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an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Orestes was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 309-10.

The Orestes, which was exhibited for the first time in 408 [B.C.], is perhaps the most unequal of all the plays of Euripides. The representation of the conscience-stricken frenzy of Orestes, with which it commences, is one of those inspired efforts, only to be matched by such creations as the sleep-walking scene in Macbeth, or the prison scene in Faust. But after this point there is a rapid deterioration, and the passionate intensity of the opening portion is followed by a long series of treacherous intrigues and ignoble stratagems, which excite no deeper interest than a feeling of curiosity as to their ultimate result. The conclusion, also, is unnatural and inartistic. When affairs have reached a state of hopeless confusion, Apollo suddenly descends from heaven, and proceeds to smooth over difficulties, dispense rewards, and arrange marriages, with an abruptness and a disregard for previous fact which are more suitable to the termination of a comedy. Helen, after figuring throughout the play as a vain and luxurious coquette, is forthwith translated to the "recesses of the sky," and becomes a goddess, the "protectress of sailors." Orestes is commanded to marry Hermione, whose throat he was in the act of cutting when Apollo appeared on the scene. Pylades weds Electra; Menelaus is consoled for the loss of his wife by the preservation of her dowry; and everything is thus brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Yet notwithstanding the inferiority of the later portion of the tragedy, it was always a favourite upon the stage; and the reason is not far to seek. The first scene alone, if performed by a great actor, would be sufficient to make the fortune of any play. Moreover, the long monody of the eunuch, with its incoherent ejaculations of terror, was a novelty of an operatic kind, which would produce a far greater impression in actual representation than it produces on the mind of the reader. And though the later scenes appear deficient in the loftier qualities of tragedy, they are composed with a keen eye to dramatic effect, and keep the audience in suspense to the very close of the action.

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