Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales
of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's
reviews, visit his website: www.nickcatalano.net
the cursory exposure to Greek drama usually experienced by college
students reveals a curious preponderance of themes about women.
After a brief peek at the early origins of drama via the Choral
Dithyramb (a song sung by about 50 boys) and its evolution by
Thespis, the first ‘actor’ according to Aristotle,
students will usually plunge into Aeschylus – the early
his masterpiece trilogy The Orestia, the playwright
instantly digs into women’s issues. In the first play
Agamemnon, we see Clytemnestra Queen of Argos impressing
the male chorus against their will because, as a woman, she
is the first person in town to discover
and declare the news that the Trojan War has ended. She then
quickly steals the thunder of male victory celebrations by launching
into a long diatribe telling of the myriad sacrifices women
must make when their men go off to war: maintenance of family
support and stability, fending off political challenges from
wannabes, and keeping the citizenry ordered and peaceful. She
is the strongest character in the play and easily outmaneuvers
her misogynistic husband King Agamemnon. He has brought a captured
girl-friend home from Troy and shamelessly paraded her in front
of the townspeople; his wife craftily bides her time and soon
fixes his wagon.
the last play of The Orestia -- Eumenides
-- Aeschylus writes of the goddess Athena and female deities
– Erinyes – who enter into a deeply philosophical
debate about the nature of justice. Turning to an infamous issue
in The Suppliant Women, he addresses the universal problem of
arranged marriages – an institution that is still a problem
for women in some societies.
playwright Sophocles chooses a woman – Antigone -- to
fight for the rights of private conscience over the dictates
of monolithic rule and she becomes his model for heroic civil
disobedience and inspiration for the movement against tyranny.
The unwavering, tenacious Antigone defies King Creon who has
ordered dishonour for her brother’s corpse. After defeating
his authority with powerful rhetoric usually uttered by men,
she proudly walks off stage to face his order of death rather
than succumb to his edict violating her belief.
Medea becomes a fabled symbol of victimization. She
has sacrificed every possible resource she has for her husband
Jason who leaves her for a younger woman. Throughout the play
in magnificent speeches, Medea reviews the fate of womanhood
at the hands of male dominance and can exact revenge against
her philandering husband only by resorting to unimaginable violence.
his tragi-comic play Alcestis, Euripides again examines
female issues. In this play, he celebrates one of the great
heroines of mythology in Alcestis who unselfishly sacrifices
her own life to save her husband from a premature death. Apollo
had once persuaded the fates to grant King Admetus the privilege
of living past his allotted time of death as recompense for
the hospitality the king had shown him during his exile from
Olympus. However, there is a catch: the king must find a substitute.
After fruitless search, he ignominiously consents to let his
wife Alcestis die instead of him. This courageous, unselfish
woman shows herself as another great heroine in Greek drama.
She agrees to die because she doesn’t want to leave her
children fatherless. The playwright has such regard for his
heroine that he has Heracles bring her back from the dead and
celebrate her virtue with a happy ending reuniting her with
husband and children.
the chief architect of Greek comedy, routinely employs female
characters to advance political issues and satirize many foibles
in Greek society. In Lysistrata , Spartan and Athenian
women, fed up with the Peloponnesian war, decide to go on a
sex strike until the men quit fighting. Scenes of eminent warriors
in their proud battle attire reduced to helpless fools begging
for sex are hysterically funny. However, in addition to the
farce, Aristophanes glorifies the intellectual and political
idealism of women when Lysistrata debates a hawkish magistrate
and demonizes the age-old male propensity for war
to solve disputes.
with the unlikely title Thesmophoriazusae (sometimes
called The Poet and the Women) focuses on the subversive role
of women in a male-dominated society. Here Aristophanes has
the women of Athens summoning Euripides to account for the misogynistic
portrayal they receive in some plays. The play comically deals
with sexual stereotyping -- an issue forgotten for a couple
of thousand years until modern-day women’s groups once
again raised its banner.
the end of his life around 392 B.C.E., Aristophanes wrote a
play dubbed Ecclesiazusae (now called The Assembly
Women or Women in Parliament). It was written after the loss
of the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.E.) during the time that Plato
was composing The Republic. By this time, the high blown triumph
of Athenian democracy had fallen and been replaced by various
oligarchies, tyrannies and brief dictatorships. Public officials
and philosophers alike were once again searching for an ideal
government; thus Plato’s famous treatise.
tongue-in-cheek but a once again crafty portrait of male failure,
Aristophanes has the wise Praxagora leading a group of women
into the assembly and, with the support of some men, gaining
control of the Athenian government. The strong, organized women
in the play are contrasted with the ineffectual men which is
the playwright’s comment on the dissolute state of Athenian
last play has an ominous foreshadowing for present day politics.
In record numbers, women are declaring for office prior to American
mid-term elections. Several have already won primaries in traditional
male-dominated districts. The well-publicized misogynistic antics
of celebrity males in media, business and politics have roused
large segments of the female population in a dramatic call to
those searching for historical precedents of this notable insurrection,
a perusal of important feminine issues initially put forth by
Greek playwrights ages ago may yield fodder for the struggle
women are presently undertaking.