Thursday, December 1, 2022

Thanks and praise to celebrate the happiness of this great event – the end of the Greek play readalong

I am quoting the end of Alcestis by Euripides, his early whatever it is, not a tragedy, not a satyr play, not a comedy.  Admetos has won back his wife and the play is at its end, so he declares “a feast of thanks and praise” (tr. Arrowsmith), which is what I want to do.  If we had done all this in a real-life book group I would take you all out for gyros.  But Admetos ends the play with this:

From this day forth we must remake our lives,

And make them better than they were before.

We can only try.

So, first, many thanks to anyone who participated in any way, on your own, in the comments section, or otherwise.  Anyone who wanders around in the comments of my posts will find some superb responses and insights; anyone who follows the links to posts people wrote will find the same.  Intellectually, this exercise was very good for me.  I hope for you, too.  Endless thanks to everyone.

I had read all of the plays, except Menander’s Dyskolos, about 25 years ago, and had reread a few since then.  Antigone I knew from much earlier, from Western Civ in college.  The core stories and myths and characters I knew from childhood, and they are as familiar to me as another set of stories and characters I was absorbing at the same time, “Bible stories.”

What did I learn this time?

First, there was my epistemological crisis, visible in my earlier posts before I got over it.  The evidentiary base for what we know about classical Greek plays was much weaker than I had previously understood.  For example, we all know that each playwright directed three tragic plays and a satyr play, like the Cyclops of Euripides, full of booze and nonsense.  But Alcestis was presented in the “satyr” spot, and thus the evidence is actually half satyr and half not-satyr.  What was the real ratio?  How often did writers use the satyr spot for something more unusual and innovative?  Alcestis is unique among the surviving plays, but what does that tell us.

So, second, this time I understood how we were reading these extraordinary plays in a massive void of lost plays. Nine tragedies a year, plus three satyr plays, and an indeterminate number of comedies (four to six?) every year, and we have almost none of them, even by the most famous playwrights.  For the first twenty-eight years of Sophocles’s extraordinarily long career, we have Ajax.  He did not necessarily submit plays every year, but we could easily be missing eighty or ninety early Sophocles plays, pre-Antigone.  How I would like to get to know young Sophocles.

The remarkable thing, and I think everyone saw this, was how easy it was, after a couple of plays, to get a sense of the personality and sensibility of the author: rough, mythic Aeschylus; methodical, pious Sophocles, the perfect candidate to invent the detective story; turbulent, to use William Arrowsmith’s favorite word, Euripides.  With Euripides, we are lucky to have enough plays to even see his progression, to watch him become angrier with Athenian wartime politics until he becomes disgusted with the entire Athenian, or possibly human, experiment, culminating in his astounding late works of pessimism like Orestes and Bacchae.

But this is all a construction, the reader inferring the author from the available evidence, when most of the evidence is missing.  Who knows what Aeschylus or Sophocles would look like if we had seven more plays.  It is hard to believe that there are too many more masterpieces at the level of Agamemnon or Oedipus the King among the lost plays.

Given how much we have lost, the twenty-seven year or so stretch between the Medea of Euripides (431 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (say 404 BCE) where we have a play, sometimes two, almost every year, takes on enormous meaning, especially when these plays are contemporary with the Athenian history described in detail by Thucydides.  The narrative is very strong.  Honestly, this is why I got so excited by reading the plays in chronological order, which I had not done before.  Just watching the hilarious one-sided duel between Aristophanes and Euripides.

Then, in a coda, Menander and the New Comedy come along, thinner but less alien, leading to Roman comedy, Shakespearean comedy, and television comedy.

Prmoetheus chained to the rock, Cassandra declaiming her own death, Oedipus learning the truth, Antigone arguing ethics with her uncle, the entrance of the chorus of the birds, Dionysus outsinging the chorus of the frogs, Medea murdering her children, Orestes burning it all to the ground, Dionysus dressing up Pentheus.  What things we saw.  The chorus in Agamemnon claims that Zeus “las it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth” (tr. Fagles), but I feel we found a great deal of truth without much suffering, which is how great literature usually works.

I am thinking of writing a longer essay on our experience this year, and sending it – who knows – somewhere – so if you have any ideas you do not mind me stealing, please let me know.  Another debt.  My deepest thanks, as it is.

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Girl from Samos by Menander - I don’t think any one individual is better at birth than any other

It’s our last plays, the last surviving Greek play, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) by Menander.  How tastes, or circumstances, had changed in the seventy years since Wealth, our last Aristophanes play.  The political and social satire is gone, the sexual and scatological jokes are gone, and the specificity of the Athenian moment is replaced by type characters and domestic conflicts.  Comedy has mixed with melodrama – the influence of the “romantic” strain of Euripides is as strong as that of Aristophanes – and the result would not be out of place on American television.

I mean, the conflict in The Girl from Samos is over a baby.  Imagine the great Greek dramatists worrying about some ordinary man’s baby.  Here we have, depicted in a mosaic, the baby itself, carried by the Girl from Samos.  We are in Act III where they are expelled from their home because of the usual misunderstanding which will be cleared up by Act V.  I know we are in Act III of The Girl from Samos because that is literally written in the mosaic.

This example belongs to a set of seven scenes from Menander that can be found in the House of Menander in Mytilene on Lesbos, not to be confused with the House of Menander at Pompeii.  In fact there are many extant mosaics depicting scenes from Menander’s plays.  He was enormously popular for centuries.  The Mytilene mosaics are like from the fourth century CE, six hundred years after Menander, like someone today decorating a home with scenes from Shakespeare.

I noted that the direct political satire of Aristophanes is long gone, suppressed perhaps by censorship (Athenian democracy is also long gone) as much as changing tastes.  But domestic comedy is also inherently satirical, critiquing familial and social arrangements.  Here Moschion, the father of that (currently illegitimate) baby, critiques the notion of illegitimacy:

MOSCHION:        I don’t think any

One individual is better at

Birth than any other. If you look at it

Rightly, it’s the moral man who is

Legitimate, the immoral who is

Illegitimate, and a slave.  This is

What Diogenes says, bidding us revalue.  (17)

I believe that is my hero Diogenes the Cynic.  It sounds like him.

I read Eric Turner’s 1972 translation of The Girl from Samos, written for radio performance, so meant to function; I don’t know what adaptations he made.  It works.  The (almost) complete text of the play was only discovered a few years earlier.

I have been writing the phrase “Our next play is” every week, but now there is no next play.  Next week I will write up kind of summary, and soon after I hope to write some notes on On the Sublime by Longinus.  And maybe another post after that: “what next”?


Friday, November 18, 2022

Menander's Dyskolos - each man would hold a moderate share and be content

This week it’s Menander’s Dyskolos, or The Grouch, or The Misanthrope (316 BCE), which may or may not have inspired the title of Molière’s great play, and nothing more than the title since the play was, like all of Menander’s plays, long lost.  A fairly complete Dyskolos was the first of a series of extraordinary 20th century discoveries of Menander texts on Egyptian papyrus, some fragments even recovered from mummy casings.  None of the bits we are reading, I don’t think.

Menander’s texts were lost, but his existence was well known.  He was the favorite source of the Roman comic playwrights, who freely plundered the works of Menander and the other writers of New Comedy, adapting the century-old Greek play to the Roman audience and Latin language.  Some are pure adaptation, some are combinations – plots from two Menander plays combined, some merely borrow a comic premise.  Menander was everywhere in Latin comedy, or at least in Plautus and Terence, our surviving representatives.

Plautus and Terence lead fairly directly to Renaissance theater, commedia dell’arte, Elizabethan comedy, French farce, and the 20th century sitcom.  This is what I meant when, last week, I claimed that Menander was more important as a generator of texts than any of the greater Greek playwrights.  Plautus and Terence get us to Shakespeare, and Menander is their source.

If I have overindulged in literary history, it is because reading Dyskolos, which I mentioned I had not read before, felt like an exercise in theater history.  Quite interesting, but as comedies go not so much fun.  Even the miserable title character is not so much fun:

What a confounded wretch he is!

The sort of life he leads! A tried and true

example of an Attic farmer

in battle with the rocks that yield

only thyme and sage.  He brings in pain

and reaps no good from it. (45)

I do like the little botanical detail.  The great interest in Dyskolos is that so many of the changes in comedy and theater are so clear.  For example, the social register has changed completely.  Aristophanes had some choruses of farmers, but this play is really about farmers, and their slaves, with Athens kept at a distance.  The romantic lead even has to go work as a farmer to win the heroine (I have illustrated the post with a pair of farmers and their wonderful pigs on a vase owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum).

The romantic lead – there is another innovation.  We have just read an entire tradition of theater where there was not, in comedy or tragedy, a single romance, as we call it, a plot about a young man and woman in love and the obstacles – the grouchy father, for example – preventing their happiness.  How many thousands will follow.  I am currently reading the last act of Beaumarchais’s The Barber of Seville (1775), much more sophisticated but at its core nothing more than the young couple in love, and the old man in the way, and the schemes of both parties.

The misanthrope is inevitably defeated in a humiliation scene (thousand more will follow), but it was interesting to hear his defend himself:

If all others were like me,

there wouldn’t be any law-courts,

and no one would send anyone to jail.

There’d be no war – each man would hold

a moderate share and be content.  (52)

Utopian misanthropy.

All quotations are from the Sheila d’Atri translation in the 1998 Menander, ed. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, University of Pennsylvania Press.

I remember the next Menander, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE), as being quite a bit better than Dyskolos, although perhaps the credit belongs to Eric G. Turner and his 1971 BBC Radio adaptation.  More coherent and more zippy.  We will see.  It’s the last play.  Forty more pages and we’re done.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Wealth by Aristophanes - gout here, pot bellies there, ... obesity beyond all bounds

We saw Sophocles and Euripides end their long careers with masterpieces, but we do not have that luck with Aristophanes.  Wealth (388 BCE) is thin, scattershot, perhaps even a bit defeated or exhausted.

The conceit is as usual excellent.  Plutus, the god of wealth, is freed from his customary blindness by an ordinary Athenian citizen.  As a result, Plutus can finally reward the good and deserving rather than the wicked, although the series of skits that make up the last half of the play become more of a satire on satiety.  If everybody has everything, what happens?  The god Hermes comes begging for help, because no one sacrifices to the gods anymore.  All anyone really asked for was wealth and now they have it.

HERMES:  Oh for the ham I once guzzled!

CARION: You’re giving a ham performance right now if I ever saw one!

HERMES: Oh for the hot innards I used to love!

CARION: Got a pain in your own, have you, eh?  (308, tr. Alan H. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics)

Hermes succeeds in acquiring a new role as the God of Competitions.  In a satiated world, all that is left is leisure activities.  Wealth would have some real interest to a Marxist critic.

The long scene in which the personification of Poverty makes her case against Wealth, and wealth, is interesting, although it is also perhaps an example of the weakness of the late Aristophanes plays.  Too static, too talky, too purely a debate.  Still, it is curious to see the moral case for poverty:

POVERTY:  You were talking about a pauper, who has absolutely nothing to live on.  Poverty is quite different.  It means living a thrifty life, sticking to your job, not having anything to spare but not having to go short either.  (289)

Wealth produces obesity and gout, while poverty creates “lean, wiry, wasplike men” who make good soldiers.  Unfortunately, none of this develops into anything.  Gout and obesity do sound likely for the newly wealthy main characters, but we will not see it.

All of this is a sad fantasy in that, as I mentioned last week, Athens was poorer than it had been in generations.  At the play's end, the characters “reinstall Wealth in his old dwelling in the rear chamber of Athena's temple” (310).  They can dream.

The illustration is “The Triumph of Riches” by Hans Holbein, a preparatory 16th century drawing for a now lost painting.  I believe that Plutus is the hunched figure in the chariot,  Here he is not obviously blind, but is led by Fortune.  Life, or at least wealth, ain’t fair.  Go to the Department of Graphic Arts at the Louvre to see the drawing in person.

I understand anyone who reads the last Aristophanes plays and says “I’m done” but I still have two Menander plays on my schedule, the last barely surviving classical Greek plays, written seventy years after the final Aristophanes.  If I judge the importance of a text by its generation of further texts, the Menander plays are arguably the most important plays we will read. 

But really I wanted to keep going because I remember the 1972 Eric Turner version of The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) as so good.  I have not read our next play, Dyskolos (216 BCE) or The Grouch or perhaps The Misanthrope, the only play of the entire project I had not previously read, and I think I will try the Sheila D'Atri version.  His Menander book includes four plays, but two of them are fragments, as much Slavitt as Menander.  They all require some textual help, though.  My inclusion of the two most complete plays was a little arbitrary.

Anyway, next week, Menander’s Dsykolos.


Monday, November 7, 2022

Notes on Aristotle's Poetics - What are the conditions on which the tragic effect depends?

Aristotle did not invent literary criticism with Poetics (late 4th c. BCE, maybe) – we just read The Frogs – but for centuries it was the base of Western literary criticism, not a source of insight but rather a set of rules.  The Unities, the Tragic Flaw, catharsis, the ranking of forms, with the epic poem on top.  The medieval importation of Aristotle from Muslim Spain was a great advance for European civilization, but it was not always so good for literature.

How prescriptive did Aristotle mean to be?  I am not sure.  His initial impulse is the central one of the enterprise: experiencing a powerful work of literature, he wants to know why it affected him so much.  “What are the conditions on which the tragic effect depends?” (13, 681) So he assembles the evidence, arranging the tragedies by how they affected him, and begins to generalize.  Perhaps he is just describing his own taste, but the patterns he sees are clear enough.  One central action as opposed to many; stories about families; tragic results caused not by “depravity” but “in some great error on [the protagonist’s] part” (13, 682); writing that is a mix of the simple and ornate.  

These, the strange word, the metaphor, the ornamental equivalent, &c., will save the language from seeming mean and prosaic, while the ordinary words in it will secure the requisite clearness (22, 699).

Aristotle is the originator of “make it strange” (but not too strange).

Oedipus the King is the perfect tragedy for Sophocles, with other plays approaching it in power.  It is the best, so other plays should be like it, and then it is just a small step to must.  But it is clear enough that Aristotle valued other kinds of plays.  He criticizes Euripides in many ways but is fascinated by – finds a kind of catharsis in – Iphigenia in Tauris, a tragedy that is not even tragic.  But he has a strong taste for scenes of “discovery,” where the emotional effect turns on sister’s recognizing long lost brothers and so on.

That is one example of taste as prescript.  Here is another where Aristotle is obviously wrong, when he argues that a story should not be about:

… an extremely bad man [] falling from happiness into misery.  Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity of fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves… (13, 681)

His assumption that the bad man is not like ourselves is kind.  But my point is that many people absolutely love such stories, and also stories about virtue rewarded and for that matter vice rewarded.  Who am I to judge the catharsis of others?  But perhaps those stories are more common in a later, not less but differently fatalistic, Christian culture.

I have been quoting from the Ingram Bywater translation as found in the Modern Library Introduction to Aristotle.  Bywater conceals the key Greek terms.  A different translation might well look like a different argument.  I don’t know Greek, but I can see where they are hidden, where “fear and pity” translates “catharsis” [completely wrong! see comments below, please] – “The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear” (14, 683).  Up above is the “tragic flaw” or “hamartia” concealed by, translated as, “some great error.”

I’m going to round out my look at Classical Greek literary criticism with On the Sublime or On Great Writing by Longinus (1st c. CE), whoever he was.  On the Sublime is not as play-centered as Poetics, so a bit of a tangent, but it is the major alternative to the aesthetics of Aristotle.  It is full of interesting things, and is perhaps sixty pages long.  I will try to write about Longinus at the end of the month, after the last Menander play.

I am also beginning to wonder if it would be a good idea to take a fresh look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which is directly related, or about two-thirds related, to this last year of reading, so maybe that will be the final text in the aesthetics series.  Please join me if interested.

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes - Octopus tunnyfish dogfish and skate

The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes – or The Parliament of Women, or several other titles – was performed in 392 BCE, thirteen years after The Frogs.  In the interval many things had changed.  Athens had been conquered; democracy was overthrown but restored; one endless war ended and another began.  So maybe the one thing that changed, and is now detectable in the play in a way I had not perceived before, is that Athens, once rich, is now poor.  No more spectacularly costumed Choruses of the Birds.  Fortunately, comedy is cheap.

The central conceit of The Assemblywomen is outstanding.  The women of Athens, fed up with it all, as they were in Lysistrata and The Poet and the Women, disguise themselves as men (see left) in order to infiltrate the democratic assembly en masse and vote to put the women in charge.  The disguise scene is a quarter of the play. 

The women, once ruling as women, enact communism, a communism so close to that of Plato’s Republic, written over a decade later.  Not only is wealth held in common, but so are children and most importantly for comic purposes so is sex.  The last half of the short but rambling play is a series of comic sketches about life under communism.

It ends with the invitation to a feast.  Here we find the famous Longest Word in Greek, 171 letters long, just a stew but with the ingredients and even the recipe contained in the name of the dish.  The word by itself is a great gag, full of possibilities for performers, full of tension for the audience.  English translators occasionally try to reproduce it but generally break it up:

                          For –

                              there’ll –

                                     be –

Mussels and whelks and slices of anchovy

Octopus tunnyfish dogfish and skate

Savoury chutney and sauce with a zing in it

Lashings of pickle to pile on your plate…

[seven more lines about fowl] – and that’s about that.  (263, tr. David Barrett)

Is The Assemblywomen cruder than the other Aristophanes plays?  Certainly compared to the last few we have read.

The Assemblywomen is performed fairly often – you can see it at the Warwick Ancient Drama Festival in January, for example – but I had trouble finding a performance still I thought was interesting, so I borrowed a promotional image, visible above, from a 2010 production by the No.11 Productions company.

Scholars have found it useful to call The Assemblywomen and next week’s play, Wealth (388 BCE), “Middle Comedy,” distinct from the Old Comedy we have been reading and the New Comedy of Menander.  It is transitional, perhaps, with a reduced role for the chorus, more prose and less verse, and more stereotypical comic characters.  Maybe so, but I thought it was recognizably Aristophanes, not just in the gags but in the moral imperative: Someone clean up this city!

I do not remember Wealth at all.  The title subject is obviously of endless satirical value.  Next week.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles - indeed his end / Was wonderful if ever mortal’s was

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles is one of the plays that got me excited about the entire project of reading or re-reading the complete plays.  The last surviving tragedy, even if it hardly recognizable as a tragedy, it provides a coherent ending to the tragic tradition.  It is perhaps a play of reconciliation.

Old, blind Oedipus, led in his wanderings by his daughter Antigone (this play precedes the events in Antigone), find himself in the grove of the Furies, just outside of Athens.  How often have the plays featured an altar as the center of the action?  We have a slightly different holy place this time.  Oedipus realizes that this is the destined place of his death and apotheosis.  The Thebans want him back, though, for vague oracle-related reasons. 

The cursed Oedipus, near his end, is curiously transformed into a holy object.  That is what I mean by “reconciliation.”  A happy ending for Oedipus, of all people, given that to the Greeks it is as important to die well as to live well.

MESSENGER:            But in what manner

Oedipus perished, no one of mortal men

Could tell but Theseus… 

For he was taken without lamentation,

Illness or suffering; indeed his end

Was wonderful if ever mortal’s was.  (150, tr. Robert Fitzgerald, in the Sophocles I University of Chicago edition)

The religious rituals preceding leading to the death of Oedipus are described in some detail; Sophocles believed in them.  The transformation of Oedipus into a cult figure, a mystery, is the sublime core of the play, as much as it was in The Eumenides of Aeschylus, which is an origin story: how Athens (old Sophocles, unlike Euripides, still believes in Athens) becomes the home of the Furies.  The Furies in another aspect are The Kindly Ones, welcoming Oedipus into their holy site and ending his wandering.

As is often the case with ancient Greek religion, I find all this alien but also moving.

Elsewhere in the play, for example the conflict between the sons of Oedipus, which we saw performed in Seven Against Thebes and The Women of Trachis, reconciliation is refused.  Perhaps Antigone, in this version, succeeds in her mission of peace, although I doubt it.

Oedipus at Colonus features many extraordinary poetic passages, often voiced by the Chorus, like this surprising eruption of flowers in the grove of the Furies:

Here with drops of heaven’s dews

At daybreak all the year,

The clusters of narcissus bloom,

Time-hallowed garlands for the brows

Of those great ladies whom we fear.

The crocus like a little sun

Blooms with its yellow ray… (111)

The song climaxes in a very Athenian paean to the olive tree, “The blessed tree that never dies!”

Oedipus is given an interesting speech about entropy:

OEDIPUS:              The immortal

Gods alone have neither age nor death!

All other things almighty Time disquiets.

Earth wastes away; the body wastes away;

Faith dies; distrust is born.  (107)

Oedipus at Colonus was produced posthumously, in 404 BCE or perhaps 401 BCE.  I prefer the earlier date for its horrible irony, since 404 was when Athens was conquered.  Many things ended in 404, including the Peloponnesian War and Athenian democracy, so it seems fitting that Greek tragedy ended, too, although of course it did not.  The annual Dionysia continued with new plays, all lost to us, and my understanding is that it was in the 4th century BCE that the old plays began to be produced frequently, spreading to theaters throughout the Greek-speaking world and eventually to us.

I borrowed a pair of 18th century prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  “Oedipus before the Temple of the Furies between his Daughters Antigone and Ismene” is by Anton Raphael Mengs and “Oedipus at Colonus, Cursing his Son Polynices” is by Henry Fuseli.

Next week – wait, aren’t we done?  We now skip ten or twelve years and things have changed.  Comedy has changed, enough that the last two surviving Aristophanes plays are sometimes called “Middle Comedy,” transitioning from the Old Comedy we have been reading to the immensely popular and influential New Comedy of Menander.  Let’s read The Assemblywomen (392 BCE) and see if we can spot the difference.  It is, as is obvious from the title, a companion of Lysistrata and The Poet and the Women.  How different can it be?  It also features the Longest Word in Greek – possibly the longest word in literature – so don’t miss that.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Frogs by Aristophanes - Brilliant! Brilliant! Wish I knew what you were talking about!

The Frogs by Aristophanes is this week’s play.  It was performed in what now look like the waning days of Athens, just before their conquest by Sparta, and in particular the last days of Athenian tragedy, with Euripides and Sophocles both recently dead.  In what may be the most outrageous conceit of Aristophanes, Dionysus, understandably worried about the quality of the plays at his festivals, travels to Hades to retrieve Euripides to save his festival, and to save Athens.  “I need a poet who can write,” Dionysus says (tr. David Barrett, p. 159).  But once he gets to Hades, it turns out there are options.

The first half of the play is the journey to Hades by Dionysus and his servant.  Here we find the famous chorus of the frogs:

FROGS:  Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,

      Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!

Oh we are the musical Frogs!

We live in the marshes and bogs!

Sweet, sweet is the hymn

That we sing as we swim,

And our voices are known

For their beautiful tone…  (164)

I cannot guess how often I have seen writers, modern writers, quote those frogs.

The second half of the play contains a duel between Euripides and Aeschylus over who is the better poet.  Sophocles if of course above all this nonsense.  The debate, whatever ridiculous turns it takes, is genuine, a real contrast of the aesthetic ideas of the two poets.  It is the invention of Western literary criticism, perhaps a hundred years before Aristotle’s Poetics, which, by the way, I invite you to read along with me next week.  Some of the terms of the debate are obscure for us, and not just us:

DIONYSUS: Brilliant!  Brilliant!  Wish I knew what you were talking about!  (198)

But many are clear enough from the plays we have.  A surprising number of the plays mentioned are ones we have, which may say something, although I do not know what, about which plays survived;

AESCHYLUS:  Then I put on The Persians: an effective sermon on the will to win.  Best thing I ever wrote.

DIONYSUS:  I loved that bit where they sang about the days of the great Darius, and the Chorus went like this with their hands and cried ‘Wah! Wah!’  (194)

Dionysus is perhaps not the most sophisticated theater-goer.

If The Frogs were some poor reader’s first Greek play it would likely be gibberish.  Too inside.  I mean,  the first line of the play is literally a joke about jokes:

XANTHIAS: [surveying the audience unenthusiastically]: What about one of the old gags, sir?  I can always get a laugh with those.  (156)

But for those of us who have made it to this point in the readalong, The Frogs is like a reward.

I illustrated this post with two performance stills of the weighing of the poetry of Euripides and Aeschylus, one from 1947 and one from 2013, both from the Cambridge Greek Play site.

Next week is the last surviving tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, performed posthumously in 404 BCE, or perhaps 401 BCE, or perhaps some other time.  It makes a fine ending to this great tradition.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Iphigeneia in Aulis by Euripides - even babies sense the dread of evil to come

The final Euripides play is Iphigeneia in Aulis, performed with The Bacchae in 405 BCE.  I normally write “Iphigenia,” but I read the 1978 W. S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr. translation titled which goes with “Iphigeneia,” so I will switch to that spelling for this post.

The united might of Greece, assembled to retrieve Helen and sack Troy, is paralyzed by a lack of wind.  The remedy, says a psychotic prophet, is for Agamemnon, the host’s general, to allow said prophet slit the throat of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia as a human sacrifice to Artemis.  What a sicko, that prophet!

AGAMEMNON: The tribe of prophets wants only to be important,

          the whole rotten crowd of them.

MENELAOS:    When they don’t prophesy

          they’re useless, and when they do

          it does no good.  (p. 45, Merwin and Dimock)

But by the end everyone, including Iphigeneia, is convinced that her sacrifice is justified, and she is either murdered on an altar, as depicted in a drawing owned by the British Museum either copied from or imitating Rembrandt, or whisked off to distant, barbaric Tauris to eventually be rescued by her brother Orestes, just a baby in this play, an extraordinarily ironic baby.

As she speaks the following lines IPHIGENEIA takes ORESTES from CLYTEMNESTRA and holds him up to AGAMEMNON.

My brother, you are so small

to have to help your friends. But cry

with me, cry to your father, beg him

not to kill your sister.  See,

even babies sense the dread of evil to come.  (78)

The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is the ur-crime of Greek tragedy, even among the many stores of the sacrifice of teenage girls that fascinated Euripides.  Without her death there is no Oresteia.  Maybe there is no Trojan War.  Perhaps that is why Euripides saved the story for last.

Part of the horror of the play is that, scene by scene, it is the story of how Iphigeneia is saved.  Each major character in turn is convinced, by some combination of persuasion and conscience, not to murder a teenager to prosecute a war, and then reverts due to fear and expediency, culminating in a farcical utilitarianism, the trolley problem: we must sacrifice one life to save many.  In fact, of course, the first death causes the deaths of many.

The modern Athenians, watching the play, had long abandoned human sacrifice at the altar, but had spent almost thirty years, urged on by politicians arguing much like those in the play, sacrificing their young men in a pointless war.  The sacrifice would end soon enough, though, the very next year, not because the Athenians were finally convinced by Euripides but because of a crushing, final defeat by the Spartans.

Iphigeneia in Aulis was our final Euripides play, but this is not our farewell to Euripides.  Next week: it’s The Frogs by Aristophanes, where we will find the most famous chorus in Greek literature and, decades before Aristotle, the invention of Western literary criticism, or at least the important part, the Top 3 list.  If you have been reading all, or most, or even a decent random sample, of the tragedies than you are the perfect reader for The Frogs.  You have earned The Frogs.

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Bacchae by Euripides - O gods, I see the greatest grief there is.

Reading Euripides chronologically, it would be fair to think that however ingenious and inventive Euripides was, he did not write a play quite at the level of Agamemnon or Oedipus the King, at least until his brief exile in Macedon, where he wrote The Bacchae just before his death.  It’s a deep one, and approaches the unbearable in a way few plays do.  It is the King Lear of Euripides.

I find it curious that given the plays were written for the Dionysian Festival, The Bacchae is the only play about Dionysus to survive.  We know there were others – Aeschylus wrote a trilogy about young king Pentheus, torn to pieces by his god-crazed mother – but I take Euripides as writing, in a farewell gesture, about the source of things.  The source of religion; the source of drama.

Dionysus, god of wine and madness, after a tour of Asia has returned to his birthplace of Thebes (the first words of Robert Bagg’s amusing translation are “I’m back!”), to the very spot where his mother was incinerated by Hera’s lightning while pregnant with Dionysus.  The play is in effect a duel between the teenage god and his teenage cousin Pentheus, King of Thebes, both plausibly psychologically teenage.  One kind of unreason against another.  The more powerful wins, and Pentheus is torn to pieces by his mother and aunts in their religious frenzy.  The old men of the city, who humiliate themselves before Dionysus on purely rational, Pascal’s wager-like grounds, escape with their heads.

The extraordinary recognition scene, where Agave gradually realizes not just that she has savagely murdered her own son but is holding his head, is what I was thinking of when I mentioned King Lear.

AGAVE: What is it?  What am I holding in my hands?

CADMUS: Look more closely still.  Study it carefully.

AGAVE: No! O gods, I see the greatest grief there is.

CADMUS:  Does it look like a lion now?  (212, tr. Arrowsmith, as are all other quotations)

I beg you, someone, rewrite that ending so Cordelia does not die!

The Bacchae is set in the deep past, among the origin myths, and contains a complex presentation of the human religious drive, both our attraction to religious explanations of the world around us and our resistance to them.  But I also wonder if the play is a commentary on drama itself.  As Aristotle would ask decades later – please join me in reading Aristotle’s Poetics, with a post at the end of October – why do we sit through these horrible plays?  What, exactly, are we celebrating, Euripides is perhaps asking, at a Dionysian Festival?  What do these tragedies do?

It is the costumes that caught my attention, the ones within the play.  To worship Dionysus, you have to dress like a worshipper:

TIRESIAS:            He will know what errand

brings me, that agreement, age with age, we made

to deck our wands, to dress in skins of fawn

and crown our heads with ivy.  (p. 161)

Tiresias believes in Dionysus because he believes in everything, while Cadmus believes in nothing, but both old men join in the performance of worship.  Meanwhile the chorus of Asian Bacchantes are the mature worshippers, there beautiful songs and dances (I’m guessing about the dances) more integral to the play than ever before.  Why does the chorus sing and dance, after all – because they – we, the audience – are worshipping Dionysus or per Nietzsche allowing our Dionysian side to at least peak out for a few hours.

The culmination is the cross-dressing scene, when Pentheus disguises himself as a woman in order to spy on their frenzied orgies – such a teenager – and what begins as a costume becomes a performance:

DIONYSUS:                             But look:

one of your curls has come loose from under the snood

where I tucked it.

PENTHEUS:       It must have worked loose

when I was dancing for joy and shaking my head.

DIONYSUS:  Then let me be your maid and tuck it back.

Hold still.  (196)

Pentheus and Dionysus; The Bacchae has the strangest pair of protagonists.  But almost everything in the play is strange and disturbing, an exemplar of the sublime in literature.

I picked a marble relief of a Bacchante in part so I could get a good look at her fennel stalk, the thyrsus, that is so important to the play.  The relief is a Roman copy of a Greek original contemporary with The Bacchae.  It is on display at the Met.

Next week is our last Euripides play, although not our farewell to Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, performed in the same set as The Bacchae.  It effectively wraps up an ongoing Euripidean project.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Orestes by Euripides - And what had seemed so right, / as soon as done, became / evil, monstrous, wrong!

I want to invite anyone interested to join me in reading Aristotle’s Poetics, the foundation of Western literary criticism, influential to the present day and bizarrely dominant, almost sacred, for centuries.  I hope to write about it at the end of the month, having just reread all of the Greek tragedies.  Anyone who has been reading along this year will find Poetics easy going.  It will raise many curious questions.

This week, the play at hand is Euripides’s late masterpiece of despair and nihilism, Orestes (408 BCE).  I had forgotten how long it was, likely the longest of the surviving Greek plays.  Euripides makes room for the story we know from other plays, with the Furies tormenting Orestes soon after he murders his mother:

And what had seemed so right,

as soon as done, became

evil, monstrous, wrong!  (162)

New parts of the story include a major new plotline featuring cowardly Uncle Menelaus and shallow Aunt Helen.  I have included a photo from a 2018 Greek production of Orestes that must be the meeting of Electra and Helen.

I want to include some quotes from William Arrowsmith’s introduction to the play:

What we get in the Orestes is, in fact, very much like what we get in Troilus and Cressida: tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched disfigured, and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.  (106)

It is that crescendo that requires the greater length.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, for the effect to work the thing has to keep going.  It takes time, plus the big swerve in the plot when Pylades convinces Orestes and Electra that their lives will be saved if they murder Helen and perhaps her daughter, too, why not, after murdering your mother why not your aunt and cousin.  If we have learned anything from the myths of the house of Atreus it is that more murders, “murder displacing murder” (162), is always the answer. 

ELECTRA:            If then, seeing Helen

lying in a pool of blood, he decides he wants

his daughter’s life at least and agrees to spare you,

let the girl go.  On the other hand,

if he tries to kill you in a frantic burst of rage,

you slit the girl’s throat.   (180)

Electra is as nuts as any of them.  The characters all start out bad and become so much worse.

Arrowsmith calls Orestes “a kind of negative tragedy of total turbulence” where “nothing but the sense of bitterness and alienation survives the corrosive effect of the action” (106).  The deus ex machina that ends the play is similar to yet opposite of the one that ends Sophocles’s Philoctetes.  The set, the palace, is on fire, the characters doomed; Orestes has his sword to the throat of his cousin, on the verge of murdering her when Apollo drops from the sky and ends the apocalypse.  Orestes and Hermione will marry! 

I imagine Apollo as one of those articulated artist’s dummies, dangling from a rope, or some other kind of bizarre puppet, delivering his lines through a tinny loudspeaker.  “Go and honor Peace, / loveliest of goddesses,” Apollo says as he escorts Helen to the stars.

ORESTES:   And yet, when I hear you speak,

I thought I heard the whispers of some fiend

speaking through your mouth.

                                                         But all is well

and I obey.  (206)

After the performance of Orestes, Euripides went into voluntary exile in Macedonia, about as far as he could get from Athens while staying in Greece.  He only lived for a couple more years.  He wrote at least three more plays before his death in 406 BCE.  They were directed at the 405 Dionysian festival by his son, or perhaps nephew.  Two of them have survived.  Next week, the greatest of them all: The Bacchae.

The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are also, I should note, now that I am paying attention, long plays, although I think not as long as Orestes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Plato's Symposium - philosophy as realist fiction - pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze

Philosophy makes me nervous, so I will begin my squib about Plato’s Symposium (c. 385-370 BCE) with an anxiety-deflating observation:  Symposium is fiction, a long story.  It is fiction in that at least some of it is invented, but mostly in that it uses the techniques of fiction: frame stories, personalities revealed through action, realistic social detail, things like that, even more than the typical Platonic dialogue.  Fiction, that is not so intimidating.

A group of guests deliver impromptu speeches about Love, Eros, at a drinking party celebrating Agathon’s first victory at the Dionysian festival.  How sad that none of Agathon’s plays survived.  If impromptu orations sounds a little tame for a victory party, well, this is actually the second night of celebration.  The first night was essentially a drinking contest, and everyone is hungover except for Socrates (“no one in the world has ever seen Socrates drunk”).

In a sense what I am supposed to be doing is working through the increasingly complex premises of the speeches to the concluding discussion by Socrates, which moves from a simple opposition of good and bad Love to the idea of love as the pursuit of the Beautiful, whatever that might be, to Socrates’s shift to Love, sexual or otherwise, as the pursuit of the Good, whatever that might be.  But I really wanted to read Symposium now because Aristophanes is one of the guests, so this is our chance to see him from the outside.

Does he ever deliver.  First, he loses his place in the contest because of an attack of the hiccups.  We get authentic Greek medical advice form a doctor who is a guest (and who delivers a tedious speech about healthy and unhealthy Love):

“And while I am speaking, hold your breath a long time and see if the hiccup will stop; if it won’t, gargle water.  But if it still goes strong, pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze; do this once or twice, and stop it will, even if it is very strong.”

Along with all of the detail about the operation of the drinking party – the seating arrangement, the flute girl – the hiccups are the clearest move towards what we call “realism” in fiction.  They would have been easy enough to omit.

For his performance, Aristophanes commits to an origin myth in which humans had three genders, male-male, male-female, and female-female, until they were all split in two by Zeus:

“Next, the shape of man was quite round, back and ribs passing about it in a circle; and he had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces on a round neck, exactly alike; there was one head with these two opposite faces, and four ears, and two privy members, and the rest as you might imagine from this.”

The sex drive, the impulse to love, is our desperate attempt to reform our original eight-legged, two-faced ball form.  I love how Aristophanes, a true comedian, totally commits to the bit.  How enjoyable to find this imaginative nonsense in a work of philosophy.

The other highlight, for me, is when a drunken Alcibiades crashes the party and delivers his extraordinary encomium to Socrates, from the thematic view a demonstration of Platonic love but in practice a great character portrait:

“But when [the words of Socrates] are opened out, and you get inside them, you will find his words first full of sense, as no others are; next, most divine and containing the finest images of virtue, and reaching farthest, in fact reaching to everything which it profits a man to study who is to become noble and good.”

I have been thinking about reading more Greek philosophy, including more Plato, next year, and Symposium is a good introduction to why the dialogues are of high literary interest.

I read the H. D. Rouse translation in Great Dialogues of Plato (1956) because it was handy.  I know nothing about the translation of Plato.

Next month I plan to read Aristotle’s Poetics and remind myself why the received idea of Greek tragedy is so, as we have seen with our own eyes, wrong.  Anyone who has been reading along with the tragedies will be perfectly comfortable with Aristotle’s essay or lecture or whatever it is (not a story, not fiction).

Friday, September 23, 2022

Philoctetes by Sophocles - Let me suffer what I must suffer

Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), performed when the author was 87, which is perhaps why he is in a mood of reconciliation and healing. 

Literal healing.  Philoctetes possesses the bow of Hercules.  Either the bow, or Philoctetes himself, or both – prophecies are ambiguous – are necessary parts of the conquest of Troy by the Greeks.  But Philoctetes has spent the war abandoned on an island nursing his poisoned foot, injured when he was bit by a snake in a sacred grove.  You can see his bandaged foot on the far right in the beautiful painting of Philoctetes, contemporary with the play, on an oil flask on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The injury is so severe – so disgusting, so bad-smelling – that Philoctetes’s fellow soldiers abandoned him on the island.  But now there is a new prophecy, and they need him back, even if by treachery or force.  I was not surprised to learn that in the 21st century the play has been performed for American soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The relevance is direct.  The wound and its effects are described in detail with the greatest seriousness.  Neoptolemus has just taken Philoctetes’s hand when an attack of pain comes:

PHILOCTETES: Now – take me away from here –

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                           What do you mean?

PHILOCTETES:                                                                                Up, up.

NEOPTOLEMUS: What madness is upon you? Why do you look

    on the sky above us?

PHILOCTETES:             Let me go, let me go.


PHILOCTETES:               Oh, let me go.

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                Not I.

PHILOCTETES:  You will kill me if you touch me.

NEOPTOLEMUS:  Now I shall let you go, now you are calmer.

PHILOCTETES:  Earth, take my body, dying as I am.

                           The pain no longer lets me stand.  (p. 227, tr. David Grene)

There had been other plays on the story of Philoctetes, by Aeschylus and Euripides, among others.  I’ll bet they did not include a scene so, to use a word that makes me nervous, realistic.  Sophocles himself was an adept in the cult of Asclepius, the great hero-doctor of Greek mythology.

Odysseus tricked Philoctetes onto the island, and now plans to trick him off of it.  His tool is Neoptolemus, the honest, patriotic son of the recently killed Achilles,  So this is a three-character play, Scheming, righteous Odysseus versus bitter, suffering Philoctetes with Neoptolemus in the middle, like the audience full of sympathy for Philoctetes and his suffering.  He makes his decision in the end, and in a way that greatly resembles Existentialism – Philoctetes often feels quite modern – Philoctetes makes his (“Let me suffer what I must suffer,” 251) before the deus drops from the machina, or flies over on the crane, or whatever the stage business is, and ruins the play, or shades it with significant irony, by declaring that villainous Odysseus was right all along, and none of you have any choice, really, which makes Philoctetes and his great refusal of the premise even more of an Existentialist, right?

A wonderful play, far from whatever idea I might have about what a Greek tragedy is supposed to be.  It will be useful to look at Aristotle’s Poetics and see where that “supposed to be” comes from.  Which reminds me, I plan to write about Plato’s Symposium next week, so I had better get reading.

Next we have three Euripides plays in a row, the end of Euripides: Orestes (408) and The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis (both performed, posthumously, in 405).  Euripides, in his old age, was not in a mood of reconciliation and healing.  Great masterpieces, all of them.  Next week, let’s say farewell to Orestes.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Cyclops by Euripides - the only satyr play - the greatest god of all, / this belly of mine!

It’s The Cyclops by Euripides, the only surviving satyr play and the greatest mistake in my chronology of the Greek plays.  No one really knows the date on this one, so I arbitrarily placed it late, and reading it again I am convinced it likely is a late Euripides play, but still I should have scheduled it much earlier just so we could all read a satyr play.

Every set of three tragedies was followed by a short comedy starring a chorus of hybrid man-horses with prominent phalluses.  The most Dionysian part of the Festival of Dionysus, some plot of the action would be about wine and drunkenness.

CYCLOPS: Whoosh! I can scarcely swim out of this flood.

Pure pleasure! Ohhh. Earth and sky whirling around,

all jumbled up together!  Look: I can see

the throne of Zeus and the holy glory

of the gods.   (The satyrs dance around him suggestively.) (p. 34, tr. Arrowsmith)

Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote such things.  The Oresteia and Oedipus the King were followed by such creatures.  Three playwrights per festival, so three satyr plays per year for how long?  No one knows, but there have to have been hundreds of satyr plays.

Or, given that Euripides’s tragicomedy Alcestis was performed in the position of the satyr play, perhaps not.  Maybe only half the plays that capped the tragedies were satyr plays, and half were something else.  Who knows.  There would still be at least a couple hundred satyr plays.  It sounds like such a narrow genre. 

Yet The Cyclops is clearly a Euripides play, hitting some of his usual themes from a different direction.  Adapting the Cyclops episode form The Odyssey, and arbitrarily adding Silenus and the satyrs and a bottomless wine flask, Euripides pits the barbaric savagery of the Cyclops against the civilized savagery of Odysseus, as much of a Machiavellian here as in his villainous roles in other Euripides plays (we have one more ahead of us in Iphigenia in Aulis).

Odysseus tries to save himself and his men with a terrific, disingenuous, speech extolling the virtues of Greece and their defense of peace – the recent war was of course entirely the fault of the Trojans  – virtue and the gods; Cyclops is all appetite and does not care:

And as for sacrifices, I make mine,

not to the gods, but the greatest god of all,

this belly of mine! (25)

But both turn to violence in the end.  The Cyclops has a lot of murder and gore for a comedy.  It is a different kind of comedy, anyway, than that of Aristophanes.

The British Museum has a beautiful bowl depicting the moment before the blinding of the Cyclops.  Please note the two Euripidean horse-satyrs on the right.  The bowl is a likely a close contemporary of the play.

Next week: Odysseus returns in Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), a calming relief from the hysterics and turbulence of Aristophanes and Euripides.  Philoctetes, too, was likely followed by a play about dancing, singing, drunken, horny horse-men.

Friday, September 9, 2022

The Phoenician Women by Euripides - Oedipus, Antigone, et. al. - It would be no grace I would do the gods

Now I see why I did not remember The Phoenician Women (c. 410 BCE) by Euripides too well, or at all.  It is not one of his messes, but is rather too relentlessly efficient, condensing several plays into one, marching through the entire Theban cycle of stories with special emphasis on a rewrite of Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes and Sophocles’s Antigone, with bits of other plays thrown in.  An anti-climatic Antigone in ten pages, for example.

I’m fascinated by the late revisionary project of Euripides, but this time I do not understand the point of his revisions.  The text of the play is, it seems, a disaster, with entire episodes added by later writers.  It seems likely that Euripides already overstuffed play was further stuffed by later pedagogues, perhaps in order to have the Theban story complete in one handy play.  There is even a theory that the whole thing is a later imitation of Euripides, which I do not believe, but it is not crazy.

The body of surviving Greek plays was for some reason greatly compressed during a short period circa 250 CE; The Phoenician Women is the kind of play that convinces me that at least part of the narrowing was pedagogical.  We lost the plays that were not taught, and this one was useful for teaching.

The Phoenician Women does have the late-Euripides features.  An utterly pointless human sacrifice is part of the plot – “and bloody was the god / who brought these things about” (p. 113 , vol. V of the Chicago edition, tr. Elizabeth Wyckoff).  Antigone, at the end, imagines returning to her role as a priestess of Bacchus: “It would be no grace I would do the gods” (p. 140).  She has become disillusioned.

Now this is new.  Jocasta (alive, in this version, after the events of Oedipus the King) interrogates her son Polyneices about a curious subject: what it is like to be an exile.

So now I ask what first I wish to know.

What is it to lose your country – a great suffering?  (85)

Yes, says Polyneices, it is, in a number of ways.  The curious thing about this is that in 408 BCE, finally disgusted with Athens, Euripides will go into voluntary exile, at the age of seventy, in Macedonia, as far from his home as he can get.  We will soon see an expression of this disgust in Orestes.  Here, several years earlier, he is thinking about it.

I went looking for a performance again, and found a good-looking 2008 staging in Athens.  Here’s the chorus of Phoenician women, just passing through.  “[O]nly rarely performed,” says the press material.  A current performance would likely turn the chorus into Syrian refugees, fleeing one war only to be trapped by another.

The Phoenician Women  is our last Euripides dud, if that is not too strong.  How lucky we are that enough Euripides plays survived that some of them are not so good.

Next week’s play is The Cyclops by Euripides, dated who knows when, the only surviving satyr play, worth reading for that fact alone.  It is quite short, less than half the length of The Phoenician Women, for example.

And a reminder: Plato's Symposium at the end of the month.