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Category Archives: Oldish Books

Reviews of books printed before 1982 A.D.

On to Electra, Sophocles’ take on the Oresteia story you might know so well from Aeschylus. Sophocles’ play fits into the story at just about the same place as The Libation Bearers: it details the grief and desire for vengeance harbored by Electra, Agamemnon’s daughter and Orestes’ sister, and it goes right into the act of revenge itself: Orestes’ murder of his father’s slayer, Aegisthus and of his mother, Clytemnestra.

As the title might imply, there is much more of a focus on Electra in Sophocles’ play than in Aeschylus’s. After a brief introduction showing Orestes and his companions sneakily arriving at the palace, most of the rest of the play shows Electra running into various people and letting them know that her dissatisfaction with the current arrangement is coming to a head. The current arrangement being that Aegisthus is king, is Clytemnestra’s wife; Electra has been complaining this whole time, so she is on a sort of lock-down where she’s not allowed to leave the palace grounds. Her sister, Chrysothemis, insists that she, too, is interested in getting revenge, but she finds that idea too troublesome and would prefer to just get along with everybody.

Eventually Orestes’ tutor arrives and, according to plan, tells a big old yarn about Orestes’ death in a chariot race. Soon after Orestes himself arrives, in disguise. He slowly reveals himself to Electra, the two talk excitedly, the tutor comes out of the palace and says they are wasting time; Orestes then murders his mother and waits for Aegisthus to arrive; he does, and he talks calmly with Aegisthus for a few lines before leading him back to the spot of his father’s death to finish the deed.

The ending is rather abrupt in this one. With all the passionate brutality of Aeschylus’s version, this one seems very cold and calculating. It almost doesn’t seem like Greek tragedy, in that regard, how efficient and direct they are. The most striking thing about it is that there is absolutely no deliberation about Orestes killing his mother. That, too, is done with a kind of cold efficiency that, again, you wouldn’t expect in Greek tragedies. Even the chorus is largely quiet by the end.

This speed and relative terseness at the end gives the end of the play a chilling quality. The mood reminds me of a bloody Western, or maybe an old Samurai movie. Orestes is a little bit less of a character, so I guess it’s consistent to the balance of the story that we don’t get much conscience-talk from him. We do get a lot from Electra, and it’s hard not to notice that she is not very divided. She has no qualms about exacting revenge; there is no inner-struggle or even any question. Her agony seems to center on a feeling of powerlessness and victimization: she’s trapped in the palace; Orestes, in whom she has placed all her hopes for revenge, is absent and perhaps never coming back, for all she knows; everyone around her despises her and tells her to be quiet. Not that this doesn’t make sense, granted the conflict. But, just as with The Women of Trachis, the lack of inner conflict makes me wonder what I can take away from this.

Unlike Trachis, I do feel that there is something rich being portrayed here. I might read this one again, someday, just to get back into the feeling, so get a feel for Electra’s situation, for the people around her. I can’t say that the whole thing is much more than intriguing at this point, but I found myself touching a somewhat deeper bottom with this one than with the other Sophocles.

So I put this one just one increment higher than The Women of Trachis. Though the latter is a little bit more fun (in an action movie kind of way), the stronger character development ranks this play as a B-list classic, instead of a C-list. Or B instead of B minus. Definitely worth a read, without too many qualifications as to who’s doing the reading.

So that’s the end of the works of Sophocles, for me. Next I’ll be moving on to Euripides. By my current count, there are ten of his plays for me to get through, to have read all of them. This includes Rhesus, whose authenticity is debated. Well, it’s in my library, and I’ve never read it, so it’s staying on the list.

Happy reading, everyone!

I now move to the two plays by Sophocles that I’ve never read. They make an interesting pair, as they are both pretty gruesome. In fact, my by-no-means-deep study of them reveals them to be particularly heavy on the agony, the gore and general human suffering. In Philoctetes, the suffering is a real source of humanity that I feel leads to a really satisfying redemption at the end. The suffering is the center of the play, the focus of the characters’ discussions – it is, in itself the conflict that needs to be resolved.

But with these two plays, it almost seems like a novelty: the characters engage in the matters important to them, and people suffer, have suffered or will suffered, and then the play comes to a stop.

I know this is simplifying what are, in the end, well crafted plays worth staying on bookshelfs or, yes, even performed on stage. But the immense pain that the characters endure simply stands out as a defining characteristic.

Let me get into The Women of Trachis. First, this play really could use a namec change. Hollywood producers, let’s say, would never have done to name a play about the relatively insignificant chorus when you could have named it The Death of Heracles, which is an immensely attractive title and is, in fact, what the play is about.

Telling masters of Western drama how to do their work aside, it’s a fairly good read. The back-and-forth is lively, the character of Deianira is intriguing, as is the lying herald, Lichas, who carefully neglects to inform Deianira that one of the prisoners he led into the palace was her husband’s mistress. Another man tells her and, in her desperation, Deianira attempts to regain her husband’s affection by lacing a shirt with a substance she was told by one of Heracles’ enemies is a man-shackling love potion but is, surprise surprise, an absurdly painful poison. Lichas gives Heracles the shirt, and, shortly thereafter, Heracles’ skin essentially feels like it’s on fire as he dies in a maddeningly slow pace. He asks his son Hyllus to immolate him. Hyllus is, at first, reluctant, but Heracles tells him to man up and the funeral pyre gets underway.

The story is, well, engaging. You want to see what happens next, and this is not always the case with Greek Drama. Part of this might be my unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the story, even if I did know that Heracles was supposedly killed by a poisoned shirt. And, I must say, Deianira’s accidental murder of her husband was pretty ironic in the way you are introduced to the concept of irony by reading Sophocles. Destroying that thing that you are so desperately trying to claim for yourself. A good lesson on what it means to own someone’s affection – though perhaps viewing a Greek play with a modern idea of relationship in mind is a little bit inappropriate.

In the end, though, as interesting as all the events in the play are, I’m left not entirely convinced that I’m taking away a whole lot. On the other hand, I can’t really say that there’s nothing there. Again, my readings are not incredibly deep, and, of course, there is the language factor. Even in translation, Sophocles seems like the best poet among the tragedians, striking the best balance of passion and restraint. The suffering of his characters is portrayed with profound sympathy; you can’t but feel for them, and I think this is a strength found in each of his plays.

And while Trachis is no Philoctetes, this magnifying glass placed over the raw intensity of human feeling is just as present. This, combined with the sheer entertainment of the plot, gives the play an appeal beyond afficionados of the genre. I can’t say that everyone must read it, or even that everyone would enjoy it, but I think anyone who likes to pour over stories about the human condition will find this one worthwhile.

Seven Against Thebes; translated by David Grene.

The superior translation in this edition seems to make all the difference here compared to the last two, though I do think that this play is somewhat engaging on its own.

Readers of Sophocles’ Thebes trilogy will recognize the main character, Eteocles, one of Oedipus’s sons. The other son, Polyneices, is about to attack the city with a massive army from rival city Argos. We see Eteocles talking and arguing with the women of Thebes as he receives messages about the approaching soldiers. The titular seven are generals who were chosen to lead seperate regiments against the cities’ seven gates. The meat of the play is the messenger’s description of each general – a brief summary of his character and description of the devices on his shield (or lack thereof). In this long scene, after each description, Eteocles chooses a suitable warrior from his own ranks to counter each enemy general’s particular character. The final general is, of course, Polyneices himself, and Eteocles decides to face him hermano y hermano. They die, and the brothers’ more well-known sisters Antigone and Ismene arrive to mourn their bodies. An epilogue, which supposedly is apochryphal, introduces the city’s ban on burying Polyneices and Antigone’s resolution to put his body rest anyway – thereby introducing Sophocles far more famous play, Antigone.

Is Grene simply a better translator, or is this play actually more interesting than the other two? I think it’s both, actually. Compared with the first two, this one was a little entertaining and somewhat thought provoking. It is by no means a masterpiece (as Grene himself points out in the introduction – what’s with all this ragging on Aeschylus?), but things happen; you know what’s going on; there’s interesting tension between the characters; and, finally, I really loved the descriptions of all the generals. There’s this common thread (or meme, if you roll that way) in literature, whereby a special team is formed from individuals with particular personalities and, if applicable, super powers. Chalk it up to the number being magic, but usually there are seven such members. E.g.: The Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven. And, last but not least, my favorite Grimm’s fairy tale: The Seven who went Far in the World, which was the basis of the Terry Gilliam movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

So it seems that Seven against Thebes was the first instance of this story, and I found it just as bad-ass as I always do. The only problem here is that it’s so brief. We only get the set up for about 300 lines, and then the battle is resolved off-stage in about two minutes. What a tease. Where’s the action? Sadly for us moderns, the Greeks were more interested in the curse that led to the battle and the mourning that followed it than some fanboyish interest in the powers of heroes.

And, to be honest, the Seven don’t really have amazing powers, just vaguely interesting personalities. Of special note are Tydeus, who ends up surviving the battle and fathering a son named Diomedes – the guy who ends up stabbing Aphrodite in the Trojan War; and Amphiaraus, a prophet-warrior who has a plain, unadorned shield; openly considers the battle an immoral decision; yet goes into battle anyway, because he knows he’s fated to die in it. More on this attitude shortly.

I’m not going to be a complete philistine here and say that this very sensible and understandable treatment of the subject – with loads of historical context to explain it – was worthless. In fact, the discussion of the curse was kind of chilling in itself.

To add to Amphiaraus’ predicament above, the chorus makes it clear that Eteocles has every means available (at least in a world in which curses are real and can be purged by sacrifices to the gods) to end the conflict immediately, but he chooses not to. He displays a very cold, almost frightening fatalism, rushing in the battle to reach some kind of closure that is not very clear to the chorus or to me. Readers of Oedipus Rex are introduced to the Greek idea of fate, to the machinations of the Gods and how crimes cannot be ignored. But this is going a step further – Eteocles is consciously aware of all the gears in the machine that brought him and his city to the brink of destruction – and he still refuses to change anything. What does this say about free will?

This issue is certainly worth thinking about, maybe even losing some sleep over.

While Seven against Thebes is not the best tragedy ever written and seems incomplete in a somewhat frustrating way, it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Thebes dynastic drama (Cadmus, Oedipus, Antigone, etc.); Greek mythology in general; Greek Tragedy; and the Seven-Member Team of Awesome Meme.

(Endnote: Maybe Wes Anderson could roll out a movie script for this one? I really want to see colorful shots of the Seven in which they face the camera and people do quirky things in the background – set to the Rolling Stones.)

I’ve decided to read all the Greek Tragedies that I haven’t read yet. In actuality, what I’ve decided is to read through all the books on my shelves I haven’t read yet, and the first group happens to be my collection of the Grene and Lattimore Tragedies.

Today: three by Aeschylus (in two parts)

The Suppliant Maidens; translated by Seth Bernardete.

Right from the beginning, Bernardete says that this play is uninteresting. I would say he’s correct.

The plot is a tiny section of the story of Danaus: his fifty daughters (the maidens from the title) ask entry into the Greek city of Argos as they flee the lust of their cousins, the sons of Danaus’s brother Aegyptus. The king of Argos, Pelasgus, first hesitates and then lets them in. The end.

Probably this is only of interest to diehard classics scholars. Or perhaps it reads well in the Greek. Judging by this play and the next one, I rate Bernardete as a poor translator. His lines don’t read very well. There is too much switching of subject and object. Sentences are weak and ambiguous. Couple this with the weak source material, and you have a total pass. I am very, very tolerant of what most people call uninteresting and obscure, but this doesn’t even appeal to me.

Always looking for the silver lining: I find it interesting that Pelasgus offers the maidens food and lodging right away. Perhaps this is normal procedure for royalty treating royalty, but, in the context of modern times, it strikes me as an example that culture can be so constructed as to ensure that people in distress are taken care of. Ever since working at a homeless shelter, I have wondered if many of the dysfunctional parts of our society are really necessary. I’m going to file this away for further thought.

The Persians, translated by Seth Bernardete.

Once again our translator deprecates the work he’s going to translate, though not as much as he did Suppliant Maidens. This play is at least a curiosity: the only surviving tragedy with a subject matter pertaining to current events (well, events within 10 years of the play’s composition). The play depicts old men in Sousa, the capital of the Persian Empire, worrying about the fate of King Xerxes and the progress of his army. Xerxes’ mother joins the general gloom. A herald arrives, telling of the Persians’ defeat at the naval battle of Salamis. The queen and the old men decide to summon the ghost of Darius to ask for advice. The ghost, who seems impatient, explains that Xerxes’ arrogant display, where he claimed to have conquered the Ocean itself by crossing the Bosporus and throwing chains into the sea, angered the gods and caused his downfall. He predicts future defeat for the Persians. Xerxes himself arrives, and they all wail and moan.

There are some elements of something interesting here: ghosts, military disaster and a unique setting for a Greek Tragedy. Sadly, though, this play can’t help but seem to be a part of something greater. And, once again, Bernardete’s muddy translation makes the very quick script go by too slowly. It was interesting to imagine the Athenian audience of the play, all or most of whom would have been veterans from the victorious side of this war, feeling at least a little compassion at the misery their enemies must have felt. But that’s about it.

It’s interesting as a curiosity – appealing perhaps not just to Greek scholars but also to history buffs. If you’ve just read Herodotus, or even if you’ve just watched the film 300 and want a little epilogue to the story of the Persian Wars, it might be worth reading this one. But edifying literature it is not.

(Continued in part two)