Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cyclops - Euripides

A satyr-play, not divorced from tragedy, but in a considerably lighter tone, The Cyclops is perhaps the closest thing to a comedy we have from Euripides. The playwright elaborates a story well known to contemporary Greeks from the ninth book of the Odyssey.  While not straying too far from the story-line, Euripides adds the somewhat reprehensible character of Silenus.   

The Trojan War has finally ended, and on their way home, Odysseus and his men stop in Sicily to scavenge for food. Unfortunately they have stopped before the great cave of the Cyclops, at the foot of Mt. Aetna, where the Cyclops has in his service a poor captive, who plays the jester and comedic relief, Silenus. The play opens with Silenus bemoaning his woesome life:

"Polyphemus they call him whom we serve; and instead of Bacchic revelry we are herding a godless Cyclops's flocks; and so it is my children, striplings as the are, tend the young thereof on the edge of the downs; while my appointed task is to stay here and fill the troughs and sweep out the cave, or wait upon the ungodly Cyclops at his impious feast."

As Odysseus and his men find Silenus at the mouth of the cave, bedraggled and estranged, they beg him for food and water. Silenus, not used to visitors, begins sparring with his guests. When Odysseus tells him his name, Silenus replies: "I know him for a prating knave, one of Sisyphus' shrewd offspring." Odysseus, in good humor or pacified by hunger, ignores this slur. When Odysseus says they have unintentionally sailed here "From Illium and the toils of Troy," Silenus asks him how he could get lost on his way home. Looking about themselves, they ask what there is to eat. Silenus, tells them there is little besides sheep. That doesn't sound too bad to the weary voyagers. They ask if the residents of this cave are hospitable to strangers. Silenus, always the provocateur, replies "Strangers, they say, supply the daintiest meat." 

Odysseus, again ignoring this rather poor etiquette from a host, says his ship ran into some tempestuous wind, and they have arrived ashore with little besides a great deal of wine, which he would like to barter for food, they will take their chances with the cannibalistic Cyclops. 

Silenus, as it turns out, has quite the predilection for alcohol. As he hastily agrees to their every demand, bringing out cheeses and lambs he proclaims:

"I will do so, with small thought of any master. For let me have a single cup of that and I would turn madman, giving in exchange for it the flocks of every Cyclops and then throwing myself into the sea from the Leucadian rock, once I have been well drunk and smoothed out my wrinkled brow. For if a man rejoice not in his drinking, he is mad;  for in drinking it's possible for this to stand up straight, and then to fondle breasts, and to caress well tended locks, and there is dancing withal, and oblivion of woe. Shall I not then purchase such a rare drink, bidding the senseless Cyclops and his central eye go hang?"

As Odysseus and his men enjoy their feast, their happiness is short lived, for along comes the Cyclops, wondering who has been eating his food, but more to the point, who these tasty strangers might be. Somehow, in a feat of strength, surprising for someone disabled with such a narrow field of vision, the Cyclops manages to drive Odysseus and his men into the cave and to their certain death. 

Thankfully, the blood and gore happens off stage, but we are told that the Cyclops has begun to roast some of Odysseus' men over an open fire, choosing a pair "on whom the flesh was fattest and in best condition," all the while being egged on by Silenus, who has quickly changed his tune from the vigorous speech previously given; in fact he suggests the Cyclops eat out the tongue of Odysseus and thereby glean the gift of clever speech, after of course he eats the rest of him, being sure not to spare a morsel. 

As cruel as Silenus seems, he's really just an alcoholic, and will stop at nothing to get a drink.

Odysseus concocts a plan to get the Cyclops drunk and then blind him with a molten iron rod. As Odysseus convinces the Cyclops not to share his bountiful wine supply, they catch Silenus taking little sips. 

Cyclops (to Odysseus): I will feast of thee last, after all thy comrades.
Odysseus: Fair indeed the honor thou bestowest on thy guest, sir Cyclops!
Cyclops (turning suddenly to Silenus): Ho! Sirrah! What art thou about? taking a stealthy pull at the wine?
Silenus: No, but it kissed me for my good looks.
Cyclops: Thou shalt smart, if thou kiss the wine when it kisses not thee.
Silenus: Oh! but it did, for it says it is in love with my handsome face. 

This excuse seems plausible enough, and the Cyclops goes back to getting totally sloshed. Silenus does not technically get away with his turncoat / alcoholism without a bit of a penalty, and while the drunk Cyclops looks around for an amorous playmate, he decides Silenus will have to do for the time being, and Silenus is dragged into the cave a Ganymede to the Cyclops' Zeus.

The moment has come for a valiant warrior to now volunteer to sneak into the cave and brand the Cyclops. The men quickly back away from the honor, one has just recently developed a lameness, another seems to have dust or ashes in his eye, another openly admits he is a coward; so Odysseus, being the truly brave and fearless warrior that he is sneaks into the cave and burns the Cyclops with the blazing bar, rendering him sightless and non-threateningly disabled.   

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