Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf
PLAYS (circa 410 BC)
The Franklin Library, 1976. Nine plays, variously translated. All green leather, gold embossing, humped spine, god leaf, navy moiré and ribbon, etchings by Quentin Fiore.
They died from a disease they caught from their father. (Medea)
The Australian artist Tim Storrier, two of whose (numbered) works I have at home likes painting fire and water, and the stars and pyramids. He has, therefore, a taste and feel for the elemental. So it was with the drama of the ancient Greeks. It is as black and white as ‘High Noon’, a little like ‘Neighbours’, but up very close, and very in your face and very, very terminal. The Greeks liked keeping their murders in house. Euripides is probably the most accessible on the page or on the stage for modern audiences.
I saw Medea in London played by Diana Rigg – no ordinary avenger. It was first produced in about 431 BC (during the Peloponnesian War). It can sound strikingly modern. Here is how the hero states her condition.
Of all things which are living and can form a judgment
We women are the most unfortunate creatures.
Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is required
For us to buy a husband and take for our bodies
A master. For not to take one is even worse.
A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home,
Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom
And turns to a friend or companion of his own age.
But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone
What they say of it is that we have a peaceful time
Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.
How wrong they are!
Truly does the Bible say that there is nothing new under the sun. When her husband rats on her, Sir Paul Harvey in the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (which it is handy to have around when reading or seeing these plays) says: ‘The desertion and ingratitude of the man she loves rouses the savage in Medea, and her rage is outspoken.’ The savage in us all is what Greek drama is largely about. Since she kills her successor and her father, her children will die:
No! By Hell’s avenging furies it shall not be –
This shall never be, that I should suffer my children
To be the prey of my enemies’ insolence.
In case you are asking, we hear from the children offstage before they go, and their mother then unloads the mordant pearler that stands at the head of this note. What we not give to know how audiences reacted to all this all that time ago?
In some ways, The Trojan Women is even tougher. The women and children are given up to the victors after the fall of Troy. Their names have been burnt into our consciousness through The Iliad and these plays and opera. A child is sacrificed over the grave of Achilles. Cassandra is given to Agamemnon ‘to be joined with him in the dark bed of love.’ Hecuba is to be ‘slave to Odysseus.’
To be given as slave to serve that vile, that slippery man,
Right’s enemy, brute, murderous beast,
That mouth of lies and treachery, that makes void,
Faith in things promised
And that which was beloved turns to hate. Oh, mourn,
Daughters of Ilium, weep as one for me.
This is like the Old Testament. Andromache drops these great lines:
Death, I am sure, is like never being born, but death
Is better thus by far than to live a life of pain,
Since the dead with no perception of evil feel no grief…
But the widow Hector comes crashing back to earth as she reflects that she has been given to the son of his killer. Will she defile Hector’s memory?
Yet they say one night of love suffices to dissolve
A woman’s aversion to share the bed of any man.
The Orestes here is not in the same league as that of Aeschylus. It is very long, although the dialogue can be crisp, as in this exchange between Menelaus and Orestes.
I am a murderer. I murdered my mother.
So I have heard. Kindly spare me your horrors [!]
I spare you – although no god spared me.
What is your sickness?
I call it conscience: The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime.
You speak somewhat obscurely. What do you mean?
I mean remorse. I am sick with remorse.
We will return to ‘conscience’, but the play is about the dilemna at the dawn of our law.
Where, I want to know, can this chain
Of murder end? Can it never end, in fact,
Since the last to kill is doomed to stand
Under permanent sentence of death by revenge.
No, our ancestors handled these matters well
……………….they purged their guilt
By banishment, not death. And by so doing,
They stopped that endless vicious cycle
Of murder and revenge.
If art reflects on the human condition, these old Greek plays are in at the beginning. This is their looking at us, tiptoeing around the rim of a volcano, and hoping that we do not fall in. Have we changed at all?