BMCR 2002.01.05

Die Opferung der Iphigeneia in Aulis: Die Rezeption des Mythos in antiken und modernen Dramen

Susanne Aretz, Die Opferung der Iphigeneia in Aulis : die Rezeption des Mythos in antiken und modernen Dramen. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 131. Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner, 1999. 553 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3519076802 168,00 DM.

This is a slightly revised version of the author’s dissertation which was submitted to the University of Cologne in 1997. Aretz examines the myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in ancient and modern drama. The book is divided in three parts. The first part is concerned with the literary and dramatic sources for the myth of Iphigenia before Euripides. The second part provides a reading of the adaptations of the myth by Euripides and Ennius. The third one deals with the rewriting of the myth by Racine and Hauptmann.

The introduction is brief and sets out the methodological framework of the study. It introduces theoretical concepts such as subject (Stoff) and motif (Motiv) and explains the author’s preference for the myth of Iphigenia at Aulis over that of Iphigenia among the Taurians and her emphasis on drama rather than on other literary and/or artistic genres. A. returns to the methodological issues of the introduction in the final chapter (chapter 9), for which see below. Chapter 2 explores the religious and ritual background of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. It also discusses the more general issue of human sacrifice in ancient Greece, drawing on the studies on sacrifice by René Girard and Walter Burkert. Moreover, this chapter examines the etymology of the name Iphigenia and the cultic associations of the heroine with the Attic cults of Artemis. The discussion is informative as it conveniently pieces together different aspects of Iphigenia’s myth and cult. Chapter 3 deals with representations of the sacrifice of Iphigenia before Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. These include Homer’s Iliad, Cypria, Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, Stesichorus’ Oresteia, Pindar’s Pythian 11, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Iphigenia and Electra, and Euripides’ Trojan Women, Electra, and Iphigenia Among the Taurians. A. examines these texts with emphasis on Agamemnon’s motives and the question of whether or not Iphigenia’s sacrifice is voluntary. The parodos of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon receives special attention as the earliest version of the myth in extant drama and as a paradigm of Agamemnon’s hubris and guilt. The chapter is followed by a two-page summary of ‘the argument so far’ (surprisingly entitled chapter 4).

The chapter on Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis ( IA) is the longest in the book, spanning over 140 pages. The main body of the chapter provides a scene-by-scene overview of the play, whereas the detailed summary (15 pages) adopts an approach that focuses on individual characters and themes. A. argues that the play can be seen as a symbolic sacrifice of the heroic: Iphigenia’s sudden change of mind is not a dramatic deficiency but a psychologically plausible anomaly which points towards the gap between the heroic world of myth and the unheroic reality of the play. The sacrifice of Iphigenia is both the triumph of moral corruption and the last obstacle for the myth of the war at Troy to take place. A.’s approach is very persuasive. As in the following chapters, there is some overlap between the main body of her analysis and the summary, which could have been avoided by choosing only one method of presentation (I would choose the thematic one rather than that of scene-by-scene). A.’s discussion of the textual problems of IA is detailed but descriptive. If the scene of the sacrifice is not written by Euripides, does this necessarily impair our perception of the play? How do the contested passages of IA relate to the rest of the play? Scholars have been debating about these issues for over two centuries. I wish A. had addressed this interesting aspect of the reception of the myth and the play.

Chapter 6 provides a useful new discussion of the fragments of Ennius’ Iphigenia. One of the most attractive features of her discussion is her systematic and illuminating comparison with previous texts and especially Euripides’ IA. A. argues that it is the differences and not the similarities between the two plays that prevail. In Ennius, Iphigenia’s voluntary sacrifice becomes a platform for the display of emotions, a celebration of the pathetic, a paradigm for the unconditional devotion of a person to his/her country. This is a welcome addition to the recent studies of Ennius’ tragedy by Klaus Lennartz ( Non verba sed vim: Kritisch-exegetische Untersuchungen zu den Fragmenten archaeischer roemischer Tragiker, Stuttgart : Teubner, 1994) and Herbert Prinzen ( Ennius im Urteil der Antike, Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1998).

Chapter 7 turns to Jean Racine’s Iphigénie, first performed in 1674. A. explains that the myth of human sacrifice is very far from the sensibilities of Racine’s time. Racine’s preoccupation with plausibility and propriety led him to introduce in his play the character of Eriphile, Iphigenia’s double, thus rendering the sacrifice of Iphigenia unnecessary, but also depriving the myth of its tragic resolution. A. shows how important for any reading of Racine’s narrative are the reversals from bad luck to good luck, from anonymity to fame and from death to life. A very interesting section of this chapter sets Iphigénie in its social and cultural context. Particularly illuminating is A.’s discussion of the competition between Racine and his rivals Michel Leclerc and Jacques de Coras, whose version of Iphigenia’s sacrifice was first performed one month after the Paris premiere of Racine’s play in early 1675. Also interesting is her discussion of the relation between Racine’s Iphigénie and Rotrou’s play with the same title written some 35 years earlier, which clearly shows that, for all their differences, the two dramatists shared the same preference for tragic plots with happy endings.

Chapter 8 is devoted to Gerhart Hauptmann’s Atridentetralogie. The four plays of this work ( Iphigenie in Aulis, Agamemons Tod, Elektra and Iphigenie in Delphi) were written and first published individually, between 1941 and 1944. But A. makes a convincing case for the conventional reading of Atridentetralogie as a whole. This chapter is not only about the sacrifice of Iphigenia but also about the (rest of the) myth of the Atridae. It is argued, for instance, that the dark and pessimistic world of Iphigenie in Aulis is fully appreciated only when contrasted to the optimism of Iphigenie in Delphi, with which the tetralogy concludes. Another opposition that structures the narrative of the tertalogy is that between paganism and Christianity, celebration of life and its denial. Taken as a whole, Atridentetralogie dramatises the brutalization of humanity in the face of war and the invasion of the civilized world by chaos. The destiny of human beings is to be unable to be humane. So the late Hauptmann in the course of WWII.

The final chapter (chapter 9) provides an overview of the various features, themes and characters of the myth of the sacrifice as they emerge from the texts examined in the course of the book. More specifically, it lays out the grammar of the myth, the range of possibilities that are open to each of the characters in it. It is shown that the three most important structural elements of the myth, upon which all other details are built, are war, the destruction of human relationships, and the incomprehensible demand of Artemis. Each of these elements serves to explore themes such as life and death, love and hate, marriage and sacrifice, the divine and the human, the individual and the masses. This chapter also provides a brief presentation of other modern adaptations of the myth and explains why Racine and Hauptmann have been preferred over other authors.

I have learned much from A.’s detailed reading of the various plays and of the myth in general. However, I often felt that the length of discussion devoted to individual texts and the wealth of detail became detrimental to the clarity of the general argument, however useful and fascinating they might be. I was also puzzled when, in the final chapter, the cultural and historical contextualization of individual plays in the main body of the book was neglected for a structural and narratological comparison of the various versions of the myth. I would have liked to hear more about the impact each of the versions discussed had on the reception of the myth in literature, the arts, and on stage. What I feel is missing is an evaluation of the impact each of the versions examined in the book had on the myth as a whole and on its meaning for us today. Racine’s Iphigénie, for instance, has been performed, adapted and parodied much more than any other play on this subject, including Euripides’ original. The popularity of the myth of Iphigenia owes as much to Racine as to any other dramatist before or after him. Examining the reception history of her chosen plays, A. would be able to engage more systematically with the reception of the myth at large. As the book stands, we hear nothing about the adaptations of IA in, say, nineteenth-century England and Italy. Nor do we hear anything about the treatment of Euripides’ play and the myth in recent major theatre productions such as Arianne Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides, John Barton’s The Greeks, and Joanne Akalaitis’ The Iphigeneia Cycle. Given the size of the book, it is legitimate, I think, to expect a more comprehensive overview of the myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in literary and artistic genres. The interaction between drama and performance, drama and iconography, drama and music lies outside the scope of A.s study, yet it could shed light on various aspects of her subject.

The book concludes with a very useful bibliography organised in sections according to the chapters in the book. There are only a few items which I think could usefully be added: Pierre Bonnechere’s study on human sacrifice in ancient Greece ( Le sacrifice humain en Grèce ancienne, Athens and Liège: Kernos, Suppl. 3, 1994), Maria Holmberg Luebeck’s Iphigeneia, Agamemnon’s Daughter: a Study of Ancient Conceptions in Greek Myth and Literature Associated with Atrides (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993), Katherine King’s book on the reception history of Achilles ( Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), and Henriette Bonneric’s study of the myth of the Atrides in French literature ( La famille des Atrides dans la litterature française, Lille: Belles Lettres, 1986).