Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A stinging desire, like a poisoned fly, bites at you even to the mind's dark root - dramatic classical temptations

As the year begins, I have been beset on all sides by temptation.  See Emily All Afternoon’s delight with Anne Carson’s brilliantly conceived hybrid Oresteia.  Or the entire premise of the Lifetime Reader’s up-and-running Lifetime Reading Plan. Or obooki finding contemporary relevance in Aristophanes.  Hugo, Trollope, feh - I want to read Greek plays!

So I am, one a day.  Aeschylus, so far, the tricky ones.  Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants.  Tricky because they are fragments of trilogies, tricky because certain parts are so darn weird.  The great climax of Seven Against Thebes is the revelation of the embossment on a shield.  Undramatic, painfully so, unless the reader can work his way into the spirit of the thing, in which case the scene becomes a shocking protest against fate, or an embrace of doom.

Imagine the costumes, the music, the staging, the huge masks, the fishcake vendors.  Imagine Aeschylus himself standing behind the giant Prometheus puppet, daring Zeus to blast him to pieces and sic an eagle on his liver.  Imagine the entry of the dazzling chorus of Aristophanes’ birds on that spring night in 414 BC.  Wild.

Maybe I’ll shadow the Lifetime Reader and reread ‘em all.  I’ve always thought they would make a perfectly reasonable blog project.  Aeschylus: 7, Sophocles: 7, Euripides: 18, Aristophanes: 11, Menander: 1.  Total: 44 plays, many quite short.  One a week for 44 weeks.  Or one a year for 44 years.  Well worth doing, either way.

The plays can be read profitably in any order, but the chronology is meaningful.  Aeschylus is near the actual beginning of the dramatic tradition, a radical innovator in a new form.  Sophocles perfects his innovations, and makes new ones.  Euripides is the decadent end of the tradition, mocking and attacking his audience, his predecessors, Homer, Athens.  Sometimes, as in the derisively jolly Helen or the existentialist nightmare Orestes, he seems to be trying to destroy the form, to destroy tragedy.  Soon after, Aristophanes mocks them all again, even staging a debate between the deceased Aeschylus and Euripides.  Then the comic tradition shifts, too, into the flashy, shallow fun of the New Comedy.  And then, poof, it’s all gone.  Mummy dust.

Euripides was a younger contemporary of the long-lived Sophocles, so the path I laid out is fanciful, but boy, does it seem right.  I acknowledge the ritual power of Aeschylus and the undeniable perfection of Sophocles, of Oedipus the King, but it’s Euripides I really love, perhaps because he’s so cantankerous, so willfully odd, even, at times, self-destructive.  Not that Sophocles and Aeschylus, Oedipus at Colonus or Prometheus Bound are not plenty odd.  But it’s Euripides who somehow leads me to Samuel Beckett.

Which translations are good?  So many are good.  The old University of Chicago Press series is excellent, thirty-two tragedies in nine volumes, but so are the poet\classicist collaborations of the Oxford University Press line.  William Arrowsmith was particularly good with Aristophanes and Euripides.  I’ve read bits of the Ted Hughes’ Aeschylus, suitably stark and highly promising, as is the Euripides of Anne Carson.  Here’s an odd one – try to find the poet H.D.’s version of Ion, a psychologically intense, poetically Modernist Euripides.  She has a Hippolytus, too, that I haven’t read.  As Kenneth Rexroth advises about Chinese poetry in translation, one should read as many different translators as possible.  The plays are so rich, and so suggestive of possibilities.  So tempting.

Title quotation from Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes, tr. Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon, Oxford University Press, 1973.


  1. I'm grateful to you for your enthusiasm for my project--and for the amazing model you set out. Thanks for the lead on HD. I knew how much her poetry was inspired by Greek myth and literature, but I did not know about her translations!

  2. Glad to see you doing this. I was planning to read all the plays but I'll take a break after Thucydides. Looking forward to your yielding to this temptation.

  3. I expected to love the Euripides selection best from Carson's alternate Oresteia, since I gravitate toward all the qualities you (and Carson, in her introductions) mention - and sure do love Samuel Beckett - but to my surprise I adored Agamemnon best of the three. Just due to its ENERGY! I felt like the whole thing erupted with this unstoppable force that left me amazed and breathless.

    Granted, though, three plays is not a representative selection. I'm very interested to read further Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and look forward to your reads and those of Lifetime Reader as well.

  4. I suppose I'm doing the same project, though I haven't admitted it to myself yet. Already read all of Sophocles, 7 Euripides, a couple of Aeschylus and Aristophanes. (Just so happens, the plays you're starting with are precisely the ones I don't yet have).

    "And then, poof, it’s all gone. Mummy dust." - But there's always Plautus and Terence, who were just translating Menander into Latin (though ok, it was slightly more than a simple translation). And I might have a go at Seneca's Tragedies at some point (which I've never read).

    I agree about Agamemnon. Before reading it again I had a long-held belief Aeschylus was a bit uncultivated - but it's about as perfectly structured as Oedipus Rex.

  5. I am reading The Bacchae by Euripides for the Classics Circuit on Feb 4-Dailylit.com has that and Trojan Women, his Electra and Alcestis-I am going to read thesa three prior to posting on The Bacchae-I am now pondering a Euripides reading project-many years ago I read a number of the Greek plays but only the most famous ones-if I read a play every three days I am done in less than 60 days!

  6. I'm not sure that this is such a bloggish project - reading, yes, writing, maybe. And this play-a-day pace won't last.

    I doubt I'll reread all of the Euripides plays. We are fortunate enough to have some bad Euripides plays.

    Lifetime Reader - good, good. The H.D. Ion is a sure thing.

    Dwight - Thucydides is necessary background to certain Euripides plays. Herodotus to certain Aeschylus plays. Plato to Aristophanes, or vice versa. Homer to everybody. If you're looking for books that talk to each other, Golden Age Athens is the place to be.

    Agamemnon, absolutely. With Oedipus the King, the best of the best of the pack. I want to add The Birds and The Bacchae. But the power of the Aeschylus and Sophocles plays depends on knowing the story - there is no escape - fate is inexorable - we cannot look away.

    Yes, obooki, Seneca, definitely. His Medea, at least. The contrast to Euripides is stark and unpleasant, but highly instructive.

    Lifetime Reader, do you have Seneca, and Terence and Plautus, on your list? They sure ain't the Greeks, but they're worth sampling, essential steps on the way to Shakespeare and Kleist and so on.

  7. I am reading Trojan Women now in the Gilbert Murray translation-

  8. The Trojan Women, now there's one I bet I'll skip this time. It's - well, you'll see. Certainly worth reading, though - it's an Important Cultural Artifact.

    An entire website devoted to classical scholar and translator Gilbert Murray. I've never read one of his versions, so I'm curious to hear about it.

  9. thanks so much for the web page devoted to Murry

  10. Seneca, and Terence and Plautus were not on my list but now are. Do you have recommendations for particular works?

    Also, may I say that you are not helping me overcome my obsessive streak. I'm having trouble not wanting to read every translation, every author biography, every modern adaptation, etc. Wish I had started this project when my expected lifetime was a few years longer.

    At least I had heard of Seneca, and Terence and Plautus...but Kleist? Off to do some googling.

  11. According to Wikipedia:

    Kleist wrote a letter to his half-sister Ulrike in which he found it "incomprehensible how a human being can live without a plan for his life."

    After reading Byatt's Children's book which includes German marionette issues, I'm reminded how much even 21st century authors make reference to the classics.

  12. Recommendations for Roman drama. Good question.

    The fundamental problem is that each of these playwrights is repetitive or conceptually narrow compared to their Greek counteraparts. But so many later writers - Shakespeare, for example - knew the Romans but not the Greeks.

    Terence - I've read all six, and they get repetitive. Try The Girl from Samos, and maybe The Brothers (a source for Moliere) and how can you resist The Mother-in-Law?

    Plautus - Amphitryon, definitely. Giraudoux titled a play Amphitryon 38, because there were already so many adaptations of the story. The Brothers Menaechmi is the base of The Comedy of Errors. Pseudolus is the base of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Braggart Soldier is good, too.

    Seneca - An eminently dislikable playwright. Try Medea and see what happens. If nothing else, certain elements of later English revenge tragedies will sure look different.

    Terence and Plautus have an additional bonus - they give a picture, however distorted, of ordinary life at the time.

    Kleist is the horrifying darkness at the center of German Romanticism. I do not want to follow his life plan!

  13. I do want to read all of these plays! 44 doesn't sound like too many to me....

  14. That's the spirit! And if one somehow does not quite get to all 44, skipping a Euripides or two here and misplacing an Aristophanes or three there, who will complain?