Posted in History, Media

They’re Reading Greek Tragedy Online – Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris

I’ve been hesitant to go this route with this week’s post, if I had a Classics Card, I’m pretty sure this would probably get it revoked, but I’m curious to hear what others think, so please, comment, send me a message, let me know your thoughts, I’m hoping more view-points will make it make more sense. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love this play, but when looking at it in any form of analytical context, it makes my brian hurt. Like Joel, I can’t make heads nor tails of it – it doesn’t feel like a true tragedy even though it ticks all of those boxes. After much consideration though, I’ve come up with another possibility for why – It feels like a traditional British Pantomime, though to a lesser extreme (I have absolutely no idea if my readers outside the UK are going to understand any of this, I’m sorry). Euripides has taken a comparatively family friendly version of a well known story, thrown in a bucket load of dramatic irony at it, a funny revelation scene with the letter and topped it all off with a mad dash escape scene and possibly the least reassuring ‘Athena saves the day’ that I think I’ve ever seen. Throw in Julian Clary and Christopher Biggins and it will be a hit this christmas! Okay, maybe that’s a bit far, but (hopefully) you’ll get what I mean.

For my non UK readers, I apologise for quoting Wikipedia here, but it honestly has the clearest explanation I can find for what a panto is:

“Pantomime (/ˈpæntəmaɪm/; informally panto) is a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is performed throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland and (to a lesser extent) in other English-speaking countries, especially during the Christmas and New Year season. Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing. It employs gender-crossing actors and combines topical humour with a story more or less based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folktale. Pantomime is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantomime

They play on familiar and recognisable character tropes (the tyrannical king, the evil step-mother, the wicked step-sisters, the charming prince); work off recognisable plot devices such as recognition scenes and the baddy getting their comeuppance; and they often end with a declaration that everything’s fine and they all lived happily ever after (ignoring those who aren’t title characters who generally end the play in much the same situation as they started it). Ringing any bells?

“He’s behind you!”

“Oh no he’s not!”

“Oh yes he is!”

Litterally every panto.

As much as I love to imagine contemporary Greek audiences shouting “It’s Orestes! He’s behind you!” at the actor playing Iphigenia as she explains who she wants Pylades to give the letter to, I do understand that it’s highly unlikely to be the case and is very much a viewpoint based on modern conceptions of satirical theatrical performance. I still can’t help but see those comparisons within the text though, even with a straight reading or performance. 

On a slightly more serious note, what I still don’t understand is that even though this play follows much the same deep structure of some of his other plays such as the Helen, Iphigenia in Tauris seems to be an almost satirical play on tropes, which is not something I’ve noticed on this scale elsewhere within tragedy. Was Euripides using this play as a somewhat satirical commentary on his own plays (like Helen) or the genre as a whole (with sister recognition scenes, especially with Orestes being common throughout what we have remaining of tragedy), or much like academics like to speculate, is this, along with the Helen and similar plays, his attempt at bringing some form of hope and salvation to the ending of these horrific stories in a time where Athens and its citizens were likely wishing for that divine intervention? I am very much with Niall Slater on this one, who’s insight on this play was a joy to listen to. Can we really call this a happy ending with salvation from Athena when the Chorus, a group of marginalised and enslaved Greek women are left behind to die at the hands of a tyrannical king? I see it as a slightly more caustic commentary on the gods: do they care for us all, or is it just the ‘named characters’ – if Athena did come and ‘fix it’, would her actions have any impact on the lives of the citizens of Athens, or just those she deemed worthy? 

The main issue we have is the absence of evidence, and as much as in Archaeological Studies the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence, we can’t say that plays like this and Helen are only found in Euripides later works – for all we know this could have been a style of play the audience was more than familiar with when it comes to Euripides, we just don’t have the evidence showing his repeated use of this style throughout his life. On the flip side, it could also very well be something that is only found in his later works in response to the contemporary events within Greece, and more specifically Athens, at the time. But the joys of Classical Studies is that we have so little. To me at least, it’s the unanswered questions that make me want to keep learning, keep researching, keep digging, its the fact we can speculate until the cows come home but unless The Doctor shows up on someones doorstep and they travel back to ancient Greece in the TARDIS, or we one day find the rest of Euripides’ plays, we’re never really going to have a definitive answer. This play always leaves me with more questions than it answers, and I always end up taking a different approach to my analysis whenever I revisit it. As I said earlier, I’m hoping more insight from others will make things make a bit more sense, even if we never can quite know for sure.

I’ve rambled on a bit more than usual with this one, but I’d like to quickly wrap up by saying that the performances were, as always, absolutely fantastic this week, but it was Paul who stole the show with his Pylades, the facial expressions and body language within the recognition scene had me laughing my arse off, it was great.

Once again, I’d like to thank CHS, Out of Chaos Theatre and Joel Christensen, all the cast and this week’s special guest academic, Niall Slater, there was some fantastic discussion and lots of food for thought when looking at this play.