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Rush Rehm: Greek Tragic Theater
February 18, 2012
Rush Rehm's Greek Tragic Theater (Routledge, 1992) is a excellent review of the classical Greek theater for an intermediate or advanced student. The book has two parts: an extended essay on the social and theatrical background of the classical Greek tragedies and analyses of six "exemplary plays" (the Oresteia trilogy, Oedipus Tyrannus, Suppliant Women and Ion).

Rehm situates the Greek theater in the broader context of the performance culture of Athens by describing how elements of civic and religious ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, found their way into the theater. He then discusses the role of dramatic performance in the City Dionysia, a seven-day festival which featured processions, sacrifices and four days of theater. Three days were devoted to the performance of tetralogies—three tragedies and a satyr play—each written, directed and choreographed by an individual poet and performed in a single day by the same actors and chorus.

The production of these plays, he points out, involved a broad base of participation among the citizens of Athens: the chorêgoi who put up the money; the citizen playwrights who wrote, directed and choreographed them; the actors and choruses who performed them; plus the 12,000 to 14,000 people who attended each day's performances.

Rehm notes the importance of understanding the physical setting of the original performances. The theater of Dionysus was situated on the south slope of the Acropolis. It consisted of an orchestra (dancing place) which was originally rectangular, and later round, surrounded by wooden, stone or grassy seats on the surrounding slopes above. A building behind the orchestra (the skene-building) with a central door opening out to the orchestra provided the "scenery." Occasionally, actors appeared in the guise of gods on the top of the building, which came to be known as the theologeion. A lever and fulcrum apparatus—the machine—could be used to make the actors appear to fly. An ekkyklêma or machine that rolled out from the central door was used to expose interior scenes. Rehm notes several times that the center of the orchestra was the most powerful acting position, and so would have been the site of crucial scenes.

Performers entered the orchestra through the central door or by way of entrance roads called eisodoi or parodoi, which were angled to bring the actors on stage facing the audience. The outdoor setting and sparse scenery meant that the characters had to evoke time, place and settings with words and gestures. The actors wore large masks that projected the persona of the character they were playing. In addition to its mystical and metaphysical aspects, the use of masks had the practical effect of allowing actors to play several roles in the same play.

In a chapter on the conventions of production, Rehm explores the nature of dramatic illusion in the Greek theater. He argues that although the conventions of performance were different from those used today, they had the effect of creating illusions that the audience could easily recognize and sympathetically engage with. The large outdoor theater, he says, necessitated a generic, rather than a personal, account of human existence. Actors playing multiple roles probably did not make an effort to 'personalize' each of them, and may have played off the fact that the same actor took the part of both Agamemnon and Aegisthus, Deianeira and Heracles. The borrowing of gestures from contemporary ceremonial practice made it possible for the audience to identify easily the generic meaning of a gesture or pose.

The contrast between the lyric of the chorus and the rhetoric of the actors is central to the production of Greek tragedy. The twelve or fifteen member chorus typically arrive at the beginning of a play by way of one or both parodoi, giving the name parodos to the first choral song. The songs sung during the performance are called stasima (singular stasimon), standing songs. Most consist of paired stanzas, strophês and antistrophês. The chorus might share a lyric with one of the characters in a kommos, or song of grief. Conversely, members of the chorus—typically the coryphaeus or chorus leader—might speak like actors. At the end of most plays, the chorus exits via the parodoi. The chorus, Rehm notes, has a highly malleable but gender-specific identity allowing them to represent several different perspectives during the course of a play.

Rehm describes three conventions for talking: messenger speeches, stichomythia and agôns. Unnamed messengers appear in many of the tragedies, delivering graphic accounts of events that take place beyond the setting of the play. Messenger speeches conventionally include one or more direct quotes from the characters involved in the off-stage action. Rehm cautions against the false notion that the poets used messenger speeches simply to avoid on-stage violence, citing examples like the suicide of Ajax to demonstrate that suffering and death might be presented on stage. The characteristic function of the messenger speeches, he says, is not to present gruesome content, but to conjure up images of dramatic action through the use of narrative.

Stichomythia consists of rapid back and forth dialogue between two characters. Speakers typically exchange single lines of speech, although two-line and half-line examples are also common. The longest example in an extant play is the exchange between Creusa and Ion at their initial meeting. Characters engage in stichomythia to argue, hatch plots or change people's minds.

An agôn is a debate, a form of speech the poets borrowed from the political and judicial arenas. Agôns often take the form of arguments, like those near the end of Ajax, and allow the playwright the demonstrate how various rhetorical devices might be used—to enlighten, persuade or deceive.

The actors wore fifth-century clothes and carried modern weapons, with no attempt to recreate the styles of the periods represented in the dramas. Clothing and props were often borrowed from contemporary rituals, making their significance immediately recognizable. They could be used to indicate status, character (Teiresias had his own characteristic set of props) or deprivation (when characters appear in rags). The Greek stage was littered with corpses—Ajax, Haimon, Phaedra, etc. The playwrights often brought costumes, props and corpses together to create dramatic effects, such as the scene at the end of the Bacchai.

Rehm calls attention to the conventions the poets used to begin and end their plays. Some plays begin with a choral song (Persians), some with monologue (Suppliant Women) and others with dialogue (Antigone). Some opening scenes involve a god (Ion) or two (Alcestis). Gods also appear at the end of plays, often in the form of a deus ex machina. They summarize, explain and/or describe the future. Rehm cautions that the gods represented in the deus scenes should not be taken as the gods themselves, since they often serve a conventional function and can distort as well as reveal the truth.

Rehm concludes his overview by recalling his initial theme—the close associations between the Greek theater and their broader performance culture. By bringing contemporary elements—the speeches of the assembly and agora, the images of the gods used in statues and coins, etc.—onto the stage, the Greek poets "brought their stories home to the audience" with such urgency that the plays transcend their origins and take on a universal dimension.

The Orestia trilogy


In his treatment of the Oresteia trilogy, Rehm asks us to consider the three plays both as a whole and as individual compositions. As a trilogy, the plays move, he says, from obscurity to clarity, past to present, retributive to collective justice, ancient Argos to the foundation of the institutions of contemporary Athens.

The Agamemnon begins with the Watchman's monologue (a "bundle of proleptic themes") followed by the entrance of the chorus. The old men wonder why Clytemnestra is offering sacrifice, then recall the events at Aulis before the fleet sailed for Troy. They re-create the sacrifice of Iphigenia, mimicking the words of the prophet Calchas. Clytemnestra emerges from the palace to tell them that she learned of Troy's defeat by way of a system of beacon fires. She imagines the destruction and chaos in the wrecked city as the Greek conquerors celebrate their victory.

When Clytemnestra goes back inside, the chorus celebrate the victory at Troy, voicing their approbation of Zeus's policy of punishing those who violate the laws of hospitality. Their celebration is tempered by thoughts about the wives whose husbands who were killed in the war and worries that the Greeks will offend the divine powers during their sack of the city. A messenger arrives from Troy to announce victory. After giving thanks for his personal survival and describing the destruction of the city, he and the chorus trade stories, culminating in a another celebration of victory. Clytemnestra re-emerges to order the herald back to the front to urge her husband's immediate return. When she leaves, the old men ask the herald about the fate of Menelaus. He gives a vivid account of a storm at sea that destroyed the fleet, but cannot tell them what happened to Menelaus. He leaves as the chorus gives voice to their condemnation of Helen.

Agamemnon arrives in a chariot with his "war-bride" Cassandra. He thanks the gods and describes the scene of his victory, comparing the Greek army to a lion gorging itself on the frightened city, "lapping up the blood of kings." Clytemnestra arrives to greet him, describing her loneliness and anxieties. She mentions "your child who is not here, as should be", holding off the mention of Orestes' name until the audience has had time to ponder whether she is referring to Orestes or Iphigenia. She welcomes her husband in overstated terms, then orders her servants to spread red tapestries from her husband's chariot to the palace door. When he refuses to step on them, she engages him in a quick bout of stichomythia, inducing him to concede.

After telling Clytemnestra to welcome their new slave into their home, Agamemnon takes the fatal walk down the red carpet. The elders have a vague premonition of danger, but cannot name it. Clytemnestra emerges to invite Cassandra into the palace, but her hospitality is repaid with stony silence. For the first time, Clytemnestra does not have her way, and goes back inside.

Cassandra breaks her long silence with a series of heart-rending cries to Apollo. In a long exchange with the chorus, she tells them that Apollo cursed her because she refused to have his child after he raped her. She foresaw the destruction of Troy, but her countrymen would not believe her. At Argos, she smells out the killing of Thyestes' children and foresees the slaughter of Agamemnon and her own death but can do nothing about them. Rehm pauses to note the density of Aeschylus' allusions in Cassandra's interchange with the chorus: allusions to birds and animals, a twisted fusing of marriage and funeral themes, Atreus' betrayal of his brother Thyestes, the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, the slaughter of Agamemnon by his wife, images of the Furies. When she is finished, Cassandra walks to her death "like a god-driven bull to the altar."

As the chorus begins to sing, Agamemnon cries out from inside the palace. The chorus fracture into twelve voices, expressing reactions ranging from bold to timid. As they ponder what to do, the palace doors open to reveal Clytemnestra standing over the two corpses. She describes the murder of her husband, referring to his blood as a life-giving rain. The chorus responds by attacking the queen and mourning the king's death, but Clytemnestra justifies her actions as revenge for the sacrifice of her daughter. She vilifies Cassandra as the whore of the Greek army. Recalling the sordid history of Argos, Clytemnestra and the chorus appear on the verge of a truce, when Aegisthus bursts on the scene to celebrate his revenge. He recounts the story of how Atreus tricked his father Thyestes into eating the flesh of his two sons, generating a curse that has now culminated in the slaying of Atreus' son Agamemnon.

The chorus treats Aegisthus with open hostility. When they invoke the name of Orestes, he calls for his armed guards and threatens violence. Clytemnestra interrupts them, urging the chorus to disburse to their homes. They obey, but only after aiming some last jibes at Aegisthus. The last line is Clytemnestra's; she tells Aegisthus that the two of them will bring order to the house, making it clear to the audience that there is more violence ahead.


Choephori begins with the arrival of Orestes and Pylades at Agamemnon's tomb in Argos. Orestes cuts off a lock of his hair and lays it on the grave as a sign of respect. Rehm notes that the tomb need not be physically present but can be imaginatively evoked in the center of the orchestra by the actors' words and ritual gestures. When a group of slave-women arrive, Orestes and Pylades withdraw to observe them, symbolically linking the characters with the audience.

The women, accompanied by Electra, are dressed in black and singing threnodies. Clytemnestra has sent them with libations to appease the spirit of Agamemnon which visited her in a dream during the night. The women convince Electra to pray for the death of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra instead. Electra finds the lock of hair and wonders if Orestes has returned, only to reject the idea. Her thoughts are further complicated when she detects a footprint similar to her own. When her brother reveals himself, Orestes and Electra describe themselves during a stichomythic exchange as trapped in a net. Allusions to seeds and growth are woven into the dialogue, but, as in Agamemnon, germination and growth in the Choephori will culminate only in death. Orestes tells Electra that Apollo ordered him to avenge the death of their father. They steel themselves for the ordeal to come by invoking the spirit of Agamemnon. The chorus insists on vengeance while the siblings lament their father's fate. A recital of the injustices they have suffered whips them into a frenzy for vengeance.

The chorus tells Orestes about Clytemnestra's dream. She dreamt she gave birth to a snake, which she nursed at her breast. It bit her, drawing blood along with milk. Orestes tells them that the dream was sent by his father and that he, Orestes, is the snake. Rehm suggests that the scene can be made more dramatic by having the chorus surround Orestes and speak the lines as individuals, reinforcing the sense of entrapment.

Orestes now outlines his plan. He and Pylades will enter the palace disguised as travellers and kill Aegisthus. Electra exits through one of the eisodos, never to return, as Orestes and Pylades leave via the other, leaving the chorus alone in the orchestra for the first time.

Their lyric about strange beasts from land and sea and celestial terrors of air and fire functions, Rehm says, as "a true act-dividing song" which "snaps the moorings of locale and setting." The chorus's evocation of the four elements is followed by references to three myths about women who murdered male relatives: Althaea who killed her son, Scylla who enabled the death of her father, and the women of Lemnos who slaughtered their husbands. Rehm points out in a footnote that the mention of these three myths is an instance of a rhetorical device known as a priamel.

The return of Orestes and Pylades to the orchestra signals the beginning of the second act. Orestes knocks on the palace door and waits impatiently for a servant to answer, a stock scene in Greek comedy. He is surprised when Clytemnestra comes to the door. She does not recognize them, but invites the men in as guests for a bath and a soft bed. Orestes tells her that he has brought news of Orestes' death, adding disingenuously that he thinks a parent should be told.

Clytemnestra reacts with grief, which is typically interpreted by critics as affected; but Rehm suggests that it should be played as authentic and Orestes portrayed as the deceiver.

The chorus calls on various forces to guide Orestes' sword to its target "now", leading the audience to anticipate that the climax is at hand. Their song, however, is interrupted by the arrival of Orestes' nurse Cilissa who was sent by Clytemnestra to fetch Aegisthus. After the nurse recalls how she tenderly cared for Orestes as a baby, the chorus convinces her to tell Aegisthus to come without his usual bodyguards. In a second act-dividing song the chorus pray for Orestes's victory, calling on the gods for assistance.

Aegisthus enters down an eisodos, unable to conceal his glee. The chorus plays its part in the plot perfectly, urging him to go inside to discover the truth first hand. Proclaiming himself a man "with wide-open eyes", he enters the palace through the same door Agamemnon had used. The chorus again prays for victory, but when they hear Aegisthus' death cries, they distance themselves from the deed, not wanting to be implicated "until the verdict is in", despite the fact that they have pushed the action forward from the beginning. A servant rushes from the palace to announce the murder of Aegisthus. Clytemnestra arrives to ask the reason for the alarm, only to learn that "he who is dead has killed the living." Orestes and Pylades emerge from the palace door and the long-anticipated confrontation between son and mother has finally arrived.

At this crucial moment, Rehm pauses to consider how the actors entered and exited the orchestra. Contrary to some interpretations, he insists that there is only one door to the palace. It was once controlled by Clytemnestra, but with the arrival of the 'Daulian stranger', her command of it started to break down. The flurry of entrances and exits through the door signifies her loss of control.

Face to face with her son, Clytemnestra reminds Orestes that the breast he intends to stab nurtured him as a child. Momentarily unsure of what he should do, he turns to Pylades who reminds him of Apollo's command. Clytemnestra pleads for her life in a stichomythic exchange with her son, threatening to unleash the "bloodhounds of a mother's curse" on him. When she is unable to move him, she realizes that he is the snake. Orestes forces her into the palace declaring that she who did what she should not will suffer what should not be. As his paradoxical saying hangs over the theater, the chorus anxiously hopes for success.

Orestes emerges from the palace with the two corpses. The scene recalls the scene in Agamemnon in which Clytemnestra stood over her victims. In both "the victims lie wedded in death, while the killer conjures images of adultery." The similarity of the scenes confirms that the cycle of violence will continue.

Displaying the snares that trapped Agamemnon in the bath, Orestes laments the unjust death of his father, while recognizing his own compromised situation. Even in his triumph, he has won no glory, but must wear the stain of victory. He takes up an olive branch wrapped in cotton, the traditional sign of a suppliant. He will go to Delphi to seek the protection of Apollo. The chorus reassures him that he has liberated his city, but Orestes is terrified by what he sees—the Furies, bloodhounds of his mother's curse. Armed only with his suppliant branch, Orestes flees the theater, leaving the chorus alone. They sing of the "generational storms that have struck the house", wondering when the cycle of violence will end.

The Eumenides

The third play in the trilogy, the Eumenides, opens in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The center of the orchestra—where the tomb of Agamemnon was located—has now become the omphalos or navel stone. As the action begins, Orestes is kneeling at the stone surrounded by sleeping Furies. The priestess of Apollo, back by the façade and unaware of their presence in the temple, traces the temple's history through the aegis of three female deities—Gaia, Themis and Phoebe—until it was handed it over to Phoebe's namesake, Phoebus Apollo. After invoking the names of Pallas Athena, Dionysius, Poseidon, and Zeus, the priestess enters the temple to discover Orestes and the Furies. She recoils in horror as she describes the ugly hags, noses dripping, eyes oozing, who are defiling the temple of the god. She flees through one of the eisodos, as Apollo arrives through the other.

The god advises Orestes to seek the protection of Athena, who will rid him of his pain. As Apollo and Orestes exit from one eisodos, the ghost of Clytemnestra swoops in through the other. She rouses the Furies into a frenetic dance. They become like howling dogs seeking their prey. Phoebus returns to drive out the "blood-dripping, subterranean daughters of Night" accusing them of neglecting their duty by not prosecuting Clytemnestra for the murder of her husband. They flee in pursuit of their quarry, chased by the angry god.

As they leave the orchestra from one side, Orestes enters from the other, arriving at the temple of Athena, where the center of the orchestra now becomes the locus of the cult statue of Athena. His prayer of supplication is answered by the arrival of the Furies, which Rehm describes as "one of the most powerful entrances on the Greek stage." The Furies surround Orestes like hounds who have cornered a cowering fawn.

Orestes calls out to Athena, but the only reply he receives is from the Furies, who chant curses over him, recalling the ancient duty of vengeance that Fate assigned them. When Athena appears at last, she treats the Furies and Orestes with equal consideration. She questions the Furies, who eventually concede her the authority to conduct a trial. Next she asks Orestes to state his case. He recapitulates the actions of the Agamemnon and the Choephori, presenting Athena, and the audience, with the difficult task of deciding between two parties. Athena resolves to try the case and leaves to find a jury made up of the best people in the city.

In the stasimon that follows, the Furies reflect on the importance of retributive justice in maintaining social order. If Orestes is allowed to go free, what will prevent evildoing in the future? Rehm notes that their words seem to be a direct appeal to the audience to retain the ancient Athenian sense of justice. The merging of play and spectator continues as Athena returns with a jury of twelve Athenian citizens who might take their place either in the orchestra or in the front seats of the audience. In either case, they represent the audience brought into the action of the play.

A trumpeter sounds the call for the trial to begin, echoing the trumpet blast that signaled the opening of the City Dionysia. As Athena begins to speak, Apollo makes an unexpected entrance and the trial begins. Rehm imagines Apollo on one side of the orchestra, the Furies on the other, with Orestes in the center and Athena standing at the rear of the orchestra behind him. In rapid-fire stichomythia, the Furies question Orestes, who admits killing his mother, but justifies it as necessary revenge. Apollo testifies that he ordered Orestes to avenge the murder of his father, then advances the "specious argument" that no blood ties exist between mother and son, since the mother is only the vessel and not really a parent at all.

Rehm pauses to comment on the argument, which has been the subject of much scholarly debate. He contends that the view expressed by the god is not that of Aeschylus himself nor the Athenians generally, but a device for casting a further shadow on the character of the god.

Now that both sides have been heard, Athena calls on the jurors to cast their votes, reminding them—and the audience—of the respect due the homicide court. The jurors come forward to vote by depositing a white pebble into one or the other urn set at each side of her. They put their hands into both, but drop the pebble secretly into one. As they file from the orchestra, Rehm says, they represent the "freedom and responsibility of democratic justice." After the votes have been cast, but before they have been counted, Athena announces that if they are equal, she will vote in favor of acquittal, because she favors the male side in all things except marriage.

The votes are found to be equal and Orestes is allowed to go free. In gratitude he pledges that his city, Argos, will enter a pact of non-aggression with Athens, which he will enforce even from the grave. As he leaves, its seems as if the saga of the house of Atreus has come to an end, but, as Rehm points out, there are still 300 lines left in the play.

The Furies and Athena remain to engage in what Rehm calls "the most important conflict of the trilogy." The Furies threaten to unleash a plague on Athens. After each of their lyrical outbursts, Athena responds with a piece of persuasive rhetoric, trying to convince them that the acquittal of Orestes was a victory. They eventually relent as if falling under a spell and agree to put their anger to sleep, accepting the position of honor and authority offered by Athena. As they come under her spell, they fall to the orchestra floor. Athena stands over them describing the blessings they are to bring to their new home.

This scene, Rehm notes, recalls the opening scene in which the ghost of Clytemnestra roused the Furies into a frenzy. Now Athena lulls them to sleep, reversing the action, an effect enhanced by the fact that the same actor played both Clytemnestra and Athena. Their sleep also recalls the opening scene of the trilogy in which the watchman struggled to stay awake.

As the play ends, the Furies awaken to bless the city of Athens. Athena joins them in their song, reminding the audience of the need to respect the old laws and ties of blood. The entire company leaves in a torch-lit procession, recalling the processions of the Panathenaic Festival and the City Dionysia and again echoing the scene in which the watchman first saw the beacon light. The final torchlight parade, Rehm notes, signals a new kind of victory in which the city truly wins and the defeated party becomes an essential part of it. But, he cautions, Aeschylus' resolution of the conflict is provisional at best, requiring constant vigilance and renewal.

Oedipus Tyrannus

Rehm begins his treatment of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus with three warnings: do not look for Freud's Oedipal complex in it, do not read it as a treatise on fate, and do not attribute Oedipus' downfall to a 'fatal flaw.' Searching for Freud's Oedipal complex in Sophocles' Oedipus, Rehm says, leads down "a theatrical blind alley"; understanding the plot as an inevitable unwinding of fate fails to do justice to the free choices Oedipus makes throughout the play; and looking for a fatal flaw to explain Oedipus' downfall is a misinterpretation of Aristotle's term 'hamartia', which means 'missing the mark.' Oedipus' mistake—if he made one—was not knowing the truth.

The familiarity of the play allows modern readers, like the Athenian audience, to be aware of Oedipus' ironical situation in advance. They become like gods who know where the story is headed, but not how it is going to get there. By the time he is finished, however, Sophocles has reduced his audience from a god-like to an all-too-human status.

A group of suppliants—children, young people and elders, perhaps representing the three stages of human life—have assembled to ask Oedipus to save them from a plague. Oedipus addresses them as "Children", signaling his paternal solicitude. The priest who leads the assembly describes the wasted earth, the dying flocks, the teeming dead brought on by the plague.

Rehm pauses to note the references to numbers and equality that run through the play. Oedipus will end up as one equal to himself. He stands alone, Rehm says "as the paradoxical still-point" at which everything in the play converges.

No sooner does Oedipus announce that he has sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi than Creon arrives to announce that the plague is the result of the unresolved death of the old king Laius. Before returning to his palace, Oedipus vows to find the killer and drive him off. The chorus again describes the plague and prays for divine intervention.

Oedipus re-emerges to say that he has sent for Teiresias, who arrives as if on cue. In response to Oedipus' plea to help save the city, the old man refuses to name the killer. His intransigence enrages Oedipus who accuses Teiresias of colluding with Creon to overthrow him. Now it is the blind seer's turn for outrage as he tells Oedipus that he is the pollution that infects the city. Oedipus will hear nothing of it, instead taunting the old man for his blindness and for his failure to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Teiresias responds by predicting that Oedipus will learn that he is the equal to his own children.

As he is being led off, Teiresias delivers his final speech in which he reveals Oedipus' true situation. Rehm suggests that the speech might be delivered directly to the audience, not to Oedipus, who seems not to hear it. Revealing what will happen so early in the play, Rehm says, reminds us that Oedipus Tyrannus is not a murder mystery, but the story of a man whose choices will lead him to the downfall that fate has in store for him.

Alone in the orchestra at last, the chorus sings its first stasimon, imagining the killer of Laius as a wild beast crashing through the woods. Twice they describe Teiresias' charges as deina, an untranslatable word that means 'strange', 'horrible', 'wonderful.' Distinguishing between the gods and their human interpreters, they refuse to believe that their hero-king is a murderer.

Creon arrives to answer the charges of treason leveled by Oedipus, telling the chorus that the accusations are off the mark. Oedipus bursts onto the scene, accusing Creon of conspiring with Teiresias to destroy his rule. Creon argues that it would be foolish of him to seek the power of the throne when he can enjoy its advantages without any of its responsibilities. Jocasta emerges from the palace to quell the dispute. She and Oedipus engage in a kommos with the chorus who advise Oedipus to let Creon live. Creon departs and order is restored.

Jocasta's entrance and the kommos, Rehm says, mark the key transition in the play. The first half of the lyric ushers Creon out; the second half recalls Oedipus' vow to lead the city to safety. "When the lyric dies away," Rehm says, "we are in a different dramatic world", the intimate world of husband and wife.

Jocasta attempts to allay Oedipus's fears about Teiresias' words by avowing that no moral man can be a true prophet. She tells him a story he has not heard before: many years ago Apollo's oracle—not the god, but his interpreter—told Laius that he would die by the hand of their son, but the king was killed by robbers at a place where three roads meet. Their son had been left to die many years before on a remote mountain with his ankles pinned. One aspect of her story catches Oedipus' attention. He tells her that as a youth in Corinth, someone blurted out that he was not the child of his parents. He went to the oracle, who told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Resolved never to return to Corinth, he fled Delphi, got into a fight with a man at a place where three roads meet and killed him. If the man was Laius, he is the killer they have been searching for.

One hope remains—that the story given by the sole witness is true—that Laius was killed by a band of robbers, not one. Jocasta points out that no matter what testimony he gives, the oracle turned out to be false. Laius was not killed by his own son because her baby died long before. After sending for the witness, the "wounded couple" withdraw into the palace, leaving the chorus alone in the orchestra. Facing a world that seems out of order, they question the very foundations of their civic and religious practices. There is order in the world of Sophoclean tragedy, Rehm notes, but it is neither pleasant nor comforting.

As the chorus teeters on the edge of disbelief, Jocasta arrives with sacrifices, asking Apollo to relieve their fears. As if in direct response, a messenger arrives from Corinth with news that the king Polybus has died and Oedipus is to be the new king. Joyously, Jocasta sends for her husband. When Oedipus refuses to return to Corinth because of his concerns about marrying his mother, the messenger happily informs him that Polybus and Merope are not his natural parents. He brought Oedipus to them after he received the child from a shepherd on Mt. Kithairon. He unpinned his ankles and gave him the name Oedipus. The shepherd, it turns out, is the same man whom Oedipus sent for, the sole witness to the murder of Laius.

Throughout the exchange between the messenger and Oedipus, Jocasta has been silent, but the reality of their situation comes crashing in on her. After a futile attempt to dissuade her husband from his inquiries, she flees into the palace, keeping her horrifying knowledge to herself. Oedipus interprets her departure as a concern that she has married beneath herself. When he vows to find his true identity, the chorus assure him that he will, speculating that he might be the child of a god, born on the fertile mountain.

The arrival of the shepherd brings together the separate strands of Corinth, Thebes and Kithairon. After the messenger establishes that the shepherd gave him the baby, Oedipus threatens to torture the shepherd if he does not tell him where the baby came from. The shepherd describes his knowledge as deina—horrible. He reveals that the baby was the son of Laius and Jocasta, who charged him with putting the child to death by exposing him on the mountain. He pitied the baby and gave him to the Corinthian. Now the three men are reunited, confronting what their original meeting has led to.

In this highly charged confrontation with reality, Rehm points out, Sophocles shows how noble intentions and simple human instincts can wreak havoc on human lives. The shepherd's pity, the adoptive parents' concern for their child, Oedipus's determination to find the killer of Laius, the messenger's cheerful attempt to allay Oedipus' worries, these and more culminate in the destruction of the lives of Oedipus and his family. The three parties who met on Mt. Kithairon now leave by separate ways. The shepherd and the messenger leave by the two eisodoi, while Oedipus goes into the palace. All three passages are used at the same time, as the men depart from the place where their three roads met.

The chorus reflects on the mutability of human fortune, taking Oedipus as a case in point. He was a hero to his city and ruled it well, but he unknowingly fell into a bed of incest and shame. His fall is an occasion for mourning. The man who brought them into the light by solving the riddle of the Sphinx has now cast them into darkness through his unwitting sin.

A messenger emerges from the palace to say what he has seen. Jocasta locked herself in her bedroom wailing the name of Laius. Oedipus crashed in the door to find her hanging above their marriage bed. He cut her down, ripped her brooches from her gown and plunged them his eyes, not once, but many times. Now the palace doors open to reveal Oedipus, his face and beard soaked with blood. The chorus finds the sight most deina. Oedipus curses the shepherd for saving him. When the chorus ask why he did not kill himself outright, he responds that a life of humiliating blindness is more terrible than death. By gouging out his eyes, he can avoid seeing his father in the underworld.

After recalling the events that led to his downfall, Oedipus asks to be put away. His brother-in-law, Creon, now the ruler of Thebes, arrives to decide what should be done. Oedipus asks him to send him into exile as the murderer of Laius, but Creon hesitates. He has sent for word from the oracle—just to be sure. He is obviously not the decisive ruler that Oedipus was.

Oedipus asks that his wife be given a proper burial, and asks to touch his girls one more time. In what Rehm calls "a daring piece of dramaturgy", the polluted father embraces his innocent children, a sight the original audience would have considered monstrous. But the tender embrace between a father and his daughters shows Oedipus in a redeeming light. He prays that his daughters' lives will be better than his, and proclaims that he has been saved from death for something strange—deina.

For the first three quarters of the play, Rehm observes, the audience knows what is about to happen, but marvels at the way in which the inevitable falls into place. In the conclusion, Sophocles takes us in another direction. With his life completely in ruins, Oedipus slowly and painfully recovers his strength and sense of purpose. There are no soft edges, no "sentimental concessions." The play ends with Creon separating Oedipus from his children and ordering him into the palace. The play has appeal, Rehm concludes, "not because of Freud, or fate, or human folly, but because it presents a compelling and fully tragic drama, in which one man is not destroyed, but found."

Suppliant Women

Rehm presents Euripides' Suppliant Women as a portrayal of the conflict between the patriotic compulsion to violence and the costs of war, taking his theme from a line by the Theban messenger: "If death were there to behold when the votes were cast,/ war-crazed Greece would never destroy itself."

As the play begins, Aethra, the mother of the Athenian king Theseus, stands at the altar of Demeter and Persephone in Eleusis. She is surrounded by women from Argos whose seven sons died in the battle against Thebes. Because of Creon's decree, their corpses remain unburied on the field of battle. They beg Aethra to persuade her son to recover their sons' bodies. Behind Aethra and the suppliant women, near the façade, lies Adrastus, the king of Argos who foolishly authorized his son-in-law Polyneices to undertake the expedition. He is surrounded by a second chorus of the sons of the warriors.

Aethra's opening prayer to the goddesses is followed by the lyric plea of the suppliants for her help. Disturbed by the commotion, Theseus arrives to ask his mother what is going on. She redirects him to Adrastus who tells him why he decided, against the advice of the seer Amphiaraus, to attack Thebes (as Theseus puts it, he favored courage over discretion) and pleads with him to recover the remains of the dead. Resolved not to repeat Adrastus' mistake, Theseus declines. After the chorus and his mother plead with him to change his mind, he agrees to negotiate with the Thebans for the release of the bodies or, failing that, to compel them to release the bodies by force of arms, but only if the Athenian citizens will endorse his decision.

Rehm pauses to consider "what Euripides' actual blocking might have looked like." He imagines Theseus arriving from one of the eisodos to speak with Aethra at the front of the orchestra, then moving back to the façade to speak to Adrastus. This means that the audience would have observed the exchange between the two men by looking past the women. Since the audience sat above the orchestra, their view would not have been obstructed. After Theseus' refusal to help, the women break into two choruses and move toward the facade, leaving Aethra alone at the altar. After hearing their plea, Theseus moves to the front of the orchestra to speak with his mother, uniting mother and son in the most powerful spot in the theater. The gender differences that guided the initial blocking (women in front, men in the rear) give way to groupings by bloodlines (Athenians in the front, Argives in the rear). From this position Aethra convinces him that it is his duty to uphold the ancient pan-Hellenic custom of burying the dead.

Having been persuaded by Aethra's argument, Theseus tells her that he must seek permission from the Athenian people before undertaking the recovery. He emphasizes the democratic nature of his rule, but remains confident that he can convince the people to support him. He and Aethra exit via one of the eisodos, followed by Adrastus and the sons of the seven slain warriors.

Alone for the first time, the chorus sings a very brief stasimon, praying that Theseus will prevail. This short lyric represents a long "dramatic interval" during which Theseus goes to Athens, persuades the citizens to undertake the mission and returns to Eleusis.

Theseus is about to send a herald to Thebes, when a herald from Thebes arrives to warn them against interfering in Theban affairs. The herald's tone is disparaging of democratic rule but, as Rehm notes, his speech makes the important point that democracy often means rule by demagogues who use their rhetorical skills to persuade the uninformed majority. The herald's most telling indictment, Rehm says, is his critique of patriotic fervor in anticipation of war. Theseus responds by pointing out the advantages of democracy and reasserting his commitment to the custom of allowing the recovery of the corpses from the field of battle. After a series of reciprocal insults and threats, the herald departs for Thebes. He is followed by Theseus and his army, who pointedly leave Adrastus behind so as not to confuse their current mission with the earlier ill-advised attack.

Alone again, the chorus breaks into two semi-choruses to express their fear of further violence, hope for compromise and prayers for victory. As in the first stasimon, the lyric bridges a long period of dramatic time.

A messenger arrives from Thebes to announce the Athenian victory. He reports that having attained his objective, Theseus refrained from sacking the city. The messenger, Rehm points out, praises Theseus' restraint in a manner that would have resonated with Euripides' Athenian audience. It is best to pick a ruler, the messenger says, "who hates the popular tendency towards violent overreaching." The lesson is echoed by Adrastus who sees in his presumption of victory an overreliance on arms instead of reason. Theseus, by contrast, is a model of proper balance. He is not afraid to fight for a just cause, but limits his engagement to the aims of his mission. The messenger goes on to describe how Theseus himself washed the corpses and prepared them for burial, tasks usually performed by women.

Theseus arrives with the corpses to begin what Rehm calls "the longest funeral sequence in Greek tragedy." It begins with a kommos between Adrastus and the mothers, followed by a funeral oration by Adrastus, in which he eulogizes the fallen warriors in over-flattering terms, describing Capaneus, for example, as moderate and courteous. By presenting the seven attackers as models of virtue, Adrastus overreaches once more. Rehm interprets this as a way for Euripides to demonstrate the funeral oration's potential for misuse.

The chorus of mothers is not comforted. As they sing a formal song of lament, they spot Capaneus' wife Evadne in her bridal dress climbing the rocks above the shrine. In a thrilling act of stagecraft, she plunges to her death on her husband's funeral pyre. Rehm remarks that nothing like this ever took place before or after in the Athenian theater and is barely matched in all of theatrical history. Evadne's dramatic leap is Euripides' answer to the platitudinous funeral oration and dignified mourning. It represents the opposite of the themes of recovery and rebirth which are at the core of the Eleusinian mysteries. Euripides interjects this scene, Rehm speculates, to make death real—to transform talk of the dead into a vision of dying, with the aim of shaking his audience free from "the education towards war they have imbibed from their youth."

The secondary chorus of orphaned youths enters bearing the ashes of their fathers. Their talk of vengeance produces a troubled response from their grandmothers who foresee another turning of the wheel of revenge. Rehm points out that this scene has a special relevance to the ceremony that preceded the performance during City Dionysia. Orphaned sons of Athenians who had fallen in battle were marched through the orchestra dressed in the armor provided to them by the city.

Athena unexpectedly arrives as deus ex machina on the skene roof. She enjoins Theseus to require a pledge from Adrastus never to invade Athens, as compensation for the favor he has done him. And she tells the young men that they will grow up to avenge the death of their fathers by conquering Thebes.

The events depicted in the play, Rehm notes, had counterparts in Athenian history. More significantly, the play probably was performed only a few days in advance of a vote scheduled in the Athenian Assembly on an armistice with Sparta. Euripides presented his audience with two alternatives: behave in a moderate and constrained way like Theseus or give in to the passion for war engendered by past injuries. By presenting "death there to behold when the votes were cast" Euripides seems to be hoping that war-crazed Greece would not destroy itself.

The play's end contrasts with its beginning. Reminders of death overwhelm the images of rebirth symbolized in the Persephone myth with which the play began. They are replaced by ashes and the image of Athena occupying the place where Evadne plunged to her death. Euripides seems to be asking his audience whether they wish to join her.


Because it is a story about a happy reunion in which no one dies, Rehm says, Euripides' Ion seems more like a romance than a tragedy. He points out, however, that by juxtaposing comic and violent elements Euripides keeps the tone ambiguous, forcing the audience to look beyond the façade of a happy ending into the darker recesses behind it. The play is packed with contrasts between secrecy and revelation, light and darkness, tenderness and violence—the bright god in the dark cave.

The play begins with a prologue by Hermes. He says that Creusa, the daughter of Erectheus,1 has come to Delphi with her foreign-born husband Xuthus to ask the oracle about having children. He reveals that many years ago, Creusa was raped by the god Apollo in a cave under the Acropolis. Creusa secretly gave birth to a child, whom she left in a basket, along with some trinkets, expecting that he would be devoured by beasts. Apollo sent Hermes to save the child. Hermes named him Ion and took him to Delphi where he has grown up to be an attendant at the temple. Hermes describes what is to come, but gives a false report. He says that Apollo will give the boy to Xuthus who will take him home to Athens where he will be recognized by his mother. Rehm points out that the difference between Hermes' view of the events and Creusa's is crucial to the experience of Ion as a tragedy.

Ion enters as Hermes recedes into the background. Ion's opening song signals his purity and innocence. Everything is luminous. When his reveries are interrupted by a flock of birds he draws his bow to prevent them from soiling the temple, foreshadowing his transition from an innocent youth with a broom to a vicious adult threatening his mother with a sword.

The chorus—a group of Athenian maidens—arrives at the temple and marvel at its grandeur. Rehm notes that the theater need not contain the objects they describe. The actors can conjure them up with their words and gestures. The women are prohibited from entering the sanctuary, but are content to look at the outside.

Creusa arrives. She and Ion engage in "the longest section of stichomythia in Greek tragedy" as childless mother and motherless son develop a budding sympathy for one another. Near the end of the exchange, Creusa introduces her 'fictional other', telling Ion that she has come on behalf of a friend who was raped by Apollo and who left her child to die in the cave where she was raped. Ion is incredulous, but sympathizes with them. He advises Creusa to break off her quest, pointing out that the god will not divulge what he wishes to keep secret. Seeing her husband coming, Creusa asks Ion to keep their conversation to himself. Secrecy abounds.

Xuthus arrives confident that he will receive good news from the oracle. As he goes into the temple, Creusa leaves for the outer precincts. Left alone, Ion indignantly advises Apollo not to rape virgins and desert his offspring just because he has the power. Rehm notes that the question of the relationship between power and moral responsibility was a major issue during the Peloponnesian War. He points out that the Ion who exits now is vastly changed from the young man we met at the beginning of the play.

While Xuthus is inside, the chorus pray to Athena and Artemis, singing about fertility and the joys of raising children. Recalling the story of the daughters of Cecrops and Aglauros, they conclude that children born of mortals by gods are fated for ill fortune. Ironically, Ion, child of a mortal by a god, returns to see what the oracle said to Xuthus. Rehm notes that this brief interlude contains a jumble of conflicting images: fertility, the joys of raising children, licentiousness, suicidal maidens, abandoned children and Ion himself, reminders of "the dark and potentially deadly side of the story."

Xuthus bursts from the temple, calling Ion "my boy" and rushing to embrace him. The god told him that the first person he encountered would be his son. In a scene that is almost comical, Ion interprets Xuthus' actions as the advances of a homosexual pederast. At one point he even draws his bow. In a series of rapid exchanges, Xuthus convinces Ion to take his claims of paternity seriously, although he is unable to identify Ion's mother. Perhaps she was someone he met at a Bacchic festival. Ion accepts Xuthus as his father, but thinks wistfully of the mother he longs to meet. The chorus wish that Creusa could share their happiness.

Xuthus proposes that Ion come back to Athens with him, but the young man is reluctant to take on the role of "the bastard son of an imported father." He compares the happiness of kings to an outward façade of prosperity masking fear and suspicion within. When he says that he would prefer to remain a temple attendant, Xuthus breaks off the conversation with "Enough of that. You must learn to be happy." Ion will come back with him as a house guest. When the time is right, he will arrange for Ion to be his heir. As he leaves to offer sacrifice, he names the boy Ion because he met him 'coming out' and tells him to arrange for a banquet to celebrate his departure from Delphi. He enjoins the chorus to reveal nothing of what has happened. Ion reluctantly agrees to go to Athens, but he longs to meet his unknown mother and fears he will not be well received.

The chorus sympathize with Creusa as they pray for the death of Xuthus and Ion, whom they consider interlopers. Creusa returns to the temple gate accompanied by her father's ancient tutor. His entrance is peppered with comic one-liners about old men, followed by a lyric kommos with the chorus who tell Creusa about Xuthus' plans to bring Ion to Athens and establish him as his heir.

The tutor suspects a plot by Xuthus: seeing that Creusa was barren, he sired the child by a slave and gave him to a Delphian to raise. He tells Creusa that she must kill her husband and his son, and offers to help her. The chorus pledge their allegiance. Finally breaking her silence, Creusa "sings an ode of unparalleled beauty and power", telling the tutor and the chorus the whole story about being raped by Apollo and abandoning the baby in a cave.

The tutor encourages her to avenge herself by burning Apollo's temple, but she refuses. When she also refuses to kill her husband, the tutor suggests that she kill the young man. Creusa agrees, telling him that she has two drops of the Gorgon's blood which Erichthonius received from Athena. One drop kills and the other cures. She keeps them apart because "good and evil do not mix" (except, as Rehm points out, in this play). She gives the deadly drop to the old man to poison Ion during his farewell banquet, then they go their separate ways.

As the chorus prays for the plot's success, a messenger arrives to report its failure. After a long description of the banquet tent, the messenger describes the how the plot went awry. Taking on the role of wine steward, the tutor slipped the poison into Ion's cup; but just as they were about to drink, someone made an ill-omened remark and Ion called on the company to pour our their cups. When a flock of doves drank the spilled wine, all survived except the dove that drank the wine intended for Ion. The bird died in torment, revealing the plot. Ion jumped over the banquet table, grabbed the old man, found the vial and forced a confession from him. Then he successfully brought a charge of murder against Creusa at a hastily assembled court of Pythian leaders. Now the entire city is searching for her.

After the chorus sings a brief lament, Creusa rushes in pursued by the Delphian mob. On the advice of the chorus, she seeks sanctuary at the altar of Apollo just as Ion arrives, sword in hand. Each accuse the other of treachery. Unexpectedly, the Pythian priestess emerges from the temple holding the wicker basket in which she found Ion many years ago. She tells him to use it to help find his mother. With Creusa at his feet, he vows to travel all of Asia and Europe to search for her. As he peeks into the basket to see what his mother left there, Creusa declares herself his mother.

She proves her maternity by naming each of the three objects in the basket: an unfinished weaving of gorgons ringed with snakes, a golden necklace shaped like snakes and a crown of olive leaves still green.2 At last the truth is revealed.

Embracing her newly found son and heir, Creusa expresses her joy in lyric song, but Ion remains in a speaking mode as he worries about who his father is. With some traces of lingering resentment, she describes what Apollo did to her. Ion begins to doubt her story. Maybe she conceived him with a mortal father and made up the story about Apollo. After all, Apollo said that Xuthus was his father. As he turns to enter the temple to confront the god, Athena appears on the theologeion to stop him. She explains that Apollo thought it best not to reveal himself lest he be blamed for what happened, but he sent her to tell Ion that he is his father and Creusa is his mother.

The goddess outlines Ion's glorious future. He will be famous throughout Hellas. He and his half brothers will establish the Ionian, Dorian and Achaean peoples. As she leaves, Athena orders one last act of concealment. Do not tell Xuthus, she says. Let him think you are his son. Ion affirms that Apollo is his father and Creusa swears that she will now praise the god because he gave her son back to her. Rehm notices that Ion affirms his acceptance by denying its contrary, saying that Athena's words are "not unbelievable", a form of speech known as litotes. Rehm takes this as a suggestion that "the basic uncertainties of the play remain unresolved."

The Ion, Rehm concludes, "displays to the audience the humorous and deadly, the tragic and transcendental proclivities of their own nature", adding that it also tests the boundaries of the tragic genre.

1 Creusa' is a descendent of Erichthonius, the legendary founder of Athens who was born from the semen of Hephaestus as he tried to rape Athena. Athena put him in a box and assigned two snakes to guard him.

2 Each item, Rehm notes, "forges a symbolic link" with the foundation myths of Athens. He describes their exchange as recognition through ekphrasis, the verbal description of a work of art, noting that this is the third ekphrasis in the play. The chorus described the temple exterior; the messenger described the images on the ceiling of the banquet tent, and now this one.