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The Art of Risk

In early 406 BC the news reached Athens that far away in Macedonia the great dramatist Euripides had died. The leader of the chorus at the festival of the Dionysia that year happened to be his old rival, the aged Sophocles, who, in a public gesture of mourning, had his chorus and actors appear on stage without their customary crowns. We’re told that the Athenians wept.

After a quarter-century during which Athens had been caught up, off and on, in the Peloponnesian War, the death of Euripides must have seemed ominous. It came in the same year as the voluntary exile of the charismatic Alcibiades, the leader in whom they had once placed great hope. The death of Sophocles himself within months of his tribute to Euripides only added to a presentiment of impending collapse. In 405 Aristophanes made, in his Frogs, a comic but poignant comparison of Aeschylus and Euripides to illustrate just how far Greek drama had come from the majestic verses of its first great dramatist. In that same year Euripides’ horrifying play the Bacchae was produced posthumously at Athens. He had written it in Macedonia, and it depicted, as never before in literature, the destructive power of religious frenzy. In the ecstasy of Dionysiac possession a mother quite literally tore her own son apart. One year after the première of the Bacchae the war came to an end with the humiliating defeat of the Athenians by Sparta, and, as Xenophon tells us, a wailing went up along the long walls from Piraeus to the city.

The miserable end of the war also brought an end to what was arguably the most creative period in Greek drama. Upheavals in mainland Greece and abroad had shattered the Athenians’ confidence in themselves and in their democracy. It took Thucydides to explore, with merciless clarity, their brutal extermination of the helpless residents of the island of Melos, which remained neutral during the Peloponnesian War, and the killing of Athenian soldiers in the Assinaros River south of Syracuse, when the highly touted expedition to Sicily went terribly wrong. In desperation the Athenians had in 411 even abandoned their democratic government for a brief experiment with oligarchy.

No writer of this turbulent time understood better than Euripides that the brutal dissolution of traditional social and political norms allowed, even required, a new kind of drama. He took one risk after another in subverting traditional tragedy by rethinking myths, reimagining familiar characters, and exploring new possibilities for music outside the choral odes. It is hard not to see all this as somehow induced by the war. The much older Sophocles had tried to keep up with his brilliantly creative contemporary, but by the end of his life Sophocles simply mellowed—gloriously and transcendently, as in the Oedipus at Colonus. By contrast, Euripides grew bolder and bolder.

Consider what he did with the myths he inherited. He turned the account of Herakles’ insanity upside down and reassigned the murder of the hero’s wife and family to the time when all his arduous labors were done. In this way, the rejoicing of his family over his final return ended all the more pitifully, and his legendary achievements were made to pale by comparison with what he did after them. In telling the story of Helen of Troy, Euripides reached back to a bizarre invention of the sixth-century lyric poet Stesichorus to write a play in which Helen never went to Troy at all but sat out the war in Egypt. In this version a phantom look-alike appeared in Troy with the face that launched a thousand ships. (New York operagoers have recently encountered this story in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s overwrought libretto for Richard Strauss’s Die Aegyptische Helena.)

In the first year of the Peloponnesian War, 431, Euripides created his unforgettable Medea, a woman betrayed, whose blazing fury drives her to murder her own children as the only means of taking vengeance on Jason for having left her. On present evidence Euripides himself invented Medea’s appalling infanticide as an understandable, if not excusable, consequence of her profound suffering. He showed the same kind of sympathy in his characterization of the lovesick Phaedra, finding in her illicit passion for her stepson Hippolytos far more humanity than in Hippolytos’ ostentatious chastity in refusing her.

When we observe Euripides’ remarkable insights into female psychology, we have to remember that he was writing at a time when Pericles declared, if Thucydides can be trusted, that the best thing for any woman was that she never be spoken of at all. Euripides returned to women repeatedly. If he could elicit sympathy for Medea, think of what he might have done with Clytaemnestra. In older tragedy a murderous woman, even one, like Clytaemnestra, who had good reason to murder her husband, could only be comprehended as somehow being almost a man. Near the beginning of the Agamemnon Aeschylus makes his night watchman refer to Clytaemnestra as a woman with the mind of a man (gunaikos androboulonkear: “a woman’s heart with a man’s deliberation”). By comparison, in two surviving plays, the Electra and the Orestes, Euripides leaves no doubt that Clytaemnestra’s two children, who murdered their mother, acted wrongly in committing matricide. For Euripides, Clytaemnestra acted as she did not because she had become like a man but precisely because she was, like Medea, very much a woman. This was a revolutionary idea in Greece.

Euripides was no less revolutionary in the poetry of his plays. Traditionally the monologues of the characters and the dialogues between them were spoken in iambic trimeters—twelve-syllable lines with six metrical units consisting of a short syllable followed by a long one; these units were grouped in pairs with some variation in syllabic length. In a stark contrast the chorus sang its observations on the unfolding drama in lyric verse to the accompaniment of music. Choral texts used relatively short lines of intricate meters that encouraged lofty and allusive language. This had been the pattern for Aeschylus and Sophocles. With Euripides, for whom lyric held a special attraction, new forms of sung verse emerged. As he grew older, Euripides experimented with the use of lyric song outside the choral odes. For Creusa in his Ion he wrote a lyric monologue that is nothing less than an operatic aria, and in his Helen he composed an entire dialogue between Menelaus and Helen in sung lyrics. The dialogue became a duet.

To all this innovation in myth and versification Euripides added experiments in plotting. Although many of his plays are tragic to the fullest extent of misery and horror, some are curiously upbeat at the end. This was the case with the Alkestis, one of his plays from before the Peloponnesian War, but it became increasingly noticeable in later works such as the Ion. Some critics have credited him with inventing tragicomedy. But it hardly matters what label is attached to such experimental works, and they should not be seen as anything more than experiments. Euripides was not moving in the direction of happy endings, although he was certainly interested in trying them out. Nevertheless, his last work, the Bacchae, was as tragic as anything could possibly be.

Euripides was a blazing meteor in the history of drama. When he was gone, there was never another quite like him. Sophocles, who was utterly different in style and temperament, was wise and generous enough to recognize the unique genius of his younger contemporary. By pitting Euripides against Aeschylus in the Frogs, Aristophanes acknowledged that the younger writer had, without eclipsing the grand old master, radically transformed the nature of Greek tragedy. Aristophanes clearly understood Euripides’ innovations in myth, character, and poetry, even as he made fun of them.

Classical scholarship has served the text and technique of Euripides well, and luck has preserved far more of his plays than we have from Aeschylus and Sophocles. But it is not easy to find a classical scholar between the Renaissance and the present who has responded sympathetically to Euripides’ irrepressible risk-taking. The great German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff wrote a huge commentary on the Herakles, to which classicists of subsequent generations have often turned for a thorough introduction to the dramatist’s language and style. But hardly anyone ever asked whether Wilamowitz really liked the play or its author.

Anne Carson, rigorously trained as a classical scholar at Toronto and Princeton, obviously likes Euripides. Her erudition in ancient Greek language and literature has made it possible for her to use her formidable creative gifts in poetry and criticism. Her new volume, Grief Lessons, contains translations of four of Euripides’ plays, Herakles, Hekabe, Hippolytos, and Alkestis, together with brief introductory essays, the most recent of her bold poetic and critical writings on Greek literature.

Carson’s first book combined classical scholarship with highly original criticism. Appearing in 1986, it was called Eros the Bittersweet. With its list of scholarly abbreviations at the front and a learned bibliography at the end, the book had the apparatus of an academic study. Yet the text itself, beginning with a meditation on Sappho’s adjective glukupikros, “sweetbitter” (Carson would prefer to render it in the Greek order), introduces a succession of meditations on love; and from this opening Carson moves into a wide-ranging analysis of erotic desire, particularly the inevitability of hate in a love relationship. She leaps across languages and centuries to juxtapose illuminating texts. Alongside Catullus’ famous odi et amo (“I hate and I love”) she cites a chorus from the Agamemnon in which the distraught Menelaus is described as wandering through the halls after Helen’s departure: “The grace of shapely statues becomes hateful to him. When the eyes are gone, all Aphrodite is gone too.” (Anyone who has looked carefully at the film The Browning Version will know that these fateful lines appear on the blackboard of the desiccated schoolmaster, Mr. Crocker-Harris.)

Carson returns again and again to Sappho, whose bold vocabulary is matched by the form of the lyric stanza that still bears her name—“Sapphic.” From the start Carson’s prose revealed a personal voice that expressed itself in short, concentrated phrases. Her observations, despite centuries of previous scholarly exegesis, were often startlingly new. For example, on Sappho’s best-known love poem, about a godlike man who is talking with a woman, Carson wrote, “The poem floats towards us on a stage set. But we have no program. The actors go in and out of focus anonymously.” No one ever made such an observation before, or even thought it. Carson’s affinity with Sappho was made fully clear in If Not, Winter (2002), her translation of all Sappho’s surviving poems and fragments.

From Sappho, Carson found her way naturally to another early path-breaking poet, Stesichorus, who boldly used epic themes in lyric verse. This was the poet who had provided Euripides with his untraditional story of Helen. From the sands of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt many fragments of Stesichorus’ lost works have come to light in recent years, and these have served to inspire Carson’s own muse. Out of the scraps of Stesichorus’ strange tale of the three-head winged monster called Geryon, from whom Herakles stole a herd of cattle, Carson constructed a novel in verse called Autobiography of Red (1998). Here Geryon (a monster but with only one head) and Herakles turn out to be lovers in the modern world. Inspired by Geryon’s mythical island Erytheia (“Redland”), Carson rewrote and transformed the surviving bits of Stesichorus into a literary Rhapsody in Red—red Geryon, red cattle, red breezes, red world. She introduced her long poem with a quotation from Gertrude Stein that neatly encapsulated her own aesthetic of language: “I like the feeling of words doing/as they want to do and as they have to do.” Of Stesichorus, she wrote, “He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” Stesichorus and Stein joined Sappho in Carson’s pantheon of iconoclasts.

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