Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.02

P.E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997.  Pp. xvii, 392.  ISBN 0-521-41245-5.  $59.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-42351-1.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Victor Bers, Yale University (
Word count: 2880 words

Readers of BMCR surely tend to suspicion of any book of this genre, but at the same time hope to be able to recommend a general introduction to students and the lay public. I found The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy not a perfect guide, but one I can still enthusiastically endorse.

No one who has read work by the Cambridge trio of Easterling, Cartledge, and Goldhill will be surprised that this book speaks of theatrical experience as mapped on the city of Athens and vice-versa, of political anachronisms in the plays, or of post-structuralist speculation on language and representation. What is surprising is the substantial portion of the book devoted to reception, in particular to productions of tragedy on the theatrical and operatic stage and in film from the 1585 Vicenza production of Oedipus Rex down to a showing of the Phoenissae in November, 1995. Not that the reader should feel ambushed, for the general editor gives a clear signal that this is something quite different from a standard handbook. The book's goal "is to present ancient Greek tragedy in the context of late twentieth-century reading, criticism, and performance, and [it] has three main objectives: to study the plays in relation to the society that developed and created tragic theatre, to make practical use of strategies of interpretation that have yielded interesting results in recent years, and to take note of changing patterns of reception, from antiquity to the present" (p. xv).

The book consists of twelve autonomous chapters by seven hands. As announced in the Preface, a subset of the surviving tragedies recurs in discussions throughout the book, but the standard unifying devices -- a general bibliography, glossary, and general index -- are undernourished, and from time to time one sees a point in one chapter that seems more badly needed in another. Granted that no sequence of chapters would be perfect, the division of the first two parts ("Tragedy as an institution: the historical context" and "The plays") looks like an afterthought considering how much material sloshes around among the first eight articles. I wound up feeling I had read elaborate skolia sung by seven guests assigned the topic of tragedy, and that they were sometimes too concentrated on their own part to notice what another guest had already sung.

Remarks now on the individual chapters, where I found much well-known material presented in a lucid and piquant manner, often improved by the addition of important nuances, many more original ideas than one expects in such a book, and some things to quarrel with. As the sequence of chapters sometimes divides material that might be better taken together, my discussion does not always move pari passu with the book. Any apparent concentration on disagreements is to be understood in the context of my admiration for the book as a whole.

In the second chapter, "A show for Dionysus," one sees the difficulty created by casting the book as a companion to just one component of the dramatic festivals. P.E. Easterling is frank in signaling the difficulty of explaining why Dionysus, not other deities, was the patron par excellence of the festivals. She asks "first, what was common to the different performance elements at the city Dionysia, and second, whether Dionysus offered something that no other deity did, or could have done" (p. 41). Drawing and expanding on Lissarrague, she describes satyr play and tragedy, both working "through distancing and displacing" of settings and characters, as juxtaposing "two fields or worlds of experience in such a way as to make sense for Dionysus as well as for his worshippers" (p.42). She follows Henrichs's work on choral self-referentiality in tragedy and satyr drama, then takes an interesting extra step, proposing that in Sophocles' Ichneutai and Euripides' Cyclops "the choral references have a ritual function, and ... there is an understandable logic in making the final play of each set the one in which the performers are most identifiably Dionysiac" (p. 43). At the same time that Easterling is au courant, indeed making her own contribution to the ritual theory, she also acknowledges that "theater was a dynamic phenomenon, and we should expect its ritual, social, political, and artistic functions to change rapidly during a period of intense activity and experimentation like the fifth and early fourth centuries" (p.46); and she rightly warns of "the risk of imposing a too abstract pattern on the extremely rich and diverse evidence of the texts" (p.47). We meet in this chapter "the Other" and "good to think with," but also the resolutely old-fashioned literary approach of a John Herington.

Paul Cartledge contributes the first chapter: "'Deep plays': theatre as process in Greek civic life." He masterfully illustrates aspects of Athenian "performance culture," with special stress on competitiveness, and surveys important moments in Athenian history that left marks on tragedy. Rather than just mention the usual chestnuts, the fining of Phrynichus for the Miletou halosis and the presentation of Themistocles in the Persians, Cartledge speculates that the abandonment of nearly-contemporary historical events after the Persians might have arisen from a feeling that "the distinction between the theatre and the city's other public political spaces" needed to be clearly maintained (p.25). This acknowledges a factor that in my opinion tends to disappear in the fashionable (excessive) tendency to assimilate the theatrical and the civic: the sense of difference between theater and life as an important element in the spectators' enjoyment.1 I see an example of this tendency when Cartledge proposes to connect Plato's use of dialogue with "Athenian dramatic exchanges" (p.9). The mimes of Sophron (Poetics 1447b), exchanges of everyday argument, or (if there must be a dramatic antecedent) the comedies of Epicharmus seem a far more likely source. Where in Athenian drama do we find a single character dominating discussion the way Plato's Socrates does, confirmed along the way in his chain of assertions by a "second actor"? I am entirely skeptical of the weight Cartledge and others place on Xenophon's report (Hell. 2.4.32-33) that the mustering of peltasts and hoplites took place in the Peiraeus theater (p.14): sometimes a theater is just, well, a theater, a conveniently spacious, not always evocative, structure in which to do non-theatrical things. Is a hedge needed in saying that older citizens "perhaps" predominated in the panels, as compared to the Assembly (p.16), given that the minimum age for dicasts was thirty, but for ecclesiasts eighteen? Cartledge mentions the "terrifying faces" of the Furies in the Eumenides. Undoubtedly they were in the production of 458 BC and ancient revivals, but on reviewing the Peter Hall film of the play for purchase by my department I found the masks disappointingly pretty, not in the slightest productive of nightmares: the reader can judge for himself by looking at plate 33 (opposite p. 316). There is an excellent, compact statement on women in drama, with much of the evidence coming from Attic comedy. Here one is again aware that the authors are bumping up against the book's restriction to tragedy as its main subject, and that this restriction, made necessary by the many pages given over to reception, comes at some cost to analysis and presentation.

In the third chapter Simon Goldhill writes on "The audience of Athenian tragedy." He returns at some length to the question he treated very well in the David Lewis Festschrift, whether women attended the theater. His remarks on the ephebes give clear warning that our evidence for their role in the festival is very late (p.59). He makes a simple, but very significant point about semi-circular seating as an incitement to "audience engagement" (p.67). Now a few carps. Though the term has spread far from film criticism, many a general reader is not likely to understand what force "gaze" is meant to carry. And I am impatient with his assertion that "in the special context of democracy and its institutions ... to be in an audience is above all [my italics] to play the role of democratic citizen [his italics]" (p.54). This does not make real sense unless there was a good measure of at least pre-conscious interpretation on the part of the ancient spectator of his experience in just those terms: θεῶμαι ὡς πολίτης Ἀθηναῖος should be running through his head if Goldhill has it right.2 Does Goldhill's formulation require us to believe that once the overtly political on-stage ceremonies were over, whatever the particular words and spectacle of the play, there was always a huge gulf between the experience of an Athenian citizen and a Samian watching the same tragedy? Between an Athenian living under the democracy and an Athenian watching a revival in the Roman period? Or does the theatrical experience confer temporary Athenian citizenship on all viewers, with all that might have meant at the play's original date of performance? Social and historical context mean a great deal, but I think Goldhill is engaging in needless exaggeration.

Still, male citizens must have comprised the core of the audience, and most of us are especially interested in the fifth century. In "The sociology of Athenian tragedy," the book's fifth chapter, Edith Hall assumes the primacy of that audience: "Any sociological reading of an artwork must address the relationship between its maker and its consumers. The relationship between the Athenian tragic poet and his audience was, formally, that of political equals" (p. 95). As if illustrating what might grow in the space between theater and polis suggested by Cartledge's remark on the abandonment of recent history as a tragic subject, Hall writes about the ideologically complex imagined cities of tragedy, worlds where "Greek tragedy does its thinking in a form which is vastly more politically advanced than the society which produced Greek tragedy"; tragedy is curiously modern in the freedom of speech it extends to subservient classes (p.125), and she offers many elegantly phrased observations on recurrent plots that exploit this freedom and expose tensions potentially subversive of the reigning order in Athenian life, including the relation of the sexes, disrupted kinship, and slavery. Hall's closing remark provides a justification of sorts for devoting a large portion of the volume to Greek tragedy's Nachleben: "The tension, even contradiction, between tragedy's egalitarian form and the dominantly hierarchical world-view of its content is the basis of its transhistorical vitality: it is certainly an important reason why it is proving so susceptible to constant political reinterpretation in the theatres of the modern world" (p. 126).

In the seventh chapter, "Form and performance," Easterling presents some of the nuts and bolts prominent in traditional handbooks. I found especially valuable Easterling's answers to some basic questions about theatrical conventions, e.g., the link between masking and the restricted number of speaking parts (p. 153), or the way that "appeals, commands and questions expressed by one character to another or to the chorus ... function as cues to the audience" (p. 162). The dramatic strategy presumably underlying the alternation among speaking, singing, and chanting is explained with specific reference to the Medea and the Trojan Women; something similar is accomplished in the footnotes of the (never completed) Prentice-Hall Greek Drama Series, which alert the Greekless reader to the metrical character of each part. The reader of The Cambridge Companion learns something of the role of meter and performance mode, but I could not find any precise description of the meters, only some undefined terms -- iambic, anapestic, lyric. The Prentice-Hall series, by contrast, has a few pages by Adam Parry that at least give the basic patterns of the principal meters.

The matter of tragedy's civic role, discussed in several of the earlier pieces, reappears in the eighth chapter, "Myth into muthos: the shaping of tragic plot," one of two contributions by Peter Burian. He stresses the importance to the genre of the ceaseless repetition and innovation of legendary material. Some well-known examples of intertextuality are adduced to show how the audience's perception of complex relations among the plays makes it complicit in the "making of meaning" (p. 195). Remarking on the distinction Aristotle draws at Poetics 1450b between characters speaking πολιτικῶς in the old plays and ῥητορικῶς in the new, Burian is incautious in glossing the opposition as one between "the oratory of assembly and public ceremony ... and the argumentation of the courtroom, with its litigation of personal disputes" (p. 207). I think the distinction is more abstract than institutional.3 In the chapter's conclusion Burian suggests that "the opening of tragic discourse to sophistic rhetoric and Socratic rationalism may be seen not as the assault on myth that Nietzsche deplored but rather as a recognition that myth had already lost much of its prestige as a tool for the discovery of truth and the advancement of social dialogue. Once myth is in doubt, tragedy becomes marginal" (p. 208). This is an interesting point of view, deserving of a less compressed exposition.

In the sixth chapter Simon Goldhill writes on "The language of tragedy: rhetoric and communication." Some of the material on the interweaving of single voice and group performing in various meters, sometimes speaking sometimes singing, anticipates Easterling's chapter waiting for the sequential reader just down the road (but already mentioned in this review). The language of tragedy is categorized as "public, democratic, male talk" (p. 128). This formulation might lead to some wild misunderstandings over stylistic register, at least by American readers: what? Greek tragedy sounded like locker room chat in the Congressional gym? I suppose such a misapprehension would be corrected in the next pages, but though there are nods to the various strains in the tragic mix, I fear the lay reader might come away very much overestimating the extent and nature of the Homeric element. Next come some clear illustrations of the linguistic and narrative reflections of the city's religious life. In his remarks on the infiltration into tragedy of the language of the political bodies of Athens I see some too-facile connections,4 but the analyses of language as theme in the Oresteia, the Philoctetes, and the Trojan Women, strongly influenced by Vernant's "Tensions and Ambiguities in Greek Tragedy," are very fine indeed and only occasionally marred by touches of exaggeration.

Oliver Taplin's contribution, "The pictorial record," the fourth chapter, gives a compact survey of the evidence to be found in vase painting. My impression, as one nearly a layman in this aspect, is that he is scrupulous in acknowledging the limits of what can be learned from pots and sagacious in assuming a wide spectrum in the specificity of theatrical reference (p. 76). A cross reference to Burian's chapter on myth and mythos would have enhanced Taplin's comment (p. 80) on the error of dismissing a vase as merely presenting a myth, not a specific theatrical manifestation of that myth. I was not at all persuaded by the chapter's last paragraph, in which Taplin suggests that the paucity of "reflections of tragedy in Athenian vase-painting" might "imply that vase-painters and their public perceived drama as being too close to the day-to-day political life of the city to be suitable subject-matter" (p. 90). This looks to me like an obeisance to the over-enthusiastic reading of tragedy as pure politics. Were Athenians afraid that pots bearing scenes from tragedy would provoke violent quarrels, during which the pots themselves would get smashed? The very ambiguity of tragic drama asserted in other parts of the Companion, reinforced by the inherent ambiguities of pictorial representation, would (I imagine) have protected the crockery.

The book's third part, "Reception," occupies 130 pages, but I lack the competence to evaluate chapters ten and eleven, "Tragedy adapted for stages and screens: the Renaissance to the present" by Peter Burian and "Tragedy in performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions" by Fiona Macintosh, both well-illustrated. I can say that they struck me as potentially very useful for those who teach Greek drama to college students whose interests tend more to theater as a whole than to Greek drama in its ancient context.5

In Die tragische Dichtung der Hellenen,6 something of a standard reference, Albin Lesky gives fewer than ten pages to the fate of the genre post-Euripides, a deficiency that makes the ninth chapter of The Companion by Easterling, "From repertoire to canon," reason enough for libraries to buy the book. She gives a lucid synopsis of the durability of tragic drama in the cultural life of classical antiquity. I liked very much her concentration on the theatrical history of 341-339 in Athens: the program, the tragedian Astydamas II, and how the turncoat actor Neoptolemus was connected with the assassination of Philip II and, several centuries later, the Emperor Gaius.

The book closes with Simon Goldhill's chapter on "Modern critical approaches to Greek tragedy." Here Goldhill starts by looking back at methods and polemics in the work of some principal figures: Nietzsche, Wilamowitz, Fraenkel, Jebb, Reinhardt, Kitto, Bowra, Whitman, Knox. He then shifts to a more theoretically-oriented discussion of "Anthropology and structuralism," "Stagecraft and performance criticism," and "Psychoanalysis and Greek tragedy," ending with "The history and politics of reading." I found this chapter succinct, lucid, and broad-minded, and will recommend it to students and others bewildered by radical disagreements among critics and seeking a companion (if not the only companion) for at least the first leg of their tour of Greek tragedy and its interpreters.7


1.   See A.D. Nuttall, Why does tragedy give pleasure? (Oxford, 1996), apparently published too late to be exploited in the writing of this book.
2.   Maybe we should go one step further to capture the supposed cross references of civic spaces and have him think: θεῶμαί τε ὡς πολίτης Ἀθηναῖος καὶ πολιτεύομαι ὡς θεατής.
3.   Richard Janko's translation (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1987) seems on the mark: "speak like citizens ... speak like rhetoricians."
4.   I offer views on this point in "Tragedy and Rhetoric," in I. Worthington, ed. Persuasion (London & New York, 1994) 176-95. Faulty memory put Shaw for Dr. Johnson and "grand opera" for "Italian opera" on the first page of that article, but I stand by my arguments on the relevant matter.
5.   I vehemently reject Macintosh's suggestion on p. 321: " ... the tragedies of Bosnia and the horrors of ethnic cleansing are, like the other dark and catastrophic events of this century, perhaps, only to be broached through the medium of Greek tragedy." For all its merits, drama must never displace from first place historical and psychological research into the reality of such events.
6.   English translation by M. Dillon, Greek Tragic Poetry (New Haven, 1972).
7.   The book has been very well edited, but there is inconsistency in the use of the definite article with the names of plays ("in Philoctetes" / "in the Philoctetes"), potentially confusing to some members of what I take to be the target audience; the glossary (as mentioned above) should be much fuller; and I noticed that Nancy Rabinowitz's name, correctly spelled on p. 373, first appears as "Rabinowicz" on p. 30.

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