Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Troy

When I first learned about ancient Greek drama in college, Euripides moved me the most of the three great playwrights. His characters seemed like emotional, familiar people; the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, by contrast, came across dry and formal. But when I started reading more fifteen or twenty years ago, Euripides struck me as histrionic and only full of shocking moments (such as a mother killing her children to spite her husband or a man being dragged to death behind two horses). Sophocles, on the other hand, started appealing to me more with the social and ethical dilemmas his characters faced.

Euripides has recovered some of his value for me lately, though. For one thing, I can always count on him to explain the background of his story at the beginning of the drama, and I enjoy hearing straightforward accounts of these myths. At the beginning of Helen, for example (which I finished reading for the first time yesterday), the woman with the face that launched a thousand ships tells about her birth from Leda and the swan, and about her twin brothers (who, she says, have already become the twin stars of Gemini). Later the warrior Teucer shows up, and he tells Helen about his brother Ajax and his dispute over the fallen Achilles’ armor and weapons.

In this version of the story, Euripides explores the ramifications of a theory that Herodotus proposes in his Histories: that what Paris took to Troy was not actually Helen but a look-alike phantom created by Hera. Hermes, in the mean time, spirited the real Helen off to Egypt. Where Homer makes Helen a willing party to her adultery and shows her a rather cold companion of Menelaus after he has recovered her, the Helen of this play stays true to her husband and regrets having been stolen away from him. Since the thing about Helen essential for the overall myth is that her extraordinarily beautiful face causes a ten-year war, it seems she can become anything in the hands of an imaginative writer. She can be an adulteress or a victim, a ghost or a shrew. What if Helen made her own bargain with Aphrodite before the judgment of Paris? Maybe she wanted to get away from Menelaus to begin with. Or maybe she wasn’t even all that pretty and made some foolish childhood promises to the Goddess of Love in return for improved looks. Or what if Athena, also offended by Paris spurning her, tricked both Aphrodite and Hera and switched the phantom Helen and the real McCoy mistress?

Euripides’ Helen presents some dramatic problems. It doesn’t have an ending for one thing. Menelaus finds his lost wife in Egypt after ten years of war in Troy and seven more years of wandering, but they still can’t get home because he has run out of money, and the king of Egypt hates all Greeks and will just kill the two of them if he finds out who his visitors are. The play ends with Helen going in to the palace with the intention of clasping the king’s knees and asking for mercy. The chorus sings a few lines after she goes in, but we don’t learn the result of her suit.

So if Helen and Menelaus have a happy reunion halfway through the play, and the conflict of the second half doesn’t come to a resolution, where’s the drama? I found it in Euripides himself.  As much as he obviously loves the stories of the gods, he entertains grave doubts about their truth. He has Helen doubting (rather reasonably!) that she could have hatched from one of two eggs born at the same time by a human woman pregnant by two mates at once, one being a god in the guise of a swan. And a messenger tells Menelaus that if the all oracles truly told the Greeks to fight a devastating ten-year war over an empty phantom, then he can never again trust any prophecy. But Helen and the Egyptian princess Theonoe talk of virtue and a life of honor, as if goodness has some actual basis in existence. Poor Euripides sees a crazy world of undeniable good and undeniable evil; I think he wants to be pious but can’t credit the petty gods of his ancestors for the anything but the evil. He doesn’t know where to turn for the answer, and sadly, like Helen going into the palace, he leaves us speculating on the outcome.

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