Spoiler Alert: Orestes kills his mother. Who killed his father. Who killed his sister in order to kill a lot of other people in the Trojan War. In theory, the story of the ‘Oresteia’ is relatively simple. However, Aeschylus had so much more to explore when he was writing his trilogy. So much that we are still talking about it. But when a play has been produced as many times as this one, can we still have more to say 2500 years later?
Enter stage right: ‘Murder in Argos’.
In recent history, Greek Theatre has become synonymous with the intellectual elite, for those who have the luxury of studying a dead language. Thankfully, this notion is changing. With the advent of books like Percy Jackson or TikTok sweetheart Song of Achilles, the subject matter of Greek mythology and literature is becoming increasingly accessible. And there is a growing movement within classical academia to invite new voices to the conversation. The door is opening for refreshing perspectives to bring life back to a potentially stagnant topic. Murder in Argos, with its modern re-interpretation of the Oresteia represents another step in bringing these plays to their audience. Until everyone has the opportunity to appreciate these stories, we cannot be done performing them.
Unfortunately, the characters themselves still fail to represent this newfound audience. The infighting of the Greek aristocracy is certainly an issue foreign to me. But fraught family dynamics – ie. A bitter desire for vengeance against my sister or my mother – I can get behind that. The plight of the ordinary person when their autonomy is robbed by forces entirely outside of their control? Regrettably, this is also a lived reality for too many. Murder in Argos proves that there is more to be said because it isn’t only about Agamemnon the King, Apollo the God and Electra the Princess. It’s about Philyra the servant, Oeonus the soldier, and Deino the shopkeeper. It depicts how ordinary life is disrupted by the whims of the powerful, but also that ordinary people have full lives beyond those whims. Though at times it is difficult to see them as more than a suffering chorus, Murder in Argos challenges us to see them as individuals.
The theme of the Oresteia that continues to prevail in modern adaptations is the unchanging nature of war and the irrevocable impacts that echo through individuals and society as a whole. This idea is visually represented in Murder at Argos through the change of period dress between acts. It doesn’t matter whether a war is fought in 499 BC, 1337 AD, 1939, or 2021, the impacts of war are all-encompassing. Every time we fight, we convince ourselves that this present conflict will be the last, and every time we disappoint ourselves. Even for the generations lucky enough to avoid war: unaddressed PTSD, economic depression, and generational trauma continue to haunt us all. But equally, when the dust settles, life continues. Ordinary people like Philyra, Oeonus and Deino must return to their mundane every-day, and Orestes faces his judgement in the court of public opinion.
Centre Stage: Lower Deus Ex Machina
No one tells stories of war, family drama and internal conflict quite like the Greeks and so as these themes continue to be relevant it will always be necessary that we readdress and recontextualise them for the modern age. The American project Theatre of War famously staged productions of Greek plays for and by army veterans and the resounding response was that those involved felt undeniably, empathetically seen. We, as human beings, want to feel as if our experiences matter, and that we are not alone. Aeschylus’ emotionally nuanced approach to war continues to engage audiences because loss is universal, whether that be loss of a loved one, loss of self or loss of what we believed the world to be. And Murder in Argos promises to give new voices a seat at the table.