Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?


Toward the end of John Banville’s new novel, “The Infinities” (Knopf; $25.95), a more or less contemporary tale over which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes rather startlingly preside, a snooty character to whom someone is describing an “updated” production of a play about the parents of Hercules declares that he “does not approve of the classics being tampered with”: the Greeks, he says, “knew what they were doing, after all.” The joke is that the pretentious young man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The play in question, “Amphitryon”—whose themes, of adultery, confused identities, and improbable Olympian interventions, are actually the model for Banville’s novel—isn’t Greek at all. Rather, it’s an early-nineteenth-century German reworking of late-seventeenth-century French and English rewritings of a second-century-B.C. tragicomedy written in Latin. And that was just then. In the twentieth century alone, the Amphitryon myth has been adapted by a French novelist, two German playwrights, an opera composer, an anti-Nazi filmmaker, and Cole Porter. Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?

more from Daniel Mendelsohn at The New Yorker here.