Classical Dramatists

Plays

Acharnians

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

It is the fifth century BC and Dikaiopolis, a peasant who is forced by war to live in the city, has secured an unlikely peace for Athens in their war against the Spartans. However, not all his fellow citizens agree with the new détente between themselves and their hated enemies. It is up to Dikaiopolis, in increasingly farcical circumstances, to defend his anti-war stance and save his precious peace.

In their introduction to the play, translator Kenneth McLeish and editor J. Michael Walton write 'If Sophocles' Oidipous Tyrannos is the very model of an 'Aristotelian' tragedy, a kind of template for the form, then Acharnians could serve the same function for the comedy. The agon, parabasis, alazones scenes, and komos are fine examples of how each should be written . . . In particular the formal dialogues between Dikaiopolis and Lamachos demonstrate the maxim that adherence to rules can liberate the imagination - demonstrate it as triumphantly as Bach's Art of Fugue.'

A timely and timeless comedy, Acharnians was first produced in 452BC during one of the sporadic and unreliable ceasefires in the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.

Alkestis

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When Apollo was exiled for nine years from his Olympian home, he found shelter and hospitality at the palace of King Admetus. To pay him back, Apollo offers Admetus the chance to live beyond the day that fate has decided he will die. There is only one catch: when death comes to get him, Admetus must find a willing substitute.

Having been rebuffed by his aging (but not ailing) father, Admetus finds a willing proxy in his wife, the eponymous Alkestis, who is brought to Death's door, indeed is led through it, only to be rescued by Admetus's old friend Herakles, who wrestles with Death, and wins.

In his introduction, the translator J. Michael Walton writes: 'as a play that is ahead of its time Alkestis has no parallel in the classical world. It looks forward not only to the more domestic tragedy of later Euripides, but also to the social comedy of Menander and to the romances of the Hellenistic, and later, the Roman, world... Euripides may have changed the face of tragedy. He also reinterpreted and gave a new face to the expectations of comedy.'

Birds

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Tired of the unending wittering of Athenian lawmen, Euelpides and Peithetairos flee the city with their trusty feathered companions. However, their hoped for exile begins with getting lost, and the play opens with them crowing and pecking at one another with all the fury of the most terminally bird-brained democrat.

Which is when they meet 'his Hoopoeness', the once king Tereus, whom they convince to take them up to a new city, high above the base and grounded demos, burying the age-old animosity between birds and men and, ultimately, challenging the mighty Zeus for the top spot in the sky.

Full of the most bawdy of Aristophanes' jokes, and rife with the exasperated cynicism typical of the early satirist of the earliest democracy, Birds is translated in all its irreverent glory by Kenneth McLeish.

Cyclops

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Silenus, father of the Satyrs, has been trapped on Sicily, held prisoner by the Cyclops son of Poseidon, Polyphemus. Silenus is despondent: his captive fate was found when seeking to rescue another god, Dionysus. Instead, it is Silenus and his sons who are prisoners, of a much lesser, more ravenous god.

The potential for rescue comes when Odysseus, the hero strategist of the Trojan War, washes up on the Sicilian shore. His men too get captured, but rather than bemoan his fate, Odysseus connives to destroy the Cyclops once and for all, using wit, wisdom and plenty of wine.

A celebration of the liberating effects of alcohol, Cyclops is a Euripidean take on the Homeric myth, full of jokes, tricks and stagey comedy.

Electra (Sophocles)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Electra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Electra.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'Electra has fed on her hate, absorbing humiliation almost with relish. As the play progresses, so her passion is revealed as having dimensions.' It is these dimensions, rather than the moral conundrum of matricide, which Sophocles brings to life so starkly in his version of the well-known Greek myth.

The Eunuch

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Phaedria has been thrown out of his lover Thais's house. And, to add insult to injury, he had paid for his right to be there. He doesn't know what he should do – he fears losing his place in the pecking order to his rival Thraso – and has only his trusted companion, and slave, Parmeno, for advice. Parmeno, who knows what freedoms can be bought with gold, suggests a gift: a slave girl, and a Eunuch.

But when Phaedria's brother Chaerea falls in love with another girl (a gift from Thraso hoping to woo Thais), he conspires to have himself substituted for the Eunuch, and placed inside Thais's house, causing untold complications for Thais, Phaedria and, not least, himself.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'the comedy in Terence is allowed to revolve around the discomfiture of those who lose their dignity from jealousy, greed, lust, envy, any or all, in fact, of the seven deadly sins. The initial transgressions are not condoned but where would comedy be without human frailty?'

Frogs

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Losing all faith in humanity, and their basest incarnation, the tragedians, Dionysos, god of the theatre, vows to go to the underworld to revive the greatest tragedian of all, the barely cold Euripides, who had died the year before.

Enlisting his servant Xanthias, and asking his half brother Herakles for directions, Dionysos sets off to Hades' Halls, only to find Euripides engaged in a contest with Aeschylus, as to who was the greatest of them all. Dionysos sets himself the task of judging their weighty words, but more often than not these tragedians make him the butt of their jokes.

Described in his introduction by translator Kenneth McLeish as 'one of [Aristophanes'] most brilliant comedies', Frogs is a wonderful mix of the living and the dead, of the tragic and the comic.

The Haunted House

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Philolaches is a good for nothing so-and-so: he seems to live purely to spend his father's cash, or, when he can't get it, to borrow against it. Everything he loves is paid for by someone else's efforts, including the lady of his dreams, ex-courtesan Philematium. Now while his father is away earning money, Philolaches is spending it all on one big house party.

But when his father returns unexpectedly, Philolaches is stumped. Luckily, his trusty slave Tranio has a plan: he bundles his master's guests into a closet, and distracts the father with a tall tale that the house his haunted. As foolish as Philolaches is, so is Tranio quick-witted, building yarn upon fib upon lie to keep his master's father in the dark.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that The Haunted House 'is a play with strong narrative and a number of stock characters. Beyond that, it exemplifies the Plautine plot about family relationship, where the driving factor in life is less love than money: who has it – a wealthy father; who is spending it – a wastrel son; who wants it – who doesn't?'

Herakles

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

While the great Greek hero Herakles was in the underworld completing his divinely ordained labours, above ground, a rival king, Lykos, was busy plotting to murder Herakles' living mortal family. Instead, Herakles' returns just in time to kill Lykos.

This is a short-lived redemption, however; after the murder of Lykos, Herakles' descends into madness and murders his own offspring, a madness initiated by an angry Hera, the goddess protector of Lykos.

Only the appeal of the legendary king of Athens, Theseus, can bring Herakles back to sanity again, a sanity he reaches only to be realise his actions and be faced with a lifetime of heartbreak and an empty future ahead of him.

In his introduction, editor J. Michael Walton writers that 'Herakles is the most underrated of all Greek tragedies. Translator Kenneth McLeish adds: 'As so often, Euripides offered his audience an experience on two entirely different levels: a fast-moving, continuously intriguing theatrical entertainment, and an examination of knotty philosophical and theological questions, teased out in irony and paradox, and (characteristically) left at the end of the play unresolved.’

Herakles' Children

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Herakles' Children is described in the introduction by translator Kenneth McLeish as dramatising 'a section of the Herakles myth which seems to explain how initial enmity between Athens and the Pelopennesian state of Argos was, at some remote period of mythological time, replaced by alliance. After Herakles' ascension from earth to Olympos, his mortal rival King Eurystheus of Argos (who had devised his Labours) was afraid that Herakles' sons might grow up to contest the throne. He harried them from town to town across Greece, demanding that they be returned to Argos on pain of invasion. The play takes place after the children, led by Herakles' aged mother Alkmene and his equally decrepit nephew and former companion Iolaos, take refuge in Marathon, a town in Attika not far from Athens.'

The Argives then declare war on Marathon and the Athenians, a war whose victory is underwritten for the Athenians by the decision of Herakles' daughter Makaria, to allow herself to be sacrificed to the gods.

The subsequent defeat of the Argives, and the punishment of Eurystheus, defines the second half of the play, which was first produced some time between 430 and 427 BC, contemporaneously with Euripides' other great plays Hippolytos and Medea.

Representing the birth of world drama, the Classical Dramatists series gathers the plays that breathed life into the early Greek and Roman theatre and which remain as established classics of the repertoire to this day. The translations offered have in many cases become classics in their own right. Each collection comes complete with an introductory essay exploring the life of the writer, the dramaturgical and historical contexts, and offering a commentary on the plays in the volume.