Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.14

Alan H. Sommerstein, Greek Drama and Dramatists. Revised English version of Theatron: Teatro greco (Bari, 2000).   New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 0-415-26028-0.  $20.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Daniel W. Berman, Pennsylvania State University (
Word count: 1554 words

Sommerstein [S.], a respected author of editions and studies of Aristophanes and Aeschylus, presents here a brief book meant as an introduction to Greek Drama for those at the "sixth form and undergraduate level" (p. i). It consists of sections devoted to description of the Greek dramatic genres, sketches of the main practitioners of the craft and their works, and an anthology of selections and fragments of dramatic texts and documentary evidence. Also included are a timetable of authors, works, and historical events, and a section with suggestions for further reading. Though of limited depth, this slim volume performs as billed: it gives a balanced introduction to the texts and their performative and civic contexts and provides much information that has otherwise been significantly less accessible to students (either because of location or lack of translations).

Chapters one and two together provide a concise yet thorough introduction to the Greek dramatic genres. The first chapter is primarily concerned with the history and development of the genres and the cultural contexts surrounding their performance. The problem of the origin of tragedy is treated briefly. Here as elsewhere S. is more interested in the cultural and social associations of the performance of drama than with its links to ritual. This perspective is consistent throughout; S. is careful to point out that dramas in Athens were performed in the context of religious festivals, but he states on pp. 4-5 that "[t]his in no way proves that dramatic performances were thought of as 'ritual' events, any more than were (say) athletic contests." This mildly provocative statement is representative of much, in fact, in the first two chapters. This book, aimed as it is at readers with little or no background in the interpretation of tragedy, is of course no place for extended debate (in this case on the ritual nature and/or function of tragedy and comedy). S., however, in this case as in others, does not shy from occasionally taking sides on controversial issues. If a reader wishes to follow up, well-known contributions are usually supplied in the "Select Further Reading" section. This organization creates a usable book for the student: an easy to read and synoptic narrative, with just enough of a nod to underlying debates and controversies to give an idea of the depth of the modern field. Though in this section S. seems predominantly interested in social issues, his leanings do not skew the perspective of what is generally a balanced introduction to the subject.

The second chapter consists of sections devoted to the five major dramatists that survive (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander) along with a section each for minor tragic and comic poet. The sections on individual dramatists are divided into three subsections, "Life and Works," "Surviving Plays," and "Profile." S. devotes some time in each case to what he sees as the particular character of the output of each. He supplies taxonomies of each dramatist's works (which can be quite specific, for instance including a sole play, the Andromache, in his fourth Euripidean category type), and concludes each section with comments on the nature of the dramatist's corpus as a whole. These are usually the standard handbook observations (e.g. vivid staging touches by Aeschylus, the nature of the Sophoclean hero), and will certainly be useful to students, but they can sometimes be too brief, as for example the mention of the appealing verb εὐριπιδαριστοφανίζω and its importance for understanding the politics of Aristophanes and Euripides (p. 69). The political relationship perhaps exposed by Cratinus' use of this verb could use a touch more explanation. The word's mention also brings to mind another issue that S. could have discussed: it is funny. S. is at his best explaining the social and political background of comedy (the section on Aristophanes is the best drawn of the five), but nowhere is there a discussion of the nature of Aristophanic humor.

Chapter three consists entirely of a chronological chart, in what will surely be an extremely useful section for students. In keeping with S.'s interest in the reflection of contemporary events on the stage, the ten-page chart is laid out with columns for "Authors, works, and developments" and "Contemporary events." Centuries are broken into four 25-year periods, allowing for a good overview of what, and how much, was produced in each period. In a few instances, however, the dates in the two running columns do not exactly line up (though they are always within the correct quarter-century), making reading the chart a bit confusing; this difficulty, however, is slight and easily overcome. A useful feature is the continuation of the chronology through to the twentieth century (the last date is 1958, the date of the publication of Menander's Dyskolos). In the centuries after antiquity S. focuses on developments in genres that owe their pedigree to ancient drama (Italian opera, for instance) and important dates and events in the transmission of the ancient texts.

The remainder of the book consists of an anthology of translated texts and testimonia, and a selected bibliography. The anthology includes excerpts from the production records, didaskaliai, and synopses of selected plays, and around 40 passages from both intact and fragmentary plays. The passages never exceed 150 lines of the original (the longest is from Menander's Epitrepontes, which spans almost six pages), and most are no more than two pages of text. S. often chooses to include texts that he discusses, either directly or in passing, in the first section of the book. For the main playwrights his selections are for the most part predictable: we have (e.g.) the turning-point in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, the deception-speech in Sophocles' Ajax, Medea denouncing Jason, and the rescue-scene in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae; satyr drama is included with a passage from the Cyclops. Though S. often provides wonderfully clever translations (his Scythian in Thes. 1098-1135 is sure to arouse the interest of any undergraduate!), these sections are, perhaps, the least useful of those the book offers. Most students, no matter how new to Greek drama, will want to read complete plays when they can, and all the plays excerpted here can be found easily in fuller form. The selections S. offers amount to a "greatest hits" of sorts, and, as the case with many such collections, it feels a bit unfulfilling when the full products are so easily obtained.

The sections containing excerpts and fragments from minor tragedians and comedians are, on the other hand, extremely useful. A Greekless reader will not find such a selection of the lesser known and less well-preserved dramatic texts in translation anywhere. Here, in conjunction with the lucid introductory chapters, is where this volume shines. We have Euphorion, Critias, Chaeremon, Moschion, even Ezechiel and others among the tragedians, and Telecleides, Cratinus, Eupolis, Epicrates, Alexis, Philemon, and a host of others among the comedians. In a decision more controversial than usual for this volume, S. chooses to place a selection from Prometheus Bound in the section on minor tragedians, attributing it tentatively to Aeschylus' son Euphorion. On this, as earlier in the section on the life and works of Aeschylus, S. follows Griffith (though Griffith is significantly more tentative) and West in suggesting that the play was produced by the son in the name of the father.1 This is indeed one of the most plausible possibilities, but in this case a bibliographic note perhaps should be included to expose otherwise unsuspecting readers to the fuller debate. In general, the selections in these two sections on the minor poets are well-considered and will be familiar to anyone with a graduate education in Classics as fragments that have been important for interpretation of the development of the dramatic genres (e.g. the passage from Antiphanes' Poesis comparing tragedy and comedy), or Greek intellectual history (e.g. Critias' Sisyphus on the invention of religion). S. offers clear, readable translations for all of these, and does a great service for those without Greek by making these texts accessible.

The testimonia collected and translated in chapter five offer similar benefits to students. S. again picks and chooses his material here with an eye to what he has discussed in the first several chapters. This works well, but those having some familiarity with the sources may miss their favorite details, some of which S. clearly thought were too fanciful for inclusion (Aeschylus' anecdotal death-by-falling-tortoise,2 for instance, which might have been included in a discussion about the prudence with which one must approach these sources). By excerpting and editing the material, sometimes heavily, S. might give the inexperienced reader more confidence in these sources than is warranted. This reservation aside, the section is useful, well documented, and expertly translated.

The volume is appealingly produced, and contains few errors, typographical or otherwise.3 The indices are useful, as well; the third, of dramatic and theatrical terms, will be especially helpful for students. The "Select Further Reading" section is balanced, giving enough material to send the undergraduate off to find a standard article or study, but not so much to scare him or her from delving further. Aside from the excerpted selections from whole (or mostly whole) plays, this book fills a significant gap, offering beginning students and other Greekless readers access to much that was previously inaccessible.4 It will surely find adherents among those teaching Classical drama and the history of drama.


1.   Mark Griffith, The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound, Cambridge 1977, is still the most comprehensive on the subject. His tentative suggestions for alternative authorship are on pp. 252-254. S., in his treatment of the question in Aeschylean Tragedy, Bari 1996, pp. 321-327, takes the lead of West, Studies in Aeschylus, Stuttgart 1990, pp. 62-72, who is the strongest proponent for authorship by Euphorion.
2.   Vita Aeschyli 35-39 TrGF Radt.
3.   I found only one production error, a misplaced footnote on p. 181.
4.   The back cover claims that all of the excerpted selections "have been previously inaccessible to students," which is only true for the selections of the minor tragic and comic poets and the documentary texts (testimonia, didaskaliai, synopses, etc.).

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