Euripides’ Andromache, set a generation after the Trojan War but still under its shadow, shows us the war’s messy aftermath in Phthia, the southernmost region of ancient Thessaly, on both sides of Othrys Mountain and Pharsalus, and close to the shore of the Aegean Sea. Phthia is the homeland of Achilles and his family, and an area under the strong influence of the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles’ mother: characters include HERMIONE (the impetuous, Sparta-educated daughter of the infamous Helen of Troy, now wife of Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus), ANDROMACHE herself (now the concubine of the same Neoptolemus), the aged hero PELEUS (father of Achilles, and so grandfather-in-law of Andromache), bad guy MENELAUS (husband of Helen, father of Hermione), ORESTES (yes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, matricide, and – as it turns out – former suitor of Hermione), and the sea
goddess THETIS (Nereid mother of Achilles and wife of Peleus). The CHORUS represents the WOMEN OF PHTHIA, but also, in our production, embody the sea-nymphs or NEREIDS that accompany Thetis, and are sent by her eventually to bring her mortal husband Peleus into immortality… or so she says…
This play is one of the less well-known, and less often performed, plays of Euripides (480-406 BCE); more famous are his plays Medea, Bacchae, and Electra. Euripides is often praised for the sympathy he demonstrates toward the downtrodden, especially victims of war, and social stigma. Many of his plays present heroines and heroes who, although ostensibly from the heroic past, are dealing with what his fellow Athenians might have considered “contemporary” problems. He has a knack for bringing humanity and empathy to bear on the characters thrown up by the mythological tradition–he treats them as real men and women, and brings out many facets of their personalities. His choruses sing about the destruction caused by war, about human pain, about the puzzling and horrifying ways that the gods toy with and torture humans, and about the beauty that humans can sometimes find in the world around them regardless. Euripides does not present us with heroes and villains, nor does he offer clear-cut solutions.
In Andromache, he shows us the horrifying flip-side of a “heroic” war: the death and destruction do not stop when the war is over, but continue to warp and torture the next generation as well. Andromache, erstwhile queen-elect of Troy, has been enslaved and has borne a son to the man whose father killed her husband before her eyes, and threw her first child from the battlements of Troy. We see Andromache not only meditating bitterly on her own fate and that of her child, but also as she is seen by her own maidservant, Arete, who is now her fellow slave. Hermione, young and passionate daughter of Helen and Menelaus, is trapped in a loveless and barren marriage she never chose, given as a “prize” by her father to the man who helped most to bring Troy down and bring the Greeks home. She first plots to kill her co-wife, and then to kill herself. Her own nurse, Aletheia, tries to rein Hermione in, offering her however only the option of resigning herself to her fate as a Greek woman. Menelaus, her father and the originator in a sense of the entire Trojan War, finds himself forced to support his one daughter, perhaps even against his better judgment, as she rashly plots to murder Andromache and her child, in a desperate attempt to establish her status within the household.
Orestes, commanded by Apollo to kill his own mother for her crimes against his father, is now a rootless wanderer, unable to marry into an aristocratic family because of the blood curse of his household, and stripped even of his first betrothed, Hermione–in his quest for the redemption of himself and his house he has become cynical and cruel, and inured to murder. Peleus, once a celebrated hero and “married” to the goddess Thetis (against her will), is now old and feeble, barely able to keep control of his own household–not only did his only and much-beloved son Achilles die far away at Troy, but his only legitimate grandson returns home as a corpse as we watch the play. The sea goddess Thetis, bitter over the loss of her mortal son Achilles, is a cryptic dea ex machina, offering inhuman cures for human pain and suffering. And everything is viewed by the Greek citizen women of Phthia, the chorus, who sympathize with both Andromache and Hermione, celebrate the old man Peleus’ temporary triumph, and mourn with him over the downfall of his house.
The play is proudly sponsored by the MSU Department of Classics and General Humanities, as well as the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and is produced with the generous help of Kasser Theater.