Medea is an argument between high school students where almost everyone winds up dead in the aftermath. Hero Jason of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, after marrying the woman who gave him that glory, abandons her and their children to marry a princess. Medea, understandably, is not pleased. Jason can’t quite wrap his mind around why she isn’t thrilled that he’s moving up in the world and really resents her refusal to see that he is dumping her for the good of their family. Beyond the shock value, I can’t see why this play has been so popular for so long. It’s violent, sexist, and depressing. The writing is mediocre. The ending is grasping. After having a plot set securely on the ground, Euripides has a flying, golden chariot rescue Medea, which maybe was a normal literary tool for the ancient Greeks, but seemed very desperate to me. Euripides wanted her to have her final, horrifying confrontation with Jason but couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t result in her death. This way they can trade verbal jabs, but Jason can’t throw spears at her. No one in this cast is likeable. No one wins. To even call Medea’s actions a Pyrrhic victory suggests too strongly that her battle of egos with Jason had a winner of any type. It did not. Content yourself with the Cliff’s notes for this bloody play, and spend your precious moments on something else.
Commit to Antigone. That’s what you will need to do if you read Oedipus at Colonus. It’s a cliffhanger. It’s also not as good as Oedipus Rex; I see even in ancient Greece sequels failed to live up to their precursors. OaC is longer than OR, but less violent. Sophocles has developed Oedipus’ character in the twenty year gap between the setting of the first play and the setting of the second play. He and his daughter Antigone have wandered and begged across Greece, arriving eventually at Athens, hoping Theseus will give them shelter. Meanwhile we discover Thebes is beset with governmental discord; Oedipus’ sons are battling for the throne and his brother-in-law intends to forcefully return him home. But Oedipus has been doing some thinking. His realizations about the nature of sin are comforting to read. Watching him stand up for himself was cathartic, after the craptacular hand he was dealt in OR. He’s still a proud and willful character, but he’s stopped self-flagellating. He really needs some advice on supporting the bereaved. Take this gem, spoken graveside to his heartbroken children immediately before his death: “You shall never have more [love]/From any man than you have had from me./ And now you must spend the rest of life without me.” If your goal was to completely crush someone’s heart right before dying, you could hardly have hoped to do better. Oh Oedipus. You tried. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find the cliff’s notes for Antigone and end this cycle.
You know the story. The famous king who *spoiler alert* unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. There are no surprises in this play. Except for the writing. Sophocles (and our hard-working translator) are amazing. The entire work is dialogue and choruses, but the writing is so evocative I was completely swept away. Such a gem! In a tragic, bloody setting, but still. There’s suicide on top of the murder and incest, and self-harm, too. Oedipus Rex is most definitely not in the ranks of feel-good literature. But it’s really short. You could whip through it in an afternoon, and have the rest of the day to think about it. Or read the rest of the trilogy; Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone continue the story of Oedipus and his children after he is exiled from Thebes. You can have a little more Oedipus to round out your day. It may help you appreciate the good things in your own life.
A tragic play written in the 1800s, Goethe’s Faust bears many resemblances to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Both main characters are scholars who have grown disillusioned with their search for knowledge and make pacts with the devil; his service for the remnant of their lifetimes in exchange for their service for an eternity in hell, and of course realize this is a lopsided bargain much too late. Doctor Faustus was better. Faust is disappointingly sluggish, stuffed with dull poetry and crummy rhymes, difficult to follow, and has all kinds of Latin to translate. It’s also as sexist as you’d expect a work from the 1800s to be, with the full gamut of a young woman being seduced, impregnated, and then not so much abandoned as forgotten by her lover. He apparently just had other stuff to do for a year. At least Goethe is sympathetic to her. Any other race is most noticeable by its absence. I suppose this is all standard fare for books of that era, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Really I feel that if you’ve read one of these books you could check them both off of your to-read list, and that if you haven’t read either Doctor Faustus will keep you more engaged. After discovering the edition I was reading only had part one I will be following my own advice. Don’t bother looking for a review of part two here.
Apparently, it’s possible to interpret these plays as “a boisterous romp round the samovar” rather than “unrelieved gloom.” (back cover blurb) Since this is my first real experience with anything by Chekhov (aside from reading his short story The Red Violin a few years previously), I will bow to the greater wisdom of that unknown blurbist and assume that there is humour here, somewhere. Maybe if you see them live it’s more obvious? Maybe it helps if you’re a Russian from the late 1800’s? Seriously, though. Even the comedy ends with a death. There are comical characters, to be sure. Ridiculous ones. Oftentimes I felt they leaned more towards so sad it was funny? Or almost funny. Or just sad. Regardless, don’t pick up a stack of Chekhov’s work on a day when you’re feeling down and questioning your life’s purpose. These plays are not designed to elicit a sense of the imminent, hopeful destiny. They’re almost dark, and when I think about it it’s strange that they’re only almost dark rather than completely black. It doesn’t hurt that all his plays are quite short; four acts each. Despite their endings you often get a sense of things continuing in the character’s lives beyond the curtain fall. And as I sit here trying to figure out what has made these works endure for over 100 years now, and what drew me to them past the point of gloomy resignation to actual enjoyment (around Act 4 of Uncle Vanya), I realize all I’m doing is eliminating what I don’t think it was. Not how relatable the characters are (they’re really not. Does anyone actually know people who act like this?). Or the richly detailed writing, the action packed scenes:
NINA [stares into his face]. Let me look at you. [Looks round the room.] It’s nice and warm. This used to be the drawing-room. Am I very changed? -The Seagull, Act Four (112)
Nothing like the passion of two long-separated, ill-fated lovers finally meeting again. This isn’t the kind of stuff dreams are made of. Maybe his plays are popular because they give directors lots of room to play with? You can stage the same play one year as a drama and the next as a comedy? (Actually, that sounds like it would be quite challenging to pull off. I would like to see that.) This is what Chekhov did. He wrote things that were easier to define by what they weren’t than what they were. The leftover bits after the high drama and romance have been swept away, and there’s only the average nincompoop standing around with a confused facial expression. Similar to ourselves, but still foolish enough to feel slightly superior to. Recognizeable, but not bitterly so. In a way, reading one of these plays brings a special kind of relief. You may have messed up once or twice before, but you’re not as bad off as one of Chekhov’s characters.
A classic for a good reason, not just because it’s really old. I could see this being a good book to read in a book club, it’s not too long and there’s tonnes to discuss about human nature, religion, temptation, forgiveness, repentance, sin, and on and on and on.
I especially appreciated the extras in this edition. A historical timeline of Marlowe’s life, with world events and other famous publications, notes on the text and other versions of the play, an interview with Ralph Alan Cohen, who directed a stage production of Doctor Faustus in 2000, and an interview with Andreas Teuber, who played Mephistopheles in the 1967 film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Teuber is apparently phenomenal and now that I’ve read his interview I kind of want to see the movie just to see his treatment of the role. Though apparently the expansion of the role of Helen of Troy significantly alters the feel of the original and is somewhat problematic. In Marlowe’s version, Faustus is seduced by his desire for knowledge, experience, and power. But in the film, Helen of Troy is used to persuade him into the bargain with Lucifer. The change in motivation loses something unique in Marlowe’s text, in that Faustus isn’t originally led astray by sex. It’s more interesting to have the subtext that maybe there are things we shouldn’t know and if knowledge is power and power corrupts does knowledge also therefore corrupt? These are still pertinent and interesting questions for our time, and I prefer Marlowe’s version to the 1967 film rendition. Regardless of that, both those interviews were very insightful and opened up, at least for me, a whole extra world of interpretation into Faustus’ motivations, Mephistopheles’ personality, and alternate readings of the text. Like I said, there’s good reason why this story has been so popular for so long. I don’t want to discuss the plot very much, because I believe this story will have the greatest impact if you have no idea how it ends until it actually does. Then you can run through alternate scenarios to your heart’s content. Marlowe created believable, realistic characters who will be emulated and riffed on for decades to come. Definitely track down a copy and read this book.