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.
The translators’ decision to stay with the text holds good even for the final messenger speech, the last half of which is a mosaic of late antique and Byzantine iambics, overlaid with modern corrections. This was too much for their predecessor in the University of Chicago series, Charles Walker,4 who cut his translation short at the point where Iphigenia goes off to be sacrificed and printed a version of the rest in an appendix. Dimock, the scholar of the Oxford Press team, justifies acceptance of the present end of the play by referring to Page’s demonstration that the Byzantine scribes were copying and supplementing a damaged and partly illegible last page (though Dimock claims more than Page did when he says that “even where our copies have not preserved the exact words Euripides wrote or would have written, they have faithfully kept his conception”).
In any case, the decision to cut or retain this ending usually depends more on overall interpretation than scholarly evidence. Walker, citing the “practice of most modern translators (Schiller among them),” omitted the happy ending because “the whole force of the play collapses if the heroine is hastily called up to heaven at the last minute.” Dimock’s important and challenging introduction to the new translation argues that Euripides did indeed end his play with the rescue of Iphigenia but that “the ‘happy’ ending is undercut in typically Euripidean fashion.” Clytemnestra’s doubts about the truth of the messenger’s report—“how can I know / that this is not all a lie, made up / to silence my bitter grieving?”—reinforce earlier hints in the play that “the old tales are not true”; in any case, “Artemis’ alleged rescue of Iphigenia” is not “a sign of moral approval on the playwright’s part…the information is presented in a way and in a context which only deepen the negative implications of the sacrifice, indicting gods as well as men for the insanity of aggressive war.”
For Dimock (as for many others) the play is above all an indictment of wars of aggression. There is much to be said for this view. When Euripides left for Macedon in 408, Athens had been at war for over twenty years. After fighting Sparta to a stalemate peace in the first ten years of the war, the Athenians had lost their fleet and the pick of their fighting men in a megalomaniac attack on Syracuse in far-off Sicily and since then had carried on a desperate struggle on the Aegean against Spartan fleets which were subsidized by Persian gold. In 406 when Euripides died Athens was still fighting; he had seen the democratic assembly, buoyed by temporary success, refuse one opportunity after another to make peace on realistic terms. The Athenian situation of the last years of the war is reflected in the play, not only in the sarcastic portrayal of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon as a candidate for election to the generalship—“touching hands / keeping open house to the whole citizenry…”—but also in the brooding menace of the war-hungry masses Agamemnon does not dare to disobey—“in an army of tens of thousands,” Euripides had written in an earlier play, “the mob is uncontrollable, the indiscipline of sailors fiercer than fire….”5
The war against Troy is presented all through the first part of the play in the blackest of terms, as a war fought to recapture a worthless woman, to satisfy the ambition of a time-serving monarch and the greed of a piratical host; even its champion Agamemnon, explaining to his daughter that she must die to make it possible, can do no better than to say: “Being Greeks / we must not be subject to Barbarians / we must not let them carry off our wives.” It is all the more astonishing, then, that Iphigenia ends by launching into a full-scale patriotic justification of the war to explain her proud acceptance of death. This was a problem notorious enough in antiquity for Aristotle to cite it as a classic illustration: “an example…of inconsistency, the Iphigenia at Aulis. For the girl who pleads with her father for her life bears no resemblance to the later Iphigenia.” Aristotle was not the last to find the transition from heartbreaking supplication to patriotic, not to say jingoistic, acceptance of self-sacrifice psychologically unacceptable.
Aristotle, who was the tutor of Alexander, the future conqueror of Persia, probably found nothing objectionable in the patriotic antibarbarian terms of Iphigenia’s speech and was castigating only the sudden switch from one position to another; but most modern critics have found the speech intolerable in its own right and Dimock is no exception. Iphigenia is the victim of an illusion—“she has been brought up under the heroic code”—and goes to her death as the willing sacrifice for a cause which the whole of the play indicts as a monstrous fraud. In fact, the play’s “caricature of pro-Hellenic anti-barbarian chauvinism” shows that it is, among other things, a response to the proposal of the sophist Gorgias, made in a famous speech at Olympia, that the Greeks cease fighting each other and unite to fight the barbarian Persians. “The remedy,” says Dimock, “must have seemed to Euripides worse than the disease.”
This is an interesting idea, but a good case can be made out for exactly the opposite point of view—that Iphigenia’s speech is a reinforcing echo of Gorgias’s appeal. The loss of Athens’s fleet in Sicily in 413 gave Sparta its first chance to challenge Athens at sea, as it had to do if it was to win the war; but Spartan naval power was financed by the Persians, whose fee was the return to Persian rule of the Greek cities along the Asia Minor littoral. Since then the war had depended entirely on Persian subsidies, offered mostly to Sparta, though on one occasion Athens too had been the beneficiary; both sides were in effect dancing to the Persian tune.
Gorgias’s voice was not the only one raised against this ignominious situation. In 407 the Spartan admiral Callicratidas, shabbily treated by the Persian satrap he had asked for funds, complained that the Greeks were in miserable condition, fawning on barbarians for money, and said that if he got home alive (he didn’t) he would do all that he could to reconcile Athenians and Spartans. And in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata the heroine’s great harangue to the Spartan and Athenian commissioners contains the reproach that they fight and destroy each other “with the barbarians, your enemies, armed and looking on.” Evidently this idea of union against Persia as a way to achieve peace among Greeks was in the air and Euripides, far from thinking it worse than the disease, may have seen it as the lesser evil. For it is very doubtful that the Greeks, reconciled on such terms, would have had the energy or the resources to mount an effective offensive against Persia; it was only with Persian backing that they could fight each other.
Dimock’s thoughtful analysis goes farther, however, than the contemporary political situation; he finds in Euripides’ treatment of the theme implications of profound ethical and philosophical significance. “Euripides identifies the essential cause of aggressive war as philotimia, the urge to be thought superior.” This is indeed, as he points out, a key word in the Greek text, and a basic ancient (and for that matter modern) Greek imperative; it is the essence of the heroic code, a fundamental assumption of heroic myth. “Philotimia and belief in destiny are related. Both are rooted in acceptance of the truth of the Greek myths…. By questioning the myths our play potentially destroys the basis both for Philotimia and for belief in destiny.”
In a penetrating analysis of the working of heroic ambition in all of the characters and its disastrous effects in action, Dimock suggests “that the play offers an escape from the clutches of philotimia and fate.” The myths may not be true, but even if they are, the fact that human feelings can occasionally and temporarily prevail, as they do in Agamemnon and Menelaus, encourages us “to resist the supremacy of philotimia” just as their casting doubts on the “efficacy of prophecy” encourages resistance to “the idea of mythological necessity.” The play demands that we ask questions: who knows whether Iphigenia’s death would make the wind blow? What would have happened if the two kings had tried to silence Calchas and Odysseus? or thrown themselves on the mercy of the army? or fled to Mycenae? And more questions besides, all of them in plangent discord with the overt themes of the myth.
This view of the play’s effect on the audience is very far from the Aristotelian formula; in fact it is reminiscent of the theory and practice of the author of Uber eine nichtaristotelische Dramatik:
The spectator of the dramatic theater says: “Yes, that’s what I have often felt myself—I’m like that—That’s only natural—That’s how it will always be—The suffering of this man moves me deeply, because there is no way out for him.”
The spectator of the epic theater says: “I never thought of that—That’s now how one should act—That is extremely surprising, almost unbelievable—That ought to stop—The suffering of this man moves me deeply because there could after all be a way out for him….”6
As Dimock sees our play, the Athenians, like Brecht’s audience for epic theater, were supposed to learn something—to “refuse to play the game of heroic superiority” and, in more limited terms, to see that nothing could be worse than to continue their now hopeless war. Dimock even feels that in the end “the Athenians did give evidence that they had understood what Euripides was saying.” When the surrender came in 404, one of the conditions was the destruction of the walls which connected Athens with the sea; it was done “to the music of flute girls and with rejoicing”—by the Athenians en masse, as Dimock evidently reads the passage in Xenophon which describes the event. But what Xenophon says is this: “Lysander sailed into the Piraeus, and the exiles returned and began to demolish the walls to the music of flute girls and with enthusiasm, believing that day was the beginning of freedom for Greece.” “Freedom for Greece” was the banner under which Sparta had fought the twenty-seven-year war and the run of the sentence suggests strongly that the only Athenian members of the happy wrecking crews were the pro-Spartan exiles.
In any case, the questioning, probing reaction to drama which Dimock prescribes for the audience of this play is possible, as Brecht never tires of repeating, only if the spectator remains detached, emotionally uninvolved with the characters, if “instead of empathy Verfremdung [alienation] is introduced.”7 But Iphigenia at Aulis is a play that takes the spectator by the throat from the very beginning and forces him to identify not only with the wronged mother and the threatened girl but even, in his turn, with the cowardly royal father. This is demonstrated, with terrifying intensity, in Michael Cacoyannis’s powerful film Iphigenia.
This is not, of course, his first film version of a Greek tragedy. His most recent effort along this line, The Trojan Women, was a rather wooden affair; a series of academic performances by American and English actresses on their best classical behavior—only Irene Papas as Helen succeeded in giving life to Edith Hamilton’s bland translation. This was a disappointment after the same director’s much earlier Electra (based on Euripides’ play, Papas in the title role): a film remarkable for its skillful use of the Greek landscape, its imaginative handling of the chorus, its evocation of the unchanging realities of life in a Greek village, and, above all, its faithful re-creation against this rich background of Euripides’ tormented and murderous heroine. The sound track of Electra was Greek and so is that of Iphigenia; perhaps it was the English dialogue of Trojan Women which inhibited the director; however that may be, he has now recaptured the passion and vitality of the earlier film. The giant Antaeus was a wrestler who had a fresh access of energy every time he touched the earth; perhaps Cacoyannis has drawn strength from his return to Greek actors and the Greek language—which is, even after 2500 years, still recognizably the language of Euripides.
He works with a succinct modern Greek version of Euripides’ play; the speeches are reduced but the essentials are all there. The great scenes lose none of their power and those between father and daughter produce that almost unbearable pathos which explains Aristotle’s statement that Euripides, in spite of his faults, is the most tragic of the poets. I heard the same judgment, expressed in different terms, from the Washington cinema-owner who organized the premiere of the film at the Kennedy Center prior to its exclusive run at one of his theaters: “It’s a four-hand-kerchief movie.” It certainly sends audiences out red-eyed, and much of the credit for this is due to the cast, especially to the frail beauty of the young Tatiana Papamoskou and the magnificent acting of Irene Papas, whose Clytemnestra starts as a proud and loving mother and ends as a desperate, bereaved, menacing presence; her drawn face looking back at Aulis as the warships sail for Troy is the last frame of the film.
The film’s pictorial richness (it looks as if it has indeed been shot at Aulis, the mountains of Euboea in full view across the straits) is enhanced by color; this is brilliantly used, even when, in the outdoor sequences, the fierce Greek sun seems at times to leach the colors of the film as it does those of the air, exposing a landscape of rock and stunted shrub which glares, almost colorless, in the heat. To his credit, Cacoyannis has not allowed the availability of color to tempt him with visions of reconstructed Mycenaean palaces; when the action is not outdoors or in Agamemnon’s hut, an adroit use of carefully angled shots of real Greek ruins suggests the palace at Argos (one of these buildings has Roman-style arches but only archaeologists will be offended).
Euripides’ play, of course, has no scenes set in Argos, but it is the privilege and the duty of the camera to extend the dramatic frontier out beyond the three walls of the modern and the one wall of the ancient stage, and Cacoyannis presents us with a great deal of action which the original audience did not see. In fact the first half hour of the film consists, except for a few tiny fragments, of material which does not correspond to anything in the Euripidean text.
In the opening section, Cacoyannis tries to do two things: to give visual and dramatic shape to what in Euripides is an unseen but deadly menace—the army—and to explain why Agamemnon was faced with the oracular command to kill his daughter in the first place. Cacoyannis’s army is a magnificent bunch of bearded cutthroats whose mutinous impatience grows visibly as the windless heat blazes on and the rations run low. A near riot over the bad food drives Agamemnon to desperate measures; he leads his mounted archers to a pastoral sanctuary where priests tend their sheep and orders his men to kill the livestock. Unfortunately they go too far and kill a deer which is sacred to the goddess Artemis. The high priest Calchas confines his reaction for the moment to baleful looks but soon, at night, he brings the oracle to Agamemnon in his tent. The goddess will send the winds if he will sacrifice his daughter; and meanwhile the army, ignorant of the real nature of the sacrifice demanded, waits impatiently for Agamemnon to act.
This section of the film is full of action; in fact there is so much horseback work in it that at times one seems to be present at the creation of a new genre—the souvlaki Western. But it is sad to note that when Cacoyannis leaves Euripides behind and takes off on his own, he sometimes teeters on the verge of the ridiculous. The priests, for example, are barefoot, clothed in skin-tight long cotton robes and have their heads shaved; all they need to be contemporary is a saffron robe, a begging bowl, and a mantra or two. The army has in its ranks a large number of experts on the bongo drums, who rattle away on them as the sun sinks and Agamemnon in his tent cries: “Those infernal drums!” If he had not been speaking Greek, one would have expected him to continue: “the natives are restless tonight, Carruthers.”
These are minor matters; more important is the purpose behind this lengthy and emphatic presentation of the reasons for Agamemnon’s dilemma. Euripides devotes four iambic lines to them and even at that does not offer an explanation; the lines merely state that Calchas told Agamemnon the price he would have to pay for Troy: his daughter. It is as if Euripides were saying: “There is no need to explain it. This is the way of the world, if you are a man in the seats of power, sooner or later you will face a choice just like this one.” But Cacoyannis bears down heavily on the point and leaves the spectator with the feeling that there is more here than meets the eye. Calchas is presented not as the impartial spokesman of a goddess but as a man deeply insulted and fiercely angry. The goddess was evidently not responsible for the doldrums in the first place; yet now she speaks as if she controlled the winds. There are unanswered questions here, disturbing hints of what looks like wavering direction. But all this is left behind as a firm hand takes over. Agamemnon comes out of the tent and calls the old man; Euripides’ play has begun.
At the end of the film it appears that the suspicions aroused by Cacoyannis’s prologue were justified. The army, now informed of the terms of the oracle by Odysseus, has insisted on its fulfillment. As they wait for Iphigenia, who has claimed the glory of self-sacrifice, there is a conspiratorial exchange between Odysseus and Calchas: “The wind is rising; we had better hurry.” And indeed it is. Before Iphigenia is actually seized by the Hare Krishna priests it is blowing with gale force and Agamemnon dashes up the steps to the high altar to save his daughter; he is, of course, too late.
What is all this about? The oracle, it now seems, had nothing to do with the goddess; it was invented by Calchas. Why? To revenge the insult to him, to satisfy his philotimia (a priestly trait of character referred to by Menelaus, as Dimock points out). But what about Odysseus? Why does he go along with the scheme? Speculation along these lines is useless. The real question is: why does Cacoyannis give the story a final twist of his own invention, to make Iphigenia the victim not of a harsh destiny but of a peevish act of retaliation? Only one answer suggests itself: to underline even more heavily the irony of Iphigenia’s acceptance of self-sacrifice. She was even more deluded than we thought. It was not even for a predatory army launched on an aggressive war that she died; she died to settle a personal score.
This part of the film, like the long beginning, is all Cacoyannis; it is his interpretation of the play and some may admire it. But even those who do not should be thankful to him for his faithful and visually overwhelming presentation of the play Euripides wrote. It is hard to see how it could be better done.
It is done so well in fact that it provides a unique opportunity to test Aristotle’s famous verdict on the inconsistency of Iphigenia’s character. Quite apart from any ironic reflection on the war which may or may not be intended, can we believe that Iphigenia, after her impassioned plea for life, would then decide to accept her death in the triumphantly patriotic terms she uses in the play? Accept her death she must, and one can imagine many ways she could find to reconcile herself to it, but would she say: “I will be the one / to protect our women in the future / if the barbarians dare to come near”? The film here is faithful to the text, the dramatic tension has been expertly built toward this point, and the actors and supporting cast are all that could be desired, but I, for one, could not believe she would speak like that. I can think of many reasons, some better than others, why Euripides, at the time, might put these words in her mouth, but have to agree, reluctantly (as so often), with spoil-sport Aristotle: this sounds like a different girl. Another flaw in the masterpiece—as if there were not enough already.
But this extraordinary play remains, like Euripides, intensely tragic in spite of its faults. It deserves a place in the modern repertoire, and Dimock and Merwin have now provided an English version which will be welcomed by readers and actors alike. And Cacoyannis’s film, for all its aberrations, recreates for the modern audience that irresistible, unbearable assault on the emotions that was Euripides’ special skill and that made him, in his own time, a poet greatly loved but also feared.
February 9, 1978
The Oresteia, translated by Robert Fagles (Viking, 1975), pp. 99-100. ↩
Oxford University Press, 1934. ↩
Yale Classical Studies, 22 (1972), p. 260 n 56. ↩
Walker, like his friend Edmund Wilson (see NYR, March 3, 1977, pp. 13-14), had studied Greek as an undergraduate; he had also produced and directed plays in the Thirties. ↩
Hecuba, 606ff. ↩
Bertolt Brecht, Werkausgabe (Frankfurt am Main, 1967), Vol. 15, p. 265. ↩
Ibid., p. 301. ↩