Friday, July 29, 2022

The Birds by Aristophanes - Birds, Birds, billions of birds!

Here it is, The Birds by Aristophanes (414 BCE), one of the greatest of the greats, in my opinion his peak.  The play still has the usual problems that make a translator work: jokes about individual Athenians, puns piled on puns, parodies of lost plays, all of which may well have been hilarious to the Athenian audience but becomes mostly an aggravation to us.  Yet The Birds is spectacular, coherent, and thought through, building layers of irony that put it among the greats of its kind of satire.  Rabelais, Swift, that level.

I borrowed an image of the bird chorus from the Cambridge Greek Plays, an 1883 production in this case.  The star is M. R. James, yes, the (eventual) ghost story writer.  That must be him in the middle with the mustache.  The entrance of the chorus of birds must have been one of the greatest moments in Athenian comedy.  I typically think of the chorus as an undistinguished mass, but this time somebody really put some money into the costumes, to the extent that the members of the chorus are introduced individually, to allow the audience to admire each gorgeous bird, until finally:

HOOPOE: And Jay and Pigeon.  Lark, Wren, Wheater, and Turtledove.  Ringdove, Stockdove, Cuckoo, and Hawk.  Firecrest and Wren, Rail and Kestrel and Gull, Waxwing, Woodpecker, and Vulture…

PISTHETAIROS:  Birds, Birds, billions of birds!  (p. 39, Mentor edition, tr. Arrowsmith)

Still, it is the development of the satirical conceit that elevates The Birds.  Two Athenians, sick of the corruption and war and restlessness of the city, “Athens, land of lovely -  warships” (26), seek a country idyll, a peaceful escape, among the birds.  But one of them especially, Pisthetairos, M. R. James, brings the energetic restlessness with him.  He turns the idyll into a Utopia, and then turns Cloudcuckooland, the Utopia, into an empire.  He conquers the gods, becoming a god himself.  I do not know what an Athenian might have thought blasphemous, but this sounds like blasphemy.

Aristophanes has consistently been in the Athenian peace party, and anti-imperialist.  Yet in The Birds he recognizes – perhaps in spite of himself celebrates – the energy, the creative force that turned democratic Athens into Imperial Athens.  I can see Alexander the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Harry Truman understanding the conceit – where else was all of this energy supposed to go?  Satire, real satire, is unpleasant stuff.  The Birds is Aristophanes at his most outrageous.  Comedy at its most outrageous, unsurpassed for 2,500 years.

Next week is the beginning of another great run of Euripides plays, beginning with Ion.  I urge you, if possible, to take a look at the 1937 translation by H. D., a fine work of art in its own right.

Friday, July 22, 2022

"Iphigenia in Tauris" by Euripides - Have I not seen enough of blood?

I do not have much do say about Iphigenia in Tauris specifically, but it is an exemplar of many tendencies of Euripides in the extraordinary last decade of his life, so I will write a few notes about those.

As for the date – I used 414 BCE – it is a matter of guesswork and affinity, and as I have thought about it I now believe the play was performed in 412 BCE with Helen and the lost Andromeda, but I will defer that idea to when we get to Helen.  Regardless, it belongs somewhere in this period.

Euripides, in his last decade, became interested in plays that were only semi-tragic, or barely tragic at all, what we call in Shakespeare’s context “romances.”  A number of the late Euripides plays resemble the Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  They are certainly not classic Aristotelian tragedies, with tragic flaws and hubris and all of that.  I have no idea if the audience thought Euripides was breaking any rules.  Aristotle’s Poetics is still off in the future.

Orestes, still pursued by the Furies despite the events of The Eumenides, is driven to the far eastern side of the Black Sea, where he discovers his sister Iphigenia, now a barbarian priestess who makes human sacrifices to Artemis.  The murder of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon is one of the key crimes of Greek tragedy, but here she was saved by Artemis at the last minute, whisked off to the ends of the earth.  The great crime of Agamemnon that leads to his murder by his wife, and her murder by her son, was a big fake, a divine hoax.  Now, a decade later, we see things put right.  Not everything, but the remaining things, the lost sister melodramatically reunited with her tormented brother.

My understanding is that Euripides did not invent this strange alternative version of the (non-)death of Iphigenia.  Many versions of the old stories were floating around.   I guess I want to wait until I have read a few more before I interpret them too much.  There will be more, soon.  “Have I not seen enough of blood?” asks Orestes (p. 126, tr. Bynner).  Good question.

Euripides is revising the stories of the House of Atreides, The Oresteia and its adjuncts, and the Trojan War more broadly.

It was a wicked war for a wicked woman,

And all the waste that has come from it is wicked.  (145)

That’s Orestes again, and the “wicked woman” is Helen, but let’s see, in four weeks, what Euripides has to say in Helen.

Iphigenia in Tauris, like Heracles and five of the eight last Euripides plays, is among the “alphabetical” plays, which survived by chance in a single manuscript, and which I take as a random survival, although who know what the 11th century Byzantine scribe was thinking.  My idea of what Euripides was doing is radically changed by the randomly surviving plays.  But who knows what I would think if I had a few more randomly chosen plays (or one more random Sophocles play).  I wish I did.  Maybe the scholars X-raying charred scrolls form the lava-buried library of Herculaneum will find one someday.

Speaking of which, I chose as an illustration a mural from Pompeii, with the priestess Iphigenia on the left and that must be Orestes with the harp, one of many interesting images on the play’s Wikipedia page.

Next week is The Birds by Aristophanes, one of the greatest comedies ever written, in my opinion Aristophanes’s best play.  In two weeks, the play is Ion by Euripides, and I mention it early because it is worth tracking down a copy of the 1937 translation by H. D., a masterpiece in its own way, and something different than what most us of have been reading most of the time.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Trojan Women by Euripides - The epitaph of Greek shame.

The Trojan Women (c. 415 BCE) is a special case for Euripides.  What I think he is doing is inventing the protest play.  The Athenians had recently committed a true atrocity, when it besieged and destroyed the neutral island state of Melos in 416; the Athenians exterminated the men and enslaved the women.  Meanwhile, plans were underway for the eventually disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily, “[t]he epitaph of Greek shame” (tr, Lattimore, l. 1191, p. 289) to borrow Hecuba’s line about another war crime. 

Euripides responds to all of this, presumably collaborating with his producer, with a long howl of pain, a play about the suffering of the victims of war, especially the women who are enslaved and raped amidst the murder of their families.  The climatic crime, the brutal, graphic murder of Hecuba’s last grandson, not onstage but as close as Euripides could get, is like Heracles almost too much to bear – “too horrible to say more” (1177, 288). That’s Hecuba – grandma – again.

The warning to the Athenians is clear enough, from Athena’s glee about the upcoming destruction of most of the Greeks on their return journey to Cassandra’s lament for the Greek soldiers:

                     Those the War God caught

never saw their sons again, nor were they laid to rest

decently in winding sheets by their wives’ hands, but lie

buried in alien ground…  (376-9, 261)

That sure sounds like a warning about the Sicilian expedition.  The idea of a protest play may all be in my imagination, but not only in mine.  Dating at least to the Vietnam War, The Trojan Women has now become a protest play.  Please see The Trojan Women Project for part of the now long history of the play as a statement about war and refugees.  I included an image from a 2013 performance in Jordan by Syrian refugees.  A London performance of The Trojan Women by a mix of Ukrainian, Afghan, and Syrian refugees is scheduled for August.  I wish I could see it.

I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan, who moved the play to early nineteenth century Nigeria while simultaneously commenting on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the invaders who fight in the name of “freedom” and “human rights”:

Bless the kindness which has rescued us

From tyranny in order to plunge us into slavery! (13)

I wish I could see this one, too.

One more aesthetic note: I had not remembered how The Trojan Women is so full of story.  Large parts of the Trojan War are included – the judgment of Paris, the abduction of Helen, the Trojan Horse, and more  – and the play is also revisiting Euripides’s own Hecuba and Andromache, as well as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.   Six of the surviving plays of the last decade of Euripides’s life, a significant fraction of the total he could have written, are about aspects of the Trojan War, deeply engaged with Homer and Aeschylus and likely other plays we have lost, retelling the familiar stories in unfamiliar ways.  What did Euripides think he was doing?

Typically when I have been quoting from the old University of Chicago translations I have been referring to the volumes devoted to individual writers, but this time I used volume 2 of Greek Tragedies, the series that randomly scrambles the writers.  Maybe there is some logic, I don’t know.  Anyway, that is why I included line numbers along with page numbers.  Richmond Lattimore’s Euripides sure sounds a lot like Lattimore’s Homer.

The next play is Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides, c. 414 BCE, perhaps the year after The Trojan Women.  The retelling of the old stories continues.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Heracles by Euripides - These are poets' wretched lies.

With Heracles (c. 416 BCE) we move to a new period for Euripides, or at least, given the limits of the plays that survive, the illusion of a new period.  Like the mature Shakespeare, Euripides, in his sixties at this point, becomes attracted to screwy, revisionist “romances,” as un-tragic tragedies as we’ll read, and also stories as violent and horrific as any.  Heracles is one of the latter.

We begin with suppliants, threatened by violence, around an altar to Zeus.  How many plays have we read, now, that begin this way?  The action moves along the familiar lines.  The chorus of old men are sympathetic but useless.  The usurping king is a savage cartoon villain.  The half-divine hero Heracles arrives just in time, saving the suppliants, who happen to be his father, wife, and three children, with the expected offstage bloodbath.  The usual thing, except the play has only reached its exact center.  What is left?

With no warning, a pure sucker punch, Heracles goes mad and murders his wife and children.  The murders are offstage but described with great goriness.  Heracles recovers to find that his “last worst labor has been done.”  He will now live in order to grieve.  Curiously, and I believe this is where Euripides is aiming, Heracles effectively renounces his divinity.  His berserk madness is not, to him, the fault of Hera, but rather something within himself.

Ah, all this has no bearing on my grief;

but I do not believe the gods commit adultery, or bind each other in chains.

I never did believe it; I never shall;

nor that one god is tyrant of the rest.

If god is truly god, he is perfect,

lacking nothing.  These are poets’ wretched lies.  (111)

This is Heracles, the greatest Greek hero, the son of Zeus.  “I never did believe it.”

The first half of the play is effectively a parody of Greek drama, set up to be annihilated in the second half, where even the function of the chorus is destroyed:

CHORUS:  What dirge, what song

shall I sing for the dead?

What dance shall I dance for death?  (97)

And in fact they stop dancing, or singing, or doing anything except, like us, watching.  Earlier, while the first slaughter was going on, they celebrated: “Turn to the dances!” (88)  Maybe the gods can still dance:

HERACLES: Let the noble wife of Zeus begin the dance,

pounding with her feet Olympus’ gleaming floors!  (110)

The two halves of Heracles are full of parallels and linked imagery.  This radically disjointed play is tightly constructed.  I will look at a sample passage, full of interesting things.

HERACLES:  I have no wings to fly from those I love.


They will not let me go, but clutch my clothes

more tightly.  How close you came to death!

                                   (He sets down his bow and club and takes his children by the hands.)

Here, I’ll take your hands and lead you in my wake,

Like a ship that tows its little boats behind…

  All mankind loves it children.  (83)

First, this is one of several points where Euripides humanizes the otherwise silent and abstract children, in order to make their murder as painful as possible. 

Second, that alliteration, clutch / clothes / close, appears several times but only in Heracles’s speech.  I have been quoting entirely from William Arrowsmith’s superb version of Heracles, but I also read the weirder translation of Anne Carson in Grief Lessons, and she also alliterates in the same places.  In the Greek, I guess.

Third, those boats – at the end of the play it is Heracles who is towed way “like some little boat.” 

Fourth, the wings, part of the bird imagery that runs through the play.

Heracles is, textually, a rich play.  But some of that is hard to see under the smash job Euripides does on Greek tragedy.

The image of mad Heracles is from a New York Times review of a 2013 Brooklyn Academy of Music performance.  Heracles is not performed much.

The next play will not lift the mood.  It is The Trojan Women (c. 415 BCE), with which Euripides more or less invents protest literature.  Along with a straight translation, I hope to read one of its descendants, Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu (2004), where the Trojan War is moved to 19th century Nigeria.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Electra by Sophocles - Nothing less than this / can cut the knot of evils / inside me

Peace follows Peace and we find a gap in the plays from approximately 420 to 417 BCE, where otherwise we have close to one surviving play per year from 431 to 404 or so.  Probably coincidence, but given that the next Euripides play saved by the anthologists is an explicitly anti-war play – peace did not last long – I wonder.  Maybe the anthologists were also interested in how Euripides knocked up against Thucydides.

I put the loosely dated Electra of Sophocles in the gap, so it is today’s play.  Maybe it is a little later, or a little earlier.  It’s The Libation Bearers of Aeschylus revisited, the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes, but with a large shift of emphasis to Electra, the suffering, vengeful daughter.  It is another perfect Sophocles play, balanced in pace and mood, troubling yet moving, built of rhetorical figures and imagery that move it in a single coherent direction.  None of that Euripidean raggedness.  Aristotle will approve.

is as purely psychological of a play as any we have read so far. “Why are you so in love / with things unbearable?” (56, tr. Anne Carson), as the chorus asks Electra.  Our heroine does almost nothing but exist, and compare her existence to those of others around her.  The limited action of the play, like the detailed chariot race, with a spectacular crash, belongs to other characters.  Is the space given to the chariot race an aspect of the alienness or the universality of ancient Greek culture?

I think I will just shake some of Electra’s, and Anne Carson’s, great lines from my notes:


will I leave off lamenting,

never.  No.  (54)

I ask this one thing:

let me go mad in my own way.  (55)

Kill him at once.

Throw his corpse out

for scavengers to get.

Nothing less than this

can cut the knot of evils

inside me.  (110)

That last one is a good example of what I mean by “purely psychological.”  Is there even a hint that the killing of Clytemnestra and even, at this moment in the play, Aegisthus, is about justice or the will of the gods?  Or about healing Electra’s wounds, perhaps only by creating new ones?

Anne Carson’s translation was a pleasure to read.  Her mix of strange and familiar registers is a strength.  The arguments between, for example, Electra and her mother would not sound too out of place in a contemporary drama, say by a weirdo like Sam Shepherd.  Here is some strange Carson:

Already the sun is hot upon us.

Birds are shaking, the world is awake.

Black stars and night have died away.  (51)

An odd way to say it is morning.  David Grene has:

                                                  Already the sunlight,

brightening, stirs dawning bird song into clearness,

and the black, kindly night of stars is gone.  (127, U of C edition)

So whatever Carson is doing is somewhere in the Greek.  She just shades everything a little weirder.

For an illustration, I chose a 6th century (BCE) relief of the murder of Clytemnestra, owned by the Getty, in which only Electra’s feet are still visible, on the left.  But she’s there.

Our next play will be a shocking contrast to Electra.  It is the Heracles of Euripides, c. 416, maybe; it is utterly anti-Aristotelian, as if written, decades before Poetics, as a rebuttal, not a Euripidean mess but an example of a competing aesthetic.  It also contains some things that are almost too painful to read.  Poor Heracles.  Poor everybody.