Last Sunday, I attended the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale. It takes place in a massive warehouse filled with used knick-knacks. I immediately headed to the book section. It was the last day of the sale: the whole thing was due to close down in about four hours. The professional book-resalers, those guys with barcode scanners that connect to price databases on the internet, had already come and gone and picked over the whole inventory for anything they could get for a few dollars less than it would sell for on EBay or Amazon. That meant that everything that was left behind was officially worthless. For $5, I could buy a grocery bag and fill it with books. I bought two grocery bags. I went crazy and started buying anything that was of even mild interest.
From this, I undoubtedly purchased the seeds of many future blog entries. But the most surprising outcome was this Bantam Classics edition of the plays of Euripides. Euripides is that Greek tragedian who we’ve all sort of vaguely heard about but absolutely never intended to read (as opposed to Sophocles, who we intend to read, but will never end up actually reading). Anyways, I have spent the last few days reading through all ten plays included in the book, and have come to two conclusions: i) this translation is pretty bad; and ii) these plays are still some of the most electrifying and thought-provoking works I’ve read in the last year.
My impression is that most modern translations of ancient literature are done by professors, and are meant to be read by college students as part of their classes. Thus, I think that there might be more emphasis on textual accuracy than on euphony. It might not sound good, but at least you can be sure that the words are something like what Euripides actually wrote. At least…I hope that’s the case, because otherwise there can be no good explanation for the tin ear evidenced by any random stretch of this book. Random sample from Alcestis:
Admetus: The dead have died, do not go into the house.
Hercules: It is shameful for guests to feast while the host weeps.
Admetus: The guest chambers to which we shall take you are in a separate wing.
That is horrible. And it’s like that the whole way through. There is no way it sounded that bad in the original. If it did, it would not have lasted all this time. I mean, I know this is a prose translation of a work originally in verse, but that does not mean that no attention should be paid to how things sound.
But maybe it would have lasted through the ages anyway because, even with the bad translation, time and again I felt that over-powering hair-raising sensation that sometimes makes me put the book down and walk around a little before I can continue.
Okay, I think maybe I am getting ahead of myself. Weird things about Euripides:
- All his plays are about women. Out of the ten plays I read, the only one where the protagonist was not a woman was The Bacchantae. I’ve read enough ancient literature (or, hell, enough modern literature) to know that this is not common. Women had pretty much no place in ancient Athenian society. They’re hardly mentioned by any of the philosophers, or by the historians. They do have something of a more prominent place amongst the playwrights. But still, this emphasis on women would be strange even in a modern, male playwright. Back in the day, all parts in Greek theater were played by men. But if these plays were staged today, then almost every one of them would have a meaty Lady McBeth style part for woman (sometimes there’d even be two): whether, it’s Alcestis, Medea, Andromache, Iphigenia, Clytemnestra, Electra, Phaedra, Creusa, Hecuba, or even some of the unnamed Nurses, or Chorus-Leaders. It is seriously kind of shocking. Compare this to Shakespeare (or really, anyone else), where women are usually in secondary roles.
- The Chorus is an awesome device. Okay, this is not at all unique to Euripides. All ancient Greek plays had a fifty person chorus that basically represented some social group (the captured women of Troy in The Trojan Women, or the elders of the city in Alcestis). The Chorus would sing in interludes, sort of filling in the thoughts of the community. And sometimes they’d dialogue with the characters. This is a seriously great device. And what’s best about it is that it’s not (like it would be today) some kind of gimmick. It’s just an accepted sort of character. It’s the kind of thing that we only obliquely aim at todays, by using first-person plural, or overheard dialogue, or crowd shots, or fake news reports or whatever…because, really, what the community thinks is important. Every character in the world should be shown interacting, not just with each other, but with the community. Also, sometimes Euripides will do things with the chorus that I am pretty sure are not standard, like in the Trojan Women, where Hecuba is getting a report (from the Greek messenger) on what is going to happen to her and her family and the Chorus-Leader says: “Oh Mistress, you know your fate. But which of the Pelepponnesians, which of the Thessalians, is to be my master?” and Hecuba totally just ignores her.
- All the real fun happens in the speeches. Every play opens with a long speech from one of the characters (or sometimes from a God, or a bystander) introducing the action to date. Whenever there is a battle, or a murder, or something, it always happens off-stage, and is then recounted in a speech by a messenger (or sometimes in song from the Chorus). And then, whenever the plot reaches some kind of boiling point, the characters will lapse into long and amazing speeches. It is hard to describe how good these speeches can be. They distill all the drama of the situation into a stream of words…
- All the plays are basically dramatic set-pieces. By which I mean that there are not really multiple scenes, or acts, or settings or whatever. They basically follow Aristotles’ three unities: each one has a single time, place, and plot. Sometimes these set-pieces are kind of dubious. But sometimes they’re very high-concept, and very affecting. For instance, a play that opens with Hecuba, wailing, in the Greek prisoner camp, set in front of the burning ruins of Troy….that’s going to win me over.
Okay, well, clearly I have not read much Greek tragedy, so I cannot tell you what things I like are specifically Euripidean things, and which things are just features of the genre. But I can tell you that there are parts of these plays you will never forget: in Medea, where Electra tries to persuade herself not to kill her children; in Alcestis, where the King’s father refuses to die for him; in The Trojan Women, where the Greek messenger comes to kill Andromache’s son; in The Bacchantae, where the maddened worshipper realizes she has killed her son….there is some amazing stuff in here. It is kind of the distilled essence of drama. And somehow the formal, stilted language, and the weird conventions…they put the action into a different sort of space, where these situations are no longer trite: where they haven’t been done 25,000 times in the 2,500 years since these plays were written…I don’t know. I recommend them highly, especially the Trojan Women.
Translations for colleges do vary wildly in quality. I read Anne Carson’s translations of four of Euripedes’ plays (the collection is titled Grief Lessons, and it’s published by NYRB Classics) a few months ago and it was gorgeous – presumably because Carson’s a poet in her own right. Highly recommended.
I think it’s useful to read Euripedes alongside Aeschylus and Sophocles (they’re both excellent, by the way) just for a recognition of how different he feels. To me he seems a lot darker and quieter than either of them;less gracefully tragic and more genuinely horrifying.
Yes, I’m reading through some of Aeschylus now. I have the Ted Hughes translation of the Oresteia on hold at the Library, and I got a copy of his other four plays from that same warehouse sale (I think I could have bought a copy of every extant Greek play). That translation is actually much better.
I’m planning on reading Sophocles eventually (I bought a collection of his too), but I was forced to read Oedipus Rex in High School and didn’t enjoy it, so the thought of going back and admitting that the 9th grade me was wrong doesn’t exactly fill me with joy.
Yes, there is very little in Euripides that is classically “tragic”, at least according to what I was taught in high school. With a few exceptions (like Hippolytus’ insistence on remaining a virgin, or how the protagonists in the Bacchantae disrespected Dionysius), the protagonists didn’t seem to have any kind of tragic flaws or anything. Mostly, they just got kind of screwed over by society, like how Medea was set aside by her husband, or how Hecuba’s husband went to war and now she’s a slave. They didn’t really do anything to deserve their fates. I guess that is more like horror than tragedy.
Oh, and thanks for the recommendation. It includes two plays that weren’t in the collection I read, as well as one of my favorite ones (Alcestis), so I will definitely check it out and see how a better translation affects things.