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Two modern plays on the subject,—the Oreste of
The Oreste of Voltaire.
Voltaire and the Oreste of Alfieri,—so directly invite a comparison with the Greek dramatists, and especially with Sophocles, that they claim a brief notice here. Each is, in its own way, the work of one who has endeavoured to seize the spirit of antiquity; who appreciates the charms of the Greek treatment; and who wishes to preserve the beauty of Greek outline, while telling the story in a new manner, such as he deems more effective for the modern theatre. Each play thus becomes a suggestive criticism on the antique.

Voltaire was not the first French dramatist who had handled this theme. Crébillon, whose Électre appeared in 1708, had followed the precedent set in the Œdipe of Corneille (1657), by interweaving love-affairs with the tragic action: the son of Aegisthus has won the heart of Electra, and his daughter is beloved by Orestes. Longepierre, whose Électre was acted in 1719, failed for a different reason; he preserved the classical simplicity, but lacked knowledge of the stage and charm of style. Voltaire's Oreste was produced in 1750. In the letter of dedication prefixed to it, he says that his aim is to restore a purer taste; and he thus describes the relation of his work to the Sophoclean. ‘I have not copied the Electra of Sophocles,— far from it; but I have reproduced, as well as I could, its spirit and its substance1.’ This is true; it is only in general outline that his plot resembles the other; the details are his own. The scene is laid near the tomb of Agamemnon, on the shore of the Argolic Gulf. Thither, from Argos, come Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra, to hold a festival2; bringing with them Electra, their slave, with fetters on her wrists. On the same day, Orestes and Pylades are driven ashore at a neighbouring spot, and fall in with Pammène3, a faithful old retainer of the house, who becomes their accomplice. The disguised Orestes, with Pylades, presents himself to Aegisthus, bearing a funeral urn. It contains, he says, the ashes of Orestes, whom he has slain at Epidaurus. There are, in fact, human ashes in the urn; but they are those of Plistène, the son of Aegisthus, whom his father had sent to kill Orestes. Presently Aegisthus learns by a message that his son is dead. He promptly arrests the two young strangers, and Pammène also. Meanwhile Orestes has met Electra at the tomb, and, overcome by affection and pity, has made himself known to her; though the oracle of Delphi had strictly forbidden him to do so. Electra now appeals to Clytaemnestra—tells her the secret—and persuades her to intercede with Aegisthus, but without divulging her son's identity. Clytaemnestra complies. Aegisthus—now certain that Orestes is in his hands—spurns her prayer, and sends the two youths to instant death. They are saved by a popular rising at Argos. The people acclaim Orestes as their king. He then takes vengeance. Electra hears Clytaemnestra's cry of supplication (behind the scenes), and, believing that her mother is pleading for Aegisthus, cries to her brother, ‘Strike!’4 The next moment Clytaemnestra is heard crying, ‘My son, I die by thy hand!’ Electra is overwhelmed with horror; and the play ends with the anguish of Orestes, who prepares to go forth into exile.

The feature which Voltaire himself regarded as most distinctive of his work is the character of Clytaemnestra. He has caught up the hint given by Sophocles (vv. 766 ff.), and carried further by Euripides, that the murderess of Agamemnon may remain capable of tenderness for Orestes and Electra. The Clytaemnestra of Voltaire can be touched by the entreaties of her children, though she replies to their taunts with anger and scorn5. ‘The germ of this personage,’ he says, ‘was in Sophocles and Euripides, and I have developed it.’ In doing so, he has gone a little too far; the ‘cri du sang’ is somewhat too obtrusive and theatrical. Greek Tragedy, with its severe sanity, would have felt that there was extravagance in making Clytaemnestra intercede with Aegisthus for the life of one who could return only as an avenger. Nevertheless, the French dramatist has derived many touches of real beauty and pathos from this motive6. His other chief innovation consists in rendering the course of the stratagem less smooth. Orestes and Pylades are placed in deadly peril. Our hopes and fears alternate almost to the end. The demand for this kind of interest is modern. An old Greek audience, familiar beforehand with the main lines of the story, could feel no anxiety for the safety of the hero. Voltaire's treatment of the urn-scene is noteworthy. He saw that here it was impossible to reproduce the Sophoclean pathos; that was only for people who had this custom in respect to the relics of the dead,—a custom surrounded with sacred and tender associations. Voltaire substituted an interest of a different kind, —the thrill felt by the spectators who know that the urn presented to Aegisthus contains the ashes of his son7. The device is ingenious, but reduces the incident to a lower level; it is no longer a dramatic beauty, but rather a stroke of theatrical effect. A more serious departure from the ancient model is involved in his attempt to vindicate the gods. He refuses to conceive that they could have commanded an innocent man to slay his mother, however guilty she might be. In his version, they ultimately doom Orestes to do so; but only as a punishment. And for what? For having failed, through love and pity, to persevere in obedience to their arbitrary command against revealing him self to his sister8. This surely does not exhibit their justice in a more favourable light. So perilous is it to tamper with Greek Tragedy on this side,—as Euripides, indeed, was the first to show. The inscrutable destiny interwoven with the legend is a thread which cannot be removed without marring the whole texture.

The Oreste of Alfieri.

1 ‘“Je n'ai point copié l'Électre de Sophocle, il s'en faut beaucoup; j'en ai pris, autant que j'ai pu, tout l'esprit et toute la substance.”’ Épître à la Duchesse du Maine, in Beuchot's Œuvres de Voltaire, vol. VI. p. 157.

2 A touch borrowed from Soph. El. 278 ff.

3 As Pammène answers to the Sophoclean Paedagogus, the Sophoclean Chrysothemis has a counterpart in Iphise, who has been allowed to dwell apart, in an old palace near the tomb.

4 Act V, Sc. 8. The trait is borrowed from Soph. El. 1415, “ΚΛ. ὤμοι πέπληγμαι. ΗΛ. παῖσον, εἰ σθένεις, διπλῆν”: but the new setting given to it by the French dramatist is admirably ingenious.

5 Épître (prefixed to the Oreste), p. 157. ‘“Rien n'est en effet plus dans la nature qu'une femme criminelle envers son époux, et qui se laisse attendrir par ses enfants, qui reçoit la pitié dans son cœur altier et farouche, qui s'irrite, qui reprend la dureté de son caractère quand on lui fait des reproches trop violents, et qui s'apaise ensuite par les soumissions et par les larmes.”’

6 As in the scene between Clytaemnestra, Electra, and Iphise (the Chrysothemis of the play), Act 1, Sc. 3; and in the scenes where Clytaemnestra pleads with Aegisthus for Orestes (Act 1, Sc. 5; Act V, Sc. 3).

7 ‘Il a fallu suppléer au pathétique qu'ils [i.e. les anciens] y trouvaient par la terreur que doit inspirer la vue des cendres de Plistène, première victime de la vengeance d'Oreste.’ This remark occurs in an essay published in the same year as Voltaire's play (1750),—Dissertation sur les principales Tragédies anciennes et modernes, qui ont paru sur le sujet d'Électre, et en particulier sur celle de Sophocle. It appeared under the name of M. Dumolard, a critic of the day; but it clearly reveals the mind, if not the pen, of Voltaire, among whose works it has long been included: see Beuchot, Œuvres de Voltaire, vol. VI. p. 255. The words quoted above are on p. 279.

8 Dissertation, etc. p. 281: ‘“Oreste est certainement plus à plaindre dans l'auteur français que dans l'athénien, et la divinité y est plus ménagée.”’ The Orestes of Voltaire is indeed to be pitied; but precisely because the divine caprice is so frightful.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
    • Sophocles, Electra, 1415
    • Sophocles, Electra, 278
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