Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Four By Euripides

Considering my years-long involvement with a Greek-mythology theater festival and my years-long obsession with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, it's shameful to admit that I didn't read Bacchae till last July. And additionally a bit strange to write a review of these plays six months after reading them. Ah well...

 Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, RhesusEuripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by Euripides
Bacchae and Cyclops translated by William Arrowsmith
Iphigenia in Aulis translated by Charles R. Walker
Rhesus translated by Richmond Lattimore
edited by David Grene, Richmond Lattimore, Mark Griffith & Glen W. Most

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting mix of plays, displaying variety even while working within the limits and conventions of Greek drama. Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis are two of the last plays Euripides wrote—Bacchae has strong horror elements to it, while Iphigenia in Aulis is more of a traditional tragedy in which noble figures face agonizing choices. Cyclops is the only extant Greek satyr play, a burlesque of the episode in The Odyssey where Odysseus must save his men from a man-eating cyclops. And Rhesus is a wartime tragedy set in Troy, which may or may not have actually been written by Euripides.

I found Iphigenia in Aulis the most well-plotted, psychologically penetrating, and downright tragic of these plays, as the characters go back and forth on whether to sacrifice Iphigenia. Bacchae is also great, especially its choral hymns in praise of Dionysus' mountainside cult and wild rites. Euripides makes clear why so many people are drawn to Dionysus, as well as the terrible costs of denying his energies.

Rhesus did not hold my attention nearly so well, perhaps because its stakes are lower. It's the story of a noble prince of Thrace, who comes to aid the Trojans, but is ambushed and killed by Greek spies before he can do anything. Sure, that's not a happy story, but it's not nearly so tragic as tearing your son limb from limb while under the influence of religious mania (Bacchae) or being forced to kill your daughter in order to ensure a favorable wind to sail to Troy (Iphigenia in Aulis).

As this was my first time reading all of these plays, I cannot comment much on the translations, though I did find the Rhesus translation a bit awkward—it refers several times to a soldiers' "bivouac," and that word took me right out of the play.

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