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The scene is a public square in Argos, Greece. A large, blood-smeared statue of Zeus, "God of flies and death," towers over the scene. A procession of women carrying urns makes its way through the square.
Enter Orestes and the Tutor.
The Tutor tries to stop one of the women in the procession to ask for directions, but she spits at him and keeps moving.
The Tutor criticizes Orestes for bringing them to this awful, searing-hot, and inhospitable place when they could have gone through any other number of towns.
Orestes is distraught that he was born here in Argos and yet is a stranger in his own land.
He instructs the Tutor to knock on a nearby door.
Begrudgingly, the Tutor complies. It is opened briefly before the resident behind it slams it in their faces.
Orestes tries to speak with an "idiot boy" to ask where King Aegisthus can be found, but the boy only answers, "Hoo! Hoo!"
Back stage, Zeus passes by silently. The Tutor notices and remarks that the bearded man has been following them since Delphi. Orestes tries to pass it off as chance, but the Tutor isn't convinced.
Meanwhile both men are surrounded by swarms of enormous flies.
Zeus approaches and explains that fifteen years ago, the stench of carrion drew the insects to the city, and they haven't left since.
The Tutor asks the speaker for his name, and Zeus replies that he is Demetrios, from Athens. He admits to having crossed paths with the men about two weeks earlier.
The men hear "hideous shrieks" coming from the direction of the palace, but Zeus explains that they are merely ceremonial, since today is Dead Men's Day.
Zeus continues. He is familiar with the customs here because he spends a lot of time in Argos. In fact, he was here the day that King Agamemnon came home from Troy. His wife, Queen Clytemnestra, was then sleeping with Aegisthus.
The residents of Argos knew trouble was brewing, but they said nothing.
Zeus notes that Orestes has grown pale at his words, but Orestes ignores this revealing comment.
Zeus continues. Agamemnon was a good King, but he made the mistake of banning public executions.
The result was that his subjects became bloodthirsty and were eager to see violence. Ironically, this had bad consequences for Agamemnon's own life: the Argives allowed Aegisthus to murder Agamemnon.
Orestes wants to know if Demetrios, too, held his tongue. Yes, says Zeus/Demetrios, he didn't say anything either. The whole town was in a sort of ecstasy over the idea of murder.
Orestes's anger is roused by this story. He asks why the gods didn't intervene.
Zeus explains that, rather than intervene, the gods sent the flies as punishment. He claims these flies are a symbol, but doesn't offer any further explanation.
Zeus stops a woman who is passing by, all dressed in black. He asks why she is in mourning.
She's not; everyone in Argos wears black all the time, she explains.
Then he asks where she was when King Agamemnon was murdered. She was alone and helpless, she says, so she stayed inside and bolted her door.
Zeus accuses her of having listened in to the screams of the gruesome murder. He claims she was turned on by it and must have had a lot of fun in bed with her husband that night as a result. He advises that she repent her sins.
She does repent, explains the woman. So does every one in her family. They go around miserable for their sins all day long. Even her children regret being born and beg forgiveness for their lives.
The old woman runs away, and Zeus tells Orestes that everyone should live life as she does.
Confused, Orestes asks what kind of man Demetrios is. Zeus tells him not to worry about that. Then he asks if Orestes thinks the gods should have struck Aegisthus down.
Orestes, a self-professed stranger in this land, doesn't know how to answer that question. He asks if Aegisthus feels remorse for his actions.
Probably not, says Zeus, but then again the whole city is repenting on his behalf.
More screams are heard, and he explains that the townspeople hold this day of mourning every year on the anniversary of Agamemnon's death, to make sure they don't forget the dead or their sins. He comments that such devotion is near and dear to him.
Orestes is confused by this comment.
Zeus responds that he meant near and dear to the gods.
Orestes doesn't understand this either. Why do the gods care about this misery and mourning?
Zeus tells him not to try to understand, or to pass judgment on the gods.
So Orestes changes the subject. Didn't King Agamemnon have a daughter, Electra?
Yes, says Zeus, and she lives in the palace now. She was a child when her father was killed. Agamemnon also had a son, Orestes, though everyone thinks he's dead. (Aegisthus ordered him killed, but there is a rumor that he was abandoned in the woods and subsequently rescued.)
Zeus, for his part, would prefer it if the son were dead.
Orestes wants to know why.
Zeus says that, hypothetically, were he having a conversation with this Orestes guy, he would tell him to leave Argos, since the sinners here are repenting and should be left alone. What has happened here has nothing to do with him.
Besides, he continues, the gods love seeing these people miserable and repenting, so Orestes shouldn't interfere. He has nothing to provide them with in place of their repentance.
Then Zeus looks him right in the eye and says that, if Orestes tampers, he will cause disaster – for Argos and for himself.
Then Orestes responds, "Well, if I were Orestes, which I'm not, I would say…" except then the Tutor coughs and kicks him in the shins, so he stops talking.
The men bid each other good-bye, but before they go, Zeus shows them a trick. He points at the flies swarming around their heads and says, "Abraxas, galla, galla, tsay, tsay." The flies all fall to the ground.
More ironic is Orestes's reaction: "By Jove!" (Jove was the Roman equivalent of Zeus.)
Turning to the Tutor, Orestes questions whether or not that guy was human.
The Tutor reasons that there is nothing besides humans, but Orestes resists the Tutor's philosophy.
Orestes turns toward the palace and rants about how wronged he's been, the fact that there's a murderer on his father's throne, and that his mother betrayed his father.
He also deeply resents that he has no childhood memories.
This offends the Tutor, who has devoted his entire life to teaching Orestes literature, philosophy, history, and art.
The Tutor explains that Orestes has knowledge and wisdom beyond his years, that he has no ties, like religion or family, clouding his judgment. As a result, Orestes "know[s] better than to commit [him]self" to a single cause. (The Tutor identifies this last part as Orestes's greatest strength.)
Yes, Orestes appreciates all this.
Orestes feels that there are different kinds of men in the world. Some are born with a "certain path assigned to them," and they journey forward towards some deed they must commit. Others, like himself, are rootless, and without purpose.
Orestes again laments that he has no ties to a family or home, because he was taken from his home when he was a small child.
Sure, if he had stayed here in Argos, he might not have any of the other academic skills the Tutor taught him, but he would know every detail of the door frame, how many steps from the hall to the dining room, and every floorboard would hold memories of his childhood.
Orestes recognizes that, because of the wrong done to him, this is not his palace, as it otherwise might have been. Since he has no memories of this place, "there is nothing to detain [him and the Tutor] here" in Argos.
The Tutor approves of this conclusion.
Orestes would have gained nothing by staying in Argos, argues the Tutor. If he had remained after Agamemnon's murder, he would be wallowing in repentance, like the rest of the town.
Maybe so, Orestes says, but he would own that repentance. He would have a purpose and a tie to his kingdom, and even to all these flies buzzing around.
Eventually Orestes stops thinking about "what ifs" and suggests that they leave this town already.
The Tutor is greatly relieved.
Since he revealed Orestes's true past to him a few months ago he's been worried that his pupil would come to Argos and avenge his father's murder.
Orestes tells him not to worry. Sure, killing Aegisthus would be fun, but he knows it wouldn't serve any real purpose. He again claims that what's going on here in Argos is no business of his. A king should share in his subjects' memories and pain, but Orestes has nothing in common with these people, no ties to them. He doesn't even share their remorse.
Then again, hesitates Orestes, he would kill his own mother if it meant he could share in the memories and remorse of these townspeople, and "fill the void" within him.
Still, he says, let's go to Sparta.
Just then, Electra comes on stage, carrying a large can of ashes. She makes her way to the big statue of Zeus, which she proceeds to insult, mock, and rub herself against in an inappropriate manner.
From her ranting, it seems Electra's beef with Zeus is this: he enjoys watching the suffering of the Argives. She's knows he detests her because she's young and beautiful. He prefers decay and sorrow. On this, his feast day, while others are bringing him wine and bread, she brings moldy, rotting food. To add insult to injury, she spits on the statue.
Then she predicts (she's still speaking to the statue, having not noticed Orestes and his tutor yet) that some day a man will cleave Zeus in two, and everyone will see that he is just a statue made out of wood.
Right after this prediction, Electra realizes that there are two men watching her.
She's startled. Orestes explains that his name is Philebus, and that he's from Corinth and a stranger to these parts.
Electra is relieved to meet him, since she hates everyone that has anything to do with Argos.
Orestes tells the Tutor to leave them alone.
He then compliments Electra on being beautiful. She's surprised to hear this; no one has ever told her she's beautiful, though she speculates it's because everyone in the palace hates her.
She goes on to explain that she works as a servant in the palace, and describes in detail her duties, which include washing the stains off the King and Queen's bed sheets and their underwear.
She gets her revenge by bringing rotting food and ashes to smear on the statue of Zeus, whom she detests.
Electra reveals that every night her mother, whom she also finds disgusting, kisses her good night.
Orestes wants to know if she's ever thought of leaving Argos.
No, she has no friends and is afraid of being alone.
However, she excitedly reveals to Orestes that she's waiting for something – but she won't say what (or whom).
Then she compliments Orestes on his looks and wants to know more about his story.
She imagines that Corinth – his hometown – is beautiful and happy. Orestes confirms that yes, it is.
It all sounds nice to Electra, who has spent her life in a town that is "sick with fear" and plagued by remorse.
Then Electra asks a particularly loaded question: what if a young man from Corinth came home one day to find his father murdered, his mother sleeping with the murderer, and his sister treated as a servant in her own home?
She wants to know if this young man would slink away, or if he would exact vengeance.
Before Orestes can answer this question, the voice of the Queen, from off-stage, calls Electra by name.
Queen Clytemnestra enters.
Orestes carefully observes this mother.
He muses to himself that this is the woman he's been dreaming about for years. He can see that she's haggard, which he expected, though he "hadn't counted on those dead eyes."
Clytemnestra tells her daughter Electra that, according to the King's order, she is to wear her black dress and jewels for the Ceremony of the Dead.
If she's a servant, Electra tells her mother, why should she have to attend the ceremony and pretend to be a princess?
It's clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are careful to keep up appearances, to make it seem as though Electra is a happy and well-adjusted young princess.
Electra resents that she's expected to share in the town's remorse for a crime she never committed (i.e., the murder of King Agamemnon). She refuses to beg the gods' forgiveness when she is innocent herself.
Clytemnestra makes it clear that these orders come from King Aegisthus.
Electra counters that it is Clytemnestra's duty to follow these orders, since she is Aegisthus's wife, but Electra herself has no obligation to obey her stepfather.
The Queen starts to condemn her daughter, but then stops herself. She realizes that she isn't exactly in a position to lecture anyone. She comments that she recognizes her own former beauty in Electra.
This irritates Electra, who doesn't want to be compared to her mother in any way, shape, or form.
Orestes assures her that she is not like her mother.
Clytemnestra wants to know who this guy is.
Before Orestes has a chance to answer, Electra quickly explains that his name is Philebus and he's from Corinth.
The Queen starts asking him questions, and Orestes claims that he's on his way to Sparta to enlist in the army.
Clytemnestra is surprised that he's gone out of his way to travel through Argos, which most people try to avoid.
She talks about the town and its repentance for a horrible crime committed fifteen years ago. As the Queen, she bears the heaviest load.
Electra quickly tells Orestes not to pity Clytemnestra. Everyone's favorite pastime, she says, is confessing his or her sins to anyone who'll listen. They love newcomers because they act as a fresh audience.
She adds that you must judge the citizens for the sins they are willing to confess, but that you must not point out any other, hidden sins that they don't reveal.
The Queen laments her haggard looks, claiming that she was once beautiful and has clearly suffered (physically) for her crime.
She then admits that she doesn't regret killing Agamemnon – she rejoiced to see his blood. What she does regret is that Aegisthus handed over her son to his lackeys to be killed.
Electra is taken aback. Doesn't her mother care about her own daughter?
Clytemnestra assures her daughter that one day she, too, will commit an inexpiable crime. She'll try to run away from it, but every time she looks behind her there it will be, plaguing her with guilt.
"And then at last," Clytemnestra says, "you will realize that you staked your life on a single throw of the dice, and nothing remains for you but to drag your crime after you until you die. For that is the law, just or unjust, of repentance."
Electra realizes that Clytemnestra regrets losing her youth and good looks more than she regrets her crime.
Both women heartily agree that they hate each other.
The Queen turns to Philebus, (a.k.a. Orestes), and blames him for this argument. Usually she and her daughter just hate in each other in silence. She would like him to leave as soon as possible.
Then she turns to Electra and says that, while she does hate her, she would rather cut off her own arm than do her any harm. Still, Aegisthus doesn't harbor such reservations, so Electra had better be careful not to anger him.
Electra says she doesn't care about Aegisthus; she's not going to attend his Ceremony of the Dead.
Then she turns to Philebus and explains, finally, what the Ceremony of the Dead actually is.
The people of Argos gather outside of a big cavern above the town, so deep and dark that no one has ever found its end. Legend has it the cavern leads to hell. The Argives normally keep it blocked with a great stone. Once a year they roll the stone aside and the dead roam the city for one night, while the living beg their macabre visitors not to hurt them.
Electra doesn't want to take part because the dead belong to the people of Argos; they are not her dead.
Clytemnestra reminds her daughter that if she doesn't attend the ceremony willingly, Aegisthus will have her brought in by force.
Fine, Electra consents, she'll be there. She then asks Philebus (a.k.a. Orestes) to stay for the ceremony, as he might find parts of it entertaining.
Before exiting, the Queen begs Philebus to leave town; she's afraid he'll bring disaster upon all of them.
Finally left alone, Orestes says to himself, "For my mother's sake."
Next Zeus comes on stage and tells him that the Tutor and he have procured some horses, the better for making a hasty departure.
But Orestes has changed his mind; he's going to stay in Argos after all.
Given this change of plan, Zeus offers to act as Orestes's host. He invites him to an inn he knows, and then recites the chant to kill the flies buzzing around Orestes's head.
Zeus mysteriously advises the young man to take advantage of his company.
Then he asks if Philebus (a.k.a. Orestes) knows the story of Telemachus, and the wise older man he once met.
(A little explanation here: Telemachus was the son of Odysseus, a Greek hero and friend to Agamemnon. While looking for his father, Telemachus was counseled by an old man named Mentor, who turned out to be Athena in disguise. Zeus is hinting at the fact that he's Zeus, since he hasn't revealed his true identity to Orestes yet. This reminds us to tell you to check out Shmoop's Odyssey guide, which gives details of the ancient epic poem.)