The Suppliants – Aeschylus

The Suppliants
Aeschylus
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, 463 BCE

My thought on first finishing Aeschylus’s The Suppliants was, “Well, that leaves you hanging…” The first and only surviving play in a trilogy, The Suppliants brings us the story of the Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus, who have fled their native Egypt for their ancestral homeland of Greece (they are descendants of Io, one of Zeus’ many conquests) in a desperate attempt to escape their cousins, the 50 sons of Aegyptus, who wish to marry the Danaids against the their will. The women are supported in this by their father, so it is not clear to me why his will isn’t enough to settle the matter, though perhaps it’s a matter of numbers. (This is one of those things–are we dealing with a cultural/social difference that I don’t know or is this just akin to a “plot hole” in a contemporary movie that isn’t really explained, it just is to make the story happen?)

Having arrived safely in Argos, the young women are now Suppliants before the gods–clinging to their alters while also pleading with King Pelasgus to not only let them stay, but protect them. Ever hanging in the background is the knowledge of their cousins’ pursuit and eminent arrival.

This single play is not interested in telling the entire story of the Danaids, which from the translator’s notes I know will eventually lead to the Danaids’ marriage to their cousins, after which 49 of the women murder their new husbands rather than remain their wives, with only one, Hypermnestra, sparing her husband. However, The Suppliants instead focuses on a single issue: will Pelasgus permit the Danaids to stay and grant them protection?

Although the Danaids can plead a shared heritage, the outcome of their request is not assured. Pelasgus insists the citizens of Argos must decide this weighty matter: to project the Danaids means likely war with the sons of Aegyptus. The tension then in this play all hinges around this will-they/won’t-they, the conflict between duties of hospitality and expectations of war. Consequently, the climax of the play is the announcement of the Argive’s decision. They subsequent arrival of Aegyptians thus becomes a hanging thread left unresolved in what seems that first act rather than a full play (at least by 21st century standards).

It becomes curious to me, then, the idea of survival–why the first play but not the others? Was it better regarded? Was the philosophical debate more important than the action to follow? Or is it all mere chance that some plays survived over others? I do wish the other plays of the trilogy had survived, because it seems the trajectory of the story over the three might have been fascinating. At the same time I am grateful for the plays we do have.

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book Cover: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe
1722, England

One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).

I’m not convinced.

Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.

Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.

There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…

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.