1. Euripides

"This is true liberty, when free-born men,
Having to advise the public, may speak free,
Which he who can and will, deserves high praise;
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State than this?"

Euripides, The Suppliants (as translated by John Milton in his introduction to Areopagitica

Why is this man smiling?

In the most ancient times of Greece, there was no such thing as "history". What people actually did and said was not as important as what they should do and say. So when people wrote, sang or dramatized stories, they told only of the gods and heroes who long ago set the patterns for how people should live their lives. Priests and bards narrated their lives and exploits for the edification of Greece's citizens. But when it came to actually staging the greatest show on earth, complete with song, dance, tragedy and comedy, there was no better, more appropriate story to tell than the life of Dionysus. It wasn't enough to preach about Dionysus's deeds; a true worshipper had to experience directly the ecstasy and sense of unity that the god offered to his followers. What better way to do that than with a spectacular presentation, appealing to all the senses, open to all citizens, where the wine flowed freely? Each year, the priests of Dionysus would host these shows, called dithyrambs, and its cast members would often include men dressed up as satyrs. They would act out an episode from the life of this unusual son of Zeus who offered mankind nothing less than the gift of freedom.

During the 5th century b.c., the nature of theater changed in response to changing times. The cities of Greece had defied all odds and stood up to the world's superpower, Persia . A veteran of the Battle of Marathon, Aeschylus, came home to write about his complicated experiences, and how the war affected his country. He didn't actually write about Greece and Persia , as such; instead, he used legends from the Trojan war between Asian Troy and Greek Mycenae as a way of putting his difficult times into a mythical context. His successor, Sophocles, did the same, particularly with the myth of Oedipus, but it was the youngest of the three great playwrights of Athens ' Golden Age of Theater who put this method to its most sophisticated use.

As a young man, Euripides like to study scrolls from his family's library, but rather than hear them read aloud to an audience, he'd retire to a nearby cave where he could read them at his own pace, and think for himself how these stories and ideas applied to his world. He didn't go to war, like Aeschylus, but he didn't have to; war came to him. In the aftermath of Persia's defeat, Athens declared its imperial intentions by building cyclopean walls around itself, thick with hostile implications to its former ally, the Spartans. Although Euripides lived in a democracy which prided itself on its hospitality and freedom of political thought, in reality, the Athenian government would brook no dissent in its rise to power. A clear message was sent to its fellow Greek city-states: you were either with Athens or against it. Even cities that merely refused to help were destroyed, and its citizens enslaved or killed. When Euripides started writing plays of his own, he followed the example of Aeschylus and used the Greek myths to illustrate the horrible contradictions of this Greek Age of Reason, and the tragic civil war that threatened to engulf it.

The annual Festival of Dionysus in Athens was more than just a religious gathering; it was the Super Bowl of ancient Greece. Everyone attended to see the greatest playwrights compete in dramatic competition. On each day, a different playwright would present a spectacular series of plays: first, a trilogy of related dramas full of song, dance, and drama, then a final, fourth play, using the same actors and themes, would complete the presentation. This final play was a comedy, which briefly turned the ideas of the trilogy on its head. It was a hold-over from the old dithyrambs, but in spirit, it was probably the most faithful to their dionysiac message, and it helped the audience make the transition from a day of serious dramatic themes to an evening of joyous revelry. At the end of the Festival, the judges would name the year's Best Playwright, and for much of the 5th century bc, the top honors often went to Aeschylus, or Sophocles.

Euripides was not as popular with the critics, at first. He preferred realism over grandeur, the details of everyday life, and the point of view of the servant or messenger rather than the god or hero. And more often than not, his chief characters were women, and their untold stories; it's even been speculated that he wrote a play for the secretive Women's Festival, which men were forbidden to observe. His plays were unconventional, and at times, even controversial, depicting rape, incest, and murder--onstage, no less. As the war with Sparta raged on, and Athens' fortunes declined, Euripides looked to his own powers as a playwright to do what the politicians couldn't: to inspire the end of a foolhardy war by illustrating its terrible cost, and compassion for all its victims, on either side. He was very nearly charged with treason, and often found his seriousness of purpose mocked by his rivals; his anti-war play, "Helen", was ridiculed onstage the following year at the Festival, and Euripides discovered that fame could easily drown out his message.

The day finally came when he realized nothing could deter Athens from its destructive course, and Euripides left its great walls behind. They would not long survive him. He chose voluntary exile in the Thracian north, whose hills were the legendary home of Orpheus, and whose caves housed Boreas the fertilizing North Wind, consort to the Great Goddess of old. On these outskirts of civilized Greece, politicians, priests and generals gave way to shamans, mystics, and the maenads, the female worshippers of Bacchus. There, it is said he witnessed their secret rites with his own eyes, and recorded it in his final play. When he died, there were the usual rumors in Athens, spread by his detractors: the old playwright was either torn apart by bacchic revellers, or perhaps jealous members of Macedonia's barbaric court chased him down with hunting dogs. None of it was true, but Euripides would have the last word: the Golden Age of Greek Theater would end with the presentation of his last play, "The Bacchae". The Athenian festival would posthumously grant Euripides one of the few awards of his career to a play that went back to the very roots of Greek drama. Its star was Dionysus himself, returned to Greece after long exile to cast aside his mortal mask and reveal his true powers with a blinding vengeance.

Euripides was a man of his time, but his plays have never lost their relevance because the conflicts of his time are with us still. Even now we can see his influence in the syndicated tv hits, "Hercules, The Legendary Journeys', and "Xena, Warrior Princess". The pageantry of these shows would have been familiar to an ancient Greek audience, and they would have smiled in recognition at the extensive borrowing from the classic dramas--a practice Greek writers themselves relied on as well. By studying how these plays were utilized on the tv shows, we can not only have a greater appreciation for how they were put together, but for the vibrancy that awaits us in the original sources. Comparing both, we can almost picture ourselves back at the Festival of Dionysus, and we won't need any wine to recreate that feeling of joyous revelry.


The Types and Patterns of All Things Xena  > Free To Be Euripides: Chapter Index

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