Alan Beale (ed.), Euripides Talks. London: Bristol Classical Press / Duckworth Press, 2008. Pp. x + 139. ISBN 978-1-85399-712-9. UK£12.99.
Romina De Angelis
National University of Rosario, National University of Córdoba & CONICET, Argentina.
This book consists of a compilation of a series of talks given before the performances of 'Actors of Dionysus', a contemporary theatre and education group. These have been edited by Alan Beale, a former company director. Most of the talks were selected from Dionysus, the journal of the group. These talks, contributions by outstanding scholars, are grouped by tragedy: Bacchae, Medea, Hippolytus, Electra and Trojan women. According to the preface, the talks were given in different contexts; they have a uniform style and are more relaxed than the academic work of the contributors. The object of these pre-performance talks is to produce a more critical audience. Each group of talks is preceded by a photo of the performance and a Guide of Mythological Detail with important references to the background of each tragedy.
The first talk on the Bacchae, by Jasper Griffin, is entitled 'Bacchae A Sexy Sect and the Death of a Statesman' (pp. 9-14). Griffin warns us about the risk of taking this play as a modern one, because, although it is 'the most resonant for modern people' (p. 9), this can be just an appearance of familiarity. As background to the play, he analyses the Homeric Hymn of Dionysus, which presents the same story as the Bacchae, but with a more moral basis for the worship of Dionysus. Griffin shows that, just as we see Pentheus both as a pitiless king and, at the end of the play, as a victim, in the same way the figure of Dionysus shows his two sides -- the human and the inhuman one (in fact, he is the most terrible and also the most gentle god). The second talk, 'The Paradox of the Bacchae' (pp. 15-22), by Alex Garvie, argues that the play reveals several paradoxes: an oriental god who was born from Zeus, a new cult as old as the time itself, and so on. The chorus guides the emotional reaction of the audience, and as the studies of J. de Romilly show, the progressive degradation of joy seems to be the theme of their songs. Garvie alternates the perspectives of different characters of the play to show this. The third section on the Bacchae by Alan H. Sommerstein has the title 'What Ought the Thebans to Have Done?' (pp. 23-32). Sommerstein shows that, while the initial behaviour of Pentheus doesn’t seem to deserve Dionysus’ indictment, the following events include a number of injustices by the Theban king, that change our opinion of him. Some different choices of how to approach the cult are shown in the parodos, especially those of Tiresias and Cadmus, and their attitude towards the new cult.
The second play to be discussed is the Medea. Jenny March, 'Euripides and a Mother’s Grief' (pp.37-45 ), focuses on the mother-child relationship in Euripides’ plays (such as Trojan Women, Iphigenia in Aulis). The brilliant innovation of Euripides in this story is 'the deliberate murder of the children by Medea' (p. 43) and 'the supreme understanding of a mother’s reactions' (p. 44). Richard Janko, 'Euripides’ Medea and the Manipulation of Sympathy' (pp. 46-55), analyses the play from the perspective of its first audience, so he passes by the epic version of the story. He also focuses on the management of the audience’ sympathy towards Medea, as well as towards the other characters of the play, which has the result that, although at the beginning of the play we see her as a victim, with a sudden reversal she finishes as the stronger party, acquiring an almost divine status. The sympathy of the audience seems to invoke the underlying sense of a divine order. Finally, in 'Medea and the Divided Mind' (pp. 56-64), Richard Jenkyns stresses the insights of Euripides in this play, especially the pre- eminence of a domestic character over heroic or royal figures and other aspects which generate some tension with traditional elements in the play, such as the role of the chorus and the appearance of Medea herself as a dea ex machina. She is both the great winner and the loser in the play, and gives Euripides the chance to analyse a mind divided between passion and reason, a topic that provokes debate even today.
In the first talk devoted to the Hippolytus, Richard Seaford asks the question 'Why does Hippolytus Reject Sex?' (pp. 69-77). After establishing the disastrous consequences of Hippolytus' celibacy, the author rules out the idea of celibacy as a common practice in Greece in the fifth century B.C. (except for short times, as in the rituals, as a desire for self-control or as a consequence of Platonic ideas of soul’s immortality). But all these ideas are negative, and Hippolytus’s behaviour is quite different: his celibacy, in Seaford's view, is a positive purity. However, this situation causes a strong conflict between the goddesses Artemis and Aphrodite which concludes with the deaths of Hippolytus and his stepmother. The core of the talk deals with the idea of Hippolytus as a danger for the city-state as long as 'he is putting himself outside this process of reproduction' (p. 75). Lastly, Kenneth Dover, in 'Forces at Work in Hippolytus (pp. 78-88) emphasises that the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis are the main characters of the play. Aphrodite opens the play objecting to 'Hippolytus constantly vilifying and insulting her in what he says, and in the lack of any observance that honours her' (p. 82). Thus, the whole play turns to be the story of a punishment in which Phaedra is a just instrument of divine anger. Dover gives several other examples of self-destructives acts caused by gods (such as Iliad 3 and 19, Euripides’ Trojan Woman, and the lost Cretans). On the other hand, Artemis consoles the dying Hippolytus and declares that all was done by Aphrodite, because 'when the gods want something to happen, you can’t stop it (1433-4)' (p. 85). Finally, the moral lesson we can learn is 'don’t give gratuitous offence to a Greek god or goddess; they are not nice people' (p. 87).
Two talks are devoted to the Electra. In 'Country Matters: The Location of Euripides' Electra' (pp. 94-102), Chris Carey shows that the change of location of the play (from the royal palace we find in Aeschylus and Sophocles to a rustic house) moves 'the play socially far from the heroic world' (p. 95). He supports this statement by a comparison between Euripides' version and those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, stressing the Euripidean innovation which stresses contemporary issues. Carey concludes: 'the location of the play (physically and socially) proves then to be loaded with potential, for surprise, for suspense and for the ethical orientation both of the characters and of the play as a whole' (p. 102). The second talk, by Jasper Griffin, 'Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick: Euripides' Electra' (pp. 103-110), concerns the differences between the Euripidean version of the myth and the Aeschylean and Sophoclean accounts, with topics such as the long separation Orestes and Electra and the dominant role of the sister. Euripides updates the tale 'with two strokes of invention: first by his invention of Electra’s pseudo-marriage; and second by unpacking the idea of Orestes’ long absence and spelling out its consequences' (p. 109).
The final play to be discussed is Trojan Women. Carmel McCallum-Barry, 'Trojan women: Sex and the City' (pp. 116-125), argues that the subject of this play is the annihilation of a city, and, since the prime importance of the city-state is the construction of a full life, it becomes a metaphor of the end of a world. Two parallel aspects stand out: the personal and the social one, especially the implication of marriages or erotic unions for the destiny of the city. All the unions mentioned have devastating consequences. McCallum-Barry states: 'once more the city and its continued life are linked to the quality of marriage' (p. 121). The last talk, by Richard Rutherford, 'The Cassandra Scene' (pp. 126-134) stresses some Euripidean innovations: the tone of Cassandra’s speech, the coherence with other interventions in the lost plays of the trilogy (Alexandros and Palamedes), and specific dramatic techniques (such as changing the metre), which require virtuoso performances, and highlight the generic aspect of the play (Cassandra's parody of a wedding song) and her rhetoric. By distorting the conventions of the situation, 'Euripides seems to have included the Cassandra scene in part to show how futile such calculations of future compensation must be when the present suffering is real and undeniable' (p. 133).
The book closes with an appendix of 'Actors of Dionysus' productions and a concise but very well-ordered bibliography.