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 to the time when all his arduous labors were done. In this way, the rejoicing of his family over his final return ended all the more pitifully, and his legendary achievements were made to pale by comparison with what he did after them. In telling the story of Helen of Troy, Euripides reached back to a bizarre invention of the sixth-century lyric poet Stesichorus to write a play in which Helen never went to Troy at all but sat out the war in Egypt. In this version a phantom look-alike appeared in Troy with the face that launched a thousand ships. (New York operagoers have recently encountered this story in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s overwrought libretto for Richard Strauss’s Die Aegyptische Helena.)
In the first year of the Peloponnesian War, 431, Euripides created his unforgettable Medea, a woman betrayed, whose blazing fury drives her to murder her own children as the only means of taking vengeance on Jason for having left her. On present evidence Euripides himself invented Medea’s appalling infanticide as an understandable, if not excusable, consequence of her profound suffering. He showed the same kind of sympathy in his characterization of the lovesick Phaedra, finding in her illicit passion for her stepson Hippolytos far more humanity than in Hippolytos’ ostentatious chastity in refusing her.
When we observe Euripides’ remarkable insights into female psychology, we have to remember that he was writing at a time when Pericles declared, if Thucydides can be trusted, that the best thing for any woman was that she never be spoken of at all. Euripides returned to women repeatedly. If he could elicit sympathy for Medea, think of what he might have done with Clytaemnestra. In older tragedy a murderous woman, even one, like Clytaemnestra, who had good reason to murder her husband, could only be comprehended as somehow being almost a man. Near the beginning of the Agamemnon Aeschylus makes his night watchman refer to Clytaemnestra as a woman with the mind of a man (gunaikos androboulon…kear: “a woman’s heart with a man’s deliberation”). By comparison, in two surviving plays, the Electra and the Orestes, Euripides leaves no doubt that Clytaemnestra’s two children, who murdered their mother, acted wrongly in committing matricide. For Euripides, Clytaemnestra acted as she did not because she had become like a man but precisely because she was, like Medea, very much a woman. This was a revolutionary idea in Greece.
Euripides was no less revolutionary in the poetry of his plays. Traditionally the monologues of the characters and the dialogues between them were spoken in iambic trimeters—twelve-syllable lines with six metrical units consisting of a short syllable followed by a long one; these units were grouped in pairs with some variation in syllabic length. In a stark contrast the chorus sang its observations on the unfolding drama in lyric verse to the accompaniment of music. Choral texts used relatively short lines of intricate meters that encouraged lofty and allusive language. This had been the pattern for Aeschylus and Sophocles. With Euripides, for whom lyric held a special attraction, new forms of sung verse emerged. As he grew older, Euripides experimented with the use of lyric song outside the choral odes. For Creusa in his Ion he wrote a lyric monologue that is nothing less than an operatic aria, and in his Helen he composed an entire dialogue between Menelaus and Helen in sung lyrics. The dialogue became a duet.
To all this innovation in myth and versification Euripides added experiments in plotting. Although many of his plays are tragic to the fullest extent of misery and horror, some are curiously upbeat at the end. This was the case with the Alkestis, one of his plays from before the Peloponnesian War, but it became increasingly noticeable in later works such as the Ion. Some critics have credited him with inventing tragicomedy. But it hardly matters what label is attached to such experimental works, and they should not be seen as anything more than experiments. Euripides was not moving in the direction of happy endings, although he was certainly interested in trying them out. Nevertheless, his last work, the Bacchae, was as tragic as anything could possibly be.
Euripides was a blazing meteor in the history of drama. When he was gone, there was never another quite like him. Sophocles, who was utterly different in style and temperament, was wise and generous enough to recognize the unique genius of his younger contemporary. By pitting Euripides against Aeschylus in the Frogs, Aristophanes acknowledged that the younger writer had, without eclipsing the grand old master, radically transformed the nature of Greek tragedy. Aristophanes clearly understood Euripides’ innovations in myth, character, and poetry, even as he made fun of them.
Classical scholarship has served the text and technique of Euripides well, and luck has preserved far more of his plays than we have from Aeschylus and Sophocles. But it is not easy to find a classical scholar between the Renaissance and the present who has responded sympathetically to Euripides’ irrepressible risk-taking. The great German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff wrote a huge commentary on the Herakles, to which classicists of subsequent generations have often turned for a thorough introduction to the dramatist’s language and style. But hardly anyone ever asked whether Wilamowitz really liked the play or its author.
Anne Carson, rigorously trained as a classical scholar at Toronto and Princeton, obviously likes Euripides. Her erudition in ancient Greek language and literature has made it possible for her to use her formidable creative gifts in poetry and criticism. Her new volume, Grief Lessons, contains translations of four of Euripides’ plays, Herakles, Hekabe, Hippolytos, and Alkestis, together with brief introductory essays, the most recent of her bold poetic and critical writings on Greek literature.
Carson’s first book combined classical scholarship with highly original criticism. Appearing in 1986, it was called Eros the Bittersweet. With its list of scholarly abbreviations at the front and a learned bibliography at the end, the book had the apparatus of an academic study. Yet the text itself, beginning with a meditation on Sappho’s adjective glukupikros, “sweetbitter” (Carson would prefer to render it in the Greek order), introduces a succession of meditations on love; and from this opening Carson moves into a wide-ranging analysis of erotic desire, particularly the inevitability of hate in a love relationship. She leaps across languages and centuries to juxtapose illuminating texts. Alongside Catullus’ famous odi et amo (“I hate and I love”) she cites a chorus from the Agamemnon in which the distraught Menelaus is described as wandering through the halls after Helen’s departure: “The grace of shapely statues becomes hateful to him. When the eyes are gone, all Aphrodite is gone too.” (Anyone who has looked carefully at the film The Browning Version will know that these fateful lines appear on the blackboard of the desiccated schoolmaster, Mr. Crocker-Harris.)
Carson returns again and again to Sappho, whose bold vocabulary is matched by the form of the lyric stanza that still bears her name—“Sapphic.” From the start Carson’s prose revealed a personal voice that expressed itself in short, concentrated phrases. Her observations, despite centuries of previous scholarly exegesis, were often startlingly new. For example, on Sappho’s best-known love poem, about a godlike man who is talking with a woman, Carson wrote, “The poem floats towards us on a stage set. But we have no program. The actors go in and out of focus anonymously.” No one ever made such an observation before, or even thought it. Carson’s affinity with Sappho was made fully clear in If Not, Winter (2002), her translation of all Sappho’s surviving poems and fragments.
From Sappho, Carson found her way naturally to another early path-breaking poet, Stesichorus, who boldly used epic themes in lyric verse. This was the poet who had provided Euripides with his untraditional story of Helen. From the sands of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt many fragments of Stesichorus’ lost works have come to light in recent years, and these have served to inspire Carson’s own muse. Out of the scraps of Stesichorus’ strange tale of the three-head winged monster called Geryon, from whom Herakles stole a herd of cattle, Carson constructed a novel in verse called Autobiography of Red (1998). Here Geryon (a monster but with only one head) and Herakles turn out to be lovers in the modern world. Inspired by Geryon’s mythical island Erytheia (“Redland”), Carson rewrote and transformed the surviving bits of Stesichorus into a literary Rhapsody in Red—red Geryon, red cattle, red breezes, red world. She introduced her long poem with a quotation from Gertrude Stein that neatly encapsulated her own aesthetic of language: “I like the feeling of words doing/as they want to do and as they have to do.” Of Stesichorus, she wrote, “He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” Stesichorus and Stein joined Sappho in Carson’s pantheon of iconoclasts.
In the meantime Carson published other volumes of highly original work with and without classical settings, including The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001) and Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005). Carson’s acerb, ironic, and erudite voice remained constant throughout these works. An interest in film emerged in her exploration of Antonioni’s L’Avventura with reference to the ancient treatise On the Sublime ascribed to Longinus (“Longinus’ Dream of Antonioni” and “Ode to the Sublime by Monica Vitti”). Carson’s engagement with Gertrude Stein resurfaced in her poems entitled “Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices,” composed as part of a tribute to Stein in 2003. A series of lectures that she delivered at Oberlin College under the inscrutable title Economy of the Unlost (published in book form in 1999) included sensitive analysis of the poetry of Paul Celan and the ancient Greek lyricist Simonides of Keos. She interpreted Celan’s German as perceptively as Simonides’ Greek without wasting a single word. In her fourth lecture, on negation, she posed the question “What is lost when words are wasted?” To this her answer was “simply ‘Nothing.'” But, she said darkly, “Nothing is not trivial.”
Although Carson’s way with words is very much her own, or rather, in Stein’s formulation, theirs, she has had the courage to attempt translations in which she is obliged to subordinate her own preferences to the patterns and ideas of others. This came naturally with so congenial a poet as Sappho, and it was to come no less naturally with a dramatist as innovative as Euripides. But before turning her hand to Euripides she translated Sophocles’ Electra, in which she was able to use her own language at length in the service of dramatic poetry. “A translator,” she wrote,
is someone trying to get between a body and its shadow. Translating is a task of imitation that faces in two directions at once, for it must line itself up with the solid body of the original text and at the same time with the shadow of that text where it falls across another language. Shadows fall and move.
In her translation of Sophocles’ play Carson established a pattern of short and often truncated lines to represent the fuller trimeters of the original Greek, and she created her own lyric patterns to mirror the choral odes. She rightly decided that the Greek cries that expressed screaming and wailing (pheu, oimoi, o talaina) cannot be plausibly rendered by modern equivalents such as “Woe is me,” and so she decided to keep the Greek sounds just as they are, transcribed literally into her translation. These words look oddly disruptive on the page, and yet they are no less disruptive than an onstage scream. Wailing and howling are alien to English expression, but, as Judith Anderson so memorably demonstrated over fifty years ago in her performance of Robinson Jeffers’s version of the Medea, they can be electrifying if done with conviction. To see PHEU or OIMOI on the printed page may really be the best we can have when we read one of these plays.
After ample preparation in rendering Sophocles’ Electra, Carson turned at last to the dramatist who had been waiting for her all along. In sheer daring—verbal, metrical, substantive—Euripides is Carson’s poet. Her book of four plays opens with the Herakles and closes with the Alkestis. This makes good sense, even if the Alkestis is the earliest of all four pieces, since we know that in 438, when it was first performed, it appeared in the final place of the four plays that Euripides presented that year. This was the spot normally reserved for a more light-spirited work called a satyr play, in which satyrs cavorted on stage. No satyrs appear in the Alkestis, but the ending is certainly upbeat, as Herakles brings back from the underworld the noble Alkestis, who had died for her husband. In Herakles, with which Carson’s book opens, the same hero also returns from the underworld, but only to go mad and murder his wife and family.
Between these framing plays, Carson has placed the Hekabe and the Hippolytos. The first is a wrenching depiction of Priam’s wife, Hekabe (Hecuba), in captivity after the Trojan War. She is compelled to endure the sacrifice of her own daughter Polyxena at the hands of the Greeks as well as the ignominious death of her son Polydoros through the treachery of a Thracian friend to whom he had been entrusted for protection. As with Medea, Euripides draws his audience into such sympathy with Hekabe that it can applaud her clever ruse in coaxing the Thracian murderer Polymestor into the tent of the Trojan women. He thought he would be safe there, but, as Hekabe had planned, the women kill him. Her immense grief and her brutal vengeance infuse Euripides’ deep feeling for maternal suffering with a fierce hatred for the viciousness and injustice of war.
Despite its title, Carson’s third play, Hippolytos, is really another play about a woman. When, centuries later, Seneca adapted it into Latin, he properly called it Phaedra, referring to the stepmother of Hippolytus, with whom she falls in love, only to be rejected. The opposition between illicit desire and unfeeling chastity has never received a more memorable setting than in this famous play. The recurrence of the Phaedra story in ancient art right through late antiquity is proof of its appeal. Again Euripides reveals his sympathy for his distraught heroine, whose illicit passion is cruelly betrayed by the boy himself. When Hippolytos, with all his priggish morality, is dragged to his death by a bull from the sea, no viewer is likely to feel sorry for him.
Carson’s translations reflect the work she had done on Sophocles’ Electra. They depend upon short and easily comprehended lines, with an austere but sonorous rhetoric that nicely catches the mood of the original and suggests its music, if not its rhythms. All the plays in her versions have noticeably fewer lines overall than the Greek originals. Greek has a plethora of short filler words, which help to meet metrical constraints and tend to stretch out lines. All these words and the occasional repetitions that go with them have vanished in Carson’s English. For example, the Herakles opens with a monologue by Amphitryon, Herakles’ father, who, in a strange mythical twist, seems to have shared the paternity of Herakles with Zeus. In a literal prose rendering, the first two lines of his monologue are “Who does not know the Argive Amphitryon, the mortal who shared his bed with Zeus, the man whom Alkaios, son of Perseus, begat, the father of Herakles?” In Carson’s version we read:
Who does not know the man who shared his marriage bed
son of Alkaios,
grandson of Perseus,
father of Herakles,
Together with redistributing Euripides’ two trimeter lines into seven very short lines, it is the final “me” that lights up this speech and pulls the reader (or listener) into the play.
In this case Carson has enlarged the number of lines but made them much shorter. She can sometimes cut back an entire line into one word. When Herakles comes to his senses and discovers that he has murdered his family, he addresses Theseus, the king of Athens, in a series of long lines, which, in a very literal translation, can be rendered as follows:
Alas, these are all by-products of my woes. I do not believe that the gods love intercourse that is forbidden, and put chains on one another, and I have never credited, nor will I be persuaded, that one of them is naturally made a despot over another. For god, if he is really god, needs nothing. These are miserable stories of poets.
Contrast the pungent eloquence of Carson’s version, in which the first line is reduced to a single word:
This is all incidental to my grief.
I don’t believe gods commit adultery.
I don’t believe gods throw gods in chains
or tyrannize one another.
Never did believe it, never shall.
God must, if God is truly God,
All the rest is miserable poets’ lies.
In translating the choral lyrics of Euripides’ plays, Carson is able to combine her excellent control of ancient Greek metric with her own personal experience as a poet. The result comes as close as could be imagined to the verbal music of the original text. The luminous lines that the chorus of Trojan women sing, in the Hekabe, just before they plunge their knives into the unsuspecting Polymestor evoke, with poignant nostalgia, their domestic life at Troy just before the Greeks invaded the city and raped them:
Midnight my ruin began.
Supper was over, sweet sleep drifting down,
after songs and dances and sacrifice
my husband lay in our chamber…
I was doing my hair,
I was binding my hair,
staring down into the bottomless lake of my mirror,
before I fell into bed….
A rush of short syllables followed by a thump of long syllables in the Greek is well conveyed, though with different metrical units, by “Midnight my ruin began.” The sibilants in “Supper was over, sweet sleep drifting down” beautifully convey a comparable row of sibilants in the Greek line, in which hypnos (sleep) occupies the central place. In the following strophe the repetition of “I was doing my hair/I was binding my hair” builds on words for hair and headband in the original. “Staring down into the bottomless lake of my mirror” not only suggests the carefree self-absorption of atermonas eis augas (into the limitless rays [of the mirror]) but solves the problem of rendering “limitless rays.” The first line of this entire ode is an invocation of the women’s homeland: su men ô patris Ilias (You O city of Ilium [Troy]). Carson has cut this back to “You O Troy” and yet preserved the pungent effect of the first three words of the opening.
For each of the plays Carson has written brief and incisive introductions. Her observations, like her translations, sometimes provide commentaries that supplement the standard scholarly works on these much-studied dramas, for example, the long and justly admired commentary on Hippolytos by the Oxford philologist W.S. Barrett. Carson has found an interpretation that eluded him. Near the beginning of the play, when Hippolytos is preening himself on his chastity, he presents a crown to the goddess Artemis from an untouched meadow where no shepherd dares to graze an animal. The metaphor for virginity is transparent. Carson noticed that after describing this “field uncut,” Hippolytos mentions a bee that passes through (“dozing by”) in the spring. Recognizing that bees were sometimes connected, as pollinators, with the cult of Aphrodite, she fastens on this single bee in Hippolytos’ “private religious space.” The bee is portentous, as Carson is able to prove by referring to a great choral ode much later in the play in which the inescapable power of Eros is celebrated:
Aphrodite’s breath is felt
on everything there is.
Then like a bee
In more than four hundred pages of commentary Barrett had never noticed this parallel, or the role of bees in the cult of Aphrodite. In fact, a late antique mosaic from the city of Madaba in modern Jordan depicts a scene from the tragic tale of Phaedra, showing her with Hippolytos and servants. Just above the scene is a playful but highly significant panel showing a frisky Eros with his head in a beehive, from which bees are swarming out, in the presence of Aphrodite. Carson’s interpretation is convincing: that bee in Hippolytos’ private meadow was an unmistakable sign of trouble to come.
In introducing the Alkestis, Carson rather surprisingly begins:
There is something of Hitchcock about the Alkestis, with its big sinister central house where life becomes so confused with death as to split the architecture in two. Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt features such a house as well as a household of people blind to each other’s realities….
Here the modern poet who brought the sublimity of Longinus into contact with Antonioni has again turned to film, this time to illuminate Euripides. Alkestis’ house has often been forgotten because the underworld looms so large. But we see death from and within that house. The kinky behavior of Admetus, the husband for whom Alkestis nobly died, emerges early in the play when he says that he will have a craftsman make a statue of his wife to take to bed with him. That might have roused a chuckle from the Hitchcock of Vertigo.
Over and over again Carson opens new perspectives into Euripides’ wildly original poetic imagination. The great commentaries of Wilamowitz or Barrett show clearly what Euripides was doing, but they never make a reader feel the visceral excitement of his work. This is what Carson does so well. Her verse, in both structure and rhythm, reconceives and enlivens the innovations of Euripidean metric. Her dense and enigmatic diction is full of surprises, as in the bee passages cited above (“dozing by,” the intransitive “flicks”). Rarely have translator and author been so well matched.
June 14, 2007