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This essay explores the modernity of ancient Greece. If this concept seems a paradox, it is; and it is that tension between antiquity and modernity, between constructions of classical rationalism and modern angst, that fueled three extraordinary adaptations of Euripides from the early 1890s to the mid 1960s. Drawing on a perception of Euripides as the most "modern" of ancient (perhaps even modern!) playwrights, A. W. Verrall, H(ilda) D(oolittle), and Archibald MacLeish all fashioned Euripides-inspired works that challenged contemporary perceptions of Euripides as a classic. As H.D. explains in her Notes on Euripides, "[W]e are too apt to pigeon-hole the Attic poets and dramatists, put them B.C. this or that, forget them in our survey of modern life and literature, not realizing that the whole spring of all literature (even of all life) is that one small plane-leaf of an almost-island, that tiny rock among the countries of a world, Hellas" (H.D. 2003: 277). H.D. here elides past and present ("B.C. this or that," she writes breezily): antiquity and modernity are not, in her world-view, distinct, but integral. H.D.'s insistence on the modernity of Euripides colors her project of translating Euripides' (modernist) Ion in an appropriate (high modernist) way. Drawing on contemporary, Einsteinian notions of time and progress, H.D.'s translation and commentary thus provides a bridge from the rationalist, modernist spin of A. W. Verrall's 1890 Euripides to the darker, tragic vision of MacLeish's nuclear-age Herakles (1967), a self-consciously Euripidean tale of modern ethical blight. Each adaptor applies a distinctly modern, albeit contemporary, aesthetic to their "updating" of the Euripidean original.


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Classical and Modern Literature

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