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from saturday's books section

Imagine an Old Testament movie epic in which only the Genesis part is filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, Exodus goes to Alfred Hitchcock and Deuteronomy to Quentin Tarantino. The laws of Israel would still arise from the birth of the world and the lives of Abraham and Moses. But the differences in the storytelling would be stark, striking, revelatory maybe, but with the ever-present peril of lapse into an extended overstatement, an educational aid, a film-school history project.

An Oresteia is Anne Carson's application of this technique to the bible of the Ancient Greeks, the central tragic story of King Agamemnon's victorious return from the Trojan War, how his wife murdered him in his bath and how his children, Orestes and Electra, avenged that murder.

Aeschylus, the grand originator of Greek tragedy, told the whole story in his own Oresteia trilogy. But Carson translates only Act One from him; Acts Two and Three come from her previously composed versions of later plays by Sophocles and Euripides, allowing the Canadian modern poet and University of Michigan classics professor to display the history of early theatre in a single theatrical event.

  • An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson, Faber & Faber, 255 pages, $33.95

The art of Greek tragedy, like that of 20th-century cinema, grew fast when it was young. Aeschylus, writing in the middle of the fifth century BC, after Athens had first established its strength in the Persian Wars, set out a confident saga of man resolving problems of divine law. Should children avenge a father's murder, or was the act of killing a mother a crime far worse?

Aeschylus's answer, reached after hours of grand high drama, was to hand the decision to a popular court, helped by a suitably progressive representative from Mount Olympus. The cycle of violence is ended by the judicious application of democracy.

Carson's selection from Aeschylus, which covers Agamemnon's homecoming and murder, not their consequences, conveys powerfully the playwright's struggle to bend a language to the new demands of a young art, his compounding of words into a "griefremembering pain" and "purplepaved, redsaturated path."

Sophocles saw both what Aeschylus had achieved - and not achieved. As a politician and general, he was as committed as Aeschylus to the advance of the Athenian empire; he himself fought in its battles. As a theatre writer, he cared more about the possibilities of individual character that accompanied power. His tragedy, Electra , the second in Carson's An Oresteia (and which she renders as Elektra ), is for most of its length an obsessive expression of personal grief from a daughter about her father's murder, Western literature's first great delineation of one woman's mind.

Carson's own poetic range, proved over the years by novel renderings of Simonides and Sappho, allows her to vary and invigorate the rolling metaphors of Electra's assault on Clytemnestra and her lover: "You are some sort of punishment cage/ locked around my life./ Evils from you, evils from him/ are the air I breathe."

Euripides, the third of the men who defined Greek tragedy, is represented in this modern trilogy by his Orestes , a subversive farce that stands far from the courtroom finale to the story that Aeschylus had offered 50 years before. Euripides was a contemporary of Sophocles but not a politician himself; he was an occasional diplomat and elegist of the glorious dead, but his dyspeptic feelings about the world - during a war against Sparta that Athens was beginning to lose - are clear from all his plays, not least this last of Carson's trilogy. This is the story of how Orestes and Electra, brother and sister in the crime of mother-killing, are on the run in central Greece, contemplating kidnap, further murder and blackmail. Orestes is the only one of these plays where Tarantino would feel at home.

The god Apollo brings Euripides's play - and this whole modern show - to an end, just as he did for Aeschylus, this time not by a cliff-hanger casting vote in a courtroom but by forcing Orestes to marry his kidnapped cousin. The trial verdict is already fixed, nothing to worry about, with just a few small details to be tied up, as Carson has it: "Then go to Athens and stand trial for matricide./ Trust me. You'll win. And this girl whose throat is being grazed/ by your sword,/ Hermione, you'll marry./ I know she's supposed to marry somebody/ else (Neoptolemos, I think)/ but I'll see to it he dies."

This is a level of bathos - after what would probably be some five hours in the theatre - that a modern director determined on the decline of imperialist adventurism, in Athens and everywhere else, could deploy to full effect. Carson credits the commissioning of An Oresteia to the director of New York's Classic Stage Company, Brian Kulick. Reports of its opening last month, which I did not see, were mixed - with some disquiet expressed over an excess of political direction and a lack of unity in the tragic whole. It is not hard to see that happening.

For all the three tragedians' differences - and for all the artistic developments in their approach that have been analyzed by critics for 2,400 years - there was a sure and common expression of awe in Greek theatre, a sense that man and god, however their dealings might be revered, sidelined or mocked, were part of a true mystery, presented by rituals which, whoever was writing the script, remained largely unchanged. Carson understands and communicates that truth to her readers. It would not be surprising if directors found that task much more difficult - even with the elegant tools that this fine modern translator has given them.

Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a classicist.