Recently I finished Volume 8 of the Harvard Classics, which was nine ancient Greek dramas. Ancient Greek drama flourished over the course of two generations at the height of Classical Athens. It is really more appropriate to call it Athenian drama rather than Greek drama, as the most important playwrights all hailed from and performed in the great city.
The first playwright in the series is Aeschylus. Four of this plays are included in the compilation. The first three form the trilogy known as the Orestia. This covers story of Agamemnon’s murder by his wife Clytemnestra, revenge for Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter for favorable winds a decade prior, as well as the subsequent vengeance of Agamemnon’s remaining children, in particular Orestes, against their mother. The trilogy ends with Orestes, hounded by vengeful beings known as the Furies, being found innocent in the world’s first jury trial. This trilogy is obviously the most primitive of the works as there are only one or two characters on stage at a time, plus the chorus, and most of the text is in successive monologues rather than dialogues. The trilogy is wrought with expressions of emotion that are quite moving and it deals with some of the fundamental questions about the human condition. Ultimately the play is about grappling with vengeance versus justice and how vengeance creates a cycle of violence, and how only proper justice can break it. The other work by Aeschylus in this compilation, Prometheus Bound, deals with issues on a similar scope, though as it is just one play out a trilogy, its full weight remains lost to history. What is there deals with the creation of civilization.
The second playwright that is included in the compilation is Sophocles. Sophocles is somewhat younger than Aeschylus and is more poetic and writes more in dialogue with people having conversations rather than the alternating monologues of Aeschylus. However, the deep themes that get to the root of humanity appear both in Oedipus Rex and in Antigone. We see Oedipus discover the horrible truth due to his zealousness for his job as king, and, in the larger sense, his hubris in striving for power. Antigone depicts two characters, Antigone & Creon who are in impossible positions, concerning the burial of Antigone’s brother, also Oedipus’ younger son, who rebelled and was slain in combat against his elder brother who also died. Creon, Oedipus’ uncle & now King of Thebes, declares that the rebel will not be buried according to custom, and Antigone defies him in order bury him properly. At conflict are the rights of Kings, respect for tradition, punishment and sacrifice.
Next is Euripides. I feel like my opinion of Euripides was tainted by the introduction provided in the Harvard Classics that pointed out that the subject matter was much less impressive than the previous works, even if the poetry was superior. Both plays by Euripides that were included, Hippolytus and The Bacchae seem diminished in comparison to the other two playwrights. Hippolytus sees mortals manipulated by the gods into a series of unfortunate events, while The Bacchae is about the youngest god, Dionysus conflict against those who deny his divinity to extreme ends. The Bacchae certainly speaks more to the universal human condition and highlights the conflict between the id and the superego, with Dionysus embodying the unbridled id.
Finally, the last playwright, Aristophanes, the greatest comedian of antiquity, is represented by his play, The Frogs. The Frogs was written immediately following Euripides’ death and was performed at the subsequent Dionysian festival. The play is about Dionysus deciding he needs a poetic playwright, and he decides to descend to the underworld, as deeply as he needs to, in order to find Euripides. Most of the play is the subsequent bumbling of Dionysus and his priest making their way to Pluto’s palace. Once there he discovers that Euripides and Aeschylus have found themselves in a conflict over who is the best tragic playwright. To settle the dispute, Dionysus is tasked by Pluto to judge a contest between the two on who is superior. Hilarity ensues, Aeschylus wins and Euripides is very salty about the whole thing. Sophocles is referenced and does not interfere with the contest, but vows to challenge Euripides if he had wound up winning. The whole thing is a fun take on the Greek tragedies that came before it in the compilation and made the perfect ending in the series. Aristophanes makes it plainly known that he views Euripides as part of a declining trend in Greek drama.
Aristophanes was ultimately proved right about the decline in Greek drama. In the year following the debut of The Frogs, Athens would have her fleet destroyed, surrender to Sparta, and finally lose her empire and her democracy as the Peloponnesian Wars concluded. While Athens would regain some of its power before being subsumed into larger empires, and the careers of Plato & Aristotle were still to come, there were no more great Greek plays that survived. In fact, aside Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides & Aristophanes, the only other surviving Greek play is a comedy by Meander. Surviorship bias seems to indicate that these were the truly outstanding works and subsequent playwrights did not live up to their standard. Ultimately, reading, understanding and appreciating these plays are essential to gaining an knowledge of the Western canon.
Next up in the Harvard Classics, the march through ancient writings continues on as I embark on reading the works of Cicero and Pliny. The Harvard Classics are well-organized, and the beginning of the series is much denser with ancient works than later on. This is helping to build a foundation upon which the philosophers, poets, playwrights, authors and scientists from the Renaissance onward will build upon. After Cicero & Pliny come the decidedly not-ancient “Wealth of Nations” and “Origin of Species”, before two more ancient volumes, “Plutarch’s Lives” and “The Aeneid” take the stage. Once those are completed, it is full speed ahead into Western European literature.