The Agamemnon is a classical Greek tragedy written by Aeschylus that plays a complicated and essential role in The Browning Version. Firstly, it serves as a prop: it is the text that Andrew Crocker-Harris has his pupil, John Taplow, work on, laboriously translating its ancient Greek line-by-line into English. But when Taplow excitedly embellishes one of the lines—deliberately adding gore and drama to the original—Aeschylus’s play comes to represent the potential excitement, reward, and vitality of classical literature. Taplow’s intervention, though outwardly disapproved of by Andrew, causes Andrew to reveal his own passion for the play and to relate how, as a spirited and talented scholar in his youth, he produced a translation that was arguably more beautiful than the original. The book, then, allows Andrew to reconnect with what gave his life meaning in the first place. When Taplow returns to Andrew’s flat to give him a leaving gift, it’s a second-hand copy of The Agamemnon translated by Robert Browning (hence the play’s title). Taplow’s inscription, a quote from the play executed in perfect Greek, moves Andrew deeply: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.”
There is one other important symbolic function of The Agamemnon that stems from the content of the classical Greek play itself. Aeschylus’s tragedy relates the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra, thus mirroring the action of The Browning Version: though, of course, no actual murder takes place in Rattigan’s play, Millie does seek to kill off any late-blooming chance of happiness that her husband, Andrew, has left. Loosely, then, the couple in The Browning Version can be seen as a modern version of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, an expression of the ancient story in the emotionally repressed environment of an English public school.
The Agamemnon Quotes in The Browning Version
TAPLOW: (Protestingly.) I’m extremely interested in science, sir.
FRANK: Are you? I’m not. Not at least in the science I have to teach.
TAPLOW: Well, anyway, sir, it’s a good deal more exciting than this muck. (Indicating his book.)
FRANK: What is this muck?
TAPLOW: Aeschylus, sir. The Agamemnon.
FRANK: And your considered view is that the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is muck, is it?
TAPLOW: Well, no, sir. I don’t think the play is muck – exactly. I suppose, in a way, it’s rather a good plot, really, a wife murdering her husband and having a lover and all that. I only meant the way it’s taught to us – just a lot of Greek words strung together and fifty lines if you get them wrong.
ANDREW: However diligently I search I can discover no ‘bloody’ – no ‘corpse’– no ‘you have slain’. Simply ‘husband’–
TAPLOW: Yes, sir. That’s right.
ANDREW: Then why do you invent words that simply are not there?
TAPLOW: I thought they sounded better, sir. More exciting. After all she did kill her husband, sir. (With relish.) She’s just been revealed with his dead body and Cassandra’s weltering in gore –
ANDREW: I am delighted at this evidence, Taplow, of your interest in the rather more lurid aspects of dramaturgy, but I feel I must remind you that you are supposed to be construing Greek, not collaborating with Aeschylus.
TAPLOW: (Greatly daring.) Yes, but still, sir, translator’s licence, sir – I didn’t get anything wrong – and after all it is a play and not just a bit of Greek construe.
ANDREW: (Momentarily at a loss.) I seem to detect a note of end of term in your remarks. I am not denying that The Agamemnon is a play. It is perhaps the greatest play ever written –
TAPLOW: (Quickly.) I wonder how many people in the form think that?
ANDREW: (Murmuring gently, not looking at TAPLOW.) When I was a very young man, only two years older than you are now, Taplow, I wrote, for my own pleasure, a translation of The Agamemnon – a very free translation – I remember – in rhyming couplets.
TAPLOW: The whole Agamemnon – in verse? That must have been hard work, sir.
ANDREW: It was hard work; but I derived great joy from it. The play had so excited and moved me that I wished to communicate, however imperfectly, some of that emotion to others. When I had finished it. I remember, I thought it very beautiful – almost more beautiful than the original.
TAPLOW: Was it ever published, sir?
ANDREW: No. Yesterday I looked for the manuscript while I was packing my papers. I was unable to find it. I fear it is lost – like so many other things. Lost for good.
MILLIE: The mean old brutes! My God, what I wouldn’t like to say to them! (Rounding on ANDREW.) And what did you say? Just sat there and made a joke in Latin, I suppose?
ANDREW: There wasn’t very much I could say, in Latin or any other language.
MILLIE: Oh, wasn’t there? I’d have said it all right. I wouldn’t just have sat there twiddling my thumbs and taking it from that old phoney of a headmaster. But then, of course, I’m not a man.
ANDREW is turning the pages of the Agamemnon, not looking at her.
What do they expect you to do? Live on my money, I suppose.
ANDREW: There has never been any question of that. I shall be perfectly able to support myself.
MILLIE: Yourself? Doesn’t the marriage service say something about the husband supporting his wife? Doesn’t it? You ought to know?
TAPLOW: I didn’t have a chance with the head here. I rather dashed out, I’m afraid. I thought I’d just come back and – and wish you luck, sir.
ANDREW: Thank you, Taplow. That’s good of you.
TAPLOW: I – er – thought this might interest you, sir. (He quickly thrusts a small book into ANDREW’S hand.)
ANDREW: What is it?
TAPLOW: Verse translation of the Agamemnon, sir. The Browning version. It’s not much good. I've been reading it in the Chapel gardens.
ANDREW very deliberately turns over the pages of the book.
ANDREW: Very interesting, Taplow. (He seems to have a little difficulty in speaking. He clears his throat and then goes on in his level, gentle voice.) I know the translation, of course. It has its faults, I agree, but I think you will enjoy it more when you get used to the metre he employs.
He hands it to TAPLOW who brusquely thrusts it back to him.
TAPLOW: It’s for you, sir.
ANDREW: For me?
TAPLOW: Yes, sir. I’ve written in it.
ANDREW: […] “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.”
Pause. MILLIE laughs suddenly.
MILLIE: The artful little beast –
FRANK: (Urgently.) Millie –
ANDREW: Artful? Why artful?
MILLIE looks at FRANK who is staring meaningly at her.
Why artful, Millie?
MILLIE laughs again, quite lightly, and turns from FRANK to ANDREW.
MILLIE: My dear, because I came into this room this afternoon to find him giving an imitation of you to Frank here. Obviously he was scared stiff I was going to tell you, and you’d ditch his remove or something. I don't blame him for trying a few bobs’ worth of appeasement.