"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

26 August 2014

The Cyclops, by Euripides

Chorus: “There ain’t no Bacchus, ain’t no dancing,
            There ain’t not Manaeads a-thrysus-shaking
            Or tambourines like splashing water.
            There ain’t no golden-greeny fountains
            Gushing wine, and not a sign
            Of the nymphs of Nysa shouting ‘Bacchus!
            Bacchus!’ as I chase the girls of
            Aphrodite, flying after
            Their milky feet. . .O lovely, O lonely
            Bacchus tossing your mane of curls,
            Where are you off to, forfeiting me
            Your servant to the one-eyed Cyclops
            As his lackey, where in my filthy
            Garb of goatskin I potter about
Shorn of your friendship.”

Silenus: “I’d go crazy for just one cup of that wine.
I’d sell the entire flocks of all the Cyclopes.
I’d leap into the briny sea from the Leucadian rock,
            for just one little tipple to smooth my frown.
A man who isn’t merry in his cups
            is a solemn fool.
Besides, [Pointing between his legs]
            it makes you stand up straight
            when you get your two hands around
            some lovely little soft boobs—and elsewhere.
That’s when you can really dance
            and put paid to all your worries.
So why shouldn’t I blow a kiss to a drink like that
            and tell that mindless Cyclops
            to go and cry his one big eye out?”

Cyclops: “Anyway, I don’t give a damn.
And why don’t I give a damn?
            Because when he showers anything down from above,
            I’m all snug in my rocky shack,
            and after a good dinner of roast lamb or game,
            washed down with a tank of milk,
            I’m flat on my back.
So when Zeus claps out his thunder,
            I from my blankets blast out a fart.”

EuripidesThe Cyclops is the only satyr play that comes down to us in its full form—there are fragments of others, but this is the only complete play of the genre. The satyr play is a very different form from both comedy and tragedy, though it shares commonalities with both of them. Like comedy, the satyr play is funny and is meant to make the audience laugh. However, unlike high comedy, the satyr play is grotesque, relying on a repertoire of gags, gimmicks, allusions, and innuendo with which fans of King Ubu would be quite familiar. Rather than wit and clever words play, the satyr play utilizes the (ostensibly) low humor tropes of scatology and sexual humor. One major way in which satyr plays genuinely diverge from comedy though is in their subject matter. Whereas classical comedy is almost always contemporary and focused on common or regular protagonists, satyr plays utilize the same content that tragedies use—myths of heroes, kings, and nobles taking place in legendary Greek antiquity. So, for instance, The Cyclops restages an event from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus has to blind a Cyclops bent on eating him and his entire crew. The difference, obviously, between tragedy and the satyr play is the burlesque tone of the latter in contrast to the dignity and weight of the former.

I find it fascinating that satyr plays were a standard part of Athenian theatrical life, and yet the genre is (almost) entirely absent from how we generally think about Hellenistic drama. I mean, each playwright who competed in the City Dionysia would enter three tragedies—sometimes a cycle and sometimes three individual plays linked thematically or otherwise—and one satyr play. So there would have been fully ¼ the number of satyr plays as there were tragedies, which is a pretty significant proportion. And yet the cultural image that gets handed down to us and reproduced over and over in our reverence for the Greeks is the image of the dignified tragedy.

The Cyclops is a carnivalesque masterpiece, in all the senses Bakhtin used that word. Particularly given the practice of performing satyr plays alongside tragedies, these plays clearly functioned both dialogically with the tragedies and heteroglossically (possibly not a real word) by providing alternatives to the officially sanctioned gravity of the myths. Additionally the earthy, vivacity of the satyr play probably acted as something of a release mechanism from the heaviness of tragedy. But the carnivalesque elements are clearly evident in this play—the focus on bodily functions like eating, drinking (especially wine), drunkenness, flatulence, sexuality (including erections and a disconcertingly playful male-on-male rape scene). This emphasis on the body and its physicality is a crucial element of the carnivalesque because it roots the experience in the senses and the sensual. And the physicality also puts the play in position to capitalize on cycles of life and death, which is another crucial component of the carnivalesque, which Bakhtin links to fertility rituals. In The Cyclops the satyrs move from being prisoners kept from Dionysus—a kind of living death for them—and through the (symbolic) death of the Cyclops they move to the new life of freedom from enslavement. The Cyclops’ movement is just the opposite—a movement from the freedom from work made possible by having the satyrs as slaves, to the death of blindness and solitude.

This last point—the bottom-rail-on-top-ness of the Cyclops’ fall and the satyrs’ gaining their freedom—might also represent/derive from a commentary on the fall of the old chthonic gods and their replacement by the Olympians. The Cyclops clearly sets himself up in opposition to Zeus, who is, of course, king of the Olympians and supplanter of the Titans—a race of ancient chthonic deities. And while the Cyclops was a son of Poseidon—himself an Olympian—dwelling in a cave links the Cyclops with the earth and subterranean imagery. The satyrs, on the other hand, were servants of Dionysus, one of the Olympians, and their chief desire in this play is to return to his service and worship, which for them constitutes freedom.

19 August 2014

The Trojan Women, by Euripides

Poseidon: If you want to see misery at its worst,
            look at the creature lying there, poor Hecuba,
            weeping a plethora of tears for a plethora of disasters.

Hecuba: I see the scheme of the gods: to raise to the skies the worthless
            and dash to the ground the exalted.
Andromache: Yes, I with my son are captive stock:
            highbirth to slave—what a reversal!
Hecuba: Fate is remorseless.

Hecuba: Just that it is clear now
            the gods have singled me out for suffering
            and Troy for hate—above all other cities.
In vain have we slaughtered our hecatombs, and the divine reply
            is to bury us under the earth, heap it on us, pack it down.
It is as if we were to be smothered from view:
            unsung by the Muses, unchanted, unrecorded,
            in ages to come.

Hecuba: O Troy, great city,
            once breath of grandeur on the barbarian scene,
            how fast is your glory extinct!
They burn you down, and we,
            we are being herded off as slaves.
O you gods. . .
            but why bother to invoke the gods?
            In the past they never heard my prayers.
So, hurry, hurry into the flames.
Let my glory be
            to die on the bonfire of my home.

I’ve read EuripidesTrojan Women before, and I saw it performed (in a not terribly great college production), but this is the first time I’ve genuinely enjoyed the play. Many people find it hard to like The Trojan Women because it is such a heavy play, considering that essentially the entire focus is the lamenting of the enslaved women of Troy after it sack by the Greek army.

But it was never the heaviness of the theme that bothered me before, it was the fact that there is very little that actually happens. Most of the play is spent recounting and lamenting the destruction of Troy and dreading the upcoming enslavement in the homes of the victorious Argive army. And while that is still true, this was my first experience of the play where I could genuinely appreciate the beauty of the poetry and the sublimity of Hecuba’s suffering. Yes, there were still moments where it felt a bit tedious, but by and large I enjoyed the play because Hecuba—Priam’s widow, the former queen of Troy—is such a well written part. Her lamentations are really evocative, and her character remains torn between despair, suicide, and a desire to support the women who were her former subjects and current slave-peers. So much has been taken from Hecuba, that when she dies of sadness at the end of the play it is almost a perverse relief.

The other thing I was able to appreciate more on this reading is the way the lamentations are broken up the spare action that does occur in the play. Periodically individual women are taken aboard the Hellenic ships or the Argive herald arrives with some news, but the two major interludes of action are when Cassandra is brought out and makes some bizarre and obscure prophecies, and when Astyanax—Andromache’s son, Hecuba’s grandson—is taken away to be killed. Cassandra really changes the mood of the play significantly with her entrance bearing a torch and the odd prophecies she speaks, to which, of course, no one gives heed. In a way this is almost like the gatekeeper scene in Macbeth, because (although Cassandra isn’t funny) she disrupts the overall heavy depressing tone enough that it is possible to make it through the intense suffering of the play. The execution of Astyanax works a bit differently, because it builds the suffering, but it is a performative break from the continual lamentation. Rather than just having the women bewailing the fall of Troy, the deaths of their husbands, sons, and brothers, and their own enslavement, the scene with Astyanax actually shows the brutality and the terror inflicted by the victorious Argive army on the Trojans.

One character I find particularly interesting is Talthybius, the Greek herald. Other than some spear-bearers, he and Menelaus are the only two Hellenic soldiers who appear in the play. And Menelaus is supposed to be quite stupid (which seems to be a common opinion of him in other Athenian tragedy), but Talthybius seems to be genuinely conflicted about the treatment of the Trojan women. He is reluctant to add to their sorrows by telling them bad news, though that ends up being his primary role in the play. And when Astyanax is taken to be killed, Talthybius turns him over to another soldier saying, “This order needs a brute, someone merciless, / much more heartless than I can be.” On the one hand, I like this character tremendously because I think he is caught in a very modern moral dilemma—and people do often talk about Euripides as the most modern of the Athenian dramatists—but I also wonder whether this character doesn’t show Euripides hedging his bets a bit. I mean, this play was always going to challenge Hellenic sentiments, because the Greeks were, of course, on the Greek side in the Trojan War. But even more than that, this play was written shortly before what would turn out to be a disastrous invasion of Sicily, and it is easy to read this as Euripides’ protest against Athens’ military actions. So this play was lucky to even be put on in Athens, but I think the humanity, the ethical qualms, and the sympathy that Talthybius displays may have helped the Athenians identify with a not entirely negative image of the Greeks.