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The New Oresteia , by Yiannis Ritsos

The New Oresteia of Yannis Ritsos - Philip Pastras, George Pilitsis, Giannees Ritsos, Giannees Ritsos


Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990)



A significant portion of the poet Yiannis Ritsos' (Γιάννης Ρίτσος) prolific output was intended, at least in principle, for the stage. And of this portion, the dramatic monologues are reputed to dominate artistically. The New Oresteia of Yannis Ritsos (1991) is a translation of those monologues that involve Agamemnon's legendary family.


Ritsos took up this task partly because he felt a certain affinity with that family, an affinity that makes itself strongly felt in these monologues. Born into an aristocratic family that fell onto hard times after the 1909 revolt, his elder brother and his mother died of tuberculosis within three months of each other when he was twelve years old (he himself suffered from the disease). Both his father and his sister died in an insane asylum. So, though there were no murders and feasting upon relatives in his own family, Ritsos knew familial loss and tragedy from the inside out. 


Authors writing in Greek (or Chinese for that matter) can well feel crushed by the weight of their literary tradition, and one of the more interesting aspects of the history of modern Greek literature (for me, at least) is to see how various artists coped with that weight. Not unexpectedly, the reactions ranged from complete rejection of the tradition in favor of colloquial language renditions of forms and content borrowed from French and German literature (just transplanted to a Greek setting) to a slavish copying of both the language and the topics of the ancients.


Ritsos was certainly influenced by French Surrealism,(*) but he found a fruitful middle road between those extremes, as evidenced in this book. In the Oresteian monologues Ritsos channels the House of Atreus through his personal experience and renders the results in the modern literary language slowly developed during the gradual abandonment of the antiquarian katharevousa, a form of literary Greek that harkens back to long gone days in vocabulary, diction and orthography. In this channeling the Atreus family and the Ritsos family mix and meld together without resistance. 


To exemplify, consider The Dead House, written in 1959. In this monologue Electra is the speaker with her sister Chrysothemis moving softly in the next room but not coming to word. The fatal events have played themselves out long ago, and the two sisters have withdrawn from the world which rejected them but now has forgotten them completely. Though the setting is supposed to be the Atreus family palace in Argos, it is actually a turn of the 20th century mansion (judging by the description of the rooms and furnishings) in Monemvasia, the former pirate stronghold on the Peloponnesus coast that was Ritsos' family home (since it is Monemvasia and not Argos that overlooks the Myrtoan Sea). A youngest brother has been added to the family who can be none other than Ritsos himself. With occasional slides into poetic hallucinations which recall the legendary Electra's madness, the speaker addresses a rare visitor, evoking the sisters' isolation and then lingering long on memories of better times which are clearly informed by Ritsos' childhood, all in a mood of quiet resignation. Among the many leitmotifs of this monologue are memory and death.


Ah, I saw nothing, remember nothing; only that wonderful feeling,
so delicate, that death provided us with, to see death
into its transparent depths. And the music continued
just as when we awake early sometimes, at dawn, for no special reason
and the air outside is far too thick with the warbling
of thousands of unseen birds - so thick and vaporous
that there's no place for anything else in the world -
       bitterness, hope, remorse, memory-
and time is indifferent and alien,
like a stranger who passed quietly on the road opposite the house
without considering or looking at the house at all,
holding under his arm a stack of opaque and still unwashed
       window panes,
and you don't know what he wants with them, where he's taking them,

Ritsos' years of prison and confinement upon islands of exile during the various military dictatorships and Nazi rule find sublimation in some of these dialogues;(**) in fact, though the monologues are quite concrete in their fashion, time is denied its prerogatives of absolute order. Often enough, the experience evoked is neither that of Agamemnon's nor of Ritsos' family, but rather that of Greece itself. A taste from Beneath the Shadow of the Mountain (1960), where multiple slices through Greek history are superimposed and Electra speaks at the age of 70 to her nurse, herself "more than 100 years old, maybe even 200":


How many kings have changed since then? How many revolutions took place? 

It's said that we had brief periods of improbable mob rule.

And one moment of pure democracy. I don't know.

I believe that they exhumed with honors one of those they'd executed

and propped him, a skeleton, on the throne - they'd fastened

his bones together with wire and had dressed him

in a deep purple cloak - they'd sprinkled the hall with rose water;

they spoke from the balconies; no one understood. 


I've read quite a bit of Ritsos' lyric poetry and value much of it highly, but these poetic monologues reveal an aspect of his gift that is new to me and very engaging. He himself believed that his dramatic soliloquies together represented his finest and most powerful work. I'm so inclined to agree that I'm going to turn to a translation of the fifth volume of Ritsos' collected works by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley, The Fourth Dimension, which contains all of his dramatic monologues. 



(*)Though there is little trace of that in these monologues.


(**) Ritsos was under such constraints at various times from the 40's through the 70's. Less sublimated experiences from such a period, the dictatorship of 1967-1974, find excellent expression in Edmund Keeley's version of Ritsos' poetry from that era, Exile and Return.