Tag Archives: classic

115: Peace

14 Jul

And here’s the light-hearted read I put aside for Medea yesterday …

Aristophanes’ Peace is a comedy, performed in 421 BC at the end of a ten-year war. I enjoyed the ribald humour, the self-referential aspects of the text, the acknowledgement of its own theatricality and the satire aimed at Aristophanes’ peers and rivals. But, for my tastes, the play is overly long and uneventful. The translation I read was by Benjamin Bickley Rogers and included copious notes.

The Peace of Aristophanes

Aristophanes’ Peace tells the story of a middle-aged Athenian named Trygaeus who is fed up with war and decides to travel to the heavens and persuade the gods to bring back Peace. Getting to the heavens is no simple task, so Trygaeus has his servants fatten up a dung beetle to carry him there. This allows for lots of poo jokes as one servant bosses the other, getting him to shape the dung into cakes for the beetle.

SECOND SERVANT: Can any one of you, I wonder, tell me
Where I can buy a nose not perforated?
There’s no more loathly miserable task
Than to be mashing dung to feed a beetle.
A pig or dog will take its bit of muck
Just as it falls: but this conceited brute
Gives himself airs, and, bless you, he won’t touch it,
Unless I mash it all day long, and serve it
As for a lady, in a rich round cake.

Once the dung beetle is big enough to carry him, Trygaeus saddles it to fly to the gods. His servants think he’s gone mad and call for his daughter to dissuade him. She tries, suggesting that he take Pegasus instead.

TRYGAEUS: Nay, then I must have had supplies for two;
But now the very food I eat myself,
All this will presently be food for him.

If that’s not enough to get the picture, how about this little gem as Trygaeus sets off?

TRYGAEUS: But you, for whom I toil and labour so,
Do for three days resist the calls of nature;
Since, if my beetle in the air should smell it,
He’ll toss me headlong off, and turn to graze.

Thankfully he soon arrives at the halls of Zeus and discovers only Hermes there as Zeus and all the other gods have gone to a higher heaven to get away from humanity’s squabbling. War is busy making a soup from all the warring factions and Peace has been buried in a pit. Trygaeus calls on representatives of the various factions and together they manage to haul Peace out of her pit and persuade her to come back to earth with them.

The second half of the play is where things get overly long and uneventful. It is filled with the celebrations and festivities upon Trygaeus’ arrival home with Peace in tow. Trygaeus has been given Harvesthome to wed and bed, bringing the bounty of harvest back to his farm.

Read an online version of Peace.

Cast: numerous!

114: Medea

13 Jul

Today I decided it was time for a classic after all these contemporary plays. Something nice and friendly … or Medea. Surprise, surprise, Medea won the toss.

Euripides: Medea

Euripides wrote this well-known tragedy in 431 BC, based on the myth of Jason and Medea. The translation I read today was by Philip Vellacott (published in 1963 by Penguin).

The intensity of the language and the story has survived more than two thousand years and Medea is still a rivetting read. What doesn’t work so well for a contemporary audience is the inaction of the chorus leading to their complicity in Medea’s crimes.

CHILDREN’S VOICES: Mother, don’t kill us!

CHORUS: Shall we go in?
I am sure we ought to save the children’s lives.

Yes, yes! Of course you should go in and save the children. But, no. They stand outside and reminisce instead…

CHORUS: There was but one in time past,
One woman that I have heard of,
Raised hand against her own children.
It was Ino, sent out of her mind by a god [etc. etc.]

I wanted to shake the blasted chorus of gossips and send them in to do something, rather than prattling away outside. But, the times the play depicts were times when the chorus would have been slaves and Medea was their ruler. For them to go against her orders would mean death.

NURSE: The mind of a queen
Is a thing to fear. A queen is used
To giving commands, not obeying them;
And her rage once roused is hard to appease.

But, still …

Euripides writes about a time when women were thought of as less worthy than men, less intelligent and less honourable (sadly still the case in many cultures.). Some of his lines reinforce the stereotypes, but he also allows Medea to answer to them.

MEDEA: Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we women
Are the most wretched. […]
And, they tell us, we at home
Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear
One child.

Medea is smart, renowned for her brain and her sorcery. She is a dangerous enemy. When her husband breaks his vows and takes a new, young wife, she is hell bent on revenge. But, instead of targetting her husband directly, her revenge is more devious. On hearing that she is to be banished from the city, Medea poisons gifts for the new bride so that she dies in agony:

MESSENGER: She leapt up from her chair,
On fire, and ran, shaking her head and her long hair
This way and that, trying to shake off the coronet.
The ring of gold was fitted close and would not move;
The more she shook her head the fiercer the flame burned.
At last, exhausted by agony, she fell to the ground;
Save to her father, she was unrecognizable.
Her eyes, her face, were one grotesque disfigurement;
Down from her head dripped blood mingled with flame; her flesh
Attacked by the invisible fangs of poison, melted
From the bare bone, like gum-drops from a pine-tree’s bark –
A ghastly sight.

But this is still not punishment enough for her cheating husband. Medea famously kills both her children so that Jason will be bereft of progeny. I was glad that Euripides made it difficult for her. That he portrayed her weeping for what she was about to do.

MEDEA: Dear sons, my blessing on you both – but there, not here!
All blessing here your father has destroyed. How sweet
To hold you! And children’s skin is soft, and their breath pure.
Go! Go away! I can’t look at you any longer;
My pain is more than I can bear. I understand
The horror of what I am going to do; but anger,
The spring of all life’s horror, masters my resolve.

The tragedy of Medea is that she lets her pride over rule her compassion and her love.

Publisher: Penguin (and others. You can read an e-book version here.)

Cast: 5M, 2F (plus chorus of women) and 2 boys

43: Desire Under the Elms

3 May

Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms is dark, twisted and powerful. Written in 1924, it deserves its reputation as a classic, replete as it is with timeless themes.

Eugene O'Neill Three Plays

Ephraim Cabot is as hard and twisted as a stunted tree. He’s 75 and has gone to town to find himself a third wife after working the previous two to death. While he’s gone, his youngest son Eben steals his money and uses it to pay off his brothers so that they’ll sign over their share of the farm to him and leave. Ephraim comes home with a scheming, 35-year-old wife who immediately lusts after young Eben.

None of the characters are noble, kind or honest. This is a play about greed, lust and revenge and, as can be expected, it all goes horribly wrong.

Eben, who is the closest thing to a hero we have, is small-minded, land hungry and fuelled by hate. At the start of the play he describes to his brothers his visit to Minnie, the village woman he liked until he discovered she’d been intimate with his brothers and his father before him:

EBEN: Walkin’ thar, fust I felt ‘s if I’d kiss her; then I got a-thinkin’ o’ what ye’d said o’ him an’ her an’ I says, I’ll bust her nose fur that! […] Waal – when I seen her, I didn’t hit her – nor I didn’t kiss her nuther – I begun t’beller like a calf an’ cuss at the same time, I was so durn mad – an’ she got scared – an’ I jest grabbed holt an’ tuk her! (Proudly) Yes, sirree! I tuk her. She may’ve been his’n – an’ your’n, too – but she’s mine now!

Amid these dark themes there’s a surprising amount of humour and warmth. I couldn’t help feeling that all the characters had been stunted on this rock strewn land, starved of education or compassion so that their hardness and greed were tragic but inevitable.

I want to read Sam Shepard’s Buried Child now. Desire Under the Elms felt almost like a precursor to Shepard’s vengeful family. I think I might have a copy of it here somewhere …

Publisher: Random House

Cast: 4M, 2F + villagers, Sheriff and fiddler (some of whom could be doubled)