The Bacchae of Euripides, A Communion Rite
Thirty-two Greek tragedies have come down to us intact, a pitiful remnant of the Athenian theater’s great century; it is about one-tenth of the known work of the three great tragedians, who were, however, only three among many. The composition of this remnant was determined by factors which are hardly ideal from a purely aesthetic standpoint; suitability as school texts in early Byzantium was a governing consideration, for example. And it was blind chance which decided that over half of our sample should be from the pen of Euripides; one volume of a complete edition of his work somehow survived the sack of Byzantium by the licensed brigands of the Fourth Crusade and their destructive fifty-year occupation of the city. Given this hit-and-miss process of selection, it seems almost miraculous that though three of the Aeschylean plays we still possess are dramatic fragments, torn from the trilogic frame for which they were composed, three others, Agamemnon, Libation-bears, and Eumenides, constitute the trilogy Aeschylus produced in the competition of 458 BC, the Oresteia.
We have very little evidence (apart from its survival) that the ancient world thought very highly of it, and in modern times it had to wait until the nineteenth century for full appreciation. Swinburne’s praise—“the greatest achievement of the human mind”—is well known, and Swinburne, witness his admiration for Baudelaire, was a better judge of poetry than some of his own compositions might suggest. Wagner, working on Lohengrin in 1847, read the Oresteia (in Droysen’s translation) and found himself over-whelmed: “…right up to the end of the Eumenides I lingered in a state of ecstasy from which I have never fully returned to reconcile myself to modern literature.”
In our own century its prestige has risen as fast as the number of people able to read it in the original has declined. The modern liberal conscience recognized themes that echoed its own aspirations: the law of learning by suffering seen as a force driving toward human progress under a divine dispensation mysterious, apparently merciless, yet ultimately benevolent; the transition from vengeance exacted by the family of the victim to the assumption of responsibility by society, the court of law which allowed consideration of motive and extenuating circumstance; the voices of both Athena and the Furies raised in praise of democracy, the mean between anarchy and despotism. The fact that the dark past is associated with the female principle—Clytemnestra, the Furies—and the new democratic justice with male domination—Apollo, Athena—was accepted, not without a certain complacency, as a reflection of fifth-century historical conditions.
We are no longer so sure of ourselves and our reactions have changed. Progress is no longer a word to conjure with, especially when it is associated with national aggrandizement; modern audiences may feel nothing but apprehension as Athena proclaims the greatness of Athens to come: “As time flows on, the honors flow through all / my citizens…. Let our wars / rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy / our powerful lust for…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.