Walter Nicolai, Euripides' Dramen mit rettendem Deus ex machina. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften: Reihe 2; N. F., Bd. 83. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1990. Pp. 39. ISBN 3-533-04255-3. 15 DM (pb).
Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, University of Washington.
Tragic gods always present problems. First there are the staging issues: on high or on the ground? on the roof or on the crane? what are the mechanics of the crane? (On these problems, see most recently the thorough treatment by D. J. Mastronarde, "Actors on High: The Skene Roof, the Crane, and the Gods in Attic Drama," CA 9  247-94.) More difficult are the interpretative questions: how are we to view the dramatic action in light of these appearances? The question is particularly pressing in the case of Euripides because he brought the gods into his plays so frequently and for varying purposes. There is the aloof Artemis at the end of Hippolytus, the stern Dionysus who concludes the Bacchae, the rescuing and manipulating Apollo in Orestes. Some thorough studies of the topic already exist and discussions of this topic for individual plays are numerous. What might be called the prevailing viewpoint these days is an ironic reading of these appearances: Euripides, by having the gods superimpose their will on the action played out by mortals, calls into question the nature of the gods, their concept of justice, and the value of human experience, which can be so easily annulled.
In this short study, Walter Nicolai confines himself to discussion of four plays -- IT, Ion, Helen, Orestes -- all with "rescuing" gods at the end, and all produced after the Sicilian expedition begun in 415. (There are external dates for Helen  and Orestes , and reasonably accurate metrical dating for the other two, although Nicolai does not discuss the matter.) The date is important for Nicolai because he argues that in the wake of this expedition, the Athenians, despondent at the horrors of war, needed to be revived by such "fairy tale" endings. In fact he takes a rather psychotherapeutic approach, citing Bruno Bettelheim's work at many points and viewing the plays as providing a therapy to the beleaguered citizens of Athens. The flavor of his approach is perhaps summed up by this statement, made after quoting Bettleheim on the role of fairy tales in the parent-child relationship: "Mutatis mutandis verhält Euripides sich ebenso wie solche Eltern: er tröstet seine verzweifelten Mitbürger, indem er die Tragödie einen märchenhaften Ausgang nehmen lässt." (18)
Although it contains individual points of interest, this work is, in the main, unsatisfying. It is, oddly enough, both too long (the introductory observations and the survey of the Greeks' progressive disenchantment with belief in a divinely-ordered universe are unnecessary) and too short (the actual treatment of the plays is superficial). There is more assertion here than argument. To call the endings of these plays "Märchen" as opposed to "comic" does not really aid interpretation. These endings remain enigmatic, and further work on endings, particularly Euripidean endings, is called for.