- Euripides Our Contemporary
Both on the stage and in the academy, Euripides remains the most popular of the ancient dramatists. It is therefore surprising how few book-length studies have appeared in recent years that account for his full oeuvre (the manuscript tradition has preserved nineteen of about ninety plays). Most studies restrict themselves to single plays, specific interpretive issues, or formal features (messenger speeches, for example). In fact, one must go back to the studies of Bates (1930) and Grube (1941) to find assessments of Euripides based on all nineteen plays (with the exception of Morwood's slender 2002 volume). Even Conacher (1967) omits Rhesus on grounds of dubious authorship and Vellacott (1975) only considers those tragedies relevant to his own thesis. In Euripides Our Contemporary, J. Michael Walton positions himself as a successor to these studies, a bold but valid claim (Walton acknowledges the debt explicitly in a note on page 5). Not only is he a scholar who has studied the scripts as literature, but he is also a theater practitioner who has savored one of the most influential innovators of theater of all time (in a career of over five decades, Walton has directed over fifty theatrical productions).
In his title and introduction, Walton identifies as his foremost model Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which was groundbreaking for gauging Shakespeare's relevance in the context of 1960s Europe. Walton outlines a similar project in his introduction, though I found the most succinct statement of his thesis in chapter 7, almost at the exact center of Walton's text: "The purpose is to identify why Euripides merits study after all these centuries and, more importantly, deserves a place on the contemporary stage" (116). Throughout, Walton produces a complete picture of a dynamic and iconoclastic dramatist, one who cannot be circumscribed by ancient or modern definitions of "tragedy" or "drama" or even "theater."
Euripides Our Contemporary is not arranged as a series of studies of individual plays, though each chapter is subtitled with "focus" plays (largely unhelpful, however, as Walton frequently references other plays). Four chapters comprise each of the first two sections: "Domesticating Tragedy," focusing on Euripides' disruption of genre as well as issues of gender and family; and "Powerful Forces: The Grand Passions," considering war, revenge, divinity, and insanity. In his first chapter, "Playmaker and Image-Breaker," Walton provides context for his playwright, establishing him as the iconoclast of Athenian drama in the fifth century bce who constantly revises not only what others have done (here and elsewhere his example is the Electra story), but even his own work (the many versions of Helen in Euripides' own plays). Walton dedicates each of the next seven chapters [End Page 249] to a recurring, oft-discussed theme in Euripidean drama. Little here will be new for the scholar of Greek drama, but the topics remain relevant. Walton's light touch and use of "modern" drama as interpretive comparanda (from the point of view of a classicist, anyway) is likely to open new avenues of comparison for both the scholar and theater practitioner.
Chapter 2, "The Family Saga," considers the three families of "high tragedy" (the Houses of Laius, Cadmus, and Atreus) for familial dynamics and dysfunction, which resonate strongly in a world where an ever-decreasing minority can claim membership in a traditional nuclear family. Chapter 3, "Women and Men," debunks the longstanding perception that Euripides was a misogynist (already active in Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae in 411 BCE). Walton's counterargument, like so many others in this book, is a combination of common sense and theatrical experience—many of Euripides' most powerful and sympathetic roles are female—and it is an effective argument. In "The Comic Touch," Walton briefly considers the question of genre (often too narrowly defined by Hellenistic scholars to allow for meaningful comparisons between many of the plays), through the surprising range of non-tragic moments in Euripides, from the lighter plot of Helen to moments of dark humor to outright slapstick in Cyclops.
The next section begins with "War...