Don't Mess With the Greeks

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Was I mortified. I learned a hard and important lesson: Don't mess with the Greeks unless you really know what you're doing.

    I got a little itchy all over again a few times while reading two new translations from the ancient Greek that are both very loose adaptations:

    Ted Hughes' version of Euripides' Alcestis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 103 pages, $20) and Brooks Haxton's Dances for Flute and Thunder (Viking, 84 pages, $20), a collection of short poems, curses and aphorisms from various Classical Greek sources. Both Hughes and Haxton breathe life into the works at hand?Alcestis I know has been subjected to some really horrible, dull translations in the past?but they do it by really messing with the originals.

    I think we feel as close to the ancient Greeks as we do?closer to them than we do, say, the

    Romans or Egyptians?first, because they were so extraordinarily clear and articulate about themselves and the world, and second, because they were in effect archaic Moderns: We (in the West) share with them or get from them virtually all our ideas about the private life of the individual and the public life of the polis, about the intellect and the spirit. In their verse, that connection we feel can survive some very dull, plodding transliterations, ones that make no attempt to sing, only to give the meaning accurately.

    But you really want a poet-translator to make a new version that sings, and does it in some way that credibly represents the original, without either violating or plodding. The downside is that, being poets, they sometimes can't help meddling with the other guy's poetry. Poet-translators can grant themselves a lot of leeway to interpret, to adapt and, when the original is old, to update and "make it relevant." The bolder and more open they are about this fooling around, the more the results can ring false and off-key. To whit: a disco Bacchae. (And yes, I am aware that there already was a disco Bacchae. It was called Saturday Night Fever.)

    On the one hand, you want to say look: Euripides already is relevant. Homer already is relevant. Attempts to make them sound current, slangy and casual can be disastrous. If they sound archaic, well, they are. When you're working with Classical Greek verse, material that was formally sung or ritualistically performed, it's not exactly true to the original to make it sound all conversational and demotic. On the other, we've all been subjected to translations that could put you under in the first 50 lines. Too many crusty old Victorian versions of Greek drama are still dragging their thou-hast and prithee-yon-godling corpses around the classrooms of the English-speaking world. Formal and ritualistic is one thing, deadly dull another.

    No fear of that with Hughes' Alcestis. Say what you will about the guy, his late translations?this was his last completed project before he died?are ballsy, bustling, red-meat affairs. No wan poesy-pulling for him. These things bellow, caper and sing. They'll get on your nerves sometimes doing that, and I'm sure he freaks out the scholars, but at least he won't lull you to sleep.

    Hughes has in essence rewritten Alcestis. He inserts entire new scenes and heavily redoes others, to the point where a Hollywoodish title like Ted Hughes' Euripides' Alcestis is almost in order. One of the earliest known of Euripides' plays and one of the oddest, Alcestis is a lopsided combination of a tragedy and one of the "satyr plays" the Greeks used to lighten things up in between tragedies. Its theme and tone of moral ambiguity are certainly not unknown in Classical drama, but the treatment is strangely stark, almost surrealist.

    Apollo, Prometheus, Heracles, Death and the great god Zeus himself all make star turns in Alcestis, variously meddling in or commenting on the central action. Which is that Admetos, king of Thessaly, a good monarch and loved by his people, is fated to die young. Apollo, the king's divine benefactor, persuades "Fate, vast and faceless Fate,/To accept a substitute." But who'll take the king's place in dying? His parents, who already have one foot in the grave, cling to life all the more closely for that. The king's bravest warriors turn him down.

    Who steps forward? His young, dutiful wife Alcestis, daughter of Pelias. And Admetos, though wracked with guilt and shame at letting his wife die in his stead, accepts her offer. (Let's spare ourselves the pat Freudian cliches about what might have motivated the aged Hughes to have worked with this particular story.)

    The play opens on the day Alcestis is to die. Apollo introduces the action and explains the background.

    I am partly to blame.

    You may call me a god.

    You may call me whatever you like.

    But a god greater than I am, the greatest god,

    Is guiltier than I am

    Of what is happening here.

    He tells us that Zeus (Hughes has him throughout simply as God)?"The great god, the greatest of the gods,/The maker of the atom,/Is a jealous god"?and has killed Apollo's son, the healer Aesculapius.

    A thunderbolt split heaven?and killed my son.

    The dead must die forever.

    That is what the thunder said. The dead

    Are dead are dead are dead are dead


    They return to the pool of atoms.

    I don't like that "what the thunder said" business?is this Zeus, god of the Navajo we're speaking of??but those are some pretty great lines all the same. Hughes gives himself even more leeway when he has Apollo go on:

    Do you know what I did? I avenged my son.

    I killed the electro-technocrats, those Titans,

    Who made the thunderbolt.

    Electro-technocrats. What's the point? It's ugly. But Hughes redeems himself with his handling of the next scene, when Death comes storming onstage, in a fury because Apollo has cheated him of Admetos. Hughes' Death is a great figure, a vibrantly malevolent Death, and he fires off a magnificently raging speech Hughes renders with frightening brio?even though he keeps marring it with more of those gimmicks, jostling it off-track with jarring anachronisms like: "His death would have been a national catastrophe./A nuclear bomb spewing a long cloud/Of consequences. But for me?a harvest./You cheated me./That's all right. I'm a good loser./I mean, I don't mind/Postponing my winnings... This one's mine?and better now/While she's still so young./Still juicy, still a beauty./Ha ha ha! It's a long way/To the underworld/And I have my perks."

    Really, did we have to have "a nuclear bomb" and "perks"? I hate that. Later, Heracles will speak of using "a laser" as one of his weapons. It's a cheap trick, it's unnecessary and, in an essential way, it's a lie.

    Still, Hughes' Death gets yet another fine, harrowing speech before he's done, with lines like:

    Don't you know how paltry and precarious

    Life is? I am not a god.

    I am the magnet of the cosmos.

    What you call death

    Is simply my natural power,

    The pull of my gravity. And life

    Is a brief weightlessness?an aberration

    From the status quo?which is me...

    Their lives are the briefest concession,

    My concession, a nod of permission.

    As if I dozed off and dreamed a little...

    When I awake in the body of Alcestis,

    She dies...

    What a phenomenally energetic and terrifying prologue this makes: Death and Apollo shouting at each other over the fate of mankind.

    The play takes rather a long breather after that, Admetos and the Chorus moaning on and on over his terrible loss, the untenable position fate has put him in, strophe this and antistrophe that, the Chorus trying to buck Admetos up with philosophical palaver like, "...Alcestis welcomed her death/When first she welcomed her life./She has merely unwrapped/The gift of death her mother gave her." There is one fine exchange between Admetos and his father, the two of them viciously insulting each other.

    Then brawny Heracles, an old friend, shows up, on his way to his latest heroic deed (subduing the man-eating horses of Diomed), unaware that his friend has just entered a period of mourning. His arrival creates a strange, and very Greek, social dilemma: Admetos decides that he can't be a discourteous host, so he doesn't tell Heracles what's going on, and has him set up in a far wing of the palace, where he can party away, as a man's friends are expected to do when they come visit, not knowing that a funeral's taking place in another part of the great house.

    This sets up the most unusual set piece in Ted Hughes' Euripides' Alcestis, one in which Hughes has pretty completely rewritten the original and inserted huge chunks modernizing stage business. I've read one reviewer who thinks that what Hughes has done here makes a contemporary staged production of Alcestis eminently more feasible, and I don't disagree with that. But if you're a scholar of Greek drama, this must be a tremendous violation.

    For us general readers, it's a pretty cool scene. Heracles, drunk as a skunk, scandalizing all the servants ("Of all the guests we've ever had here," one of them gripes, "This one is the weirdest..."), starts play-acting all his great deeds of heroism and strength. He plays at slaying the Nemean lion and the Hydra, hunts the Erymanthian boar and the "triply-drunk centaurs," cleans up the Augean stables, fends off the harpies (whom Hughes marvelously renders as "the shite-hawks") and so on. Then, for the finale of this drunken reenactment, Hughes calls for a play-within-a-play, as Heracles sees a vision of Prometheus chained to his rock, the voice of Zeus/God bitching at him from above. You think you freed Man when you gave him fire? God rumbles.

    You freed him

    To grope his way into the mine shaft, into the bank vault

    Of his own ego, his selfishness

    And his pride...

    You freed him

    To grope his way into the dark maze of the atom

    With no more illumination than a hope.

    Prometheus argues back, "I freed him to be human./I broke the chains/ That made him the slave of your laws." And Zeus?perhaps a little too conveniently foreshadowing one of the great Modernist conundrums from the mid-20th century?replies, "You cut the nerves/That connected him to his own soul./Perhaps that is the secret you keep from me./When man has learned to live without his soul/I shall be redundant. That day is coming." When Heracles sobers up and realizes he's mortified himself, he conjures up his greatest feat of strength ever as a way to get his honor back. Sneaking up on Death, who is hovering over Alcestis' body, about to haul off her soul, Heracles throws a full nelson on him and chokes him until he agrees to let her soul go. Heracles reunites his friend with his alive-again bride, the Chorus is startled and overjoyed, and what started out looking like a tragedy suddenly has a happy ending.

    It ain't Bacchae or The Trojan Women, more of a curio?but a generally overlooked one, which Hughes has freed of its thee's and thou's and lofted back into view, which is a pretty fine last feat for him to have pulled off.

    For his part, Haxton (a poet who runs the writing program at Syracuse) openly admits that he doesn't read Greek; working from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, he built basic transliterations into English, and then adapted freely, "with no hope of reproducing the original prosody... More often than not, my versions maintain literal accuracy. But the freest of them are far from paraphrase... Words, phrases, lines at a stretch are left out, or shifted in position, where the more literal version went slack. Where poems have been excerpted, condensed, combined, rearranged, and otherwise emended here, I did not work to improve the originals, but only to make my rendition as effective as possible."

    Lucky for him it generally works. With its fruitbatty title and cover art that evokes Isadora Duncan, Haxton's Dances for Flute and Thunder does not immediately recommend itself to the guy reader. But what he's done is interesting, focusing on small poems and scraps of verse?jokes, curses, aphorisms, prayers, inscriptions on graves?to give a sense of how prevalent poetry was in the everyday life of the Greeks. By the same token, the verses themselves show how close to nature people lived, how meticulously they examined the world around them, and as a result how naturalistic and downright "earthy" their poetics were.

    So Haxton's version of something called "Invocation to the Bees" contains lines like:

    Fetch into your singing hive the thyme

    just shriveled under an early chill,

    and scratch and nibble at the poppy crumb

    and at the torn place in the raisin...

    Build your cells of wax.

    And Pan, the god of bees and keeper

    of the hive, will come in turn

    and dip out of a drowsy smoke his hand

    at honey gathering...

    Here's a similar one called "Sleep":

    Peak, and chasm also, sleep, the cliff too,

    where the torrent cuts and falls into the surf,

    and everything bred out of the dark ground,

    lizards on the warm rock faces, bees,

    and monstrous creatures in the gloom under the sea,

    even in flight the great-winged birds of omen, sleep.

    That's pretty wonderful. At his worst, like Hughes, Haxton's attempts to update seem frivolous and ruinously inauthentic. It's just not right to title an ode on a wooden figure of Priapus "Dildo with Nightingales." It's not a fucking dildo, it's a phallic fetish. "Priapus with Nightingales" would've been fine. Did Haxton think we wouldn't get it?

    Still, he translates it nicely. It begins:

    Where the lane under the oaks goes crooked,

    friend, an image lately carved in fig wood stands,

    dried up, and soft, and soon to rot, with patches

    of the bark left on, ears missing and the nose,

    but with a phallus fit for the God himself...