The Good: Decent plot, One or two good lines
The Bad: Over-explains itself, No stunning lines, Somewhat weak characterizations
The Basics: A lighter play, Iphigenia In Tauris is one of Euripides’s plays that is happier, but troublingly obvious.
Lately, it seems like I have been reading quite a few Greek tragedies in my downtime. I’ve been reading plays largely because my breaks are so short and plays allow me to leap into a story without getting so immersed that I miss coming off my break. Fortunately, after a few tragedies, I had the chance to enjoy a Greek play that was dramatic, but not tragic. And enjoy it I did! Iphigenia In Tauris by Euripides is a Greek play that is a farce of convenience without any comedy. In fact, it reads almost like a thriller and were it not for how wordy it can be with explaining itself, it might be tempting to call Iphigenia In Tauris the original escape thriller.
Iphigenia In Tauris, like most Greek plays, is intended to be performed on a limited stage. As a result of having a small intended space upon which to act, Iphigenia In Tauris has limited stage directions and as a result, characters talk quite a bit about what they are doing or pretty big events that are happening off-stage. The result is a play that reads like someone telling the story of an escape plan, as opposed to watching people actually make a great escape. As well, readers today will find that Iphigenia In Tauris includes so many allusions to Greek stories that were distant subplots in the story of the Trojan War. Those two elements may make Iphigenia In Tauris a little less accessible to non-scholars of classic literature as opposed to those of us who love the classics.
Decades after being sold into slavery at the Temple of Artemis in Tauris, Iphigenia is a high priestess used by the Taurians to prepare their sacrifices (human sacrifices) for consecration within the temple. Iphigenia, along with the Chorus of Greek captives taken during the Trojan War for the same purpose, has never forgotten that she is a captive and she mourns her loss of freedom, even though she is really good at making sacrifices to Artemis. Whenever sailors land on Taurian shores, the soldiers capture them and bring them to Iphigenia for consecration and sacrifice. The Taurian King Thoas is thrilled when a pair of Greeks crash on the shores of Tauris and are captured by his soldiers.
The captives, who are brought to Iphigenia, are Orestes and his cousin, Phylades. Orestes is Iphigenia’s younger brother, though neither recognizes the other because of how young they were when Iphigenia was captured. Iphigenia makes a bargain with her captives: she will let one escape if they will take a message back to her brother, letting him know she is alive in order to get rescued by him. Orestes and Phylades fill Iphigenia in on her family’s fate after her capture and when she finally tells the pair the name of her brother, the Greeks conspire to steal a statue of Artemis from the temple and all get back to Orestes’s ship alive!
Euripides writes well and the story of Iphigenia is filled in well-enough so that readers can catch all of the specific allusions to Greek politicians and classic figures. While characters like Achilles who are mentioned (who are pretty famous to a layman), the extensive backstory of Agamemnon, Iphigenia, and Agamemnon’s wife are much more obscure. Their stories are told much the same way that “action scenes,” like Orestes describing how he intends to rob the temple of Artemis , are described.
Unfortunately, while Iphigenia In Tauris is good, the level of explanation is so extensive and dense that readers keep waiting for the inevitable. If Iphigenia In Tauris was to be a tragedy, the title character would only find out about her relation to Orestes after his death, but given how Euripides writes the scene leading up to the revelation of his identity, Orestes and Phylades toy with Iphigenia. The result is that the reader knows what is coming, in terms of the characters foreshadowing and setting up the reveal long before they make it explicit.
Iphigenia In Tauris is a decent play, even if it is a bit over-written. It’s refreshing to read something Greek that is not a tragedy, but it does make one wonder if Greek theatergoers needed both the authenticity of explanations of stories and lineage as well as somewhat dense descriptions that stave off the inevitable revelations of the truth that seem self-evident from such descriptions. Iphigenia In Tauris is entertaining, though it lacks a real “wow factor.”
For other plays, please check out my reviews of:
Hippolytus – Euripides
Arms And The Man – George Bernard Shaw
An Enemy Of The People – Arthur Miller
For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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