The Children of Herakles
In the early spring of 411 BC, Euripides finally got what was coming to him. The playwright, then in his seventies, had always been the bad boy of Athenian drama. He was the irreverent prankster who, in his Elektra, parodied the famous recognition scene in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers. He was an avant-garde intellectual who took an interest in the latest theorists—he is said to have been a friend of Socrates, and it was at his home that Protagoras (“man is the measure of all things”) first read his agnostic treatise on the gods; in works like The Madness of Herakles, he questioned the established Olympian pantheon. Stylistically, he was a playful postmodernist whose sly rearranging of traditional mythic material, in bitter fables like Orestes, deconstructed tragic conventions, anticipating by twenty-five centuries a theater whose patent subject was the workings of the theater itself.
But no aspect of the playwright’s roiling opus was more famous, in his own day, than his penchant for portraying deranged females. Among them are the love-mad queen Phaedra, whose unrequited lust leads her to suicide and murder (the subject of not one but two Hippolytus plays by the poet, one now lost); the distraught erotomane widow Evadne in Suppliant Women, who incinerates herself on her dead husband’s grave; the ruthless granny Alcmene in Children of Herakles, who violently avenges herself on her male enemies; and the wild-eyed Cassandra in Trojan Women. The list goes on and on. And, of course, there was Medea, whom the Athenians knew from established legend as the murderess of her own brother, the sorceress who dreamed up gruesome ways to destroy her husband Jason’s enemy Pelias, and whom Euripides—not surprisingly, given his tastes in female characters—decided, in his staging of the myth, to make the murderess of her own children as well.
And so it was that, shortly after winter was over in 411, the women of Athens had their revenge on the man who’d given womanhood such a bad name. Or at least they did in one playwright’s fantasy. In that year, the comic dramatist Aristophanes staged his Thesmophoriazousae. (The tongue-twister of a title means “Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria”—an annual, all-female fertility festival associated with Demeter.) In this brilliant literary fantasy, Euripides learns that the women of the city are using the religious festival as a pretext to hold a debate on whether they ought to kill the playwright in revenge for being badmouthed by him in so many works over the years. Desperate to know what they’re saying about him, and eager to have someone speak up on his behalf—something no real woman would do—Euripides persuades an aged kinsman, Mnesilochus, to attend the festival in drag, spy on the proceedings, and, if necessary, speak in the poet’s defense. The plan, of course, backfires, Mnesilochus is found out, and only a last-minute rescue by Euripides himself—he comes swooping onto the stage, dressed as Perseus, in the contraption used in tragedies to hoist gods aloft—can avert disaster. Peace, founded on…
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