Friday, January 6, 2012

The Ghost of Panathenaea Past

Curiously, The Trojan Women of Euripides tells the same story as his Hecuba, but slightly differently. The time is still just after the Fall of Troy, and the dialog still centers on Hecuba as the Greeks take the women as slaves, concubines, or wives. (The captive women don’t see much difference in the categories.) But here, Hecuba doesn’t plead for anyone’s life. This play conveys a sense of utter powerlessness, and gaining an ear to plead with would yield some modicum of power. Instead, Hecuba simply mourns and struggles to find meaning in the scene of slavery and death. In one of her bleakest moments, she sounds a bit like the nihilist Macbeth:
O vain is man,
Who glorieth in his joy and hath no fears:
While to and fro the chances of the years
Dance like an idiot in the wind!
And none by any strength hath his own fortune won.
Cassandra has always attracted me as a character. The gods gave this daughter of the Trojan king Priam the mixed gift of constantly prophesying the truth. Of course no one believes her; the Trojan future she prophesies is one of destruction. The Bible tells some similar stories about kings not believing prophets of doom (II Chron. 18, Jer. 23, I Kings 22, etc.). And I have a lot of experience with leaders who don’t want to hear about bad news or about risks in their plan. So I identify with Cassandra, and I love her scene in The Trojan Women. She sounds a little mad, but then there’s a fine line between inspiration and madness. Hecuba also has a wonderful scene in which she cradles the body of her poor dead grandson, Astyanax (who plays a big part in one of the greatest scenes of the Iliad). She finds some comfort in knowing that people will remember Astyanax as the little boy who frightened the Greeks so much they had to kill him.

When I first started reading the ancient Greek plays some twenty years ago, I preferred Euripides over Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides wrote what sounded to me like deep, emotional characters, while the earlier playwrights sounded cold and formal. My view has flipped over the years: the most emotional scenes in Euripides now sound histrionic to me sometimes, but the stately pageants of the originators of the form have grown deeper with my experience. As I started the Aias of Sophocles yesterday, it struck me as much more pious and respectful of the gods than the two other plays I had just read, so in this go-around, I immediately identified with its world more than I did with Euripides’ offerings: its human characters live in a world where right and wrong exist but aren’t always clear to earthly creatures and where the gods are justly worshiped. The Olympians, who in other plays (and, for that matter, in my other current book, The Aeneid) just meddle with humans according to their imperfect whims, seem in Aias to be working all things together for good for those who love them. Yes, the play starts with Aias (better known to our culture as Ajax) having been made crazy by Athena, but she has only struck him with madness because he was about to kill Odysseus and the other Greek chiefs in rage. So she made sheep look like men to him, and the worst he has to deal with when he snaps out of it is humiliation, not the guilt of murder.

But my connection to the play only got stronger when I read this exchange between Odysseus and Athena (which I had not remembered from my previous reading of Aias):
OD. My Queen! what dost thou? Never call him forth.
ATH. Hush, hush! Be not so timorous, but endure.
OD. Nay, nay! Enough. He is there, and let him bide.
ATH. What fear you? Dates his valour from to day?
OD. He was and is my valiant enemy.
ATH. Then is not laughter sweetest o’er a foe?
OD. No more! I care not he should pass abroad.
ATH. You flinch from seeing the madman in full view.
OD. When sane, I ne’er had flinched before his face.
ATH. Well, but even now he shall not know thee near.
OD. How, if his eyes be not transformed or lost?
ATH. I will confound his sense although he see.
OD. Well, nothing is too hard for Deity.
The scene immediately reminded me of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Athena’s playful chiding and ironic questioning (“Then is not laughter sweetest o’er a foe?”) certainly resonate with the Ghost’s method, and two of Odysseus’ lines sound a lot like Scrooge’s. (I’m thinking of “Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!” and “The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can,” from A Christmas Carol.) The G. of C. P. leads Scrooge to see his need for repentance without commanding him, and Athena, too, tries gently to lead Odysseus to see his fellow man not as an object of scorn but as “his business.”

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