"Not even not wrong" Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
This is an avenue of small cherry trees just coming into flower (in Shaw Village centre, West Swindon, 22/4/13). They are one of the many types that come into flower just ahead of 'Shirotae'. I tend to vaguely lump them together as Sargent Cherry, but I don't really think that's what these are.
As you can see here, quite a few of these trees have been scarred and misshaped by canker.
The petals are flushed with pink when they first open (above, right). They quickly turn nearly white (above, left); at the same time the dark-red star shape in the middle of the flower becomes more prominent.
This is Prunus 'Umineko' - the combination of white petals, emerging green leaves, red bud-scales and calyx, is highly distinctive. So is the egg-shape of the crown, with all those ascending branches springing from near the base of the tree. Photos taken in Homebase car-park in Frome, 21/4/13.
P. 'Umineko' (which means Sea-Eagle) is a cross, raised by Collingwood Ingram in the 1920s, between two Japanese species P. incisa (Fuji Cherry) x P. speciosa (Oshima Cherry). This tree was "rare" when Alan Mitchell wrote Trees of Britain, but is now a common planting. A cross of the same two species arose later in Holland and is known as 'Snow Goose'.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE)
Plautus: The Rope and Other Plays (trans. E.F. Watling) (c. 254-184 BCE)
It was not until now that I thought this was truly a survey of civilisation. The other things I have included, so far, are like little dibs of rain that happened to fall on my windscreen. But when I am reading the plays of Plautus I feel as if I’m standing on some Mediterranean upland in very early spring. It’s sunny and unexpectedly calm; small, bright flowers are growing at my feet, on nibbled turf and along the edges of white stone slabs. [This is frankly an English fantasy. Mediterranean coastal uplands are maquis dominated by spiny shrubs, but that isn't what I visualized. My image is more like white rock-rose on Brean Down, which is indeed a Mediterranean plant at the limit of its range.]
There’s something touching about Plautus’s freshness, his lack of ambition. Reading him, we are witnessing the start of a tradition with incalculable influence.
Sometimes I have a fantasy of all these classics being exhumed and made into big-budget films (sometimes, I’m directing them myself). I’m not sure who the audience would be, but perhaps it isn’t so unlikely. In the vast global television audience, there must be an adequate number of people who wouldn’t mind seeing a Plautine comedy on a particular night. (Meanwhile, on the “Infinite Nature Channel”, each species would have its own TV programme.) Of course, it’s worse than pointless.
I do begin to doubt the feasibility of my project when I imagine that these lovingly detailed performances of Plautus are acted in Latin. There are perhaps more classical specialists in the world than ever before; yet somehow I doubt that even they would mostly be able to catch Latin straight off the bat. (But I might be wrong about this. The number of pupils taking Latin A-Level in England each year has apparently halved since the 1970s.) So perhaps, despite all our information, there are aspects of past culture that become unrecoverable in practice though not in principle. Languages rise up like formidable ranges to pen us into a corner, though it may be a wide, fertile valley, like English.
Naturally I am reading my Plautus in English, and the superb comedy of Watling’s stage directions, as well as some of his text, is a tribute to the humorous capacities of British culture in the fifties and sixties; though clearly the seeds of those jokes are latent in the Plautine situations. The mixed effect can be judged from an exchange like this:
Gripus. Let them see it? I’ll -
Daemones. It’s perfectly fair, Gripus. You must produce the trunk.
Gripus. It’s not bloody well fair.
Daemones. Why isn’t it?
Gripus. Because as soon as I show it to them, they’ll immediately say they recognize it, naturally.
Trachalio. You damned crook, do you think everybody’s as dishonest as you - lousy liar?
Gripus. All that sort of talk doesn’t worry me, as long as my master here is on my side.
Trachalio. He may be on your side, but the evidence is now coming from my side.
Daemones. Patience, Gripus, and just listen. Tell me briefly what you propose.
Trachalio. I’ve told you once, but in case I didn’t make myself clear I’ll tell you again. These two girls, I said, have a right to be free; one of them - this one - was stolen from Athens as a child.
Gripus. I can’t see what it’s got to do with the trunk, whether they were free girls or slaves.
Trachalio. We shall be here all day, blast you, if you want everything said twice over.
In this extract there is a sort of delicious humour of recognition in such words and phrases as “produce the trunk”, “you damned crook”, “in case I didn’t make myself clear”, etc. The hopelessly disordered way in which these free-and-easy 1950’s men-in-the-street attempt to talk business does provide a genuine insight into aspects of Plautus’s plays. There is of course a certain strain; the dialogue is just a little too jerky, as if the characters talk in different voices from one speech to the next, and Trachalio’s feeble apophthegm about “your side... my side” presumably reflects some piece of untranslateable Plautine humour.
Mostellaria (“The Ghost”) is excellent - the hand-to-mouth plot does not matter. Here as well as anywhere one can enjoy the momentary civilisation that Plautus evinces. All the characters are allowed to be individuals and none are outside the generous comic world. Slaves debate as equal individuals with masters, women who are bought and sold are allowed the vivacity of feeling that individuals have. Reading Plautus casts serious doubt on the view that Shakespeare “invented” humanity.
Still, I wonder if slaves ever attended performances. Putting slaves on stage may have begun a bit like the US minstrel shows - crude comic stereotyping, pandering to the audience's prejudices, presenting everything on the plantation as rosy. By the time of Plautus' plays the stereotyping was no longer crude but it was still an ingredient.
Rudens (“The Rope”) is as beyond criticism as literature can easily be. Of its many triumphs perhaps the best is bringing back Labrax and Gripus for a sort of coda - an additional comic scene beyond what we felt we had any right to expect.
Although Gripus, as in the extract above, shows himself sullenly indifferent to the deeper human story in which he is perforce involved, it’s impossible not to sympathise with him. His analogy between the trunk and the fish is not successfully exploded by that pseudo-Gadfly Trachalio (we are, however, on Trachalio’s side – but only because one of the girls likes him and he is decently concerned to sort things out). This question of property and ownership is indeed a mysterious one:
Fishermen are allowed to own the fish they catch - Yes, says Plautus.
Fishermen are allowed to own a trunk they fish up - No, though they deserve some honour and consideration.
Masters are allowed to own men - Yes, though the men can buy their freedom with sufficient initiative.
Pimps are allowed to own girls - No, though they are reluctantly conceded some compensation, along with dishonour.
It’s hard to make much logical sense of this – it seems that Plautus’ rules are not for all time, since no-one now would accept the third one - and Gripus’ view that “if I’ve got it it’s mine” can only be classed as unanswerable, but unacceptable. For the social fabric of ownership is something that can only be sustained by a mixture of convenience when we’ve got it and coercion if we haven’t. (And now, we can’t even be too secure about fishermen owning their catch - the seas are smaller and the problem that was disguised by abundance suddenly stares us in the face...)
Not that Gripus himself is exactly a logical thinker:
Ay, a lazy man is worse than useless. I never could abide a lazy man. If there’s work to be done, you’ve got to get up early, and that’s all there is to it....(See how the praise of work is clinched by the wonderful possibility of doing no work at all!)
Take me, now; by working hard I’ve done myself so much good that I need never work again if I don’t want to....
This soliloquy becomes ever more extravagant; Gripus dreams of “Gripopolis”. Yet we can’t withhold sympathy. He is, after all, a slave, and throughout his blustering we sense the insecurity of a man who, all too realistically, suspects he may end up with nothing. We are pleased when he wins his freedom in the end.
I enjoyed Trinummus, the “Three-Dollar Day”. The piece is a bit of a puzzle. All the characters are so well-meaning and good-natured that there seems little opportunity for dramatic tension. Yet it works; it feels very solidly made. E.F. Watling calls it “a cool and leisurely comedy”. I remember numerous scenes with pleasure. Perhaps the key one is the threesome in which Lesbonicus, infuriatingly for his servant Stasimus, looks a gift-horse in the mouth. It’s so unusual for comedy to concern itself with a “no-strings attached” offer that we can understand why Lesbonicus can’t handle it. The play of the drama is kept alight by people constantly finding themselves in situations that could go wrong - Megaronides at first, Charmides at the end, could each fail to comprehend the virtuous scheming of Callicles. We see the pitfalls looming up and failing to materialize. We see impeccable behaviour, tolerance and forgiveness; but we also see why it’s needed. I found it unusual and rather moving; the unusualness feels like a sort of realism, admittedly of a partial sort (Watling said this, too). The chief technical problem is the ending, as so often (but not in Rudens or even, I think, in Mostellaria). When there has been so little tension in the first place, a happy resolution is flatly uninteresting.
I found Amphitryo frustrating - perhaps I wasn’t in a very good mood - it was as if I simply didn’t like the situations in the play, and the misunderstandings seemed to be drawn out tediously.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
more literary detritus notes.
Sharp-eyed readers will have grasped that since the beginning of 2013 I've started transferring the 200 or so articles of the Brief History into blog posts on this blog. Generally, the idea is to free this material from its primitive and unsatisfactory web format, and to bring it together with the increasing accumulation of literary material that I've composed on this blog and never got around to copying across in the other direction. Use the Labels (scroll down on the right) to navigate around for your favourite author.
I'm going along rather slowly. So far I've only transferred three articles: Avebury, Euripides, and Epicurus. [Since writing this, I've added Plautus.] I'm trying to seize the passing opportunity to re-enter the world of each article as I transfer it and to add a miniscule savour of new spice to it.
In the New York Review of Books there's a very interesting recent article by Oliver Sacks about, among other things, unconscious plagiarism. Sacks argues that this practice is a central method of creativity. Material that we authors think inspired is material that we have found in our minds, or "made up", but whose true source has been forgotten. [I am misrepresenting Sacks, who would not use the term unconscious plagiarism (hereafter, UP) merely to describe this widespread unconscious modelling. But that's how I'm using it here, for convenience.]
Really what Sacks asserts seems quite an obvious conclusion from ideas that are extremely commonplace in other areas of psychological thinking. As with all good insights, you wonder when you've read it why no-one has thought this before. If none of our other thoughts and memories and beliefs is ever without a source (and where can that source lie but in our own past experience?), then why would creativity be any different?
The mad-scientist excursus in Eric Ambler's Cause for Alarm (1938) is a UP of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). [The next few paragraphs really require a lot of "he or she". Usually I tend to use "they" in these situations, but this time I'm going to anglicize the new Swedish impersonal preposition hen - which, since we're trailblazing here, I'll assume has the same grammar as it.]
The signs of UP are First, that the copied material is so close to the surface as to be naively revealing, sure indication that no conscious deception is involved (furthermore, in this case the unconscious source is a very well-known book). Second, the copied or retained features often seem superficially insignificant in terms of what our reasoning minds would consider the "point" of the narrative - for example, in this case, the alpine location, the icy setting of the narrative - of course, they are not really insiginificant, they provide the very engine that gives the story life. Third, despite the naive lack of deception, UP often goes undetected, because the material is so thoroughly transmuted into its new conceptual world, the one within which the new author is saying with conviction what hen thinks hen's inspired to say. Hens conviction distracts us from source-hunting. We find none of the signs of discomfort, inconsistency, halting, and patchwork that betray a deliberate appropriation of alien material. It is only when, by chance, we stumble across the source at around the same time as we encounter its offspring, that UP lies revealed.
Some people, indeed, regard the mad scientist as the best part of Cause for Alarm, but I can't agree with them. In other respects I think this is Ambler's best book, but what makes it good is the moral miasma around armaments dealing, and the fearful escape from Fascist Italy. The excursus is really an irrelevance: I'm not impressed at all by arguments claiming that the excursus is a crowning instance of a world gone mad; that may indeed represent Ambler's conscious justification, but the truth is that the rest of the book is about something much more interesting (because much less nebulous) than just a world gone mad. The Fourth sign of UP is that it has difficulty assessing itself. That is what gifts the new author hen's necessary creative freedom. But sometimes, as here, a burst of UP may shoehorn itself into the wrong enterprise.
The Fifth feature of UP is the nature of the source. Though it may be a well-known book, as in this case, there has to be something un-obvious about it. Otherwise the new author would be bound to spot what's going on. Frankenstein, obviously is a book in a different genre than Ambler's own, a book Ambler may not have thought about for many years. Indeed, a book, in those days, that readers were not much encouraged to think about.
Naturally Ambler transmutes his source. Ambler's scientist is really mad, and the outcome of his work is a nonsensical scribble. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, is an out-and-out achiever, though the achievement is dreadful in its consequences. Nevertheless Ambler tunes into a feature of Frankenstein's career that is often neglected. Frankenstein is, from the first, presented as an untypical scientist. He is attracted to long-exploded dreamers of quasi-scientific power - Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus. Though at university he learns to forget this background, he remains a brilliant isolatoe who works in secret and unaided. Mary Shelley's fantasy is in that respect a poor symbol for the group dynamics of the technological community that developed H-bombs. It is a better symbol of the individual pursuit of a discovery. Frankenstein, however, seems not to have ever thought of or courted publicity. His, then, is a metaphysical kind of drive. At first he responds with horror to Walton's equally monomaniac drive to the pole; but later, his blind urge reasserts itself in a bitter sermon to the eminently reasonable mutineers.
This science-gone-wrong is only one of Shelley's themes. She also gets all Godwinian with the Creature who contains such seeds of innocence yet who becomes so malign. More subtly, her story begins to converge on a troubling image of "The Double". i.e. Frankenstein and his Creature become indissolubly linked. Maybe we could even interpret them as one and the same - a sort of post-Jekyll-and-Hyde reading? This of course would make good sense of (1) the agony of Frankenstein's guilt; (2) why it's Frankenstein's own nearest and dearest who are the victims; (3) Frankenstein's stubborn silence about the creature, for which his own explanation is that people would think him mad if he asserted it.
A confusion of Thurstons.
I thought I would sort this out, both for my own benefit and for that of any other readers who venture into the terrains of experimental poetry and prose. But we begin with guitarists.
1. Thurston Moore: the US singer, songwriter, guitarist and main driving force of Sonic Youth. Once an aspiring poet and now a poetry publisher: his Flowers and Cream Press have published Anselm Berrigan, Ben Estes and others.
2. Scott Thurston: US guitarist, now with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
3. Scott Thurston: British experimental poet, associated with the London scene: Sub-Voicive, Veer, Robert Sheppard. Lectures at Salford. Has published, among other things, three collections for Shearsman.
4. Nick Thurston: British conceptualist writer and publisher (Information as Material). Lectures at Leeds.
5. Michael Thurston: US professor (Smith College) who has written about modernism and contemporary poetry.
6. Nick Thurston: US LA-based actor, recently starred in White Irish Drinkers.
7. Robert Thurston: US SF author.
Naturally, it's 3 and 4 who chiefly concern me(though not because they're British).
Scott Thurston (3) is not on my shelves, so my limited ideas of what he does are based on the downloadable samplers of his three Shearsman volumes (all linked by the illuminated apertures of the jackets), and also by a prose piece in Veer About 2010-2011.
internal rhyme a species of adder magic
I can feel your badge by my side
eternal flask leave out those signs
of relief at the end of withdrawal symptoms
pleasure you can’t measure the hybrids
stand at the gateway the larger logic that makes
possible dynamic critical constructions
you will terribly well un-read
This comes from the 2010 volume Internal Rhyme, I think it's the opening words.
(See also Melissa's review of the earlier Hold:
There is also Reverses Heart's Reassembly (Veer 2011), which is based on Gabrielle Roth's 5Rhythms meditation dance practice. (Picked this one up from Carrie Etter.)
Nick Thurston (4) is a fairly strict conceptualist inasmuch as he promotes strictly unoriginal writing. I say this based on: http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/36403/bibliocidal-tendencies-british-publisher-information-as-material-tears-into-literature-for-arts-sake though the answers to the questions are jointly attributed to him and Simon Morris. Whatever, this email interview is as engaging a view of conceptual writing as I've read.
(Not really, not when there's Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Leevi Lehto... But anyway.)
In the interview, Nick (or Simon) says:
These books are not necessarily meant to be read at all in the conventional sense. We know people do read them and seem to get something from that experience, but it is not essential to their function. Like any other traditional artwork they are propositions to be engaged with and thought about.This is of course true; moreover, it is true of every book. But to an unusual degree the work in this kind of artwork resides in the discussion of it.
As I've already noted, conceptualists tend to write and talk lucidly about their work. This is a surprise, in a way. Post-avant poets have usually been tortuous on the subject of their own work. Commentary has been understood as compromise with the politically indefensible; lucidity as betrayal; the preferred style quasi-Theory-style ellipsis that conceals secret messages for friends who supposedly already understand where the poem stands in the post-avant conversation.
But for conceptualist books the commentary is, often, the active centre of the work. Is it even necessary to encounter the conceptualist artwork in a direct way - to see it, or touch it? Is it necessary for it to exist, or could it be purely imaginary, so long as it can be described - like the Quixote of Pierre Menard? That's why it seems justifiable, perhaps, to represent Nick Thurston's work by an interview rather than any direct instantiation.
Nevertheless, it is a feature of the conceptualist book (and of every artwork) that it cannot contain how its audience engages with it. And my experience is that when we encounter any conceptualist book directly, we also discover unexpected things about it, things that were not altogether predictable from its description.
Another feature of conceptualism, arguably in step with Modernism but distinctively out of step with Postmodernism, is its valorization of integrity (you can see that very clearly in the interview). The conceptualist work should make a point and should be thoroughly directed to that point; it is not just a random mash-up of any old thing. (Thus Thurston and Morris, anyway. I think Lehto would see this differently.) Here the current of the thinking diverges from the utopianism of WritersForum-style collage. In a different way it diverges from the thinking behind Keston Sutherland's concept of wrongness; in a different way again from Montevidayan plague-ground impurity.
I mention this as an only-slightly contrived segue into the contents of my backpack, which consists of a very battered and much-read copy of Sutherland's Stress Position (Barque 2009), which also happens to be just the right size to act as a protective slip-case for Matthew Robertson's fragments (Writers Forum Dec. 2012), and also for my counterpart driving license. Evidently I don't care what state my copy of Stress Position gets into; this poem will be available for ever. On the other hand, I am rather especially anxious that fragments stays in good nick. Acquiring any Writers Forum publication is a triumph, especially for a provincial reader.
Keston Sutherland teaches at Brighton; Matthew Robertson teaches at Bath.... OK, so there's a lot of university teachers in this post. And though I profoundly feel the force of such polemics as Ben Watson's, on any count a high proportion of the poetry I like is written by people whose wages come out of university purses. Still there's a conflict within me.
Marx was an admirer of Jakob Boehme, according to Ben's and Esther Leslie's interesting discussion, where he's quoted thus:
The learned men by profession, guild or privilege, the doctors and others, the colourless university writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their stiff pigtails and their distinguished pedantry and their petty hair-splitting dissertations, interposed themselves between the people and the mind, between life and science, between freedom and mankind. It was the unauthorised writers who created our literature. [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1781]
The unease around avant-poets being academics is palpable and widely shared but not easy to articulate. The feeling that there's something wrong with a situation in which making art with no audience can be an astute career move. Art with no audience should be more drastically motivated!
Anyway, I agree with Marx (unless I am simply UP-ing Marx): it is only unauthorised writers who can discover anything. Nevertheless, authority is not an absolute, authority to what anyway, etc.
Aside from that, academics must be, you'd suppose, the only people with the necessary time and resources to attain a not-merely-haphazard awareness of the range of modern innovative work in poetry and art and all the borderland between.
It's a discussion that needs to be had, again and again.
Only an academic, you would loosely think, could provide a real conspectus anthology of the experimental scene. Yet my favourite anthologies have tended to be put together by practitioners who are merely gathering a heap of poets they like in a particular place and time; the heap does not draw a map, and this limitation makes it more open. One of these, recently, was Chris Goode's Better Than Language, which I wrote about elsewhere.
I don't see selection as an important procedure in the origin of this sort of anthology. It is more what we can put in than what can we leave out. An earlier one was Floating Capital, the Robert Sheppard/Adrian Clarke anthology of London poets from 1991. It was published in the US for curious Americans and I doubt it touched much new audience in the UK but I'm sure it did circulate to people who already cared about the London scene. The nice thing about getting into an anthology is that people go on talking about it.
As often, the introduction (an Afterword in this case) is more persuasive than the contents about what the anthology is supposed to mean. But the contents are a box of wonder; there is, indeed, a tension between them and the Afterword; poetry never wants to be tied down. The heart of the Afterword is "foregrounding the signifier" and proposals that this community of poets is bound together by awareness of Theory. That just seems to work more smoothly for the editors' own work than for some of the other inclusions. It's as if you're in a large railway station but one of the platforms turns out to be green, it is singing Strauss, and another one has a wooden leg, and there's someone unexpected heaving bricks at you.
The group anthologized here were (as often, I suppose) a bunch of poets who worked together - shared stages, published each other, and performed at each other's venues. These momentary cohabitations can look sadly altered a few years later. (No doubt the same will happen to Better than Language.) Sadly altered? Well, that's a narrow way of looking at it. But the point is, experimental poetry can represent quite a small aspect of people's lives. Certainly university teaching has been important to quite a few of the contributors to Floating Capital. But in context, this does not necessarily mean a radical incursion on a creative life. The details are of individual negotiations. I begin to lose sight of the simple binary, outlined above, of academia vs. non-academia. Every person's life is unique.
Floating Capital kicked off with two eminences. Bob Cobbing lived, and Allen Fisher lives, as full-time artists. But these days Fisher is also an emeritus poetry prof at Manchester. (Cobbing died in 2002.)
Look, a lost language, belching lines of casual innovations. Chaos, a tangle of paths landing in language's frozen throat. Don't repeat predicted alarms. Face towards sky-scraping wires. Bulldozer moves earth wall, calls it diagonal slippage. Fish bob in warm frog world and close the curve of melody.Cobbing's "Non-Verse and Perverse - A Serious Dissertation" is, as the editors note, an uncharacteristic piece, i.e. it is neither concrete, sound or visual. No doubt Cobbing's exemplary status is done no harm at all by the general unavailability of his work; nevertheless this piece alone shows what a formidably original practitioner he was. It is not so much the form itself, which is familiar enough now if it wasn't in 1991: a constructed piece of prose with metrical rules like not beginning a sentence with an article, and recurring elements such as "icicle", "bob" and "fur". (And "legs". There are almost as many detached limbs in this piece as in Stress Position.) It's not the form that stands out, but Cobbing's conducting, through a non-discursive form, of a dance of ideas that is also a tenacious and deeply-meditated statement of poetics. It looks like he wrote it without effort. And here as elsewhere he never strikes me as really influenced by anyone. It isn't true, but what's true is that Cobbing's UP doesn't come from a literary pool - e.g. the detached limbs are not usefully sought out in Dickens - it does come out of a truly borderline practice with hidden sources, and it is extraordinary and exemplary.
Fisher's "Bel-Air" is a less happy selection, in my view. You can see why it was chosen: Brixton Fractals is such a great book, but I feel the poem needs that larger context. The pseudo-narrative of the Painter and the Burglar obtrudes, and gives a misleading answer to the question "What am I meant to be looking at here?"
Of the other poets in Floating Capital: Paul Brown now runs an art bookshop and has nothing to do with the poetry world. Though The Aftermath was published by Salt in 2003, Peter Middleton has really completed the transition from poet to serious academic - the day-job, as so often, becoming the all-day job - One day I hope he might astonish us with a VLP (very long poem) of his own, but I'm certainly not counting on it. Hazel Smith is evidently still performing and publishing; she teaches at the University of Western Sydney. Virginia Firnberg's poetry-writing, I infer, didn't long outlast the anthology - she composes and teaches music.
Obituaries of Gilbert Adair, who died in 2011, critic, journalist, novelist, Francophile theorist, scarcely mentioned that he was also a reasonably prolific poet, despite the evident importance of the Sub-Voicive platform. Towards the end of his life he lived and taught in Hawaii.
" [F]or Bob too, there was simply no division between the engagements of living life and the imaginative processes of working..." (Maggie O'Sulllivan). It's an aspiration she's lived up to better than most. She worked for the BBC from 1973-88; she has since supplemented her creative career by teaching classes, creative writing residencies, etc. Just how much new new work she's producing these days is hard to judge from a distance - I'm not aware of much that's later than murmur, which already existed in some form in 2003.
Robert Sheppard teaches undergrad poetry modules, but he's still a big-time poet. cris cheek left London in the early 1990s, taught at Dartington and now in the US, but of course is still a major interdisciplinary artist.
Adrian Clarke, so far as I know, is an active poet and nothing but (except for the usual swamp of ancillary stuff, editing, publishing, reviewing, interviewing....). Ken Edwards too is still committedly what he was then: writer, musician, publisher. Ditto Kelvin Corcoran... (but, is it just me, he always seems an anomalous inclusion, both here and in 1998's Conductors of Chaos. I feel I want to put a different hat on before reading him.)
Val Pancucci is the most difficult poet to find anything out about. 80 SKINS AND 75 EGGS was published by Veer in 2004 - despite this, I imagine her as an occasional poet, or perhaps an under-the-radar poet, a very good thing to be.
It's a natural approach to an anthology, for the reader, to try to identify what is individual about each poet. One wants, after all, to be what is called an active reader. But it's a distinctive feature of Floating Capital, or rather, of the peculiar nature of its material, that it rewards reading in a quite different way: by forgetting about the individuals and by taking it instead as an open-ended communal endeavour.
[Now read: http://ronsilliman.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/my-sense-that-that-free-range-anthology.html]
The Real Life of Domingos Xavier (A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier), by José Luandino Vieira, was finished in 1961, just before Vieira was sentenced to many years in prison for political activity (for the MPLA).
In this insurrectionary book Domingos is imprisoned, tortured and finally dies of his treatment: his "real life" is the momentum his example gives to the Movement. The increasingly violent beatings only harden his determination not to tell; when the "new police" finally beat him to death, it's because they've lost. Interspersed with these dark chapters are the sunny if sad narratives, interrupted and impressionistic, of his wife, well-wishers and fellow-activists trying, hopefully or hopelessly, to find out what has happened to him.
Domingos smiled to himself. He thought yes, that was true, he was going to die. They were going to kill him. He was already as if dead, and the only pain which still worried him was from his legs broken at the knees. He smiled and smiled while the blood ran from his mouth, from his nose and from his ears; it soaked his tattered shirt, his body and the floor, and splashed the policeman, the walls, everything. It was good to feel it running freely like this, to feel himself empty and light. His great happiness at having kept silent poured out in his salty tears, in the urine which he could not control, and he felt it run down his legs and spread his hot and bitter smell through all the room.
Domingos lived in an industrial township by a dam construction on the Kuanza river; other scenes are in Luanda, but the sketchy impression (in a book of only 80 odd pages) is of a whole society being portrayed: the old man's memories of piloting, the evasive mother washing cloths at the river, the despairing wife and baby staying with friends in the city, the children playing marbles in the dust, the dances and courtships of the youths. And of course the cipaios, the locals employed by the colonial administration to do most of its dirty work, including beating prisoners to a pulp; but who nevertheless may have friends within the larger community and can be an invaluable source of information about the disappeared. (The word is derived from Anglo-Indian sepoy.)
The impressionism can be seen in two sentences that are both about the young politicized footballer Chico John, who works as a messenger for the Company.
Ah, if some day he could show the head of accounts that he already knew how to operate the machines! He had learned to clean them after five at night, worrying in case they came back and caught him.
And with his girl-friend Bebiana:
They went slowly across the beach, at Chico's pace.
Caught him doing what? And what does it mean, "at Chico's pace" - wouldn't Chico move quickly? We can work both of these out, but not with absolute certainty. To leave these spaces is a short-story writer's technique for adding depth into the text. But there's more to it than that. First, the lack of specificity allows the story the potency of universal application. Just what Domingos Xavier could have told is left intentionally shadowy. Secondly, it images (and instantiates) the unspoken in a society that dare not speak. The book describes a political mobilization, once named generically ("the Movement") but more commonly signalled by the ambiguous word companheiro. It is clearly based on Vieira's own experience within the MPLA. It is not described as an organization with a definite sphere of activities - revolutionaries do not publish that kind of thing, it's too dangerous - it is described as an experience that individuals meet with, a growth of political consciousness.
Equally shadowy is the story of what happens when Domingos is imprisoned. The child Zito and his grandfather Petelo are watching the Post. They pass the news of the new unknown prisoner on to Chico John, who passes it to the tailor Mussunda and Miguel; Miguel is sent on a mission, the details of which are not given - he goes up to the dam and makes contact with Sousinha, who is in hiding, and the white engineer Silvester. Presumably the main point is to know who has been taken in order to know what may have been compromised and to take evasive action; but that's all my own inference.
The geography is confusing but not imaginary; it would convey more to a native Luandan. The obfuscation is deliberate: some locales are named while others are not, or are only named generically (e.g. Chico John's day-job is office boy for "the Company"). The dam, on whose contrstruction Domingos worked, does exist. It is on the Kuanza river a bit upstream from Dondo (and around 100 miles from Luanda), and you can get a good look at it using the satellite view on Google Maps.
Domingos was born on "the plateau", i.e. the Huambo plateau. i.e. further upstream from the dam. Even so, we know his previous job was in the Bom Jesus sugar fields, nearer to Luanda.
Bairro Indigena - near to the area in Luanda where Grandfather Petelo and Zito live, beside the prisons where Domingos is murdered.
Bairro Operario - in the centre of Luanda.
See Intonations: A Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to Recent Times by Marissa Jean Moorman (Ohio University Press, 2008), especially Chapter 2, which outlines the importance for the nationalist movement of both these locations, and the Botafogo football team, and the Ngola music group - all of which make appearances in Vieira's novel.
Corimba, Samba - shore area south of central Luanda, towards Belas. Where Bebiana, Miguel, and Mama Sessa live.
Islands of Mussulo - long spit off the shore of Luanda.
Mutamba - in central Luanda near to the coast.
Muxima - further down the Kuanza from Dondo, a little closer to Luanda.
Prenda - in Luanda, south-east of the centre.
Sambizanga - township in Luanda, north of the centre and fairly close to the coast. Where Maria stays with Mr Cardoso and Mama Terry. Bairro Lixeira is in Sambizanga.
Sambizanga was also the name of the celebrated but rarely-seen 1972 film, directed by Sarah Maldoror, based on Vieira's book (especially Maria's search for her husband). For more details, see Lusophone Africa: Beyond Independence by Fernando Arenas (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), page 109ff.
Very good discussion of Vieira's writing (and the significance of his geography) here: Transculturation and resistance in Lusophone African narrative, by Phyllis Peres, 1997, University Press of Florida.
This novella, like his other books, was written in a striking kind of mixture of literary Portuguese, slang and Kimbundu. The translator Michael Wolfers made no attempt to represent this in his English version (mindful, as he said, that for many of his readers English was a second language). Despite this, the translation gives a pretty clear sense of passing through different registers.
The Angolan independence that Vieira wanted was finally achieved in 1975, but the immediate upshot was a terrible civil war in which over half a million people died - a war prolonged, maybe, by the opposing sides within Angola receiving support from opposing Cold War players. Pretty much like the situation unfolding in Syria right now.
Stress Position, like The Real Life of Domingos Xavier, has torture as its central image. It was published in 2009, but very plainly must have been largely written around the time that the images of Abu Ghraib abuse shocked the western media in 2004.
It's of course a very different book in other respects. To put it shallowly: in Vieira's Angola of 1961, it was all about free speech; in Sutherland's UK of 2009, it's all about corrupt speech.
The expression "stress position" is often used, in connection with war and torture, to talk about positions that cause pain and collapse. The jacket doesn't show Graner sitting on a prisoner, though. It shows a hypermobile Far Eastern child, presumably an athlete, tying herself into some sort of knot.
Her eyes are blanked out - part of the dehumanizing Abu Ghraib atmosphere. Her mouth expresses intense strain and, simultaneously, delighted pride.
In yoga, the stress position is visited again and again, indeed an oscillation between opposed stress positions is one of its main techniques for increasing suppleness.
At a military college in the US, yoga is considered excellent preparation for encountering the horrors of war.
To call torture the central image of Stress Position needs qualification, because the book doesn't really do evocation of Abu Ghraib or anywhere else in Iraq. It does have a disjunctive but definite action, with highlights such as losing a leg in McDonalds', and teaming up with Black Beauty. Occasionally this action seems to take place in the Al-Rashid (the Baghdad Hotel frequented by western media), but more often it's in a generalized modern westernized consumerized world that is nowhere in particular. Nevertheless the presentation of this action does echo some distinctive aspects of the Abu Ghraib torture; for instance its vacuity, media-consciousness, its hideous wackiness.
Sutherland in this discussion says that readers should really be disgusted by his co-option of Iraqi/Vietnam history for the purpose of "narcissistic self-blockage". I think every reader will appreciate what's happening here, the rejection of the concept of a tasteful context for talking about war crimes; the bare perception that the only kind of moral authority that can be defended is the one that has already ceded all claims to credibility. But how do we read this in relation to Ben Watson/Esther Leslie's strictures on postmodernism (same link as the one I gave earlier), namely that it isn't enough for the postmodern poem to dive into the incidental pleasures of capitalism, to celebrate whatever is, but as Marx says "the particular can be seen intellectually and freely only in connection with the whole". Does Sutherland's Abu Ghraib provide an explanatory context for the mess on the floor in McDonalds', or perhaps the other way round? But then the conjunction of heterogeneity wouldn't be, what Sutherland insists it is, disgusting. So I'm frankly reading Stress Position as a postmodern poem and as political because postmodern: i.e., in the way Lolita and Some Trees were political: in ways that A and Waiting for Godot weren't.
I read Leonardo Sciascia's monograph The Moro Affair (1978) alongside Peter Robb's expansive Midnight in Sicily (1996). That worked pretty well. Robb's book, though mainly about the Mafia, roams widely into politics and literature (and food), and has plenty to say both about the Moro affair, and about the Sicilian author Sciascia. It belongs to that modern genre of travel book that is really a miscellany with a brief to stuff in as many juicy informative anecdotes as possible; it passes the time, you don't read it twice, but you do learn a lot.
Neil Belton, introducing Sciascia's book, notes: "These were years in which paranoid conspiracy theories were the subject of everyday conversation in Italy, and often referred to something real." If you look up Aldo Moro on the English-language Wikipedia, you won't find much about his long career in politics, but you will find a lot about his kidnapping and assassination, and most of this is conspiracy theory piled on conspiracy theory piled on Sciascia's own seminal book, which is also conspiracy theory of a modest and literary kind; inasmuch as the basic premise of CT is that it is composed by people who don't know the inside story. But Belton is right: in Italian politics, the conspiracy theories were often true. The apparently firm demarcation, in northern Europe for instance, between responsible reportage and irresponsible speculation, broke down completely when government was sufficiently seen (despite all the secrecies that were not seen) to be epidemically corrupt, when magistrates were often mafiosi, when the courts of justice in Rome were themselves on trial, when political life meant the management of personal favours.
Labels: African Writers Series, Eric Ambler, José Luandino Vieira, Keston Sutherland, Leevi Lehto, Leonardo Sciascia, Mary Shelley, Matthew Robertson, Nick Thurston, Peter Robb, Poetics, Scott Thurston
Monday, February 18, 2013
Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea)
Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). This is an old cup, gone ragged round the edges, but still spectacular in colour. The younger ones (see below) have a more regular margin with a single dimple.
It grows on wood, but nearly always wood that is prone on the ground, especially damp squelchy ground like here, in a wood in Swindon. And is typically seen in winter and early spring.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)
Nothing to fear in God.(Philodemus, The Fourfold Remedy – a renowned summary of Epicurean teachings)
Nothing to feel in Death.
Good can be attained.
Evil can be endured.
Of all the pre-Christian philosophers Epicurus was least likely to attract a Christian preserver. Nevertheless, an adequate quantity of Epicurean dicta remain, besides the miraculous preservation of Lucretius’ poem.
Even in his own time Epicurus was traduced as an atheist and a sensualist. The former charge was on the right lines, inasmuch as the gods are of no consequence in Epicurean thought – being perfectly self-sufficient, they do not interfere in the lives of men.
Epicurus took care to differentiate his conception of pleasure from sensual excess. “The pleasurable life is not continuous drinking, dancing and sex; nor the enjoyment of fish or other delicacies of an extravagant table” (Letter to Menoeceus). Nevertheless, his conception of the good is founded on the senses; fundamentally, it is plain fare enjoyed in security. Though he regards “prudence, honour and justice” as inseparable from the pleasant life, the ultimate function of these virtues is to secure pleasure. “The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.” More generally, “The stable condition of well-being in the body and the sure hope of its continuance holds the fullest and surest joy for those who can rightly calculate it”.
A somewhat complex theory of moderation controls the emphasis on pleasure. “Self-sufficiency” and “limits” are terms favoured by Epicurus. This is clear enough when he deprecates the pursuit of vain objects such as fame (“Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance”). One can concede, too, the force of his conservatism in “Among the rest of his faults the fool hath also this: that he is always beginning to live.” However, the following saying appears to be wrong: “Nothing satisfies him for whom enough is too little” (alternatively, “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little”). This dissatisfied person could after all be satisfied by some measure of things over and above what is strictly sufficient. Even Epicurus says elsewhere that frugality should not be absolute. In fact he is unable to make a precise definition of what consitutes sufficiency; his statements can only be taken as suggestive.
There are two additional elements in Epicurus’s conception of the pleasant life: philosophy and friendship. Philosophy is instrumental as a means of banishing the fear of gods, death and other transcendental anxieties; also, because it dissuades from pursuit of the unnecessary pleasures (with their inevitable insecurities).
“All friendship is desirable in itself, though it starts from the need of help”. This leaves room for some haziness. The origin in expediency is fully in accord with what Epicurus says elsewhere of natural law and other social advantages, but it gives him some trouble, since the warmth of his feelings outruns practicality. His most satisfactory resolution is: “It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help” – which ties up with security again. But there is still a sizeable leap to “Friendship goes dancing round the world proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life”.
Behind all this lies the vision of a symposium, a friendly browsing and philosophising thoroughly in accord with Greek tradition. It is, perhaps, a slave-owning conception. Procurement should be modest, Epicurus advises; but he offers no theory of production.
This gentlemanly narrowness of focus needs to be remembered. “To live under constraint is an evil, but no one is constrained to live under constraint.” This can only refer to mental dissatisfaction (for “the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom”) – applied, e.g. to bondage, it would be nonsense. Similarly, the remark “it is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself” refers not to physical labour but to tranquillity.
Epicurus’s thought is clearly not heroic, since it lacks a sense of strenuous effort, of love and of tragic insufficiency (these are the features that make it most fundamentally un-Christian). He emphasizes that the procurement of pleasure is easy. The existence of mental suffering is ignored; physical pain is considered negligible and both death and long life irrelevant.
But Epicurus’ position is strong, because he declines to allow any meaning to “good” other than what every human being regards as good. I admire the clarity, for better or worse, of such statements as these:
“No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.”
“We must not pretend to study philosophy, but study it in reality: for it is not the appearance of health that we need, but real health.”
“The laws exist for the sake of the wise, not that they may not do wrong, but that they may not suffer it.”
[Epicureanism is briefly the topic of discussion in Book III of Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814). The “I” of the poem introduces it, zealously pouring scorn on the sub-human aims of this lowly creed. Rather unfairly, it may be thought, he cites Epicureanism as an argument against Philosophy herself:
all too timid and reservedBut the despondent Solitary has no sympathy with this zeal.
For onset, for resistance too inert,
Too weak for suffering, and for hope too tame... (III, 343-45)
Ah! gentle Sir,He proceeds to claim that the minor tranquillity aimed at by Epicurus was also an unconfessed motive of monasticism.
Slight, if you will, the means; but spare to slight
The end of those, who did, by system, rank,
As the prime object of a wise man’s aim,
Security from shock of accident,
Release from fear; and cherished peaceful days
For their own sakes, as mortal life’s chief good,
And only reasonable felicity. (III, 359-66)
Putting these words into the mouth of the Solitary, a man who has lost his faith in Providence, implies a severe qualification of their tenor. At the same time the Solitary’s misfortunes give him a certain authority – for instance, when he reproves the glib courage with which, in his own zealous youth, he would have demanded
from real lifeThere’s little doubt in my mind that for Wordsworth Epicureanism represented far more of a “live issue” than anyone but an infidel could admit. I imagine he entertained it as a secondary philosophy, the way you might support a second football team (If I wasn’t a Christian / United fan...). I think many people do. There are some football teams that, the pundits say, “attract the neutral” – that are (with pardonable exaggeration) “everyone’s second team”. Epicureanism is “everyone’s second creed”, but perhaps only if you have a first one at all. I don't think Epicureanism can be a first creed, simply because it doesn't strike me as complete; the world is too full of mental chasms, too full of anguish, horror and insanity. Epicureanism slips away from those incomprehensible portals, cannot explain them, treats them as blots. But when a reasonable and pleasant space reappears, Epicureanism reappears to occupy it.
The test of act and suffering, to provoke
Hostility – how dreadful when it comes,
Whether affliction be the foe, or guilt! (III, 417-20)
The bases of this discussion have shifted a long way since Wordsworth wrote, and few people today have ever heard the word “Providence”.]
Saturday, February 09, 2013
Thursday, February 07, 2013
Almost purple ahead; -
and in front of this, the hedges
golden in sunlight
while the shower batters them.
out of this osmiroid sky
now must come, oh I see it,
in the way that faces emerge in terror
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
mazurka / hambopolkett
[Sweden's....] invaluable contributions in the fields of folk, rock, jazz, classical. The Swedish government has long seen its musicians as a source of cultural pride and as an economic resource. Sweden's export music industry brought in over $450 million to the country's economy and is third only to the U.S. and the U.K. For these reasons, the government has helped musicians by sponsoring recordings and concerts, both for domestic consumption and international. (National Geographic, quoted from this undated web page.)
I'm a bit doubtful about how to interpret this. It seems pretty obvious that, just for instance, there's a hell of a lot more Latino music swimming around and between Latin countries than there are Cardigans fans in the UK. And I'd have thought the same might well apply in the Islamic world, or in East Asia. Sweden's laudable third place just seems to prove that, in northern Europe, music can be a money-making industry, there are affluent audiences who like to pay for their music, and the infrastructure is there to sell it abroad.. (Thus even pan-Arab stars and expat Third World musicians are signed up by and make money for the music industries of the west).
Sure taste, good business management, English-language skills and no drugs: that's why Sweden can out-perform in this sector. The products we are talking about are international musics: quality rock and dance, jazz, classical. And if I think of the warm hours, so many of them, the pleasures of listening e.g. to Kent (rock band), Esbjörn Svensson (jazz pianist) or to dozens of BIS recordings (classical label), why would I say anything bad about the happiness that economics can distribute?
Still, the Swedish music I'm most fascinated by is the music that doesn't contribute to those export figures, the things you never come across anywhere else. Like these two treasures from the Loppis (=junkshop), picked up last summer.
Gunnar Persson, Gästrikelåtar och lite till (1999)
"Why, that's a hambo!" said my Mum instantly, on hearing the opening bars of Track 1.
At first everything sounded the same to me. For me one of the biggest fascinations (in music, or any art, or nature, or people, or any topic at all) is watching and discovering how the initial impression of uniform matte begins to differentiate, crack and break open into life and variety. With more attention and a little more knowledge, I've come to see these dance tunes as individuals and as comprising a literature with a quality of fullness, though they are not representational.
hambo Swedish 3/4 dance with strong accent on first beat (derived from polska or mazurka-polska)
mazurka 3/4 dance (of Polish origin) similar to polska - usually fast.
polka 2/4 dance of Bohemian(?) origin
polkett - short for hambopolkett, a Swedish dance popular in the late 19th Century.
polska Nordic dance nearly always in 3/4. Warning 1: a polska is not a polka! Warning 2: The description "Tysk Polska" (German Polska, track 11) means a schottis!
schottis 2/4 dance of Bohemian(?) origin, a slower polka.
vals (waltz) - 3/4 gliding dance in close position: in Sweden, continuously rotating (as in the video below).
bondvals - country waltz
... and combinations of these.
This is radically dance music. Not in the sense that you absolutely have to dance to it to enjoy it, but you miss half the meaning of the music unless you have the dance in mind. For instance, hambos and polskas are always structured into units of eight measures (bars). The end of a unit is signalled by a decisive, stabbing chord and a tiny pause. The melody arrives at its resolving harmony in the seventh measure, and this signal confirms it in the eighth. The flightier waltz has units of 16 measures, or sometimes 32. But when it's the latter, there's a message in the music at measures 15-16; a joint awareness of the potential resolution that isn't forthcoming. This almost unconscious awareness creates eloquent possibilities.
Gunnar Persson is an accordionist in the Jularbo tradition. He comes from Sandviken in Gästrikland, the southernmost province of Norrland - the kind of midland country you pass through swiftly on the way further north.Sandviken is an inland town, 25km west of Gävle. It lies on the north shore of the Gästrikland Storsjön ("the big lake"). You've probably heard of Sandvik, the global-reach engineering firm that dominates the town. Persson, however, worked for the local authority before his retirement.
The title means, more or less, "Tunes from Gästrikland and a few others". And indeed, a glance at the map of Sandviken shows up some of the places referenced in the titles: Valbo, Bäck, Högbo...
Of the 28 tracks, 16 are Persson solos on a variety of instruments, 9 are duets with the much younger Anders Larsson, and Anders gets a little solo spot on tracks 18-20, his virtuosity on the piano accordion particularly evident on track 18. Persson composed 6 of the tunes himself, 14 are tunes that Persson learnt from other Gästrikland musicians (though they didn't necessarily originate there - folk music, like fairy-tales, is typically a local transformation of sources beyond the local), and 8 are tunes from the wider Jularbo tradition (Carl Jularbo was born in Dalarna).
Perhaps, after all, this release did have an eye for the export market. At any rate, lovingly detailed accounts of the tunes and the instruments are handily given in English as well as Swedish.
Here's a vid of Gunnar Persson and Anders Larsson in action at a dance. Judging from their younger looks, this was ten years before the CD was recorded.
Benny Granberg, Ordjord (2002)
Benny Granberg is a singer-songwriter from Filipstad, a working town in Värmland in central Sweden. The tracks are simply arranged and recorded but his keening, distinctive voice and the painfully personal songs are instantly arresting. This one is my favourite, partly because of Lennart Svensson's accordion.
Levande vals - Living waltz (translation mostly from Google Translate)Granberg is also a nurse to his wife Gunilla, who has frontal lobe dementia, as movingly described here.
Jag gick omkring och dog här levande
och kände lukten av lik
i den tekniska standardens isande vind
där man blir rik, man blir rik
I went around in a living death
and smelled the scent of corpses
in technology standardized icy wind
where you grow rich, you grow rich
För när människor kränger sitt skal
av skryt och förbannad lögn
när den digitala moralen slagit ut
Because when people turn out their shell
of swagger and damned lies
when the digital morals knocked out
the human factor ideals
i en dans som lyser av guld
där kvalitet är kostnad
en dans runt en kalv som i girighet
profiterar min moral och min skuld
in a dance that glows gold
where the quality is cost
a dance round a calf that in greed
makes profit of my morals and my guilt
Tiden var bara en mått
på all min galenskap, allt vad jag gjort
och satt år därtill, blev bara
till ett hokuspokusslott
The time was just a measure
to all my madness, all that I've done
and sat years thereto, became only
a hocus-pocus palace
Men där skogen står trygg och sval
med sin krävlösa identitet
och väntar därutanför på min själ
och förlåter min fångna moral
But where the forest is safe and cool
with its demanding identity
and waits outside the door for my soul
and forgives my captive morals
då dansar jag i livets vals
som snurrar hit och dit
där kärleken får mej att ta steg
med livet om min hals
when I dance in the waltz of life
as it reels here and there
where love compels me to step out
with life upon my neck
Och när vårregnen faller på skog
och sköljer valsen min ren,
sköljer av mitt hjärta från gråt
där tvivlet förlöstes och dog
And when the spring rains fall on the forest
and the waltz washes me clean,
rinsing my heart from tears
where my doubts were delivered and died
då dansar jag i livets vals
som snurrar hit och dit
där kärleken får mej att ta steg
med livet om min hals
when I dance in the waltz of life
as it reels here and there
where love compels me to step out
with life upon my neck
Och när skogarna ångar av liv,
och drömmen står som en vän,
när kärleken varsamt snurrar mej fram
i livets väldiga kliv
And when the woods steam with life,
and the dream stands there like a friend,
and when love so gently swirls me away
into life's powerful striding
då dansar jag i livets vals
som snurrar hit och dit
där kärleken får mej att ta steg
med livet om min hals
when I dance in the waltz of life
as it reels here and there
where love compels me to to step out
with life upon my neck
Elg, Grete Helle Rasmussen, Helge Havsgård Sunde, Remembrance (2000)
If you have ever wondered, as I have done, what would happen if the strongly characterized popular vocal styles of today were brought to bear on the rich repertoir of lieder / art-song, then this recording supplies some of the answers. Elg is the lead singer with the popular Norwegian band Dance With A Stranger, who play a kind of radio-friendly melodic rock - what we once used to call FM Rock. It isn't really my cup of tea, but anyone can hear that Elg is a powerful and distinctive vocalist. Here, however, he teamed up with classical accompanist Grete Helle Rasmussen on a program of lieder, with discreet electronic or chamber-orchestra arrangments by Helge Havsgård Sunde.
The first thing you have to get out of the way is the inevitable technical challenge. This material demands, and normally receives, a different kind of vocal power. When required to sing quietly in a low register, Elg disappears; when required to sing loudly in a high register, he brays. Some of the songs are almost ruined by this treatment - Berg's Nightingale, for instance.
But when it does work, this collection is as affecting as you would hope. It's affecting partly because of the fragility of the voice, but partly too because of the modern directness of the emotional transference; it lifts away a veil of classicism from the music.
All the songs are sung in English. Some owe their sense of contemporaneity to what are, in effect, new lyrics written by Elg and Grete. Thus their rendering of Fauré's "Mai" replaces Hugo's florid sonnet with a simple (very Norwegian) celebration of May as the first month of spring, with its pale promise of sunshine ("Together we will find a way / In the first days of May"). Schubert's "Litanei" becomes the vehicle for a New-Age reassurance: "Intuition shows you where your feet shall walk... All you see is meant to be..." In these pieces the voice and the words have an intimate relationship that is a shock in the context of this beautiful, timeless music.
Monday, January 28, 2013
EFT, that is, Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as "tapping".
... is a simple method of changing things in your life. The great thing about the annual Tapping World Summit, now in its fifth year, is that you can get so much detail about the method and its applications for free, so long as you sign up for the event when it happens, - two presentations per day for a week or so. And, in 2013, that time is now.
Here's where to go:
Thursday, January 24, 2013
the history of popular music
In 2013, Donald Clarke is the author of an agreeable and sharp-sighted blog.
In 1995, before the Internet existed, he published The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, a history of (almost exclusively) American and British popular music. (It was not his first book, he had also written a comprehensive Encyclopaedia, a biography of Billie Holiday, etc.) Clarke's formative years were the 1950s. He's basically a jazz fan, from its earliest days right through to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, but also with an I-was-there appreciation of the early innocence of rock'n'roll, a warm appreciation for soul and country and folk musics, a comparatively critical attitude to rock, a waning interest in funk and electronic dance music, a contempt for punk and indie and grunge, a positive distaste for house and rap. He seems to know more of classical music (including modern classical music) than he needs to talk about in this book. His values are with musicians who can play instruments, with sound engineers who make good recordings of musicians playing. He writes very well on Muzak, music business corruption and incompetence. A good case can still be made for the essential justice of his polemical chapter about the 70s and 80s, titled "The Heat Death of Pop Music". I can see this even though (because I'm a little younger than him) most of the pop music that mattered to me would be classed by him as falling within the era of decadence and decay. (As a guide to rock, Clarke's book is perfectly useless. He so rarely says anything a rock fan would agree with that when he does - Velvets, Stones - it looks like a mistake.)
Because so much of the essence of pop music takes place in the now (whichever now it was) I don't know if anyone can really write its definitive history; you must be inward, be there, be a fan, or you have nothing to write about. But then a subsequent waning of engagement seems almost an inevitable consequence of past fervour. Soon enough, there is still music you like but it is not often popular; it is dispersed, marginalized, niche, it comes from all eras and from contexts whose cultural moment is forgotten, one's conception of music becomes detached from the now, it flaps its wings and starts to rise out of our small lives and to hover vaguely in the empyrean.
It certainly is remarkable that in the marketing of modern pop music nothing is more ashamedly concealed than the involvement of musicians. Only nerds can play instruments; and only nerds bother to find out who plays the instruments on a piece of modern pop. Clarke traces the origins of this to the musician's union troubles of the 1940s - this made the once-lowly vocalist (considered a non-musician and hence non-unionized) attractive to promoters. It killed the era of big bands, and established names like Crosby and Sinatra.
Even in 500 pages plus, there is so much material that no artist can receive more than a couple of pages' attention. Clarke draws us gently away from the illusion that any specific song or album or even artist is of seminal cultural importance. From the height of this Olympian overview, only movements and scenes are really big enough to register. The most that a piece of popular music can aspire to be, we learn is just "good music"; intelligent, well played, well recorded. Hyperbole is absent; rhapsody almost is.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
The Plays of Euripides
Euripides (484? 480? BCE – 406 BCE)
I realised after I'd been working on this for a while that I don't have much to say, nothing startlingly original, about Euripides' plays. That's not really a surprise, since I've never played with blackened shreds of papyrus, don't know any Greek and have never even seen a performance of a Greek tragedy. Accordingly, there are very few references to poetry or theatre here. Instead I became interested in trying to grasp the totality of his work so far as that is known, so this article has transformed into a sort of list of plays, with a few very brief comments on some of the ones that survive complete. As usual, references are not given; I will have repeated the errors of others as well as adding some of my own, in the best traditions of medieval scholarship. So check everything! If you really want to know about the Euripidean canon you need such works as the Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, Vol 5 (ed. Richard Kannicht, 2004), a snip from Göttingen at €368. T.B.L. Webster's The Tragedies of Euripides (Methuen, 1967) has substantial information about all the lost plays.
I suppose most people will find this article boring - an endless list of lost plays and compressed summaries of confusingly similar legends. Setting the famous survivals back into this context has changed my view of Euripides, though. In a way I see the surviving plays less reverently. The broader context emphasizes, for example, how the characters who appear on stage had a familiarity for their audience and are almost like the stock characters in a Commedia dell'arte troupe: Agamemnon, Heracles, Clytemnestra, etc - check the plot summary of e.g. Telephus (40), or the unexpected appearance of Orestes in Andromache (51); also how prevalent certain motifs are, in tragedy just as much as comedy: that parents are always killing or trying to kill their children, scorned females falsely accuse their scorners, etc. The idea that the conception of Greek tragedy progressively declines from nobly austere beginnnings into tragicomedy and melodrama feels less secure.* One begins to see Victorian admiration for Alcestis (41), Iphigenia among the Taurians (65), and Ion (66) as perhaps only one way of looking at Euripides. But whichever you cut it, the Bacchae (81) remains unique and astonishing.
[* There are vague hints that the earliest tragedies (i.e. in the obscure half-century before The Persians) were more like satyr-plays. Whatever else tragedy implied, it did not imply a compulsory "unhappy ending" involving the death of a leading character. Indeed Aristotle seems to suggest that Euripides' penchant for "unhappy endings" received some criticism.]
As an introduction, here are some remarks about the instability of character portrayal in the plays, something that's given me a lot of trouble as a reader...
Victorian readers of that most amazing Victorian novel, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, tended to blame Shakespeare for inconsistency of character treatment across different plays: for example, it was unpleasing to come to the Merry Wives and to discover a Falstaff who is such a stiff pantomime parody compared with the uniquely beguiling old rogue of Henry IV. (The remarkable thing is that Shakespeare's plays could support such a novelistic reading at all - at some level Shakespeare did indeed invent the novel...)
But reading Euripides, the jolt-effect of character-inconsistency is everywhere. Though all his plays, so far as we know, dramatize scenes from the same vast body of legendary material, the "matter of Greece", we constantly find ourselves doing a double-take: the Achilles that we envisaged before the play began, in contrast to the Achilles as treated in this particular play. What's wrong with the formulation in this paragraph is that it distinguishes (what is natural for us) a static body of Greek myth "over there" from the dynamic "treatment" of the current author. This formulation is wrong for a Greek tragedian. The body of legendary material was not yet static or "over there". It was still being made and the tragedians were very active in making it.
Euripides' plays tend to sidestep the most central stories of that body of legend: by a kind of natural process of avoiding well-trodden ground that audiences were too familiar with and that invited unwelcome comparison with other canonical treatments, they drift out to the edges of the legends. Thus, although the Trojan War is a background to so many Euripidean plays, the plays are actually concerned with dramatising events taking place just before, or just after, or aside from, the main action. These edges of the legendary body can be characterized as giving a different perspective: not wholly submerged in the heroic or pious values they necessarily glance at, they are apt to cast an ironic or anti-heroic or critical or questioning "slant". Also, legend is more flexible at the edges. Euripides could invent new content (e.g. perhaps Medea's slaying of her children, Clytemnestra's first marriage...) or take up obscure minority traditions (e.g. Helen was never in Troy, in Helen (69)). Because of this flexibility at the edges of myth, though the figures that troop on stage tend to be familiar, the treatment is variable and inconsistent: there is no single image of Helen, Orestes, Electra. This does not seem to have caused unease, though Aristotle reports being awkwardly struck by the inconsistency of Iphigenia within a single play (Iphigenia at Aulis (79)).
And yet, to say there is no consistency of character conception is inadequate. One is naggingly aware that behind the different treatments of Helen, for example, there is a discernible and distinctive Euripidean trend: a tendency, while acknowledging the strongly anti-Helen rhetoric typical of the tragic period (though not of Homer), to infiltrate a more positive view of Helen - a fascinated one anyhow. Euripides is building a myth that goes way beyond classical boundaries - Chaucer and Shakespeare understood it very well - the structuralist rule that sustains the myth of Helen is that despite the weight of unanswered accusations that are constantly levelled at her, she is never portrayed actually doing anything bad.
Similarly, there is clearly some kind of relationship, submerged but not totally indiscernible, between the various treatments of formidable Odysseus, or shallow Menelaus, or tortured Orestes... Thus a multiple vision is uncomfortably necessary. When we listen to a speech by Achilles in Iphigenia at Aulis (79), for example, we must both recall and set aside other treatments of the hero: in Homer, in other tragedians, in other plays by Euripides and even in other parts of the same play. We must recall them since the current image is in a kind of dialogue with them, sometimes feeding off them and sometimes glancing at them critically; but we must also set them aside in order to attend to what is happening in front of our eyes, in order not to unwittingly substitute legendary stereotype for what is actually being done or said. That's an awkward stance to hold for very long.
One must also view the legendary action as having a shifting, heuristic, relative kind of status. For example, that first marriage of Clytemnestra's is mentioned only in Iphigenia at Aulis (79), where it emerges that Agamemnon slew her first husband and her baby and then abducted her forcibly. This story (presumably a sensational Euripidean invention) must be deemed to be true so far as this play is concerned, but it must not be imported into our view of Clytemnestra in other plays (which it would modify rather radically). At the same time, there is an underlying trend in Euripides of presenting a more positive view of Clytemnestra - as per her sister Helen - which in turn has a negative impact on his views of Orestes and Electra (Clytemnestra, barely mentioned by Homer, is often supposed to have emerged as a powerful dramatic figure only in the Agamemnon; though she had evidently played some part in the Nostoi, the lost epic of the Returns). There is no single authorized Euripidean version of the legendary events, only a series of variations and their resultant play of forces.
The point I'm labouring to get at is that a dislocation in the treatment of legendary material is fundamental to these plays, and it leads to a challenging and dissatisfying failure to resolve into a stable image; somewhat analogous to the syntactical dislocations of modern poetry. The Euripidean dislocations are a jagged faultline that expose, among other things, political and social issues relevant to fifth century Athens.
Another way of looking at this is to deny a clear distinction between making myth and making a play. It's a distinction we do tend to make: between community myths that somehow unattributably come into existence and literary works that may play with mythical material but do not affect myth. In the unusual situation of 5th century Athens this distinction is inappropriate: the myths were being developed by people whose names and literary works we know.
It's a fact that many of Euripides' alterations or additions to mythical stories did become part of the inherited corpus of myth. But this raises the question: what is this mythology? What is its function, if it was not something the tragedians or their audience themselves believed? Is belief in fact a useful notion here, or are we importing it anachronistically from our own Christian heritage?
Some thoughts on this inspired by that later mythology, the medieval "Matter of Britain". Perhaps Greek mythology is more akin to this than we tend to imagine?
1. Foundation mythology is politically important to an institution, supplying a common vision that crosses specialist boundaries and to some extent class boundaries, themes for ceremonial, legitimisation of current authority.
2. At the same time, since the foundation myth avoids speaking directly about the current institution and its power-centres, it opens a safe channel for the non-empowered to publically discuss the institution critically, e.g. commending and enforcing ideals and lessons of history.
3. Mythology is initially made up, but its origins quickly become blurred and since it becomes common material for communication is then credited (some personal belief combined with some social consent). Thus Geoffrey of Monmouth's History though largely made up was within a very few years generally believed; the materials for possible disbelief were not accessible to future generations in the same way as the mythology itself.
4. The theological element in mythological stories is apt to be over-stated. Religious material is eagerly seized on by the makers of myth, but the function of the myth is not religious or philosophical. Thus Arthurian legends e.g. of the Holy Grail do not originate in response to urgent theological dialogue within medieval Christendom and they only accidentally contribute to future theological debates.
It may be that Greek myth is unique in character, as Greek tragedy is.
Thomas Magister (Byzantine, late 13th century CE) in his summary of Euripides' life says: "He wrote ninety-two plays in all, and in their number only eight were satyr-plays." i.e 84 serious plays and 8 satyr plays. The list below of known plays, excluding the doubtful "Critias" plays, but not the Rhesus (82) (since Euripides probably did write a Rhesus), gives 72 serious plays and 7 (or 8) satyr plays, totals that are consistent with Thomas' figures. But perhaps this only means that the figures recorded by Thomas were someone's intelligent guess. Given the traditional idea that Euripides' plays were presented and judged in groups of four at the City Dionysia (held annually in March), this obviously raises a question about the small number of satyr plays - though we know, because of the Alcestis group, that the fourth play was not always a satyr play.
There are 17 serious plays surviving in full, plus the Cyclops satyr play, plus the doubtful Rhesus. Most of the survivals are late works; none are early.
Ten plays owe their survival to a selection put together perhaps mainly for school use: in its earliest traceable form (2nd century CE) this comprised Medea (45), Hippolytus (50), Hecabe (53), Women of Troy (63), Phoenician Women (73), Bacchae (81), Andromache (51), Alcestis (41), Orestes (78), Rhesus (82). This is sometimes called the "Byzantine Selection" (note that it contains the "Byzantine Triad"). This selection is analogous to the seven-play selections of Aeschylus and Sophocles that have survived into modern times, and arguably embodies an ancient consensus about the plays that constituted Euripides' major achievement; in other words, a canon - though how the Rhesus crept in there is unclear. In Euripides' case, however, this selection is not all we have. A further nine plays survive:
Helen (69) - Ελένη
Electra (58) - Ηλέκτρα
Children of Heracles (47) - Ηρακλείδαι
Heracles (59) - Ηρακλής μαινόμενος
Suppliant Women (54) - Ικέτιδες
Iphigenia at Aulis (79) - Ιφιγένεια εν Αυλίδι
Iphigenia among the Taurians (65) - Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Ταύροις
Ion (66) - Ίων
Cyclops (70) - Κύκλωψ
Τhese survivals may possibly represent an extract from some more substantial compilation in alphabetical order of title (Greek letters epsilon to kappa). If so, it wasn't a complete one as there are plenty of titles of now-lost plays that would also fall within this part of the alphabet. The common assertion that this group of plays is more statistically representative of Euripides' work as a whole is unsustainable: it is even more skewed towards late plays than the "Byzantine Selection".
Another skew, common to both these selections, is this. Taking Euripides' work as a whole, about two thirds of his plays are named after one or several male characters (e.g. a chorus) and about one third are named after one or several female characters. But in the surviving plays this proportion is reversed: about two thirds of them are named after women. This should not be taken too seriously; titles do not tell the whole story, and besides are very likely not authorial. The remarkable thing, really, is that Greek Tragedy as a whole gives so much prominence to women; especially, perhaps, when you consider that all the actors and nearly all the audience were male. (The proportion of recorded play-titles named after women is even higher in Aeschylus; somewhat lower in Sophocles. Subtract the satyr plays, where a male chorus is de rigeur, and you are left with something like parity.)
An odd thing is that no two of the surviving plays are known to belong to the same group of four (Bacchae (81) and Iphigenia at Aulis (79) were indeed first produced together, but this was after Euripides' death and the plays were not connected). But most likely some of them did belong to the same groups (certainly if we believe that the plays predominantly were grouped and if we take seriously the total of ninety-two plays - just do the maths); Helen (69) and Cyclops (70) is one suggestion that I favour.
The list that follows suggests what some of the groups were like. A record survives of the four plays Euripides submitted for the competion in 415 BCE - the Women of Troy (63) being the third - making up a group (winning second prize) with a clear structure of "before", "during", and "after" the Trojan War. The lost Andromeda (68) is known to have been part of the same group as Helen (69); the connections are both topographical (Nilotic) and thematic (rescue from captivity). On the other hand, the Alcestis and Medea groups look like pure miscellanies (Webster hypothesised changes in competition prodedure resulting in unlinked trilogies from around 450 BCE, and a reinstitution of linked trilogies shortly before 415 BCE).
[If all 92 plays were produced for the annual contest at the City Dionysia, and if they were always presented in groups of four, then this would imply that Euripides was invited to compete approximately every other year between 455 and 409. It's often implied that the hapless entrants had to write four complete plays and put them forward to the archon in the mere hope of them being selected for production; surely this is unlikely. "We do not know the criteria on which [the archon] made his selection, though he perhaps asked the prospective playwrights to recite passages to him" (P. Cartledge). But even if it was not compulsory, nothing would preclude an established author from writing plays in advance, in the reasonable hope of eventually getting them performed. After Euripides' death it was possible to put together a group of four new plays for performance - was this his stockpile? If dramatists did build up a stock then some of those plays might end up being used elsewhere (Athens was not the only city where tragedies were performed, nor the City Dionysia the only occasion for them). A scholiast tells us, for example, that Andromache (51) was not performed in Athens. That may be an error, but even if it's an error it implies that this did happen sometimes.]
CHRONOLOGY and KNOWN PLAYS BY EURIPIDES
C=The play survives more or less complete.
F=Substantial fragments of the play survive.
T=the play survives as little more than a title.
There are a great many Euripidean fragments surviving, many more discovered on papyri since Nauck's 1889 collection, which has now been replaced (in Euripides' case) by Richard Kannicht's 2004 collection (Vol 5 of Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta).
Titles are a problem. The main titles given here are Anglicized versions of Greek names employing a Latinate spelling! (i.e. Heracles not Herakles nor Hercules, Electra not Elektra, Hecabe not Hecuba). I've tried to mention alternative titles where these are likely to cause confusion. For the surviving plays these are usually the traditional Latin titles that were in standard use by older commentators but are less often used today, e.g. Hercules Furens. For the lost plays they tend to be transliterated Greek, e.g. Melanippe Desmotis.
This listing, though perhaps more complete than any currently on the Internet (nb this was written in 2007!), is not comprehensive. What I would like to have produced is essentially what has been done for the Aeschylus corpus here: http://www.theoi.com/Text/AeschylusFragments.html. Euripides and Sophocles are apparently due to follow in the next year or so. Some of the plot summaries in what follows are more or less cut and pasted from other internet sources that I don't acknowledge individually - but thanks and please excuse the liberty...
455 BCE Euripides' first competition (third prize)
1. Peliades (455 BCE) F - aka Daughters of Pelias. said to have been Euripides' first play. The play presumably told the story of Medea's conspiracy to have Pelias killed by his own daughters.
2. Licymnius (before 449 BCE?) F - obscure. Apparently about a ship that is struck by a thunderbolt; may tell the story of Argeius son of Licymnius and may have featured Heracles. It may be referred to in Aristophanes' Birds. Dating depends on possible parody in Kratinos' Archilochoi.
3. Aegeus F (c. 450 BCE) F - probably told the story of Medea persuading Aegeus to try and kill his son Theseus.
441 BCE Euripides' first victory
The following 31 lost plays (4-34) are of unknown date.
4. Auge F - became pregnant by Heracles (the son was Telephus). Heracles, returning at a later date, recognized a ring and saved Auge, who had been sentenced to be drowned by her incensed father. [I have generally not mentioned Zielinski's metrical arguments for dating - they place Auge as a very late play.]
5. Thyestes T - dealt with some part of the extensive Thyestes legends; the only thing that seems to be certain is that in it Thyestes appeared in rags. Thyestes was the brother of Atreus. They quarrelled, and Thyestes slept with Atreus' wife. Atreus in revenge killed Thyestes' children and served them to him at a banquet. Later Thyestes raped his own daughter Pelopia and she gave birth to Aegisthus. Atreus brought up Aegisthus, believing him to be his own son, and ordered him to kill Thyestes; but recognition of father, mother and son followed and Pelopia killed herself. (Sophocles dramatized parts of this story in three Thyestes plays, an Atreus, and The Mycenaean Women.)
6. Aeolus F - Ovid's tale of Canace in Heroides 11 is thought to follow this play. Canace (one of the daughters of Aeolus and Aenarete) gave birth to a son fathered by her brother Macareus. Her nurse was preparing to remove the child from the palace pretending that she was going out merely to offer a sacrifice, but the child cried out and disclosed its presence to Aeolus. He threw the child to the dogs and sent a sword to his daughter, ordering her to kill herself. Canace and Macareus took their own lives. [The play seems to have been thought sensational or extreme - along with Peleus (23), Meleager (60) and Telephus (40), it's singled out for special ridicule in Aristophanes' Frogs. Before 423 BCE, says Webster, but does not say why.]
7. Theseus F - set in Crete, the story concerned the conflict between Theseus and Minos and the slaying of the Minotaur.
8. Hippolytus the Veiled T - Euripides' earlier version of the story. The scene in which Phaedra propositioned Hippolytus is said to have shocked the audience. In the later play Phaedra is presented less negatively and the play revolves more around the power of the gods; Phaedra and Hippolytus do not converse during the course of the action, though in one scene Phaedra is present when Hippolytus berates her nurse.
9. Alcmene F - told the story of Alcmene (the mother of Heracles) being accused of unfaithfulness by Amphitryon and saved from death by Zeus. Alcmene also appears in Children of Heracles (47), and Amphitryon in Heracles (59).
10. Alope F aka Cercyon - Alope is made pregnant by Poseidon, and is starved to death by her father Cercyon. Theseus kills Cercyon and asserts the child Hippothoös's rights. Alope is transformed into a spring.
11. Phoenix F - Phoenix, the son of Amyntor, refused to sleep with his father's concubine Phthia, who then accused him of attempted rape; Amyntor banished Phoenix and (in Euripides' play) blinded him. Peleus later appointed Phoenix tutor to the young Achilles. (Quoted in Aristophanes' Acharnians, 425 BCE)
12. Phrixus I F - there were two Phrixus plays and it's difficult to allocate most of the fragments to one or the other. The plot concerned Ino's attempt to kill Phrixus, the son of Athamas' first wife Nephele, by arranging a false report that the Delphic oracle required him to be sacrificed. The plot is revealed and Phrixus escapes. Athamas' plan to put Ino and their son to death is prevented by either Heracles or Dionysos. (Sophocles wrote an Athamas that covered similar ground; see also Ino (18))
13. Phrixus II F - see above.
14. Temenidae F aka Temenidai. Hyrnetho is urged by her brothers to leave her husband Deiphontes. But too little survives to be sure of the plot. [Metrical considerations place this late - Zielinski proposed Temenos (15), Temenidae and Archelaus (77) as a linked trilogy.]
15. Temenos T - Too little survives to be sure what the play was about
16. Antigone (date later than Sophocles' play which was performed in 442 or 441) F - apparently a lighter piece than Sophocles', in which Haemon assists Antigone in the burial and the lovers are later married.
17. Danae F - Danae was the mother of Perseus.
18. Ino F - in which Ino (see also 12-13), secretly returning to Athamas' palace in disguise as a servant, thwarts the new wife Themisto's attempt to murder her sons by a change of clothing, so that Themisto murders her own children instead (plot summary according to Hyginus).
19. Protesilaus F aka Laodamia - in which the widowed Laodamia kept an image of her husband in her bedchamber. (Compare Admetus' words in Alcestis (41) - a Thessalian motif, perhaps?) When the image is burnt by her father, she throws herself into the flames too.
20. Pleisthenes F - may have been based on this Thyestean legend (see also Thyestes (5)): Thyestes, exiled by his brother Atreus, brings up Atreus' son Pleisthenes as his own. He sends Pleisthenes to kill Atreus, but instead Atreus kills Pleisthenes (assuming him to be the son of Thyestes). (Quoted in Aristophanes' Birds, 414 BCE)
21. Ixion F - Ixion was said to be the first person to kill a relative (his father-in-law, to avoid paying a bride-price). He eventually received purification from Zeus, but then tried to rape Hera. Euripides' play ended with his punishment for this. [According to Philochoros, it refers to the death of Protagoras around 420 BCE.]
22. Oineus F aka Oeneus - King of Calydon in Aetolia (father of Meleager, Tydeus, Deianeira), driven out by his brother Agrios and later avenged by his grandson Diomedes. (Date before 425 BCE since referred to in Aristophanes' Acharnians.)
23. Peleus F - plot uncertain - Peleus, who also appears in the Andromache (51), was the father of Achilles. The play may have dealt with Peleus' old age or with his enmity with Acastos following false accusation by Acastos' wife, one of a series of misfortunes in his earlier life. (Quoted in second edition of Aristophanes' Clouds, 421-417 BCE)
24. Polyidos F - Glaukos, son of Minos and Pasiphae, drowns in a jar of honey. His body was found by the seer Polyidos. Minos imprisons Polyidos in the tomb with the body, ordering him to bring it back to life, which with the help of a magic herb he does.
25. Scyriae F aka The Men of Skyros, Skyrioi - The young Achilles isdisguised as a girl in the house of Lycomedes of Skyros; Lycomedes' daughter Deidameia becomes pregnant by him.
26. Mysoi F - doubtful attribution to Euripides. The play probably dealt with the mobilization phase of the Trojan expedition, on analogy with plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus that bear the same title.
27. Epeus T - only the name of the play survives. Probably the Epeus who constructed the Trojan Horse.
28. Cadmus T - only the name of the play survives. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are changed into serpents.
29. Lamia F? - Possibly a satyr play, and possibly not a separate play at all but just the character Lamia, who seems to have introduced the Busiris (33). Lamia was a queen of Libya who became a child-murdering daimon.
30. Skiron F - satyr play.
31. Syleus F - satyr play.
32. Autolycus F - satyr play. (Possibly two plays of this title.)
33. Busiris F - satyr play. See also Lamia (29).
34. Eurystheus F - satyr play.
The following three plays are almost certainly spurious - they may be by Critias (460 BCE - 403 BCE), Plato's uncle and later a leading figure among the hated Thirty Tyrants who imposed a reign of terror on Athens in 404 BCE (see also Sisyphus (64)).
35. Pirithous F - possibly by Critias. Friend of Theseus, who joined him in trying to carry off Persephone from Hades. Traditionally only Theseus escaped, but Euripides (or Critias) had Heracles rescue both of them.
36. Rhadamanthys - F - possibly by Critias.
37. Tennes - F - possibly by Critias.
The following group of four plays won second prize in 438 BCE. (The winner that year was Sophocles.) Alcestis was the fourth play in the group, taking the place of a satyr play (though Heracles' drunkenness may allude to the satyr genre); this is the only known example of such a substitution, but of course so few records remain that it may have been fairly common practice - and see note to Orestes (78).
38. Cretan Women (438 BCE) T aka Cressae - said to remain "aggravatingly obscure", it's not even clear if the location was Crete or Mycenae. The plot may have concerned some part of the Atreus/Thyestes legends (see Thyestes (5)).
39. Alcmaeon in Psophis (438 BCE) F - Alcmaeon, needing purification after matricide, ends up at Psophis. He receives purification from Phegeus and marries his daughter Arsinoe, but the land becomes barren and he has to move on.
40. Telephus (438 BCE) F - Telephus was king of the Mysians (though in fact a Greek); they successfully repelled the Greek army but he was wounded by Achilles. The play concerns his arrival as a disguised beggar in Argos. He is eventually cured and agrees to guide the Greek army to Troy. The play features Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles and Odysseus, Clytemnestra and the baby Orestes (whom Telephus at one stage takes hostage). It also features Telephus speaking in Troy's defence. Aristophanes burlesqued the play in two of his comedies, the Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae.
41. Alcestis (438 BCE) C - A surprising and brilliant play. Hints of satyr-play surround the opening dialogue between Apollo and Death, and also the comedy that Heracles brings with him. Yet this only makes the scenes with Alcestis and Admetus more powerfully serious.
In Alcestis Euripides observes the limitation of two speaking characters within a single scene. This (to us) arbitrary rule produces some poignant results. Alcestis, just before her death, addresses her children, who are on stage with her and Admetus, but it is only when she dies (and thus resigns her vocal baton) that her son Eumelus is suddenly able to speak to her. And when in the final scene Alcestis is brought back from the dead, she does not speak - this silence is explained by Heracles ("She is still consecrated to the gods below"), but it is also a necessary consequence of the two speaking parts already being allotted to Heracles and Admetus.
More than any other Greek drama Alcestis feels like an anticipation of English literature; Victorian readers must have recognized the spirit both of Shakespeare - the Winter's Tale, of course - and of Chaucer. In Browning, E.M. Forster, etc, Alcestis became entirely domesticated - as if, two millennia later, we had been waiting to welcome it.
42. Cretans (c. 435 BC) F - Pasiphae tries to hide the birth of the Minotaur from Minos (whom, in one fragment, she also holds responsible for her having had sex with a bull). Fr. 472 witnesses to an interest in ecstatic religious ritual that foreshadows the Bacchae (81).
The following group won third prize in 431 (The winner was Euphorion, with Sophocles second):
43. Philoctetes (431 BCE, third prize) F - Sophocles' Philoctetes came later, in 409 BCE.
44. Dictys (431 BCE, third prize) F - Dictys was the fisherman who rescued Danae and her infant son Perseus from the sea.
45. Medea (431 BCE, third prize) C
Medea is one of Euripides' masterpieces and perhaps now his most-read play, because of the aptness of its themes for school use. Like Alcestis (41) but unlike later plays it permits only two speakers (plus the Chorus) within a scene. It's also unusual in the extent to which the lead character takes the initiative. What Medea does is of course horrible and doesn't really make sense in rational terms, but it's impossible not to sympathise with her, so much more intelligent than her husband. Jason claims that his new marriage is not motivated by sexual desire but by prudence; immediately after he says this, however, the Chorus continue to interpret his behaviour in terms of blind desire. Medea doesn’t, but she doesn’t accept his rationalization either. She sees his behaviour as a blind and selfish pursuit of royalty. She, a foreigner now made doubly and explicitly aware of what a social encumbrance she is, has been insulted and shamed. What’s more, Jason has betrayed and insulted their children. (When their relationship implodes, both partners end up slighting the children of that union.) Jason accuses Medea of sexual jealousy, but this is a complacent error; Medea expresses no disappointed sexual longing. It’s the minor characters, the Chorus in particular but also the Nurse, who sentimentalize what is happening here into a love-triangle, who define what is happening in erotic terms, who lay stress on Medea’s once-overwhelming passion for Jason and on Jason’s raging desire for Glauce. The central pair do not use this kind of language. Both middle-aged, for them the key issues are pride, control, social position, competition. Jason's speech of self-justification tries to do two things: first, to soothe his own uneasiness at having possibly not acted quite as sensibly and prudently as he’d like to believe, and secondly, to calm his wife’s supposed sexual jealousy. Both efforts are irrelevant to the real sore points. What he completely overlooks (and thus continuously exacerbates) is Medea’s wounded pride, her acute consciousness of being a second-class citizen. Guilelessly, Jason betrays his own feelings; that their life together has utterly failed him, is unworthy of him. He claims to be satisfied with his sons yet immediately argues that they need to be subsumed into a royal family in order to prosper – on their own they cannot. He talks of his sons having an “equal place”, yet even without the awkward fact that Creon has just exiled them, what he describes is clearly not an "equal place", but a tolerated place. Thus Jason seeking to exonerate himself actually presses all Medea’s buttons.
46. The Reapers/Theristae (431 BCE, third prize - satyr play) T
47. Children of Heracles (c. 430 BCE) C - aka Heracleidae. It survives because of a single manuscript and it's tempting to infer that on its own merits it was not bound to survive - perhaps many of the lost plays were like this. It is episodic and after the scene with the unnamed maiden (Macaria on the basis of other sources) she is not referred to again; Alcmene, who now appears for the first time and dominates the rest of the play, never mentions the death of her grand-daughter when justifying her hatred of Eurystheus. As William Allan has argued for the Andromache (51), this lack of continuity is not necessarily to be conceived as a problem. Considered as a play about asylum-seekers, both from their own point of view and from that of the host nation, this seems like a play with modern relevance; they deserve protection, they are innocent, heroic, troublesome, toughened by persecution and in the long view not necessarily on your own side. Suppliant plays like this one are a sort of sub-genre of Greek tragedy; more often than not, the host is Athens. The early part of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (first performed posthumously in 401 BCE) has quite a lot in common with this play.
48. Bellerophon (c. 430 BCE) F - aka Bellerophontes. Concerned the tragic outcome of Bellerophon's attempt to storm Mount Olympus on Pegasus (he fell to earth and became a blinded cripple shunning the haunts of men).
49. Stheneboea (before 429 BCE) F - the woman who falsely accused Bellerophon of attempted rape after he repulsed her advances; the play apparently concerned Bellerophon's return to Tyrins after killing the Chimera, and his punishment of Stheneboea. (Quoted in Aristophanes' Wasps, 422 BCE)
Hippolytus was from a group of plays that won first prize for Euripides in 428 BCE. The other competitors were Iophon (second) and Ion (third).
50. Hippolytus (428 BCE, first prize) C - aka Stephanephorus (the Wreath-Bearer) to distinguish it from the earlier Hippolytus the Veiled. Hippolytus goes into exile because of a woman's unjust accusation, like many another male hero of folktale. But a couple of issues modify the parallel with Joseph when accused by Potiphar's wife, or Bellerophon accused by Stheneboea (see previous two plays!), or Phoenix accused by Phthia, or Prince Seyavash accused by his step-mother Sudabeh in the Shahnameh. Phaedra is portrayed as possessed rather than wicked, and she takes her own life. Hippolytus is brashly fanatical, apparently quite unaware of the situation developing around him. Yet at the same time (that dislocation, again) the superb account of his appalling death forces us to concede his absolute innocence.
51. Andromache (c. 425 BCE) C - It has much in common with Orestes (78) - not merely the characters Orestes, Menelaus and Hermione, but the proposal of an outrageous and barely motivated murder which at the last minute comes to nothing - as if part of the thrill is seeing how the dramatist flirts with breaking the rules about how far you can go in embroidering on the received body of legend.
If the theory about the origins of Euripides' surviving plays has any merit, then Andromache was apparently selected for the schoolroom anthology of Euripides' top plays, its compilers untroubled by what has always troubled subsequent readers. This trouble is really about the speaking-parts; about how Andromache seems to be the protagonist but disappears (either completely, or else as a speaking-role - this is disputed) from the second half of the play.
Andromache, long neglected because of its lack of Aristotelian unity, has gained recent prominence because of William Allan's book-length study - he argues persuasively that the play's linear procession, how it keeps going and keeps our interest, is what is relevant here. If you forget about the speaking-parts and just think about the story as it unfolds, then I think you'd agree that the story itself does make a satisfying unity, though not of a simple kind. The death of Neoptolemus, for example, affects all the threads of the narrative. And actually this presentation of characters in succession is a very good way of telling a story that has so many dimensions.
With Andromache our sympathies are clear, but as the play moves into its later phases they become increasingly disturbed - we make a wrenching adjustment to admit Hermione (who has been hateful up to the midway point, but whom we must now agree to let off), then are briefly pleased with her friendship with Orestes, then are displeased to discover that Orestes is in a killing mood and has orchestrated the death of Neoptolemus (hardly a figure we expected to end up sympathising with). It's a bracing moral switchback. By this time Peleus is the centre of our interests, though he has a few skeletons in his own past too, as Menelaus had enjoyed pointing out.
Andromache is exciting, too. The confrontation between Andromache and Menelaus is great; the one between Menelaus and Peleus, less so. It's notable that we don't ever see Menelaus and Hermione together.
52. Cresphontes (ca. 425 BCE) F aka Kresphontes. Mentioned in Aristotle's Poetics, talking about the affecting motif of kin-recognition in tragedy: "In the Cresphontes, for instance, Merope intends to kill her son and does not kill him but discovers..." Plutarch admired this scene, too. The plot can be constructed by combining Apollodorus and Hyginus: "Cresphontes had not reigned long in Messenia when he was murdered together with two of his sons. And Polyphontes reigned in his stead, he, too, being of the family of Hercules; and he had for his wife, against her will, Merope, the widow of the murdered king. But Merope had borne to Cresphontes a third son, called Aepytus: him she gave to her own father to bring up. He, when he came to man’s estate..." (Apollodorus). "...came to king Polyphontes and asked for the promised gold, saying that he had slain the son of Cresphontes and Merope. The king ordered him to be hospitably entertained, intending to inquire further of him. He, being very tired, went to sleep, and an old man, who was the channel through whom the mother and son used to communicate, arrives at this moment in tears, bringing word to Merope that her son had disappeared from his protector’s house. Merope, believing that the sleeping stranger is the murderer of her son, comes into the guest-chamber with an axe, not knowing that he whom she would slay was her son: the old man recognized him, and withheld Merope from slaying him. After the recognition had taken place, Merope, to prepare the way for her vengeance, affected to be reconciled with Polyphontes. The king, overjoyed, celebrated a sacrifice: his guest, pretending to strike the sacrificial victim, slew the king, and so got back his father’s kingdom" (Hyginus). It's unclear why the play was named after a character who must have been dead before the action began. (Date because quoted in Aristophanes' Georgoi.)
53. Hecabe (c. 424 BCE) C - aka Hecuba. Along with the Phoenician Women (73) and Orestes (78), the most popular of Euripides' plays in Byzantine times (they are sometimes termed the "Byzantine triad"). The Chorus are Trojan slaves, but there develops a sort of accord between the captive Trojans and the victorious Hellenes. At first this accord is made between Odysseus and Polyxena. The Odysseus of the plays is wily, unscrupulous, and a spokesman for behaviour that the Athenians no longer accepted, e.g. human sacrifice (see also Iphigenia at Aulis (79)). Nevertheless he seems to me an upright character. Later Hecabe and Agamemnon form a different kind of bond. But at the end of the play Polymestor's prophecies disturb what might otherwise seem an equanimity.
54. Suppliant Women (c. 423 BCE) C This is another play whose progressions are teasing - is it just episodic? Daniel A. Mendelsohn has pressed the political aspect of the play - Athens' self-image in rapidly changing political circumstances, examined through shifts of gender-behaviour. He also (like Mary Kuntz) emphasises the importance of the Demeter/Persephone myth suggested by the setting. [This play, like the Andromache (51), doubtless reflects the first phase of the Peloponnesian war in its anti-Spartanism.]
55. Erechtheus (422 BCE) F King Erechtheus learns from Delphi that Athens can be saved from Thracian invasion only if he agrees to sacrifice one of his three daughters. His wife Praxithea assents; her daughters meanwhile have taken an oath that if one of them is sacrificed, the others will die as well. Erechtheus is killed in the defence (swallowed up by the earth at the command of Poseidon), but he and his daughters are honored in cult, and Praxithea becomes the first priestess of the goddess Athena. (Praxithea's speech of assent survives because quoted by the 4th Century orator Lycurgus - translated by Mary R. Lefkowitz here: http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/praxithea.shtml). Creusa (in Ion (66)) is also, she tells us, a daughter of Erechtheus, but was only an infant at the time of these events and so was spared. (Date from Plutarch; it is speculated that the play is associated with the building programme of the Erechtheum in the last quarter of the 5th Century, and may be close in date to the related Ion (66).)
56. Phaethon (c. 420 BCE) F - reconstructed by Goethe and more recently in a scholarly edition by James Diggle, 1970. Substantial fragments survive. It's about Phaethon's attempt to prove that his true father was Helios, the sun, and his ill-fated idea of taking the reins of the sun's chariot.
57. Wise Melanippe (c. 420 BCE) F - Compare Captive Melanippe (67). The children are apparently exposed closer to home and discovered by Melanippe's father, who is reconciled to them by divine intervention.
58. Electra (c. 417? BCE) C On the disconcerting murder of Aegisthus while sacrificing, compare Cresphontes (52). [The date is quite uncertain - anything between 424 and 410 is possible; 413 has been proposed because of those references near the end to the unorthodox story of Helen (69) (a "Forthcoming Attractions" trailer?) and to a fleet in the Sicilian sea. The question of whether this play preceded or followed Sophocles' Electra has been endlessly debated; that the two plays are not independent is clear, yet surprisingly no definite conclusion has been reached. The theory that Sophocles' play was written later seems to have a slight edge at the moment. Both plays may have been inspired by a fairly recent revival of Aeschylus' Oresteia, which took place shortly before Aristophanes' Clouds.]
59. Heracles (c. 416 BCE) C - aka Hercules Furens. This is how the strutting Lycus, a simple-minded tyrant, meets his doom (Velacott's translation):
A shriek is heard from inside the palace.
Listen – the opening note of a song I long to hear!
Death is close; and the king
Knows, and greets it with a groan of terror.
O land of Cadmus, I am treacherously murdered!
(I suppose the shriek is only an inference from the Chorus’ words, but was actually sounded in performance.) The comparison of the shriek to the opening note of a song is a powerful and grim idea (cf. the Chorus-leader's remark to the blinded Polyphemus in Cyclops). No-one on stage or in the audience desires any other fate for Lycus. Still, it makes an effect. Lycus, after all, is ambushed; so was he perhaps right to claim that the great Heracles was a coward to use a bow, and that he never met his enemy face to face? Is it also right, as the play seems to imply, that Heracles is a bit casual about the welfare of his family? Heracles we perceive to be someone who reaches too easily for his weapons. It's what he's good at:
my hand has work to do...
Veteran of many victories...
This upright man becomes a danger to others when he loses his sanity. In fact we will not see Heracles again until after his mad fit. And then..
Is anguish to me, yet I cannot part with it.
60. Meleager (416 BCE) F - dealt with Meleager's love for Atalanta (possibly a Euripidean addition to the legend of the Calydonian boar) and his death. (Quoted in Aristophanes' Birds, 414 BCE)
The following group of four plays won second prize (the winner was Xenocles):
61. Alexander (415 BCE) F - aka Alexandros. This was another name for Paris; the play told the story of the Judgement of the Goddesses, and also why a royal prince was shepherding on Mount Ida, an unexplained feature of older stories. A romantic play, ending with Priam's acceptance of the shepherd Paris/Alexander as his son.
62. Palamedes (415 BCE) F - stoned to death during siege of Troy following apparent evidence of correspondence with the enemy (the evidence was planted by Agamemnon, Diomedes and Odysseus). During the return from Troy, his father king Nauplius of Euboea took revenge by placing false lights on a promontory so many Greek ships were wrecked. Aeschylus (Palamedes) and Sophocles (Nauplius) also wrote plays on this subject.
63. Women of Troy (415 BCE) C aka Troades, Trojan Women. The date has led many commentators to assume a tacit reference to the recent destruction of Melos. At any rate it's a play whose pacifist intent seems exceptionally clear, and irresistible; the most tragic of tragedies and somehow reminiscent of both King Lear and Endgame. We feel unusally certain of what kind of play this is. Philip Vellacott writes very well about it. The play relies on the audience's knowledge of the mythic corpus: for example, to feel assured that Helen will not (as Menelaus claims) be punished with death in Greece, and that Hecabe will go mad rather than accompanying Odysseus.
64. Sisyphus (415 BCE - satyr play) F A 42-line fragment (arguing that stories about the gods were first invented to strike fear into wrongdoers) quoted by the 2nd century CE skeptic Sextus Empiricus and attributed by him to Critias (who was a tragedian as well as a violent leader of the "30 Tyrants" and a friend of Socrates) is now widely thought to be by Euripides and to come from this play; it is the oldest-known naturalistic account of religion. English translation here: http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/302/critias.htm.
65. Iphigenia among the Taurians (c. 414 BCE) C aka Iphigenia in Tauris, a Latin title that is often assumed to be an English title and hence misconstrued. How much of this "counterfactual" story of a still-living Iphigenia was Euripides' own invention is uncertain; the only thing that is definite is that Iphigenia was indeed worshipped in Tauris (Herodotus).
66. Ion (c. 414 BCE) C After so many, so similar, kinds of plot, Ion comes as a welcome relief - and of course one of the best plays. It seems that the Attic foundation myths were somewhat vague (see also Erechtheus (55)), and Ion is persistently meta-mythological, i.e. it is about myth-making.
67. Captive Melanippe (412 BCE) F - aka Melanippe Desmotis. The argument for the date is controversial and this might in fact be an earlier play than Wise Melanippe (57). Melanippe is the daughter of Aeolus and Hippe. She gives birth to twins by Poseidon. She is sent into exile at the home of the king of Metapontos, where her sons are born and exposed. Reared by shepherds, they overcome a plot against them by the queen, Theano, who commits suicide. They are restored to their mother, who marries the king.
The following two plays were in the same group. [Matthew Wright has recently proposed that Iphigenia among the Taurians (65) was the third play in this trilogy of 412 BCE - with Helen the first and Andromeda (unchronologically in terms of the mythical events) the second.]
68. Andromeda (412 BCE) F - apparently began with Andromeda chained to the rock (prior to her rescue by Perseus). The play seems to have been a favourite in the Hellenistic period - and reading the Andromeda is what sends Dionysus off on his mission to bring Euripides back from Hades in Aristophanes' Frogs (405 BCE).
69. Helen (412 BC) C aka Helena. Its plot turns on an escape from alien captivity whose details are very similar to the escape in Iphigenia among the Taurians (65). In this play Helen is deemed never to have been in Troy at all, a fanciful invention of Stesichorus. Not, of course, an idea that one should import into the Orestes (78), but...
70. Cyclops (412 BCE or later, satyr play) C - This is the only satyr play by any author to survive complete. Satyric humour is often funny, but the roughness can also be disconcerting (as, in this play, the remarks about gang-raping Helen). The play is also often beautiful; Shelley translated it with a minimum of prudishness, perhaps taking as a challenge his own complaint that no-one ever showed the Greeks as they really were. [If it were ever justified on thematic grounds alone, I would be strongly tempted to link this play with the two foregoing - and I'm delighted to find that Colin Austin and S. Douglas Olson, in their edition of Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, think the same. I also agree with them about the weakness of arguments for a later dating of Cyclops based on supposed allusions to Aristophanes' play (411 BCE) and to Sophocles' Philoctetes (409 BCE).]
The following three plays were traditionally said to be a group, though the tradition is doubtful. Another tradition (supported by Kannicht) links the Phoenician Women (73) with Antiope (74) and Hypsipyle (75). Mastronarde (the 1994 editor of Phoenician Women) is sceptical of both traditions. (The obvious connection, I would have thought, is with the Oedipus (76).) If tradition is wrong, then Oenomaus and Chrysippus might be much earlier plays, since the arguments for the date concern Phoenician Women alone. William Poole proposes linking Oenomaus and Chrysippus with Thyestes (5) to form a Tantalid trilogy. Whatever the make-up of the Phoenician Women group, it is known to have won second prize.
71. Oenomaus (c. 410 BCE) T - Oenomaus was killed at Pelops' instigation, resulting in Pelops being cursed by Myrtilus, hence the successive misfortunes of the house of Atreus (Agamemnon, Orestes, etc). The actor-turned-orator Aeschines (b. 390 BCE) is known to have played the part of Oenomaus in a 4th century performance of this play.
72. Chrysippus (c. 410 BCE) F - Chrysippus was the bastard son of Pelops; he was loved and forcibly seized by Laius, who was showing him how to drive a chariot. The boy later committed suicide out of shame over his violation, and Pelops cursed Laius with childlessness, as one unworthy to come into contact with children. (Laius subsequently did bear the son Oedipus, but was warned by the oracle of Apollo that the child would kill him.)
73. Phoenician Women (c. 410 BCE) C - aka Phoenissae, Phoinissai.
The Phoenician Women seems to have been a popular play in late antiquity, and it's one of my favourites too. It's spacious and a little bizarre. Euripedes had written other Theban plays but the emphasis in this one is on painting an enormous and inclusive canvas. The tragic focus is diffused by the scale; crowds of characters scurry. The play begins with the usual "I am" scene-setting prologue, this one by Jocasta. Then it has a second prologue, this time Antigone on the walls with her old tutor to view the besieging army: this is a thrilling scene. The Chorus arrive, this crowd of exiles in whom no-one else seems very interested - they dance their own story, placing Thebes in a still larger perspective. Finally a single man appears, suspiciously poking around with his sword - Polyneices, under truce, entering the hostile city. When the drama finally focusses, it does so in physical gesture. The relentlessly centrifugal tendency - directing us to anything but the putatively tragic focus - can also be evinced from: The account of the betrothal of Adrastus' daughters; Teiresias' account of his visit to the Athenians; the conversation about military strategy between Eteocles and Creon .... Or think of the massed weaponry in this play, the splendid narratives on the shields, in contrast to, say, the bow in Heracles. Plurality is intrinsic to the siege of Thebes, with its seven gates. Nevertheless the centrifugal motion threatens to make the play fly apart. It possibly would have been even more gappy in its original form: for example, Creon may not have returned to the stage after Menoeceus' death. However, Phoenician Women in the form it survives has been modified to an uncertain extent - the ending, at least, betrays someone else at work. One of the motives seems to be to tie the play in with Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. One imagines later readers trying to combine originally separate playtexts to compose a larger narrative of the mythic corpus.
74. Antiope (c. 410 BCE) F - Antiope made pregnant by Zeus; her dying father Nycteus wishes to punish her and made his brother and successor Lycus promise to carry this out. Antiope is later rescued by her sons when Dirce, wife of Lycus, is trying to kill her (plot summary according to Hyginus). [This Lycus is the father of the tyrannical Lycus in Heracles, a character Euripides probably invented.]
75. Hypsipyle (c. 410 BCE) F Recently reconstructed from around 400 lines in the Oxyrhinchus fragments discovered in 1906. The play concerns the later part of Hyspipyle's colourful legend, when she has been sold to king Lycurgus of Nemeae and is put in charge of his young son, whose death she inadvertently causes.
76. Oedipus (c. 410 BCE) F - "If you write an Electra, then I'm writing an Oedipus!" - that was probably how the conversation went. We may think it surprising, that Euripides should have chosen to work on a story given such classic expression by Sophocles (the date of Sophocles' play is not known, but it's presumed to come from his middle period, say around 425 BCE). But long before that, Aeschylus had written an Oedipus, too (in the same group as the Seven against Thebes), and perhaps the canonization of Sophocles' play awaited Aristotle - after all, it only won second prize. In Euripides' play Oedipus was blinded by "the servants of Laius", according to the scholiast.
About 409 BCE, Euripides leaves Athens, first for Thessalian Magnesia (according to tradition), then to the Macedonian court at the invitation of King Archelaus. The following play may have been written to honour the new patron:
77. Archelaus (c. 410 BCE) F aka Archelaos, Arkhelaos - about a Temenid ancestor, founder of Aegae; the play perhaps seeking to demonstrate the Hellenicity (and not, therefore, barbarianism) of the Macedonians by connecting their mythical origins to Greek divinities; as also the Molossians in Andromache.
78. Orestes (408 BCE) C - Orestes and his gang have an intense hatred of Helen, as can also be seen in Iphigenia among the Taurians (65). Most people find the murder plot in Orestes unpleasant but this is because they are seeking for moral rectitude in Orestes, Pylades and Electra and that isn't how Euripides sees the story - in fact he rarely attributes anything as simple as moral rectitude to his legendary characters. Politically, Euripides seeks to pull the traditional stories in certain directions. At this stage he sees the Trojan War in utterly negative terms: futile, destructive, a catastrophe. This is also the conception of Orestes, etc. Though they were not involved in the war they directly implicate it as prime cause of their own disasters. The most tangible connection, in this case, is the sacrifice of Iphigenia - a story unknown to Homer, or suppressed by him - which takes on immense significance. Euripides, however, doesn't share their mob-hatred of Helen. Even when he is not claiming (as in Helen (69)) that she was not even involved, it's clear that narrowing the cause of the war down to a single "wicked woman" doesn't impress him (cf. Herodotus). Not that other causes are put forward instead. The true causes of events (in the plays) will always turn out to be the gods. But in reality - and here the Peloponnesian war is the real subject, - scapegoat-hunting is not the way. Tyndareos has already criticized Orestes' earlier matricide convincingly. There, he made the point that Orestes and Pylades ignored any legal processes. They formed their own judgments and proceeded straight to execution. That's exactly what they now attempt to do with Helen.
Pylades' role in this and in other plays about the Orestes legend is curious. He apparently has no important function, yet Greek drama, so limited to essentials by the number of actors, nevertheless found him indispensable. In the Choephori of Aeschylus he is almost a mute, but at the very climax delivers one 3-line speech:
Where then are Apollo's words,
His Pythian oracles? What becomes of men's sworn oaths?
Make all men living your enemies, but not the gods. (trans. Velacott)
- a speech that feels like Clytemnestra's death-warrant, and all the more impressive since it can't be voiced by either of the two regular actors. Perhaps the idea was to legitimize Orestes' matricide by showing that, at any rate, he did take independent advice. Pylades' one-scene role in Orestes is almost a parody of this: Pylades once again casts his vote for slaughter, but this time his words seem not principled, considered and weighty; on the contrary, frivolous, automatic, senselessly violent. In the Electras of Euripides (58) and Sophocles, Pylades never speaks at all. He has a larger speaking role in Iphigenia among the Taurians (65), where Euripides develops what was implicit before, the romantic adventure-story potential of the steadfast pal - something else that is bitterly parodied in Orestes .
[According to the anonymous late work On Comedy, Alcestis (41), Orestes and Sophocles' Electra were pro-satyric plays, i.e. they took the place of a satyr-play. This surprising claim (though we know it was actually true of Alcestis) has encouraged some, including Kannicht, to propose Orestes as the fourth play in the Phoenician Women group.]
406 BCE - Death of Euripides in Macedonia
The following plays were performed together in 405 BCE, comprising a posthumous group that won first prize. The producer was Euripides' son and the sequence was as given below, according to the Scholiast on Frogs 67.
79. Iphigenia at Aulis (405 BCE, posthumous) C, but the play may not have have been completed by Euripedes and the surviving text is composite with parts (especially near the beginning and the ending) that look much later. It takes to something of an extreme the tendency to dislocation described in my headnote. As the play draws to a close a strident, barbarian-thrashing patriotism becomes airborne and this is authorized by Iphigenia's unexpected and heroic change of attitude; yet how can our endorsement of this be squared with the largely anti-heroic ditherings of Agamemnon, Menelaus and Achilles, or the presentation of the army as a violent mob? The Iphigenia myth already had pacifist implications in Aeschylus' Agamemnon - a comparison that doesn't really favour Euripides, who gives comparatively little sense of how desperately the expedition against Troy is imperilled by the adverse winds. [The very young (though already married) Jane Lumley translated this play some time in the 1550s; thus achieving a double distinction in English literature: the first translator of a Greek tragedy and the earliest known woman dramatist.]
80. Alcmaeon in Corinth (405 BCE, posthumous) F The following addition to the Alcmaeon legend is attributed to Euripides by Apollodorus and probably derives from this play: While driven mad by the Furies, he had two children with Manto, the daughter of Teiresias. These were Amphilocus and Tisiphone. Alcmaeon entrusted them to Creon, the king of Corinth, who raised them. Creon's wife, however, feared that he might marry Tisiphone because of her great beauty, and sold the girl as a slave. Through a great coincidence, it was Alcmaeon who purchased her and kept her as his handmaid, not knowing who she was. When he returned to Corinth to fetch his children, her identity was somehow revealed, and Amphilocus went on to colonize Amphilochian Argos.
81. Bacchae (405 BCE, posthumous) C - Aeschylus had written quite a number of (lost) plays on Bacchic themes. Bacchae seems to have retold the same story as Aeschylus' Pentheus; the Edonoi tetralogy (dealing with Lycurgus) seems also an important analogue - and see the comparison in Longinus' On the Sublime, where Euripides is said to have toned down Aeschylus' crude power. These older plays are of course all lost, so the Bacchae now seems an even more unique achievement than it really is. In certain respects it is recognized as looking back to an older style of drama i.e. compared with other late plays by Euripides. Nevertheless, I suppose the presentation of Dionysus is an innovation. It is common enough in Greek tragedy for persons to withhold (or not know) their true identity, but disguise is not often employed like it is in later drama (though see Ino (18)). The development that has Pentheus go to spy on the maenads, instead of leading a force against them, may also be Euripides' invention.
82. Rhesus (date unknown) C - If this is by Euripides at all, it must be early. In fact nearly all scholars agree that it's a 4th century composition written after Euripides' death. That Euripides did write a Rhesus seems certain. Two fragments of prologue also survive; they are not part of the surviving play, but they may not be part of the original Euripidean drama either. The handling of the chorus, the epiphanies, and the agon are different from what we know of Euripides' practice elsewhere. The midway shift of interest from the Trojans to Odysseus and Diomedes seems to me particularly un-Euripidean (though cf. the switch of attention from Trojan to Greek in Andromache (51)). Not so the prevalent anti-heroics, dropping almost into comedy at times - but you can see why these would impress most readers as a development likely to post-date Euripides' later plays. The motif (early in the play) of "don't attack, send a spy instead", may have been suggested by the Bacchae (81).
An earlier version of this post appeared in Intercapillary Space.