The message of The Oresteia for today

I am grateful to The Church of England Newspaper for drawing my attention to a version of The Oresteia at the Barbican Theatre, and for a most interesting reflection on its message. An extract from the article, which is itself part of an address given to the Lichfield Diocese Pre-Lambeth Conference.

Who can cry 'stop this madness of litigation'? For this drama, we need a Greek Chorus to comment on it and cry 'shame' and `cease'.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I saw an amazing play at the Barbican theatre in London, `Molora'. It is a South African version of the three Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, known as the Oresteia trilogy.

A young director, Yael Farber, has recontextualised the tragedies into the setting of apartheid South Africa and
subsequent events. It is very powerful, and the Chorus are the heroines.

For they are played by South African mamas who use traditional drums, a basic one-stringed instrument of a calabash and a bow, and twangy metal mouth instruments. They create a `soundscape' around the action, sing in split tones and come out with deep groans — sighs too deep for words.

As they appeared, I whispered to Alison, 'remember the Mothers' Union in Kenya?' We served in Kenya with the Church Mission Society for seven years at a theological college at Kabare, just south of Mount Kenya. The Mothers' Union there, and throughout Africa, are a powerful, unstoppable movement. One day, Bishop David Gitari, who later became Archbishop of Kenya, was threatened by a Cabinet Minister for his challenging sermons advocating
justice. He was ordered to turn up at the Cabinet Minister's office. Bishop Gitari said he would be delighted to do so, and he would attend wearing his robes, together with all the Mothers' Union, wearing their robes. Nothing further was heard about the matter.

These three tragedies of Aeschylus are based on a cycle of violence and vengeance. In the first play, Agamemnon, the King and leader of the Greek soldiers who captured Troy, is murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra. In the second, their son and daughter, Orestes and Elektra, plot revenge on their mother, and Orestes kills her. He is then threatened by the Furies for doing so and flees. The Furies are mythical, very scary avengers of crime, especially family murders. The third is the trial of Orestes, who is accused by the Furies. When the Athenian judges have a
split vote, Athene gives her casting vote to Orestes.

Now 'Molora', at the Barbican, weaves this tragic story into new patterns. It begins with the trial scene, but 'not as we know it', for this is the 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission', which was chaired by Desmond Tutu. Tutu does not
appear in the play, but is mentioned with awe and appreciation in the programme. The mother and daughter face each other across the stage, behind desks with microphones on them and speak of what had happened.

Later we see what they were talking about when the white mother, Klytemnestra, abused her black daughter, Elektra, using apartheid-era torture methods, including holding her head under water in a bowl and keeping her head in a wet plastic bag. The arrival from exile of the black Orestes, the son, and the recognition of him by Elektra,
is very moving. The plot of vengeance is frightening.

However, in 'Molora', amazingly the ending is changed. The cycle of violence and vengeance, according to the ancient written tragedy, is stopped. And there is hope.

There is not blood and death all over the place at the end. Orestes can't bring himself to kill his mother and the axe
dramatically does not come down on her head.

When Elektra takes it up to kill her mother herself, because Orestes has bottled out, she is wrestled away by the Chorus of mamas. They carry her, still struggling, to the side of the stage and over a few minutes of singing and soothing, murmuring and caressing, calm her down.

The wrong is righted by the end being rewritten. The Chorus enters into the drama, physically, and does not just comment on it. “Molora” is the Sesotho word for 'ash'. When fire is met with fire, all that remains is ashes.

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