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Clytemnestra's letter in Iakovos Kambanellis’ Letter to Orestes *

  • Maria Pavlou (a1)


Kambanellis’ Letter to Orestes constitutes Clytemnestra's apologia for the murder of Agamemnon and is addressed to her estranged son Orestes. Until now, research has concentrated mainly on the content, verbal message and metatheatrical dimension of Clytemnestra's letter, laying emphasis upon Kambanellis’ intertextual links with the ancient Greek tragedies revolving around the Atreid myth. This article focuses attention on the dramatic form of the letter, examining it as a physical object with social connotations and as an active agent in the development of the events. It is argued that in emphasizing these aspects of the letter Kambanellis was probably influenced by the function of letters in two of the Greek tragedies which he clearly draws upon in The Supper trilogy: Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians. However, Kambanellis’ intention was not to reproduce his tragic models but rather to exploit the medium of the letter in order to reconsider a staple of his own work: the disconcerting issue of human, and more particularly of familial, communication.



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This article is part of the research project ‘“Our Heroic Debate with the Eumenides”: Greek Tragedy and the Poetics and Politics of Identity in Modern Greek Poetry and Theatre’, which is generously funded by the Research Promotion Foundation of Cyprus. I am grateful to Vayos Liapis and the audience at the International Conference ‘Modern Greek Queries‘ (Poznan, April 2015) for their comments and suggestions. Warm thanks are also due to the reviewers and editor of BMGS for their astute comments.



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1 Πάροδος Θηβών has been referred to as Τhebes Sidestreet by Melina Sardi, who first translated the play. Here I follow the more recent rendering Thebes Byway by Liapis, V., ‘Iakovos Kambanellis’ The Supper: Heterotopia, intertextuality and metatheater in a modern tragic trilogy’, Gramma 22 (2014) 123–41. The English translation cannot preserve Kambanellis’ toying with the different meanings of the word parodos in Ancient and Modern Greek. In Ancient Greek the term indicates a) the first choral passage recited or sung in an ancient Greek tragedy as the chorus enters the orchestra and b) the passage in an ancient Greek theatre between the auditorium and the skene. In Modern Greek parodos has the meanings ‘sidestreet’ or ‘byway’. Through the title Πάροδος Θηβών Kambanellis ingeniously alludes to both his debt to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone, and to his play's focus on the minor characters featuring in these tragedies. On the twofold meaning of the play's title see Tassis, V., Πάροδος Θηβών του Ι. Καμπανέλλη και τα διακείμενά της’, in Gotsis, Y., Kali, E., Sakellaropoulou, P., Tassis, V. and Tsatsoulis, D. (eds), Από το αττικό δράμα στο σύγχρονο θέατρο: Μελέτες για την πρόσληψη και τη διακειμενικότητα (Athens 2008) 177210 , at 206–7.

2 The rubric ‘ΣΠΟΥΔΕΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΠΟΠΕΙΡΕΣ’ is printed vertically in red on the front cover (but not the title of page) of I. Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄: Γράμμα στον Ορέστη, Ο Δείπνος, Πάροδος Θηβών, Στη Χώρα Ίψεν, Ο Διάλογος, Ποιος ήταν ο κύριος. . .;, Ο Κανείς και οι Κύκλωπες (Athens 1994). Kambanellis first labelled these plays ‘Σπουδές και απόπειρες’ in his prefatory note to the programme of the 1992-3 production of The Supper trilogy. This note was republished in Θέατρο ΣΤ΄, pp. 19–20.

3 Kambanellis deals with ancient themes in other plays as well (for example, O μπαμπάς o πόλεμος, Οδυσσέα γύρισε σπίτι). However, as N. Papandreou correctly points out (‘Ο μύθος των Ατρειδών στo νεότερο θέατρο’, in Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄, 11–18, at 17), this is the first time that he takes them seriously.

4 Even though Kambanellis departs from the tragic myth in many respects in his Letter to Orestes, he clearly draws on a number of tragedies dealing with the House of Atreus, such as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Choephori, Sophocles’ Electra, and mainly Euripides’ Electra, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Orestes; see P. Sakellaropoulou, ‘Γράμμα στον Ορέστη και Ο Δείπνος του Ι. Καμπανέλλη: Στοιχεία πρόσληψης και διακείμενα’, in Gotsis et al. (eds), Από το αττικό δράμα στο σύγχρονο θέατρο, 121–76; W. Puchner, Τοπία ψυχής και μύθοι πολιτείας. Το θεατρικό σύμπαν του Ιάκωβου Καμπανέλλη (Athens 2010) 655–73; Liapis, ‘Iakovos Kambanellis’ The Supper’. On Kambanellis’ engagement with Greek antiquity in general see Ladogianni, V., Ο τόπος του δράματος: Mελέτες για την ελληνική δραματουργία του 19ου και 20ου αιώνα (Αthens 2011) 402–12.

5 Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄, 19–20.

6 Kambanellis’ Clytemnestra is closer to her Euripidean counterpart, who entertains some motherly emotions towards her children.

7 On monological and single-character plays on ancient themes in modern Greek theatre see Diamantakou-Agathou, K., ‘Τραγικοί ήρωες μόνοι επί σκηνής στην αρχαία και σύγχρονη ελληνική δραματουργία: H αυτονόμηση της μονολογικότητας’, Παράβασις 10 (2010) 5584 , at 63–84, esp. 68–9.

8 Yourcenar's monologue was published (in Greek translation) in the journal Lexis in 1981, 363-5; see also T. Grammatas, ‘Μύθος και διακειμενικότητα στη δραματουργία του Iάκωβου Καμπανέλλη’, in Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄, 203–25, at 211. Οn Yourcenar's treatment of Clytemnestra see Braund, S., ‘“We're here too, the ones without names”: A study of female voices as imagined by Margaret Atwood, Carol Ann Duffy, and Marguerite Yourcenar’, Classical Receptions Journal 4 (2012) 190208 , at 191–3. Cf. Papandreou, N., ‘Oι Ατρείδες της Γιουρσενάρ’, in Iakov, D. I. and Papazoglou, E. (eds), Θυμέλη. Μελέτες χαρισμένες στον καθηγητή Ν. Χ. Χουρμουζιάδη (Herakleion 2004) 251–79, which discusses Yourcenar's treatment of the Atreid myth in her play Electra or the Fall of the Masks.

9 Ritsos, Y., Ποιήματα, τόμος ΣΤ΄ (1956–1972): Τέταρτη Διάσταση, 17th edn (Athens 1991).

10 Although Kambanellis’ debt to Ritsos’ ‘Orestes’ and ‘The return of Iphigenia’ has been acknowledged by others (Grammatas, ‘Μύθος και διακειμενικότητα’, 211; Papandreou, ‘Ο μύθος των Ατρειδών’, 15; Sakellaropoulou ‘Γράμμα στον Ορέστη και Ο Δείπνος του Ι. Καμπανέλλη’, 152; Puchner, Τοπία ψυχής και μύθοι πολιτείας, 661, n. 1863), this connection appears all the more likely if we take into account that these two monologues, directed by Minos Volanakis under the title The Loneliness of the Atreidae, were staged at the Kava theatre in Athens in 1990. On Clytemnestra's treatment by Ritsos and Kambanellis see also S. Shamanidi, ‘Μεταμορφώσεις της Κλυταιμνήστρας (Γ. Σεφέρης – Γ. Ρίτσος – Ι. Καμπανέλλης)’, in K. Dimadis (ed.), Συνέχειες, ασυνέχειες, ρήξεις στον ελληνικό κόσμο (1204–2014): Oικονομία, κοινωνία, ιστορία, λογοτεχνία, IV (Athens 2015) 245–58.

11 Yourcenar's Clytemnestra writes an anonymous letter to Agamemnon in which she reveals her infidelity with Aegisthus. Agamemnon reads the letter, but remains apathetic, displaying utter indifference towards his wife's adultery.

12 In fact, The Supper could be seen as the sequel of Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians; see Sakellaropoulou, ‘Γράμμα στον Ορέστη και Ο Δείπνος του Ι. Καμπανέλλη’, 138.

13 Sakellaropoulou (op.cit., 150–1) acknowledges that Clytemnestra's letter harks back to the opening of Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis but does not pursue the issue further.

14 There has been much controversy over the authenticity of the prologue of the tragedy; on this issue see, inter alia, Willink, C. W., ‘The prologue of Iphigenia at Aulis, Classical Quarterly 21 (1971) 343–64; Kovacs, D., ‘Toward a reconstruction of Iphigenia Aulidensis, Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003) 77103 , at 80–3; Michelakis, P., Iphigenia at Aulis (London 2006) 107–10; Pietruczuk, K., ‘The prologue of Iphigenia Aulidensis reconsidered’, Mnemosyne 65 (2012) 565–83.

15 Translated passages from Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis are taken from Kovacs, D., Euripides VI: Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, Rhesus [Loeb Classical Library, 495] (Cambridge, MA and London 2002).

16 On Agamemnon's letter in Iphigenia at Aulis see, inter alia, Rosenmeyer, P. A., Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature (Cambridge 2001); eadem, ‘The appearance of letters on stages and vases’, in O. Hodkinson, P. A. Rosenmeyer and E. Bracke (eds), Epistolary Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature (Leiden 2013) 39–70; Jenkins, T. E., Intercepted Letters: Epistolary and Narrative in Greek and Roman Literature (Lanham and New York 2006) 8795 ; Michelakis, Iphigenia at Aulis, 101; Τοrrance, I., Metapoetry in Euripides (Oxford 2013) 158–65.

17 See Michelakis, Iphigenia at Aulis, 55.

18 On the function of the letter in Iphigenia among the Taurians see, inter alia, Jenkins, Intercepted Letters, 95–101; Kyriakou, P., A Commentary on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (Berlin 2006) 256–64; Torrance, Metapoetry in Euripides, 152–7.

19 Jost, F., ‘Le Roman épistolaire et la technique narrative au XVIIIe siècle’, Comparative Literature Studies 3 (1966) 397427 . Representative examples of ‘kinetic’ epistolary novels are Les Lettres portugaises and Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses. See also the perceptive study by Altman, J. G., Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus 1982).

20 Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions, 65.

21 See Liapis, ‘Iakovos Kambanellis’ The Supper’, 6–7.

22 Todorov, T., ‘The discovery of language: Les Liaisons dangereuses and Adolphe, Yale French Studies 45 (1970) 113–26, at 115. In Les Liaisons dangereuses Todorov (115–16) distinguishes three main connotations evoked by letters: a) intimacy between the sender and the recipient, b) the possibility of change in a situation, c) authenticity.

23 On maternal letters and the genre of mother's advice see Anselment, R. A., ‘Katherine Patson and Brilliana Harley: Maternal letters and the genre of mother's advice’, Studies in Philology 101 (2004) 431–53.

24 ‘Πού είσαι Ορέστη; Γιατί να σου τα γράφω αντί να σου τα λέω!’ (27). All quotations from Letter to Orestes and The Supper are from Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄.

25 OLD MAN: ‘In your perplexity you are all but raving mad’ (40–1).

26 ‘Ορέστη, αγαπημένε μου γιε ξέρω πως οι μέρες μου είναι μετρημένες και τρέμω που δε βλέπω να ’ρχεσαι.’ (25); ‘Πρέπει όμως να τα γράψω, και να βιαστώ μάλιστα’ (27).

27 As Todorov indicates (‘The discovery of language’, 115), the connotations of a letter are not always in accord with its contents and might be ‘in addition or even in opposition to the literal message of each letter’.

28Σταματά να διαβάζει, πιάνει ένα μολύβι και γράφει’ (25); ‘Ξαναπιάνει μολύβι και γράφει προφέροντας με έξαψη την κάθε λέξη’ (27); ‘Ξανάρχεται στο τραπέζι και γράφει’ (35).

29Πηγαίνει βιαστικά στο τραπέζι και ξαναδιαβάζει’ (29); ‘Πάει στο τραπέζι, ψαχουλεύει στα χαρτιά για να βρει κάποιο φύλλο. Το βρίσκει και διαβάζει’ (33).

30σταματά να γράφει και συνεχίζει λέγοντας αυτά που έχει να πει παρασυρόμενη όλο και πιο πολύ απ’ αυτά που νιώθει’ (25); ‘Τινάζεται όρθια φράζοντας με το χέρι το στόμα φοβισμένη κι η ίδια απ’ αυτό που ξεστόμισε, κάνει δύο τρία άσκοπα βήματα, γονατίζει ανάμεσα στα σκόρπια χαρτιά, πιάνει ένα αφηρημένη και λέει. . .’ (33); ‘Χουφτιάζει και με τα δυό χέρια μάτσο τα χαρτιά απ’ το τραπέζι, σηκώνεται . . . βηματίζει μπροστά, κάπου κάπου της πέφτουν χαρτιά απ’ τα χέρια’ (34); ‘Βηματίζει αφηρημένη προς το προσκήνιο, τα χαρτιά που κρατούσε της γλιστρούν λίγα λίγα απ’ τα χέρια, σκορπάνε στο πάτωμα’ (35).

31 Pefanis, G., Ιάκωβος Καμπανέλλης: Ανιχνεύσεις και προσεγγίσεις στο θεατρικό του έργο (Athens 2000) 160–1. On Kambanellis’ treatment of monologues in his one-act plays see also Ch. Bakonikola, ‘Tα μονοπρόσωπα μονόπρακτα του Ιάκωβου Καμπανέλλη’, Δρώμενα 95 (1995) 23–6, who refers to his tendency to ‘dialogize’ them (διαλογοποίηση του μονολόγου).

32 ‘Γι’ αυτό και μόνο με τρομάζει κάθε ψίθυρος που ακούω στο διάδρομο, όχι για να φυλαχτώ’ (26).

33 From the opening stage directions, it is made clear that Kambanellis wants his audience to receive this play as a piece of metatheatre. This is not a monologue delivered by Clytemnestra, but by an actress pretending to be Clytemnestra. As he indicates, Letter to Orestes should be staged and performed as a dramatic artifice (‘Γι’ αυτό προτείνω η σκηνή να είναι σε συνθήκες πρόβας’ 25).

34 For the content of Iphigenia's letter see IT 779, 770–1, 773–6, 778. For Agamemnon's letter see IA 115–16, 119, 120–3.

35 See for example, ‘Όμως σε παρακαλώ, αγοράκι μου, πριν τα διαβάσεις, σκέψου – όχι για να είσαι επιεικής αλλά για να κρίνεις πιο σωστά – σκέψου πως αυτά τα μαρτυρά κάποιος που είναι πια πέρα από αυταπάτες, εγωπάθειες και ματαιότητες’ (27).

36 ‘Το γράμμα που θέλω να διαβάσεις θα το τελειώσω απόψε. Θα ’ρθει κατά τις τρεις η παραμάνα σου να της το δώσω κρυφά απ’ το παράθυρο, ή θα το κρύψω κάτω από ένα σανίδι, στο πάτωμα, να το βρει εκει. . .’ (26).

37 The term is used by O. Hodkinson and P. A. Rosenmeyer, ‘Introduction’, in Hodkinson, Rosenmeyer and Bracke (eds), Epistolary Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, 1–36, at 3 with reference to the emotions experienced by external readers ‘eavesdropping’ on a private conversation.

38 On the incompetence of Agamemnon's servant as a ‘courier’ of the letter due to his old age see Synodinou, K., ‘Agamemnon's change of mind in Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis’, Logeion 3 (2013) 5165 , at 53–4.

39 ‘Έστειλα ως τώρα εφτά ανθρώπους να σε βρούνε. Πού έχεις πάει;’ (27)

40 ‘Tρεις φορές την παρακάλεσα να ’ρθει να μιλήσουμε. Δεν ήρθε. Της έγραψα. Έστειλε πίσω το γράμμα χωρίς να το ανοίξει.’ (26)

41 ORESTES: ‘[. . .] I will not trouble to open the letter but will choose first a pleasure not of words but of deeds. Sister I love best, stunned though I am, with scarce believing arms, I yet come to the pleasure of your embrace.’ (793–7)

42 On the recognition scene in Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians see, inter alia, Torrance, Metapoetry in Euripides; Hall, E., Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy (Oxford and New York 2013). Stirewalt, L., Studies in Ancient Greek Epistolography (Atlanta 1993) 77 : ‘once the oral message has been delivered, the delivery of the letter is reduced to a pantomime, an empty gesture rejected by Orestes as he tosses the text aside to embrace his sister’.

43 ΚΛΥΤ.: ‘Τελειώνω, Ορέστη, έγραψα ό,τι είχα να σου πω. Όμως. . . προς Θεού, μην παρασυρθείς κι εσύ απ’ τα καμώματα του παππού σου και του πατέρα σου! ελευθερώσου, Ορέστη’ (35).

44 See Puchner, Τοπία ψυχής και μύθοι πολιτείας, 665, who suggests that the play could also be a study of the limitations of written discourse and its inefficiency as a vehicle of communication: ‘Πόσο πραγματική είναι η συγγραφή της επιστολής αυτής; Μήπως ο συγγραφέας από την αρχή προετοιμάζει κι ένα μήνυμα τελείως άσχετο με το θέμα: ότι ο γραπτός λόγος ποτέ δεν μπορεί να εκφράσει αυτό που μπορεί ο προφορικός’. This issue is also thematized in the other two plays of The Supper trilogy.

45 See for example, Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄, 32.

46 As Puchner observes, Τοπία ψυχής και μύθοι πολιτείας, 663), Kambanellis uses the monologue but adds to it a number of ‘windows’ that open it up.

47 Αs Iphigenia confesses, Orestes keeps the letter constantly with him even when he sleeps: ‘ΙΦΙΓ. . . .το ’χει συνέχεια πάνω του, το κρύβει στο μαξιλάρι του. . .! πιο πολύ κι απ’ το φονικό τον τυραννά αυτό το γράμμα. . .!’ (45).

48 ‘ΑΙΓΙΣ.: . . .μα γιατί πονάτε επί ματαίω αφού η σκέψη δεν έχει φωνή. . . .; KΛΥΤ.: . . . αυτό είναι άδικο. . .! σήμερα που θα ’μαστε πάλι όλοι μαζί, θα μπορούσαμε να πούμε ένα σωρό πράγματα που δεν είπαμε ποτε. . . .!’ (41–2); ‘AΓΑΜ.: . . .εσύ τα ήξερες όλα αυτά. . .;! ΚΛΥΤ.: . . .πώς να τα ξέρω όλα. . .; ΑΓΑΜ.: . . .γιατί δε μου τα είπε κανείς. . .; δεν ξέρω τίποτα για τα παιδιά μου. . .!’ (48–9).

49 Kambanellis, Θέατρο ΣΤ΄, 62–4. On Clytemnestra's hands see also Ritsos, Ποιήματα ΣΤ΄ (‘The Return of Iphigenia’), 128.

* This article is part of the research project ‘“Our Heroic Debate with the Eumenides”: Greek Tragedy and the Poetics and Politics of Identity in Modern Greek Poetry and Theatre’, which is generously funded by the Research Promotion Foundation of Cyprus. I am grateful to Vayos Liapis and the audience at the International Conference ‘Modern Greek Queries‘ (Poznan, April 2015) for their comments and suggestions. Warm thanks are also due to the reviewers and editor of BMGS for their astute comments.


Clytemnestra's letter in Iakovos Kambanellis’ Letter to Orestes *

  • Maria Pavlou (a1)


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