There’s a wonderful section in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia where the young and mind-hungry Thomasina is lamenting the loss of the great playwrights. Her tutor, Septimus, reminds her to count her blessings that some were saved. And to remember that all that is lost may be found, or created, again.
THOMASINA: Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?
SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.
As I’ve been working in rehearsals over the past few weeks, this passage keeps ringing in my mind. How lucky we are that of those 19 plays of Euripides that we have, this is one! The beauty of the language, the drive and passion of the story, the strange humanity of all the characters, even those who appear for a brief 15 lines – in my mind, this is the culmination of what Greek tragedy was working towards.
Euripides wrote this play in exile. Towards the end of the Peloponnesian war he found himself at odds with the Athenian leadership and took himself North to stay with the Macedonian king, Archelous. During his exile he wrote The Bacchae, a play that serves as a warning that the life force in people cannot be bottled up and codified completely, and that if our societies reach a point where we try to contain that life, something – Dionysos – will emerge: a lifeforce so strong that it can upend the natural world and turn mother against son.
Euripides died before his play was performed. He died in a way befitting a character in his play: torn apart by the dogs of the king, whether by accident or by design is unclear. It was his son who brought the play to Athens and watched as it won first prize at the City Dionysia – an honor only bestowed on four of Euripides’ other plays.
As we work on this play, I sometimes think of that audience – the first one who watched Pentheus rail against a God and be destroyed by it. This afternoon, we worked the Messenger speech – perhaps the most powerful monologue in the canon – and I thought briefly of what those Athenians in 405 BCE thought as they heard of Agaue and Ino and Autonoe tearing apart their young kinsman. And what our audience will experience as they experience the same speech, over 2400 years later.