Friday, October 28, 2022

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles - indeed his end / Was wonderful if ever mortal’s was

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles is one of the plays that got me excited about the entire project of reading or re-reading the complete plays.  The last surviving tragedy, even if it hardly recognizable as a tragedy, it provides a coherent ending to the tragic tradition.  It is perhaps a play of reconciliation.

Old, blind Oedipus, led in his wanderings by his daughter Antigone (this play precedes the events in Antigone), find himself in the grove of the Furies, just outside of Athens.  How often have the plays featured an altar as the center of the action?  We have a slightly different holy place this time.  Oedipus realizes that this is the destined place of his death and apotheosis.  The Thebans want him back, though, for vague oracle-related reasons. 

The cursed Oedipus, near his end, is curiously transformed into a holy object.  That is what I mean by “reconciliation.”  A happy ending for Oedipus, of all people, given that to the Greeks it is as important to die well as to live well.

MESSENGER:            But in what manner

Oedipus perished, no one of mortal men

Could tell but Theseus… 

For he was taken without lamentation,

Illness or suffering; indeed his end

Was wonderful if ever mortal’s was.  (150, tr. Robert Fitzgerald, in the Sophocles I University of Chicago edition)

The religious rituals preceding leading to the death of Oedipus are described in some detail; Sophocles believed in them.  The transformation of Oedipus into a cult figure, a mystery, is the sublime core of the play, as much as it was in The Eumenides of Aeschylus, which is an origin story: how Athens (old Sophocles, unlike Euripides, still believes in Athens) becomes the home of the Furies.  The Furies in another aspect are The Kindly Ones, welcoming Oedipus into their holy site and ending his wandering.

As is often the case with ancient Greek religion, I find all this alien but also moving.

Elsewhere in the play, for example the conflict between the sons of Oedipus, which we saw performed in Seven Against Thebes and The Women of Trachis, reconciliation is refused.  Perhaps Antigone, in this version, succeeds in her mission of peace, although I doubt it.

Oedipus at Colonus features many extraordinary poetic passages, often voiced by the Chorus, like this surprising eruption of flowers in the grove of the Furies:

Here with drops of heaven’s dews

At daybreak all the year,

The clusters of narcissus bloom,

Time-hallowed garlands for the brows

Of those great ladies whom we fear.

The crocus like a little sun

Blooms with its yellow ray… (111)

The song climaxes in a very Athenian paean to the olive tree, “The blessed tree that never dies!”

Oedipus is given an interesting speech about entropy:

OEDIPUS:              The immortal

Gods alone have neither age nor death!

All other things almighty Time disquiets.

Earth wastes away; the body wastes away;

Faith dies; distrust is born.  (107)

Oedipus at Colonus was produced posthumously, in 404 BCE or perhaps 401 BCE.  I prefer the earlier date for its horrible irony, since 404 was when Athens was conquered.  Many things ended in 404, including the Peloponnesian War and Athenian democracy, so it seems fitting that Greek tragedy ended, too, although of course it did not.  The annual Dionysia continued with new plays, all lost to us, and my understanding is that it was in the 4th century BCE that the old plays began to be produced frequently, spreading to theaters throughout the Greek-speaking world and eventually to us.

I borrowed a pair of 18th century prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  “Oedipus before the Temple of the Furies between his Daughters Antigone and Ismene” is by Anton Raphael Mengs and “Oedipus at Colonus, Cursing his Son Polynices” is by Henry Fuseli.

Next week – wait, aren’t we done?  We now skip ten or twelve years and things have changed.  Comedy has changed, enough that the last two surviving Aristophanes plays are sometimes called “Middle Comedy,” transitioning from the Old Comedy we have been reading to the immensely popular and influential New Comedy of Menander.  Let’s read The Assemblywomen (392 BCE) and see if we can spot the difference.  It is, as is obvious from the title, a companion of Lysistrata and The Poet and the Women.  How different can it be?  It also features the Longest Word in Greek – possibly the longest word in literature – so don’t miss that.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Frogs by Aristophanes - Brilliant! Brilliant! Wish I knew what you were talking about!

The Frogs by Aristophanes is this week’s play.  It was performed in what now look like the waning days of Athens, just before their conquest by Sparta, and in particular the last days of Athenian tragedy, with Euripides and Sophocles both recently dead.  In what may be the most outrageous conceit of Aristophanes, Dionysus, understandably worried about the quality of the plays at his festivals, travels to Hades to retrieve Euripides to save his festival, and to save Athens.  “I need a poet who can write,” Dionysus says (tr. David Barrett, p. 159).  But once he gets to Hades, it turns out there are options.

The first half of the play is the journey to Hades by Dionysus and his servant.  Here we find the famous chorus of the frogs:

FROGS:  Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,

      Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!

Oh we are the musical Frogs!

We live in the marshes and bogs!

Sweet, sweet is the hymn

That we sing as we swim,

And our voices are known

For their beautiful tone…  (164)

I cannot guess how often I have seen writers, modern writers, quote those frogs.

The second half of the play contains a duel between Euripides and Aeschylus over who is the better poet.  Sophocles if of course above all this nonsense.  The debate, whatever ridiculous turns it takes, is genuine, a real contrast of the aesthetic ideas of the two poets.  It is the invention of Western literary criticism, perhaps a hundred years before Aristotle’s Poetics, which, by the way, I invite you to read along with me next week.  Some of the terms of the debate are obscure for us, and not just us:

DIONYSUS: Brilliant!  Brilliant!  Wish I knew what you were talking about!  (198)

But many are clear enough from the plays we have.  A surprising number of the plays mentioned are ones we have, which may say something, although I do not know what, about which plays survived;

AESCHYLUS:  Then I put on The Persians: an effective sermon on the will to win.  Best thing I ever wrote.

DIONYSUS:  I loved that bit where they sang about the days of the great Darius, and the Chorus went like this with their hands and cried ‘Wah! Wah!’  (194)

Dionysus is perhaps not the most sophisticated theater-goer.

If The Frogs were some poor reader’s first Greek play it would likely be gibberish.  Too inside.  I mean,  the first line of the play is literally a joke about jokes:

XANTHIAS: [surveying the audience unenthusiastically]: What about one of the old gags, sir?  I can always get a laugh with those.  (156)

But for those of us who have made it to this point in the readalong, The Frogs is like a reward.

I illustrated this post with two performance stills of the weighing of the poetry of Euripides and Aeschylus, one from 1947 and one from 2013, both from the Cambridge Greek Play site.

Next week is the last surviving tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, performed posthumously in 404 BCE, or perhaps 401 BCE, or perhaps some other time.  It makes a fine ending to this great tradition.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Iphigeneia in Aulis by Euripides - even babies sense the dread of evil to come

The final Euripides play is Iphigeneia in Aulis, performed with The Bacchae in 405 BCE.  I normally write “Iphigenia,” but I read the 1978 W. S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr. translation titled which goes with “Iphigeneia,” so I will switch to that spelling for this post.

The united might of Greece, assembled to retrieve Helen and sack Troy, is paralyzed by a lack of wind.  The remedy, says a psychotic prophet, is for Agamemnon, the host’s general, to allow said prophet slit the throat of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia as a human sacrifice to Artemis.  What a sicko, that prophet!

AGAMEMNON: The tribe of prophets wants only to be important,

          the whole rotten crowd of them.

MENELAOS:    When they don’t prophesy

          they’re useless, and when they do

          it does no good.  (p. 45, Merwin and Dimock)

But by the end everyone, including Iphigeneia, is convinced that her sacrifice is justified, and she is either murdered on an altar, as depicted in a drawing owned by the British Museum either copied from or imitating Rembrandt, or whisked off to distant, barbaric Tauris to eventually be rescued by her brother Orestes, just a baby in this play, an extraordinarily ironic baby.

As she speaks the following lines IPHIGENEIA takes ORESTES from CLYTEMNESTRA and holds him up to AGAMEMNON.

My brother, you are so small

to have to help your friends. But cry

with me, cry to your father, beg him

not to kill your sister.  See,

even babies sense the dread of evil to come.  (78)

The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is the ur-crime of Greek tragedy, even among the many stores of the sacrifice of teenage girls that fascinated Euripides.  Without her death there is no Oresteia.  Maybe there is no Trojan War.  Perhaps that is why Euripides saved the story for last.

Part of the horror of the play is that, scene by scene, it is the story of how Iphigeneia is saved.  Each major character in turn is convinced, by some combination of persuasion and conscience, not to murder a teenager to prosecute a war, and then reverts due to fear and expediency, culminating in a farcical utilitarianism, the trolley problem: we must sacrifice one life to save many.  In fact, of course, the first death causes the deaths of many.

The modern Athenians, watching the play, had long abandoned human sacrifice at the altar, but had spent almost thirty years, urged on by politicians arguing much like those in the play, sacrificing their young men in a pointless war.  The sacrifice would end soon enough, though, the very next year, not because the Athenians were finally convinced by Euripides but because of a crushing, final defeat by the Spartans.

Iphigeneia in Aulis was our final Euripides play, but this is not our farewell to Euripides.  Next week: it’s The Frogs by Aristophanes, where we will find the most famous chorus in Greek literature and, decades before Aristotle, the invention of Western literary criticism, or at least the important part, the Top 3 list.  If you have been reading all, or most, or even a decent random sample, of the tragedies than you are the perfect reader for The Frogs.  You have earned The Frogs.

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Bacchae by Euripides - O gods, I see the greatest grief there is.

Reading Euripides chronologically, it would be fair to think that however ingenious and inventive Euripides was, he did not write a play quite at the level of Agamemnon or Oedipus the King, at least until his brief exile in Macedon, where he wrote The Bacchae just before his death.  It’s a deep one, and approaches the unbearable in a way few plays do.  It is the King Lear of Euripides.

I find it curious that given the plays were written for the Dionysian Festival, The Bacchae is the only play about Dionysus to survive.  We know there were others – Aeschylus wrote a trilogy about young king Pentheus, torn to pieces by his god-crazed mother – but I take Euripides as writing, in a farewell gesture, about the source of things.  The source of religion; the source of drama.

Dionysus, god of wine and madness, after a tour of Asia has returned to his birthplace of Thebes (the first words of Robert Bagg’s amusing translation are “I’m back!”), to the very spot where his mother was incinerated by Hera’s lightning while pregnant with Dionysus.  The play is in effect a duel between the teenage god and his teenage cousin Pentheus, King of Thebes, both plausibly psychologically teenage.  One kind of unreason against another.  The more powerful wins, and Pentheus is torn to pieces by his mother and aunts in their religious frenzy.  The old men of the city, who humiliate themselves before Dionysus on purely rational, Pascal’s wager-like grounds, escape with their heads.

The extraordinary recognition scene, where Agave gradually realizes not just that she has savagely murdered her own son but is holding his head, is what I was thinking of when I mentioned King Lear.

AGAVE: What is it?  What am I holding in my hands?

CADMUS: Look more closely still.  Study it carefully.

AGAVE: No! O gods, I see the greatest grief there is.

CADMUS:  Does it look like a lion now?  (212, tr. Arrowsmith, as are all other quotations)

I beg you, someone, rewrite that ending so Cordelia does not die!

The Bacchae is set in the deep past, among the origin myths, and contains a complex presentation of the human religious drive, both our attraction to religious explanations of the world around us and our resistance to them.  But I also wonder if the play is a commentary on drama itself.  As Aristotle would ask decades later – please join me in reading Aristotle’s Poetics, with a post at the end of October – why do we sit through these horrible plays?  What, exactly, are we celebrating, Euripides is perhaps asking, at a Dionysian Festival?  What do these tragedies do?

It is the costumes that caught my attention, the ones within the play.  To worship Dionysus, you have to dress like a worshipper:

TIRESIAS:            He will know what errand

brings me, that agreement, age with age, we made

to deck our wands, to dress in skins of fawn

and crown our heads with ivy.  (p. 161)

Tiresias believes in Dionysus because he believes in everything, while Cadmus believes in nothing, but both old men join in the performance of worship.  Meanwhile the chorus of Asian Bacchantes are the mature worshippers, there beautiful songs and dances (I’m guessing about the dances) more integral to the play than ever before.  Why does the chorus sing and dance, after all – because they – we, the audience – are worshipping Dionysus or per Nietzsche allowing our Dionysian side to at least peak out for a few hours.

The culmination is the cross-dressing scene, when Pentheus disguises himself as a woman in order to spy on their frenzied orgies – such a teenager – and what begins as a costume becomes a performance:

DIONYSUS:                             But look:

one of your curls has come loose from under the snood

where I tucked it.

PENTHEUS:       It must have worked loose

when I was dancing for joy and shaking my head.

DIONYSUS:  Then let me be your maid and tuck it back.

Hold still.  (196)

Pentheus and Dionysus; The Bacchae has the strangest pair of protagonists.  But almost everything in the play is strange and disturbing, an exemplar of the sublime in literature.

I picked a marble relief of a Bacchante in part so I could get a good look at her fennel stalk, the thyrsus, that is so important to the play.  The relief is a Roman copy of a Greek original contemporary with The Bacchae.  It is on display at the Met.

Next week is our last Euripides play, although not our farewell to Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, performed in the same set as The Bacchae.  It effectively wraps up an ongoing Euripidean project.