Friday, April 27, 2018


A Chorus from Euripides

Don Marquis (1878-1937), "Preface to the Plays of Euripides," Prefaces (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1919), pp. 47-53:
We approach a preface to the plays of Euripides with more confidence than we could summon to the critical consideration of any other Greek dramatist. We know more about Euripides. We have read more of him. We once read five lines of him in the original Greek. It is true that we did not know what they were about when we read them, and should not know now; but we read them thirty or forty times and something about the manner in which we read them saved a man's life.

We were fussing around the office of the Atlanta (Ga.) Journal one morning about three o'clock, having just finished writing an editorial which we thought would likely elect Hoke Smith governor, if he were able to live up to it, when we ran across a copy of "Iphigenia in Tauris." It was a new edition, and some trusting publisher had sent it along in the vain hope that it would be noticed. We happened to know the alphabet and could mispronounce a few words, and we turned over the pages wishing that we were able to read the thing—it might give us a chance to elevate our mind, which was suffering from the frightful strain of writing about Hoke Smith in such a way that even Hoke would believe himself a statesman. And thinking how great a man Euripides probably was, for all we knew, and how superior to Hoke Smith he must have been in many ways, we got very hungry.

We went across the street to a little basement lunchroom kept by a fellow named George Stefanopoulous, who always put so much onion in his Hamburger steaks one could not taste the beef. If one poured enough Worcestershire sauce over them so that one could not taste the onions they could be eaten. We carried Euripides with us, and George told us proudly that there is no more difference between the Greek of Euripides and the Greek written and spoken in Athens to-day than between the English of Shakespeare's time and the English of to-day. Inquiry revealed that George's knowledge of Shakespeare was about as extensive as our knowledge of Euripides, and so we cannot vouch for his statement.

Interrupting our course in Euripides—some one or some thing has been interrupting us all our life every time we seemed to be on the point of really getting into the classics—in came a young man named Henry.

Henry roomed with us, and roamed with us at that time, and he was a chronic sufferer from false angina pectoris. This is a disease (unknown to Euripides, but Alcibiades undoubtedly developed it) which has all the effects upon patient and observer of real organic affection of the heart; no one takes it lightly but the doctors. In Henry's case it was aggravated by a fondness for Georgia corn whisky and stuff he ate out of tin cans. This diet did things to his stomach; his stomach kicked to his pneumogastric nerve, and his pneumogastric nerve gripped his heart as with iron claws, squeezed it to the size of a peanut, twisted it like a fountain pen that won't unscrew and convinced it that it would never beat again. The chief difference between real angina and pseudo angina (as far as we can gather from Euripides) is that while both can kill you, the real sort kills you more quickly and kindly.

Henry pulled a spasm of it while George was telling us about Euripides; writhed about, and fell to the floor semi-conscious.

Heat, applied to the heart, and strychnine or aromatic ammonia, if you can get hold of them, are (as Aesculapius would say) "indicated."

So we sent George's assistant to telephone for a doctor and applied a hot Hamburger steak, just out of George's frying pan, to Henry's bosom.

We had frequently helped Henry die with his heart, but this time we were alarmed.

"George," said we, "throw another Hamburger steak into the skillet at once. His pulse has stopped entirely. And this steak is cooling."

Just then Henry's eyes fluttered and he strove to speak. We bent over the sufferer.

"I'm dying," murmured Henry. "Pray! Pray for me!"

The request caught us unaware; we could not remember any formal petition. In desperation we took up Euripides, and, as the second Hamburger steak went hot and sizzling and dripping with grease from George's frying-pan to Henry's heart, we began to chant one of the choruses.

There was something about a Basileon in it, whatever a Basileon may be ...

"Thank you!" muttered Henry ...

The third steak was getting cool, and still George's assistant did not return with a doctor. Henry's chest was cooling, too. His feet and hands were cold. He had no more pulse than a wooden Indian or one of the iron dogs in Hoke Smith's front yard. If we had known a real prayer we would have switched to it from Basileon ...

And just as we were putting Basileon over the jumps for the eighteenth time George Stefanopoulous announced:

"Sir, I have no more Hamburger steak to fry!"

"My God!" said we, "BasileonBasileon—dig up something else—BasileonBasileon—fry an egg, George—BasileonBasileon—and be quick about it! Fry two eggs!"

It was at the sixteenth egg that the physician arrived and complimented us on our treatment.

"Heat," he said, "is the great thing in these cases, and it Is well to remove all apprehension from the patient's mind if possible." "The prayer," said Henry, who had been hypodermicked into something like an appetite for corn whisky and tin cans again, "the prayer is what saved me!"

Euripides did not live as long as Sophocles, but was, on the whole, more widely popular. And one has only to compare the "Iphigenia" of Euripides with the "Agamemnon" of Aeschylus to see their entire dissimilarity. They are products of practically the same period of Hellenic culture ... and yet, what a difference!

Henry married, Hoke Smith in the Senate, Euripides dead—how time flies!
Hoke Smith first ran for governor of Georgia in 1906. If the tale has any truth, perhaps the book was Isaac Flagg's school edition of the play (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1889; rpt. 1891)—cf. line 190.

Kevin Muse (per litteras) suggests that a more likely candidate for the book is the edition by William Nickerson Bates (New York: American Book Company, 1904), and I think he's right.

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