Seven Against Thebes – Aeschylus

Seven Against Thebes
Aeschylus
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, c. 467 BCE

In Seven Against Thebes, we have the first surviving play that tells a portion of the story of the house of Oedipus, he of kill-his-father, marry-his-mother fame. Now, though, we are in the next generation. His sons have had a falling out over a failed venture into joint rule and Polyneices has made league with seven kings to attack his home city of Thebes that he might wrest power from Eteocles.

ETEOCLES:
So far, the scale of fortune weights upon our side,
Thanks to the gods, who through this lengthy time of siege
Have given to us the best of the war. But now our prophet,
Who keeps the augural birds and without help of fire
By hearing and reflection tells infallibly
The drift of portents–he, interpreting such signs,
Says that among the Achaeans a supreme attack
Is now this night being planned to overthrow our city.
Then, to the walls! Swarm to the battlements and gates;
Forward, full-armed; man parapets, fill every floor
Of every tower; and in the gate’s mout hold your ground
With courage. Never fear this horde of foreigners!
God will give victory.

As the play opens, Eteocles is encouraging the citizens while the attacking armies approach. The reader knows that all is not well, for the women of Thebes, the chorus, are in despair, imagining the worst that can happen, and cannot manage to take comfort from Eteocles’s assurances. It is almost an adversarial relationship, as Eteocles rails at the women to be silent, to hold their tongues. But they cannot seem to help themselves, their fear is too great. Instead, they offer a striking portrait of the fate of the conquered, specifically the fate of the women. Their fear is understandable, though perhaps more open to question is their lack of faith in their leader.

CHORUS: I am afraid. The crashing at the gates grows louder.
ETEOCLES: Silence! We want no talk like that about the town.
CHORUS: You gods who share our life! Do not forsake these walls.
ETEOCLES: Plague take you! Will you not be patient and hold your tongues?
CHORUS: O gods, we are your people; save us from slaver.
ETEOCLES: It is you who are making slaves of me and of us all.
CHORUS: Almighty Zeus, take aim against our enemies.
ETEOCLES: Zeus, what a give you have us wehn you created women!
CHORUS: Women suffer as men do if their city’s captured

Perhaps this lack stems from their understanding of fate, a concept that pervades the plot and its outcome. A curse hangs over the entire family, since the day of Laius, who failed to take Apollo’s advice. The younger generation have their own curse, uttered by Oedipus against his sons for reasons here unspecified.

CHORUS: Give way now, while there is time.
Even yet the wind of the gods’ enmity,
After so long, may turn,
And favour you with a milder breath;
Though now it rages as before.

ETEOECLES: This rage was kindled by the curse of Oedipus.
How true a prophet is that figure of my dreams
Who comes each night to apportion our inheritance!

CHORUS: Let a woman’s words persuade you even against your will.
ETEOECLES: Say what you have to say, and finish; no long speech.
CHORUS: Go anywhere, I beg you, but to the seventh gate.
ETEOECLES: My will is set; not all your words can blunt it now.
CHORUS: Even unvaliant victory wins the gods’ approval.
ETEOECLES: That is no motto for a man in arms to accept.
CHORUS: Are you prepared to plunder your own brother’s blood?
ETEOECLES: When the gods send destruction there is no escape.

Eteocles’s understanding appears to be that there is no escaping these curses, their fate. Thus, when he learns that he alone is left to defend the seventh gate against his own brother, Eteocles does not attempt to avoid it, no last minute gate-swap, though his solider and the Chorus urge him to reconsider. Perhaps Eteocles, knowing Oedipus’s life story so well, truly believes there is no escaping Fate, so why attempt it. But this does not appear to be a universal sentiment among the characters here and the contrast is striking.

From what little I know about ancient Greece and its culture, the idea of “fate” seems to be recurring throughout their writing and thought. As best I can tell, is not quite the same as the idea of “fate” we have today, and there certainly seems to be the feeling that there is no use fighting against it. Which is what makes the Chorus’s urging of Eteocles to reconsider his plan so notable to me. Perhaps there is an underlying cultural aspect here that I am missing.

Unsurprisingly I’m way behind the semi-official Greek play reading schedule, but also even further behind in writing about them. I read this one back in February, and revisiting the play for this post in the current climate of the war in Ukraine, the fear of the women is all the more striking. These plays are so ancient, and yet remain so resonant.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmond Rostand
1897, France
Carol Clark, translator

“[…] You’re lacking in invention,
Young man. You could have said so many things.
You could have been aggressive, for example:
‘Good heavens, man, if I’d a nose like that
I’d have it amputated right away!’
Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink?
Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’ Or else descriptive:
‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape… No, not a cape,
It’s a peninsula!’ Inquisitive:
‘Do tell me, what is that long container?
Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’ Twee:
‘How darling of you to have built a perch
For little birds to rest their tiny claws.’
Facetious: ‘When you smoke, do they call “Fire”?
Do people think some chimney is alight?’
Worried: ‘No do be careful, when you walk,
That you don’t overbalance on your face,’
Motherly: “We must make a little parasol
To shade it from the sun.’ Perhaps pedantic:
‘Only the creature, sir, which Aristophanes
Calls Hippocampelephantocamelos
Could carry such a weight of flesh and bond
Below its forehead.’ […]”
(I.IV.313-335)

The image of Cyrano de Bergerac, he of oversized nose and outsized wit, is so familiar as to seem to have seeped into popular culture, yet I found that I really knew very little of the actual play or man. I was surprised, first, to find that the play was not a comedy as it first appeared, or at least not purely comedy. For there is tragedy here. But second, I was surprised to learn that most of the characters, Cyrano included, were based on real people (though the plot is not).

First performed in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac is set in the mid-1600s, the era of the Musketeers, d’Artagnan and Cardinal Richelieu, and it is every bit as swashbuckling as one of Alexandre Dumas’s adventures. The main crux of the action revolves around Roxane, the beautiful and intelligent cousin of Cyrano. She is loved of three men: Cyrano, his fellow cadet Christian de Neuvillette, and the nefarious Comte de Guiche. Roxane, oblivious of Cyrano’s feelings, but drawn to Christian’s good looks requests that her cousin look out for the young cadet. Out of love for Roxane, Cyrano complies, even to the point of becoming Christian’s voice in wooing Roxane, both figuratively, in letters, and literally, in the balcony scene.

Fast paced and witty, Cyrano seems an incredibly big play, and not just in its outsized personalities. The cast is large and the scene descriptions provided by Rostand—a theater, a bakery, a square, a battlefield, and a convent—are so minutely detailed as to seem impossible on a mere stage, and surely meant for a reader rather than a stage director.

What makes Cyrano so relatable, though, is the self-doubt, the feelings of inadequacy that the main rivals, Cyrano and Christian share. Though in theory, they should be rivals, the two become masks for each other, presenting to Roxane the “face” each thinks she most wishes to see (or hear). In so many arenas–duels of sword or wit, especially–Cyrano is more than confident, but he lacks self-confidence in one key area: that anyone should care for someone with his looks. Christian, on the other hand, though with the looks Cyrano lacks, knows himself to be lacking in the intelligent speech that Roxane desires. Thus, each uses the other to cover what they see as their own inadequacies. While such deceptions are more likely the realm of the stage than reality, the underlying view of self, the low self-esteem, even if in only one field, is universally felt, and only adds to the poignancy of the play’s final scenes.

The Persians – Aeschylus

The Persians
Aeschylus
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, 472 BCE

Chorus:
We are the Persian Council, left in trust,
For all our Persians serving now in Hellas,
To guard this rich and golden house. The King,
Xerxes himself, son of Darius, chose
Our rank and years to govern his domain.

But when will they return–Xerxes our king
And all his gold-clad armament? Our hearts
Heave in our breasts, clamouring prophetic fears.
The flower of Asian youth left home; and none,
Runner nor rider, brings us word of them.

So begins Aeschylus’s first surviving play, and the first surviving ancient Greek play (I believe oldest surviving play, period). It is a historical play. A tragedy, I suppose, for it relates the catastrophic defeat of the Persians, led by Xerxes, to the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis. Beyond this narrative there is little plot; it is more a news reel than a story.

The characters are few: the chorus, by turns anxious and devastated; the messenger who bears the bad news; Atossa, Xerxes’s mother; the ghost of King Darius, Xerxes’s father; and finally Xerxes himself, cataloging more fully than messenger the full scale of the defeat.

It is a defeat that Darius, called to view by the chorus in their role as Persian elders, attributes to his son’s hubris, for daring to go against the gods and nature.

Darius:
How swiftly came fulfilment of old prophecies!
Zeus struck within one generation: on my son
Has fallen the issue of those oracles which I
Trusted the gods would still defer for many years.
But heaven take part, for good or ill, with man’s own zeal.
So now for my whole house a staunchless spring of griefs
Is opened; and my son, in youthful recklessness,
Not knowing the gods’ ways, had been the cause of all.
He hoped to stem that holy stream, the Bosporus,
And bind the Hellespont with fetters like a slave;
He would wrest Nature, turn sea into land, manacle
A strait with iron, to make a highway for his troops.
He in his mortal folly thought to overpower
Immortal gods, even Poseidon. Was not this
Some madness that possessed him? Now my hard-won wealth,
I fear, will fall a prey to the first plunderer.

That Aeschylus should attribute the defeat not to any strategic or military superiority of the Greeks is interesting to me. Told through the Persian point of view (though the gods named are all Greek deities), it seems almost sympathetic, rather than the triumphant celebration by the victors that I might have expected. This becomes more nuanced, allowing the audience to feel the full force of their victory in the roll call of the enemy dead, while also displaying the deep grief of the defeated.

The many names of the dead is interesting to me as well. Were they the actual names of Persian generals and captains and soldiers? Representative names selected by Aeschylus? I assume that memory of names and valorous deeds was important to the ancient Greeks, for as I recall from The Iliad, there were many, many names there also.

I’m still not entirely sure of what to make of The Persians. Although I’ve done a little research into the context of ancient Greek theater, I have little context for the larger culture at the time (outside of other plays, epics, and myths I’ve read), so I don’t know how much I’m missing. However, I found it an interesting start to what will hopefully be a journey through all the surviving Greek plays, hosted/encouraged by Wuthering Expectations.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
US, 1943

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Garnder. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climatically.

Chapter 39

I didn’t need to know that Betty Smith started her 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a memoir before fictionalizing it to feel that this scene late in the novel between protagonist Francie Nolan and her 8th grade English teacher was drawn from Smith’s own life. It has the ring of a bitter personal experience, and the novel itself becomes the refutation, bringing vividly to life characters and neighborhood that Miss Garnder considers “sordid” but told in a manner and style that while not shirking from the difficulties of poverty and alcoholism in early 20th century Brooklyn, still manages a certain gentleness in the telling.

I suspect this is because the novel is from Francie’s point of view. It opens when she is 11 and moves back in forth in time, from when her parents are dating to when she is grown and leaving home. And while an adult Francie may recognize just how tough life was for the child, and for her mother, to the child of 11, rounding up scrap for the junk man to earn a few pennies for candy, everything in life is still an adventure to be discovered. She will grow to recognize that the world does not always see her life as she does–where she sees how loving and talented her father is, the world sees him as a good-for-nothing drunk; where her aunt is condemned for her “fast” ways, she sees a woman capable of great kindness and motherly love. This contrasting of views and Francie’s growing awareness of how others see her and her family contribute to what feels a very realistic portrait of a second-generation Irish-American family.

In her Hudson Review essay, “The Hungry Artist: Rereading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (helpfully pointed out by Amateur Reader(Tom)), Joyce Zonana posits that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn hasn’t received more scholarly notice in part because it deals with female hungers (literal and metaphorical), but I can’t help but wonder if the gentleness I feel reading it is a contributing factor. Although we know–depending on the quality of our imaginations and emphathies, can perhaps even feel–that the Nolans are poor, that they are starving, the visceralness of this reality is tempered by its coating, sandwiched between genuine loving moments between family members, games Katie Nolan makes up to distract her children from their hunger, and nostalgia-tinged descriptions of neighborhood customs and events. This all contributes to the realism and honesty of the novel, but without turning it into an “issue” novel that might get more press.

By turns moving or amusing, lighthearted or heartbreaking, innocent or dark, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a heavily plotted novel, though many things occur. It is a bildungsroman and a series of vignettes that make up a life. That Francie’s life will turn out better than her parents we can but hope, with her mother and grandmother, though we can never be assured. The events in her life and those of her neighbors and relatives make it only too plain that only one wrong turn–a poor decision or an unlucky stroke–can make everything wrong. On the other hand, the opportunities made available to Francie and her brother Neeley thanks to their mother’s insistence on their education–which in the 1910s means even just graduating from grammar school (8th grade), make clear that the possibilities are so much more open to the young generation than their parents or grandparents ever had. It is a vision of the American Dream, not that the child will be the leader of the land, but that the will–and can–do better than the parent.

It did feel as if the ending was a bit rushed. Perhaps this is reflective of life–Francie notes when she turns twelve, that all of a sudden things like Christmas, that once seemed so far away now really do seem to be just around the corner. But it felt more as if as Francie grew older Smith could no longer find much of interest–the adventures of imagining and childhood are behind–and felt the need to quickly wrap up a somewhat lengthy book. This is a minor quibble, though, in what was otherwise an excellent start to my reading year.

This title qualifies as a book by a woman for Back to the Classics 2022.

Back to the Classics 2022, Book Club edition?

I wasn’t going to do Back to the Classics (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate) this year. Nope, no way. No challenges at all. (Which is why I signed up for the 2022 TBR challenge, too, of course.) I just don’t get them finished. Technically, I read books for all but one category last year, but I didn’t write about most of them, which is really my biggest challenge. However, 1) I realized that the 2022 titles for the local classic literature club I’ve joined line up with quite a few of the categories and 2) I need to force myself to practice writing more. Somehow I’ve manged to get hung up on putting words to page, something that used to come at least somewhat easily, so I reason that means I need to do it more. So Back to the Classics Challenge it is.

I’m sure at least some of these possibilities will change. Quite a few of the books I finished by the end of 2021 weren’t on my radar at all at the start of the year; at least one I’d not even heard of. I’m sure the same will happen this year, and I consider that for the better. (Most of those read on a whim were great choices!)

Stack of books to be read.
Some possible Back to the Classics titles already on hand
  1. A 19th century classic – The best fit from book club is Camille (Alexandre Dumas, fils), although I imagine I’ll read other qualifiers as well.
  2. A 20th century classic – I’m sure there will be a number of possibilities. Just off my TBR: Brave New World (Huxley), The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner), and The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway). Also possible, Lolita (Nabokov) or Maurice (E.M. Forster), both with book club.
  3. A classic by a woman author – I’m late to signing up, so I’ve actually finished a title for this category already, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
  4. A classic in translation – we’ll be reading Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque, a reread), and The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) with book club, so plenty of choices.
  5. A classic by a BIPOC author The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison) is book club’s July selection, and it’s been on my want-to-read list for a while, as a bonus incentive.
  6. Mystery/Detective/Crime classic The Blue Train by Agatha Christie has already made it home from the library.
  7. A classic short story collection Enter Jeeves (P.D. Wodehouse) should be fun, and is also on my TBR challenge list.
  8. Pre-1800 classic – many possibilities, since I’m planning on reading lots of Greek Plays, starting with The Persians (Aeschylus). We’ll also be reading Moll Flanders for book club, which I’m really looking forward to.
  9. A nonfiction classic – ordinarily, I might have trouble picking a title for this (I don’t read a lot of classic NF), but the book club will be reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (in August, of course).
  10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest – my memory told me it was Don Quixote (technically, I’ve read Book 1), but my book shelves obligingly pointed out it was a different Quixote, The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox.
  11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit – I’m really not sure on this. Tentatively The Farm by Louis Bromfield (I think I work this into every list I can!), but that feels a cheat because Bromfield’s real-life farm is only about and hour or so away, and not so different form farms I see on a regular basis. On the other hand, I DO want to visit Malabar Farm after reading The Planter of Modern Life last year
  12. Wild card classic – well that could be anything. Most likely one of the book club titles listed as a 20th century possibility above, but maybe it will be something I don’t even yet know I might read.

The only question that remains is where to begin?