It is perhaps no small irony that the culture that gave us “nothing in excess; everything in moderation” also gave us a literary masterpiece whose first word is “rage.”
The ancient Greeks were a mass of contradictions. But then, human nature is a mass of contradictions and the Greeks were nothing if not masters of plumbing the human condition as seen in “A World of Emotions, Ancient Greece, 700 B.C.-200 A.D.,” on view at the Onassis Cultural Center New York through June 24.
Tucked in the shadow of St. Patrick’s Cathedral off Fifth Avenue – another irony as the classical and Christian worlds have always had an uneasy relationship – the center is a gift to us neoclassicists, offering as it does thought-provoking shows, related programs and handsome brochures all free of charge. In the old days, there were free catalogs and posters as well for exhibits like the rapturous Alexander the Great show. But let’s not get greedy: Bravo to the center for remaining a serene oasis of ancient culture in bustling midtown for a nation that has passed much of that culture by.
And that’s too bad, because when it comes to observing and depicting human nature, no one has bettered the Greeks. The show’s signature works are a stunning pair of androgynous second century marble heads – one astonished, one swooning – of Achilles and Penthesileia. (It’s Achilles’ rage that opens and drives Homer’s “The Iliad.”) Achilles and the Amazon Queen Penthesileia meet in mortal combat on opposite sides of the Trojan War. The moment he kills her he realizes he’s in love with her. (Isn’t that just like a man?) The pair of marble heads – Roman copies of works from the Hellenistic period, when realism and emotionalism came to the fore in Greek art – capture that terrible moment of recognition, of both love and irrevocable loss.
Amid the saucy statues of Eros and poignant grave steles, raging women get their due as well. Euripides’ “Medea” tells a story that women particularly of a certain vintage will recognize: Boy meets girl. Girl helps boy get ahead. Boy dumps girl for a better prospect but not before abandoning her and their two kids.
In “Medea” and its countless variations – including the Cherubini opera that would become a signature role for Maria Callas and a metaphor for her relationship with Aristotle Onassis – girl takes a particularly horrific revenge, subjecting the potential second wife and her daddy to a painful death before killing her own two children by the two-timing hubby, Jason.
Why does Medea do it? I mean, kill the kids. It’s the part of the play and subsequent operas and movies that stops everyone. To understand this we have to understand ancient Greek society as presented in the myth. By divorcing Medea, Jason in effect leaves her and their children devoid of any status. By killing the children, Medea forces Jason to recognize the hopeless situation in which he’s placed his erstwhile family.
In mythology, Medea and Achilles wind up married in the Elysian Fields of the Underworld that the Greeks called Hades.
So, a marriage made literally in Hell and yet, I think, one most fitting.