Friday, January 21, 2022

Seven Against Thebes in three big scenes - I fear shipwreck, I fear unspeakable things

I fear shipwreck, I fear unspeakable things,

the city’s destruction, the foul death of two kings. (54)

That is the chorus of women in Seven Against Thebes, getting it right as usual.  Aeschylus wrote a Theban trilogy in 467 BCE, of which only this last play survived.  Perhaps the Sophocles play kicked the Aeschylus Oedipus out of the anthologies.  Now there’s a tragedy.

The two sons of Oedipus, enacting the long-running family curse, are at war, with Eteokles defending Thebes from the besieging army of his brother.  I will pick out three great scenes in the play, one of which is also simultaneously the most tedious surviving scene in Greek tragedy (that I remember, at least).

First, there is the chorus’s terrified pre-threnody, when they imagine the sack and looting of the city, especially, vividly, the rape, murder and enslavement of themselves.

Perhaps a dark deliverance may occur

                   in that foul bridal, the untamed

violence of the battle-grounded bed.

                   and there may come to her

                   a species of relief

an end to tidal groans, weeping, and grief. (36)

In other words, the women will be lucky if they die quickly.  This scene was first performed in front of an audience that, fifteen years earlier, had abandoned Athens to the Persian invaders.  The particular suffering of women during war is a major theme of Greek tragedy, so we’ll see this again.

A second great scene comes when Eteokles willfully chooses direct combat with his brother, violating religious taboos and ensuring his destruction.  The chorus tries to dissuade him, but in a long, nihilistic argument he justifies his fratricidal, suicidal decision by the meaninglessness of all things:

ETEOKLES:  Somehow, for a long time,

we have ceased to be a concern of the gods.

Our death is the only sacrifice they would value.

Why any longer lick

at the bone hand of man-harvesting Fate?  (51)

The result is that both brothers win Thebes, exactly “as much land / as the dead may need” (53). I can see how this caught the attention of twentieth century existentialists.  I often think of the essence of Greek tragedy as an exploration of fate and divine capriciousness, but here the anti-hero chooses his doom with open eyes.

Perhaps you have noticed the rhymes and strong metaphors in the above passages.  They are all from the Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon translation (Oxford, 1973), part of a series which teamed a poet and a classicist to create new translations.  Hecht, a great poet, really lets it rip sometimes.  I read Philip Vellacott’s 1961 Penguin translation, too, which is readable and tamer.  An unusually wild bit of Vellacott:

And Tydeus, mad with lust for battle, like a snake

Shrieking at noon…  (99)

And Hecht and Bacon:

But Tydeus, raving and gluttonous for battle,

bellows like a chimera in noonday clangor. (37)

Translators do what they gotta do.  What relationship any of this has with the Greek text I do not know, although that is what the classicist side of the team is for.  Bacon, though, is a classicist with a theory.  The middle third of the play is a Homeric catalogue of champions, seven on each side (there is a spatial “seven” theme that interacts with a temporal “three” theme), with special emphasis on the meaning of the devices on the enemy champions’ shields.  Only one of the defending champions’ shield devices is specifically described, but Bacon’s idea is first, that of course Aeschylus does not need to describe the shields when the audience can simply see them, and second, that there are enough clues in the text that she can guess what the shield emblems are supposed to be.  The climax of the scene is not just when Eteokles embraces his doom by choosing himself as combatant against his own brother, but when he reveals his shield emblem.  The audience, which has been following along carefully, gasps in horror!  He has picked anger (Fury), rather than love (Aphrodite)!

What do I know about any of this, but the whole scene makes a lot more sense in the Hecht and Bacon version than in Vellacott.  Something is happening on stage that is part of the spectacle, not the text.

I hope anyone reading along has enjoyed Seven Against Thebes.  I guess I think it does require a little more forceful imaginative sympathy than most of the other Greek plays, a little more of an attempt to imagine the Greek perspective.

Next is The Suppliants or The Suppliant Women, four years later (463 BCE), just in time to confound all generalizations.  The protagonist is the chorus!  And the play is not a tragedy!


  1. I watched a video of a live performance of Seven Against Thebes on youtube. It was in Greek, but I knew the play so could follow the action. In this production, the chorus of women was onstage almost all of the time, and it did seem like one major theme was that the fate of all the women (and thus the city? civilization?) was held in the hands of a couple of self-absorbed men who couldn't see past the immediate threat to their personal power. Of course, this was a modern performance, viewed by a modern audience. All the shields were plain brass.

  2. Yes, it is such an interesting feature of the body of the tragedies. The audience, at least that first audience, is 100% male, and they are deeply interested in the issue, at least as a source of pathos.

    The use of plain shields is surprising. One of them, shield #4, is specifically described in the text, and should have Zeus on it. Maybe they cut that. One of the enemy champions actually has a blank shield, an interesting conceptual touch, or interesting once you get into the shield emblems. Of no interest at all if you don't.

  3. Yeah, it's always interested me that one aspect of Athena is that of warrior, though there was no female warrior class in Athens. But Athena was a virgin, so not a woman in the way of a wife or mother. What I don't know about the status of women in ancient Athens is a lot. Certainly they're not viewed as passive and weak, at least not in the surviving plays. Hecuba is the center of The Trajan Women, and Euripides gives her a kind of agency despite her status as war prize.

    I also wonder if the male concern with the fate of women is a reflection of male concern with itself, a prideful sense of responsibility? That's me as a modern talking, though, channeling Don Draper's "women become what men want them to be" philosophy. Hopefully someone will jump into the comments and say something knowledgeable to shut me up.

    I have no idea how much dialogue was cut in the version I saw. There were no subtitles, and my knowledge of Greek is limited to root words used in the sciences. Maybe the director didn't get what was going on in that scene, being another modern reader.

  4. I don't know much myself, except that the plays have so many great heroines and anti-heroines. Something to research, by which I mean read about.

  5. Hecht, a great poet

    Thanks for that. I've been a fan of Hecht for decades, and I feel he's been somewhat forgotten.

    I also wonder if the male concern with the fate of women is a reflection of male concern with itself

    I think we can take that for granted if we've learned anything at all from the last few decades of feminist thought.

  6. I hope to get a post up about the play tomorrow, since I really enjoyed it. One note from John Herrington about Eteocles in this play:
    "But it is not often noticed that in the Attic tragedians, at least, to condemn women as a class, to reject the feminine outright, is regularly a sure sign of a flawed character and impending disaster." Several examples follow, which we'll see as the plays progress.

    A couple of other quick ideas floating around. The opening lines have a nod to "Earth your mother, who raised you." To watch the role that Fate (or in this case Erinys), a feminine power closely associated with the Earth mother, makes the unfolding of events more interesting. Even more so with the nod to Apollo and Erinys (around line 800) on fulfilling Laius' follies. This is not the relationship between those two that we'll see in the Oresteia.

  7. I hope people read a variety of translations. There will be a number of good poets showing up here - Hughes, Merwin, H. D. At least.

    The open misogyny of Eteokles was quite interesting. It is clearly part of his fall. As you say, Dwight, this will come back in other plays.

    It will be exciting to see the Furies return in a different context.

  8. I liked this one more than I expected on this reading (I think I read it once in college, ages ago). The central list of combatants is not terribly interesting (basically the enemy are all big and mean, and the Thebans are all brave and good - Slytherins and Gryffindors, essentially). But the beginning and ending are compelling, and there are some interesting themes running through that I'd need another reading to better parse. Dwight brings up the Earth as a character in the opening, and Tom mentions the brothers winning "as much land as the dead may need." We also hear about the earth drinking the blood of Eteocles and Polyneices. All this prefigures the question that unexpectedly becomes crucial at the end, of where to bury the bodies. The ending almost felt like a teaser for the next volume (even though this was apparently the final play in a trilogy), like a Marvel post-credits scene.

    The feminist theme is definitely compelling. One wonders if Lysistrata saw this play and was inspired by it. (Or maybe this is just a common trope in Greek myth and literature, I couldn't say.)

    And of course Antigone almost emerges as the stealth protagonist of the play. She had maybe my favorite line of the play (in Grene's translation): in reply to the herald's "I forbid this act, defiance of the city's pleasure," she retorts "I forbid you your superfluous proclamations."

    I think what I like about this play is the way it deals with abstract concepts like state authority and honor on one level, and very tangible things like bodies and land at the same time. In that, it oddly reminds me of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (at least based on my vague memories of it - my copy seems to have disappeared).

  9. Marvellous play, Seven Against Thebes. Much better conclusion to a trilogy than the far more perplexing Eumenides. This is how a family curse should rend – not some trumped-up and indecisive legal case, with half the play devoted to some weird religious mumbo-jumbo. It's just a pity I suppose, like with The Suppliants, that we don't have the rest of it (though he does reprise the plot in one of the speeches – I guess, for late-comers).

    You say Eteokles accepts his fate – and this is peculiar (because it's not like Oedipos?). I'd say it's a little more complex: - Eteokles is driven by the Erinys, which Oedipos has called down upon him, to an obsessive hatred of his brother (which has already caused him to drive Polyneices unfairly from Thebes and seize all the inheritance for himself), and it is this obsessive hatred which drives him to fight against his brother (when all right-thinking people, i.e. the chorus, suggest someone else should go). So the shield scene, where all the attackers are overly proud and blasphemous and have monsters (not gods) on their shields, while all the defenders are good and wise (and have Zeus on their shield – because we should pray to and trust in the gods, as we discussed at the beginning). So Eteokles makes wise decisions about the others; and it is only himself where he falls down, choosing the wrong man (Amphiaraus seems like the man he should have chosen: being sixth, he seems like some kind of warning of what is to come), because of his obsessive hatred, which the gods have brought down on him to fulfill his fate, and the fate of the house of Laius. The Erinys do that to you: they're the powers that make you act against all reason (against your own interest); the anger which possesses you and makes you strike down your friend (your mother), and then ever after regret it.

    Women in Greek tragedy (except Medea) are weak and passive (especially in Sophocles), though sometimes they are pushed to sufficient extremes to act (e.g. Euripides' Hekuba). My theory is that the tragedians weren't remotely interested in women's issues (not even Euripides), but realised that people who were weak and passive (compelled to be so by the society around them) made the perfect figures for tragedy: - things happen to them, and they can't do anything about it.

  10. Yeah, I was a bit carried away with my own rhetoric. The Erinys are specifically the avengers of taboo acts, and will pursue you and delude you as any other god into irrational thoughts and acts. But any god can make you act against your reason / interest.

  11. dolly, yes earth, the ship of state developed at length, three vs. seven. Sophisticated interlocking themes are as old as art, it turns out.

    My understanding is that the consensus is that Antigone was not in the original play at all, but that most of the last section was added later for the sake of "continuity" with Sophocles. As if I know anything about this.

    Red Harvest is a surprise to me! I think of the Op more as an avenging angel, but he might as well be a Fury. Some kind of supernatural vengeance monster, anyway.

    obooki, you don't find a split jury with Athena breaking the tie dramatically satisfying? Ha ha, no, it is not.

    I guess I don't think Eteokles accepts his fate, but rather that he openly embraces it. Given a chance to avoid it ("Actually, let's switch 6 and 7 so I don't fight my brother"), he goes all in. The question about what is choice and what is not, now that is a hard one, brought right up to the front of the stage in so many of these plays.

    But yes, compared to Oedipus, that is a good example. Oedipus accepts his fate; Eteokles wants it. Or is driven to want it.

  12. Good call showing multiple translations - how much things change!

    I also think you're on to something with the existentialist link.

  13. To add in an extra translation. Here's Grene on the same two lines about Tydeus: (ll. 380-1, also the same in the Greek)

    Tydeus, enraged and thirsting for the fight,
    threatens like a serpent's hiss at noonday

    drakon boai in the Greek is the tricky part. Boë I think of as battle shouts because that's what it is in Homer, but it can also mean more pacific sounds, even musical, though my LSJ suggests those usages are mostly later. Drakon (Draco, like the constellation, cognate with dragon) is both an ordinary word for a snake, but also the usual word for the beast killed by Cadmus whose teeth got sown. Chimera is probably a stretch though for drakon.

    Clangor in the Hecht is nice. The Greek word is klangë, cognate with clangor, I suspect.

    Bellow, hiss, shriek? None of them are wrong.

    The play really does remind you how all of this started in ritual.

  14. I read through some scholarly articles on the ending, and though I'm not entirely convinced by anyone, it did strike me reading it at the very least convenient how this last section leads on to the Antigone, and looking back l.960 does seem very much a good and typical end point as a summation of the action (not sure what the "rest of the play" contributes).

    Interesting, up until the 1850s, this play was assumed to be the second in the trilogy (perhaps precisely because of this ending); at which point it was proved, by publication of something or other (a scholiast?), to be the third - and then questions started being asked.

  15. Did you know that the Liddell of the LSJ's "Liddell & Scott" was the father of Alice Liddell. I only discovered this recently.

    1. I did know about the Alice Liddell connection. The small world of late Victorian British egghead-ery... ;-)

  16. I love seeing the different translations. These lines obviously have some tricky problems.

    French playwrights became obsessed with rewriting Greek plays sometime in the 1920s, and the phenomenon lasted several decades. Sartre most blatantly existentializes. Maybe I will reread The Flies after we read Elektra. Who wants to join me? I assume no one.

    tarted in ritual - The Suppliants will be the third play in a row with an altar as the centerpiece of the stage (probably). Prometheus Bound will break the streak, though.

    I did not know about Liddell but should have, on that "small world" principle. Maybe someday I should try to learn Greek.

  17. I didn't realize the Antigone section was thought to be an add-on - that does make a certain amount of sense. It makes the play stronger for me, so good job, mysterious interferers.

    Your mention of French twentieth-century playwrights reminds me that Jacques Rivette's ridiculously long 1971 conspiracy non-thriller film Out 1 centers on two experimental theater troops rehearsing Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound, although from what I can remember they pay very little attention to the actual texts, mostly using them as jumping-off points for lengthy improvisations. If there are deeper resonances between the themes of either play and the broader film, they were not obvious to me, but then again, I don't think I made it through the whole thing.

  18. Wow. I did not know what that film was. 13 hours! Based on Balzac! And there are the Aeschylus plays - crazy, crazy.

  19. Hairy Git on Seven Against Thebes: "Brotherly strife has put an end to all that might have been. It has the primal eldest curse upon it."

  20. My first thought reading this post is that I am going to need to plan to reread these plays. Maybe not now, or all at once, but once is not going to be enough. And in different translations. I read the Vellacot for the first four, but don't like it as well as the bits of Hecht and Bacon you share here.

  21. Amanda on Seven Against Thebes.

    These plays are mostly highly re-readable, some of them endlessly re-readable, although I suppose at some point a re-reader ought to start working on classical Greek, right? But the translations available now generally seem excellent. Not all of them are pushing an interpretation as strongly as Hecht and Bacon in this case, though.