Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.07

McDonald on Wright on McDonald.   Response to 2003.09.41

Response by Marianne McDonald, University of California at San Diego (

I appreciate that the reviewer wrote such a lengthy review of my book, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy. The reviewer begins with a discussion of the problems that versions pose, and says my book is a "welcome attempt to deal with these problems." He also realizes it is "an introductory, practical handbook, aimed at students of drama, or would-be directors of new productions, rather than a scholarly audience." He is generous enough to acknowledge that there is "a large amount of fascinating information" in these pages.

I had obviously also wanted to reach a scholarly audience, particularly those who teach survey courses.

The reviewer continues. "I suspect that McD's intended audience will fail to find much stimulation here (beyond the stimulation provided by the raw material itself). If the tragedies 'come alive' in these pages, it is not because of anything which McD says about them." I find this contradicts the praise in the beginning part of the review. The reviewer would like many sections to be expanded and arguments put forward that are not included in my mandate to deliver a readable short introductory handbook for drama students. Incidentally, I have heard from many of those students who say how grateful they are that at last a book like this is available, and I know many grad students who are already using it in their courses, as are others in departments of theatre.

I am taxed for unsupported generalizations, but I'd like to know how to write a handbook without them. The reviewer balks at my including only Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. I suppose I should have included Phrynichus' Taking of Miletus in my discussion of the Persians. And others. So far most readers have not complained of this lack. I have concentrated on the plays we HAVE and that people can read and see.

He says, "The 'Performance Tradition' is a lot more interesting, but its arrangement seems uneven. Why are some plays discussed at considerable length and others in just a few lines?" Could it be that some plays are more often produced than others?

I certainly do not think that "Aeschylus' plays have a straightforwardly didactic aim," and never said so. Why would I tax some critics later for the optimistic interpretation of the end of the Oresteia? The reviewer takes me to task for not naming those critics. Again, there is the question of space. This was the majority opinion at a conference at Kings in London, and I didn't want to be ungrateful to my hosts by singling them out for criticism this way. Many of my other generalizations, for example, "the confusing labeling of Ajax as a 'double '(i.e., diptych) play" have been generalizations many others have used.

Then we are told that "the book really lacks...a critically annotated reading list for each play." My general bibliography is only seven pages long! I really think the reviewer should make such a critically annotated reading list for each play, since that could very easily constitute a book in itself. He also does not care for my discussions of text "in the broadest terms." I also suggest he discuss them in the narrow and detailed terms he seems to advocate. The reviewer also thinks that films should have had more coverage. I again urge him to write that book.

He also says "This is really the problem with the whole book: it's lack of ideas." Then he lists what we would like in it. He wants the big picture...but he already said that I cover things "in the broadest terms" So do we want a big picture, filled with detail? I really look forward to him doing that in the book he obviously wants to write.

He asks "Why do modern directors turn to certain (especially Euripides') plays so much more often that others?" I have answered that in several places, particularly in my discussion of the political use that some authors have for the classics (see also my and Michael Walton's Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy, one of the books mentioned in my inadequate bibliography). Elsewhere I'm taxed for speaking of the political uses of drama "All of these political situations are very far removed from the democratic context of fifth-century Athens." But that use gives at least one explanation of the preference for Euripides in modern times.

He says I also don't have a general theory for what makes a good or bad production, although he quotes some of my "scattered verdicts." That theory could be another book. I certainly give suggestions. The reviewer says "Violence in modern productions is thought to be undesirable." I never make that claim. If the reviewer had read closely he would have seen that I was taxing violence on stage, vs. the violence in messenger speeches et al as was the preferred ancient method of presentation. Not representing violence on stage would allow one's imagination to create violent scenarios which often surpassed crude representation. My Medea, Queen of Colchester contained as much violence as Euripides' Medea, but it was off stage. Screams could be they also were heard in the original.

I am criticized for "unfocused attacks on unnamed interpreters" and "slurs on national characteristics." An example of a slur against the French is about Cocteau playing "all the intellectual tricks for which the French are famous." Isn't this "slur" in the reviewer's mind? I love intellectual tricks. I enjoy Derrida for just that. And many other modern French philosophers.

The reviewer claims "The vague, bland nature of McD's critical vocabulary, as well as the lack of any clear programmatic statement, makes it difficult for the reader to get to the bottom of things." Doesn't this contradict the statement in the first paragraph which praised the accessibility of this study? Should I have had more detailed discussions of hamartia and weakness of will as discussed in the Republic by Plato? Aristotle's notion of katharsis, with all the philosophical documentation to give an adequate definition? I'm afraid my "clear programmatic statement" is that this book is just an introduction to the major tragedies we have by the ancient Greek tragedians in an accessible form for mainly students of drama.

My conclusion about tragedy...that it "makes us think; that it 'engages our intellect" and that it 'tells us about the world we live in" is inadequate for the reviewer. He wants to know "think about what? How does it engage our intellect, and in what ways it 'tells us about the world we live in." In the course of the book these questions are answered. One such message is the political one. And engaging our intellect? How about the imagery and poetry for starters, which I praise in various sections, to say nothing of the brilliant ideas contained in the plays. Is my conclusion to review all that any careful reader would have remembered?

Towards the end our reviewer asks "Is McD saying, then, that tragedy is up for grabs?" And goes on to criticize some of the value judgements I gave on productions I had seen. No. This is not a theoretical study of what constitutes good performances. This is a handbook for beginning students of drama. And yes, a lot is a matter of taste. That's theatre.

Our reviewer concludes "At the end of the book, then, one is left with a sense of inconclusiveness." Good. That was my intention. I did not want to give all the answers, presuming I or anyone could. I only wanted to provide a handbook that would provoke students and informed readers to further study.

I was amused that he also didn't like the cover "The cover illustration, perhaps unusually for a book about the so-called living art of tragedy, depicts some deserted and overgrown ruins." He did not notice the tree in the background in full bloom with its pink blossoms, and the green grass surrounding the ruins, surely suggestive of eternal renewal in the return of spring. Those flowers are living, yes? I think he should spend more time enjoying the landscape for all it offers and going more often to theatre, both ancient and modern. Life is there on the stage for those who have eyes to see.

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