Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The most tragic of the poets

[New Straits Times, 5 August 1992]


Athens in the fifth century B.C. gave to the world the genre of tragedy, developed and perfected by three great poets. At the battle of Marathon, when Persian land power was completely destroyed, Aeschylus fought in the ranks. There is a legend that on the same day Euripides was born on the island of Salamis. Whether true or not, later Greeks saw it as a fateful relation of the first great tragic poet and the last, and of both to their times.

Euripides competed for the first time in the dramatic competitions of the year after Aeschylus died in Sicily (456 B.C.). Sophocles was already well established.

We know very little about Euripides' life and character. Aristophanes and other comedians made fun of him, but what appears in them is a cartoon-Euripides, hardly connected to the real man.

Euripides was said to be brusque, not a good party-goer, and fond of solitude and books. They say he had a cave on his land in Salamis where he went to write his plays.

He was certainly an intellectual and willing sharply to question accepted beliefs. (We moderns often overlook the fact that poets are not necessarily either radicals or intellectuals. In ancient Greece, poets in general were more comfortable with their traditional society than not.) The philosopher Protagoras is said to have read aloud his agnostic treatise On the gods at Euripides' house. They also say that he learned from other philosophers, and even that Socrates helped him with his plays.

Like the thinkers he was so intimate with, Euripides was deliberately unconventional about his craft, of tragedy. He enjoyed experiment, with plot, staging, and music. Euripides sympathetically brought on the stage characters of low social class. In his plays about women, including such bad women as the witch Medea, he is almost a feminist. He is more various than Aeschylus or Sophocles, and being a master of rhetoric, harder to pin down. Every point of view finds a persuasive expression.

Euripides wrote several tragedies that to our mind seem not "tragic" at all. They actually end pleasantly. In his Helen, the shipwrecked Menelaus finds in Egypt that the real Helen was never kidnapped to Troy to cause the death of many men, but a phantom in her stead. Helen and Menelaus recognize each other, and plot successfully to escape from the Egyptian tyrant who wants Helen for himself. The Helen is a melodrama, and its moral: "They lived happily ever after."

Aeschylus probably would have thought this frivolous.

Earlier playwrights made characters work out their tragedies according to the will of the gods. Euripides took a paradoxical approach. The gods appear more in his plays than in those of the others. Often a divinity such as Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, will open a tragedy with a speech in which she says exactly who she is and what she will cause to happen on the stage. In the Hippolytus she says, quite calmly---and so, chillingly---that she is offended with Hippolytus and intends to destroy him through the means of an incestuous love from his stepmother and his father's curse. All comes about as Aphrodite predicts.

Yet it is hard to believe this Aphrodite is the goddess with the humanlike character that Homer gives her. We know that philosophers of the time speculated that the gods were merely personifications of natural forces. Euripides takes this up. Aphrodite may very well be the natural passion of sex, devoid of human personality and moral aim, irrational, and as destructive as fructifying. To dramatize Aphrodite in that way is to view the gods with great skepticism. A slave early in the Hippolytus says, "Gods should be wiser than mortals." But it is deeply unclear whether they in fact are.

Euripides likewise had his doubts about the dignity of the old myths. He wrote his Electra in response to a revival of Aeschylus' play on the subject of the revenge-murder by Orestes of his mother Clytemnestra who had killed his father. Apart from the slave, there is hardly a sympathetic character in the whole of Euripides' version, which seems the darkest of film noir. In this tragedy Euripides stripped away the divine aura in which Aeschylus framed the myth and left his characters to act as their human psyches moved them.

Anyone who as I began to study Greek during the late 60s and early 70s remembers the reading of Euripides' Bacchae as a shattering experience. It was produced in a wild fashion at New York's Café La Mama as Dionysus in 69. The Bacchae seemed a perfect mirror of the rise of 60s counterculture with a rigid and corrupt Establishment.

The main actor is Dionysus, god of ecstasy, of wine, and of tragedy itself. He is the son of Zeus and of Semele, a princess of Thebes. After a childhood in Asia Dionysus returns home in human shape to reveal himself and establish his worship.

Thebes welcomes the unknown god. Only King Pentheus rejects him. Pentheus is a rigid, shallow man. His sole interests are money and power. He demands order. Like other puritans Pentheus is on the surface rabidly anti-sex. Subconsciously, sex obsesses him.

The women of Thebes have left the houses where they ought to remain hidden and are gone to the woods and mountains to worship the new god with rites of holy trance and dancing. They have become maenads. Pentheus in anger orders Dionysus' arrest and imprisonment. Lightning and earthquake crush the palace and free the god; yet Pentheus remains an unbeliever. In a frenzy he decides to have the women killed. We were reminded of that communiqué from Vietnam: "It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."

The rigid Pentheus has snapped. He is mad, his wrecked personality revealed. Dionysus enchants him to the death he had foretold in the prologue:

PENTHEUS: Bring out my armour here. ---You, shut up.
Would you like to see them lying around in the mountains?
P: Very much. I'd give ten thousand heaps of gold.
D: How is it you have fallen into great lust for this?
P: Disgustingly would I see them passed out drunk.

He offers to take Pentheus up to see the rites (Greek, orgia). Pentheus must dress in women's clothes. As Pentheus goes into the palace Dionysus predicts:

He will know Dionysus is the son of Zeus and born a
God, at the last, most terrible, and to men most gentle.

The chorus sings: What is wisdom? is there any better gift from the gods than revenge over an enemy? Whatever is beautiful is always loved.

Pentheus reappears in pathetic drag, hallucinating double suns, double cities. To him Dionysus appears a bull.

The play moves quickly to its end. A messenger reports that the maenads on the mountain led by Pentheus' mother Agaue saw Pentheus as a wild animal. They seize Pentheus and as he cries out to his mother they with rejoicing tear him to pieces.

In the final scene Agaue triumphs with the head of her son. As Agaue's father Kadmos brings her back from her trance to reality. Dionysus appears over the disaster in the full radiance of a god. He has won, having destroyed the entire royal house of Thebes.

The Bacchae is the darkest and most disturbing tragedy in the Greek repetoire. It frightens in part because its interpretation is so difficult. People have seen the play as Euripides' recantation and admission of the truth of traditional religion. If so it is an awful realization that piety and resistance are equally vain in the face of god. Others have made it a parable of human psychology, the fragile and repressive ego overthrown by the raging id.

The Bacchae was one of the last tragedies. Euripides and Sophocles dead, there was no one left to compose them and the spirit had vanished. Historically the Bacchae came at a moment when Athens was shattered by the Peloponesian war, when idealism fled and cities had suffered great cruelties in the name of political "pragmatism." The Bacchae shows us a picture of civilization crumbling before the forces of irrationality. We understand this feeling, and we are inclined to agree with Aristotle, that Euripides, when he put these emotions on the stage, becomes "the most tragic of the poets."