Saturday, June 21, 2008

Some Thoughts on Euripides

Euripides, I believe, is the most underrated and underappreciated tragedian out of the three great ancient playwrights. This partly stems from the biographical information that has been handed down through the tradition and partly from his record in the City Dionysia, the festival in which tragedies were performed. Justina Gregory places the biographical details into three categories: (1) the comedies of Aristophanes. Aristophanes tells us that Euripides’ mother was a herb seller and repeats the joke no less than five times in his plays (Acharnians, Knights, twice in Women at the Thesmophoria, and in the Frogs). (2) those from the tragedies of Euripides himself. Euripides’ wives have been reported to be unfaithful; this probably stems from his heroine Phaedra. The details were again brought to the fore through Aristophanes (cf. Frogs 1043-44). (3) anecdotes regarding the “lore” of the three tragedians. Euripides is said to have been born on the day of the Battle of Salamis, Sophocles danced in a boy’s chorus to celebrate the victory, and Aeschylus apparently fought in the battle itself. From this, the tradition has it that the “torch of tragedy” passed from Aeschylus to Sophocles, to Euripides.

Another note that has tarnished the reputation of Euripides is his record at the Dionysia. He only won first prize at the festival four times, though he competed twenty two or twenty three times. Compare this with Sophocles, who won eighteen times in roughly thirty attempts. This would seem to support the notion that Euripides was somehow at odds with his viewing public. However, I find this last point rather dubious. Attaining third prize did not always entail a lack of appreciation and retention by the public. The fact that Aristophanes could parody Euripides’ Telephys thirteen years after its production seems to require that the audience have some knowledge of the play in order to get the jokes. It makes no sense to parody a play that wasn’t popular in some regard and that the audience had no recollection of. P.T. Stevens has also made the case that the measure of the success of a play or playwright was not winning first prize at the festival, but being allowed to compete at the festival in the first place by the archon—the “financer” and backer of the festival. Moreover, when orators such as Demosthenes or Aeschines wanted a dramatic excerpt to illustrate a point, they most often drew on Sophoclean or Euripidean tragedy. I think these three points serve to delegitimize the claim that Euripides was not a successful playwright.

Nietzsche, to some extent, also played a role in propagating the downplaying of Euripides in favor of Aeschylus or Sophocles. This is evidenced not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but also in his lecture courses he delivered as a Classics Professor. He only taught one course on Euripides, which focused exclusively on the Bacchae. This, however, was an anomaly: Euripides was never made the subject of seminars or more extensive lecture courses; he chose instead to focus on the other two tragedians when the subject of tragedy was treated. His ultimate position was presented in the Birth of Tragedy, the first of his books. The argument, in my view, seems to hinge on the inclusion or exclusion of the chorus in tragedy. Tragedy, in its “proto” form, was a dithyramb that celebrated Dionysus and was characterized by singing and dancing. Slowly, actors were introduced, and the original function of the dithyrambic dancers was supplanted by the chorus. Nietzsche, while recognizing that “the tragic” was made up of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements, clearly favors the Dionysian: his rantings against Socrates and Euripides attest to this. In Euripides, the chorus doesn’t play as large a role in the play as it does in the other tragedians, especially Aeschylus. Thus, the Dionysian element that is so essential to the construction of tragedy is being done away with: there is no longer the “communal” experience that the total work of art (re. proper tragedy which involves singing, dancing, music, and acting) brings.

On the surface this seems to be a more or less convincing position. I would agree with Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, though I would disagree with how these distinctions are cashed out by Nietzsche. There is, in my view, more to the Dionysian element than just the chorus. The action in the play can also have such an element. Take Euripides’ Bacchae, for example. This is one of the most savage and grotesque of the Greek tragedies; people are ripped to pieces by stark raving mad women, and the head of the unfortunate Theban king is brought on stage for all to see. The subject material, in fact, involved Dionysus himself: it is he who pushing the women of Thebes into the Bacchic frenzy that they are enraptured in throughout most of the play. While the chorus is not a large player in the play (which, is bad according to Nietzsche: no longer is there music, et al, which is central to the Dionysian element), the events in the play are wild, savage, and certainly un-Apollonian. The Apollonian element is the acting; events are being represented by the actors. The Dionysian, along with the chorus, is the events the actors portray: this leads to the tragic. The Dionysian element, I would agree, is somewhat lost by the minimizing of the chorus, though, since this is not all there is to it, the minimizing does not spell the complete death of tragedy or the tragic: it’s merely sick. Euripides didn’t kill tragedy, “metaphysically” or historically: tragic plays continued to be produced after his death, albeit in a decidedly Euripidean guise.

I hope I have given some credence to an underrated and under appreciated figure who only in the last 75 years or so has started to be celebrated once more.


J.D. said...

Interesting post! I knew nothing of Nietzsche's role in how we view the Greek tragedians. In my opinion, Euripides might have been difficult for contemporary audiences to swallow because he was rather brash and different in style, theme, and tone--the prototypical protest poet with a controversial image.

You might be interested in a more complete look at my take on how Euripides was received by his public from last month:

Ben said...

Yeah, Eurpides was certainly in a different vein than Sophocles or Aeschylus. Though Niezsche himself perhaps played a small role in the anti-Euripides camp, this was symptomatic of a larger tradition within academia at the time. I *think* he got his attitude from one of his profs, though, since I wasn't 100% sure I didn't want to post something incorrect.

I'll certainly check out your take on Euripides.