The one where Medea saves her kids: lost classics of Greek tragedy (link)
by Charlotte Higgins - The Guardian
Think of Greek tragedy and we tend to think of sad stories of the death of kings. Or, if not their deaths, then at least their comeuppances: Agamemnon killed in his bath by his wife; Ajax made mad and murderous by the gods; Oedipus blinded by his own hand; Jason destroyed after his wife, Medea, kills their children.
But only 32 complete plays survive, by just three playwrights – out of hundreds, or perhaps as many as 1,000 texts by around 80 authors. And, according to Matthew Wright, professor of Greek at the University of Exeter, the works we have by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are neither necessarily the best plays of their time, nor especially representative. Some of these lost works, he believes, were likely to have been masterpieces: “There is no evidence that quality played a part in the transmission of the surviving texts.”
In one version, Medea was a kind of expert personal trainer who 'took on weak and feeble people'
According to his scrutiny of the remaining fragments, quotations and descriptions, the lost texts of fifth- and fourth-century BC Athenian plays display a vastly broader range of plot and tone than those that survive, with stories covering incest, sex, love, magic – and happy endings. Had more survived, we would have a “radically different” understanding of the nature of Greek tragedy as a genre.
Alexander the Great’s favourite play, for example, was decidedly jolly: in Euripides’s lost Andromeda, which told the story of the heroine’s rescue from death by the hero Perseus, the two marry. Another Euripides play, Protesilaus, about the first hero to be killed in the Trojan war, told of the dead man’s being brought back to life for a day because his wife loved him so much.
Aeschylus’s lost The Myrmidons also appeared to have had sexual and romantic love, between Achilles and Patroclus, at its heart. A physical relationship between the two heroes of the Trojan war is not spelled out in the main source for the story, Homer’s Iliad.
The fragments Wright has studied and analysed in his new book, The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy, show that stories now often regarded as canonical myths were often highly inventive takes on basic storylines – and that there was no “authentic” version of the story of, say, Oedipus.
“I’m trying, in the book, to give a sense of the cauldron of stories and myths that tragedians were drawing on,” he said. “They were using the same basic stories, but reworking and rewriting them in completely different ways, so that audiences never really knew what they were going to get … All tragedy is ‘inauthentic’, in that the plays weren’t based on a fixed version of myths.”
For example, Wright believes he has identified “around 19 tragedies” that featured the heroine Medea – who, in the one surviving play about her, by Euripides, takes revenge on her faithless husband by killing their children. In a version by the playwright Carcinus, on the other hand, she sends the children away for safekeeping, and the fourth-century Diogenes of Sinope, best known for his founding of the school of Cynic philosophy, wrote a version in which her role as a sorceress was downplayed. Instead, she was a kind of personal trainer who “took on weak and feeble people, whose bodies had been ruined through overindulgence, and she made them strong and vigorous again through gymnastic exercises and steam baths”, according to a summary by the Byzantine anthologist, John of Stobi.
Diogenes was also the author of a shocking text, condemned by ancient critics, about Oedipus in which – unlike the version of the story that survives, by Sophocles – incest and parricide were defended. Euripides also wrote a play about Oedipus, in which the hero did not blind himself and, judging from the scraps and fragments studied by Wright, “put the erotic relationship between Oedipus and his wife Jocasta at the centre of the plot”.article continues...