August 3, 2014, by Richard Rawles
A Midsummer Night Reverie: ten top “lost” tragedies (and more) (1)
This post is by Professor Alan Sommerstein.
A few weeks ago – on 24 June, Midsummer Day, to be precise (whence my title) – the Nottingham branch of the Classical Association held its Annual General Meeting (at Loughborough, whose admirable schools and teachers have long been one of the branch’s mainstays). Between the business meeting and a fine Greek dinner, we heard an admirable lecture by Dr Nick Lowe of Royal Holloway University of London. His subject was the 98% or so of fifth-century Greek tragedy whose texts did not survive the Dark and Middle Ages (if they even lasted that long) and which are now known to us only through quotations and references by other authors plus, if we are lucky, some artistic images, a papyrus fragment or two, or occasionally both. The casualty list includes more than 190 of the 225 or so tragedies (not counting satyr-dramas) that were known to ancient scholars as the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The highlight of the lecture was Nick’s presentation of his top ten – not necessarily the best of these “lost” tragedies, but the ones he would most like to have complete. Here they are, starting from the bottom of the list, with a brief word about each of them. The top three were all favourites of Aristophanes – who I think is Nick’s favourite Greek poet! In my second post on Nick’s lecture, I shall suggest six of my own alternative candidates.
10. Aeschylus, The Danaids – part 3 of a trilogy that also included the surviving Suppliants. Perhaps the only Greek tragedy with a chorus of women who have just murdered their husbands (and are probably still holding the bloody daggers) – but we don’t know what happened to them in the end.
9. Sophocles, Phaedra – another version of the story of Phaedra’s passion for her stepson Hippolytus, which was fatal to them both. Special twist: Phaedra didn’t know her passion was adulterous, because she thought husband Theseus was dead.
8. Euripides, Cresphontes. The murderer of King Cresphontes, who has married his widow against her will, has offered a reward to the killer of her exiled son Cresphontes II. Cresphontes II, seeking revenge, returns in disguise and claims the reward. His mother believes his story and is on the point of killing him – but all ends well (for everyone except the murderer).
7. Euripides, Melanippe the Wise. What does a single girl do if she’s had twins, hidden them in a cowshed, and then they’re discovered and her dad says they must be killed as monstrous births? Why, make a speech proving that they must be just some (other) poor girl’s ordinary babies. Here again we don’t know quite how it ended, but there was another play called Melanippe the Prisoner…
6. Sophocles, Odysseus Akanthoplex. How Odysseus died from a spear tipped with a fishbone, at the hands of his long-lost son.
5. Aeschylus, Penelope – part 2 of a trilogy based on the Odyssey. It included the night-time interview between Penelope and the disguised Odysseus (Odyssey 19), but that is about all we know – only one line of the play has survived.
4. Euripides, Alcmeon in Corinth. Alcmeon comes to Corinth to reclaim the children he had once left there. He finds his son, and also discovers that the girl slave he had brought with him is actually his daughter (incest narrowly avoided??)
3. Sophocles, Tereus. Don’t imagine that you can rape your sister-in-law and then cut out her tongue to stop her denouncing you. She weaves the story into a garment, she and her sister Procne kill Procne’s baby son, cut him up and feed him to Tereus, and then they’re all turned into birds (Procne becomes a nightingale) and live … well, live ever after, anyway.
2. Euripides, Telephus. Telephus, wounded by Achilles when the Greeks invaded his kingdom thinking it was Troy, has come to Greece in disguise to be healed by him, but it takes the seizure of a hostage (baby Orestes) to get him a hearing. We know many of the incidents, but it is quite difficult, on the evidence we have, to put them together to make a plot.
1. Aeschylus, Myrmidons – part 1 of a trilogy based on the Iliad. Achilles rejects all persuasion to rejoin the Greek army until appealed to by Patroclus, whom he sends out in his place – to his death. Special twist: Achilles and Patroclus are lovers.
Image: Telephus, his thigh bandaged, holds the baby Orestes. Attic red figure pelike, ca. 450 BC. London British Museum E382. © Trustees of the British Museum.