A review of The Theban Plays of Sophocles, translated by David R. Slavitt

This is the most stripped-down version of the three Theban plays of Sophocles that I have read. As I write, I am surrounded by more than 15 translations retrieved from my shelves and the college library. David Slavitt's book is by far the shortest and the least encumbered—no introduction and no notes, though there is a spirited preface and a helpful glossary. Students are referred to electronic aids like Google and the Perseus Digital Library. The only regrettable omission is standard line numbering. Greek plays are, to my mind, best read and talked about in a group that is using various translations, a thing difficult to do without common references. But then, this translation is so compressed that the line counts wouldn't jibe. A somewhat regrettable inclusion is the translator's prefatory apology to students who are reading these plays by assignment. How many students would be reading his book, I wonder, if it hadn't been assigned? That's what student-friendly schools are for—to make people read willy-nilly what they then realize they must always have wanted to read.

This version is meant to be an updated one, and the easy currency of its diction is a great virtue. The natural cadences of its free verse slide smoothly and sometimes beautifully into the ear. Here is an example from Oedipus at Colonus. Sophocles is singing of his own birthplace, Colonus, and Slavitt, charmingly, can't resist injecting himself (in the phrase I've italicized):

We welcome you to Colonus, this paradise,

this country of fine horses, a poet's dream

of perfect beauty and ease where birdsong ever

bubbles out of the ivy and down from the leaves

of fruit trees that nod assent in a gentle wind.

I imagine he has in his ear Shakespeare's

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection… (Richard II 2.1.42-44).

Robert Fitzgerald is Slavitt's honored predecessor, and though his rhyming verse stays closer to the Greek, which Slavitt ruthlessly compresses, it is, to my ear, less supple and euphonious:

The land beloved of horsemen, fair

Colonus takes a guest;

He shall not seek another home,

For this, in all the earth and air,

Is most secure and loveliest.


In the god's untrodden vale

Where leaves and berries throng,

And wine-dark ivy climbs the bough,

The sweet, sojourning nightingale

Murmurs all day long.


No sun nor wind may enter there….

Aristotle asserts in The Poetics that plot is the prime element of "drama," which means, and is about, "doing." The Slavitt version is, indeed, tailored to bringing out the action, strong and clear. Here is my brief summary of the Theban story for those not familiar with it. Oedipus the King is dramatically first. For some reason Slavitt half-transliterates the Greek title,Oidipous Tyrannos, and calls the play Oedipus Tyrannos, which gives the somewhat false impression that Oedipus is a despot. Tyrannos here means simply "royal" or "king"—King Oedipus is the play's true title; he has a temper but he is no tyrant. It is his successor, Creon (whose very name means "master"), who conducts himself tyrannically. This first play's foreground is a murder mystery unraveled, and its background is a fateful oracle fulfilled—by Oedipus's very attempt to evade his fate, which is to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus has done both, and by his very care for Thebes he discovers that he is the perpetrator of the crimes that are cursing the city. The play ends with his wife-and-mother's suicide, his self-blinding, and his exile. In Oedipus at Colonus, after years of expiatory wandering accompanied by his daughter Antigone, Oedipus arrives in Athens, the place of resolutions. There he is protected from the pursuit of his brother-in-law Creon, now king of Thebes, by Theseus, king of Attica. He has come here to die; it is, however, no normal dying but a sacred annihilation that awaits him—a mystery that sanctifies Colonus and will protect Athens. The last of the Theban plays is Antigone. Antigone and her retiring sister Ismene are now living in Thebes under Creon's rule. They have two brothers, one of whom, Polyneices, had raised an army and attacked Thebes to possess himself of the Theban throne; the other had stayed at home. In the battle both have died, and Creon has issued a secular edict against the invading traitor's burial. Antigone, a rebel on behalf of religious tradition and of ancient family rites, surreptitiously buries him. She is caught by Creon's police and walled up alive in a cave. By the end of the Theban story she has killed herself, as have Creon's son and wife. Creon survives, broken.

The terrific Theban drama ends with a choral comment that has, in the typical Sophoclean mode, both verbal complexity and enigmatic grandeur. Literally:

The great words

of the overproud pay back

great blows,

and teach being wise to old age.

Slavitt, distributing the choral lines to two choristers, renders this:

And never, never boast. That's dangerous.

Some of us, by the time we get to be old,

have learned at least a little.

But it's never enough.

—and has them leave "muttering unintelligibly." It seems an ending oddly opposite to the stark Sophoclean consummation.

* * *

The reason is perhaps that he has placed Antigone, the final play dramatically, first in the book. The back-to-front order, which is that of Sophocles' composition, is meant to reinforce the fact that these dramas are each singletons, not part of a trilogy, the traditional threesome performed on one day (which Sophocles was the first to abandon). In either order the center is occupied by Oedipus the King, the play Aristotle regarded as the exemplary tragedy, the play most often mentioned in his Poetics. Either order will cause the reader to think about the bearing of the plays on each other—about Oedipus's acceptance of his guiltless guilt and Antigone's assumption of a twisted inheritance.

Thus her play begins with this call to her sister, as beautiful in transliteration as it is bizarre in literal translation:

O koinon autadelphon Ismenes kara,

O kindred same-womb-sister, Ismene-head.

Slavitt gives this foreshortened version:

Dear sister, Ismene,….

The translations lying around me, at least one from almost every decade of the last century, all go about the same: "Ismene, dear little sister," or "Darling sister," or "Ismene, dear heart." Only Francis Storr's translation, nearly a hundred years old, catches something of the terrible allusion:

Ismene, sister of my blood and heart.

For to my mind there is nothing affectionate or even comradely in her call. Slavitt has her whistle for gentle Ismene, which is like imagining a young Queen of England whistling for her sister, two fingers in the mouth. "Ismene-head" is the most formal address of tragedy; it is how Oedipus is invoked as king. Moreover, Antigone, a terrifying girl, is alluding to the fact that all four of them, the two dead brothers and the two yet living sisters, can be sure of just one thing. They have a common womb-origin; Jocasta is their birth-mother. Everything else is confusion: she is also their grandmother by being their father's mother, even as they are not merely their father's offspring but also his siblings by having the same mother. They are even, as it were, their own children by being of two generations at once. That is what autadelphos (autos: "same"; adelphos: "sisterly," related to delphus: "womb") signifies and what Antigone the uncompromising announces right away: the one clear thing, their sibling relationship. Since, however, translating is decisions, decisions, decisions, and since there is no way to catch Sophocles' densities, choosing the minimalistic "Dear sister" is a sensible counsel of despair.

* * *

It is part of the accessibility of this version that it generally opts for normalcy. A good test is the opening of that most famous of all tragic choruses, from Antigone:

Many things are awesome, but none

is more awesome than man.

The word Slavitt renders as "awesome," deina, can mean the terrible or terrific, the dreadful or awful, the wondrous or marvelous, the nameless or unnameable. "Awesome" seems a plain choice. But there is a "but": my students use "Awesome!" as an exclamation when they come on something (ephemerally) fascinating to them. Sometimes the best of words have to drop out of circulation for a while.

I have misgivings, too, about using Omoi in the text. It is Slavitt's modification of Oimoi, one of at least fourteen ejaculations of distress (Michael Shaw counted them) found in Sophoclean tragedy. Slavitt renders the line:

Omoi, that curse! I may have cursed myself.

Here is what Oedipus says literally, at this turning point of his drama:

Oímoi, wretched! It seems that I have opened myself

just now, unknowingly, to terrible curses.

The real Greek sounds too much like the "Oi weh" of my Brooklyn childhood, the modified English recalling the genteel "Oh my" of polite society, at least to my ear.

But it is easy to cavil, impossible to do better. I would be glad to give this translation to a beginner whom I wished to draw into these fearsome dramas. The preface speaks of the joy and awe of reading them. I'm uncertain of the joy—the story is just too monstrous—but in accord with the awe. This translation conveys it.