Friday, September 30, 2022

Orestes by Euripides - And what had seemed so right, / as soon as done, became / evil, monstrous, wrong!

I want to invite anyone interested to join me in reading Aristotle’s Poetics, the foundation of Western literary criticism, influential to the present day and bizarrely dominant, almost sacred, for centuries.  I hope to write about it at the end of the month, having just reread all of the Greek tragedies.  Anyone who has been reading along this year will find Poetics easy going.  It will raise many curious questions.

This week, the play at hand is Euripides’s late masterpiece of despair and nihilism, Orestes (408 BCE).  I had forgotten how long it was, likely the longest of the surviving Greek plays.  Euripides makes room for the story we know from other plays, with the Furies tormenting Orestes soon after he murders his mother:

And what had seemed so right,

as soon as done, became

evil, monstrous, wrong!  (162)

New parts of the story include a major new plotline featuring cowardly Uncle Menelaus and shallow Aunt Helen.  I have included a photo from a 2018 Greek production of Orestes that must be the meeting of Electra and Helen.

I want to include some quotes from William Arrowsmith’s introduction to the play:

What we get in the Orestes is, in fact, very much like what we get in Troilus and Cressida: tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched disfigured, and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.  (106)

It is that crescendo that requires the greater length.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, for the effect to work the thing has to keep going.  It takes time, plus the big swerve in the plot when Pylades convinces Orestes and Electra that their lives will be saved if they murder Helen and perhaps her daughter, too, why not, after murdering your mother why not your aunt and cousin.  If we have learned anything from the myths of the house of Atreus it is that more murders, “murder displacing murder” (162), is always the answer. 

ELECTRA:            If then, seeing Helen

lying in a pool of blood, he decides he wants

his daughter’s life at least and agrees to spare you,

let the girl go.  On the other hand,

if he tries to kill you in a frantic burst of rage,

you slit the girl’s throat.   (180)

Electra is as nuts as any of them.  The characters all start out bad and become so much worse.

Arrowsmith calls Orestes “a kind of negative tragedy of total turbulence” where “nothing but the sense of bitterness and alienation survives the corrosive effect of the action” (106).  The deus ex machina that ends the play is similar to yet opposite of the one that ends Sophocles’s Philoctetes.  The set, the palace, is on fire, the characters doomed; Orestes has his sword to the throat of his cousin, on the verge of murdering her when Apollo drops from the sky and ends the apocalypse.  Orestes and Hermione will marry! 

I imagine Apollo as one of those articulated artist’s dummies, dangling from a rope, or some other kind of bizarre puppet, delivering his lines through a tinny loudspeaker.  “Go and honor Peace, / loveliest of goddesses,” Apollo says as he escorts Helen to the stars.

ORESTES:   And yet, when I hear you speak,

I thought I heard the whispers of some fiend

speaking through your mouth.

                                                         But all is well

and I obey.  (206)

After the performance of Orestes, Euripides went into voluntary exile in Macedonia, about as far as he could get from Athens while staying in Greece.  He only lived for a couple more years.  He wrote at least three more plays before his death in 406 BCE.  They were directed at the 405 Dionysian festival by his son, or perhaps nephew.  Two of them have survived.  Next week, the greatest of them all: The Bacchae.

The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are also, I should note, now that I am paying attention, long plays, although I think not as long as Orestes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Plato's Symposium - philosophy as realist fiction - pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze

Philosophy makes me nervous, so I will begin my squib about Plato’s Symposium (c. 385-370 BCE) with an anxiety-deflating observation:  Symposium is fiction, a long story.  It is fiction in that at least some of it is invented, but mostly in that it uses the techniques of fiction: frame stories, personalities revealed through action, realistic social detail, things like that, even more than the typical Platonic dialogue.  Fiction, that is not so intimidating.

A group of guests deliver impromptu speeches about Love, Eros, at a drinking party celebrating Agathon’s first victory at the Dionysian festival.  How sad that none of Agathon’s plays survived.  If impromptu orations sounds a little tame for a victory party, well, this is actually the second night of celebration.  The first night was essentially a drinking contest, and everyone is hungover except for Socrates (“no one in the world has ever seen Socrates drunk”).

In a sense what I am supposed to be doing is working through the increasingly complex premises of the speeches to the concluding discussion by Socrates, which moves from a simple opposition of good and bad Love to the idea of love as the pursuit of the Beautiful, whatever that might be, to Socrates’s shift to Love, sexual or otherwise, as the pursuit of the Good, whatever that might be.  But I really wanted to read Symposium now because Aristophanes is one of the guests, so this is our chance to see him from the outside.

Does he ever deliver.  First, he loses his place in the contest because of an attack of the hiccups.  We get authentic Greek medical advice form a doctor who is a guest (and who delivers a tedious speech about healthy and unhealthy Love):

“And while I am speaking, hold your breath a long time and see if the hiccup will stop; if it won’t, gargle water.  But if it still goes strong, pick up something to tickle your nose with, and sneeze; do this once or twice, and stop it will, even if it is very strong.”

Along with all of the detail about the operation of the drinking party – the seating arrangement, the flute girl – the hiccups are the clearest move towards what we call “realism” in fiction.  They would have been easy enough to omit.

For his performance, Aristophanes commits to an origin myth in which humans had three genders, male-male, male-female, and female-female, until they were all split in two by Zeus:

“Next, the shape of man was quite round, back and ribs passing about it in a circle; and he had four arms and an equal number of legs, and two faces on a round neck, exactly alike; there was one head with these two opposite faces, and four ears, and two privy members, and the rest as you might imagine from this.”

The sex drive, the impulse to love, is our desperate attempt to reform our original eight-legged, two-faced ball form.  I love how Aristophanes, a true comedian, totally commits to the bit.  How enjoyable to find this imaginative nonsense in a work of philosophy.

The other highlight, for me, is when a drunken Alcibiades crashes the party and delivers his extraordinary encomium to Socrates, from the thematic view a demonstration of Platonic love but in practice a great character portrait:

“But when [the words of Socrates] are opened out, and you get inside them, you will find his words first full of sense, as no others are; next, most divine and containing the finest images of virtue, and reaching farthest, in fact reaching to everything which it profits a man to study who is to become noble and good.”

I have been thinking about reading more Greek philosophy, including more Plato, next year, and Symposium is a good introduction to why the dialogues are of high literary interest.

I read the H. D. Rouse translation in Great Dialogues of Plato (1956) because it was handy.  I know nothing about the translation of Plato.

Next month I plan to read Aristotle’s Poetics and remind myself why the received idea of Greek tragedy is so, as we have seen with our own eyes, wrong.  Anyone who has been reading along with the tragedies will be perfectly comfortable with Aristotle’s essay or lecture or whatever it is (not a story, not fiction).

Friday, September 23, 2022

Philoctetes by Sophocles - Let me suffer what I must suffer

Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), performed when the author was 87, which is perhaps why he is in a mood of reconciliation and healing. 

Literal healing.  Philoctetes possesses the bow of Hercules.  Either the bow, or Philoctetes himself, or both – prophecies are ambiguous – are necessary parts of the conquest of Troy by the Greeks.  But Philoctetes has spent the war abandoned on an island nursing his poisoned foot, injured when he was bit by a snake in a sacred grove.  You can see his bandaged foot on the far right in the beautiful painting of Philoctetes, contemporary with the play, on an oil flask on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The injury is so severe – so disgusting, so bad-smelling – that Philoctetes’s fellow soldiers abandoned him on the island.  But now there is a new prophecy, and they need him back, even if by treachery or force.  I was not surprised to learn that in the 21st century the play has been performed for American soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The relevance is direct.  The wound and its effects are described in detail with the greatest seriousness.  Neoptolemus has just taken Philoctetes’s hand when an attack of pain comes:

PHILOCTETES: Now – take me away from here –

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                           What do you mean?

PHILOCTETES:                                                                                Up, up.

NEOPTOLEMUS: What madness is upon you? Why do you look

    on the sky above us?

PHILOCTETES:             Let me go, let me go.


PHILOCTETES:               Oh, let me go.

NEOPTOLEMUS:                                Not I.

PHILOCTETES:  You will kill me if you touch me.

NEOPTOLEMUS:  Now I shall let you go, now you are calmer.

PHILOCTETES:  Earth, take my body, dying as I am.

                           The pain no longer lets me stand.  (p. 227, tr. David Grene)

There had been other plays on the story of Philoctetes, by Aeschylus and Euripides, among others.  I’ll bet they did not include a scene so, to use a word that makes me nervous, realistic.  Sophocles himself was an adept in the cult of Asclepius, the great hero-doctor of Greek mythology.

Odysseus tricked Philoctetes onto the island, and now plans to trick him off of it.  His tool is Neoptolemus, the honest, patriotic son of the recently killed Achilles,  So this is a three-character play, Scheming, righteous Odysseus versus bitter, suffering Philoctetes with Neoptolemus in the middle, like the audience full of sympathy for Philoctetes and his suffering.  He makes his decision in the end, and in a way that greatly resembles Existentialism – Philoctetes often feels quite modern – Philoctetes makes his (“Let me suffer what I must suffer,” 251) before the deus drops from the machina, or flies over on the crane, or whatever the stage business is, and ruins the play, or shades it with significant irony, by declaring that villainous Odysseus was right all along, and none of you have any choice, really, which makes Philoctetes and his great refusal of the premise even more of an Existentialist, right?

A wonderful play, far from whatever idea I might have about what a Greek tragedy is supposed to be.  It will be useful to look at Aristotle’s Poetics and see where that “supposed to be” comes from.  Which reminds me, I plan to write about Plato’s Symposium next week, so I had better get reading.

Next we have three Euripides plays in a row, the end of Euripides: Orestes (408) and The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis (both performed, posthumously, in 405).  Euripides, in his old age, was not in a mood of reconciliation and healing.  Great masterpieces, all of them.  Next week, let’s say farewell to Orestes.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Cyclops by Euripides - the only satyr play - the greatest god of all, / this belly of mine!

It’s The Cyclops by Euripides, the only surviving satyr play and the greatest mistake in my chronology of the Greek plays.  No one really knows the date on this one, so I arbitrarily placed it late, and reading it again I am convinced it likely is a late Euripides play, but still I should have scheduled it much earlier just so we could all read a satyr play.

Every set of three tragedies was followed by a short comedy starring a chorus of hybrid man-horses with prominent phalluses.  The most Dionysian part of the Festival of Dionysus, some plot of the action would be about wine and drunkenness.

CYCLOPS: Whoosh! I can scarcely swim out of this flood.

Pure pleasure! Ohhh. Earth and sky whirling around,

all jumbled up together!  Look: I can see

the throne of Zeus and the holy glory

of the gods.   (The satyrs dance around him suggestively.) (p. 34, tr. Arrowsmith)

Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote such things.  The Oresteia and Oedipus the King were followed by such creatures.  Three playwrights per festival, so three satyr plays per year for how long?  No one knows, but there have to have been hundreds of satyr plays.

Or, given that Euripides’s tragicomedy Alcestis was performed in the position of the satyr play, perhaps not.  Maybe only half the plays that capped the tragedies were satyr plays, and half were something else.  Who knows.  There would still be at least a couple hundred satyr plays.  It sounds like such a narrow genre. 

Yet The Cyclops is clearly a Euripides play, hitting some of his usual themes from a different direction.  Adapting the Cyclops episode form The Odyssey, and arbitrarily adding Silenus and the satyrs and a bottomless wine flask, Euripides pits the barbaric savagery of the Cyclops against the civilized savagery of Odysseus, as much of a Machiavellian here as in his villainous roles in other Euripides plays (we have one more ahead of us in Iphigenia in Aulis).

Odysseus tries to save himself and his men with a terrific, disingenuous, speech extolling the virtues of Greece and their defense of peace – the recent war was of course entirely the fault of the Trojans  – virtue and the gods; Cyclops is all appetite and does not care:

And as for sacrifices, I make mine,

not to the gods, but the greatest god of all,

this belly of mine! (25)

But both turn to violence in the end.  The Cyclops has a lot of murder and gore for a comedy.  It is a different kind of comedy, anyway, than that of Aristophanes.

The British Museum has a beautiful bowl depicting the moment before the blinding of the Cyclops.  Please note the two Euripidean horse-satyrs on the right.  The bowl is a likely a close contemporary of the play.

Next week: Odysseus returns in Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), a calming relief from the hysterics and turbulence of Aristophanes and Euripides.  Philoctetes, too, was likely followed by a play about dancing, singing, drunken, horny horse-men.

Friday, September 9, 2022

The Phoenician Women by Euripides - Oedipus, Antigone, et. al. - It would be no grace I would do the gods

Now I see why I did not remember The Phoenician Women (c. 410 BCE) by Euripides too well, or at all.  It is not one of his messes, but is rather too relentlessly efficient, condensing several plays into one, marching through the entire Theban cycle of stories with special emphasis on a rewrite of Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes and Sophocles’s Antigone, with bits of other plays thrown in.  An anti-climatic Antigone in ten pages, for example.

I’m fascinated by the late revisionary project of Euripides, but this time I do not understand the point of his revisions.  The text of the play is, it seems, a disaster, with entire episodes added by later writers.  It seems likely that Euripides already overstuffed play was further stuffed by later pedagogues, perhaps in order to have the Theban story complete in one handy play.  There is even a theory that the whole thing is a later imitation of Euripides, which I do not believe, but it is not crazy.

The body of surviving Greek plays was for some reason greatly compressed during a short period circa 250 CE; The Phoenician Women is the kind of play that convinces me that at least part of the narrowing was pedagogical.  We lost the plays that were not taught, and this one was useful for teaching.

The Phoenician Women does have the late-Euripides features.  An utterly pointless human sacrifice is part of the plot – “and bloody was the god / who brought these things about” (p. 113 , vol. V of the Chicago edition, tr. Elizabeth Wyckoff).  Antigone, at the end, imagines returning to her role as a priestess of Bacchus: “It would be no grace I would do the gods” (p. 140).  She has become disillusioned.

Now this is new.  Jocasta (alive, in this version, after the events of Oedipus the King) interrogates her son Polyneices about a curious subject: what it is like to be an exile.

So now I ask what first I wish to know.

What is it to lose your country – a great suffering?  (85)

Yes, says Polyneices, it is, in a number of ways.  The curious thing about this is that in 408 BCE, finally disgusted with Athens, Euripides will go into voluntary exile, at the age of seventy, in Macedonia, as far from his home as he can get.  We will soon see an expression of this disgust in Orestes.  Here, several years earlier, he is thinking about it.

I went looking for a performance again, and found a good-looking 2008 staging in Athens.  Here’s the chorus of Phoenician women, just passing through.  “[O]nly rarely performed,” says the press material.  A current performance would likely turn the chorus into Syrian refugees, fleeing one war only to be trapped by another.

The Phoenician Women  is our last Euripides dud, if that is not too strong.  How lucky we are that enough Euripides plays survived that some of them are not so good.

Next week’s play is The Cyclops by Euripides, dated who knows when, the only surviving satyr play, worth reading for that fact alone.  It is quite short, less than half the length of The Phoenician Women, for example.

And a reminder: Plato's Symposium at the end of the month.

Friday, September 2, 2022

The Poet and the Women by Aristophanes - What it is to have an intellectual in the family. - Plus: Let's read Plato's Symposium

Our first Geek play readalong supplement: I would like to invite anyone interested to join me in reading Plato’s Symposium (c. 380 BCE) in September.  The piece depicts a banquet attended by a number of prominent Athenians, including Socrates and most importantly for our purposes Aristophanes, where the guests all deliver monologues about love.  It is in a sense a “dialogue,” but also has more resemblance to a play than any other work of Plato’s.  For someone, like me, intimidated by the label “philosophy,” Symposium is as friendly as it gets.  It is a literary work.  It is only 70 or 80 pages long.  I plan to write something about it at the end of the month.

Today we have Thesmophoriazusae (411 BCE), or Women at the Thesmophoria Festival, or as my Penguin Classics translation by David Barrett sensibly calls it, The Poet and the Women.  The poet is Euripides.  This is the second of the three Aristophanes plays featuring Euripides onstage.  We will see the triumphant conclusion of the theme, The Frogs, seven weeks from now.

It is also the second “battle of the sexes” play Aristophanes wrote in 411, along with Lysistrata.  Where the latter is deep and sincere, The Poet and the Women is harmless fun.  Euripides gets off pretty well, too.  Sometimes Aristophanes wants to outrage his audience, but here everyone is supposed to have a good time.

Euripides is concerned that the women at the Thesmophoria Womyn’s Festival are planning to attack him for making women look bad in his plays.  Have they not seen how he makes men look?  Anyway, Euripides sends a relative in drag to infiltrate the festival, and the play quickly turns into a farce, with Euripides trying to rescue his partner the only way he knows how – by reenacting scenes from Euripides plays.

Very kind of you to explain, I must say.  What it is to have an intellectual in the family.  (100, tr. Barrett)

The specific plays that get the most attention, although there are references to a number of others, are Helen and Andromeda, both performed at the Dionysian festival the previous year, so fresh in mind.  We just read Helen – sadly, Andromeda is lost – so it is fresh in our minds.  The Poet and the Women is a reward for persistence reading Aristophanes and Euripides.  If this were one’s first Greek play, it would be baffling.  But we are savvy readers now, able to enjoy even this minor play.  “I got that reference” is a genuine source of pleasure, however shallow.

I borrowed a still from a recent performance of The Poet and the Women at the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama held in Cyprus every July and August.  That would be a heck of a way to spend a vacation.

Next week’s play is The Phoenician Women by Euripides, which whatever the title might suggest is a radical rewrite of Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus, Euripides again in his late “revisionary” mode.  I wish I remembered what he did with the story, but I don’t.