Monday, July 09, 2007

Grief Lessons

Glen Bowersock reviews Anne Carson's recent book on Euripides, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides. A little from the beginning of the review on the immediate aftermath of the death of Euripides:

In early 406 BC the news reached Athens that far away in Macedonia the great dramatist Euripides had died. The leader of the chorus at the festival of the Dionysia that year happened to be his old rival, the aged Sophocles, who, in a public gesture of mourning, had his chorus and actors appear on stage without their customary crowns. We're told that the Athenians wept.

After a quarter-century during which Athens had been caught up, off and on, in the Peloponnesian War, the death of Euripides must have seemed ominous. It came in the same year as the voluntary exile of the charismatic Alcibiades, the leader in whom they had once placed great hope. The death of Sophocles himself within months of his tribute to Euripides only added to a presentiment of impending collapse. In 405 Aristophanes made, in his Frogs, a comic but poignant comparison of Aeschylus and Euripides to illustrate just how far Greek drama had come from the majestic verses of its first great dramatist. In that same year Euripides' horrifying play the Bacchae was produced posthumously at Athens. He had written it in Macedonia, and it depicted, as never before in literature, the destructive power of religious frenzy. In the ecstasy of Dionysiac possession a mother quite literally tore her own son apart. One year after the première of the Bacchae the war came to an end with the humiliating defeat of the Athe-nians by Sparta, and, as Xenophon tells us, a wailing went up along the long walls from Piraeus to the city.

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