“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter”

Iphigenia as a priestess of Artemis in Tauris sets out to greet prisoners, amongst which are her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades; a Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD

We can lose ourselves in reverie of how Aeschylus might have staged his Oresteia in 458 BC; how his four hypokrites performed the four plays that constituted this journey from mythological darkness to Athenian radiance (originally the trilogy ended with a satyr-play called Proteus); of the dances Aesychlus is said to have taught his choruses, from the Argive elders in Agamemnon, to the captured slave-women of The Libation Bearers, those haunting furies in Eumenides, and the supposed randy satyrs that brought the tragedy to a close in Proteus.

My Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Fagles, includes an essay, The Serpent and the Eagle, written by Fagles and the classicist William Stanford. They correctly say little of the performance but what they say is agreeable:

“The words alone may hold the life of the thing itself. The music they create, the scenery, the acting, the complete consort dancing together in the theatre of our minds may well be all we need. Perhaps – but this may be too daring – a performance of the Oresteia in the mind of a twentieth-century reader may be even more moving than it was in the crowded, often restive Theatre of Dionysus at the first performance. At least we can do with the written words what no Athenian could do when they were spoken on the stage; we can stop and wonder and look back and tease apart the subtleties and pregnancies of Aeschylus’ style, so that while we lose theatrically we gain in imaginative power. As Keats has said about a different genre of Greek art, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ And perhaps with Greek drama, richer, too.”

8 thoughts on ““Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter”

  1. I agree fully. This is why I have long been irritated by the oft-repeated contention that Shakespeare’s plays are to be seen rather than read. Of course, a good performance makes a huge impact, but the words go by at the speed of sound – far too quickly to be adequately understood: it is only in the leisure of one’s own study that we may examine the depths and the subtleties of that extraordinary language. And if that means that some of the spontaneity of a stage performance is lost, there is much that is gained also.

    ” … we can stop and wonder and look back and tease apart the subtleties and pregnancies … ”


    • My favourite Shakespeare is all read and performed internally; the physical performance is frequently disappointing and always less rich than my own reverie.

  2. “At least we can do with the written words what no Athenian could do when they were spoken on the stage; we can stop and wonder and look back…” I loved this and mostly I’m happy with reading the plays. But sometimes? Oh sometimes I wish for the performance too. (Rare, on the west coast of Canada.) And two books help with that. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, essays on everything from the sociological context of the plays to the pictorial record (on ceramics, frescoes, etc.) and an amazing catalogue raisonne (sorry, can’t do the accent here) from an exhibit and performanceI didn’t see: A Stage for Dionysus: Theatrical Space & Ancient Drama. This is from the Canadian version (it travelled to the States and elsewhere too) at our Stratford. The images are so rich and evocative and one can imagine sitting in a theatre (Delphi?) and entering the language through the bodies. Once or twice in a lifetime?

    • Perhaps. I think I’d like to see one performed in an “original” theatre, but our contemporary theatre productions don’t seem as rich as I imagine they will be. But I mostly deplore theatre, all that acting gets in the way of language.

  3. Hello Anthony. You seem to be on a grand Homeric jag at the moment with War Music and Zone etc. I’ll search out this essay. On performance: I seem to recall hearing Fagles read from the Iliad at Symphony Space on Broadway in the nineties when I was at Columbia and was interesting because of the lack of acting. Thinking back, the only classical Greek play I’ve seen that impressed me was Zoe Wanamaker performing Electra (also on Broadway.) Very minimalist and really chilling. But in general, yes, the inner theatre makes the deep connections as the words continue to work on the unconscious level over time. (Thoughts continue: Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex has its own bizarre power as it leaves behind Sophocles to bring to life Pasolini’s surreal cinematic vision.) Anyway, at the moment, back to Compass.

    • Hello Des, I’ll seek out the Pasolini. This is my first time with Fagles’ Aeschylus (quite different to Carson’s Agamemnon), and and finding it as thrilling and powerful as his Homer. I’m looking forward to hearing that you make of Compass.

      • This is bizarre. Thinking about your ‘deploring theatre’ – and how I don’t deplore good theatre – (seeing Beckett’s End Game in Paris for example was fantastic while in Melbourne it was dire) – what came to mind was a performance I once saw in Cardiff by the WNO of La Traviata, where the music of orchestra and voice was stellar but the stage production was awful. The lead soprano – a sublime Nuccia Focile – had to drag along an IV tree in a 21st century setting that may have been some clunky allusion to AIDS. I kept my eyes shut a lot of the time. And then on page 86 of Compass I come across the section about Madame Duplessis being the inspiration for La Traviata. I suppose Enard’s encyclopaedic journey through European culture inevitably is going to collide with a personal immersion in music and literature, but why at this moment in time and space when I’m thinking about your blog post? I’ll make a nod to Dr Jung and his theory of synchronicity. So many gems in this book. On we go…

        • There are of course always exceptions: Kasper Holten’s thoughtful Don Giovanni a few years back, Charles Edwards’ breathtaking Elektra, David McVicar’s forthright Salome, and last summer’s No’s Knife with Lisa Dwan, which I saw four times in the end, and now wish I had gone every night of its two week run. For years I went to see a performance every month without fail. It took me a long ti,e to admit to myself that I was usually bored.

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