Euripides: The Complete Plays, Volume I

Overview

Athens of the fifth century B.C.E. represents one of the towering achievements of civilization. It is the crucible in which Western Civilization was given form. It created democracy, not in its modern parliamentary or representative form, but a direct democracy, one in which the Athenian citizen governed himself, which is what democracy means: rule by the people. Along with this gift to civilization came trial by jury, and from there the flowering of a culture whose achievement has led the world ever since: ...
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Overview

Athens of the fifth century B.C.E. represents one of the towering achievements of civilization. It is the crucible in which Western Civilization was given form. It created democracy, not in its modern parliamentary or representative form, but a direct democracy, one in which the Athenian citizen governed himself, which is what democracy means: rule by the people. Along with this gift to civilization came trial by jury, and from there the flowering of a culture whose achievement has led the world ever since: Philosophy, sculpture, architecture, poetry-and by no means least-theater. Of the three supreme tragedians of Classical Athens, Aeschylus, in the first half of the century, took his tales largely from Homer and the Heroic World of war and warriors. Sophokles regarded man more humanistically, and created characters of grand moral integrity. Euripides, the last of the three, created his image of man less heroically, less idealistically. His image of man reflected what Athens became from mid-century onward: a super wealthy world power, a cruel colonist, and an ever-present danger to its Greek neighbors, a threat that precipitated the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404) which was to end with the fall of Athens. The glory of Athens, then, from mid-century onward, degenerated fast into a world of collapsing political and moral structure, and this is the world that Euripides mirrors in his characters. His people are no longer the heroes of Aeschylus, the moral giants of Sophokles, but men who are frequently petty, conniving, small minded, out for themselves and their own aggrandizement. They are psychologically drawn, they are conflicted, they are frequently mad-in a word, they are us, if only we look deeply enough. Euripides is the most modern of the Greek tragedians. Volume I: Alkêstis, Mêdeia, Children of Heraklês, Hippolytos.
Volume II: Andromachê, Hêkabê, Suppliant Women, Êlektra, The Madness of Heraklês.
Volume III: Trojan Women, Iphigeneia in Tauris, Ion, Helen, Cyclops.
Volume IV: Phoenician Women, Orestês, Bakkhai, Iphigeneia in Aulis, Rhesos. Of Mueller's Aeschylus translations, PAJ (Journal of Performance and Art) has written: "For those who want their Greek alive and kicking (and screaming and bleeding), these translations of Aeschylus's extant works will serve as a vital and exhilarating read. But more importantly, they will serve as superb acting texts of the world's earliest playwright for today's directors and designers." And Library Journal writes of his Sophokles co-translations: "These contemporary English translations . . . bring Sophokles dramatically to life and serve to enhance our appreciation of the timelessness of his work."
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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Peithman
"If longevity is any sign of success, we must bow to Euripides, one of the great tragedians of ancient Greece. ...Euripides is the playwright who reshaped the formal structure of traditional tragedy by introducing strong women characters and smart slaves, and by satirizing heroes of Greek mythology. At the same time, his characters often dare to go beyond their expected roles, sometimes with spectacularly tragic results. Mueller's crisp translations help bring these characters to life once again"
Stage Directions, January 2006
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781575253008
  • Publisher: Smith & Kraus, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Introduction

Athens of the fifth century B.C.E. represents one of the towering achievements of civilization. It is the crucible in which Western Civilization was given form. It created democracy: rule by the people. Of the three supreme tragedians of Classical Athens, Aeschylus, Sophokles and Euripides, Euripides (480's-406 B.C.E.) is the most modern. His people are no longer the heroes of Aeschylus, inspired by Homer and the Heroic world of war and warriors. Nor are they the more humanistic characters of Sophokles, who created men and women of grand moral integrity. Rather, Euripides' people are psychologically drawn, they are frequently petty, conniving, and conflicted. In other words, they are like us. Plays included are:
alkêstis
mêdeia
children of heraklês
hippolytos
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Foreword

ALKÊSTIS
I
Although Alkêstis was the nineteenth play written by Euripides, it is the first of his ninety or so plays to survive. Produced at the City Dionysia in Athens in 438, when Euripides was in his middle to late forties, it was the fourth, and final, play in a tragic tetralogy, a position which was traditionally occupied by a satyr play. And here is where the problems regarding Alkêstis begin. The satyr play, as it happens, was a light concoction in which a chorus of satyrs and a cast of tragic heroes performed a send-up of a serious mythic event. In the old days-even as late as mid-fifth-century Athens-the tragic trilogy that preceded the satyr play was united by a single mythic theme, as, for example, is Aeschylus's Oresteia from 458. And although the satyr play that concluded the Oresteia is lost, we know that its subject was directly linked to the theme of the House of Atreus. When exactly that thematic bond inherent in earlier fifth-century tragedy began to be disregarded in favor of a trilogy of independent tragedies, followed by a satyr play that thematically was equally independent, is not known. In any event, the titles of the three tragedies that preceded Alkêstis in Euripides' tetralogy tell us that they were not united: The Kretan Women, Alcmaion in Psophis, Telephos, and Alkêstis. However, we do know that even as late as 458, the fourth play in a tetralogy was a traditional satyr play. The problem is that Alkêstis is not a traditional satyr play, nor can it by any reasonable stretch of the imagination be considered one. This fact has exercised critics and commentators since antiquity. What is a basically tragic drama doing moonlighting as a satyr play, or if not moonlighting, then at least filling the space always occupied by a satyr play? The fly in the ointment is that Alkêstis has a happy ending, and what's more, it has elements that simply don't belong in an Athenian tragedy. Obviously all this didn't much bother that audience in the Theater of Dionysos in Athens on that March afternoon in 438, because it was awarded second prize in competition with Euripides' elder contemporary, Sophokles, who came in first. Scholars, however, are still digging in the coals of the Alkêstis conundrum. II
Perhaps we should ask first whether tragedies must always have a tragic ending. Aristotle, of course, would say yes. In his Poetics he declares that tragic action must progress from good fortune to bad. Unfortunately Alkêstis fails that test by doing precisely the opposite. It begins tragically and ends happily. Euripides, however, hadn't the benefit of having read his Aristotle, who wasn't to be born for another forty-six years, let alone read the Poetics from, at best, the middle of the fourth century. So what could Euripides have had in mind? Among his nineteen extant plays, and the seven each of Aeschylus and Sophokles, none is like Alkêstis, although one might suggest that his Ion and Helen, as well as his Iphigeneia in Tauris, with their happy endings, are remotely similar, if only for their endings. And then, of course, there is always the Oresteia. Charles Rowen Beye has a possible answer in his edition of Alkêstis. The story from which the plot is taken is unusual for tragedy. Aristotle remarks that the material for tragic plots came generally to be taken from the saga histories of a few royal houses. These, and stories like them, had the objectivity, obviousness, and predictability of epic and saga. Euripides, however, frequently chose the unexpected and obscure for his plots, whether because he felt the art of tragedy parched enough to need refreshment or because he had in mind some new uses for the traditional structure of tragic action (and thus more consciously than we think ushered in the new style of comedy that appeared after Aristophanes).But in Alkêstis the problem concerns something more than a happy ending to a basically tragic action. As has been frequently commented on by critics, the play is a juxtaposition of elements other than mythic; it is rife with folkloric and fairy tale situations which, for their absence in other extant tragedies of the fifth century, may have been anathema to the writing of Athenian tragedy. D. J. Conacher goes to great length to indicate what he calls the "cleavage" between the two traditions at the heart of Alkêstis, namely between the mythic and the folkloric. There is clear evidence prior to Euripides that the myth of Apollo and his bondage to Admêtos was known as far back even as the eighth century, in the work of Hesiod. But there is no sign anywhere prior to tragedy of Alkêstis's self-sacrifice. Not that this denies the existence of the Alkêstis legend before then, says Conacher, "but it may indicate that . . . it was not always attached to the Apollo-Admêtos story and that, consequently, it was not always a part of the mythic tradition."He remarks:
It seems clear from all that has been said that the myth leading to the enslavement of Apollo to Admêtos and the myth involving Alkêstis's "substitute" death for Admêtos were originally of quite separate and indeed fundamentally different origins. The former belongs to the anthropomorphic and essentially literary tradition of Olympian mythology; the latter, with its bargains and struggles with the monster Death, that pathetically simple incarnation of human fears, suggests the primitive, superstitious and infinitely more urgent preoccupations of folk-tale-until, of course, it becomes softened by late and artificial mythologizing.Beye sums up the folkloric elements succinctly. He mentions the wrestling of Heraklês with Death at the grave of Alkêstis, the abduction of a young woman from Death, the situation of "a man substituting another person for himself in death," the battle between good and evil, light and dark, the Fates and Death against the forces of light, Apollo and Heraklês, with the triumph of the good. As he says: "We are clearly in the world of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella." How this happened, and why, for all our theorizing, is, of course, and always will be, a moot point,. The play is what it is.
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