We don’t always know how many plays the Greek authors wrote as much was destroyed by the triumphalists among the Christians, but in Euripides’ case we kind of do – he apparently wrote around 80 plays (though some say nearly 100), of which about 20 survive. Of those, the hottest of a string of hot numbers is The Medea, a revenge play of such power that it is hard not to shrink back a bit from the anti-heroine as she rides into the sky in her chariot, leaving in her wake her dead children and parents-in-law. She had murdered them all.
There was more to this than a crazed woman out to wreak havoc on her husband’s family, for her husband was Jason, and she the “pagan” daughter of chieftains who had helped him acquire the Golden Fleece and spirit it home. And this tale was about the Greek attitude towards non-Greeks, who could not be queens of their city states…and the anger evoked among them by second-class citizenry.
Euripides got his dramatic power from his imaginative understanding of Medea’s point of view, his willingness to enter into her perspective, without flinching, to show too her blind spots: she was not merely unwilling herself to accept Jason’s attempt to provide her and her children with a stable home, but she was unable to see the reasons for it – heightening the tragedy.
Many of Euripides’ greatest characters are women, some of them more or less unknown. In The Trojan Women the defeated wives of Troy’s warriors are among his finest creations as he pitilessly exposed the ongoing Athenian war for domination of Attica. For his querying of the motives of his native city, he could hardly have been the most popular of public figures, and myth has it that he left Athens and settled elsewhere at the end of his life.
Actually, this is unknown. But like Shakespeare, Euripides was seen to be a superior writer in his own time or near to it, hence the survival of so many of his plays. To me he was the greatest till Shakespeare, and given that this covers 2000 years, that’s an amazing achievement.
My favourites among his surviving works are The Medea, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae, though others are also well-crafted and very moving. The Bacchae deserves special mention; it is his last play and one where he examined a problem still with us: alcohol and alcoholism. Any alcoholic seeing or reading this play will instantly recognise the portrayal of a blackout. It is the key point of the play and shows clearly that Euripides recognised what a blackout is and was able to show the unconsciousness of this type of alcoholic behaviour, all the more horrific as a result.
Yet Euripides did not, as one might imagine, see the abuse of alcohol as a reason to campaign against it. Rather the opposite – he saw the usefulness of this drug in taking away the pain of hard lives for the great mass of the people, while also seeing the dangers contained in it.
Public drunkenness at the time, particularly during “festivals”, was a live issue. Plato’s last dialogue,The Laws, begins as an examination of how drunkenness among young people can be counteracted; his “solution”, effectively more songs and games, showed just how removed from the nature of alcoholism he was. That might be said to be unfair if Euripides had not shown his clear understanding of this problem, even if he had no solution. The nature of the alcoholic would not be better portrayed till Michael Cassio in Othello.
Euripides had a warm sympathy for the oppressed, for the selflessly courageous, for those isolated and condemned by the societies of his time; to me he is a true exemplar of the “writer as hero”. In my own small way, I have tried to emulate him in my books (please don’t misunderstand – I am not making any claims to personal courage), to use him as a model for some of my characters: Kathe inThe Kleiber Monster for example; her portrayal has an eye on Euripides himself as well as some of the beautiful women he created in his work, in particular Alcestis in a play of the same name.
This particular play is relevant to a discussion in a thread of the “Shakespeare fans” Goodreads group about how much it is “acceptable” to doctor the greats…Ted Hughes did a version of this play that as the dust jacket says, “goes beyond translation”. To my mind, it is excellent. Hughes captures the spirit of Euripides while confronting some of the implied issues more overtly; like the playwright, the poet had his own measures of courage.
I am not sure about the number of stars for this one. Anyone reading these blog posts conscientiously could have their PC monitor’s casing nearly coated with the shining darlings and be thinking of getting onto the viewing surface. My advice is – don’t! buy a new monitor…six stars, plus three for the wicked. Choose any colours you like.
Published on July 12, 2012 16:48 • 35 views • Tags: alcestis, alcohol,alcoholism, blackout, euripides, oedipus, plato, shakespeare,sophocles, the-bacchae, the-kleiber-monster, the-laws, the-medea, trojan-women