Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.01.24
J. Michael Walton, Euripides Our Contemporary. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. 250. ISBN 9780520261822. $24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Temple University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
An alternative title for this lively book, written for the general reader and theater practitioners, might have been Why Euripides? Few people are better suited to answer this question than J. Michael Walton, who has worked on this playwright in every way possible: teacher, translator, scholar and director. Given the relatively large number of surviving plays by Euripides, with a range of style and tone so different from the more internally consistent work of Aeschylus and Sophocles, single books that attempt to survey the entire corpus have been quite rare. Recent years have seen only Morwood’s brief introduction in 2002, and, in 2010, Mastronarde’s thoughtful, relatively comprehensive study of this still-controversial dramatist (Cambridge). Walton’s book, intended for a broad audience, is more like Morwood’s than Mastronarde’s, and is grounded very firmly in theatrical experience, and, while specialists are unlikely to find much that is particularly ground-breaking about the plays as texts, I expect that Walton’s script-centered focus, and his ability to keep his eye on the larger picture, will provide a fair amount of food for thought.
Walton’s title, and inspiration, is drawn from Jan Kott’s seminal Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964), which sought to explain Shakespeare’s continuing power in Europe during the early 1960s. Still in print 50 years later, this book has influenced many directors of modern productions, as it pleads with the contemporary actors and directors to bring their own life experience to bear on their performance. Kott’s own take was distinctively shaped by the Second World War and his subsequent life in Communist Poland. I suspect that Walton has not lived quite a trauma-filled existence as Kott, but he clearly has a nose for Euripides’ interest in those living in the center of upheaval and at the margins of society. His main concern is with making the case for Euripides’ place on the contemporary stage. Given the sheer number of modern productions, this cause might not be as essential as it might have been, but presumably there is always the danger of complacency. Moreover, there are few performances of plays other than the canonical core (Bacchae, Medea, Hippolytus), so if Walton can inspire other directors to take up the cause of plays such as Ion, Heracles and Orestes, his work must be considered a success. A passage in Walton’s introduction reminds us of Peter Sellars’ brilliant insight, in the year after 9/11, into what has been normally seen as the least compelling of the surviving plays, The Children of Heracles: “it’s about refugees and immigration” (3). I have such vivid memories of reading about that production, which suddenly made that play as starkly contemporary as any Oliver Stone movie (and would that someone has made a film of Sellars’ production!).
Walton organizes his book thematically, grouping plays together that fit the topic assigned to a particular chapter, and these themes are grouped under larger categories. That said, these packages are never quite as neatly confined as intended, as the most canonical plays keep popping up in virtually every chapter. The primary themes will surprise nobody who is familiar with Euripidean drama. There are three larger sections.
In the first section, “Domesticating Tragedy,” the title puns on Euripides’ persistent focus on familial issues and gender, which is often overlaid with an ongoing interest in subverting the conventions of genre. Two chapters on the latter, “Playmaker and Image-Breaker” and “The Comic Touch,” frame a pair on the former, “The Family Saga” and “Women and Men.” The first chapter explores Euripides as a self-conscious theatrical innovator and renovator of the myth-based plots of his predecessors and contemporaries. The chapter “Family Saga” discusses Euripides’ treatments of the pathologies of the dynastic families of Greek tragic myth (the houses of Laius, Cadmus and Atreus) as of particular relevance to our destabilized world, with its still-evolving re-conception of what “family” means. Chapter 3, “Women and Men,” is a refreshingly common-sense refutation of the misperception, born in Aristophanic comedy, of Euripidean misogyny. The first section’s final chapter, on Euripidean comedy, succeeds by taking a view of the question of humor in his work that is broader than more specialized accounts of this subject, though it would have been beneficial for Walton’s readers were he to have acknowledged the controversies over the role humor plays in Euripides.
The second section, “Powerful Forces: The Grand Passions,” deals with what modern readers, especially students, find so compelling in Euripidean drama. The second section, like the first, has four chapters. “War and the Military” explores the Euripides’ negotiation of the relationship between war in heroic myth and in his own time, suggesting that Euripides’ interest in the effects of warfare on both winner and loser, on how war changes people, continues to make plays such as Hecuba and Trojan Women strongly resonant in our time. The next chapter, “Revenge,” examines this most compelling of theatrical plots, though I was surprised that Renaissance drama’s pervasive interest in this motif was not brought in more for comparison. I was particularly struck by Walton’s discussion of how Euripides “makes everyone complicit…but especially the audience” (103), in the vengeful plans of Medea and Hecuba; here is a scholar who recognizes how a playwright works with and on his audience. Next, in “Immortals and Mortals,” Walton debunks another Euripidean stereotype, his alleged atheism, by focusing on the gods as dramatic devices whose relative existence in the playwright’s own philosophy is not important. I suspect teachers will find this discussion useful for working with undergraduates. The section closes with “Sadness, Madness and Responsibility,” an examination of to what extent humans are responsible for their actions in the context of divine compulsion.
The third section, “Theatre Theatrical,” is not just the continuation of the previous two, but also the culmination of the larger overarching thesis of the greatness, in any era, of Euripidean theater. In this section there are three chapters. The first, “Playing the Game: Illusion and Reality,” begins with a digression into Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938), an influential account of the function of play (in the non-theatrical sense) and illusion. I was a little surprised not to see more made of Aristotle’s insistence in the Poetics on the role imitation plays in child development. I was much less surprised at the absence, but would have liked to have seen a nod in the direction, of Louis Montrose’s seminal work on this larger subject in Shakespearean theater, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theater (Chicago, 1996), a work more Greek theater scholars should know. In the penultimate chapter, “Great Roles,” Walton discusses ten speeches from some of the meatier roles in Euripides, illustrating their dramatic impact. The main part of the book closes with “Heirs to the Legacy,” an exploration of which dramatist of the past 150 years—among Shaw, Strindberg, Brecht, Pirandello, Anouilh, Sondheim and Frisch—is the true modern heir of Euripides. Since this sort of discussion is not allowed these days in traditional scholarly treatments of Greek drama, it provides guilty, if not naughty, pleasure. Last, an appendix provides a plot summary of the nineteen surviving plays of Euripides, for quick reference to neophyte readers, actors and directors.
The number nineteen doubtless gives pause to scholars of Greek tragedy who are reading this review, and that number points toward the one concern I have about this book: its tendency to treat major, ongoing, controversies as if they were settled and the related lack of direction given to readers who might want to know more about them. “Nineteen” indicates Walton accepts the authenticity of Rhesus, dismissing the matter as “still written off by a few critics” (26). The matter is just not that simple, and, if he were to ask ten Euripidean scholars about who wrote Rhesus, I suspect nine of them would not reply “Euripides.” I thus submit that, while Walton was right not to burden his readers with many long footnotes, the occasional account of where his readers should look for more information would have been useful. It is thus a bit strange, and frustrating, when Walton includes a footnote on an uncontroversial concern (e.g. the bottom of page 164). An introductory book should prepare its readers who want to learn more, pointing them in the right direction.
While reading this stimulating and enjoyable work, I continually thought of Shakespeare, and, while Shakespeare does pop up sporadically in Walton’s prose, the English playwright seems to haunt his Greek predecessor throughout the book. When I read Walton’s (correct) assertion, “[i]n all sorts of ways every play of Euripides is heading towards Bacchae” (116), I nodded in agreement, immediately also thinking that every play of Shakespeare is heading towards The Tempest (just as every Verdi opera is heading towards Otello—or Falstaff—and all of Mahler aims at the Ninth), and, in any case, aren’t those two plays two sides of the same coin? And, sure enough, 61 pages later Prospero’s storm is equated with the earthquake of Dionysus. A century ago, a much less complex view of both Sophocles and Shakespeare than is current now lent itself to easy comparisons of those two dramatists. So many of Walton’s descriptions of Euripidean drama hold true for Shakespeare as well that, given the genesis of this book’s title, I must conclude that, ultimately, Walton’s underlying project is to raise Euripidean theater to the same level in public opinion as the plays that were produced in the Globe.