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The Attic Tarantino

Sean Sheehan

The Trojan Women: a comic, by Anne Carson and Rosanna Bruno, Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1780375908
Brill’s Companion to Euripides, Andreas Markantonatos (ed), Brill, 1,182 pp, €269, ISBN: 978-9004269705
Euripides, ‘Ion’: Edition and Commentary, Gunther Martin (ed), De Gruyter, 620 pp, £106 ISBN:‎ 978-3110522556
The Cambridge Greek Lexicon, J Diggle, BL Fraser, P James, OB Simkin, AA Thompson and SJ Westripp (eds), Cambridge University Press, 620 pp, £64, ISBN: ‎978-0521826808

A symmetry of sorts is completed by seeing Euripides as the Tarantino of ancient Greek drama. It suits the idea of Aeschylus as the John Ford, initiating in the Oresteia an aesthetic sensibility as surely as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance do in the Western genre. Sophocles can then be a director like Douglas Sirk, the cinematic mises en scène of the filmmaker evoking the stagecraft and ironies of the Athenian tragedian. Euripides as the versatile and audacious Tarantino completes the trinity.

It is the early Tarantino that comes to mind when conjoining him with an ancient Greek. Euripides’ Orestes begins as a supplication drama, with Orestes and Electra waiting for Menelaus to save them, but half-way through it becomes a revenge play with their plot to kill Helen. The murder of the adulterous Spartan will imitate the slaughter of Clytemnestra; history, à la Marx, is seen to be farcically repeating itself. Formal shocks of this kind are the hallmark, 2,500 years later, of Pulp Fiction, with its self-reflexivity and disobedient shifts of tone and time. Audiences warmed to its exuberant use of language in speeches and conversations, as did the captors of Athenians in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War who, according to Plutarch, freed their prisoners if they could recite passages from Euripides.

Greek myth provided the story lines for nearly all Greek tragedies but Euripides’ dramaturgy is distinguished by the way he uses his culture’s polytheism. His deployment of deus ex machina, involving wooden beams and pulleys to lift an actor into the air, must have been visually impressive and he could equally well surprise an audience at the start of a drama. His The Trojan Women opens with Troy-friendly Poseidon receiving a request from Athena, the goddess who helped bring about the city’s destruction. Offended by the Greeks’ desecration of her temple, she now wishes to blight their journey home and Poseidon agrees to assist. Her shocking volte-face and indifference to human suffering is graphically realised by the collaborative work of the poet Anne Carson and artist Rosanna Bruno in a new version of the play from Bloodaxe Books. The secondary title for their The Trojan Women – “A Comic” – seems suitably Euripidean in its provocation, as is the decision to represent the chorus and many of the characters in animal form. The illustrations are clearly not imaginings of what might have been seen in the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens; nor are they trying to communicate the semblance of realism that characterises the film The Trojan Women (1971), starring Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave.

The zoomorphic approach, replacing familiar ways of visualising ancient Greek women, allows for fruitful metaphorical representations. Animals have perilously few of the rights accorded to humans and the Trojan female prisoners of war, depicted as cows and dogs, are equally bereft of basic entitlements. Just as cattle serve a need for carnivores and the meat industry, the women will be useful as slaves in Greek households. Some of them, anticipating the use of Korean “comfort women” by the Japanese imperial army, will become sexual slaves for Greek military commanders who will make them, like domesticated dogs, their personal pets.

Euripides, like his young Hollywood avatar, was seen by his contemporaries as introducing something new into a familiar art form. The comic playwright Aristophanes makes this clear in his Frogs (405 BC) with its staging of a contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides. In particular, the language of Euripides is seen by the older dramatist as an undignified mix of the colloquial and lofty mannerisms. Demotic boldness, an extravagance of emotions and, as Aristotle notes, an ability to make characters sound like ordinary people is a characteristic of Euripides’ plays (as well as being a trademark of Tarantino’s cinema); Anne Carson’s translation and Rosanna Bruno’s graphics successfully reflect this.

The first page of their “comic” shows not an animal but a Hokusai-style wave, a synecdoche for Poseidon, god of the sea, and when Athena makes her appearance she is represented by a pair of overalls with an owl mask attached. Hector’s wife, Andromache, and her son, Astyanax, take the form of a poplar and sapling, while Helen moves between being a high-heeled silver fox and a hand mirror. Talthybius, the Greek herald who brings a succession of bad news, is suitably cast as a raven while the Spartan general and husband of Helen, Menelaus, appears as “some sort of gearbox clutch or coupling mechanism”. Representing the military commander as a contraption is initially baffling but the resolve of Menelaus to take revenge on the Trojans made him a key component in the killing machine that the Greek expeditionary force became when it captured Troy, slaughtered its men and enslaved the women before setting their city on fire.

Troy: the word was as resonant for fifth century Greeks as Auschwitz is for us today. Both words name a place and a narrative and are alike in concentrating an array of emotions, attitudes and reflections about war, victimhood and biopolitics. First performed during the course of the Peloponnesian War, The Trojan Women is unwavering in depicting the suffering and abandonment of victims of war; Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, released at a period of heightened racial awareness in the US, is equally forthright about the legacy of slavery that was laid down in the post-bellum state. Analogies between the movie director and the playwright can only go so far, however, and there are vital differences between the works of the two practitioners of their respective art forms. Tarantino is hugely interesting as a stylist but his films are not puzzling or formally odd and they will never generate the level of disputed interpretations that characterise Euripidean drama. There is a multipolarity in Euripides that has distinguished the playwright from Aeschylus and Sophocles since antiquity onwards. Studies will continue to look at American cinema and individual directors but it is difficult to imagine the publication of an equivalent to Brill’s Companion to Euripides, a set of forty-nine stand-alone chapters in two volumes of 1,183 pages, positively embracing the diversity that characterises contemporary readings of the Attic dramatist. The Companion’s capaciousness is necessary to synthesise the scholarly debates about the themes, ideas and motifs irrigating Euripides’ works as well as providing individual chapters on each one of the surviving plays and fragments. The standard of the contributors’ essays is uniformly high and the range of topics is comprehensive: the material, covering language, imagery, performance, religion, history, reception, translations, and much else, is divided into eight parts.

The Companion is accessible to general readers, while classicists will welcome the index detailing principal Euripidean passages. To its credit, it is not only the better-known plays – like Bacchae, Medea, Trojan Women – that receive meticulous attention: there are, for instance, some two hundred entries for particular lines in a lesser-known text like Ion. The general essay on Ion, by John Gilbert, adeptly highlights Euripides’ use of the Athenian theatre’s physical space; the dramatic moment when the relationship between Ion and Creusa is established by her naming of a basket’s contents; issues of autochthony; the nature and role of the gods vis-à-vis human vulnerability.

Readers of Greek will be familiar with the green and yellow covers of the series of classical texts from Cambridge – now with over a hundred volumes – and, more for scholars than students, the orange-coloured series from the same publisher. The edition of Ion by Gunther Martin for the German publishing house De Gruyter falls into the orange category and is this century’s first detailed commentary and edition; considering that the twentieth century produced only two others in English, this one is likely to be around for a long time. As with both in the Cambridge series, no English translation is provided and Martin’s focus is firmly on the Greek text and the textual, grammatical and syntactical matters arising from it. Inevitably, this involves a fair amount of academic cross-referencing to previous editions, commentaries and interpolations but by way of balance there is a healthy regard for issues of interpretation. Ion, on the face of it, has a happy ending thanks to Athena’s intervention, which puts right the consequences of Apollo’s sexual liaison with Creusa by reuniting her with their son Ion. Until then, Creusa’s unjust suffering is unremitting and as Martin says “a sour aftertaste may linger” despite the drama’s final moments.

After Athena’s speech ex machina, Creusa reaches out her hand to touch the door of Apollo’s temple:

Lovely now in my eyes are the gates of the god’s oracular shrine,                              which I once hated. Now my hands cling with pleasure to the door                              knocker as I bid the gates farewell.

In the Companion, Gilbert remarks on the uniqueness of the gesture as a mode of worship or thanks and sees it as “a poignant visual emblem of the gulf separating god and mortal”. The moment’s tactility, a reminder of the physical intimacy that was forced upon her by Apollo, could be layered with an irony that undermines seeing the gesture as an act of friendship between a mortal woman and a god. In the De Gruyter edition, Martin regards it a straightforward expression of Creusa’s changed attitude but does note other instances of door knockers on temples being touched in supplication, including a grisly scene in Herodotus (6.91.2: a captive rebel seeks sanctuary by clinging to a temple’s door handles only for him to be carried away after his hands are cut off). In any staging of the play, how the scene of Creusa touching the temple is played will depend on an interpretation that goes beyond the textual.

There are nuances, ambivalences and uncertainties in Euripides that allow for the variety of readings and observations that justify the 1,182 pages of the Companion’s two volumes. What remains undisputed is the ability of Euripides to stimulate and provoke, a legacy that stretches from Aristophanes to Anne Carson and artist Rosanna Bruno. Early in the twentieth century, the great classicist Gilbert Murray interpreted The Trojan Women as a protest by Euripides against the cruel imperialism of his fellow citizens and, with the Boer War in mind, equated the Athenian and British empires. More recently, the play has been adapted with an all-female cast of Syrian refugees and the current situation in Afghanistan suggests a future possible way of presenting the play.

Anyone who has learnt any Greek will be familiar with the Greek-English dictionary named after its first two editors, Liddell and Scott. First published in 1843, its ninth edition came out in 1940 and the shorter print version known as the Middle Liddell became indispensable to students until it and the full edition were digitised and incorporated into the Perseus Project. Familiarity with Liddell and Scott (a copy of which is thought to have been on James Joyce’s desk before his death) helps with an appreciation of the semantic focus and outstanding clarity of The Cambridge Greek Lexicon. It is a completely rewritten dictionary, in two volumes, where the only Greek to appear on a page are single words and any irregular forms they may have. Navigating its intricacies is a breeze when compared with Liddell and Scott.

An example – touching on the metaphysical “message” of The Trojan Women – that gives some indication of how the Lexicon handles its 37,000 chosen words is the erēmia (έρημία) entry. It appears as a headword, followed by a numbered set of what the editor calls “sense-sections” (six in this instance). These usually begin in roman (light) font with a phrase indicative of its meaning and may be followed, in bold, by a word or words that characteristically appear in translation. So, the third sense-section reads: “state of solitude, solitude, isolation (of persons) E”, with the “E” being the abbreviation for Euripides as the author who uses this particular word sense. The fifth sense-section reads: “desolation (of a bereaved house) E; (of a city captured in war) E”. The sixth and final sense-section gives its general meaning, “absence, want, lack”, and indicates that it takes the genitive in the case of persons or things. Another headword follows, the adjective erēmos, with nine sense-sections and three of these refer to Euripides as one of the relevant authors. The verb form relating to the noun and adjective is a headword in its own right and seven senses are recorded for this and, as with the information about the adjective sometimes taking the genitive, when a verb takes a direct object in the accusative case this is also indicated.

This is all wonderfully sound, tremendously useful for the student and scholar, and constitutes a landmark publication. James Diggle and his team of editors deserve the highest praise for their achievement. It has taken two decades for their work to be completed and its huge importance will increase even further when forms of digital storage and retrieval are applied to and incorporate it over the years ahead.


Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).



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