Aeschylus: Libation Bearers
CW Marshall
Paperback, £16.99

A gripping tale of revenge and one of the least performed Greek tragedies, Aeschylus' Libation Bearers is the second part of the Oresteian trilogy. It follows Agamemnon's son Orestes as he returns home to discoverthat his mother Clytemnestra killed his father some years earlier with the help of her lover Aegisthus (events that take place in the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon). Orestes responds by committing matricide and is then pursued by the Erinyes, or Furies, the deities of vengeance.

As CW Marshall demonstrates in this nifty companion to the tragedy, it is an influential work well worth studying in its own right. With good reason, Marshall places much emphasis on examining performances and performative aspects of the play. Aeschylus, for instance, is not only the first individual we know by name in the history of Greek theatre, but as well as being a playwright he directed the debut production of Libation Bearers at the City Dionysia of 458 BC, choreographed it, composed part of the music, and acted in it.

Libation Bearers was performed again just a few decades later in the 420s. More recent years, however, have seen relatively few productions of the tragedy. Moreover, as the Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy from antiquity, it has often been performed as a trilogy, which means that large numbers of lines are frequently cut from Libation Bearers in such productions. It was not until 1868 that the work was first performed as a standalone play.

Yet the far-reaching impact of Libation Bearers can be felt down the centuries. The play and its protagonist became models for revenge tragedies in the 16th century and beyond, and have been re-imagined by 20th-century writers, such as TS Eliot in The Family Reunion in 1939, and Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Mouches in 1943. Marshall even credits the existence of cohesive second instalments in modern trilogies – such as The Two Towers, from The Lord of the Rings, and The Empire Strikes Back, from Star Wars – in part to the exemplary ancient model offered by Aeschylus.

This engaging book serves as a first-rate guide to Libation Bearers, setting it in the context of 5th-century Athens, a city-state that put much stock in retributive justice and that had recently agreed a treaty with Argos. As Marshall points out, Agamemnon's capital was traditionally Mycenae, but Aeschylus sets it a short distance away in Argos. Drawing together a wide range of scholarship, the book adeptly explores diverse aspects of Libation Bearers, its performance, and its reception, including ancient illustrations of scenes from the play.
Lucia Marchini