I never used to be one of those playwrights who got a lot out of Greek tragedy. I respected it, sure, but it didn't speak to me. However, a few things I've seen in 2010 have caused me to reevaluate my former judgment and gain a new appreciation for one of the three major tragedians--Euripides!
(And next weekend I'm going to see a new play called Oedipus El Rey, which everyone says is excellent, so maybe I'll find myself reevaluating Sophocles too...)
First, at the inaugural San Francisco Theater Pub, I saw a reading of my friend Ben's new translation of Euripides' Cyclops--the only surviving satyr play. Of course, it is a fluke that it was Euripides' satyr play that survived, and not one by Aeschylus or Sophocles or some other writer. Still, I enjoyed learning that Euripides had a very silly, bawdy, irreverent sense of humor; he wasn't only about choral lamentations and horrific messenger-speeches.
But then, Euripides' humor does come through in his tragedies, too. Odysseus, in Cyclops, is a total egomaniac, a burlesque of the conventional hero--but then, so is Jason in Medea. I learned this when I attended Cutting Ball Theater's Medea vs. Medea--back-to-back staged readings of Euripides' and Seneca's plays about the woman who killed her children for revenge. At the end of it, there was a discussion, followed by a vote on which play we preferred. Euripides beat Seneca by about 2 to 1! And I was firmly on Euripides' side. It seems to me that he was a dramatist, while Seneca was a poet. Euripides' version moves swiftly, integrates the Chorus into the action, and the dialogue arises out of the characters' wants and needs. Seneca is more concerned with writing lengthy choral odes that allude to other myths and legends (as though he's trying to show off how smart he is), and long philosophical speeches. Euripides' heroine is far more complex and sympathetic than Seneca's, and his play is shot through with the laughter of dramatic irony. Seneca was perhaps the underdog in this fight, because his Medea is much more rarely performed than Euripides'... but you know, it seems like there's a good reason he's the underdog.
Then, a few days later, I went to see Racine's Phèdre at ACT. I am very familiar with the myth of Phaedra and her love for her stepson Hippolytus, because in college, I was a member of the Chorus in a student production of Euripides' Hippolytus. And I have to say that, again, in my opinion, Euripides comes out the winner.
Part of might just be a problem with translation and with how little contemporary audience preferences have in common with Racine's style. OK, I can't read Euripides in the original, but I can read Racine's French, and understand how so much of what he has to offer is the way that he writes in balanced alexandrine couplets. But the translation that ACT used, by Timberlake Wertenbaker (who, when she's not translating, is a really terrific playwright), was in blank verse that sounded like prose, and lacked both modern vigor and classical lyricism. Greek tragedy, I think, is more translatable; at least, it has been successful all over the world, while Racine has never really been successful outside of France (unlike, say, Molière).
But I also think that Euripides' conception of character and incident was more interesting than Racine's. Racine's classicism, his "decorum," meant that he sanded the rough edges off of his characters. His Hippolytus is instantly sympathetic, because he is a handsome young lover. In his first scene, he tells us that he has fallen in love with Princess Aricie, but is forbidden to marry her. We are glad when Hippolytus fends off the incestuous advances of Phèdre, and we hope he can be united with the much more age-appropriate Aricie.
Conversely, Euripides' Hippolytus is really unsympathetic for about the first half of the play, and there is no Aricie character. Euripides' Hippolytus is proud and haughty; he has never been in love and appears disgusted by the idea of it. We almost hope that he will succumb to Phaedra's pleading, because we see how pained she is, and we think that it would be good for his heart to melt, for him to feel love and understand its torments. And yet, by the end of the play, Euripides has made us feel sympathy for Hippolytus: he is an unjustly accused innocent, his death is a tragedy. Only a very skillful dramatist can cause the audience to shift its opinion of a character like that; it's a challenging effect to achieve, and grants the play a greater complexity. Racine's characters may express themselves more eloquently than Euripides' do, but it turns out that as a dramatist, Racine had less to say.