On The Greek Plays

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The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides
Eds. Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm
(Penguin Random House, New York, 2016, 826 pp. $25).

There is no shortage of English translations of Greek tragedy.  Indeed, the tradition of rendering the Athenian dramatists into English dates back to at least the sixteenth century and has yielded an abundant and diverse harvest.  For the opening of Euripides’ Medea alone, for example, the sampling below, which spans more than two centuries, demonstrates a general, though not universal, interest in rendering poetry into poetry.  But the tone, style, and mood of that poetry—or that prose—varies, as translators explore the rhetorical and artistic space between their ancient source and their own creativity.  (Of particular note is the element of humor in Byron’s deliberate fragment below, which simply breaks off rather than rendering the whole play or even the whole speech!)

O that the gallant Argo had not wing’d
Her course to Colchis through the clashing rocks
Of the black Euxine; that in Pelion’s groves
The pine had ne’er been fell’d; nor at the oars
The heroes’ hands had labour’d when they sought
The golden fleece for Pelias; then my queen,
Medea, had not plough’d the wat’ry way
To tower’d Iolcos, madd’ning with the love
Of Jason . . .

–Robert Potter (1781)

Translation of the Nurse’s Dole in the Medea of Euripides

Oh how I wish that an embargo
Had kept in port the good ship Argo!
Who, still unlaunched from Grecian docks,
Had never passed the Azure rocks;
But now I fear her trip will be a
Damn’d business for my Miss Medea, etc., etc.

–Lord Byron (1810)

Would the ship Argo ne’er had fetched her flight,
Twixt the dark Symplegades to Colchian land,
And the cleft pine in Pelion’s woods ne’er fallen,
Nor caused the chieftains’ hands to row, who went
To seek the golden fleece for Pelias,
For neither then Medea, mistress mine,
Had sailed to the Iolchian country’s towers,
By love for Jason stricken at the heart . . .

–Augusta Webster (1868)

Ah!  Would to Heaven the good ship Argo ne’er had sped its course to the Colchian land through the misty blue Symplegades, nor ever in the glens of Pelion the pine been felled to furnish with oars the chieftain’s hands, who went to fetch the golden fleece for Pelias; for then would my own mistress Medea never have sailed to the turrets of Iolcos, her soul with love for Jason smitten . . .

–E. P. Coleridge (1891)

Would God no Argo e’er had winged the seas
To Colchis through the blue Symplêgades:
No shaft of riven pine in Pêlion’s glen
Shaped that first oar-blade in the hands of men
Valiant, who won, to save King Pelias’ vow,
The fleece All-golden!  Never then, I trow,
Mine own princess, her spirit wounded sore
With love of Jason, to the encastled shore
Had sailed of old Iôlcos . . .

–Gilbert Murray (1906)

Would that the Argo had never winged its way to the land of Colchis through the dark-blue Symplegades!  Would that the pine trees had never been felled in the glens of Mount Pelion and furnished oars for the hands of the heroes who at Pelias’ command set forth in quest of the Golden Fleece!  For then my lady Medea would not have sailed to the towers of Iolcus, her heart smitten with love for Jason . . .

–David Kovacs (1994)

How I wish the Argo’s sails had never swept through
the dark blue Clashing Rocks into the land of the Colchians;
I wish the pine trees had never fallen
in the groves of Pelion, cut down to put oars in the hands
of the heroes who went after the golden fleece
for Pelias.  Then my mistress Medea would not
have sailed to the fortress of Iolcus’ land,
her heart battered by love for Jason.

–C. A. E. Luschnig (ca. 2006)

O how I wish that ship the Argo
had never sailed off to the land of Colchis,
past the Symplegades, those dark dancing rocks
which smash boats sailing through the Hellespont.
I wish they’d never chopped the pine trees down
in those mountain forests up on Pelion,
to make oars for the hands of those great men
who set off, on Pelias’s orders,
to fetch the golden fleece.  Then my mistress,
Medea, never would have sailed away
to the towers in the land of Iolcus,
her heart passionately in love with Jason.

–Ian Johnston (2008)

Would the Argo at the Simplegades’ jaws
had never journeyed on to Colchis shores,
nor ever trees cut down from Pelion’s glen
had made fit oars for heroes, those first men
who sought for Peleas the Golden Fleece.
For then Medea, on her wild caprice,
would not have travelled to Iolcus towers,
nor shown, for love of Jason, those fierce powers . . .

–C. John Holcombe (2010)

If only the hull of the Argo had not flown through
the dark Clashing Rocks to the land of Kolchis.
If the pine in Mt. Pelion’s forests
had never been cut and supplied oars
for the Argonauts in quest of the Golden Fleece
for Pelias.  Then my mistress Medea
would not have sailed to the towers of Iolkos,
her heart dazed with love for Jason.

–Diane J. Rayor (2013)

All of these examples translate rather than simply adapting, but they demonstrate a trajectory of different approaches that ranges from the near-literal care of Kovacs’ 1994 Loeb edition to the creative rewording demanded by Murray’s and Holcombe’s heroic couplets, crafted a century apart.  Complete modern collections of all extant Greek tragedies demonstrate a similar span of creativity, from the freer and more poetical renderings of the Penn Greek Drama Series of the University of Pennsylvania Press, through the Greek Tragedy in New Translations series from Oxford University Press and the Complete Greek Tragedies series of the University of Chicago Press, to the more syntactically faithful Loeb Classical Library volumes issued by Harvard University Press, with their en face texts in Greek and English.  This is, of course, to say nothing of the vast numbers of translated tragedies anthologized in smaller groupings by ancient author, by theme, or by (anticipated) level of general-readership interest; of versions of individual plays translated for publishers or crafted for new productions (Washington, DC, for example, recently witnessed a new version of the Oresteia from Ellen McLaughlin for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in spring 2019); and of increasing numbers of translations freely available for reading online (e.g. the work of George Theodoridis or of Ian Johnston, the latter also quoted above).

Amongst these many categories, The Greek Plays under examination here (whose industry-friendly title reflects the familiar but, strictly speaking, inaccurate tendency to equate “Greek plays” with “surviving fifth-century Athenian tragedy”) may perhaps best be characterized as an interest-based anthology whose general sympathies lie with the original Greek texts and the cultural world that produced them.  As the editors put it, the supplementary materials in the volume “are designed to allow, but not insist on, a historically contextualized reading of the plays” (xiv).  The volume contains a series of supportive resources that explain and explore the position of tragedy in classical Athens, including a ten-page General Introduction; a timeline of the lives of the three extant tragedians; three maps; two drawings of possible reconstructions of the Athenian Theater of Dionysus in the fifth century BCE; one-page “biographical notes” for Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, along with a short (ca. 3-4 pages) introduction to each play; footnotes within each play that explain certain ancient references or features of the original language; and, most substantially, five appendices of ca. 5-10 pages each by scholars not otherwise represented in the volume as translators, including “Saving the City: Tragedy in its Civic Context” (Daniel Mendelssohn), “Material Elements and Visual Meaning” (David Rosenbloom), “Plato and Tragedy” (Joshua Billings), “Aristotle’s Poetics and Greek Tragedy” (Gregory Hays), and “The Postclassical Reception of Greek Tragedy” (Mary-Kay Gamel).  Each of these topics could easily form the sole subject of a major scholarly book, and only the last two have “Further Reading” sections appended to their conclusions.  Although the production values are otherwise high, the volume as a whole does not include a separate bibliography.

The main purpose of the volume lies, of course, in its translations.  Five plays of Aeschylus are included (Persians, Prometheus Bound, and the three dramas of the Oresteia, namely Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides), four of Sophocles (Oedipus the King, Antigone, Electra, and Oedipus at Colonus), and seven of Euripides (Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Electra, Trojan Women, Helen, and Bacchae).  All told, these sixteen plays, as the editors note (xiv), represent just under half of the (largely) intact surviving classical ‘tragedies’: in total, we possess in the modern age six plays of Aeschylus (the authorship of a seventh, the Prometheus Bound, is questioned), seven of Sophocles, and eighteen of Euripides (a nineteenth, the Rhesus, is probably not his).  Among Euripides’ eighteen plays, too, is classed the Alcestis, which was actually performed in the ‘comic relief’ program position at the Athenian City Dionysia in the year it was staged there.

As an explanation for this particular collection, the editors state that they “have given priority to works that are most often taught in college classrooms (including our own) or are otherwise deemed most current or most resonant in the modern world” (xiv).  Little question in this regard might be made of the inclusion of e.g. Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Medea, and to take an extreme example in the other direction, Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women is likely a justified omission, given that it has probably reached larger modern audiences in (e.g.) the thought-provoking adaptation of Charles Mee (Big Love) than it has in its original form.  But particularly given the recent impact of, for example, the Theater of War project, which uses literature to explore the experiences of military veterans, the exclusion of Sophocles’ Ajax from this volume seems a lost opportunity.  Including it would have allowed readers to investigate—or teach—the ambiguities of warfare as also depicted, for example, in Aeschylus’ Agamemenon and Euripides’ Trojan Women.  That having been said, however, other important thematic explorations are made eminently possible by the table of contents.  To give just a few examples, Athenian political and cultural exceptionalism, depictions of women (and indeed issues of gender more generally), cross-comparisons of the Electra myth as treated by all three tragedians, and the interplay of Euripidean drama with certain features of the comedic stage can all be fruitfully studied and taught from this selection of dramas as it stands.

The translations in this volume have been governed by a number of interesting principles laid down by the editors, chiefly aiming at providing some sense of ‘feel’ for those reading the dramas in English.  Firstly, no translator has contributed to the work of more than one ancient dramatist, in the general hope that this separation may help to “reflect the distinctions between the styles of the three tragedians” (xiv).  Secondly, the translations themselves “avoid colloquialisms, using instead a more formal style [in English] to give some impression of the elevated, non-natural feel of the Greek” (ibid.).  And thirdly, the translations include specific efforts in their English to convey “some idea of [the dramas’] variations in rhythm” (xv, with more detailed discussion at xxiii-xxiv).  Greek tragedies traditionally alternated scenes of speech and conversation by individual characters, delivered in Greek iambic trimeter (meaning six iambs to the line, not three) with choral odes sung in more complicated ‘lyric’ rhythms.  Within this larger pattern, poets luxuriated in variation, composing elaborate ‘epirrhematic’ scenes that allowed individual characters to sing with the chorus, or injecting extra speakers and slightly more rhythmic complexity into iambic sections.  The editors acknowledge that the specific metrical features of Greek tragedy are proverbially lost in translation, but they have at the same time required the English iambic pentameter (although with some flexibilities countenanced) for the Greek iambic trimeter and encouraged other poetical meters for the parts of the dramas that were originally sung (xv)  And they have further mandated that the Greek be represented line-for-line, allowing, of course, for organizational variations in sentence structure in the English (xvi).

Few, if any, modern multi-translator collections would be able to venture similar claims upon such detailed attention to Greek structure and stylistics, and indeed this might be a central feature of the case for the volume’s distinction.  The question, therefore, is the impact that this preparation makes upon the reader’s experience.  Will the Greekless reader take away something different from this project than from another?

At the macro-level, the line-for-line correspondence required by the editors produces a general degree of concentrated tautness that is often lacking in freer poetical English translations, and that does help to provide some sense of the ancient dramas’ richly expressive qualities.  The organizational restrictions upon the iambic passages, however, do tend to invite certain characteristic compensatory behaviors.  (It should be noted that these are not exclusive to any particular translator or individual ancient poet, though their relative concentrations of course vary.)  Contractions help to cut down the number of English syllables, occasionally at the cost of the more formal tone espoused by the editors, and there are sometimes more apostrophes of all varieties than one might expect (e.g. Rachel Kitzinger’s Medea 790-794, “That’s enough for this part of the story. / Now hear what follows: I weep / for what I must do; for then I’ll kill / my children.  No one will give relief. / When I’ve annihilated Jason’s house, I’ll / leave this place”).  Dashes, whether one loves their immediacy or chafes at their distraction, are a frequent device in many of the translations to allow the rearrangment of sentence structure to fit line and meter, or to insert clarifying pronouns and phrases.  As a result, the choral and other sung passages can sometimes feel freer and more natural than the iambics, especially since the editors did not require mirroring to ancient standards between the metrical structure of strophe and antistrophe; rather, they and the translators seem to have arrived at a plan of quite close but still reasonably flexible rhythmic imitation.  The care taken not to match any translator with more than one ancient tragedian repays itself in the sense that, for example, Aeschylus does not strictly ‘sound’ like Euripides in this volume, but neither does Euripides ‘sound’ internally consistent across individual dramas, having been capably and attractively—but very differently—handled by both Rachel Kitzinger and Emily Wilson.

On a closer level, and precisely because of these differences, one is sometimes tempted to follow a given translator rather than a given ancient poet.  Sarah Ruden’s Aeschylus (Oresteia) is angular and like the original occasionally periphrastic.  Clytemnestra’s rich language occasionally bogs down, leaving her perhaps a bit more verbose than terrifying (e.g. Agamemnon 1412-1425), but the grand kommos of Libation Bearers (306-477) is heady and powerful, insistently replete with one- and two-syllable words that provide an unrelenting sense of forward momentum (“Over your grave the loud song of your loss / rises from your brace of children,” 333-334; “Havoc shouts for a Fury, / who follows ruin with new ruin / once someone has fallen,” 402-403).

Praise is also due for Mary Lefkowitz’ version of Sophocles’ Electra, which manages to capture the polished, lapidary smoothness of Sophocles’ Greek in appealingly elevated English that is still clear, consistent, and limited in its subscription to the compensating behaviors in the iambics that I discussed above (although the iambics themselves can flex).  At 634-640, for example, we have:

You, stand near me and bring me my offerings,
fruits that I may raise to this god to free
my sleep from the fears that I have now.
Phoebus our protector, I hope you listen
to my secret utterance.  I am not speaking
among friends; it is not safe to unfold
the whole tale to the light when she is near me.

The breaks in sentences and thoughts from line to line in this passage largely imitate the structure and order of the Greek, which is no small accomplishment.  A footnote at the end of this quotation further explains the association of the Greek word anaptuxai (translated here as “unfold”): “Clytemnestra describes her message as if it were written in a book roll that she was not prepared to open,” thereby adding to the reader’s appreciation of the multiple layers of meaning in the original text.  Notes like these are a special feature of this volume that is not paralleled in other Modern Library texts, and they have the added advantage of opening meaningful windows into the scholarly reading process.

Emily Wilson’s distinctively direct and lucid style of translation (most recently introduced to a wider public through the release of her version of the Odyssey) lends itself especially well, particularly in speeches and dialogues, to the shared ancient and modern assertion that Euripides’ Greek is the closest of the three tragedians’ to everyday speech.  At the same time, however, her attraction to subtle sound-play and her judicious use of surprising English phraseology serve to remind the reader of the artistic quality of the original texts, as in her Bacchae 28-33:

They said that Semele slept with some man,
got pregnant, and pretended it was Zeus.
Cadmus’ smart idea, they snickered: Zeus
killed her for lying, saying I was his.
For that, I stung them till I buzzed them mad:
I made them homeless, crazy, mountain-dwellers.

While the phrase “got pregnant” in the passage above is more explicit in English than it is in the Greek (which settles for implying it by context), the verb describing what Dionysus did to his detractors, ôistrês[a], does indeed refer to an insect sting that other poets in other places have used as a metaphor for insanity.  Wilson knows this, of course, and plays up the connection with her creative diction in “buzzed them mad”—thereby strikingly reiterating the thought of the Greek, which expresses itself more compactly with something like, “I stung them from their homes with madness.”

There is naturally much more that could be said about a project of this scope and scale, but in sum one must reflect: what does this volume add to the ongoing study of and dialogue about Greek tragedy?  From a pedagogical standpoint, the ancillary resources included here furnish useful introductory material for the new student (whether formal or not) of tragedy as an academic pursuit, but they would almost inevitably need to be supplemented for classroom use.  The maps, for example, suppress details not immediately germane to the plays, and a basic checklist of all extant tragedies and their dates (where known) would probably have to be a priority as a course handout.  Finally, a volume-wide bibliography for the sake of those who want or need to embark upon further investigations would certainly be a desideratum for the next edition—especially as the editors, translators, and appendix authors have all contributed other work of the first rank to formal scholarship, journalism, and even the staging and criticism of dramatic productions in other contexts.

The strictures laid upon these translators do provide for the reader some sense of the highly organized design of Greek tragedy, and of the contrasts in tone and style between e.g. an iambic speech and a choral ode.  (These requirements also, it must be acknowledged, de facto limit the verbosity into which translations of tragedy can occasionally be tempted!)  But shaping English into specified equivalents for the behaviors of another language can also sometimes confine translators to expressions that cannot fully capture the sheer power and multifaceted nature of the original.  Greek is capable of dazzling compactness and wordplay supported by its inflected morphology, flexible word-order, and often metaphorical vocabulary; English is gifted with stunning precision, but at the price of brevity, due in significant part to its dependence upon the sequence of words and phrases to convey meaning.  Translation is always a sacrifice.

And yet, every generation deserves—even needs—to come to terms with important texts in its own way.  In the case of this volume, one important issue that seems to be implicitly addressed is approachability.  The translations in this volume are vastly removed, for example, from the traditions of a century and more ago, when Gilbert Murray, quoted at the opening of this review, was employing English rhyme as an aesthetic and evaluative marker for the heightened linguistic register of Greek tragic poetry (the efforts of Holcombe, also quoted above, have a slightly different aim).  In an era when the humanities no longer enjoy unquestioned status merely on the grounds of abstract ‘value’—and when, more specifically, ‘the classics’ are not an assumed component of almost any educational trajectory—this volume aims to unfold some of the complexities of Greek poetry in a manner that allows their technical and aesthetic appreciation by wider audiences.  There is a distinctly appreciable effort here to let readers in, rather than using literary style as a gatekeeping device.  The reader must work actively to appreciate the translators’ subtleties, but that work does not require a scholar’s training so much as it requests a scholarly heart.

Whether the particular techniques utilized in this collection will stand the test of time in the classroom (or even on the stage) remains to be seen over the next decades.  In the meantime, however, the editors and their collaborators are to be warmly praised for creating carefully wrought texts that wear their learning well—they are readable, often lively, sometimes striking, and inevitably of high quality—and for devising a volume that has indeed accomplished something a bit different from the norm.