October 2008


1.

 

The television’s neon slips up and down

the stem of the wineglass

like a painter’s moon.

 

But I toss, steroid-fuelled,

in autobiographical surges.

 

 

2.

 

It’s as if, in my sleep, I were composing,

but dream after dream comes to the point

where I, of all people, should arise,

awake and take responsibility for my bladder.

 

In the torus the wheeze looks like pneumonia

but treatments have no effect

and there is little discomfort.

 

So there remains the question

the doctors cannot answer:

When can I resume my status as an immortal?

 

The light under the door at 5 am tells my wife

that the ship sails on through the night

but now with happiness as a positive force,

Velcade health, not from my volition.

 

 

3.

 

This is my little cubicle of light

in which books unfold intimate consecutive stories.

In the end, one night, they wave

in heart-breaking departures.

 

 

4.

 

Since four, when I was put to bed after lunch

with ‘Listen with Mother’ and, excited by the music, never slept,

energy was always my natural state.

 

I’ve never rested in my life

and now am sixty not seventy-five.

But weakness and tiring are a new matter.

 

Only two things stop me from living ―

one, living: we forge through our routines.

The other must be sin, the magnet behind me

 

of awkwardised obsessions.

Only these keep me from the constant contemplation of God

― what otherwise would one ever want to do?

 

 

5.

 

I wake to an orange sky.

A fox has died in our neighbour’s garden,

lying across a steel ladder.

 

I could choke on a crumb,

drown in a speck of phlegm.

The clock could stop at any moment.

A puff of wind could bury

this gossamer in the sky.

And what is one death more or less

on this small planet?

 

 

6.

 

The trees are tossing in the mirror’s sail

through glass and rain of a floating bedroom.

God is love, it says here,

his very being is love.

 

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Euripides has long been regarded, amongst the ancient Greek tragedians, as the most amenable to us today. That is to say, to retrospective eyes, the most “modern” and forward-looking. This is not to adopt a sort of progressivist view of history, but simply to say he adumbrated radical, existential concerns and is in some sorts, perhaps like Marcus Aurelius, one who anticipates the need for a Christian theology.

 

He certainly seems to have been somewhat isolated in his own age, and may have compromised by introducing important themes (as “irony” in Philip Vellacott’s terms) behind a screen of the popular dramatic panoply expected by his audience. He lost out in the prize-winning stakes to his contemporary, Sophocles (Aeschylus had preceded them both by a generation or so) and was mocked by Aristophanes. Nevertheless, after his death, when Sophocles, his rival, appeared in mourning dress, Euripides’s considerable reputation was not diminished.

 

The translations produced for Penguin Books in the 1950s and 1960s by Philip Vellacott remain the staple sources for non-Greek readers today. One should not overlook nevertheless that they are in themselves products of recognisably modern times (nobody any longer finds it easy to access Euripides via the more “classic” versions of Gilbert Murray, though, happily, his collected versions of Euripides are still available in hardcover). Vellacott aspires to poetry and uses a loose English hexameter style which is alien to British poetry but is nonetheless flexible and compelling. It sets up an acoustic of anapaests[1] in the inner ear which is pleasingly intermittent. This medium has recently and most impressively been used in David Raeburn’s complete edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2004), also in Penguin Classics, as it was― memorably ― by Kimon Friar in 1958 in his Herculean five-year collaborative translation with Nikos Kazantzakis of his verse epic, The Odyssey – A Modern Sequel.[2] But as far as I know, Vellacott was not producing a commission for the theatre, but a very ambitious and extensive series of translations of classical dramas for publication. He was therefore not pressed by the exigencies of the modern theatre. His versions therefore remain “faithful” to the text as we have it, complete in the case of Alcestis, with careful notes about difficulties and departures, and accordingly a useful benchmark.

 

The same cannot be said of Ted Hughes’s late version of the same play, late in the sense that Hughes seemed to turn to translation of classical verse drama ― Racine’s Phèdre, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Tales from Ovid, and Euripides’s Alcestis ― in the last years of his life when he may already have been aware of his illness. All were commissions or at least were performed soon after his death in 1998.

 

What are the barriers that today separate us from such ― perhaps forbiddingly classical ― antique Greek drama? There is no doubt that, like opera in the 19th century, this was the mass popular entertainment of its day, dazzling to contemplate or even imagine in the massive, rotund stone theatre at Epidaurus; yet equally like opera it is something of a fossil in the world of cinema, rock festival and massive electronic stimulation. Nevertheless, theatre itself, though marginalised and increasingly ill-attended, continues to host highly successful productions of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, all of whom have a perennial appeal, on radio as well as stage. My impression is that Aristophanes, though comic, fares less well. In many ways radio has a chastity and potential for auditory imagination which solves many of the problems of communication and brings the viewer closer to the reader.

 

The Hughes version of Alcestis, completed after a five-year intermission, is touted as being somewhat unfree, by implication, as he

 

goes beyond mere translation to an inspired rethinking of the story in terms of his own vision of human suffering.[3]

 

This is more than a little unfair, since a comparison with Vellacott reveals that many of Hughes’s best flourishes are present in the Euripides original. True, Euripides presumably does not refer to the dead as

 

dead / Forever. / They return to the pool of atoms (p. 2.)

 

But the comments on marriage, one of Euripides’s core modern concerns, are there in all versions. Hughes allows Alcestis to say in her final appeal to her husband, Admetus,

 

Protect my children, be their mother,

And guide them

Into strong marriages. (p. 12)

 

Chorus 2 (Hughes follows Vellacott in slicing up the problematic Greek Chorus: more on this below), after some echoes of Crow and Eliot (both Faber and Hughes are well within their rights to draw on these literary reserves), makes the comment:

 

Never say marriage

Brings more happiness to those who marry

Than it brings pain.

Think of all the marriages you have known. (pp. 16-17)

 

Of course there are

 

additions to the text [which] include an expanded burlesque treatment of Hercules’s drunk scene and an episode involving Prometheus and his vulture (cover blurb)

 

but these seem wholly justified by the requirement to produce a lively stage production. Actors must love Hughes’s chewy yet naturalistic lines. On first opening his ‘version’, one is inclined to think that this is a novel on legs. The pages quickly turn. The impact on audiences must be immediate. Hughes is a great Shakespearean and has written an immensely ambitious book about his hero[4] and therefore had a vivid appreciation of the necessity for variety and diversity in a two-hour live performance; he therefore welcomed the irruption of grieving servants and rude mechanicals to cavort with Hercules who, in the original text, is hardly inebriated.[5]

 

So, do we need “powerful” versions like this of Euripides? Undoubtedly, especially when, as with Hughes, there is an underlying armature of constant fidelity to the original text, through which the unmistakable concerns of Euripides are transmitted and even clarified.

 

Alcestis is not supposed to be a prime tragic work. It is a ‘satyr’ play, usually the last of a series of four, which includes popular appearances of nymphs and satyrs. Yet we have a complete text which begins with an unmistakable announcement of tragic ambition in monologues by Apollo and Death, which subsequently migrate into a dialogue between these two polar characters, who enjoy an almost allergic opposition; in Vellacott’s text (Apollo is speaking):

 

And I too must leave this house,

Which I love dearly, to avoid the taint of death.[6]

 

These two characters provide the structure ― the warp and weft ― of the play but never reappear. On this structure are woven the dilemmas of love and sacrifice, relationships between men and women in marriage, the view of women as chattels, the ultimately bleak vision of the universe and, of overwhelming importance to Euripides, the rôles of what he calls Chance and Necessity in human destiny. There is no need  any longer for the author to conceal any of this behind any screen of irony: it is fully explicit in both modern translations.

 

Let us deal with the pre-Christian metaphysics first and then turn to the problem of the Chorus, which seems to me an obstacle to be chiselled away at.

 

No Christian really believes in Fate. The ancients had gloomy and deterministic views of the universe, with events emanating from mischievous gods and goddesses who provided extraordinarily poor rôle-models, however comic they are made to appear by Ovid. The narratives are endless. Even if one resorts, as many do, to the most lively and capacious modern treatment, that by Robert Graves in his The Greek Myths, one finds a welter of fast moving detail that scarcely allows the stories to breathe, so vast are the tracts to be covered. No doubt Graves felt this method to be forced upon him.

 

For a Christian there is the Will of God. This eliminates randomness of all kinds (pace Heisenberg) and Necessity, if this be understood as the opposite of free will. One may therefore describe Euripides as peculiarly prescient in his accurate anticipation of the need for a Christian theology. His concerns were all the right ones. One may doubt his audience’s appetite for philosophy. Still more, one may doubt the appetite of any audience, ancient or modern, for the bleak tragic vision. But from a Christian point of view we cannot but admire the full unveiling of a hostile Fate, as we might say; a controlling but malign and usually arbitrary reality.

 

All is well here, however, given that Alcestis is somehow resurrected by the obliging Hercules, who yanks Death by means of a mighty arm around his neck and brings the lady home surrounded by nothing worse than a three-day aura of silence.

 

Let us turn to the problem of the Chorus. This has puzzled and ultimately defeated most translators and modern audiences, including Ezra Pound, who complained mildly to TS Eliot about all the groaning women of Canterbury who appear in the faux-Greek but much performed Murder in the Cathedral. Yet it is precisely the presence of the author and his narratives that make Euripides seem, in the Hughes version, so much like a novel on legs. That is, we have plenty of dialogue but also an unceasing flow of reinforcing commentary, often interpreted as superfluous and therefore banal, in the form of the frequent interventions by the Chorus.

 

This is recognised in a further, older but interesting translation of Ten Plays by Euripides by Moses Hadas and John McLean.[7] This is a prose but lively rendition in which all the interventions by the Chorus are rendered in italic print. This, it seems to me, brings us closer to the authorial nature of the Chorus, at least on the page. It remains difficult to translate to the stage, particularly as Euripides insists at times on a single, unfragmented Chorus who interacts as a person with the character of Admetus:

 

I had a kinsman lost his only son,

A boy worth weeping for. Nevertheless,

Though childless in old age,

Yet patiently through the grey downward years

He bore his sorrow. (Vellacott, p. 72; Chorus is speaking)

 

Admetus has just responded to an intervention by a solo Chorus, as follows:

 

You touched my heart where the wound lies. (Vellacott, p. 71)

 

This gives Chorus the opportunity to propose to the stricken Admetus the first great metaphysical theme, before closing in almost as a therapist:

 

CHORUS: Chance has come upon you; you cannot wrestle with chance.

ADMETUS: I cannot. (Vellacott, p. 71)

 

Notice that these examples involve true interpersonal interactions. They are therefore noteworthy as exceptions. For the most part Chorus operates as an independent nexus of authorial digression and popular entertainment. Sometimes Chorus moves towards or among characters on stage but is strangely ignored, as if a ghost or, when plural, a company of ghosts. Bear in mind that it is given to Chorus to provide poetic masterpieces, structured antiphonally in Strophe and Antistrophe, as well as semi-redundant commentary. It is said that Greek prisoners in Syracuse were released if they were able to recite some of these, rather as Leadbelly used to sing his way serially out of prisons in the southern United States.

 

One example is the ‘Hymn to Apollo’ (pp. 61-62 in Vellacott) which is noteworthy. Here is the Antistrophe:

 

Spotted lynxes loved his music and came

To feed beside his flock,

And a tawny herd of lions

Came from the glen of Orthrys;

And around your lute, Apollo,

Dappled fawns, stepping out

Slender-footed from the high shady fir-trees

Danced for joy to your enchanting notes. (Vellacott, p. 61)

 

This is worth at least a year or two of time off for good behaviour.

 

However Chorus is not the sole source of lyricism. Lyricism is implicit even in the despair of Admetus, when he says:

 

The sunlight wakes no pleasure in my eyes;

My foot treads the firm earth and feels no joy (Vellacott, p.70)

 

But this effectively reminds us that to tread the earth and be lit by the sun are pleasurably life-affirming if unconscious joys. Chorus is quick to remind Admetus that

 

In mortal life different events occur

To crush now one man, now another. (Vellacott, p. 71)

 

Chorus is right. The bleak vision of the universe is realistic, even though it highlights the necessity for still absent hope.

 

But one can see the dilemma for a producer if Chorus is sometimes an individual with a history, sometimes a group of ghosts, sometimes a poetry recital, sometimes an on-stage existential therapist, and so on. How on earth can one realise this in a stage performance with all its visual commitments? (Radio provides more melting opportunities.) One possibility is to have something like quadraphonic speakers with selections of Choral contribution floating across the stage, as in the text, at times single, at times split into three or more voices, at times interacting with characters, as Hamlet interacts with his own thoughts, at times singing or reciting.

 

In truth, it seems to me that we are dealing with hidden, novel-like aspects which are integral to the original Euripidean construction and concept. These should not really be a problem, because they introduce precisely the focus of interest, diversity and relief afforded by the rude mechanicals and eloquent vulture of Hughes.

 

My point, then, is to get Chorus off the stage altogether but to introduce a narrative flow and diversity of interest of a novel without in any way impeding, but rather enhancing, the action on the stage. I propose this merely as one possible solution, having never directed a play in my life.


[1] “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib.

[2] Because of Kazantzakis’s insistence on exclusive use of the demotiki, many modern Greeks actually prefer to read the English version. It is reckoned to be his most enduring work and Friar’s translation is, ironically, a masterpiece of kingly speech.

[3] Euripides, Alcestis, in a new version by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1999; cover blurb. All subsequent page references are to this first edition.

[5] Vellacott points out some exuberant but transient rhyming.

[6] Euripides, Alcestis, Hippolytus, Iphigenia in Tauris. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953, 1974, p. 43. All subsequent page references are to this latter edition.

[7] Dial Press, 1936; Liberal Arts Press, 1950; Bantam Classic Books, 1981, 2006.

 

 

 

  

 

This “most underrated writer of the century”, i.e. the last century, was discarded by publishers much to her dismay in the 1960s as too prim and twee. One may refer in jest to vicarage tea parties, but Pym did indeed write about them both in jest and in deadly earnest. However in the 1970s she received a boost when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil (a certain ‘Lord Edgar Ravenswood’ teaches English at Oxford in Jane and Prudence) registered their high opinion of her in the Times Literary Supplement on 21-Jan-77 and soon Macmillan and, in the USA, EP Dutton were starting to reprint her books and bring out new ones. However she died of breast cancer in 1980 before she could enjoy a second wave of success. Like spinsters from one of her own novels, she retired to live with her sister Hilary in a little village, Finstock, outside Oxford, where both are buried. Following Barbara’s death at 66, her sister inaugurated a Barbara Pym collection at St Hilda’s, Oxford, Barbara’s former college. There is a Barbara Pym Society which arranges walking tours.

 

It is not enough to describe Pym as a comic novelist. She is sad in at least equal measure. An early critic of DH Lawrence mentioned that “all his horses are either mares or stallions” and this is equally true of Pym. After some disconcerting episode or other, and there are many, a discussion follows of men and how they need to eat meat or be admired or have everything done for them. They are essentially furniture that ring the world of women in obtuse but innocent fashion. In Jane and Prudence, Fabian needs to have a female companion pushed his way; he needs help disposing of the effects of his late wife; when this potential fiancée is repulsed by another who spills a cup of tea over her rival, Fabian needs help to break with the former (he is not good with writing letters); he needs prompting by the latter to buy her a cheap trinket; and when we take our leave of him, he is so alarmed by the prospect of living with the second wife, that he is clearly going to need a lot of help marrying her.

 

“Poor Constance was left alone a great deal,” said Miss Doggett. “In many ways, of course, Mr Driver is a very charming man. They say, though, that men only want one thing ― that’s the truth of the matter.” Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing, but had forgotten for the moment what it was.[1]

 

It is the women who are observed intimately, directly and indirectly, in sidelong fashion, and who observe each other. Many are unmarried, the Bridget Joneses of their day. So far so good. In relation to the strangely immobile men, one gets a ‘pash,’[2] and then progresses through ‘admiration’ to devotion and marriage. Or rather, not to marriage. In the main, people do not die or give birth or marry in the novels of Barbara Pym. And this all takes place within the machinery of the Anglican Church, for these are highly ecclesiastical settings. The novels seem to have very little to do with Christianity, but Churchianity is quite another matter, of consuming interest if all your readers are also readers of John Betjeman.

 

However, this is a very hierarchal world and one comes to feel that much of this ecclesiastical structure ― the mechanisation of rôles ― is needed because the characters are basically a set of quite dull people. This is not their fault. The books are for the most part set firmly in the 1950s. The local member of Parliament holds a seat which has been in the family for three generations ― our “beloved Member” ― and well-off but entirely ineffectual people have jobs in the City which scarcely require their presence. The genteel spinsterhood of the village comes next layer down, aspiring to dignity and to trapping a man. Below this, people work ― always at dull jobs ― in banks or as piano-tuners. And the whole edifice is supported by an army of women who shop, cook, clean and keep house (“do”). The male working class is invisible, but everything of any practical utility whatever is done by a servant, female working class. As is appropriate in such a highly layered society, people vacillate between slightly higher, candle- and incense-laden churches and slightly lower ones – Chapel. The distinctions are entirely social.

 

Pym was originally inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, yet we are quite a few IQ points short of the brilliant conversation between typical Huxley characters. The hierarchy is stifling, oppressive, the characters limited. But if Pym is writing about the limitations of people, she is able to do so in a brilliant way. Like all authors, she first trains you to pay attention to what she is saying in her sly, unpausing manner, in which adverbs are rolled to sentence ends like dice always loaded on six.

 

I would locate her in the general vicinity of Ivy Compton Burnett. True, her characters are not little matchstick men, but they are puppets. The slight narratives explore the world from the point of view of the single woman, especially within the ecclesiastical hamster cage. The effort to read Pym reduces slightly with successive novels. I suspect that enthusiasm for her art burns most brightly in those who share her interest in high Anglicanism, the rituals of village life, 17th-century English poetry, quoted passim, Lyons Corner Shops[3] and the hierarchical arcana of the 1950s. Somehow all of this seems much more remote than Chaucer, Hildegard of Bingen or Hardy. The halo of nostalgic escapism around the fiction never seems quite to disperse and may have been there from the beginning.


[1] Jane and Prudence, Harper and Row (Perennial Library, 1982, p. 70.

[2] I haven’t come across this word in Pym but it belongs there.

[3] Which even I remember.

 

 

 

 

   

 

Amidst the plethora of contemporary translations of the Bible, all of which have contributed untold munificence to the emerging and flabbergasting journey of certain individuals, there is an gathering sense, for me at least, that ― in addition to the eclecticism thus forced upon us ― we should perhaps recognise a tendency for new versions of the Bible to tie themselves in knots.

 

I have written over many years and in many notebooks of the dilemmas posed by translations of the Bible. In the pre-digital era, it is very hard to discover these passages again among the lucubrations of so many large black volumes. But the gist of my conclusions seems to be that, if you want to discover what actually happened during the shipwreck of St Paul, you need a modern version; and if you want to discover how David danced before the Lord in one or another psalm, you need the King James Version. In other words, the present age is good at objectivity, but previous ones were ages of faith.

 

We have other preoccupations:

 

You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.[1]

 

There is also a distinct tendency to migrate from the concrete to the abstract, as if this were a form of progress, rather than mere generalisation – dilution. The modern mind is enfeebled by abstraction. In fact we have lost access to the secrets of language (eloquence), just as we have lost access to the secrets of the heart (faith), with the former weakness contingent upon the latter. The darkness no longer fails to comprehend the light; it merely fails to overcome it.

 

Reading the first chapter of the fourth Gospel in French, Évangile Selon Jean, one quickly comes upon the repetitions ― things are said in pairs ― and indeed perhaps we need to be told things twice. It is striking that, although they were cousins and their mothers were certainly acquainted, John twice says,

 

Moi-même, je ne le connaissais pas … et je ne le connaissais pas (Traduction Œcuménique, Jean 1: 31,33)

 

Then, in the famous Prologue we find:

 

“This is the one of whom I said: He who comes after me has passed ahead of me because he existed before me.” (John 1:15 NJB).

 

Before long we are given this again:

 

It was of him that I said, “Behind me comes the one who has passed ahead of me because he existed before me”. (John 1:30 NJB)

 

Like a tripod, three verbs are made to carry what is evidently to be regarded as something of a weight.

 

In spite of its promise of coherence and continuity, the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, Anglicised Text, published in 2005 (NRSV; Darton Longman Todd) retains very little of what one is familiar with:[2]

 

This is he of whom I said, “After me comes the man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” (v. 30).

 

This has already appeared, in parentheses for some reason, as follows:

 

(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”‘) (NRSV John 1:15)

 

But already there is a slithering between possible alternative verbs – ranks, passed and so on. Things are a little clearer in the French ―

 

C’est de lui que j’ai dit: Après moi vient un homme qui m’a devancé, parce que, avant moi, il était. (TOB, Jean 1:30).

 

This is because the French word devancé does quite a lot of work (overtaken, surpassed) in a concise fashion. But the convoluted English, in which ontological status is made to determine physical position, is of a kind that sub editors normally reject. The problem is not merely that of clarity ― perhaps one knows what is meant ― but of conviction.

 

And so one turns to the Authorised Version and reads as follows:

 

John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me … … he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. (KJV John 1:15, 30)

 

Again, the simplicity of was is present in the modern French – était. And preferred is at least the equal of devancé.

 

The superiority of Jacobean English is simply that of faith. This splendid committee of about fifty scholars from Cambridge, Oxford and London knew what they thought and believed and, although in the throes of a Protestant revolution, manoeuvred within margins which left little room for existential doubt.

 

A much more serious tangle has already occurred in this, perhaps the best known chapter in the Bible:

 

Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. (John 1:3 NJB).

 

There is nowadays something of a fascination with the linguistic mechanics of the verb to be and its associated Heideggerian possibilities. I suppose there is a suckling tide – to and fro – around the word creation, with creationists and anti-creationists, and I have recently found it helpful to think of the universe as given rather than created. Not that there is much difference, though this mattered to St Augustine. Now the conciseness of the French is startling:

 

Tout fut par lui (TOB, Jean 1:3)

 

And we turn to the Authorised Version with the greatest relief:

 

All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:3 AV)

 

Here there is no ebb of faith whatsoever: things were made. They did not come into being. We descend no slope of existential ingenuity. We are not obliged to contemplate non-being with the help of continental philosophers. We need not even juggle created and given with images of the toymaker in his Lapland smithy moving in the distance.

 

The assurance is there, the confidence of things unseen, above all the obeisance of attitude to which no amount of objectivity contributes anything at all.


[1] Amos, ch. 6, v. 6. New International version, 1989.

[2] Except here and there: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth”; “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” ― John 1:14, 16.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have bitterly and resentfully watched the scufflings

of traders up and down the hill above the harbour.

The very Bosphorus is a cauldron. And now the scar

over my right eye resembles a grain-merchant’s scoop,

thankfully fading like a patch of stars. Behind their curtains

the Princesses are not lacking in advice and censure.

 

Spiked helmets arrive and nod over the white blocks.

The turrets dazzle as each elbow of sun

settles like a lizard. The scrolls are rolled up once more.

Crossed spears keep out the brazen carpet-mongers.

This time all the spirals descend to the tiled forecourt

where I receive supplicants, reports, ministers and perpetual tribute.

The light wears them out but not the bow spray

as they stand knuckle to knuckle clutching the deck rail

while the sun mists the teak with fine autumn.

The mystery of dress, of manners, of appearances,

yet all in uniform fashion, locked away safe

from danger and trough, mermaid and dragon.

 

Some eau-de-Cologne. A murder. But even here

the fabric of human history ― become rather faint ―

and long-dead passions is fed through the mangle

of patient contemplation, yielding the grain of sense.

This is the ruse: the ship has a harbour, a mise-en-scène,

to get to and only in steady lamplight brings forth its grief.

If you should sail south-east from Aegina, perhaps seeking Hydra, Leonard Cohen’s island, still blessedly car-free but now bling-strewn, you might glance across at the gloomy, charcoal-coloured cliffs here[1] called the Peloponnesus, but more properly Argolis, but failing to see the well-walled town ruled in heroic times by Theseus, you would probably not raise a digital camera. This is or was ‘low-lying’ Troëzen, mentioned on three occasions in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, often in alliance with Athenian powers against rival city-states.

 

Since the days of Chapman, Dryden and Pope, we have been fortunate in our translators into English from classical languages. In our own day, Gilbert Murray has delivered the complete, 17 strong set of plays by Euripides; in my youth, Robert Fitzgerald rode high on the Homeric waves, while Roberts Fagles, the American professor, is now supreme as a translator, not only of the salty epics but also of the Oresteia of Aeschylus.

 

Ignoring comedy for the moment, including Aristophanes the great mocker of Euripides, it may be helpful to schematise the main bodies of Greek tragedy as follows:

 

Dramatist

Cycle

Components

Aeschylus

Oresteia

Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides

Euripides

(several)

Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Electra, Sisyphos, Phaedra, Iphigeneia at Aulis; in Tauris etc

Sophocles

Theban plays (Oedipus cycle)

Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus

 

In our own day, great poets have not been bashful about attempting bold, even idiosyncratic, assaults on these Mount Rushmore rockfaces. Ted Hughes has given us his free Alcestis, Tony Harrison his slightly chuntering Oresteia and even the notoriously non-literal Robert Lowell has given us a graceful, deceptively simple version, probably performable in a single evening, of the same trilogy coloured with gentle poetic lights.

 

But these are all the original Greeks. What of that extraordinary interest in and revival of classical drama that occurred in France in the second half of the 17th-century, most notably in the astonishing 10 year (1667-1677), 10 play period of productivity in the career of Jean Racine? Phaedra was the last of these, possibly the greatest, certainly the one most concerned with moral virtue and least with heroic reputation; and as such has always been felt to portend a turning back to the essentialising moral perception of the dramatist’s Port Royal mentors. Phaedra was his last work for the stage.

 

The fact that these plays are read and performed in English today has more to do with one man than any other ― the American poet, Richard Wilbur, today still alive at 89. Moreover, this scrupulous poet kept very close to the English model of the heroic couplet, so that we sometimes feel ourselves to be keeping company with Pope or Dryden, yet never allows himself to be deflected from the emotional precision and fidelity of the original.

 

We may think to ourselves, how deprived the French in their theatre ― even in their Golden Age of 17th-century, Molière and Racine (though behind them stands Corneille, in many ways a more interesting figure). This is a theatre that is small and almost without action. In Molière there is the least some sort of plot: people come and go, deceptions are unmasked, things build up to a climax, a dénouement. In Racine, information arrives and leaves the static centre in which a very few characters exchange views of their profound dilemmas, their momentous decisions, their tragic insights. Depth there undoubtedly is, but still little or nothing happens. How impoverished this can seem to an English person used, not just to Shakespeare, but to the drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages.

 

There is no real answer to this accusation, frosted with presuppositions about stagecraft and acting. Racine simply doesn’t work like that. Although cast in the form of a five act tragedy, with two of the acts running beyond five scenes, there is a continuous flow from beginning to end. People implicitly leave and arrive. All dramatic action occurs elsewhere and is economically reported on stage. The revelations ― of deception, treachery, guilt ― are all delivered up-front in the most direct and uncomplicated fashion.

 

It has been customary to concentrate on Phaedra herself, as a

 

“Greek woman with a Christian conscience” … “one of the just to whom grace was not vouchsafed” … her true and hopeless hunger is for innocence, for a state of soul called “purity” […] p. xv

 

Indeed,

 

Heaven lit a fatal blaze within my breast (p. 104)

 

But as always with Phaedra, one feels that there is something more pathological at work:

 

I dared not weep and grieve in fullest measure;

I sipped in secret at that bitter pleasure; (p. 82)

 

It seems to me that a sounder reference point is Hippolytus himself who, somewhat fearlessly, addresses his irate but still-living father, Theseus, profligate as well as hero, in the following terms:

 

Incest! Adultery! Are these still your themes?

I’ll say no more. Yet Phaedra’s mother, it seems,

And, as you know, sir, all of Phaedra’s line

Knew more about such horrors than did mine. (p. 76)

 

In other words, there is a long family tradition (we would nowadays speak of genes) behind Phaedra which has contributed to her disorder, whatever restraining effect her conscience may have played. It is Hippolytus himself who remains the most interesting, perhaps even central character, inspired by a virtue that is simply not to be met with in any other character.

 

In just resentment of so black a lie,

I might well let the truth be known, but I

Suppress what comes too near your heart (p. 73; he is addressing Theseus)

 

One feels that Racine himself places him in our midst as a benchmark. His beloved Aricia sees and loves this nobility of nature which she significantly shares. One of the finest single lines occurs early on when Hippolytus says

 

I would not flee her if I hated her (p. 11)

 

However Hippolytus is torn to pieces, not by the sea monster obligingly spewed forth by Neptune (we deal largely with Roman versions of names in this translation) at the request of the deranged Theseus: this monster is apparently speared and disabled by Hippolytus, but by his own terrified and stampeding horses who no longer answer to his voice and drag him to his death as a bloody and scarcely recognisable corpse.

 

The play derives its power, then, not from some sort of restrained French classicism, but from an astonishing precision of emotional focus and economy of means, which Wilbur faithfully upholds. It could be argued that such a drama is meant for the ears alone (BBC Radio 3 recently presented a powerful Racine play, largely conducted in a dungeon with letters arriving and noises off) or simply to be read on the page, like the great classical poetry it is. Either way, the lucid Wilbur version supports the text whether staged, heard or read. There is never any glitch of comprehension and the evidence of emotional bravery is always clear to see. Nobody seems to be too scared of Theseus. Even Aricia, constrained from marriage and persecuted by the hero, but now a member of his household after the deaths of her brothers, princess of the blood royal and heir to the Athens of Pallas, does not hesitate to speak truth to power:

 

Fear, my lord, fear lest the stern deities

So hate you as to grant your wrathful pleas (p. 94)

 

Eventually light begins to trickle into the darkened mind of Theseus. He starts to take a greater interest in evidence, begins to relent and in the last line of the play adopts Aricia as a daughter.

 

Knowing it to be doomed, we can end with a consideration of the tenderest of young loves, the love which each has denied to him- or herself in no uncertain terms. Hippolytus, driver of chariots through forest solitudes, has long borne his own vow:

 

How, pitying poor storm-tossed fools, I swore

Ever to view such tempests from the shore; (p. 39)

[…]

Judge of my love, which forced me to confide

What even from myself I wished to hide. (p. 89)

 

Aricia is not allowed a declaration of love but she is warm in her response to Hippolytus’s declaration of her political freedom, made at a time when it is believed that Theseus is dead:

 

These words so daze me that I almost fear

Some dream, some fancy has deceived my ear.

Am I awake? This plan which you have wrought ―

What god, what god inspired you with the thought?

How just that, everywhere, men praise your name!

And how the truth, my lord, exceeds your fame! (p. 38)

 

All of this is conveyed in nimble-footed manner by the great but self-effacing Wilbur, who is content neither to be note-perfect in the 18th century elegiac couplet (the lines become slightly dishevelled by reports of violent action at a distance) nor to rue his own lapidary capacities, as many of these quotations show.


[1] Jean Racine, Phaedra (1677); tr. Richard Wilbur. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

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