Monday, January 12, 2015

I Laughed, I Cried

When I set about reading three plays by Euripides and one by Aristophanes, I suppose I had a vague expectation, based on experience, that I would encounter three tragedies and one comedy. I’m sure my mind never fully realized the thought of that expectation, but its real existence became clear by rhe surprise I experienced at finding one comedy, one tragedy, one tragedy that turned into a comedy at the end, and one of neither category – or both. If the Cyclops can be considered the protagonist of the drama named after him, then I suppose I must call it a tragedy. But from the point of view of Odysseus, the escape from a blinded monster screaming, “No one has gouged my eye out!” has to appear a happy ending.

Euripides’ Ion starts out like a typical tragedy but has to be called a comedy (in the Aristotelian sense) because everything works out so swimmingly in the end. Apollo has forced Creusa, and she bears a son. Ashamed, she leaves him to die, but Apollo has Mercury bring the boy to his temple in Delphi, where the (still nameless) boy is raised by the priestess and learns to tend the site. Cut to the present. Creusa has married Xuthus, but, still childless, they go to Delphi to ask the god for aid. Apollo has nothing to say to Creusa but gives Xuthus the temple boy as a son. Jealous, Creusa tries to have the boy killed. When he finds out, he tries to have her killed. But – Surprise! – the aged priestess reveals the relationship, and everyone leaves the scene literally one happy family. Xuthus names the boy Ion, and from him descend the Ionians. He is to have a brother Dorus, from whom descend the Dorians. So, in fact, the three main characters leave the scene one big happy race.

Aristophanes’ Plutus came as no surprise. I had read it before, remembered it being funny and clever, and found just what I had remembered. Chremylus finds a way to give Plutus, the blind god of wealth, his sight. The welcome god now doesn’t bless the just and the unjust alike; he rewards only good character with wealth. But then the good people have everything they need, so trade stops. Or else they just give it all away (because they’re good). Society becomes completely unbalanced, and the personification (she doesn’t seem like a goddess even from a Greek point of view) of Poverty gets the chance to claim that she keeps people and states running. OK, maybe there is a surprise. Since everything ends up in the toilet at the end, Aristotle would call this a tragedy. But it sure is funny along the way; more modern genres give us a chance to call the play a dark comedy or a slapstick.

The fourth of these Greek classics, the Bacchantes of Euripides, I read in college in an Introduction to Drama. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a civilization would worship a god of wine. I couldn’t believe that a mother would go into such a state of religious frenzy that she would tear her son apart limb from limb. I couldn’t believe that someone thought it would be good for college students to read this disgusting weirdness.

But between that time and now, I’ve come up with a way to appreciate this work. First, I’ve come to think of the gods as, at one level at least, the Greeks’ way of coming to terms with dangerous forces or forces beyond their control: weather, the sea, lust, fire, war, and so on. So of course they would have a god of wine, since drunkenness puts just about everything out of the drinker’s control. And I’ve realized that the word worship had for me at that time only Christian connotations of honoring the ultimate Ground of goodness and ascribing worth-ship to Him. But of course the ancient Greeks had no such definition in mind. So I now think of their worship as an acknowledgement of power and a determination to treat that power with respect. With those two changes of perspective, I now see the sense of worshiping a god of wine.

This view suggested a whole new reading of the play this time through: the Bacchantes, far from encouraging son-killing frenzies, actually makes an appeal for responsible consumption of alcohol. Does alcohol demand utter devotion of those who have consumed too much? Yes. Have drunken parents ever killed children they would otherwise never wish to harm? Absolutely. The mother in the story, Agave, comes back to her senses at the end and blames Dionysius for causing her son’s death, telling him, “The gods should never stoop to the baseness of human passions.” In one short line, she condemns both god and man. It now seems obvious to me: the message of this play is that humans have an obligation to be good, must overcome their passions in order to be good, and must never become drunk. Not only do I agree and see the importance of the moral, I’m starting to see why some well-meaning editor decided to include the play in an anthology designed for college students.

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