Daniel Mendelsohn, a longtime contributor to The New York ­Review, teaches at Bard. His essay in this issue will accompany The Greek Plays, a collection of translations that will be published by Modern ­Library Classics in August.
 (June 2016)

How Greek Drama Saved the City

Jason meeting Medea, with Amor between them; detail of a Sicilian red-figure cup, circa 350 BCE
For us, the children of Freud, great drama is often most satisfying when it enacts the therapy-like process by which the individual psyche is stripped of its pretentions or delusions to stand, finally, exposed to scrutiny—and, as often as not, to the audience’s pity or revulsion. But although there are great Greek plays that enact the same process—Sophocles’ Oedipus inevitably comes to mind—it would appear, given the strange twinning of Athenian drama and Athenian political history, that for the Athenians, tragedy was just as much about “the city” as it was about the individual.

A Striptease Among Pals

Peter Hujar: Orgasmic Man, 1969; from Peter Hujar: Love & Lust, published last year by Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. A new exhibition, ‘Peter Hujar: 21 Pictures,’ will be on view at the gallery, January 7–March 5, 2016.
The title of Hanya Yanagihara’s second work of fiction stands in almost comical contrast to its length: at 720 pages, it’s one of the biggest novels to be published this year. To this literal girth there has been added, since the book appeared in March, the metaphorical weight of several prestigious award nominations. Both the size of A Little Life and the impact it has had on readers and critics alike—a best seller, the book has received adulatory reviews in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other serious venues—reflect, in turn, the largeness of the novel’s themes.

The Robots Are Winning!

Alicia Vikander as the robot Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina
We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata.

The Bacchae: Ecstasy & Terror

‘The death of Pentheus’; detail of a red-figure cup by the Athenian painter Douris, circa 480 BC
In the spring of 411 BC, the comic playwright Aristophanes presented to the citizens of Athens a new work, Thesmophoriazousae, lampooning the tragedian Euripides. The tongue-twisting title of the play means “Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria,” a reference to an annual all-female rite held in honor of the fertility goddess Demeter.

Hail Augustus! But Who Was He?

Bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, 27–25 BC
Compared to John Williams’s earlier novels, Augustus—the last work to be published by the author, poet, and professor whose once-neglected Stoner has become an international literary sensation in recent years—can seem like an oddity. The novel’s subject—the life and history-changing career of the first emperor of Rome—seems impossibly remote from the distinctly American preoccupations of Williams’s other mature works.

The Inspired Voyage of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Phlomochori, a village on the Mani peninsula, southern Peloponnese, Greece
When Leigh Fermor—a dashing autodidact and World War II hero, considered by some to be the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century—died in 2011, at ninety-six, he had been afflicted by a writer’s block that had lasted a quarter of a century. But it turns out that the third volume of his account of youthful travels on foot across Europe was, in a way, already complete.

The Women and the Thrones

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones
When Game of Thrones, the HBO television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books, began airing in April 2011, many critics and viewers dismissed the series as “boy fiction.” And yet the show has been a tremendous hit. This is, in part, a testament to the way in which fantasy entertainment—fiction, television, movies, games—has moved ever closer to the center of mass culture over the past couple of decades.

The Cemetery Dream

For a period of two or three years during the late 1980s or early 1990s—it’s difficult, now, to recall exactly when, but I know it was while I was a graduate student—I repeatedly dreamt the same terrifying dream. Once a week sometimes, sometimes every other week, sometimes twice a week or more, it would (as I then thought) be waiting for me as soon as I dropped off, identical each time in every detail: the open gate, the familiar headstones, the sudden sunset, the missing graves, the dead I knew so well but who didn’t seem to know me any more, chasing me, the gun, the embarrassing horror-movie detail of the silver bullets.

Herakles: Punished Again!

Antonio Canova: Hercules Firing Arrows at His Children, 1799
For Aristotle in the Poetics, the most important element of drama is plot, “the arrangement of incidents”: plot more than character, plot more than theme, plot more than diction. What makes a good tragic plot? After impatiently dismissing what he calls “episodic” plots (“the worst…the episodes or acts succeed one …

In Gay and Crumbling England

Alan Hollinghurst, New York City, December 2004
Early on in Alan Hollinghurst’s big new novel—his first in seven years, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to his Man Booker–winning The Line of Beauty—a youngish man stands gazing at a tomb, thinking about an absent penis. The year is 1926, and the man, George Sawle, is a married scholar in …

A One-Sided Crush

E.M. Forster in Alexandria, circa 1917
When E.M. Forster sailed to Alexandria in the autumn of 1915 to take up a post as something called a “searcher”—a Red Cross functionary whose job it was to interview wounded soldiers about those still missing—he cannot have guessed at the magnitude of what he ended up finding. It certainly …

Why She Fell

A scene from the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Looking back at the Spider-Man fiasco, it’s possible to see the contours of a familiar story: a woman of great talent, overweening artistic ambition, and then humiliation. In the end, Julie Taymor got her Greek drama. Like a character in some Attic play, she was led by a single-minded passion to betray her truest self and abandon her greatest virtues. These, as her admirers have long recognized and she herself once seemed to know, lie not in elaborate Hollywood special effects that huge amounts of money can buy in order to make the fantastical seem real and persuasive, but in a very old-fashioned kind of magic that doesn’t pretend to be “real” at all.

The Mad Men Account

Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway Harris, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, and Cara Buono as Faye Miller in Mad Men
That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them; as with many fads that take the form of infatuations with certain moments in the past, the Mad Men craze tells us far more about today than it does about yesterday. But just what in the world of the show do we want to possess? The clothes and furniture? The wicked behavior? The unpunished crassness? To my mind, it’s something else entirely, something unexpected and, in a way, almost touching.

Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar

Oscar Wilde at the beginning of his American tour, 1882
When asked what he intended to do after finishing at Oxford, the young Oscar Wilde—who was already well known not only for his outré persona but for his brilliant achievements as a classics scholar—made it clear in which direction his ambitions lay. “God knows,” the twenty-three-year-old said, “I won’t be a dried-up Oxford don, anyhow. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”

Boys Will Be Boys

Edmund White, New York City, early 1980s
When Edmund White writes about the work of a contemporary author, he often finds a way to include an anecdote that shows that he has some personal connection, some social or even sexual history, with the writer in question. “I first met Chatwin in 1978 in New York,” he writes, …

The Wizard

Jake Sully’s avatar and Neytiri, his Na’vi love interest, looking out over the landscape of Pandora in James Cameron’s film Avatar
Two hugely popular “mashups”—homemade videos that humorously juxtapose material from different sources—that are currently making the rounds on the Internet seek to ridicule James Cameron’s visually ravishing and ideologically awkward new blockbuster, Avatar. In one, the portentous voice-over from the trailer for Disney’s Oscar-winning animated feature Pocahontas (1995) has been …

The Dream Director

The Russian film director Alexander Sokurov, 1998; photograph by Lise Sarfati
About halfway through Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinary 2002 film Russian Ark, a movie that takes the form of a surreal tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a woman who’s holding forth about a certain painting pauses to observe that “there are so many symbols we can only guess about.” Indeed.

A Wild Night in the Park

André De Shields as Teiresias and George Bartenieff as Cadmus in the Public Theater's production of Euripides' Bacchae, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Whatever else it may be—a stark symbolic drama about the conflict between nature and culture; a startlingly prescient “psychoanalytical” exploration of the dynamics of sexuality and repression; an eerie mystery-play celebrating the obscure power of divinity; or, simply, the work that offers the greatest single “specimen of sheer theatrical power” …


Like Orestes, the hero of the Greek tragedy to which its title alludes—and which, according to its author, has from the start provided his novel with its “underlying structure”—The Kindly Ones has been both extravagantly blessed and hideously cursed.

Oppie in New York

The Manhattan Project laboratory and staff in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in Act 1 of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, directed by Penny Woolcock at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, October 2008
Opera, that most extreme of the staged arts, has always made a routine of spectacularly violent endings—inventive homicides and suicides (poisoned bouquets, seppuku), grandiose self-immolations, a post-nuptial psychotic spree, even, as in Dialogues of the Carmelites, the occasional mass-guillotining. But it’s probably fair to say that, in terms of sheer …

Myres: Alexandria in 340 AD

When I learned the dreadful news, that Myres was dead, I went to his house, for all that I am loath to go inside the homes of Christians, above all those in mourning, or on feast-days. I stood there in a corridor. I didn’t …

‘As Good as Great Poetry Gets’

“Outside his poems Cavafy does not exist.” Seventy-five years after the death of “the Alexandrian” (as he is known in Greece), the early verdict of his fellow poet George Seferis—which must have seemed rather harsh in 1946, when the Constantine Cavafy who had existed in flesh and blood was still …

Evelyn Waugh Revisited

Holy Week of 1937 found Evelyn Waugh—thirty-three years old, solidly established in his literary career, and on the verge of a second marriage—at a Benedictine monastery in Ampleforth, in Yorkshire, where, as he noted in his diary, he whiled away the time “entertaining dumb little boys and monks.” It was …