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.
Carl R. Mueller has, since 1967, been professor in the Department of Theater at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he has taught theater history, criticism, dramatic literature, and playwriting, as well as having directed. He was educated at Northwestern University, where he received a B.S. in English. After work in graduate English at the University of California, Berkeley, he received his M.A. in playwriting at UCLA, where he also completed his Ph.D. in theater history and criticism. In addition, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin in 1960-1961. A translator for more than forty years, he has translated and published works by Büchner, Brecht, Wedekind, Hauptmann, Hofmannsthal, and Hebbel, to name a few. His published translation of von Horváth’s Tales from the Vienna Woods was given its London West End premiere in July 1999. For Smith and Kraus, he has translated volumes of plays by Schnitzler, Strindberg, Pirandello, Kleist, and Wedekind, as well as Goethe’s Faust, Parts I and II. In addition to translating the complete plays of Euripides and Aeschylus for Smith and Kraus, he has also cotranslated the plays of Sophokles. His translations have been performed in every English-speaking country and have appeared on BBC-TV
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 pyschologically drawn, they are frequently petty, conniving, and conflicted. In other words, they are like us. The plays included are:
IPHIGENEIA IN AULIS
Phoenician Women is one of the most varied of all Euripides' plays. It is packed with incident as is no other extant Athenian tragedy. It is spacious in its descriptions of places and details of things, suffusing it with so gigantic a sweep that Kitto was inspired to call it not only a cinema but a "very good cinema." An unusual description for a work that ostensibly is meant to be a tragedy inasmuch as tragedies tend to focus inward rather than outward.The scene is Thebes, in front of the royal palace seen so often on the Athenian stage in its rich proliferation of plays devoted to the myth of the House of Labdakos and its inhabitants: Kadmos, Laïos, Iokastê, Oedipus, Eteoklês, Polyneikês, Antigonê, and Ismênê. The façade is pierced by a single large portal, and its roof will be prominently used in this play. There is also an altar to Apollo near the door. Given the theatrical fame of this palace on the Athenian stage, the audience seated in that Theater of Dionysos around 409 will know it to be ancient, vast, and splendorous. This is, after all, Thebes. Perhaps, from time to time, to reduce the place's expansiveness and provide more of a focus, Euripides mentions the women's quarters, Antigonê's apartment, and the rooms that house the blind Oedipus. Nonetheless, the playwright outdoes himself with detail, not least regarding the outlying city of Thebes. We are constantly reminded, as Elizabeth Craik notes in her edition of the play, of temples, statues, altars, tombs; of the site where Teiresias carries out his work of divination, the cave where the famous dragon of Thebes slain by Kadmos once lived, and the cliff above it that will figure in one of the play's major incidents. Then, of course, there are the majestic, fabled seven gates piercing the proud fortifications of the walls, and the towers of those walls. And then the natural terrain. From the roof of the palace her old Tutor invites Antigonê to look out: "From here you can survey the plains and the vast encampment of the enemy Argive army beside the waters and streams of Ismênos and Dirkê." And Kithairon, mysterious mountain of the fate of Oedipus. But this is a war play, Thebes is under siege. And so we hear from the very first scene of military installations, siege works and trenches. "This background," writes Craik, "established early and sustained throughout, gives the play a strong spatial sweep and sense of locale, enhancing the presentation of the current action in the play's imagined territory and fostering visualization of past Theban events."II
In Phoenician Women Euripides introduces a number of moves that must have both surprised and delighted his fifth-century Athenian audience. To begin with, Iokastê, mother and wife of Oedipus, is still alive. When last we heard of her in Sophokles, for example, she had committed suicide when faced with the shame of her fate. And we soon learn that Oedipus, too, blind and ancient, is still in the palace and not out wandering in exile. We learn in due course that when his two sons Eteoklês and Polyneikês learn of their origin as sons as well as brothers of their father/brother, in shame they keep him in captivity in the palace. In turn, for their mistreatment of him, Oedipus puts upon them the curse of mutual fratricide. The brothers agree to rule Thebes in alternate years. Polyneikês, the younger of the two, fearing the curse of Oedipus, goes into voluntary exile. But when the time comes for Eteoklês to cede his throne for a year to Polyneikês, he refuses, and in addition himself exiles his brother. Polyneikês goes to Argos where he marries the daughter of King Adrastos, who helps him in organizing the military expedition known as the Seven Against Thebes. As another surprise, Euripides makes Eteoklês the bad brother and Polyneikês the good, quite the reverse of their natures in Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes. But that element of surprise was expected and much appreciated by the contemporary classical spectator.III
Much has been made in the course of these play discussions in trying to link up the theme of Euripides' plays with the historical time of their composition, most particularly in regard to their relationship to the ravages of the decades-long Peloponnesian War and the effect it had on the Greek people. One possible date for Phoenician Women is around 409, by which time the Peloponnesian War is well into its third decade and things are not going well. Vellacott sums up the situation with particular acuity. The real significance of this play lies first in the truth it presented to a population which was beginning to feel itself besieged; and secondly in the lucid diagram it offers, to readers of subsequent ages, of the springs of war in the emotional attitudes of men. The play is addressed directly to the citizens of Athens on the one topic which in 409 confronted them afresh every day, especially at the time of the Dionysia, when one more-the twenty-third-summer's military activities were about to begin. The theme is war-the war of the Seven against Thebes; but from the outset Thebes is clearly and deliberately identified with Athens in the minds of the spectators. Iokastê as Prologue tells the listeners that the scene is Thebes, a besieged city, and that the issue of the drama is to be the quarrel between Eteoklês king of Thebes and his brother Polyneikês who has come with a foreign army to attack and destroy the city of his birth. This all too real situation is made almost visible in the prologue to an audience who for several years past have watched from the walls of Athens the movements of Spartan troops, now permanently based at Decelea, an hour's ride to the north. Tragic as the fall of Athens to Sparta may have been in 404, not too many years off from 409, in many respects Athens created the situation that lead to its defeat. The Peloponnesian War was a battle between brother states over who would dominate the whole of Greece with power, might, wealth, influence, and colonization. By this time there cannot but have been Athenians who questioned both their political and moral stance, as indeed Thucydides did repeatedly in his history of that desperate period. IV
The text of Phoenician Women underwent much interpolation in the centuries after its first performance and therefore is subject to considerable editorial emendation, in particular in its closing section. Every editor and translator must either accept the totality of what tradition has handed down or try in the best way possible to restore it to what each perceives to have been its original form. That is the approach taken here.