Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.21


Francis M. Dunn, Tragedy's End: Closure and Innovation in Euripidean Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. viii, 252. ISBN 0-19-508344-X.


Reviewed by Martin Cropp, University of Calgary, mcropp@acs.ucalgary.ca.

Francis Dunn's book (developed from his Yale doctoral dissertation) addresses the currently lively critical topic of poetic closure, arguing that we can see an increasingly radical open-endedness in Euripides' dramas, and that this reflects an increasing reluctance on the poet's part to adhere to a simple and consistent tragic patterning of human experience. In his introductory chapter D. stresses that tragic closure as such is artificial, for in bringing events and emotions to a point of equilibrium and apparent understanding the playwright or story-teller must eliminate loose ends and consequences so as to create an air of completeness. Chapters 2-5 then provide a basis for analysis through a survey of the ways in which Euripidean drama purports to signal closure: the chorus's mannered closing anapaests with their generalising morals and (sometimes) prayer for victory; dei ex machina, whose claims to authority and efficacy are stressed by formal means but may be undercut by their very formality and by the gods' remoteness from the human situations; aetiologies, offering a bridge between past and present whose fragile mythicality is in D.'s view advertised by Euripides in various ways; and prophecies, which promise a settled future but are compromised (D. argues) by a variety of unsettling implications such as difficulty of future happiness (e.g. Electra, Ion, Orestes) or recurrence of hostilities (Andromache, Supplices) or divine conflict (Hippolytus) -- and tend increasingly to present the action of the play as part of a continual process of complex, unpredictable and inconclusive human experience. In the remainder of the book D. studies three not-so-late plays (Hippolytus, Trojan Women, Heracles) which he sees as experimenting with modes of closure, and then three of the latest plays (Helen, Orestes, Phoenician Women) which he thinks have moved radically into non-tragic open-endedness. Parts of his discussions of Hipp., Tro. and Or. will be known to those who have read his previously published articles on these plays, and Heracles is the subject of his contribution to a new volume on Classical Closure edited by him with Deborah Roberts and Don Fowler.

D.'s investigation of a grammar (so to speak) of closural devices is valuable and suggestive, and his argument that Euripides used this grammar in creative and significant ways is persuasive. The instabilities he traces are of course part of a larger pattern of indeterminacy, typical of late Fifth-century thought, in Euripides' dramatisations of mythical events and the human actions and 'divine' framework which they represent. D.'s method of investigation evokes a few reserv-ations. 'Rules' of grammar may loom too large, and there is a risk of circularity if the reading of an ending is to be read back into the play. D. tends to take it for granted that the artificialities in Euripidean endings are not only advertised but advertised so as to put them in question, so that (for example) the factitiousness of aitia is to be seen as undermining their efficacy as aitia (thus p. 63 on the end of Iphigenia in Tauris, or p. 56 on Eurystheus' burial-site in Heraclidae where the basis of D.'s argument is questionable in any case). The possibility of the poet's advertising his own sophia in inventing novel and appropriate aitia should at least be considered. Further, in invoking 'the tragic end' (p. 3) as the primary pattern of tragedy broken by Euripides (cf. 'the tragic end of understanding', p. 5, 'the paradigm of the tragic end', p. 6, 'the tragic end ... replaced by a new conception of the end and goal of drama', p. 134), D. may to some extent be confusing an Aristotelian ideal with tragedy as it actually developed in the Fifth century. The tragic end by this definition is characteristic of Sophocles in his earlier extant plays which focus on an individual's death or ruin (Ajax, Women of Trachis, Antigone, Oedipus), of some of Herodotus's stories (D. cites Croesus), and in a sense of the Iliad. But it is hardly Aeschylean (even Persians offers an inconclusive ending: what will become of Xerxes and the Persian empire?), and the canonical status of the Sophoclean pattern is at least partly a reflex of later taste and Aristotelian doctrine. The much greater variety of mythical and narrative patterns from our larger and less select sample of Euripides (in both extant and fragmentary plays) may have been more typical of Fifth-century tragedy as a whole than is evident from the scanty remains available to us. But if D.'s historical model is perhaps too linear, this does not necessarily invalidate his analysis of particular plays.

D.'s discussions of the six plays mentioned above reflect, I think, the strengths and the weaknesses of his approach. In his first trio of plays he usefully notes that Trojan Women not only lacks 'closing gestures' at its end but advertises their absence (especially by indicating the non-appearance of a deus ex machina: Tro. 1256-9, 1279-81, 1288-92) and deploys such gestures in the prologue where for example the gods make final dispositions, the destruction of Greek fleet is foretold, and Poseidon bids farewell to the city in a false exit (pp. 45-7), then departs with a retrospective moral statement (pp. 95-7). The whole play can be seen as an extended closure to the tragedy of the Trojan War, and D. argues further (in broad agreement with other recent evaluations of the ideological implications of Tro.) that the coherence of the Trojan trilogy lies in its very fragmentedness, a denial of any coherence in or positive outcome from the 'epic' war.

D.'s characterisation of Hippolytus as 'overly complete and doubly finished' (p. 88) is also engaging. He shows how Aphrodite's appearance at the beginning has (like Poseidon's in Tro.) the air of an ending, assuring us of Hippolytus' death, giving a detailed explanation of the catastrophe, and including an aition in lines 29-33. The case is supported by the many parallelisms between the prologue and the play's actual epilogue. The prologue's conclusiveness reverberates through the first half of the play in repeated reminders that the action is as good as over. This demonstration seems to me stronger than D.'s further argument that the ending of the play is as inconclusive as its beginning is conclusive. He relies here mainly on the ending's references to the survival of Hippolytus in cult and of Phaedra's story in myth, and on Artemis's early departure and promise of retaliation against Aphrodite. Relevant as these points are to understanding the play's ending, I see them as having less to do with the kind of reformulation of tragedy which interests D. than with Euripides' very careful rebalancing of moral responsibilities and compensations in his second version of the play.

D. reads the long denouement of Heracles as reaching a final moment of 'narrative uncertainty', defined in Bakhtinian terms as novelistic rather than epic, as the drama's tragic arc leads not to some positively valued transformation of the heroic figure (as in many interpretations of this play) but to 'a moment of unprecedented freedom: at the very lowest point in his life, [Heracles] is completely free to find a new identity' (p. 126). I continue to see rather a Heracles who has a past but no significant future and must come to terms with his newly revealed identity as a being of human dimensions and vulnerability -- his heroic trappings reduced to ambivalence, his life now (after he has fulfilled the purposes Zeus had for him) dependent on human support and human valuation -- and to see in this some kind of declaration that an ideal of self-sufficient heroism is self-defeating and in need of replacement by an ethic that recognizes human limits and human interdependence. In arguing for a significantly indeterminate future D. exaggerates, I think, the inconclusiveness of this play's closing gestures, although his tracing of them is helpful. There are five points at issue: (1) unclearness concerning the burials of the children and of Amphitryon (1419-21), where I think D. too easily converts textual confusion into authorial ambiguity; (2) the brevity of the choral closure (1427-8), where D. rather arbitrarily sees the normal closing gestures as 'effaced' and the chorus 'upstaged' by the subordination of 1427-8 to Heracles' preceding lines on philia (why not take the two together as an impressive final statement of a theme prominent throughout this scene and indeed the whole play?); (3) the vagueness of Theseus' promises of sanctuaries, festivals and temples for Heracles (ascribable, I should say, to the breadth and variety of the actual worship of Heracles in Attica; and when D. asks 'What in particular will the city of the Athenians honour?', p. 118, the answer which he rejects is surely the right one: Heracles' heroic achievements); (4) Theseus' own role as a substitute deus ex machina ('a surrogate deus emptied of force' because merely human, 118), and his dependence on personal friendship rather than political authority in providing a refuge for Heracles (this again, I think, underrates the play's valuation of philia and its emphasis on the replacement of divine by human, and humane, dispositions, as well as the extent to which the personal acts of a Theseus could have political significance for Euripides' audience); (5) the ambivalence of the weapons which Heracles takes up again despite having used them to kill his family: 'There is no license here for trying to construct a story of new values born from the ashes of the old; only the unreadable future knows what or who our hero will be', D. insists (pp. 125-6); but why consider what he will be rather than the valuation of what this now finished hero has been? The weapons symbolise both his strength as the achiever of the labours and his weakness as individualist and outsider -- though D. exaggerates when he swallows Lycus' debating point and asserts that the bow casts Heracles 'in the role of a coward' (p. 124).

Of the three latest plays discussed by D., and seen as embodying a more radical shift out of tragic closure, D.'s method works nicely for Helen, where he is well able to show how the perfunctory conventionality and formal clarity of this play's closing gestures make its ending seem artificial, fortuitous, and therefore morally vacuous, and how these qualities pervade the design of the whole play. Orestes too is discussed effectively, if predictably (and with too little attention to political aspects), as a drama of conflict and chaos which subjects the Oresteia story simultaneously to comic and tragic analysis and trumps the wild ending of Orestes' deus-like (and Medea-like) appearance on the roof with the exaggeratedly conventional and therefore somewhat hollow appearance of Apollo himself.

Less convincing is D.'s treatment of Phoenissae, ascribing all of this text's confusions, inconsistencies and inconsequentialities to an authorial strategy which treated the Theban legend as open and muti-faceted and allowed a degree of narrative independence to the story-lines of each of its many characters. This is an undisprovable hypothesis, and it would take too long to debate it in detail here, but two general weaknesses in D.'s argument must be noted. First, he does not fully confront the problems of authenticity in the text of the play. On pp. 187ff. he does not confront at all the possibility of deleting the return of Creon with Menoeceus' corpse, and he generally neglects the difficulties of language and style which are an important part of the case against many of the disputed passages, especially in the closing scenes. Secondly, D. often seems seems excessively eager to detect incoherence or narrative openness. I cannot see how Pho. 1703-7 leaves us 'with hints of the future that conflict with one another (the evil of dying in exile versus reception in sacred Colonus' (p. 184). The treatment of the Antigone story in Pho. 1645-82 can be read as declining this story rather than advertising it as a viable sequel as D. suggests (pp. 186-7). The women of the chorus are not entirely 'out of place' (p. 191): they are related to Cadmus' family, and this matters to their role in the play. Teiresias is not 'simply passing from one city to another (852-55)', and it is a little misleading to say that he 'speaks on his own behalf' and in 958-9 is 'contrasting his private oracles' [my italics] with Apollo's (p. 191). Jocasta's failing attempt to mediate between Polynices and Eteocles is poorly served by being read as an exercise in narrative inconsequentiality (p. 194; again I miss here a sense of the political element). Antigone's response (Pho. 1754-7) to Oedipus' suggestion that she should rejoin her Bacchant thiasos is not as D. thinks an expression of uncertainty designed to leave that narrative path open (pp. 183, 199); she is rejecting the suggestion with the complaint that her worship has brought her no return of charis from the gods. It is risky to assert that the reference to Oedipus' return to Corinth after the killing of Laius is 'an entirely new chapter' in his story and designed to suggest 'entertaining new questions' (p. 200). D. misreads (and seriously mistranslates) Jocasta's exchange with the Messenger in Pho. 1207-12 as indicating that 'not even the safety of her own children is more important than [Jocasta's] desire to hear what happened next' (p. 201); in fact she is anxious to know what her sons are going to do next, and the Messenger is trying not to tell her that they are on the point of fighting a duel. Pho. 901-2 and 910 likewise have nothing to do with the pleasures of narrative, as D. seeks to suggest (pp. 201-2), nor is the Paidagogos talking about the rest of Antigone's life when in Pho. 193-5 he says that she has seen all that she wanted to see (p. 202).

It is a pity that the book ends on this weak note, but this should not obscure the merits of D.'s other discussions and of the attention he has given to the analysis of Euripidean endings.