For Aristotle in the Poetics, the most important element of drama is plot, “the arrangement of incidents”: plot more than character, plot more than theme, plot more than diction. What makes a good tragic plot? After impatiently dismissing what he calls “episodic” plots (“the worst…the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”), Aristotle goes on to speak about the kinds of plots he likes. These, he says, evolve organically—subject to the “law of probability or necessity”—and can be either “simple” or “complex.” A simple plot straightforwardly traces a character’s “change of fortune,” metabasis. Such changes could be from happiness to misery or vice versa: of the extant corpus of thirty-three tragedies that survive from Athenian antiquity, a number have “happy” endings—metabases that turn out well, that look “up,” as it were. Another, more familiar technical term from antiquity for the climactic change of fortune in a play is katastrophe: literally, a “downward turn.”
In Aristotle’s complex plot, the change of fortune is accompanied by either (or, preferably, both) of two elements: anagnorisis, an unexpected “recognition” by one character of another, and peripeteia, a “reversal.” “Recognition” is straightforward. As an example, he cites the heart-stopping passage in Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians in which Iphigenia, trapped far from her Greek home, dictates a homesick letter to a young man who’s returning to Greece, unaware that he is her long-lost brother, Orestes; as she tells him what to write he is made aware of her identity, and a beautiful reunion takes place.
By “reversal,” our first drama critic meant something quite specific: not “reversal of fortune” (as peripeteia is sometimes rendered) but “reversal of intention,” in which an action planned by a character turns out to have a result that—either horribly or triumphantly, depending on which way the metabasis goes—is the exact opposite of what he had intended. (So, for instance, a messenger in Sophocles’ Oedipus, seeking to alleviate the king’s fear that he might marry his mother—who, Oedipus thinks at this point, is the queen of Corinth—informs him that he was, in fact, adopted; a piece of information that eventually leads to the revelation that Oedipus’s biological mother was Jocasta—his wife.) For Aristotle, even the most surprising tragic recognitions and reversals had to seem “probable or necessary,” too. It goes without saying that he didn’t think much of the deus ex machina.
Of the three canonical Athenian tragedians, no one fooled around with plot more than Euripides did: suggestively twisting the story lines of received myth (it is he who had Medea kill her children), opening up new spaces in canonical legends, blithely deploying the deus ex machina as one might fling a bedspread over an unmade bed. And no Euripidean play has a plot that looks more improbable, unnecessarily convoluted, and plagued by seemingly arbitrary, metastasizing peripeteiai—there are no less than three—than does that of Herakles, a drama about a disaster that befalls the legendary hero, which the playwright composed when he was in his sixties, in the mid-410s BC.
The date is not without significance. By that point, the Peloponnesian War was in its second decade, and the Athenian state seemed to be characterized, more and more, by moral incoherence and political convulsion. The sense of a world unhinged, untethered to traditional ethics or reason, is, indeed, reflected in other of the dramatist’s plays of the same period, in wildly divergent ways: in The Trojan Women (415), for instance, with its stark tableaux of wartime suffering unalleviated by pity, but also in Helen (circa 412), a bitter fantasy in which it turns out that the beautiful title character, the cause of the Trojan War, never eloped with Paris after all: that the war was fought, quite literally, for a phantom.
It is tempting to think that a desire to represent an Athens that had sunk from its once-lofty ideals, that had become unrecognizable to itself and others, is what motivated Euripides to compose his Herakles, a drama whose protagonist—the demigod son of Zeus who epitomizes Hellenic heroism, the avatar of physical perfection whose Labors made the world safe for civilization—becomes, in the course of the play, unrecognizable to his family, friends, and himself. The work, in fact, has a suggestive alternate title: Herakles Mainomenos, “Herakles Gone Mad.” The added modifier refers to the play’s central, shocking, and seemingly most arbitrary plot twist: halfway through the drama, Herakles is driven mad by the vengeful goddess Hera—perennially enraged at the hero, the product of a liaison between her husband Zeus and the wife of a king called Amphitryon—and, in a deluded frenzy, slaughters his own wife and sons. Few katastrophai represented on the Athenian stage can have been as dreadful to watch as that one.
And yet the slaughter, for the average Athenian playgoer, was not the shocking part. Herakles’ murder of his family was a standard element of the myths about the hero and his Labors: in them, the demigod, deranged by Hera, murders his family and then, as a god-ordained atonement for his crime, performs his twelve awesome tasks, ridding the world of monsters as an expiation for his own monstrous act. Undergirding this account is a comprehensible moral scheme: guilt is acknowledged and expiated, inhuman atrocity is balanced by civilizing exploits.
What was shocking about Herakles was that Euripides reversed the order of events, so that the murders follow the Labors; in fact, they come just as Herakles returns from the last of his exploits. (He goes down to Hades to capture the three-headed monster Cerberus; while there, he rescues Theseus, king of Athens.) In Euripides’ new chronology, it is as if Herakles is being grotesquely punished for his splendid Labors on behalf of mankind. Brought low by the arbitrary whim of the jealous Hera, the hero is pointlessly transformed into a villain, the Labors are emptied of any ethical significance, and greatness is rewarded with horror—a senseless peripeteia in a world empty of moral structure.
In the play this is a true peripeteia because Herakles’ intention was, in fact, to save his family. As the play opens, we learn that, during his long absence from home performing his feats, his adopted city of Thebes—the home of his wife, Megara—has been taken over by a usurper, the evil Lykos (“Wolf-Man”), who wants to wipe out the absent hero’s family. In terror, Megara and the couple’s three sons, along with Amphitryon, Herakles’ aged mortal father, have fled for sanctuary at the altar of Zeus. This set-up constitutes a variation on a standard type of tragic plot: the “suppliant drama,” in which a request for assistance by an oppressed person (or people) who have taken sanctuary at an altar forces the ruler of the land where the altar is located to choose between religious obligation (protecting the suppliants) and political expediency (by taking up arms against whoever is pursuing the suppliants, these tragic rulers often risk unpopularity with their own people).
It’s typical of Herakles that the play invokes the conventions of the suppliant drama while emptying it of its usual meaning: here, the cruel pursuer and the local king are the same person—a conflation that shifts any real ethical choice from him to the suppliants. For Lykos blithely informs Herakles’ family that he holds the power, that their position is hopeless, and that death is their only option. (In theory, as long as they maintained physical contact with Zeus’s altar, their persons were inviolable.) Given his resolve to kill them—even if it means burning them out of the altar, which he declares that he’s willing to do—the only choice they have is the not inconsiderable one of how to die.
Megara, Herakles’ wife, insists that they die bravely, not deigning to grovel and procrastinate; as in many tragedies of this kind, she assumes a masculine, “heroic” rhetoric in the absence of a bona fide hero. Amphitryon, by contrast, seems foolishly optimistic, and advocates procrastination. “I rejoice in life and cherish hope.” (“Hope” is a crucial word throughout the text.) Megara eventually prevails. By that point even Amphitryon has abandoned any hope that innocence will be protected, that the cosmos is morally ordered: he ends by cursing Zeus himself, in one of the play’s most strikingly irreligious utterances: “You are ignorant and lack a sense of justice.”
It is at this lowest point, against all expectations, that Herakles suddenly returns home, slays Lykos, and rescues his family and city. Hope has been vindicated; there has been a katastrophe from despair to success; the chorus of Theban elders sings a song of triumph in which they proclaim as irrefutable Herakles’ divine parentage. His timely return and rescue of his family seem like proof of the benign operation of the gods in human affairs.
All this, as I have mentioned, constitutes the action of many a Greek drama in its entirety; but here it is merely Part I—the first of several dizzying reversals. Suddenly, as if to rebut the chorus’s conclusion, Iris, the messenger of the gods, appears onstage, accompanied by Lyssa—Madness personified, a rather Grand Guignol figure. Hera has sent them, Iris reports, because “she wants to attach the guilt of kindred blood” to Herakles: the final and most horrible element in her persecution of this most famous product of her husband’s philandering. A long messenger speech vividly describes the horror that Madness wreaks: as Herakles appears at the household altar to ritually cleanse the palace of Lykos’ blood, he becomes deranged, his eyes rolling, foam spurting from his mouth, and slays each child in turn, the last one while still in its mother’s arms, both killed by a single arrow. Here are a second katastrophe—rescue turned to murder, happiness to grief—and a second peripeteia: instead of purifying his home, Herakles has irreparably defiled it.
But even here the whirling plot of Herakles doesn’t come to a stop. In the aftermath of the murders, a shamed Herakles decides to kill himself: as with the eponymous protagonist of Sophocles’ Ajax, who is similarly maddened by a god and commits a grotesque crime in his delusion, he sees suicide as the only way out of disgrace. And yet whereas the older, more pious Sophocles granted his character an ending that honored the values of traditional heroism and its imperative that death is better than life in disgrace, Euripides, in a final reversal, pulls his hero back from suicide and rehabilitates him. Just as suddenly as Iris and Madness had materialized earlier, so now does his old comrade Theseus appear, eventually persuading Herakles to abandon his fatal if ostensibly “heroic” plan and promising that the bond between them will be stronger than the blood-taint, miasma, that now attaches to Herakles. Friendship will substitute for kinship; hope has been restored; in a final peripeteia, Herakles’ intention to die is transformed into a newfound will to live.
If the play’s first, failed rescue plot ended with a celebration of Zeus’ godhead, the second, successful one ends with a celebration of human values such as friendship, philia. This elevation of the human and the corresponding denigration of the divine is encapsulated in Herakles’ disgusted closing dismissal of traditional religion as mere myth, “the wretched stories made up by poets.” The passage certainly bears out the ancient biographical tradition that Euripides was a friend of Socrates: the latter’s objections to traditional depictions of the gods as the immoral invention of poets, reported by Plato in the Republic and other works, are remarkably similar to Herakles’ words here.
An earlier generation of classicists, more often than not, saw in Herakles a hopeless mess. But we moderns (and postmoderns) are perhaps better equipped to see the point in the apparent pointlessness of the action, in the fragmentation, in the hollowing out of convention. Precisely because it so starkly uncouples action from intent, because it shows a world in which goodness (Herakles’, his family’s) as well as evil (Lykos’) is brutally punished by death, because it abandons Heaven and suggests that morality is more likely to reside with us flawed humans, the play suggests a vision defined by a negative unity, a nonstructured structure meant to make us feel how coldly random the cosmos actually is, how alone we are without one another.
Indeed, until its final, upbeat peripeteia, Herakles comes close to the brink of what George Steiner once called “tragedy, pure and simple” or “absolute tragedy”—drama whose worldview is that life is an “affliction”:
Men and women’s presence on this earth is fundamentally absurd or unwelcome,…our lives are not a gift or a natural unfolding, but a self-punishing anomaly.*
The poignancy of the play’s final peripeteia—the rescue that restores the possibility of meaning to human life—cannot come alive unless we feel the terrifying, icy “absurdity” of what precedes. It is this strange drama’s final, unexpected rescue of its characters from the abyss, the sense of life as an unexpected “gift,” after all, that makes it one of this iconoclastic artist’s most powerful works.
I looked in vain for the grand themes of this harsh and unsettling drama in a recent production of Herakles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as adapted by Peter Meineck and performed by his Aquila Theatre company. Meineck and his company have been responsible for a number of thoughtful and effective productions of Greek dramas over the past decade or so; as a translator and adapter, he has shown great alertness to the potential of tragedy for modern audiences, while remaining sensitive to the performance conventions of the genre. He is particularly interested in the use of masks.
In the new production, however, Meineck has one overriding concept that seems meant to promote the relevance of the play to today’s audiences—indeed, to a very specific subset of today’s audiences—and that is best summed up in the synopsis of the work that appeared on the BAM website:
The first production of HERAKLES happened during a time of constant war in ancient Athens and its themes still resonate today: the return of the warrior, the lot of the combat veteran, the family left at home, and the alienation of the veteran.
It is hard not to see in this interpretation of the play’s meaning the influence of the work of Jonathan Shay, an army psychiatrist who has argued in his Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002) that the ancient works—whose audiences, after all, were often men who had firsthand experience of combat—reflect the psychological realities of wartime in ways previously not understood. (So, for instance, Achilles’ nearly murderous resentment of Agamemnon in Book I of the Iliad is an early instance of what Shay has found to be a nearly universal psychological phenomenon among ordinary soldiers: a bitter resentment of their superior officers.)
Adapting this approach, whose appeal at the current historical moment will be easy to fathom, Meineck went to considerable lengths, both on- and offstage, to present Herakles as a play about a returning vet who succumbs to combat trauma. The publicity for the new production emphasized that the work had been presented with great success to audiences of veterans. Some of the actors were, indeed, veterans; performances were followed by a “talk-back” with actors, writers, and veterans. A long program note by Lawrence Tritle, a history professor at Loyola Marymount University, cited the statistic that in one month’s time, four veterans of the Afghanistan conflict murdered their wives upon returning home.
And then there was the striking central element of the staging itself: Meineck has replaced Euripides’ choruses with videos of combat veterans recalling their wartime experiences. These men and women, veterans of wars from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed with often poignant eloquence their nostalgia for wartime camaraderie (“I miss the bond with other soldiers”), their dreadful problems with sleeping, with reestablishing relationships with family (“They can’t understand what I’ve been through”); and vividly recalled the dead children, headless bodies, and exploding helicopters, the disorienting “powerlessness” that comes with witnessing violence in war. “You can die here any fucking day,” as one young veteran put it.
But the highlighting of these harrowing real-life narrations—in the service of emphasizing the central interpretative conceit here, which is that Euripides’ play is about ordinary people with problems audiences can identify with—had the curious effect of unbalancing the play itself. As the evening progressed, the space between Euripides’ text and the modern elements seemed to grow rather than shrink. For one thing, the performances, though earnest and energetic, were generic, and in an odd way couldn’t compete with the real people in the videos. Euripides’ Herakles is a superhero (to put it in modern terms) who is transformed, in the course of the drama, into a more recognizably human figure. By casting an ordinary-Joe type as Herakles, nice-looking and beefy but glamourless, the director of the Aquila production made nonsense of that crucial arc—the character had nowhere to go. Megara, too, lost much by being “humanized.” Here, she was a whiny, tearful weakling (“This is unbearable, I can’t stand it!”) who bore no resemblance to the powerhouse in Euripides’ text, the woman who becomes the spokesperson for heroic values.
The emphasis on Herakles as a contemporary-seeming victim of psychological stress forced Meineck to discard or transform beyond recognition certain crucial elements that give the original its strong meanings. In this Herakles there is no altar and hence no supplication, no sanctuary—an erasure that makes nonsense of the entire first half of the play, the suppliant drama, with its crucial emphasis on the inviolable religious space the suppliants have occupied. (Here, when Lykos threatened to burn the family out, you scratched your head and wondered why he didn’t just run them through.) Sometimes, Meineck had to falsify the text in the service of the themes he wanted us to find there. “You brought the war home with you!” Meineck’s Amphitryon cries out during the murders. (Later, as Herakles exits, Meineck has him describe the killings as “one more martial act.”) These lines do not appear in Euripides’ text, for the excellent reason that the playwright has made clear the reasons for the hero’s madness: not “the horrors of war,” but the arbitrary—and, therefore, more horrific—rage of Heaven.
Perhaps worse, the adapter tinkers with Euripides’ pointed chronology. Here, the character Madness (her speech recited by Herakles’ young son as the weary hero sleeps, implying that it’s all in his head, all a dream) appears not after the killing of Lykos and the happy resolution of the suppliant drama, but before Herakles kills the wicked king—as if to suggest that this slaying, too, is somehow part of the violent, trauma-inspired breakdown triggered by “madness.” This makes a hash of Euripides’ careful restructuring of the original myth, muddying the motivation for the revenge, and obscuring the original work’s large themes of divine injustice and cosmic amorality—themes that, here, aren’t really detectable at all.
Meineck’s version, for all its admirable desire to relate ancient drama to modern experience, ends up miniaturizing the play—making banal its jagged anomalies, its suggestive bizarreness. Just after we get the narration of the murder of the family, Meineck cuts to a video of one of his veterans saying, “in war, any war, children die.” But the point of the infanticide in Euripides’ play is, precisely, how aberrant it is, how grotesque is the application of the hero’s famous prowess to the destruction of small children: a reversal of martial norms, one that points to the play’s larger thematic and structural interest in dreadful katrastrophai and peripeteiai. This mismatch between what the text wants to tell us and what Meineck’s “chorus” says gets you close to the heart of what’s wrong with his vision of the play—indeed any vision that seeks to reduce tragedy’s large themes to the scale of a single constituency’s concerns.
The most forceful articulation of Meineck’s approach comes in the program note by Lawrence Tritle, who is himself a combat veteran, and whose remarks are worth repeating at length because they show the weaknesses of this narrowing approach to reading Greek drama:
In the middle years of the Peloponnesian War…the Athenian dramatist Euripides (whose many references to a soldier’s life make clear his own military service) staged his play of the homecoming of the greatest of Greek heroes, Heracles. As so often with Attic drama, the playwright tinkered with the traditional storyline and blurred the lines between the famous labors of Heracles and real war. Thoughtful members of the audience—veterans in other words—would have picked up at once that Euripides was speaking to them of their own homecoming from far-off campaigns—that the issues being explored before them were real and were as much about their own lives and war-related traumas as with any mythic hero…. The violence pushes Heracles over the edge—he loses control and kills just as quickly those dearest to him, his wife and children.
It would be hard to think of a more egregious misrepresentation of the play. Herakles is no ordinary “combat veteran”: his Labors are fantastical supernatural exploits that bear no resemblance whatever to the kind of fighting familiar to the play’s first audience. This point is, in fact, ferociously made in the play itself. In the course of a substantial exchange with Amphitryon at the beginning of the play, Lykos mocks the absent hero precisely for never having known ordinary combat—for never having “held a shield in his left hand” (a reference to the typical formation of hoplite warfare) or “faced an enemy’s spear.” And while it is true that Euripides “tinkered with the traditional storyline,” as we have seen, that tinkering was expressly for the purposes of highlighting the play’s religious and philosophical themes.
As for Herakles being “pushed over the edge” by the violence he has had to experience during the performance of his Labors, there is no evidence for this interpretation in the text. The Herakles who suddenly appears toward the end of Part I is chipper and matter-of-fact, not at all a mass of nerves. Amphitryon does briefly wonder whether the killing of Lykos might have unbalanced Herakles, but the whole point is that here, as so often, the old man is wrong, doesn’t understand the gods. The text is explicit about the cause of the hero’s sudden-onset madness: not post-traumatic stress disorder, but the ever-wrathful Hera. Herakles doesn’t “lose control,” control is stripped, horribly, from him.
Tellingly, Tritle seeks to disarm objections such as the ones I have made:
There remain critics and scholars who imagine that Euripides has created a sort of psychological thriller, who would not take the time to connect the play to the on-going trauma and terror of the Peloponnesian War. Such interpretations ignore classicist (and World War I combat soldier) Victor Ehrenberg’s reminder that the poet is not only an artist but also a contemporary and eternal voice.
But this attempt to ascribe most critics’ desire to see large moral, intellectual, and philosophical themes in the work of a great dramatic artist to a kind of laziness, a failure to take into account the real-world contemporary context, surely backfires on Tritle himself, and indeed others who want to narrow the concerns of ancient epic or classical tragedy to the realm of experience of a certain portion of their original audiences. You could just as easily say that to see Herakles as being primarily “about” the lives and traumas of its combat veteran audience is a failure to understand virtually everything else that constituted “contemporary” life during the Peloponnesian War: political, intellectual, philosophical, and artistic preoccupations and controversies that were just as contemporary and “real,” and spoke with as much vigor and urgency as did the wounds of citizens who returned from the state’s many wars.
In the end, Meineck’s and Tritle’s vision, and the production that it informs, do great damage not only to the play but to the audience. You have to wonder whether combat veterans are better served by a Herakles that explains the protagonist’s problems as a case of combat trauma or by the play Euripides wrote—a play that forces us to confront the cold abyss of meaningless violence and then suggests that human fellowship, camaraderie, may be all we have. Euripides sought, with unprecedented formal daring, to show the “absolute tragedy” of human existence of which George Steiner speaks—a world that, as the testimonies Meineck has collected make all too plain, many veterans have seen up close, a world of action and suffering detached from coherent moral meanings and unexplainable by ordinary motivations. The ancient playwright’s project is particularly worthy of attention in our own era, characterized as it is by the impulse to provide superficial healing and “closure” and by the desire to explain away and psychologize the irresolvable core of horror that lies behind the genuinely tragic.
In Meineck’s well-meaning new production, the bleak cosmic hell that Euripides’ tragedy visits becomes a place that audiences like to think they’re familiar with (“war is hell”). In seeking to domesticate the foreignness of Euripides’ dramatic world by providing madness with motivation (and thus promising “healing”), in giving a therapeutic account of the meaningless suffering with which the text is replete, this new Herakles ends by sparing us the view of the moral void that Euripides worked so hard to represent.