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Ion, probably first performed between 415 and 410 B.C., tells the story of how Kreousa, daughter of the king of Athens, raped in her youth by the god Apollo, bore a son, abandoned the baby out of shame, and many years later was reunited with him in Delphi, site of the most revered of Greek oracles, where the god had arranged that he be raised. The play begins as Kreousa and her husband Xouthos come to Delphi in search of some remedy for their childlessness. Kreousa, who has never recovered from her loss, also plans to ask in secret about her missing child. When the oracle gives Xouthos that child (now grown to manhood) as his own, she plots to kill the boy, who has been given the name Ion. Her plot is thwarted and Ion in turn threatens her life, but the intervention, first of Apollo's prophetess, the Pythia, and then of Athena, reunites mother and child and reveals the truth to them (though not to Xouthos). Athena predicts the future glory of the Ionians descended from Ion, and all prepare rejoicing to return to Athens.
The ending of this play would have been less surprising to its fifth-century audience than to readers conditioned by the later tradition of tragedy. One of the great monuments of Athenian tragedy, Aeschylus' trilogy the Oresteia, also ends with escape, reconciliation, and future promise, and we find the same motifs at the conclusion of Sophocles' Philoctetes and of Euripides' Alcestis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen, and Orestes. It is in Aristotle's Poetics (a fourth-century treatise whose surviving first book is largely concerned with tragedy) that we first find the change from happiness to misfortune identified as particularly tragic, and Aristotle recognizes that this outcome is not the favorite of spectators and does not necessarily represent the best type of plot in other regards.
What ancient audiences did expect, as a general rule, was the use in tragedy of traditional myth, seriously treated, with largely familiar characters. In Ion (as in the other plays mentioned above) Euripides challenges and plays on that expectation by his use of less well-known stories and variant or invented versions and by his inclusion of comic and parodic elements. He further disconcerts his audience by his manipulation of our sympathies and by shifting and questioning the grounds for our judgments.
The story of Ion is a relatively late addition to the
body of Greek myth and does not always include the divine parentage that
is clearly a compliment to Athens. Euripides dramatizes and elaborates
this complimentary version of the myth, but complicates our response both
by playing parts of the story out in a comic register and by taking seriously,
as the stuff of tragedy, the familiar mythic situation of the woman who
bears a child to a god. He grants the solemnity of tragedy not so much
to the divine all-knowing father (whose comic misjudgment of human behavior
the play makes plain) as to the sorrowful short-sighted mother and son
and their shared but competing experiences of irremediable loss —
a loss that, in the play's final comedic turn, is in fact remedied.
This year, Natural Theatricals is continuing in the same vein. We inaugurate our second season of Greek theater with another rarely seen play, also in a new translation. While Euripides' Ion is perhaps marginally more frequently performed these days than The Women of Trachis, we anticipate that only a small minority of our patrons will have seen it before.
But we are proud not only to be calling Euripides' neglected masterpiece to the attention of our audiences. We are also introducing an enchanting new translation by Deborah H. Roberts which no one has previously staged.
Ion is as undeserving of the neglect it suffers as The Women of Trachis. On first reading the play, I was smitten with the richness of its characterizations and the cleverness and precision of its plot. We are taught to hold Shakespeare up as the master craftsman in these regards. Yet reading Ion leads me to wonder if there could ever have been a Winter's Tale, a Pericles, a Tempest — a Shakespeare at all — if theatrical tradition had not had the good fortune to have Ion and a handful of other great "tragicomedies" of Euripides' late career survive the millennia.
The tale of the foundling who discovers the identity of his true parents is a common one in Greek drama. In its best known version, Oedipus' horrific discovery virtually defines the Greek tragic archetype. As Ion is apparently a more recent play than Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, and as it is generally believed that the major plot lines of Ion were of Euripides' own invention, Euripides may have had the Oedipus story in mind while composing Ion. If so, Euripides contorts the older, more traditional story in several ways. First, the playwright leads Ion to a false "discovery" of his paternity, through a misleading Apollonian oracle to the effect that his father is Xouthos. Later, Ion has the revelation that the woman who unsuccessfully tried to murder him and whom he then tried to execute is his mother. Whereas Oedipus actually killed his parent, Ion would have done so but for the intervention of the first of two deae ex machina late in the play. The kill-your-own-parent story, so common in Greek tragedy, takes a comedic turn in Ion, as the child who would be the killer learns the identity of his victim in time.
Apollo may not ever stride the stage in Ion, yet he is a constant presence. Apollo is, in Nicole Loraux's words, "the defender of masculine values, the impenitent violator of nymphs and virgins, the seducer god … who, indifferent to their suffering, continues to play, unmoved, upon his lyre." (translation by Caroline Levine) His cruelty and selfishness kick-start the plot. Yet by focusing dramatically on the victim of his predation, now Queen Kreousa of Athens, Euripides eschews presenting an installment from among the cute legends about the passing dalliances of Olympian archetypes. Instead, Euripides illustrates the effects of Apollo's act from the perspective of the still-traumatized Kreousa.
Ion, similarly, bears the scars of Apollonian neglect, alluding repeatedly to his need for a clear paternity and his yearning for a parental relationship that his father's absence from his life has denied him. Ion does not even have a name when the play begins; it takes Xouthos, Kreousa's husband who believes Ion to be a long-lost son, to bestow a name upon this anonymous young temple priest.
The Apollo of Ion is a mass of contradictions. "He is a god of many aspects," writes Cedric H. Whitman, "some apparently contradictory; he is the god of truth, yet obscure and capable of deceiving Xouthos; god of morality, yet capable of rape; god of music and harmony, yet a destroyer." The characters in Ion refer to Apollo constantly, but by varying names, notably "Phoibos," the radiant god, and "Loxias," god of the glancing light (master of indirectness, the riddler). His half-brother Hermes refers to him rather condescendingly — "he sings to mortals … ever the prophet god" — and his half-sister Athena half-apologizes for his absence from the play's conclusion:
Whether this absence is rooted in shame or motivated by an arrogant desire to just "move on" is not entirely clear.
Ultimately, however, the value to Ion to modern
audiences depends less on what we make of Apollo than on how touched we
are by its mortal characters: notably Kreousa, the high-born Athenian
queen with a terrible past, and young Ion, the simple servant to Apollo
whose future is transformed again and again in the course of a single