Dr. Howard Rubenstein’s translation of the famed Greek playwright Aeschylus’ play “Agamemnon” is a brilliant work. It is the first modern, very readable, very interesting and educational translation of an important classic with a wealth of explanatory information. The problem with former translations is that its English is outdated, stilted, and often hard to understand. Dr. Rubenstein’s version was performed in 1997 in California and in 2002 in Florida with high acclaim. The work is so good that it should become part of the literature courses in upper high school grades and in colleges.
The play is fascinating and worthwhile to read both because of the thought-provoking drama that it portrays and because of its history. It is one of the earliest dramas from antiquity still in existence and shows how modern dramas developed. Dr. Rubenstein a physician and playwright of close to a dozen much admired plays, passed away on September 20, 2020. He added stage directions to the play which makes the drama much clearer, as well as a 20 page introduction in his book version, a 10 page synopsis, and 21 pages of informative notes. This is 51 pages of learned, very easy to read and enjoyable information about the play itself, the author Aeschylus, the mind-set of the Greeks when the play was composed, how other playwrights and authors handled the famous story, and more. He also includes a prologue and epilogue to the play of information the ancients knew but not modern people, a map of Agamemnon’s world, and a chart showing the three generations of the major characters in the drama.
Aeschylus is considered the “father of tragedy.” His plays are the earliest currently existing plays of antiquity. He died around 456 BCE at age 67. He wrote 90 plays and half of them won first prize at the Athenian festivals where plays were shown. He was one of the three most important Greek playwrights. The others were Sophocles and Euripides who were born after him. He is famous for being the first to add a second speaker in the play. Previously there was only a single actor who spoke to the chorus. He also reduced the chorus from 50 people to 12. The additional actor was usually the antagonist. Aeschylus was the first to have his characters engage in dialogue that showed conflict. One of the greatest philosophers of all times, Aristotle, who lived almost two centuries after him, admired and praised Aeschylus.
Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is part of his trilogy, three plays in which the second continues the first and the third follows the second. It is about King Agamemnon around the year 1200 BCE, about the time the ancient Israelites left Egyptian bondage. He is returning home after a ten-year battle at Troy where he was the commander in chief of the Greek forces that defeated Troy. He is accompanied by his prize, his slave and concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, a daughter of the king of Troy. He and his concubine are murdered by his wife and her lover, as his wife’s revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his and his wife’s daughter, and her lover’s revenge for Agamemnon’s father killing his siblings.
Interestingly, Aeschylus was not only brilliant, he had modern ideas that are reflected in the drama. Like the much later Jewish philosopher Maimonides, he did not believe in the truthfulness of prophecies and that the gods need or even want sacrifices. He discusses the fact that wisdom comes from suffering, parents sacrifice children to further their career, what is the difference between vengeance and justice, how do the gods deal with people who murder, are wars justified, is there divine retribution, why do people suffer, do the gods care about humans, what is the source of evil, and are women equal to men. All these ideas are in this play. Evidence exists that his predecessors and contemporaries were not interested in these subjects that interest many people today.
In short, Dr. Rubenstein has not only given us a very entertaining play and much information about it, but has also shown us the brilliant thinking of one of the greatest playwrights.