Bill bought me this book before we went and saw Alan Cumming in the play so I would be familiar with the story. At first I found it very strange. I don’t know much about ancient Greece, picking up references here and there. Years ago in high school I took a mythology class (which was mainly Greek and Roman) and attempted the Odyssey and the Iliad. I read the play before we saw it, and I think I enjoyed it more for knowing the story and being able to recognise certain lines of dialogue. It helped me visualise the purpose of the chorus better for the rest of the plays in the book. It also seemed to be one of the most self contained stories, the others seemed to be very much snippets of life from within a greater story, the closest similarity I could find for this was the Three Kingdoms stories, where bits of the greater tale were played out individually against a great war.
There were two things that really struck me about the book. The first was the myth of “the history of western civilisation”. They seemed like such a strange and foreign civilisation to me. It was strange to see how very warlike they were, the debates about proper roles in society, the fear of the army, and the ultimate supremacy of the gods. Very, very different to anything I read before. The other thing that struck me was how very human the tragedies and the feelings of the characters were. I remember as a child reading about the man who had to sacrifice his daughter because she was the first thing he saw when he came home, and thinking how terrible and petty that was. I think it was always explained away as “well that’s just what happened in cultures where there was sacrifice”. But I think Euripides showed this was clearly not the case. In Ipegenia he portrayed the father as terrified and conflicted and doomed, a man who feared for the life of his family, who had no other choice. In this play it was not the gods who were the most dangerous, but the army who demanded what the profit said. It was interesting to see the characters in the play completely de-mystifying the Trojan War. The men did not wish to go, they did not wish to fight for what they considered a worthless woman, and they definitely didn’t want to sacrifice a good woman for the sake of a bad one. A theme that came up time and time again seemed to be about gender relations, the men acted because they wanted to remind women of their place, and couldn’t let the ones who acted out get away with it as then all women would start acting that way. It was interesting to see how fragile the men thought their position was, and what great lengths they went to reinforce it.
I think the Bacchae was my favourite of the plays (and not just because of Alan Cumming’s nudity). There seem to be two interpretations of the story, the danger of what happens when you let your women run wild, and the danger of what happens when you repress them. It was good to see a god so pivotal to the story, taking his place and acting among the humans. There was so much going on in the play, so many different ideas about religion, drinking and women, (my three favourite topics) that it was easy to see why it has been such a favourite for so long. I read it first and afterwards the other plays didn’t seem quite so good. The fact that the gods only intervened at the end to save the day and put things right seemed a bit contrived. But I did enjoy most of the other plays. Orestes I liked, partially because of being reminded of Sandman, but also because of the very human drama (or melodrama) of it. I enjoyed the debates within it. It also had a terribly dramatic ending with Oresetes threatening to burn down the city and kill everyone. Iphigenia at Aulis I mentioned earlier and I felt was the most human of the stories. I even almost felt sorry for Achilles in it. There he was the greatest hero of the age, and he wasn’t able to save the girl from the will of the army. Phoenician Women has some rather memorable moments, though according to the preface my favourite moment of the girl watching the army from the roof may actually not have been written by Euripides, but it was the story I was least familiar with and so was more confusing. Rhesus I found TERRIBLY dull. I quickly skimmed to the end. It was the only story without female characters, and their seemed to be no human drama; rather there was just a retelling of an event in the Trojan War. After I’d just about given up I went back to read the introduction for it, which said that many scholars were unsure if it was his work as it was of a much lower quality, or they thought perhaps it was just an earlier work. Either way I was glad to see that my opinion of it wasn’t the only one.
It was nice and a little bit strange to read something where I wasn’t concerned with the notes or the textual origins. Not worrying quite so much about which parts were the author and which were later editions was rather strange but freeing. It was an interesting read, once I got over the culture and stylistic differences it was really interesting to see the human drama play out, which is undoubtedly why it has been so popular for so long. I do not find Ancient Greece nearly as interesting as China but it is good to visit every now and then, and if I can find more good translations, I will probably read some more at some point....Continua