If you’ll remember back to Mitchelmore’s erudite contrast between Sophoclean and Euripidean drama, you will recall he specified the following five things as being typically Euripidean as opposed to Sophoclean (and seemingly also, non-modernist and Dickensian):
* Inwardness replaces the mask
* Complicated plotting
* An emphasis on realism
* A fascination with those on the margins of society
* Who and what we are defines us rather than what we do
Although I remain somewhat uncertain of all these (I’m pressed to come up with an idea what a few of them even mean), the fourth one – “A fascination with those on the margins of society” – I found difficult relating to Euripides’ works at all; – unless, of course, by “those on the margins of society”, he was meaning aristocrats – kings and queens, gods and demi-gods and such like – you know, the people who actually appear in his plays. (There’s the odd maid, it’s true, or messenger – just as in Sophocles or Aeschylus – but one can hardly call this a “fascination” – they are just there as a counterfoil, or to move the action along).
I was thinking of the Hecuba: – now here’s a play where the central character is both a woman and a slave – two classes of people who were highly marginal in Greek society. But to say simply that is to distort the play massively. Her being a slave is less to the point that the fact that she was until recently queen of the Trojans, her enslavement being merely that tragic staple, the turning of the wheel of fortune. As for her being a woman – well, it’s true women were marginal figures in Athenian society, but they were certainly not marginal figures in Greek tragedy (which is not, as some seem to like to take it, in any way a duplicate of Athenian society); – in Greek tragedy, their influence abounds. – It’s not like there is an absence of female roles in Sophocles: 3 of his 7 plays even have women’s names as their titles (at least, if we count Women of Trachis), and all except Philoctetes have female roles, many highly prominent. – The other canonical marginal group in Greek society are foreigners – but the great portrayal of foreigners in Greek tragedy is Aeschylus’ The Persians. And is there a more marginal character overall than Oedipus from Oedipus at Colonus – a man whom no one will even have step within the boundary walls of their city-states?
So where did we get this idea of Euripides’ specific delight in marginal characters if they aren’t to be found in his work. Does Aristotle mention it in his Poetics – that’s usualyl the source of all our false opinions about classical drama? – But I don’t recall him ever saying such a thing. – Then where? – Could it … no, we couldn’t have got this opinion from Aristophanes’ Frogs, could we? Is this what we’re basing our views on – a play whose satirical basis is that Athenian morality is being underminded by the degeneration of its tragedians, by an author who is constantly ridiculing Euripides.
Here’s what Aeschylus is made to say of Euripides in Frogs:
My heroes weren’t like these market-place loafers, swindlers, and rogues they write about nowadays; they were real heroes … I depicted men of valour, lion-hearted characters like Patroclus and Teucer, encouraging the audience to identify themselves with these heroes … I didn’t clutter my stage with harlots like Phaedra or Stheneboaea. No one can ever say I put an erotic female into any play of mine … And to think of the other harms [Euripides] has done. Hasn’t he shown us pimps and profligates, women giving birth in temples and sleeping with their brothers and saying that life is not life?
Mentioning Aeschylus’ The Persians, there’s another exchange from Frogs which made me laugh, as a piece of incisive theatrical criticism:
Aeschylus: Then I put on the Persians: an effective sermon on the will to win. Best thing I ever wrote.
Dionysus: I loved that bit where they sang about the days of the great Darius, and the Chorus went like this with their hands and cried “Wah! Wah!”
Makes you feel like you were there!