Friday, May 27, 2022

The Suppliants by Euripides - O grief, O grief!

The Suppliants, or The Suppliant Women, by Euripides, c. 423 BCE, or perhaps a few years later depending on how certain passages link to specific incidents in the Peloponnesian War.  A curious play, hardly one of Euripides’s best.

The story is familiar.  It is Seven Against Thebes and Antigone on the other side of the wall, with the grieving mothers of the soldiers lost fighting Thebes petitioning Athens to help them recover and bury the bodies of their sons.  The victorious Thebans, forbidding burial, are committing what we would call war crimes.  Virtuous Athens, led by Theseus, is willing to go to war in the name of human rights.

THESEUS:  By my many noble deeds

I have made myself a byword to the Greeks:

They count on me to punish wickedness.  (71)

You can hardly say The Suppliants is not relevant.  My impression, which is why I prefer the earlier date, making a Trilogy of Grief with Andromache and Hecuba, is that Euripides is working on dramatizing the costs of war but has not yet rejected, in disgust, the Athenian experiment.  Or whatever happened.  The Trojan Women is eight year or so in the future.  I should save some of these thoughts for The Trojan Women.

ADRASTUS:  Cities!  You might use

Reason to end your troubles; but with blood,

Not words, you ruin your affairs. – Enough!  (84)

What strikes me about both of the passages I have quoted is that they do not seem, in the context of the play, ironic.  Up above I placed a stereoscopic photograph of the Temple of Theseus,, taken circa 1870, owned by the Getty Museum.  One strange aspect of The Suppliants is that it is, for Euripides, a pious play, telling a religious story.  Why does Athens have a Temple of Theseus?  Why, down that road, is there a shrine to Capaneus, who is not even Athenian?  Well, there is a story about that – and here is the story.  We have stepped back to the Greek drama as origin story.

I have wondered about the role of the producer, to use our word, the money man, in the plays we have been reading.  Different wealthy citizens acted a producer of the Dionysian plays in different years.  Some apparently sent over the minimum funds while others spent lavishly; some were hands off while others were more involved.  Really just like Hollywood producers.  I wonder if the Suppliants was something like a commissioned play.  The producer sacrificed at the Shrine of Capaneus, got what he wanted, and now owes Capaneus a favor.  Euripides is then juggling his own concerns with those of his money guy.  I don’t know any of this, but I wonder.

Regardless, the emotional core of the play, the thing that makes it some kind of tragedy, is the mourning of the mothers and children for the fallen soldiers.  “O grief, O grief!” (87) as Adrastus says.  A god drops in at the end to wrap things up, but until then the action, and the sorrow, has been utterly human.

I’m reading the Frank William Jones translation.

The play next week is The Clouds by Aristophanes (423 BCE).  This one is unmissable.  Aristophanes sets aside his feud against Cleon for a year to instead go after a very special guest star.  Do not miss The Clouds!


  1. Not one of Euripides' best, I agree. I found the ending odd - we've been told throughout that the Argives were wrong to attack Thebes against the will of the gods and that their defeat was essentially deserved. But Athena still tells their sons that they will get their revenge. There's an interesting idea here about the intersection of revenge and justice that doesn't get explored at all. Oh well.

    I did like the messenger, who comes across as a bit of a blowhard: "Ladies, I come with much to tell, and it is good news. First there is my own escape to safety." I picture him as Upchuck from Daria. The arrogant herald is also somewhat fun, even he seems to just be here to make strawmen arguments against democracy.

  2. Right, well said. I feel as if Euripides is up against some kind of constraint, perhaps external, perhaps creative. We will see him break through it pretty soon.

    I don't know why I never watched Daria. It was just my kind of show. The strawman arguments are part of what made me wonder exactly what was going on behind the scenes.

  3. I thought Theseus was a great character. He’s young; he’s good at what he does (that alone is refreshing); he states principles based on what he has learned from his elders; he acts on them decisively & wins. Too bad he couldn’t have been put up against a character who might outmaneuver him, like a Jocasta from Oedipus the King.

    The relationship between Theseus & Adrastus was intriguing. Adrastus seems to undergo what few other characters in these dramas undergo: A change of heart from admitting he screwed up.

    Theseus is portrayed as democracy in action. I kept waiting for the irony to hit us hard but it didn’t. I too found the entrance of The Herald interesting. Spouting strawman arguments or not, he did get Theseus to reveal something important about himself. Theseus, the great democrat, referred to The Herald as merely “dabbling” in rhetoric. “Stick to your job” he tells him. Well, now, Theseus, you snob! All for hearing everyone out in a democracy! Did The Herald go off script from delivering the message he was given? He does feel like he arrived fresh off stage from an Aristophanes production.

  4. Yes, a missing irony. Another is that the Athens of Theseus is, of course, not remotely democratic, and everyone in the contemporary audience knew it.

    The accusation of "rhetoric" is directly related to The Clouds - yes, very much like Aristophanes. It was an issue of the moment.