Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Euripides: Alcestis,Medea, Hippolytus

Many scholars translate the works of Euripides as they should be, but Diane Arnson Svarlien translates them as they are.
Euripides loves women, but his heroes often hate them. Filtered through two-and-a-half millennia it becomes an iffy proposition to try to discover when a character’s speech is intended to elicit agreement from the audience and when it is intended to be manifestly ironic and provoke disagreement.
Euripides has been criticized for his formal imperfections, such as the tangentially related choral ode, overuse of the deus ex machina, and the abandonment of theological focus in favor of psychological insight. But within those lapses in formal rigor and forays into psychology that fracture the unity of his compositions, we find the very thing that in Euripides most resembles contemporary literature.
All three plays in this book are intimately tied to the struggles of motherhood, domesticity, and betrayal. They are tied together thematically and by the fact that each has a strong female presence.
Each play is about the love, responsibility, and sacrifices required of married life. Each is centered on a woman. (No matter that the title is Hippolytus; the drama is about Phaedra.)
In Medea the dutiful wife who has abandoned her Father’s family and committed unspeakable crimes on her husband’s behalf destroys herself and everyone within reach when her husband abandons her.
In Hippolytus the wife is besotted with passion for her stepson. She is torn between the concupiscence inspired by him and her conjugal responsibility to her husband (sophrosine).
In Alcestis the dutiful wife goes to the underworld in place of her husband. In production this play was presented last in a series of four; it was offered in place of a satyr play but it is not considered a true satyr comedy; it has been called prosatyric. In the witty exchange between Apollo and Death and the drunken scene of Heracles it is like a modern tragicomedy.
All three plays are about women who must respond to the selfish behavior of their husbands. In each of them the woman has a higher consciousness than the male and in each she is penalized for it. The plays and their heroines challenge the various forms and effects of gendered power differentials as they intersect with ethnicity, class, and familial responsibility. In all these plays the men display arrogance that comes from an unearned expectation of deference; perhaps hubris would be a better word. Euripides arranges things to multiply their meanings and to problematize the facile pieties of the gendered status quo.
Any translation of Euripides must consider the vexed question of not only determining when a line is ironic but where the irony lies. When Hippolytus offers his disturbingly misogynist speech that begins, “Zeus! What made you plague all men on earth with this affliction, brass disguised as gold—women.” (153) We must decide if the irony of the speech is centered in the intended audience (Athenians of Fifth Century BCE), if it is in the heart of the playwright, or in the more or less enlightened contemporary reader with twenty-five hundred years of liberation philosophy to aid the interpretation.
A translator must find a way to communicate that irony without unbalancing the ambivalence or changing the intention of the playwright. The ambiguity of Euripides is transmitted to us, but not imposed on us, by Sverlien’s translation. Irony is destabilizing. The irony, either explicit or implicit, that we find in Euripides, destabilizes our faith in the gods of Olympus, in the government of the oligarchs, and in the natural inferiority of women. It leads us away from theology and toward psychology. These plays were being presented during the Peloponnesian Wars that destabilized not only Athens, but the entire Hellenic world.
A translator must be tempted to imbed many shocking choices, recherché interpellations, and obscure cryptograms to her colleagues. Svarlien shows admirable modesty and restraint in avoiding those pitfalls and makes choices that will reveal the meaning of the text she is translating with the least imposition of her own personality. Svarlien’s least-interpretive-translation allows us to disregard the sociology of the translator and fathom the layers of meaning that exist in the text itself.
She writes with a hermeneutic that is cognizant of but not ruled by the post modern critique. It might be argued that we are just beginning to approach the feminist insight that Euripides managed to formulate 2,500 years ago.
The translator stays as close as she can to transliteration but always makes wise choices in her interpretation. Sophrosine is a word that has many meanings and is variously translated as modesty, virtus feminarum, female virtue, self knowledge, self restraint, moderation, self control, moral sanity. In later Greece and in early Christian times it referred to a woman who had not wronged her husband; and later still it referred to virginity. Sticking close to the root words Svarlien translates it as “wise restraint.”
The translation is both readable and playable. Scholarly footnotes explicate and motivate the playing of the script, stage direction, psychological motivation and subtext. Endnotes and comments explicate the text, the embedded intertextualities and the thinking of the translator.
Sometimes a line is omitted by the translator because it is omitted in some ancient manuscripts or is of questionable provenance. The assumption is that the line appears in some manuscripts and not others because a careless copyist’s eyes jumped down a few lines and left out several words. Or perhaps the line was interpolated into the text by a scribe in a momentary fit of creativity; or he may have faithfully recorded a line that was added by an actor for a particular production. Svarlien often indicates which transcriptions have alternate readings so that scholars can review original source materials for themselves.
Hippolytus may be veiled but the translator is not. She reveals her decision making process and points of ambiguity within the text that remain difficulties for translator, reader, director and actor. Diane Aronson Svarlien makes bold choices clearly and explains them well. Edmond Chibeau
Diane Arnson Svarlien, Trans. Intro. Robin Mitchell-Boyask.Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2007. 205pp $34.95 cloth; $5.95 paperIntroduction, translators preface, maps, endnotes\comments on the text, and select bibliography. Review in: New England Theatre Journal V.19 Issue 2 (2008): 98-100

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