; not heedless is the god who reigns by Acheron.
Nay, the best part of life hath passed away from me in hopelessness, and I have no strength left; I, who am pining away without children, — whom no loving champion shields, — but, like some despised alien, I serve in the halls of my father, clad in this mean garb, and standing at a meagre board.
Piteous was the voice heard at his return, and piteous, as thy sire lay on the festal couch, when the straight, swift blow was dealt him with the blade of bronze. Guile was the plotter, Lust the slayer, dread parents of a dreadful shape; whether it was mortal that wrought therein, or god.
O that bitter day, bitter beyond all that have come to me; O that night, O the horrors of that unutterable feast, the ruthless deathstrokes that my father saw from the hands of twain, who took my life captive by treachery, who doomed me to woe! May the great god of Olympus give them sufferings in requital, and never may their splendour bring them joy, who have done such deeds!
Be advised to say no more; canst thou not see what conduct it is which already plunges thee so cruelly in self-made miseries? Thou hast greatly aggravated thy troubles, ever breeding wars with thy sullen soul; but such strife should not be pushed to a conflict with the strong.
I have been forced to it, — forced by dread causes; I know my own passion, it escapes me not; but, seeing that the causes are so dire, will never curb these frenzied plaints, while life is in me. Who indeed, ye kindly sisterhood, who that thinks aright, would deem that any word of solace could avail me? Forbear, forbear, my comforters! Such ills must be numbered with those which have no cure; I can never know a respite from my sorrows, or a limit to this wailing.
At least it is in love, like a true-hearted mother, that I dissuade thee from adding misery to miseries.
But what measure is there in my wretchedness? Say, how can it be right to neglect the dead? Was that impiety ever born in mortal? Never may I have praise of such; never when my lot is cast in pleasant places, may I cling to selfish ease, or dishonour my sire by restraining the wings of shrill lamentation!
For if the hapless dead is to lie in dust and nothingness, while the slayers pay not with blood for blood, all regard for man, all fear of heaven, will vanish from the earth.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
I came, my child, in zeal for thy welfare no less than for mine own; but if I speak not well, then be it as thou wilt; for we will follow thee.
I am ashamed, my friends, if ye deem me too impatient for my oft complaining; but, since a hard constraint forces me to this, bear with me. How indeed could any woman of noble nature refrain, who saw the calamities of a father’s house, as I see them by day and night continually, not fading, but in the summer of their strength? I, who, first, from the mother that bore me have found bitter enmity; next, in mine own home I dwell with my father’s murderers; they rule over me, and with them it rests to give or to withhold what I need.
And then think what manner of days I pass, when I see Aegisthus sitting on my father’s throne, wearing the robes which he wore, and pouring libations at the hearth where he slew my sire; and when I see the outrage that crowns all, the murderer in our father’s bed at our wretched mother’s side, if mother she should be called, who is his wife; but so hardened is she that she lives with that accursed one, fearing no Erinys; nay, as if exulting in her deeds, having found the day on which she treacherously slew my father of old, she keeps it with dance and song, and month by month sacrifices sheep to the gods who have wrought her deliverance.
But I, hapless one, beholding it, weep and pine in the house, and bewail the unholy feast named after my sire, — weep to myself alone; since I may not even indulge my grief to the full measure of my yearning. For this woman, in professions so noble, loudly upbraids me with such taunts as these: ‘Impious and hateful girl, hast thou alone lost a father, and is there no other mourner in the world? An evil doom be thine, and may the gods infernal give thee no riddance from thy present laments.’
Thus she insults; save when any one brings her word that Orestes is coming: then, infuriated, she comes up to me, and cries; — ‘Hast not thou brought this upon me? Is not this deed thine, who didst steal Orestes from my hands, and privily convey him forth? Yet be sure that thou shalt have thy due reward.’ So she shrieks; and, aiding her, the renowned spouse at her side is vehement in the same strain, — that abject dastard, that utter pest, who fights his battles with the help of women. But I, looking ever for Orestes to come and end these woes, languish in my misery. Always intending to strike a blow, he has worn out every hope that I could conceive. In such a case, then, friends, there is no room for moderation or for reverence; in sooth, the stress of ills leaves no choice but to follow evil ways.
Say, is Aegisthus near while thou speakest thus, or absent from home?
Absent, certainly; do not think that I should have come to the doors, if he had been near; but just now he is afield.
Might I converse with thee more freely, if this is so?
He is not here, so put thy question; what wouldst thou?
I ask thee, then, what sayest thou of thy brother? Will he come soon, or is he delaying? I fain would know.
He promises to come; but he never fulfils the promise.
Yea, a man will pause on the verge of a great work.
And yet I saved him without pausing.
Courage; he is too noble to fail his friends.
I believe it; or I should not have lived so long.
Say no more now; for I see thy sister coming from the house, Chrysothemis, daughter of the same sire and mother, with sepulchral gifts in her hands, such as are given to those in the world below.
(CHRYSOTHEMIS enters from the palace. She is richly dressed.)
Why, sister, hast thou come forth once more to declaim thus at the public doors? Why wilt thou not learn with any lapse of time to desist from vain indulgence of idle wrath? Yet this I know, — that I myself am — grieved at our plight; indeed, could I find the strength, I would show what love I bear them. But now, in these troubled waters, ’tis best, methinks, to shorten sail; I care not to seem active, without the power to hurt. And would that thine own conduct were the same! Nevertheless, right is on the side of thy choice, not of that which I advise; but if I am to live in freedom, our rulers must be obeyed in all things.