Thursday, December 1, 2022

Thanks and praise to celebrate the happiness of this great event – the end of the Greek play readalong

I am quoting the end of Alcestis by Euripides, his early whatever it is, not a tragedy, not a satyr play, not a comedy.  Admetos has won back his wife and the play is at its end, so he declares “a feast of thanks and praise” (tr. Arrowsmith), which is what I want to do.  If we had done all this in a real-life book group I would take you all out for gyros.  But Admetos ends the play with this:

From this day forth we must remake our lives,

And make them better than they were before.

We can only try.

So, first, many thanks to anyone who participated in any way, on your own, in the comments section, or otherwise.  Anyone who wanders around in the comments of my posts will find some superb responses and insights; anyone who follows the links to posts people wrote will find the same.  Intellectually, this exercise was very good for me.  I hope for you, too.  Endless thanks to everyone.

I had read all of the plays, except Menander’s Dyskolos, about 25 years ago, and had reread a few since then.  Antigone I knew from much earlier, from Western Civ in college.  The core stories and myths and characters I knew from childhood, and they are as familiar to me as another set of stories and characters I was absorbing at the same time, “Bible stories.”

What did I learn this time?

First, there was my epistemological crisis, visible in my earlier posts before I got over it.  The evidentiary base for what we know about classical Greek plays was much weaker than I had previously understood.  For example, we all know that each playwright directed three tragic plays and a satyr play, like the Cyclops of Euripides, full of booze and nonsense.  But Alcestis was presented in the “satyr” spot, and thus the evidence is actually half satyr and half not-satyr.  What was the real ratio?  How often did writers use the satyr spot for something more unusual and innovative?  Alcestis is unique among the surviving plays, but what does that tell us.

So, second, this time I understood how we were reading these extraordinary plays in a massive void of lost plays. Nine tragedies a year, plus three satyr plays, and an indeterminate number of comedies (four to six?) every year, and we have almost none of them, even by the most famous playwrights.  For the first twenty-eight years of Sophocles’s extraordinarily long career, we have Ajax.  He did not necessarily submit plays every year, but we could easily be missing eighty or ninety early Sophocles plays, pre-Antigone.  How I would like to get to know young Sophocles.

The remarkable thing, and I think everyone saw this, was how easy it was, after a couple of plays, to get a sense of the personality and sensibility of the author: rough, mythic Aeschylus; methodical, pious Sophocles, the perfect candidate to invent the detective story; turbulent, to use William Arrowsmith’s favorite word, Euripides.  With Euripides, we are lucky to have enough plays to even see his progression, to watch him become angrier with Athenian wartime politics until he becomes disgusted with the entire Athenian, or possibly human, experiment, culminating in his astounding late works of pessimism like Orestes and Bacchae.

But this is all a construction, the reader inferring the author from the available evidence, when most of the evidence is missing.  Who knows what Aeschylus or Sophocles would look like if we had seven more plays.  It is hard to believe that there are too many more masterpieces at the level of Agamemnon or Oedipus the King among the lost plays.

Given how much we have lost, the twenty-seven year or so stretch between the Medea of Euripides (431 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (say 404 BCE) where we have a play, sometimes two, almost every year, takes on enormous meaning, especially when these plays are contemporary with the Athenian history described in detail by Thucydides.  The narrative is very strong.  Honestly, this is why I got so excited by reading the plays in chronological order, which I had not done before.  Just watching the hilarious one-sided duel between Aristophanes and Euripides.

Then, in a coda, Menander and the New Comedy come along, thinner but less alien, leading to Roman comedy, Shakespearean comedy, and television comedy.

Prmoetheus chained to the rock, Cassandra declaiming her own death, Oedipus learning the truth, Antigone arguing ethics with her uncle, the entrance of the chorus of the birds, Dionysus outsinging the chorus of the frogs, Medea murdering her children, Orestes burning it all to the ground, Dionysus dressing up Pentheus.  What things we saw.  The chorus in Agamemnon claims that Zeus “las it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth” (tr. Fagles), but I feel we found a great deal of truth without much suffering, which is how great literature usually works.

I am thinking of writing a longer essay on our experience this year, and sending it – who knows – somewhere – so if you have any ideas you do not mind me stealing, please let me know.  Another debt.  My deepest thanks, as it is.


  1. What a great idea this was. Full of surprises and unexpected revelations. Thanks for doing this. I admit that after the death of Euripides, I lost enthusiasm for the final Aristophanes plays, and I have yet to look at Menander, but I will get around to those works.

    Like you, I now have a new picture of the Greeks, of tragedy, of theater. Though this morning I had the idea that reading all the plays in one year like this, in order of performance, was like binge watching a tv dramedy about four poets during the Peloponnesian War. A simplified and inaccurate understanding of the playwrights and their Athens, but still a useful framework for thinking about the plays, I guess.

    I voted for Euripides in your Twitter poll. I don't understand why people would prefer Sophocles. Though "Elektra," that's a masterpiece in the Euripidean vein. How great it would be if we had the complete picture. Though time would sort the plays into must-reads and also-rans, and most of them would be left to Greek specialists and the occasional curious reader.

  2. Those last two Aristophanes are a bit sad. He seems exhausted. Athens seems exhausted.

    I wonder what the ideal pace would be. Likely three or four a year, read ahead of seeing them performed at the International Festival of Greek Drama in Cypress. You'd likely never read Rhesus.

    I want more Sophocles plays, but I also remember that he may have written two hundred of them, or more. I am not reading all those. Still, another seven would be ice.

  3. I don't understand why people would prefer Sophocles.

    And I don't understand why people say things like that. You prefer Euripides and I prefer Sophocles; does that mean that one of us is a fool with no taste or does it mean that we are different people who want different things out of art? If I had to choose between Antigone and all of Euripides, I'm afraid I'd choose the former. To me, the poetry and structure of Sophocles is as close to perfection as it gets. But that's just me; I have no desire to legislate for all of humanity. What a boring world it would be if we all agreed!

    1. "does that mean that one of us is a fool with no taste"

      Wow, that's a radical interpretation of what I wrote. I don't see any sign in my comment that I'm attempting to "legislate for all of humanity."

    2. I took it all as a rhetorical figure, the kind that commonly accompanies such polls. See, for example, my Twitter feed regarding the new Sight & Sound film poll.

      Euripides was easily the most popular of the three tragedians for many centuries after his death, whatever the outcome of The Frogs, but his reputation took a beating when Classical studies modernized in the 19th century. Thus William Arrowsmith in the 1950s and 1960s writes as a champion of Euripides - Euripides still needed a champion.

  4. Oh no, that choice, how painful. Longinus makes the same point in On the Sublime, except he takes Oedipus the King over the entire works of Ion of Chios. Poor Ion of Chios!

    I asked for the "favorite" in part to allow for the arbitrariness that implies. I clearly like Aristophanes a lot more than many people. I like them all.

    If I could will the discovery of one more random play, I suspect Aeschylus would be the most useful - more new information - but Sophocles would be most likely to give us a great lost masterpiece.

  5. Since the start of The Reading Life in July of 2009 I have employed Reading Life Projects to help me structure the blog. My first two projects were on Japanese Literature and Katherine Mansfield. I now have projects on Irish Short Stories, early Australian Literature among others. Projects also give blog visitors a sense of what can be found on The Reading Life. Once I begin a project it is permanent.

    I decided to start a new project on my blog,9(k,!
    The Ancient Readings Project encompassing Literature from Sumeria, Greece, India, China, Rome as well as historical narratives on this era.

    As of now I have as potential works for the projects, six plays by Senaca, eleven comedies by Aristophenes, New translations of Gilgamesh, Ovid, The Illiad by Homer, Virgil's Aneid as well as plays by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Hopefully I will be able to acquire modern translations of The Vedas and Buddhist Sutras. Perhaps portions of The Old Testament can be included. This is for me an ambitious project. (I am limited to works available as Kindle Editions

  6. I want to emphasize the value of the "project." If nothing else it attracts new (and interested) readers, who may not care about random books but know something about Japanese literature or what have you.

    That Ancients project is ambitious, and so valuable. So many great books there. Maybe someday I will do more than dabble in Sanskrit literature.

    Do you have access to in the Philippines? It has become a central source for my reading. It is like an eccentric online university library.

  7. Belated thank you for orchestrating this, it was a fun time - I'd been vaguely meaning to read all of the Greek tragedies for years so it was nice to finally do it! (And it was good to sample some of the comedies, even if I decided they weren't really my bag.)

    As far as the poll goes, the imbalance makes it tough. There's more good surviving stuff in Euripides, even if he arguably didn't write any single plays as good as the best of the other two tragedians. But also, Euripides' all-over-the-placeness means there's a pleasing diversity to his work, whereas I don't know if we needed another ten Sophocles plays that were kind of like but not as good as Oedipus Rex. So I think Euripides would be my choice. When we finished the tragedies, I considered trying to rank them all, but that would have been way too hard. But I did come up with a "top tier", which is Prometheus Bound and Agamemnon; Oedipus Rex and Antigone; and Medea, Hecuba, Iphigenia in Tauris, The Trojan Women, and Orestes. (I could imagine the Euripides list changing with rereads, particularly different translators.)

    If you write a longer essay I would enjoy reading it!

  8. I didn't end up reading as many of the plays as I'd hoped (though more than I wrote about), but thank you for the inspiration to get started - I'll finish eventually! Going through anything of this nature in order seems to be a worthwhile exercise, and it was certainly helpful to read everyone's posts and comments on the various plays.

  9. The holiday over, I can thank you both for these nice comments.

    My top tier is pretty close to yours.

    Putting the plays in a kind of order is what convinced me the project was a good idea. There was more going on than I had suspected. More plays sparking off of each other.