The Classical Greek Theatre Festival 2016

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The Westminster Department of Theatre Arts is proud to present the 46th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival.

Euripides' Herakles

In September of 2016 The Classical Greek Theatre Festival of Westminster College will mount and tour a new production of Euripides' tragic masterpiece Herakles, rarely read and infrequently seen in performance.

In the play Herakles has married Megara, the daughter of the king of Thebes, and is now absent on his famous Labors; meanwhile a usurper, Lykos ("Wolf") has seized power in Thebes and is preparing to kill Megara and her children. Megara asks for time to prepare herself, land, and her children, and as she and Amphitryon (Herakles' stepfather) pray for aid from Zeus, Herakles returns, having completed the last of his Labors. When Lykos returns to take Megara in to her death, he is murdered (off-stage) by Herakles. All seems to have ended happily, but on the palace roof appears Iris (messenger of the gods) and Lyssa (Madness), sent by Hera to continue her wrath against Herakles. Lyssa is unwilling to assail Herakles who has been a defender of the gods, but does her work at the insistence of Iris. A messenger describes how Herakles has gone mad and killed his family. We see a tableau of Herakles and the bodies of his wife and sons, and with the aid of Amphitryon he returns to sanity and the ghastly realization of what he has done. His friend Theseus, whom he rescued from the underworld, arrives to take the stricken hero to Athens." (I.C Storey & A. Allen)

This September, Hugh Hanson will direct a modern production of Herakles featuring a recent American translation by the noted poet Anne Carson. Spencer Brown will create the set design with costumes by Erin West and original music played live by Ryan Fedor.

Production Schedule

Westminster College, Jay W. Lees Courage Theatre: September 2–3 & 9–10, 7:30 p.m.

Utah Cultural Celebration Center: September 17, 7:30 p.m.

1355 W 3100 S
West Valley City, UT 84119

Brigham Young University, DeJong Concert Hall: September 19, 5:00 p.m.

BYU de Jong Concert Hall in the Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center
Provo, UT 84602

Weber State University, Wildcat Theatre: September 20, 7:30 p.m.

Wildcat Theater in the Shepherd Union Building
3190 W Campus Dr
Ogden, UT 84408

Red Butte Garden: September 24-25, 9:00 a.m.

300 Wakara Way
Salt Lake City, UT 84108

*An orientation lecture by the dramaturge will precede every show thirty minutes before each performance.

Study Guide to Euripides' Herakles

I: Background


In viewing the Herakles the audience would have recognized several familiar features of the (mythic) story and have been struck by some innovations. The most striking departure from the pre-existing tradition is the sequence of events. According to a likely reconstruction of this earlier version, the murder of the children preceded the labors and may have provided the motivation for them. Euripides' account of the story also necessitates a different motivation for the labors. Amphitryon explains that since he himself is in exile from his native Argos, Herakles acts to 'ease these misfortunes' as to win his own return to Argos. Theseus' later appearance and involvement in this stage of the story must also be novel, since the involvement hinges on his rescue from the underworld. Lykos, it seems is a Euripidean invention, found nowhere in Greek literature before this play and nowhere afterward independent of the play's influence. This new character is of obvious importance for the threat he poses to the family, since this motivates the first section of the play.
Michael Halleran


There is a possibly closer and more revealing connection here, however, between Herakles and Euripides. Herakles, we know, is coming home because his labors are over, and those labors have been identified for the most part as the labors of war. The curious and remarkable fact is that, as he was envisioning and creating the Herakles, the very same may have been true for Euripides and his fellow Athenians. In 424 BCE, Euripides turned sixty and thus would have come home from the war for the last time. Furthermore, only several years later, he would have been joined in military retirement by many or most of his comrades in arms. In the years immediately following the Peace of Nikias (421), not only Euripides but most all of Athens' veterans, like Herakles, put their combat labors behind them and returned to their farms and families and the challenges of peace…While there is no sure date for the Herakles, I believe the analysis here makes such a dating all the more compelling. It is, I would suggest, a play written by a veteran about a veteran for veterans, all of whom are attempting to put war behind them. Not an easy task.
Robert Meagher


He was a many-sided poet; even the fraction of his work that has come down to us -about one-fifth- we can hear many different voices: the rhetorician and iconoclast of Aristophanic travesty; the precursor to Menandrian comedy; the realist who brought the myths down to the level of everyday life; the inventor of the romantic adventure play; the lyric poet whose music, Plutarch tells us, was to save Athens from destruction when surrender came in 404; the producer of patriotic war plays -and also of plays that expose war's ugliness in dramatic images of unbearable intensity; above all, the tragic poet who saw human life not as action but as suffering…It is a vision of the future. In it we see the poet at work as prophet, as seer: vates the Romans called him, a word that means both poet and prophet.
Bernard Knox
Euripidean theater is a genuine theater of ideas, a theater where the emphasis will be on ideas rather than character and where a thesis or problem will normally take precedence over development of character or heroism. Such a theater results in certain changes with regard to plot and character: first, the destruction of the propter hoc structure; secondly, the disappearance of the hero.
William Arrowsmith

II: Synopsis

Herakles has married Megara, the daughter of the king of Thebes, and is now absent on his famous Labors; meanwhile a usurper, Lykos ("Wolf") has seized poiwer in Thebes and is preparing to kill Megara and the children. As she and Amphitryon (Herakles' stepfather) pray for aid from Zeus, Herakles returns, having completed the last of his Labors. When Lykos returns to take Megara in to her death, he is murdered (off-stage) by Herakles. All seems to have ended happily, but on the palace roof appear Iris (messenger of the gods) and Lyssa (Madness), sent by Hera to continue her wrath against Herakles. A messenger describes how Herakles has gone mad and killed his family. We see a tableau of Herakles amid the bodies of his wife and sons, and with the aid of Amphitryon he returns to sanity and the ghastly realization of what he has done. His friend Theseus, whom he rescued from the underwold, arrives to take the stricken hero to Athens.
Ian Storey & Arlene Allen
The plot is not a single and coherent action but a sequence of episodes leading to a series of aborted ends: first death for the hero's wife and children at the hands of the upstart Lycus, then deliverance when Herakles suddenly returns from Hades to save his family and rescue (sic) the tyrant, then crushing reversal when Herakles in god-sent madness murders his wife and children, and finally the uncertain future that awaits the hero in Athens. The final scene of the play describes a situation whose outcome is unknown, and a protagonist whose identity remains undefined.
Francis M. Dunn
The play falls into four movements. A. Waiting for Herakles. B Herakles' return and the murder of Lycus. C. Herakles' madness and the murder of his wife and children. D. Herakles' rehabilitation with the help of the unfailing love and friendship of Amphitryon and Theseus. The four movements may be grouped as two pairs (AB and CD) each setting a problem followed by a resolution.
S.A. Barlow

III: The Character of Herakles

Herakles lies on the margins between human and divine; he occupies the no-man's-land that is also no-gods'-land; he is a marginal, transitional or, better, interstitia l figure. From his birth to his death, Herakles is a clear instance, an extreme instance, of an interstitial figure: both powerful and vulnerable, viewed with awe and admiration; also feared, wherever he goes. He is neither man nor god, so neither man nor god is ever entirely at peace with him. He is an ideal to dream of and a horror story to shrink from.
M.S. Silk
Geoffrey Kirk has pointed out that the legendary Herakles embodies 'to an unusual degree' the contradictions of the hero : humane and bestial, serious and burlesque, sane and mad, savior and destroyer, free and slave, human and divine…The hero who embodies contradictions to an exceptional degree is full of possibility, available for ever new constructions and reinventions, and he is also empty, never a coherent or identifiable individual or character, but a constellation of images.
Francis M. Dunn
The earlier scenes of the play present in succession three different views of the hero: the epinician Herakles, the domestic Herakles, and the violent and criminal Herakles. Euripides enjambs these three views of the hero, emphasizing the separateness of each and the apparent contradictions among them.
H. Foley

IV: Themes and Dramatic Strategies

Herakles is not only military innovator; he is also a hero deeply immersed in domesticity. This theme of family implies an obvious dramatic irony, in that Herakles displays love for his family just before he slaughters them. But the family relationship among males is a major theme of this play.
Ann Michelini
Lyssa, the reluctant agent of Herakles' temporary insanity, is a personification of a condition recognized elsewhere as typical of anyone out of control, from the berserker in battle to various forms of the frenzied, from fanatic, to rabid to erotomaniac.
J. Walton
This powerful tragedy poses two urgent questions. One of them concerns the relationship between gods and mortals. Who is the true father of Herakles? Is it the god or the mortal? The second question concerns the fundamental nature of heroism. Who is the true hero?
James Morwood
Any shedding of human blood, intended or not, created a pollution (miasma) that was regarded as infectious to sight, touch and hearing. Theseus in the name of friendship and in spite of Herakles' protests will disregard the risk of pollution to himself.
C. Wolff
Violence is at the centre of this play. The violence of Lycus. The violence of the gods who themselves are swept along by the hatred of Hera and in some way trapped by it. The violence which has always characterized Herakles' way of life and which makes him vulnerable to the gods' manipulation. Physical violence is a way of life to him, so that when the gods come to destroy him, they are able to do so through patterns of behavior which are already characteristic of him.
S. A. Barlow
In the Herakles the use of the sacrificial motif is more complex: first, a perversion of ritual results in unintentional kin murder; second, the sacrificial crisis is absorbed into a larger ritual crisis which itself includes a perversion of agon, of festal molpe (song and dance), and of the poetic tradition itself.
Helene Foley
Herakles' agones, the agones of war, and the Greek athletic agones idealize physical force and competition the service of civilization, not to undermine it as in this play. The term agon is, of course, a complex one, meaning not only a labor or contest but also a struggle, battle, trial, assembly, speech, debate. and so on.
H. Foley
The play's concluding theme is friendship. Herakles extols it above wealth and power. But this oversimplifies. Theseus' wealth and Athens' power make this friendship viable. Yet a look back will recall that friendship has been shown as helpless (the chorus, Amphitryon, Lyssa), unreliable (the citizens of Thebes, the Greek world) or simply absent. Friendship, philia, in Greek, is a wide-ranging notion, comprising social and political alignments as well as mutual ties and obligations of kin.
C. Wolff
The theme of human weakness comprehends both the extreme old age of the chorus and Amphitryon, and the helplessness of Megara and the children…The play presents the inevitable cycle of human life, a journey between the weakness of childhood and the feebleness of old age. Herakles as son and as parent stands between his father and children as a representative of mature and youthful strength, hebe.
Ann Michelini
The shadow of Hades, of things having to do with death, is cast over the length of the play. There are, from the beginning to end, journeys to and from death, impending death, dirges and laments, dressing for death, killings, corpses, funeral and burial arrangements, contemplation of suicide.
Christian Wolff
No play of Euripides gives more prominence to divinities and to questions of religion that does Herakles. In other plays divine figures in prologue and epilogue interpret the action through genealogy and cult. In Herakles, where the gap between myth and reality is central, the appearance of the deus ex machina is centralized as well, invading the play at its core.
Ann Michelini
Yoking metaphors are very common to express close relationships, and variations of the metaphor occur throughout the Herakles. The dependence of Herakles' children is characterized in a striking new simile (epholkides, a small rowboat) which is then repeated in metaphor form to express his own dependence on Theseus.
S. Barlow
The shifts in mood in Herakles are startling as the action of the play veers from predictable to unpredictable, from comic to tragic, from sanity to lunacy. If we are looking for a pattern—and where would critics be if not for pattern—this is a walking example of Aristotle's peripateia, reversal of expectation.
J. Michael Walton
The Herakles has a final debate (1214-1404), but one which achieves harmony rather than confirms estrangement. This outcome is implicit from the start in the long-standing friendship of the disputants, Herakles and Theseus. The agon between the two is a contest of will; Theseus forces Herakles to resist the suicide that tempts him as a punishment for, and escape from, the shame of having killed his children: he must be true to his arete, must live to surmount dishonour.
C. Collard
Wilamowitz in his pioneering study pointed out that Herakles centers on conflicting concepts of heroic arete, opposing a new, modernizing heroism, adopted by Herakles at Theseus' urging, to the traditional model of violence and force.
Robert Meagher

V: Interpretations

The vicissitudes of life, the role of fortune (not Fortune) are nowhere more forcefully seen than in the play's view of Herakles' life. At the moment of his greatest success, rescuing his family, Herakles suffers a complete reversal of fortune. He becomes not only his family's rescuer, but their murderer. Even the greatest hero is subject to the cruelest and most terrible ruin. Although Herakles cannot control all the elements of his life, he can make some decisions within it. Buoyed by the friendship of Theseus, he is able to reject suicide and go on living. Euripides avoids any mention of a later apotheosis in order to focus on the human Herakles who, sustained by human friendship, can survive in a capricious and harsh world.
Michael Halleran
At the heart of the tragedy there is subversion. Presumed norms of order are called into question: the coherence of mythic and heroic values, political order, the relationship of public and private life. Religion and poetry are part of this too. The first through the gods of myth, especially where questions are raised about justice or theodicy, and through reference to the relationship of gods and humans in the actual practices of cult ritual. The issue of poetry is acutely involved because Euripides' drama and its language are the means by which all these subversions are represented, and this poetry is itself part of the normative tradition.
Christian Wolff
Rather, to Euripides, Herakles' accomplishment was something purely internal and human and therefore vastly more enduring and valuable. The Herakles is a reinterpretation of the meaning of the Herakles myth in those terms. This is made dramatically explicit by the division of the play into two parts. The first, in many respects, is the standard, deliberately run-of-the-mill drama about Herakles, the doer of great deeds, kallinikos, savior and all the rest of the conventional trappings. The second action is the total opposite of the first, whose values it undercuts and reevaluates. The Herakles is a purposeful tour de force whose two actions are related as point to counterpoint.
G. Karl Galinsky
Herakles is a far more complex tragedy than man critics have thought. Euripides exploits the conflicting views of ancient tradition about Herakles' nature and arete. The superlative strength that Herakles exhibited during his labors is laudable, but its transference from wildness into civilization becomes problematic. The play suggests that the solution is provided by the civic (and Athenocentric) context, where individuality and the archaic type of heroic excellence give way to solidarity and the value of community…The development of the image of Herakles, from the invincible here to the courageous bearer of suffering, gives the play an important place in the tradition of Herakles, as a telling example of the humanization and moralization of this figure especially in the later fifth century B.C.
Thalia Papadopoulou
Herakles of all the extant plays raises with greatest urgency the perennial Euripidean questions about the nature of dramatic unity, the role of the gods, and the uses of cult and legend; and it has been impossible for interpreters to proceed, while leaving these central issues unresolved. Yet the very directness with which this play approaches the problems that elsewhere are masked in an irony of indirection makes th elements of its structure almost impossible to miss. As a result, the image of the play in critical literature is clear in general outline, although central areas remain severely distorted or out of focus.
Ann Michelini
But why Herakles, and why now? The answer is simple but compelling. Herakles, as Euripides staged him, is the quintessential hero for our times, the clearest and most revealing of mirrors for America and Americans at war, a war that we are told is without foreseeable end…Euripides' Herakles is first and foremost a warrior, a citizen-soldier in the service of his state. Not surprisingly, then, his images, from the Geometric Period to the 5th century, show him most often armed and outfitted as a warrior. In the 7th century, he commonly appears as the hoplite, though it is also then that he makes is first appearance with a bow.
R. Meagher

Study Questions for Euripides' Herakles

  1. Why do we all love Herakles? What aspects of the myth has Euripides eliminated? How is he the ultimate man of contradictions?
  2. What problems open the play? Why the setting of an altar?
  3. Who is Herakles' father, Zeus or Amphitryon? Who is Zeus in this play?
  4. What is the "motif of the suppliant?" How is the first movement of Herakles a traditional suppliant play?
  5. Who is the Chorus and what roles do they play? How do the Greeks view old age?
  6. What are the purposes of the Chorus' long threnos (lament) delineating the labors?
  7. Euripides adds Lykos to the plot action. Why? How is the the stereotypic tyrant?
  8. What is arete (virtue/courage/excellence) and what in particular is Herakles' arete?
  9. Does it change over the course of the play?
  10. What are the major plot points (dramatic turns in action) of the Herakles?
  11. Who are Lyssa and Iris and how is the divine explored in this play? Who is Hera?
  12. How is this scene a "second prologue" and introduce a "play of divine vengeance?"
  13. What motivates Herakles' destruction? What divine and human causes?
  14. What patterns of imagery are important and permeate the play (e.g. sea & sailing, Dionysiac, hunting, athletic)?
  15. What part to weapons (e.g. bow, arrows, spear, shield, club) play in Herakles?
  16. Is Herakles more archer than hoplite in this play? Is the debate over weapons related to contemporary events?
  17. Who is the Messenger and what are his roles/strategies? How does he tell his story?
  18. What part does Athena play in the play? Who is Athena?
  19. Who is Theseus and how is he a reflection of Athens and its values?
  20. Why does Herakles reject suicide and decide to live?
  21. How does the play end? With what denoument and "gestures of closure?"
  22. What are Euripides' major innovations, radically changing the myth of Herakles?
  23. Is the Herakles "broken-backed" or a play in 2/3/4 movements unified by the (non)presence of Herakles and the themes of friendship and old age?

For more information contact

James Svendsen


Westminster College Theatre Arts Department