INNOVATIONS OF EURIPIDES

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 47-8.

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TECHNICALLY Euripides seems to have taken as many liberties as were possible at a time when the plays of Sophocles were set up as the inevitable model. There is no Euripidean play with the close and absolutely water-tight construction peculiar to the Oedipus Rex. Euripides was looser and more careless about form, while to the superficial glance he followed the classic model. He used the myths as subjects only because it was the custom, his real interest lying in the human situation and in the diversity of character. Instead of unfolding the details of his plot through the action, he often took the easy method of telling a good deal of it in the Prologue. Though he was contemptuous of the old-fashioned stage appliances, yet in nine of the eighteen extant plays he used the god-from-the-machine to extricate his characters from their troubles.

In comparison with his two predecessors, Euripides was somewhat of a radical. He tried many new themes, and invented many sensational episodes. He attacked political questions and suggested sex problems never before considered proper for the stage. He was a lover of epigrammatic sayings and of the long, set arguments characteristic of the oratorical contests. In all these ways Euripides showed himself resourceful, and proved himself a great poet. His career, however, was far from being the continuous triumph which had fallen to the lot of Sophocles. The Athenians liked novelty, as Saint Paul afterwards discovered; but it was necessary for the teacher of novelties to be wary. Only a few times was Euripides awarded the prize; and he was mercilessly scored by Aristophanes. His later plays are full of bitterness, with a tone which often tempts the reader to think that he is putting his own personal feelings into the mouth of his characters. Gilbert Murray, in his Preface to the Hippolytus and the Bacchae, says:

"Amid all their power and beauty, there sounds from time to time a cry of nerves frayed to the snapping point, a jarring note of fury against something personal to the poet, and not always relevant to the play. . . . It is not really anything positive that chiefly illustrates the later tone of Euripides. It is not his denunciations of nearly all the institutions of human society--of the rich, the poor, the men, women, slaves, above all the democracies and demagogues; it is not even the mass of sordid and unbalanced characters that he brings upon the scene--trembling slaves of ambition, like Agamemnon; unscrupulous and heartless schemers like Odysseus; unstable compounds of chivalry and vanity like Achilles in the second Iphigenia; shallow women like Helen and terrible women like Electra in the Orestes; . . . It is the gradual dying off of serenity and hope."

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