In ancient Greece tragedy was a mean of presenting before the community social, moral and religious issues that inspired need of debate. The Greeks did not believe in holy commandments to live by, instead they used as guidelines heroes and their lives.
Therefore generation after generation myths took new meanings, each revision providing a new twist or emphasizing a different idea.
The Myth of Orestes
In “The flies” (1943) Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980) retells, in his turn, the story of Orestes.
These are the main facts from the original story:
In Argos, ancient Greek city, queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, murder king Agamemnon, her husband. By this crime she revenges his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, meant to persuade the gods to help end, in his favor, the 10 year lasting Trojan war.
However when their son Orestes returns home years later, he reunites with Electra, his sister, and avenges Agamemnon. But that sets in motion the Furies or Erinyes, gods of vengeance, that hunt him down, until goddess Athena comes to his rescue.
What Are The Flies?
1. The flies shift the focus.
In Sartre’s retelling of the myth, Orestes returns to Argos, meets his sister, they avenge their father, the Furies – giant pesky flies – hunt them both, but no gods come to their rescue. On the contrary Jupiter, described as god of flies and death – actually Zeus from Greek mythology, divides them until Electra abandons their cause and Orestes assumes his destiny of wanderer king of flies, without country or subjects.
It all goes metaphysical: we read this story, then analyze ourselves and wonder what is it all about. Sartrely done. But we wonder at our own risk, the results may be depressing.
There’s No Way Out Of Here
2. The flies define Argos and its citizens.
In the beginning of the play Argos is a lazy town lingering under the sun. But as it withstood silent at its king’s murder and accepted his killers as rulers, Argos had to be punished: the gods (that is Jupiter, no other god gets involved) sent in the flies. Now the town has a pestilence appearance and even its inhabitants resemble insects in the way they look and act – spineless, bendable, fearful creatures.
As Jupiter predetermines that argosians are weak and easily corrupted, we wonder if this town actually had any choice? Even Orestes’s actions are not destined to save anybody, maybe not even to avenge his father. Initially he would have gladly given up, but Electra is his catalyst: he needs her to be his family, he needs to be worthy of her so he acts violently.
When You Come In You’re In For Good
3. Everyone is a fly actually.
In this morbid, awful town Electra is the only one that comes across as beautiful and alive. But only as long as she stands against Aegisthus and her mother she appears grand and courageous. When she herself takes the road of murder the beauty dissipates, fear and confusion lurk in, in the end she is just a beautiful fly.
Aegisthus is also an interesting figure, he has under control this strange town, using their superstition, inventing macabre holidays. A character that is sad in his knowledge of human nature and welcomes death.
Before killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, Orestes ponders and concludes that accepting and moving on is being week. In consequence he chooses a descending way into the town and towards his sister. He is one that can define what is wrong but wants acceptance into a family.
There Was No Promise Made
4. This is about a king of the flies.
Orestes choices should bring him and Electra and the town closer, but as the furies hunt them and Jupiter judges them, he faces the reality that his fall was greater than he anticipated: Electra shows him no love and the argosians try to kill him.
In the end Orestes refuses Jupiter as god, assumes the killings and exits the town as king of the flies.
A literary parallel makes itself available: In William Golding’s book “Lord of the flies”, written in 1954, the lord of the flies was the head of a pig stalled on a stick as an offering to “the beast”. But the beast was actually the violence rising up in children stranded on an island. Golding took the image of flies and used it to illustrate the superficiality of human institutional systems. Humans have a violent nature and there is no escape from that. It might be also of importance that lord of the flies is another name for the devil.
Both books were written in times when the world reminded itself what war and its consequences were, but as Golding’s novel is about a world that fell from reason and lost its ways, Sartre’s play is about a world that never acquired reason to begin with.