When in the ninth century AD there was a revival of learning in Byzantium and a renewed interest in the ancient classics, some plays of the three great tragic poets of the fifth century BC were selected for transfer from their fragile, perishable papyrus rolls to sheets of durable vellum sewn together like the quires of a modern book. On this new material the texts were inscribed in the new cursive style, complete with breathings and accents but, above all, with separation between the words, unlike the uncial (what we call capital) letters of the papyri, which were written in unbroken sequence line by line. How the selection was made and by whom we do not know, whether by one scholar or through some process of agreement, but it preserved for us seven plays of Aeschylus, seven of Sophocles, and ten of Euripides.

One of these plays is an odd item—Rhesos, based on an exploit of Odysseus and Diomedes in Book IX of the Iliad; a note on the manuscript says it is not by Euripides, though it appears in the official lists of his plays. The others are some of Euripides’ masterpieces, plays that inspired Aristotle to call him “the most tragic of the poets”—Medea, Hippolytus, Trojan Women, Hecuba, Orestes, Phoenissae, Andromache, and Bacchae, as well as the fascinating and in some ways enigmatic Alcestis. All of the plays are provided with scholia, or marginal notes, many of which contain comments and explanations attributed to the great scholars of the Alexandrian Library. Later, during the European Renaissance, as Greek scholars were teaching their language in Florence, Venice, and elsewhere, a fourteenth-century manuscript was found that contained nine more Euripidean plays. They are known as the “alphabetic” plays, since they are arranged in alphabetical order by their Greek titles; they are probably a remnant of what was once a complete collection of the plays.

What these plays do is present us with some aspects of Euripidean drama that are not to be found in the original selection. One of them, Cyclops, is the only complete version of a satyr play, the fourth play offered by the poet at the Dionysiac festival; it is a farcical version of the Polyphemus episode in Book IX of the Odyssey, with a chorus of satyrs equipped with leather phalloi attached to their belts. Three of the tragedies have happy endings and in two of these, Helen and Iphigenia Among the Taurians, the protagonist is a woman who by skillful deception rescues herself and others from the clutches of the barbarians. And the third, the Ion, is clearly the prototype of Menander’s comedies of the next century—a plot in which mistaken identity threatens tragic consequences that are averted by recognition. Elektra is certainly a tragedy, but, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in this journal some weeks ago, in this play Euripides is “the mischievous prankster who…parodied the famous recognition scene in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers,” and in Mad Herakles “he questioned the established Olympian pantheon.”1 The other Iphigenia play is undoubtedly tragic and has a certain contemporary resonance, since it shows the Greek army’s stubborn insistence on making war as the force that defeats every effort to save the life of an innocent girl; it was the script for a powerful, heartbreaking film by Michael Cacoyannis that was reviewed in these pages some years ago.2

The remaining two plays—The Children of Herakles and The Suppliant Women—both dramatize mythic tales which feature Athens as the protector of the victims of tyrannical power, ready to go to war to save them; both plays contain a full-length debate between the Athenian democratic leader—Theseus in The Suppliant Women, his son Demophon in The Children of Herakles—and a herald representing the tyrannical, persecuting power. (All this is of course wildly anachronistic, but that did not bother the Athenian audience, which was accustomed to seeing its own fears, anxieties, and problems embodied in the heroes and villains of the mythic past.) Both plays also feature two important female roles, one a woman who acts like a man, for the benefit of the city; the other a wild woman who, by violent antisocial action, satisfies her own desires.

Often referred to as “the political plays,” these two have not received good reviews. In the introduction to their admirable translation of The Suppliant Women, Rosanna Warren and Stephen Scully exactly sum up the general reaction: “Many modern readers simply dismiss the play as flawed, its tone inconsistent, its structure incoherent, its scenes overblown.”3 This is a judgment that they firmly reject, but in their eloquent defense of its “daring dramaturgy” they stand almost alone.

The “political plays,” unlike, for example, Medea and The Trojan Women, have not appealed to modern producers either; in fact, The Children of Herakles had its first US performance recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, directed by Peter Sellars and reviewed in this journal by Daniel Mendelsohn. He pointed out that to isolate these two plays under the label “political” is to ignore the fact that

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Greek tragedy was political theater in a way we cannot imagine, or replicate, today…. Athenian drama, presented with much ceremony during the course of a public and even patriotic yearly civic festival, structured on the armature of heroic myth, rigidly conventional in form and diction, was not “realistic”; we must be careful, when evaluating and interpreting these works, of our own tendency to see drama in purely personal terms, as a vehicle for psychological investigations. If anything, Athenian tragedy seems to have been useful as an artistic means of exploring concerns that, to us, seem to be unlikely candidates for an evening of thrilling drama: the nature of the state, the difficult relationship—always of concern in a democracy—between remarkable men (tragedy’s “heroes”) and the collective citizen body.

In particular, the dialogic nature of drama made it a powerful vehicle for giving voice to—literally acting out—the tensions that underlay the smooth ideological surface of the aggressively imperialistic Athenian democracy. Tensions, that is, between personal morality and the requirements of the state or army (as in Sophocles’ Philoctetes), between the ethical obligations imposed by family and those imposed by the city (Antigone); and the never-quite-satisfying negotiations between the primitive impulse toward personal vengeance and the civilized rule of law (Oresteia).4

“This,” he goes on, “is the context in which we must interpret tragedy’s passionate females.” Euripides’ “wild women…weren’t so much reflections of real contemporary females and their concerns…but rather symbolic entities representing everything ‘other'” to the

citizen audience, which was free, propertied, and male…because women—thought to be irrational, emotional, deceitful, slaves of passion—were themselves “other” to all that the free, rational, self-controlled male citizen was…. As such, Greek drama’s girls and women—pathetic, suffering, angry, violent, noble, wicked—were ideal mouthpieces for all the concerns that imperial state ideology, with its drive toward centralization, homogenization, and unity, necessarily suppressed or smoothed over: family blood ties, the interests of the private sphere, the anarchic, self-indulgent urges of the individual psyche, secret longings for the glittering heroic and aristocratic past.

This, he admits, “is a schematic reading, one that doesn’t take into account the genius of the Attic poets…. But it is useful to keep the schema in mind, if only as a counterbalance to our contemporary temptation to see all drama in terms of psyches rather than polities.” These theses are the base of Mendelsohn’s detailed, profound, and revealing analysis of the two “political” plays in the book under review. Its title, as the French saying goes, est tout un programme: Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays.

The scene of the action in both plays is a temple on Athenian soil: of Zeus Agoraios at Marathon for The Children of Herakles and of Demeter at Eleusis for The Suppliant Women. In both plays suppliants ask for Athenian help: the children of Herakles, accompanied by Herakles’ companion on his labors, Iolaos, and Herakles’ mother, Alkmene, seek protection from Eurystheus, king of Argos, who sent Herakles on his labors, and who, now that Herakles has been taken up to Olympus and given Hebe, goddess of youth, as his bride, wishes to kill his children. The suppliants in The Suppliant Women are the mothers of the seven champions sent to assault the seven gates of Thebes by Adrastos, king of Argos; they were all killed and the Thebans refused to allow burial of the dead. In both plays the Athenian leader, Theseus in The Suppliant Women, his son Demophon in The Children of Herakles, takes up the suppliants’ cause, and debates with the representative of the offending city on the merits of their respective forms of government. In both plays battle is eventually joined and Athens is victorious; Eurystheus is captured and the children of Herakles return to Argos; the bodies of the seven are brought to Athens and cremated.

In The Children of Herakles an unnamed daughter of Herakles—referred to simply as parthenos (virgin)—volunteers to be sacrificed to assure the victory of Athens in the battle against Eurystheus. Inside the temple with the other daughters and their grandmother Alkmene, she heard the anguished laments of Iolaos when he was told that an oracle had predicted defeat for Athens in the coming battle unless a virgin is sacrificed to Persephone, daughter of Demeter. Demophon, who brought him this news, was naturally unwilling to sacrifice an Athenian virgin and Iolaos had cried out in despair.

The opening lines of the maiden’s speech are a classic example of what the Athenian male believed was the proper attitude for the opposite sex. “Strangers,” she says,

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please do not consider my coming out to be overbold: this is the first indulgence I shall ask. I know that for a woman silence is best, and modest behavior, and staying quietly within doors. But since I heard your anguished words, Iolaos, I have come out.5

She asks him whether some new misfortune is vexing his mind. When told, she immediately offers herself for sacrifice. She makes a long speech justifying her decision, rejects Iolaos’ suggestion that she draw lots with her sisters to decide who shall die, and goes off with Demophon to her death with their praises ringing in her ears. As Mendelsohn points out, she

symbolically enacts the principle of prohairesis, of sacrificing family ties for civic community that was of paramount importance in the civic rhetoric of the fifth century…. [She] redefines herself in terms of masculine and heroic values.

Her exit on her way to her death leaves Iolaos devastated; he collapses in front of the altar ordering the young sons of Herakles, the chorus, to cover his head. Just as the girl has assumed the heroic masculine role, Iolaos acts like a woman.

Later on in the play, hearing of the gathering of the troops to fight Eurystheus, Iolaos insists on going to join them, in spite of the objections of Alkmene and the servant who has brought the news. There follows a scene verging on the comic, as the old, weak man arms himself and defends his decision. “Will not even my blow pierce their shields?” he says indignantly to the servant, who replies: “You may strike a blow, but you might fall down first.” But off he goes, limping and needing help from the servant, to the battle. Later we hear that once in the field, he miraculously regained his youthful vigor as a vision of Herakles and Hebe in a chariot was seen in the sky—a process that Mendelsohn refers to as “revirilization” (a word not to be found in the OED and its supplement). It is the rejuvenated Iolaos who captures Eurystheus and sends him under guard to face Alkmene.

These exchanges and reversals of gender roles are common to both plays. In The Suppliant Women, Aithra, the mother of Theseus, opens the play by identifying the women who sit in supplication and sending for her son to deal with the situation. When Theseus arrives he criticizes Adrastos for his rashness in sending the Seven against Thebes in defiance of warning oracles and refuses to help. At this point Aithra, who had previously remarked that she was sending for Theseus because “it is proper for women, if they are wise, to do everything through their men,” intervenes. She does not spare him. She points out that the Thebans are defying not only human but also divine law, that he will be accused of cowardice, that Athens’ greatness has always been that “it flourishes in strenuous action.” She has spoken like a man; it is the voice of the polis. And Theseus relents; he will demand the surrender of the bodies of the seven men and a refusal will bring the Athenian army into action against Thebes.

But each play also presents us with a female character who embodies “the other,” a “wild woman.” In The Children of Herakles it is Alkmene, the mother of Herakles, who has for the first half of the play remained offstage with the daughters. She is called out by Iolaos to hear the news that her grandson Hyllos, with an army, will join the Athenians in the battle against Eurystheus, and later on she sees her enemy, a prisoner, brought in to face her. She greets Eurystheus with a fierce, contemptuous invective—“hateful creature,” she calls him, and “villainous creature,” reproaching him for all the labors he imposed on Herakles, even sending him down to the world of the dead, and ends by telling him: “You must die a villain’s death.” But the servant who has brought him to her objects: he cannot be killed; he is a prisoner of war. At the end of the argument that ensues, the servant says: “There is no one to put him to death.” To which she replies: “I shall. I claim to be someone.”

Eurystheus in a long speech blames his persecution of Herakles and his children on the goddess Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, the father of Herakles, and he affirms his right to life as a prisoner. But Alkmene does not give an inch and Eurystheus accepts his fate, citing an oracle that said his body buried in Athenian soil would act as a deterrent to future invaders of Attica, and is led off to his death. The future invaders will be the Spartans, descendants of the children of Herakles, who at the time of the play’s performance had already invaded Attica, destroying crops and buildings.

In The Suppliant Women the “other” appears at the end of the play when the funeral pyre of Capaneus has been built on stage. His widow, Evadne, suddenly appears, standing, as the chorus tells us, “on the high cliff that towers over this temple.” She announces, in lyric song, that she intends to throw herself down on the blazing pyre to join her husband in death. At this point her aged father, Iphis, enters, looking for Evadne, whom he had kept guarded in the house but who has escaped. In spite of his remonstrances and frantic appeals, she jumps to her death, leaving him to lament the miserable end of his life and announcing that he will put an end to it by starving his “aged body.”

There is another feature of these two plays that, according to Mendelsohn, had great impact on the Athenian audience. “An important consideration,” he writes,

in any interpretation of these plays is the prominent role played by place, space, and location—unities that, if their implications are followed through, give the works both structural and thematic coherencies that have generally been missed.

One obvious example of the importance of location is the way women who come on stage, out of the women’s quarters, so to speak, apologize for and explain the reasons for this intrusion. But, more important, some such intrusions—the girl in The Children of Herakles, Aithra in The Suppliant Women—can be seen as a negative example that implicitly endorses domestic ideology (since it dramatizes the disastrous consequences of inappropriate loyalties). In these two sequences Mendelsohn sees a pattern:

The first, “heroic” female entrance has a disturbing potential—that is, the attempt to appropriate elements constitutive of masculine identity—that “prefigure[s] disorder.” That disorder later explodes in more violent assertions of feminine energy that quite plainly threaten to undermine masculine ideological constructs, recapitulating the language and gestures first used by the perpetrators of these initial, “failed” efforts: we can say that the later and quite violent irruptions into the action of the play are actually foreshadowed by those initial, ostensibly minor infractions of domestic thresholds. It is, in fact, the carefully linked progress from containment to explosion that constitutes these tragedies’ mechanism of critique. For in each work, the first feminine transgression is an example of…successful “control” of feminine power.

Both the girl and Aithra save the city. Mendelsohn goes on to say that “in the second, more harrowing instances of feminine transgression…the poet dramatizes the loss of that control.”

But a different aspect of location is also a factor. When Iolaos in the first speech of the play comes to the lines “Because we have been banished from all the rest of Greece, we have come to Marathon…,” he reminds the audience that in 490 BC it was Athens that saved Greece by defeating a Persian force intent on gaining a foothold on the mainland. And also that the body of Eurystheus (or perhaps just his head) had been buried at Marathon and was a protective spirit hostile to invaders of Attica. But the setting of The Suppliant Women is even more powerfully evocative: it is Eleusis, site of the Mysteries and the worship of Demeter, the goddess who presided over the ripening of the crops, and her daughter Kore, or Persephone, who had once, at Enna in Sicily, been kidnapped by Hades, lord of the dead. Demeter had searched the world for her, while the crops failed, but finally reached an agreement with Hades: her daughter would come back to the light for half of the year. It is a mythic tale told in detail in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and best known to English-speaking readers in Milton’s lines (he uses the Latin names of the divinities, including “Dis” for Hades):

…that fair field
Of Enna, where Prosérpin gath’ring flow’rs
Herself a fairer flow’r by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world…

In this spirit the suppliant women seek throughout the world their sons’ bodies for burial and have come to Athens for help. But this is only one of the Eleusinian echoes in the play; they are omnipresent. Mendelsohn in fact claims that “the mythic narrative is always allusively present in this play” and that

to appreciate the subtleties of Suppliant Women’s mythic intertext and its distinctly feminine themes is to appreciate the subtle coherences of this oft-maligned work. In this Eleusinian setting, all of Suppliant Women’s characters and actions—its nouns and verbs, so to speak—are declined or inflected according to a Demetrian paradigm, allowing us to see Demetrian or Eleusinian paraphrases that are more than merely generic; among the latter we can surely count the drama’s almost metronomically reiterated tableaux of grief, such as that of Adrastos for his city, or of Evadne for her husband, or of Iphis for his children…. The Eleusinian myth is the other drama that lurks behind Euripides’ play, shadowing its actions, and, like a theatrical palimpsest, making its presence subtly felt just beneath the surface of the action that transpires before the eyes of the audience.

These few examples are all that can be cited here of the strength of the evidence he cites to support his theses and the precision of his critical language; to appreciate the full effect, the reader must go to the book. Suffice it to say that in his sensitive analysis of these and other aspects of the two plays’ structure and content he has rescued them from the critical limbo to which so many scholars had consigned them. And toward the end of the book he deals with a question that must by now have surfaced in the mind of anyone who reads this review: Was Euripides, the Bad Boy of Athens, the ironist, an upholder of patriarchal values, one who saw woman’s role as either subordinate or destructive?

Mendelsohn deals with this question in the concluding chapter of his book. “As we have seen,” he writes,

the poet dramatizes the proper control of, or traffic in, female characters by rewarding “good girls” and sensationalizing the catastrophes that result from the behavior of “bad girls.” This technique has indeed been understood as nothing more than the flat expression of patriarchal anxiety about female power and sexuality, and so some critics have recently characterized the Euripidean (and indeed the entire tragic) corpus.

But like those of his female protagonists, Euripides’ own gestures with respect to gender are complex and often self-contradictory. Like the Girl in Children of Herakles, he has no choice but to invoke the terms of the very ideology of gender that he seeks to step beyond; like Aithra in The Suppliant Women, he must use conventional notions of masculine and feminine behaviour in order to critique rigid conventionality, to suggest that a failure to negotiate successfully between “masculine” and “feminine” has disastrous consequences….

To be sure, in the political plays the consequences of failed negotiations between extremes take the form of a political nightmare, one that is a patriarch’s nightmare, too—a subversive female action… by a distraught woman that “hurts the city.” (Another way of understanding such scenes…is as lurid worst-case enactments of catastrophic explosions of “diversity” that has not been integrated, an explosion that results in the disintegration of familial, religious, and civic institutions.) But while dramatizing the return of repressed female passion seems to conform to a simplistic patriarchal agenda (expressed by the formula “female energies are destructive and must be controlled”), that dramatization, given the intricate and subtle modulations of femininity and masculinity that have come before (and always keeping in mind that we must evaluate all actions by their impact on the play’s men), can also be seen as part of a decidedly nonpatriarchal argument for the assimilation of the feminine, of otherness, of diversity (“the feminine and all it represents has value and should be incorporated into our current, incomplete model of selfhood”).

Hence the second, “nightmarish,” and truly tragic actions of these plays may be seen less as dramatizations of “bad” female energies than as implicit condemnations of the exclusion of the feminine; they remind us that even the better, more highly inflected model of selfhood that the plays appear to endorse—the assimilation into an ideal unity—inevitably exacts terrible costs, always leaving a tragic residue, a disdained (as Alkmene puts it) “someone.” Anxiety about the return of the repressed inevitably contains within it a condemnation of the repression itself.

The somewhat abstract psychological analysis Mendelsohn proposes here may sound complex but it emerges convincingly from a close reading of the plays.

In his preface he speaks of

the interpretative problems that have always haunted the polit-ical plays; the elision of gender-specific meanings, the failure to hear overtones of sex and gender in these ostensibly purely “political” works, are symptomatic of a longstanding critical state of affairs. That state is one that the following pages attempt to alter.

This review of his book, though selective and inadequate, is enough to establish the fact that his attempt is a brilliant success.

This Issue

May 15, 2003

  1. 1

    The Bad Boy of Athens,” The New York Review, February 13, 2003. 

  2. 2

    Bernard Knox, “A Four Handkerchief Tragedy,” The New York Review, February 9, 1978. 

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 3. 

  4. 4

    See Mendelsohn, “The Bad Boy of Athens.” 

  5. 5

    All translations are by David Kovacs in the new Loeb Classical Library Euripides (Harvard University Press), Vols. 1 (1995) and 3 (1998).