The Art of Risk

In early 406 BC the news reached Athens that far away in Macedonia the great dramatist Euripides had died. The leader of the chorus at the festival of the Dionysia that year happened to be his old rival, the aged Sophocles, who, in a public gesture of mourning, had his chorus and actors appear on stage without their customary crowns. We’re told that the Athenians wept.

After a quarter-century during which Athens had been caught up, off and on, in the Peloponnesian War, the death of Euripides must have seemed ominous. It came in the same year as the voluntary exile of the charismatic Alcibiades, the leader in whom they had once placed great hope. The death of Sophocles himself within months of his tribute to Euripides only added to a presentiment of impending collapse. In 405 Aristophanes made, in his Frogs, a comic but poignant comparison of Aeschylus and Euripides to illustrate just how far Greek drama had come from the majestic verses of its first great dramatist. In that same year Euripides’ horrifying play the Bacchae was produced posthumously at Athens. He had written it in Macedonia, and it depicted, as never before in literature, the destructive power of religious frenzy. In the ecstasy of Dionysiac possession a mother quite literally tore her own son apart. One year after the première of the Bacchae the war came to an end with the humiliating defeat of the Athenians by Sparta, and, as Xenophon tells us, a wailing went up along the long walls from Piraeus to the city.

The miserable end of the war also brought an end to what was arguably the most creative period in Greek drama. Upheavals in mainland Greece and abroad had shattered the Athenians’ confidence in themselves and in their democracy. It took Thucydides to explore, with merciless clarity, their brutal extermination of the helpless residents of the island of Melos, which remained neutral during the Peloponnesian War, and the killing of Athenian soldiers in the Assinaros River south of Syracuse, when the highly touted expedition to Sicily went terribly wrong. In desperation the Athenians had in 411 even abandoned their democratic government for a brief experiment with oligarchy.

No writer of this turbulent time understood better than Euripides that the brutal dissolution of traditional social and political norms allowed, even required, a new kind of drama. He took one risk after another in subverting traditional tragedy by rethinking myths, reimagining familiar characters, and exploring new possibilities for music outside the choral odes. It is hard not to see all this as somehow induced by the war. The much older Sophocles had tried to keep up with his brilliantly creative contemporary, but by the end of his life Sophocles simply mellowed—gloriously and transcendently, as in the Oedipus at Colonus. By contrast, Euripides grew bolder and bolder.

Consider what he did with the myths he inherited. He turned the account of Herakles’ insanity upside down and reassigned the murder of the hero’s wife and family…

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