Saturday, March 21, 2015

How can one pray that there are no gods? - David R. Slavitt finds lost Sophocles choruses

David R. Slavitt is a phenomenon.  He has published a hundred books since 1952, some of which were best-sellers, some worst-sellers.  I know him best, to the extent that I know him at all, as a poet and translator, the latter mostly but by no means exclusively from Classical Greek and Latin.  His work on Sophocles has led him to a good idea, his new Choruses from the Lost Plays of Sophocles (Barefoot Muse Press, 2015), the conceit explained by the title.

Slavitt invents choruses for several dozen of the Sophocles plays for which we only have the title, the name of a mythological figure.  The story has already been told. 

from A Chorus from Enomaus

Some Oracle is predicting disaster again.
Your son will kill you, or grandson, or son-in-law,
but the truth the rest of us have to learn to live with
is that they will survive us, bury us, and inherit
whatever we have won or earned in life. (16)

I guess a lot of the fun is that Slavitt has two modes to work with: first he can try to credibly imitate Sophocles, or more accurately modern translations of Sophocles – no one can check the original Greek – and second he can modernize or parody or comment on Sophocles, which is how I take the first line here, at least, a line that could be slid into any number of plays.

A possible third mode would be to build the poems around actual fragments of the lost plays.  No idea whether Slavitt ever does this.

Over and over, the choristers debate questions of fate.  Who is to blame?  “We cannot fault Orestes.  What he is doing / is necessary” (“A Chorus from Aletes,” 8).  “You can’t blame Alcmene.  She was tricked” (“Two Choruses from Amphitryon,” 10).  The gods are to blame.

from Two Choruses from Aigisthus

What is far worse is how the gods
use us as their instruments of torture,
so that we blame ourselves for the evils
that follow us and even our children.
[details of the horrible crimes of Atreus and Thyestes]
What hope could there be for Thyestes’ son,
Aigisthus, with such blood in his veins?
Knowing who he was and what he came from,
we wonder what were his choices, what could he hope for?
How can one pray that there are no gods?  (5-6)

Some of Slavitt’s characters seem to make peace with their fate.  The Chorus observes Cassandra “perhaps half-smiling,” while Philoctetes, although he hates both the Trojans and Greeks “will save us. / He is beyond caring, but does what he does.”

That last ends “A Chorus from Philoctetes at Troy,” the sequel to the surviving Philoctetes, one of the few times I know how the lost, imagined play fits with an existing play.  I had never looked at a list of lost Sophocles plays before, so I was amazed at how many of them are about the house of Atreus and their terrible acts and curses, including numerous plays about the characters familiar to us form The Oresteia.  Over and over again, year after year.

I am with this chorister in “A Chorus from Tyndareos” (also part of the Atreus story by marriage):

Not even wisdom is safe.  Look at the prophets
and how their lives are tortured.  Let me be
ordinary, unexceptional, one
unremarkable member of the chorus.  (55)

I love the conceit that Sophocles would have written such a line.


  1. Inspired by this, perhaps:

  2. Roger, yes, although Slavitt is unfortunately never so silly. "He splits my skull, not in a friendly way..." "Garnished with woolly deaths / And many shipwrecks of cows." Housman is the best.

  3. What a wonderful conceit for a book!

    The only book by Slavitt I have read is his version (I hesitate to say "translation") of Ovid's metamorphoses, which was much more fun than the literal translation in penguin Classics (David Raeburn), or the much admired "Tales from Ovid" by Ted Hughes. Slavitt's version has a wit and vitality that the other two don't quite have.

    It is not surprising that Sophocles - or any tragic dramatist - should be so drawn to the House of Atreus. It's hard to imagine a story so laden with doom.

  4. Slavitt's Ovid has tempted me. Charles Martin has done a funny, loosey-goosey Metamorphoses as well. Ovid is well-suited for smart playing around.

    Anyways, I think you would enjoy Slavitt's Sophocles pastiche a lot if a copy crosses your path.