The Gallic Temper

Welcome back, everybody! I hope you all had a good summer vacation. But breaktime is over, and it’s time for us to head back into the proverbial classroom with our upcoming staged reading of that High School Literature standby, Cyrano de Bergerac, this Friday. But what could I have to say about that notoriously hot-blooded French musketeer?

Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the real man the play was based on. From a painting by Zacharie Hience.

Well, the thing is (and PLEASE don’t tell him I said this), there is nothing really exceptional about Cyrano. He is merely the largest-nosed in a long line of arrogant and impetuous Frenchmen. He may be easier to offend than other men, because he has an obvious and difficult-to-avoid potential sore spot and a willing, nay EAGERNESS to assume any comment, no matter how apologetic or innocuous, is a slight on it. And he is, of a certainty, more dangerous than other men. But he is not the only prideful Frenchman with a black and deadly temper; far from it. Rostand did not invent the choleric French warrior, he simply followed in the path of nearly a thousand years of archetypes.

Perhaps the easiest place to start is with the musketeer, a storied archetype which thrived in the literature of the 19th century and which Rostand was clearly capitalizing on with Cyrano. Alexandre Dumas has given the world perhaps the best-known musketeers in his book The Three Musketeers. Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the titular musketeers, have an array of different character types, heavyset life of the party   wronged noble/tortured father figure and ambitious ladies’ man, but they are also all musketeers and that means two things: dangerous, and easily offended. [I have personal issues with ‘fat’ being a character type but that’s a matter for another time -KH] The three of them meet the protagonist, D’Artagnan, when he has managed to schedule a duel against all three of them at the same time in the same place, and the foursome become allies after they cut their way out of an attempted arrest. D’Artagnan, you will not be surprised to learn, by the end of the series earns a reputation as the most hot-blooded and renowned musketeer in France. Oh, and fun fact: D’Artagnan is from Gascony, just like Cyrano.

Three Musketeers

I’m pretty sure this is them. [from Disney’s Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, 2006.]

I’ve got some more literary evidence but before we wander too far afield (and we’ll be going on a bit of a hike) let’s bring it back to one of our specialities: Shakespeare. Cast your minds back a few months to our Henry V, which I am certain all of you saw. The Dauphin throws tantrum after tantrum and stomps around the stage in a towering rage at all times, and he explicitly claims that his strength and anger comes from his French heritage. About midway though he throws some shade on the phlegmatic English and suggests the French have naturally quicker blood which is, what’s more, “Spirited with wine” and should easily carry them to victory over their cold-blooded foes. The Dauphin is characterized throughout the play by his arrogance, choler, and eagerness to pick a fight. It is his tennis balls which spark the conflict, and he tells Exeter and the audience that he “desire[s] nothing but odds with England!” He is portrayed as a buffoon in the play to draw unfavorable comparison with the slow-to-anger Henry V, but the effectiveness of the character and the specificity with which he hits those clues seems to suggest that there was a stereotype already in place.

 

SONY DSC

L-R: Kiernan McGowan as Henry V, Niusha Nawab as the Dauphin. From We Happy Few’s 2017 production of Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin.

But where did this stereotype come from, for Shakespeare to have heard of it in the 16th century and for Dumas to embrace it in the 19th? We will need to look back about a century to Thomas Malory and Le Morte D’Arthur, and then immediately back another three centuries to French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who inspired Malory. Before you start, yes, King Arthur is originally a Welsh story and an English king. BUT, it was written at and more importantly ABOUT a time when there was both animosity and commonality across the channel. Remember from THIS that every English king between Harold Godwinson and Henry VII was descended from French Normans. It is no accident that de Troyes, who really couldn’t have a more Medieval French name if he tried, is one of the most important Arthurian poets. Perhaps his most important contribution to the Arthurian mythos, and certainly most relevant for my thesis, was the invention of Sir Lancelot du Lac, widely recognized as the most ardent and heroic knight in the canon of chivalry.

Significantly for my purposes, Lancelot was a native of France. He was raised by the Lady of the Lake in, I guess, Avalon, but he was born in Brittany and it shows. He is the greatest jouster and swordsman at the Round Table from the moment he arrives at age 16, he has a tendency to win fights where he is enormously outnumbered, and his colleagues universally acknowledge that he was in every [apparent] aspect the perfect knight. But, as you doubtless remember from the cultural osmosis by which all people learn about King Arthur without consciously reading any stories, he also had a pretty major flaw in the shape of an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. And when his secret is discovered, instead of acknowledging his mistake and accepting their punishment, he allows his pride to get the better of him, kills a dozen of his fellow knights and saves the queen, throwing the nation into civil war over a crime that is certainly romantic but is also unequivocally his fault. Lancelot represents a chivalric morality that seems complex to us but would make absolute sense to the Dauphin, and D’Artagnan, and Cyrano himself.

Bigger Lancelot

Lancelot, by Howard Pyle. For Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, 1881. I like this picture of Lancelot because he looks Chinese.

 

Even for Lancelot, however, there is a suggestion that his being FROM France would be meaningful to the readers, otherwise it serves no purpose. Lancelot can trace his own literary heritage back to the Chanson de Roland, the final in a series of stories about Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and his companions the Paladins. Charlemagne’s army is marching back to France from Spain when they are betrayed and ambushed by a Moorish army. Roland has the rearguard but refuses to call for help from the main army for fear of being labelled a coward. He does finally blow his famous horn Olifant and call for aid vengeance after his forces’ destruction is assured. [sidenote: Roland isn’t actually killed by the Saracens, he dies because he blew the horn so hard he broke his own skull. Hand to God. -KH] Roland and his Paladins are widely regarded as the origin and gold standard for literary examples of chivalric behavior, and I don’t think it unreasonable to claim that every other character in this blog owes their existence to Roland’s heroic but ultimately selfish sacrifice.

I hope I have proved both that the Impetuous French Warrior exists and that there is something interesting about that fact. We can observe as time passes that interpretation of the archetype changed from prideful and passionate closer to arrogant and ill-tempered; or perhaps we as a culture became less tolerant of pride in our heroes. Both Roland and Lancelot would have been regarded as unequivocal and uncomplicated heroes to their contemporaries, but as time passes we seem to expect more out of our characters. Their characteristics remained largely the same (brave, dangerous, rash, proud) but the way the audiences interpret them has changed from admiration to indulgence/scorn/frustration. Or maybe you think I’m totally off-base and this whole essay you’ve been getting madder and madder at my understanding of your favorite characters. If that’s the case I would implore you to come to the reading tomorrow night and demand satisfaction. You will not find me wanting.

Even if you DO agree with my arguments, though, you should come to the reading at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop at 7:30PM Friday night. And then, the following day, you should come to the Kennedy Center at noon for a portion of our upcoming Dracula in their Page to Stage Festival. Two DIFFERENT We Happy Few events in the same weekend! And you can go to both! For free! How lucky you are!

Until next time I remain, yr humble Blogslave,
K. Hock

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History Lesson: The Hundred Years’ War (And Another 200 Years Before it)

Good evening, Dear Readers! We started rehearsals for our upcoming performance of Henry V today, and oh man am I excited about it. Henry V, as I intimated in my last blog post, is one of Shakespeare’s Histories, which means there is more context to the story than usual. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream or King Lear or any other non-history play you care to mention all that you need to know is whatever exposition some ancillary character or Chorus analogue ham-fistedly delivers in the first few scenes. These stories are self-contained, just as Aristotle would like. But the Histories are real events, hence the name, so it is helpful to have additional background on what was happening around the events of the play. Since my job around here these days is basically Head Stuff Knower (a title I have wanted all my life) I have spent the last few weeks teaching myself all about what was happening around the reign of Henry V, and it turns out that was the Hundred Years’ War. So I hope you guys want to read about a centuries-long dynastic conflict as much as I want to write about it!

It all started, as English histories are wont to, in 1066 with William the Conqueror (nee Bastard) crossing the Channel, defeating Harold Godwinson, subjugating the Anglo-Saxons, and establishing the Norman dynasty in England. This conquest established William as the King of England, though he remained the Duke of Normandy. The Duchy of Normandy was technically a fief of the King of France, which means that the King of England was, in his office as the Duke of Normandy, a subject of the French Crown. This is obviously a less than ideal circumstance for a king to be in, but it was tolerable for a time while the king of France was not powerful enough to exert control over the nobles over whom he was suzerain.

This circumstance was complicated by Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1137 she married the soon-to-be King Louis VII of France but bore him only daughters. In 1152 he sought and received an annulment technically on the grounds that they were like 4th cousins but really because she kept having daughters. Then, in 1154, she married King Henry II of England and shortly thereafter bore him five sons, among them King Richard I Lionheart [there is no evidence to support this, and frankly biology is against me here, but I assume she did so out of spite -KH]. In addition to securing Henry II’s bloodline and beginning the Plantagenet dynasty, this highly advantageous marriage wed her substantial holdings in south and central France to his in Normandy and England, creating the Angevin empire which for a time controlled more French land than the king of France.

This empire was not to last, however. One of England’s greatest and most heroic kings, Richard I, was followed by one of her weakest, King John. You may know him as John Lackland, for losing Normandy and other continental holdings. You may know him as John Softsword, for a lack of martial virtue and…alleged marital issues. You may even know him as the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and usher in the era of constitutionality.

Too Late To Be Known As John the First.jpg

But probably you know him as this guy. From Disney’s Robin Hood, 1973.

In any case, John lost England all of her continental holdings, save Aquitaine and Gascony, in the early 13th century. Smash cut to ~100 years in the future, to the reign of Edward II (he was the fey, foppish prince in Braveheart whose lover is defenestrated by Edward I Longshanks). He married Isabella, princess of France, in an ill-conceived effort to unify their feuding nations. Edward II is otherwise unremarkable for our purposes, though I would be remiss if I did not mention that he was apocryphally killed by a red-hot poker being inserted into his anus, presumably in reference to his alleged homosexuality.

Meanwhile, in France King Charles IV has died without male issue, ending the 400-year-old house of Capet as the rulers of France. The throne was claimed by Philip VI, Charles’ first cousin and count of Valois. But Edward III contested the throne, asserting that his claim (through his mother Isabella, Charles IV’s older sister) is more valid than Philip’s, which is through his grandfather. Philip’s claim, however, is entirely through the male line, while Edward’s passes through a woman, which the “Law Salique” forbids. Edward did not choose to accept this interpretation, as you might imagine, and declared war to take what is rightfully his. Finally, some 800 words into this blog post, the Hundred Years’ War has begun.

I should clear up a couple things about the war before we get into it. First, it is longer than 100 years; the opening action takes place in 1337 and its final action is in 1453, so in reality it lasted almost 120 years. Second, as you will soon see, it was not the beginning of Anglo-French discord, nor was it the end. France and England hated each other, UNC/Duke-like, from the time of William the Conqueror to shortly before the First World War. Third, it was not, as it might sound, a straight century-plus of nonstop warfare across the green fields of France. It was raids, proxy wars, border conflicts, a handful of campaigns of conquest, and long periods of peace. I do not have the time to go as deep as it demands (people can, and have, written entire books about what I just summarized in 5 paragraphs), so I will try to hit highlights and important facts for our purposes.

Go Tar Heels.jpg

Go Tar Heels.

The war opened with great success for the English. At the Battle of Sluys in 1340 the English navy utilized inventive tactics and advanced technology to crush a numerically superior French force (this will be a theme). The French navy was obliterated and the English ruled the waves for the next 30 or so years. In 1346, Edward and his son the Black Prince launched a chevauchee across northern France to destroy the French’s capacity to make war and demoralize the French populace. They were caught near Crécy by an army led by Philip and King John the Blind of Bohemia, who outnumbered them approximately 3:1. The English army was made up predominantly of longbowmen and they shattered the French; around 2,000 knights are killed, including King John of Bohemia, and who-knows how many French commoners, while the English lost around 300 men. Eight years later the Black Prince is leading another chevauchee when he is caught near the city of Poitiers by a French army led by the new French King, Jean II. Again the French outnumbered them at least 2:1, and again the result was a crushing defeat for the French, including the capture of their king, whose ransom was set at the preposterous sum of 3 million crowns, twice France’s annual income. The dauphin [the French name for their heir apparent, for reasons passing understanding -KH] arranged the Treaty of Bretigny, which in 1360 granted the English suzerainty of much of Southern and Western France in exchange for the English renunciation of their claim to the French throne. So, war solved, I suppose.

Dewey Defeats Truman

Guess again. Pictured: President Harry S. Truman.

Oh, if only it were so simple. After some proxy wars fought in Brittany and Spain, in 1369 new French king Charles V declared war after the Black Prince (ruling in Aquitaine) refused to answer summons by Charles to Paris. England was stymied by an aging Edward III and an ill Black Prince, while France had recruited somewhat of a genius in Bertrand du Guesclin (this, too, is a theme). Guesclin had noted that when the French and the English met on the field, the French were destroyed, so he avoided pitched battles wherever possible and outmaneuvered the English army, seizing lightly-held cities where possible and gradually retaking French territory but never engaging. In addition, the French with Castilian aid had rebuilt their fleet and defeated an English squadron at the Battle of La Rochelle in 1372, lessening England’s control of the seas. By 1380 Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Charles V were all dead and the underage Richard II and Charles VI were the rulers of England and France, respectively, but this period of the war technically continued until 1389.

This is where Shakespeare comes in. Richard II starts after Richard has ruled for some time, and it traces the exile of Henry Bolingbroke, the death of John of Gaunt (Henry’s father and Richard’s uncle), and Bolingbroke’s deposition of Richard and accession to the throne as Henry IV. Henry IV fights the Percy rebellion and fathers a dissolute son named Hal, who discovers his true knightly purpose after fighting in Wales, where he gets hit by an arrow right square in the face. He takes the throne as Henry V in 1413, though not without a checkered past and a big gnarly arrow scar. Meanwhile some other stuff that is thoroughly confusing and not pertinent to Shakespeare happens in France; suffice it to say that France is as divided as it has ever been. Henry V reopens hostilities in 1415, resurrecting Edward’s claim to the throne and sailing to Harfleur.

Henry V Ugly Version

Henry V of England, by unknown painter, 1520.    Our Henry will be much handsomer.

Henry V has a different plan in mind than his predecessors. Unlike Edward III and the Black Prince, Henry’s goal was to conquer and rule all of France, not simply win concessions or “some petty and unprofitable dukedoms” from its nobility. He set out not simply to raid but to conquer and hold. To that end he besieged Harfleur and after a lengthy siege took it. Returning overland to the English-held port of Calais he was caught near Agincourt by a numerically superior French army, who you would think would know better by now. Henry was outnumbered 5:1 at least but clever application of longbows allowed him to slaughter by the thousands, for the third time in a century, the flower of French chivalry.

Henry V was seemingly unstoppable on the field, and he also secured a powerful ally in the Duke of Burgundy. After another couple successful campaigns they forced the signing in 1419 of the Treaty of Troyes, under which Henry is wed to Charles VI’s daughter Katherine, the dauphin is declared illegitimate, and Henry’s children are understood to be the rulers of both England and France. But then Henry died in 1422 at the age of 36, leaving an infant son in the hands of a regency council, and shortly thereafter the wheels began to come off the English wagon.

The dauphin and his followers understandably did not accept the conditions of the Treaty of Troyes. In 1428 he gained some unlooked-for help when a maid named Joan of Arc appeared, claiming to be sent by God, and assisted him in breaking the Siege of Orleans. She attended the coronation of the dauphin and accompanied the French army until her capture and execution for heresy in 1431. Shakespeare elected to portray her as a literal witch, consorting with literal devils, for her appearance in Henry VI, in case you were wondering the English opinion of her [though she did count the world’s first serial killer as part of her retinue, so maybe Billy Shakes wasn’t as off-base as I thought -KH]. Charles’ cause was further aided by the professionalization of artillery under Jean and Gaspard Bureau starting in 1434, the defection and separate peace forged with the Burgundians in 1435, and the absence of a strong English leader. Charles continued to retake ground throughout the mid 1400s and in 1453, with the help of the Bureau Brothers’ cannons, he defeated John Talbot at the Battle of Castillon, the final battle of the 100 Years’ War. The French Crown had regained every piece of French land with the exception of Calais, which would remain in English hands until the middle of the 16th century.

VJ Kiss

V-J Day in Times Square. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Unknown man and (probably) Greta Friedman

::deep breath:: And there you have it. A hilariously brief 2000 words on the history of one of the longest conflicts in human history. 300 years of historical context for a 90-minute play that takes place over about three months but is only about one night and the following day. 10 books and 15 articles of history, sociology, literary criticism, and punk rock ideology crammed into my head to turn into some 10-page pamphlets and however many blog posts my contract says I am obligated to write. 1500 combined hours of rehearsal to turn into 16 performances. Let’s get to work.

Iphigenia(s): History Lesson

Happy New Year, Loyal Readers, and welcome to an exciting new chapter for your favorite independent theatre company, We Happy Few! This will be a year of many firsts for us as we throw caution to the winds and, in brazen defiance of Friar Lawrence, Polonius, Gonzago, Nestor, and all those other stick-in-the-mud father figures our protagonists never listen to, we wildly experiment, take risks, and push our boundaries.  Experiments, risks, and boundaries like exploring non-Elizabethan theatre, as you may have guessed from my name-drop of Nestor in my list of father figures (as well, I suppose, from the title of this blog post, which is almost universally a giveaway of the topic of the accompanying blog).  First of all, well-spotted on Nestor, a fairly deep cut.  But I’m prepared to cut you one deeper; the story of Iphigenia.  Not old-school Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis OR Tauris, nor the avant-garde Charles Mee Iphigenia 2.0.  Not even Aeschylus’ lost Iphigenia (but man, wouldn’t THAT be a coup!)  But 17th-century Neoclassical Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Racine’s Iphigénie, which we are proud to bring to you at the end of this month in a totally free staged reading (follow THIS link for details). Later on, in a future blog post, we can delve into what exactly is so compelling about Racine’s interpretation of the story and why we chose to tackle it, but before we get to that I wanted to look at all these different versions of the story and address, specifically, what the deal with that was.

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR A  FEW 3000 YEAR OLD STORIES FOLLOWING.  ALSO TEDIOUS NAVEL-GAZING REGARDING STORY ORIGINS,  LONG-WINDED DISCUSSION OF GREEK LEGENDS, AND A SENSE OF PROFOUND DISMAY ON THE PART OF THE AUTHOR THAT SO MUCH GREEK LITERATURE IS LOST.

The original story of Iphigenia, or at least the time it was probably first written down, would probably have been in the Cypria, the first ‘book’, as it were, of the Epic Cycle (a series of poems depicting the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath; the only extant portions are The Iliad and The Odyssey; we know OF the others through summaries and references in other works).  The Cypria depicted the beginning of the story; as my readers will certainly remember, the Iliad is set a full 9 years into the war, while the Odyssey takes place after the war is won. Seeing as Iphigenia deals directly with how the Greeks got to Troy, the episode that tells that story would fall there.  However, as with the majority of the Epic Cycle, the VAST majority of Greek Theatre (including Aeschylus’ telling of the story in his Iphigenia), and Billy Shakes’ Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won, the Cypria is lost to the sands of time, and we must, unfortunately, swallow our tears and learn to accept that.

Great Library

The Course of Empire – Destruction.  Thomas Cole, 1836.

For that reason and for the purposes of this blog post I am willing to accept Euripides’ telling of the story of Iphigenia at Aulis as the ‘canonical’, if such a thing existed, true (or at least original) story.  It is also the simplest version of the story, and the version from which the other interpretations would most reasonably be retconned adapted; also, elements of other stories, most notably the Oresteia, only work if the story plays out as Euripides has it.  But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I can talk about how the story changed from version to version we have to discuss what the original story was.  What, exactly, happened on Aulis at the beginning of the Trojan War?

Briefly, Agamemnon had gathered the combined forces of Greece to Aulis to stage their invasion of Troy.  While there, he did something to offend Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt; to wit, killing a stag in a sacred grove, and then (exceedingly foolishly) claiming to be a better hunter than Artemis, the aforementioned Goddess of the Hunt.  So she stopped the winds and stranded the army on Aulis, and sent word through the seer Calchas that she would only allow the winds to return if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to her.  Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia to be brought to Aulis, and then vacillates in fine Danish fashion for a while, sending another messenger to send her home, which is intercepted by his brother Menelaus.  He lets the cat out of the bag RE: sacrifice to Menelaus and continues to be wracked with indecision.  Iphigenia arrives with her mother Clytemnestra and baby brother Orestes; to cover for her being there Agamemnon pretends to betroth her to Achilles.  The subterfuge is shortly revealed and Agamemnon makes up his mind to sacrifice her.  Her husband-to-be is understandably distraught and vows to prevent it, but discovers that literally the entire Greek army, including his own men, would rather kill Iphigenia than give up and go home.  Iphigenia assents to the sacrifice, and the play ends with her marching to her death and Clytemnestra weeping.

This is what I would assert to be the original story.  However, even before we branch into differing titles and interpretations, there is debate on whether or not this is the ‘true’, for lack of a better word, story.  The extant manuscripts include a brief scene after the chorus, where a messenger rushes on stage to inform Clytemnestra that Artemis descended from the heavens, snatched up Iphigenia before the knife could strike home, and replaced her with a stag.  This… lacks somewhat the ring of truth, even in a world where gods turn women into trees and themselves into swans.  It emotionally neuters the play and is not, in my mind, in keeping with the tone of Greek Tragedy as a whole, especially considering the generally lax attitude the Atreides have toward kin-slaughter. Speaking of the Atreides, it also explicitly negates the story of The Oresteia, the conclusion of their generational curse; if Agamemnon doesn’t kill Iphigenia on Aulis, Clytemnestra has no valid reason to kill Agamemnon at the end of the Trojan War, and if Clytemnestra doesn’t kill Agamemnon, Orestes has no reason to kill Clytemnestra, and if Orestes doesn’t kill Clytemnestra, Athena and Apollo have no reason intercede on his behalf and allow trial by jury to supplant the Law of Vengeance and, at long last, expiate the sins of his house (spoilers).  My research is of two minds about this discussion; the editors and translators of my copy of the play assert that scholars are more or less universal in accepting the final scene as a later addition, but they asserted that in 1958, and almost 60 years of critical analysis have passed since then.  Alternatively, the fine folks over at Wikipedia are more or less convinced that the canonical answer is that she is rescued at the last second, but they are anonymous Wikipedia editors and may well be C.H.U.D.s for all I know.

CHUD

A Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, C.H.U.D., 1984

In spite of my disapproval of the theory, the deus ex ending does have a disheartening number of adherents, including Euripides himself, who wrote another Iphigenia play entitled Iphigenia at Tauris.  In it Iphigenia has been whisked away from Aulis, deposited in the Crimea and made the High Priestess of Artemis for the Scythians.  Her brother Orestes bumbles his way there via shipwreck, seeking expiation for killing Clytemnestra, and is almost sacrificed in his turn before the siblings share a revelatory conversation about their homes which almost certainly served as an inspiration for the pay-out scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances (see HERE for more information about the Romances, written by Your Humble Narrator).  It also shares a good deal in common with another Euripides play, Helen, in which another important piece of Trojan history is rewritten; we discover that Helen was not in Troy at all, but secreted away to Egypt, awaiting rescue by her True Love, Menelaus!

These alternate endings read like fan fiction, as though someone read these stories and said “no, its too sad if she dies. What if INSTEAD, God saves her, and they become BEST BUDS” (Seriously, one of the other stories floating around is that Iphigenia becomes Hecate, goddess of witchcraft and hangs out with Artemis on Mt Olympus).  I know the Greeks literally invented the “deus ex machina” ending, but in general the Greek gods were not in the habit of SAVING human lives with them so much as ruining them, and it hardly seems likely that Artemis would want to let Agamemnon off the hook for his familial curse just because Iphigenia never did anything to anybody (this play was written 2500 years ago, OF COURSE the real tragedy is her father having to make a no-win choice). Having alternate endings and stories like these would seem like Bowdlerization if that weren’t such an anachronism, or if we had even the slightest indication the Greeks were concerned about the sensibilities of their kids.

Think of the Children

Helen Lovejoy, The Simpsons.

The version that we’re doing also deviates from what I will increasingly desperately and inaccurately call the canonical story, but it does so in a less “Mom stops the movie right before Old Yeller gets shot” and more of a “Frenchman updates the story to account for some 2000 years of advancement in storytelling” way.  A new character, Eriphyle, Iphigenia’s jealous handmaiden of uncertain parentage, is added and ends up narcing to the Greek Army about the nature of the prophecy.  Achilles and Iphigenia have been betrothed for some time, in order to inject some much-needed romance into the plot. Odysseus (or “Ulysses”, as Racine wrongly calls him) is given a handful of lines and allowed to serve as the mouthpiece and ringleader of the bloodthirsty, populist army. Also, in a Shymalan-style twist ending, it turns out that Eriphyle is Helen’s secret daughter by Theseus, that her birthname is also Iphigenia, and that SHE was the necessary sacrifice all along.  Eriphyle herself her quietus makes with a bare bodkin, Iphigenia is spared, and the brutal 10-year siege and subsequent sack of Troy can go on as scheduled! Everybody wins!  Except for Eriphyle.  And Troy.

You may notice I am cutting this new version an awful lot of slack, which should strike you as a very un-me thing to do, especially considering the scorn with which I addressed the other revisionist pieces in this blog post.  To which I say, first of all, I write what I am ordered to what I choose, I don’t have to answer to you!  On a less confrontational note, the Greek plays and stories exist as part of a much larger and interconnected narrative; even what little remains extant to us displays a remarkably complex relationship between an astounding number of characters, and our modern storytelling sensibilities tell us that there must be a single correct canonical through-line (get me drunk and ask me about the difference between the Lord of the Rings books and movies sometime for a belligerent example of what I mean).

Helm's Deep

Haldir (Craig Parker) and Lorien Elves at Helm’s Deep, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002.  They shouldn’t be here.

But there is little evidence to suggest that the Greeks themselves thought of them that way.  In fact, given that at least two surviving plays we have represent direct contradictions of the ‘traditional’ story, it could easily be argued that the opposite was true! These are the stories that the actual Greeks actually told, and seeing as there are fewer than three dozen Tragedies still in existence (7 from Aeschylus, 7 from Sophocles, and 19 from Euripides), it would be foolish to discount them from the discussion simply because I disapproved of them.  If the Greeks were opposed to deviation in their storytelling, what would be the purpose of different versions?  Yet we have records of multiple tellings of the same story; Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy versus Euripides’ play Orestes, or Sophocles’ lost Clytemnestra. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or At Colonus versus Euripides’ lost Oedipus. A Bacchae by both Euripides and Aeschylus.  A lost Ixion, whatever that is, by all three. We know so little of the stories the Greeks told that we treat everything we can find as precious, but they don’t seem to have felt the same.  These were not the sacred relics of a dead civilization to them, they were everyday stories, the casual backdrop to their lives. Earlier I described the revisionist stories as fan fiction; that description may be decidedly apt.

And if Greek storytellers didn’t consider themselves bound into that all-encompassing narrative, French NeoClassicists were certainly under no such compulsion.  Racine wasn’t creating a grand narrative with a pantheon of interconnected characters; he was updating a single story from that narrative to suit Renaissance French sensibilities. French audiences would have expected a romantic angle; he found one for them.  They would expect Odysseus to matter in a story that includes him; Racine conjured him some lines. The original Greek story is largely concerned with the inevitability of the will of the gods, as Greek Tragedies tend to be.  Renaissance France is not concerned with the desires of Artemis, however, so Racine created a new moral by punishing Eriphyle for her jealousy and betrayal of Iphigenia.  He was making the story accessible to his audience, and if there’s one thing We Happy Few is concerned with doing, it is making classical stories accessible.

So there you have it!  A laughably short crash course in Greek theatre and legend (I didn’t even TOUCH the Theban cycle, and then there’s the Titanomachia, and Herakles, and the Argo…), a meditation on the way cultures interact with their stories, and a sneak peek at our upcoming reading.  Join me next time when we go much more in-depth into the whys and wherefores of Racine’s Iphigenia with my younger, smarter, and prettier colleague Bridget Grace Sheaff,who drew the short straw and was roped into positively leapt at the opportunity to direct the reading.