Essay: The Lives of 10,000

Every night in the theater, there was a moment which I know will get an audible reaction, sometimes a gasp, sometimes a snicker. After she has made the decision to let herself be sacrificed, Iphigenia proudly declares: "One man’s life is worth more than the lives of ten thousand women."

Of course, it sounds ridiculous to us. It sounded ridiculous to me, as I translated the play, and I briefly considered if there was a way to make it more...palatable.

There wasn't.

But in rehearsals, I became fond of the line, in a perverse way.

In order for Iphigenia to make the transition from sacrifice to willing martyr, she has to truly believe and buy into everything she has been taught by her father and her society. That the Trojans are barbarians. That war means freedom. That a human sacrifice is a heroic martyrdom. And that a man's life is worth ten thousand women.

Somehow, we accept the other statements, because they are closer to statements we hear in our own society. But when we hear a statement that is clearly from another era, another mindset, it is jarring. It should be jarring. But it is of a piece. Just because some propaganda is longer lasting than others doesn't mean it isn't equally propaganda. Snicker at it, perhaps, but then ask whether in a thousand years someone will be snickering at us.

Is Iphigenia in Aulis misogynist? Perhaps. It certainly is from a somewhat misogynist society, though there are aspects of the play, from Klytemnestra to the chorus, that have a more feminist outlook. The blaming and shaming of Helen has a sexist tinge, though it is of a piece of the societal shaming of adulterers; even Jason suffered for his betrayal of Medea.

But that one line, to me, isn't misogynist. That line is a wake up call. Clearly, we see before us a woman whose life is worth at least as much as any man, perhaps more than many. Yet she has been formed by the society she is in, and she believes what the society believes.

In a play about the power of the mob, this is in fact the mob's greatest power. It lies not in its strength of arms, but in its conventional wisdom, in the banal but dangerous things everyone accepts, without questioning. Unless, perhaps, one had two and a half thousand years in which to reflect.

© Edward Einhorn 2015