play thirty four: hippolytus

Phaedra, please.
Phaedra, please.

Author: Euripides

Published: 428BC

Translator: Anne Carson

Synopsis: Aphrodite is furious for Hippolytus’ refusal of her power and his avowal of chastity to the goddess Artemis. She curses him by forcing his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. Phaedra wishes to kill herself to be released from this illicit burden but her nurse is convinced she may swear Hippolytus to secrecy and make him understand. She fails, and Phaedra kills herself when she overhears the disgust of her stepson. She leaves a note claiming to have been raped by Hippolytus so that he may not reveal her desire to his father Theseus. Theseus finds the note and banishes his son, calling on his father Poseidon to kill him. Poseidon does so by calling out a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus’ horses and drag him to his death. Hippolytus’ dying body is brought to Theseus and Artemis appears to reveal Aphrodite’s trick. Theseus seeks his son’s forgiveness as he dies in his arms.

What moved me: What I love about this work is the mortality of its gods. Aphrodite is the queen of sass and Artemis might be a frosty librarian and both are equally governed by human desires. They experience the desire for power over others just as we do and are subject to the pettiness of rivalry, the pangs of longing, and the sweetness and bitterness of grief.

play twenty: antigone in a version by bertolt brecht

'Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices' by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865
‘Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices’ by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865

Author: Sophocles/Bertolt Brecht

Translator: Judith Malina

Published: 441BCE/1948/1990

Synopsis: Polyneices, son of Oedipus and brother of Antigone and Ismene, is refused burial by their uncle King Creon for fighting his brother Eteocles in the Theban civil war. Antigone refuses to allow this transgression against divine law – the gods decree that all bodies must be buried – to occur and condemns herself by covering her brother in dust. Creon, headstrong with his own power, refuses her clemency and orders her to be walled up inside a mountain to die for her disobedience. Her fiancee, Creon’s youngest son Hamon, plees on her behalf to no avail. The city begins to dissent at the King’s treatment of Antigone and, as its barricades are threatened, Creon travels to the mountain to reverse his decision. His arrival is too late: Antigone has hung herself with a sheet and Hamon has fallen upon his own sword at her feet.

What moved me: if Antigone were stone, then her gentle sister Ismene is water. Unable to face the punishment she would receive for burying her brother, she declines Antigone’s plea for help. But there is a subtle strength in her, like a rich seam of metal, which seems more durable than her sister’s headstrong brittleness.

ANTIGONE

I won’t ask you again.

Follow someone who gives orders. And do

what you are ordered. But I

am following the custom and burying my brother.

And if I die for it? So what? I’ll rest in peace

among the peaceful. And I’ll have left

something holy behind me. I prefer

to make friends in the underworld,

for I will live there forever. As for you,

laugh at shame and live.

ISMENE

Antigone, bitterly

hard as it is to live in disgrace, still

even the salt tears stop. They don’t

flow from the eyes forever. The executioner’s ax

puts an end to life’s sweetness, but for the survivor

it opens the slow veins of pain. He can’t stop

screaming; yet even while screaming, he hears

the birds swooping above him

and sees through curtains of tears the familiar

elms and rooftops of home.