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A Four Handkerchief Tragedy

Euripides: Iphigeneia at Aulis

translated by W.S. Merwin, translated by George E. Dimock Jr.
Oxford University Press, 128 pp., $8.50 (to be published March 23)


a film directed by Michael Cacoyannis

In the early spring of 406 BC, as the three Athenian poets selected to compete in the dramatic festival announced the subjects of their plays and presented their actors and choruses to the public at a preliminary ceremony known as the Proagon, the news reached Athens that Euripides had died in Macedonia, far to the north. As a tribute to his fellow-tragedian, who had been his younger rival for nearly half a century, Sophocles, who was not to outlast the year himself, appeared dressed in black and brought his actors and chorus on without the customary festive garlands on their heads. Euripides, according to a later tradition, had been killed by a pack of hunting dogs.

Scholars are justifiably wary of the sensational stories of the death of poets current in antiquity (Sophocles for example is presented in one account as a victim of his own punctuation—he lost his breath reading aloud a long passage from Antigone), but anyone who has ever been chased on a Greek hillside by shepherd dogs will not dismiss the story out of hand. It has, in any case, a symbolic rightness: Euripides had for close to fifty years played the part of Athens’s bad conscience, perplexing, shocking, and depressing his contemporaries. “He was a harsh man,” writes Seferis, “and his friends were few. / The time came, and the dogs tore him to pieces.”

But the news of his death (whatever the manner of it may have been) was not the last Athens was to hear of him. He left behind him three new plays, which were produced in Athens by his son, Euripides the Younger. One of them has not survived; another, the Bacchae, is universally recognized as a masterpiece; the third, Iphigenia at Aulis, has met with a mixed reception.

It is an exploration in depth and at considerable length of the situation recalled by the old men of the chorus in the opening stasimon of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: the Greek fleet, poised for the invasion of Troy but held fast at Aulis by adverse weather; the dilemma of Agamemnon—to sacrifice his daughter and thus release the ships or to disband the army. The king faces an agonizing decision—“Pain both ways and what is worse? Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?”—but when he makes up his mind, his mood hardens—“once he turned he stopped at nothing seized with the frenzy.”1

Euripides’ Agamemnon, however, is made of softer stuff: the play is full of indecision, its psychological plot line is, in fact, a series of sudden changes of mind. Before the play’s opening, Agamemnon has already sent for his daughter Iphigenia, with the false promise (kept secret from the prospective bridegroom) that she is to marry Achilles. In a brilliantly poetic prologue, a night scene in the windless calm at Aulis, he changes his mind abruptly and sends a trusted servant with a letter to his wife, instructing her to keep the girl in Argos. The letter is intercepted by Menelaus; a furious quarrel between the brothers is interrupted by news of Iphigenia’s arrival at the camp; she is accompanied, to Agamemnon’s dismay, by her mother Clytemnestra. The king’s despairing reaction to this news stirs Menelaus to pity and a change of heart: he withdraws his opposition and urges Agamemnon to disband the army and save his child.

But Agamemnon fears it is now too late. Even if the brothers kill the priest, Calchas, who made the prophecy about the wind, Odysseus is also privy to the secret and might disclose it. The truth will come out and the army will demand the sacrifice; if opposed it may well kill both kings and sack Argos too. When Iphigenia and her father meet, her innocent, loving questions are answered with grimly ambiguous phrases; the husband’s attempt to send his wife home fails miserably—Clytemnestra insists she will preside at the wedding and questions Agamemnon about Achilles, her future son-in-law.

In the next scene, unexpectedly, she meets Achilles as he storms into the royal enclosure to demand action; his troops are on the verge of mutiny. Her coy references to his coming marriage to her daughter are met with a blank in-comprehension which turns to alarm as he misinterprets her attempt to take his hand; just as they realize that they have both been deceived, Agamemnon’s old servant enters to tell them how and why. Achilles makes a gallant offer to protect Iphigenia by force of arms but urges a last appeal to Agamemnon by mother and daughter. Euripides was a master of dramatic rhetoric; Clytemnestra’s speech, a magnificent tirade which combines appeals to justice and self-interest with menacing reproaches, is followed by Iphigenia’s heartbreaking plea for her life: “If I had the tongue of Orpheus, Father….” But Agamemnon repeats his argument that the army will have its way by force and adds a patriotic note: “Greece must be free / if you and I can make her so.”

Achilles is now the only hope but he comes on stage pursued by his own mutinous troops. He is ready to fight, one man against an army, and tells Clytemnestra to hold her daughter close; but Iphigenia refuses his help. Since she must die, she will die nobly, for Greece: the destruction of Troy will be her monument, her wedding. She goes off alone to the altar and a messenger comes to tell Clytemnestra that at the last moment, as the sacrificer’s knife struck, the girl vanished and a deer lay bleeding on the altar in its death throes; the goddess Artemis, who had demanded the sacrifice, has spared the human victim. (It is not mentioned here but in an earlier Euripidean play Iphigenia was transported to the land of the Taurians, in what is now the USSR, to preside over human sacrifices offered to Artemis by the local barbarians.)

Iphigenia at Aulis is remarkable not only for its variety of incident and its series of harshly dramatic—some critics have said melodramatic—confrontations but also for its presentation, unprecedented in extant tragedy, of sudden changes of mind and the atmosphere of social comedy which envelops the meeting of Clytemnestra and Achilles: in these and other ways it foreshadows the New Comedy of the next century. It is clearly the mature conception of a great dramatist: it has even some claim to be considered, like the Bacchae, a masterpiece. But if so, it is, at least in its present shape, a flawed masterpiece.

Its present shape is that preserved by two fourteenth-century Byzantine manuscipts which are our only authority for nine of Euripides’ surviving plays. All nine of these texts have been damaged to some extent by textual corruption and interpolation but the Iphigenia at Aulis is a major casualty. The last part of the messenger speech which concludes the play contains lines that betray total ignorance of the elementary rules of ancient Greek versification; there is at least one passage where two versions of the same short speech suggest that we are dealing with an uncorrected draft; there are structural anomalies in the brilliant prologue; a rather monotonous “catalogue of ships” in the first stasimon has often been dismissed by editors as the work of a later interpolator. In addition there are places throughout the play where “the line thickens,” where illogical transitions, clumsy phrasing, and inept or unusual stage action make us doubt that the sure-footed poet of the Bacchae is here in full control of the material.

We may have a text Euripides left unfinished at his death (some have even tried to pinpoint the line, like the famous bar in Turandot, where the master breathed his last). The play may have been put together from first drafts and completed by his son; worse still, we may be reading lines, even whole scenes, which were fabricated by later, fourth-century, actor-producers; quite certainly the conclusion of this play, whether it was from Euripides’ pen or not, was so badly damaged in the long handwritten transmission that some Byzantine scholar tried his clumsy hand at filling the gaps. The play has long been an irresistible challenge to the textual critic; one of the greatest classical scholars now living, Sir Denys Page, gave the world the first glimpse of his immense learning, critical acumen, and brilliant prose style in a book called Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, of which the subtitle runs: Studied with special reference to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.2

In the manuscripts the prologue, for example, consists of an initial dramatic exchange, in anapaestic rhythm, between Agamemnon and his old servant, an expository iambic speech by Agamemnon, and a concluding dramatic exchange in anapaests which sends the old man on his way with the letter to Clytemnestra. The standard modern text of Euripides, Murray’s Oxford edition, prints anapaests and iambics as two different prologues, both incomplete; this represents the editor’s belief that two poets were at work here, their efforts perhaps combined by a third. But a translator who wants the play to be read and performed cannot afford such scholarly purity; he is likely to view more favorably than textual critics do the idea, once proposed by the present reviewer, that if the prologue could find a voice it would say (with acknowledgments to Lyndon Baines Johnson): “I’m the only prologue you’ve got.”3

W.S. Merwin and George E. Dimock have given us the prologue as it stands in the manuscripts and have followed a similarly conservative policy consistently throughout; this translation presents, in so far as modern scholarship can reconstruct it, the full text as it left the hands of the Alexandrian scholars of the third century BC. Merwin is an old hand at poetic translation and his version performs in exemplary fashion the difficult task which William Arrowsmith, the general editor of the series, defined for his poets: to produce “dramatic poetry…realizing itself in words and actions that are both speakable and playable.”

The translator of Euripides does not have to wrestle with the involved imagery and “high astounding terms” of Aeschylean diction, or renounce in desperation any attempt to reproduce the undefinable poetic radiance given off by almost every Sophoclean line, but he has his difficulties none the less. Euripides developed a conversational style for his characters which was closer to normal speech than anything previously heard on the Attic stage, a style perfectly suited to the unheroic figures and situations of his drama. Yet, though the style sometimes verges on the prosaic, the diction is still artificial; the plain surface is cleverly contrived, as Aristotle pointed out. “The best concealment of art,” he says, “is to compose by selecting words from everyday speech, as Euripides does….” The danger facing the translator as he tries to produce in English, as Euripides did in Greek, “language” (to quote the general editor again) “that actors could speak, naturally and with dignity” is that he will lapse into dullness or vulgarity. Merwin triumphantly avoids both extremes and presents a version which is remarkably faithful to the original and is also, in its short but subtly varied lines, as elegant in meter as it is forceful and flowing in style.

  1. 1

    The Oresteia, translated by Robert Fagles (Viking, 1975), pp. 99-100.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1934.

  3. 3

    Yale Classical Studies, 22 (1972), p. 260 n 56.

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