Orestes and The Tutor enter a public square in Argos, an ancient Greek city. Old women come out and offer libations to a large statue of Jupiter in the square. The Tutor attempts to ask the old women for directions, but they run away in fear. He complains that the city is very hot, that it resounds with ugly screams, and that it is full of unfriendly people. Orestes replies that he was born there. The Tutor tries asking more people for directions, but the only one who will talk to him is the Idiot Boy, who cannot say anything coherent.
Jupiter passes by twice and the Tutor insists that this man has been following them. The Tutor complains about the large flies around them as Jupiter enters into the conversation, introducing himself as Demetrios, a traveler who frequently visits Argos. He explains that the flies came to the city fifteen years ago. At that time, King Agamemnon was returning with the Greek fleet. Queen Clytemnestra went out to meet him, accompanied by her lover, Aegistheus. All the Argives knew that the two lovers planned to kill the king, but no one said anything because they wanted to witness violence. They opened their windows and peeked through their curtains out of anticipation, hoping to see blood and hear screams. Jupiter (as Demetrios) says that he did not interfere either, because he was a stranger and because this was not his concern.
Jupiter explains that the gods used the event to teach a moral rather than to punish Aegistheus. They sent the flies as an accusatory symbol and reminder of the Argives's complicity in the murder. Jupiter grabs an old woman walking by and interrogates her about Agamemnon's murder, her sin, and her repentance. He explains to Orestes that morality in the city is upheld through fear. He says this pleases the gods. Jupiter further explains that this day is Dead Man's Day, when every year a man is chosen to scream in the palace to remind the Argives of Agamemnon's death. Orestes asks about Electra, and Jupiter says that she is only a child, but he says that she has a brother who is thought to be dead but who might be alive. He expresses his hope that if the brother, Orestes, is alive, he will not interfere with the lives of the Argives because they must work out their own repentance and live in the favor of the gods. Orestes, he says, is a stranger and cannot help them. To hide his identity, Orestes introduces himself as Philebus.
When Jupiter departs, Orestes mourns his lack of attachment to anything. The Tutor has taught him philosophy and has attempted to teach him that all human morals are relative and that an educated individual should not be committed to any of these morals. As a result, Orestes is completely free of responsibility and commitment. Orestes mourns, however, that nothing is truly his. He was born in Argos, but he has no memories of it; it is not his city and the Argives are not his people. Lacking any attachment, he decides that he has no reason to remain in Argos. The Tutor is glad because he was worried that Orestes might want to kill Aegistheus and take back his father's throne. Orestes says that these are only dreams.
The structure of The Flies reflects Sartre's philosophical message: the play revolves around Orestes's recognition of his freedom. In Act I, Orestes struggles with what he feels is a false freedom—his freedom from attachment and commitment of any sort. In Act III, he has already recognized that he is free and has created his own destiny through action. Act II is divided into two scenes. Scene one shows Orestes making a free decision to act. Scene two shows his action. The structure of the play mirrors Sartre's conception of the structure of freedom. In order to recognize one's freedom, one must let go of the past, make a choice, act on it, and then take responsibility for that decision.
The Tutor's incessant complaining at the beginning is a clever dramatic device. The initial dialogue literally sets the scene. The audience is immediately introduced to the decrepitude of the city by reference to all the senses. The conversation between Orestes and the Tutor touches on the unfriendly people, the buzzing flies, the Idiot Boy with puss leaking from his eyes, the smell of decrepitude, the screams in the background, and the scorching heat of the sun. The vivid descriptions serve to create an atmosphere for the audience that includes both what can be seen and heard on stage and what can only be imagined. By explicitly pointing out that Argos is repulsive to all the senses, Sartre attempts to involve the audience as much as possible with the environment of the play. Like Orestes and the Tutor, the audience is revolted by the conditions of the city and feels estranged from it. By being brought into the same environment as Orestes, the audience is forced to choose the proper course of action along with him.
The use of the name Jupiter instead of Zeus is important here. Most English translations use the name Zeus throughout. In the French original, however, Sartre makes only one mention of Zeus, in Act II when Orestes asks for moral guidance. Zeus and Jupiter are the Greek and Roman names for the same god, respectively. In Aeschylus's original Greek text, the name Zeus is used, and there Zeus is seen as the arbiter of Good and Evil, since divine justice is supreme in Greek myth. Sartre intentionally departs from this view of the god, introducing him in the stage directions as the "god of flies and death." Sartre's main goal in the play is to show that human freedom is of greater value than the justice of the gods. By referring to Jupiter instead of Zeus he attempts to do away with the conception of Zeus as the highest judge of Goodness.
The flies are introduced almost from the start, and Jupiter himself tells us that they are a symbol. The flies came to the city after Agamemnon's murder, and they serve as a reminder of the Argives's need to repent. By biting the people, the flies emphasize the importance of punishment in atoning for one's sins. Jupiter mentions that the flies were attracted by the smell of carrion and have stayed in the city ever since and grown larger. Their continued presence shows that death has never left Argos. The city has been dead for fifteen years.
Sartre suggests that religion is a source of repressive morality. The old woman whom Jupiter interrogates mentions that her grandson "never plays or laughs, for thinking of his original sin." This is an allusion to the original sin of Judeo- Christian religion, where the original sin of eating the forbidden apple results in a collective human guilt. Christ frees us from the original sin, and there is a suggestion that Orestes plays an analogous role. Sartre's intention is not to make Orestes a religious figure, but rather to show that Orestes's human action and human values can supplant divine action and divine values. Orestes is meant to replace Christ, not imitate him.
Jupiter's trick to make the flies fall down is a recurring comedic motif throughout the play. Jupiter waves his arm and says "galla, galla, tsay, tsay," making him appear ridiculous rather than terrifying. Jupiter's power throughout consists of trifling tricks carried out with silly invocations and arm movements. By reducing the god's divine power to farce, Sartre undermines our respect for religious authority and the moral pronouncements it passes down to us.
In the dialogues of Jupiter and the Tutor, the first half of Act I brings out the two most significant challenges to true freedom. Jupiter makes a twofold claim. First, strangers have no place interfering in the affairs of Argos. Second, divine justice is the highest value. Jupiter emphasizes that he did not interfere in Agamemnon's murder because he was only a visitor to the city. It was not his place to intervene. He warns Orestes to leave Argos for the same reason. Orestes did not grow up in Argos, he does not share the guilt of its people, and he has no right to get in the way of their repentance. Guilt makes the Argives pious. Their fear and repentance keep them from enjoying life and from challenging the established order of their society. The gods take pleasure in the wretchedness of the Argives, and so this lifestyle should not be disturbed. Jupiter urges Orestes to leave Argos unchanged because it is not his place to change it and because he must not violate the justice of the gods.
The Tutor agrees with Jupiter that Orestes should leave Argos, though for different reasons. The Tutor has taught Orestes that human morals are variable, and that none of them are to be trusted. He rejects religious morals because he rejects all morals. Unlike Jupiter, who argues that one should avoid drastic action because action will upset divine justice, the Tutor argues that one should avoid drastic action because there is no reason to act. "You know better than to commit yourself—and there lies your strength," the Tutor tells Orestes. The Tutor agrees that Orestes should not attempt to change Argos because he is a stranger, but he believes that being a stranger is a strength rather than a weakness. By keeping aloof and maintaining no connection with any people, Orestes leaves himself free to do anything he wants. Human society, the Tutor believes, only serves to limit one's freedom. If Orestes is to act, then, he must reject both the order of the gods and the Tutor's false notion of freedom.
In his ruminations about his lack of attachment, Orestes brings up the motif of weight. Speaking of all the archaeological knowledge he has acquired, he asks, "with all these stones in my head, why am I not heavier?" Orestes complains that he is too light. He has no commitments and no real memories. He has been brought up to be detached from all human communities and as a result he feels that he has nothing of his own. The ability of human beings to create and define themselves is a cornerstone of Sartre's philosophy. Orestes has never attached himself to any society, idea, or thought—the things that make one heavy. Instead, he is completely detached from everyone and everything, floating above the world. Orestes complains that he is as light as air; nothing weighs him down. He longs to attach himself to something so that he can acquire an identity and feel at one with the human world. Someone who is light, who has not created a self-identity, is not fully human. Orestes's complaint is not that he is alone, but rather that his identity lacks content.
Sartre's departure from the Greek myth is important to the message of his play. In Aeschylus's The Libation Bearers, it is Orestes's destiny to avenge his father's murder by killing those who were responsible for his death. He is also ordered to do so by Apollo. Neither case ensues in The Flies. In speaking with the Tutor, Orestes states that he did not have a purpose in coming to Argos. He has not been ordered to do so, and he has no set destiny. The lack of a destiny is emphasized in Jupiter's speech, which makes no mention of revenge. Jupiter merely seeks to dissuade Orestes from freeing the people of Argos from their repentance; he does not attempt to dissuade him from avenging his father's death because revenge is not important to Orestes. Revenge is always grounded in the past: it comes from a need to fix something that has already happened. Orestes, however, looks only to the future; he emphasizes that he lacks a past. Since the necessity of revenge is the origin of Orestes's destiny in the Greek myth, the lack of reference to revenge here underscores the lack of a destiny for Orestes. Sartre emphasizes that Orestes's action is completely free and comes from himself, not some outside force. To this end he shows us that there is nothing in the past driving Orestes towards his action. Orestes refuses to seriously entertain the idea of killing the king and queen. He is sincere when he states that killing them and taking the throne are only "idle dreams."
The implicit rejection of revenge as the motive for action is also significant because it brings another possible motive to the forefront: the liberation of others. Jupiter introduces the idea that the murder of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra might free the people of Argos. Part of Sartre's goal in the play is to stress the liberation of others as a motive for action, since he wants to encourage resistance against the Nazi occupation of France. If Orestes is to kill the usurpers of the throne, he must have a motivation for doing so. Since that motivation cannot be revenge, it must be liberation. What is important here is that this liberation is not physical. Aegistheus does not control the Argives through force. They are enslaved psychologically, by repentance and fear. If any liberation is to take place, it cannot be a physical liberation; it must be an ideological one.
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