Our lives are marked by reversals and recognitions for which we are rarely prepared. That change will come is certain, whether on the stage or in your home. The only question is how you will receive it when it comes.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Euripedes: On Change

I was pleased to discover that the scholars and thespians of your day still read and perform my plays and those of my forebears, Aeschylus and Sophocles. But you seem singularly uninformed about the actual nature of tragedy. You imagine that a tragic drama must always and necessarily have an unhappy ending, when, in matter of fact, I and my fellow dramatists all wrote tragedies with happy endings.

What you need to understand, not only about tragedy but about the nature of our world, is that our lives are marked by reversals and recognitions for which we are rarely prepared. Sometimes those sudden shifts lead us toward death and destruction; sometimes they lead us toward hope and reconciliation. But they always come as a surprise that changes the relationships that define us and the self we thought we knew.

Yes, as you saw in my previous letter, I wrote a play about the terrible change that Jason had to endure. One moment, he was prepared to marry a princess and secure his own fortune and that of his sons; the next moment, he was forced to gaze on the mangled bodies of his bride, his father-in-law, and his children. He could not foresee what horrific deeds would spring from the sorrow and rage of Medea.

Nor did Pentheus know what the upshot would be of his resistance to Bacchus and his sacred revels. He discovered too late that the claims of Bacchus cannot be silenced or eradicated. Because he refused to open his heart to the feminine side, he was seized with a perverse lust to spy on the maenads, a lust that led to the fracturing of his soul and the dismemberment of his body.

Such tales should fill us with dread, for none of us, no matter the age we inhabit, can say what direction our lives will take. Change is swift and often irrevocable, and the only way we can face its vicissitudes is to cultivate within precisely the kind of humility and flexibility that Jason, Medea, and Pentheus so woefully lacked. How will you react, children of a more enlightened age, when you learn that things are not as they had once seemed and that you are not the person you thought you were? That change will come is certain, whether on the stage or in your home. The only question is how you will receive it when it comes.

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Still, do not let your hearts be troubled. Change is as often beneficent as it is insidious and destructive. When I wrote my tragedy of the Trojan women, I depicted Helen as vain, callous, and narcissistic. But I later repented of that and presented her in a different light. I told a strange, almost unbelievable tale filled with unexpected twists and turns, but those dramatic shifts brought good rather than ill.

In that play, so unlike The Trojan Women, Helen was never taken to Troy. Paris thought he was taking with him the wife of Menelaus, but all he took in his ship was a phantom who looked and spoke as she did. The real Helen, meanwhile, was spirited away to Egypt where she was cared for by good king Proteus.

Alas, that good king was followed by a lesser son who lusted after Helen and tried to force her to let go of her vows to Menelaus and marry him. In response, Helen attaches herself to the sanctuary of Proteus’s tomb and refuses to move from it. All seems lost for the hapless Helen, when, suddenly, the winds of fate shift and a wondrous change rolls in that brings hope as well as danger in its wake.

Menelaus, returning from Troy with his men and the phantom Helen, crash lands on the coast of Egypt. Leaving Helen and his crew in a cave, Menelaus sets forth alone to scout out the terrain. As he does so, he comes upon the real Helen. Their slow recognition of each other is as joyous as it is poignant. Though Menelaus stands but inches from his true and faithful bride, he cannot believe the truth until a messenger comes and tells him that the Helen he had left behind in the cave had risen skyward and vanished on the mist.

Sometimes it is more difficult to believe that happiness has befallen us than sorrow. But not all change is for the worse. There is such a thing as restoration: the return of that which we thought was lost; the rebirth of that which we thought was dead.

Once Helen and Menelaus embrace their fortuitous reversal and recognition, they are able to set about making plans to ensure their escape from Egypt. The enterprise is a risky one, fraught with peril, but they trust to the good fortune that has reunited them after so many weary years.

In the end, they make their escape, but the evil Egyptian king swears vengeance against the Greek serving women left behind and his own sister who had aided the happy pair in their escape. And it is at that moment, when evil seems about to undo all the good of the play, that Castor and Pollux, the deified brothers of Helen, appear on the stage and rebuke the king.

Too often we fancy that we have the strength and the skill to extricate ourselves from every bad situation. But we do not. It is more often the case that our salvation must come from above, in a manner that we can neither control nor understand.

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Oh, and one last thing, children of the twenty-first century. Please erase from your mind the false belief that tragic endings are somehow wiser and more profound than happy ones. Though the vagaries of fate often lead us into despair, they just as often lift us up on high. And when they do, our response must not be one of disbelief or cynicism or guilt or caution.

In such moments, only one response is correct…  and that is gratitude.

—Euripides

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “A Dance to the Music of Time” (c. 1636) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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