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Monday, June 16, 2003

Book Reviews

Euripides Ungendered

Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays by Daniel Mendelsohn. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, 257 + xv pages, $65.




This first-rate display of contemporary classical scholarship is yet another facet revealed of an extraordinarily versatile man. Mendelsohn is well-known for the acuity of his book reviews in such publications as New York magazine and The New York Review of Books. He is also the author of a very well-written memoir of a boy who grows up gay and Jewish and finds his intellectual life in classical studies (The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity). If this were not enough, he is also a part-time lecturer in classics at Princeton University. In this study of two of Euripides’ more elusive plays, Mendelsohn demonstrates that his journalistic talent for presenting well-digested, complicated information, not to mention striving for clarity, can be profitably introduced into the usually arcane discipline known as classical philology. This book is a model for those who would write seriously about classics and have the courage to wish to be understood. Unfortunately, all too many persons in the field are happy to hide their vulnerabilities in the shadows of obfuscation. I would recommend this book especially to readers new to the subject of the interpretation of ancient Athenian drama who are willing to take on the challenge of reading complex prose that, with close application, yields up its meanings.

The book began as a doctoral dissertation at Princeton under the direction of Froma Zeitlin, whose writing on feminism and tragedy forms an important part of the contemporary foundation in classical studies. Like so many dissertation writers, Mendelsohn has found a subject hitherto much neglected that he zealously and protectively exalts, not unlike the defensive parent praising an awkward, little-admired child. One must admit that his advocacy can sometimes make a reader resistive. What is remarkable, however, is that Mendelsohn has refashioned his material into a coherent and informative work that is accessible to a general reading public — well, let’s say to a cultured and intelligent reading public. For those who may still imagine that Athenian drama is either entertainment or religious ritual, Mendelsohn offers an overview of the social function of the festival of Dionysus as a kind of alternative or amplification of the deliberative and voting assembly that met 10 times in the year. After an excellent account of contemporary French theory’s effect on the study of ancient Athenian tragic drama, and the competing feminist interpretation of the same material, Mendelsohn proceeds through his two plays, scene by scene. This maneuver is especially valuable for the reader whose minimal familiarity with the plays would otherwise require her to consult the texts repeatedly.

The plays in question are Euripides’ Children of Herakles (which, as Mendelsohn points out, is not what the patronymic Herakleidai meant to an ancient Athenian, but rather sons of Herakles) and Suppliants. Called Euripides’ “political plays” because in each there is extensive commentary on Athenian democracy, as well as what seems allusion to contemporary diplomatic events, neither has ever found a favorable reception with critics or scholars. What Mendelsohn has done is to focus on the female characters in the two plays, which, as he notes, have never been discussed from the perspective of their gender. Traditionally, they have been read as nothing more than mouthpieces for the playwright’s ideas, on the tacit understanding that, as women, they have no role or function in the drama.

Pages 20-35 offer an excellent summary of a variety of feminist/structuralist approaches to ancient Athenian tragic drama. The dichotomous nature of humanity, male and female, is an important starting-point. In a patriarchal society, male is the reality, female the Other, the male is the known, the female the unknown, the male-constructed city (polis) is in opposition to the female-dominated house/home (oikos). The patriarchal control system is challenged by the notion of woman as irrational and emotional. The male lives in the open, out of the house, the woman lives within, in a dark and narrow, unknowable space. These ideas are sometimes challenged by those who deny that ancient Athenian women were suppressed and housebound to the degree suggested by some. It seems odd to this critic that contemporary feminist readings, of which the one above is only the tip of the iceberg, do not take into account the very considerable biological difference in male/female sexual experience. Males have external genitals, with which they, their spouses, other sexual consorts, as well as upon occasion the males around them, have a visual relationship. By contrast, at least for contemporary women, as the recent Vagina Monologues so amply demonstrate, there is extraordinary ignorance. Women have little or no idea of the physical reality of their genital equipment. This can be true for males, as well. One thinks of the male fantasy of going on an exploratory trip into a woman’s vagina, a delightful feature of the recent Almodóvar film, Talk To Her. What more profound basis does one need for the inside/outside polarities of the male/female experience? Male orgasm is a momentary muscle spasm, not unlike an explosion from a hose just turned on. Female orgasm is a prolonged seizure of the entire body, repeated again and again in brief time spans. From a male perspective, here is ample basis for the control/out-of-control dichotomy. Of course, any overall scheme is open to objections. That tragic drama was a means to exhibit the conflict and diversity in a political construct of democracy is only true if every extant play and what we know of the fragmentary others fits the formula.

Some will hesitate to bring contemporary attitudes into ancient theater: for instance, that the modern self-conscious group that knows itself to be women existed in antiquity. The notion that ancient Athenian drama had an agenda of problematizing patriarchalism or male-constructed democracy through the medium of female roles in plays seems itself to be problematic. That women in ancient drama may have functioned to acknowledge male anxieties about women, and then relieve them, seems to others to be a more likely explanation of women’s roles. As Mendelsohn points out, the audience may well have seen the women in the plays as symbols of women rather than their depiction. An older generation of critic may imagine that the fundamental ancient Athenian male/female relationship must have been the psychological fall-out from the patriarchal need to control and the rage at being controlled, perhaps not unlike the way it is expressed in so many contemporary cultures.

What is of particular interest is the way that Mendelsohn brings the political into the male/female relationship. In defending the two plays, he faults the generations of scholars playing critic who were prone to find every kind of error in Euripidean drama (in the case of The Children of Herakles, the pathos of the Girl’s suicide followed by the seemingly grotesque if not ludicrous attempts of an old man to arm himself for battle). As the late John Gardner, author, scholar, and very good literary critic, used to say, critical good will requires that one tries to see what the artist is doing and accept it as such before moving on to analysis and judgment. Few classical scholars have sufficient knowledge of artistic expression, other literatures, or general culture to be successful at criticism. This is again where Mendelsohn is superior, since for some years he has found success as a literary critic with the most demanding readers.

Like Gardner, Mendelsohn is open to the plays. He talks of what he calls the
“unhappy state of the texts,” which cannot help but reduce the security with which one advances an interpretation of a play. He will not dismiss the plays with the critical strategy of looking for political allusion or symbols of political events in everything, surrendering, in other words, to excessive historicism. Nor will he accept the notion that these are, in so many words, throwaway plays to fill out the triad required for the festival. Indeed, he advances the excellent argument that since, as it seems, Euripides invented elements in the myth narrative of the dramas — for instance, Eurystheus surviving battle later to die at the urgent request of Alkmene in The Children of Herakles — his tinkering shows considerable interest in the plays’ architecture.

Mendelsohn’s project is to demonstrate how women’s roles work in these two plays. This is based on a proposition — “…the depiction of conflicts between opposite types, especially feminine types, constitutes the theatrical vehicle for working out a balanced political and civic identity” (p.133) — somewhat iffy to my mind, but my own critical good will asks me to surrender so as to allow his interpretation to proceed. What follows in the book will delight and instruct, although not necessarily convince, the reader. Mendelsohn’s is a very intellectual analysis of the action and speeches; one wonders how much of this got over in performance, even if the playwright was dealing in stereotypes. Contemporary theater professionals are sometimes particularly dubious of the capacity of choral odes to deliver meaning in performance, mindful of the complication of a group dancing and mouthing in unison very intricate lyrics to an audience of 15 or so thousand. Some would rather believe that the obviousness of the platitudinous sentiments of most choral utterance allows them to be intuited like frequently repeated television commercials.

Mendelsohn’s interpretations are always interesting, often convincing. In The Children of Herakles, for instance, two figures, the Girl and Alkmene, seem to be exactly the commonplace caricature of women for which Athenian culture is noted, that is, the virgin and the old hag. The stereotypical virgin sacrifices herself for the common good, whereas the old hag urges hateful, murderous action; in this play, the Girl offers herself in sacrifice demanded by the oracles to save Athens, whereas Alkmene insists upon the death of Eurystheus, who has been captured in battle. Mendelsohn demonstrates startling gender reversals in the action. When the Girl enters, her first words are an apology for leaving the interior space to appear outdoors, in a word, exhibiting transgressive behavior. This is translated into words when she argues for the rightness of her self-sacrifice in patriotic language fit for a man going into battle. Moreover, she speaks to Iolaus, a male who is sunk to the ground in dejection, in sum, a male feminized. Moments later, he is energized by her masculine energy to assume the typical male’s battle posture. Later in the play, standing over the defeated king Eurystheus like a victorious warrior in battle, Alkmene demands his death, just as a warrior in the field would have killed him. Again, the queen has dropped a woman’s identity for that of a man. One is never sure of audience reaction, never more difficult than in the Iolaus-Makaria scene. Iolaus’ initial feeble attempts to stand are usually seen as comic, a tone that is hard to explain away. Likewise, Alkmene’s vengeful, spiteful attack on Eurystheus does not jibe with her essentially benign role in the drama, especially in the face of his complete surrender and candor.

Mendelsohn’s struggle to work this out illustrates the fearful demands upon a critic who is determined to save the play. At one point, he argues that perhaps Alkmene’s behavior is a form of her saying, “Hey, what do you think I am, chopped liver? I’m a person, too.” Well, maybe. What is compelling at this moment is Mendelsohn’s willingness to entertain the idea. He will do this again and again on every page; it is the kind of critical generosity and openness that gives the reader so much upon which to meditate.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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