Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.03.42

Josh Beer, Sophocles and the Tragedy of Athenian Democracy. Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies 105.   Westport, CT:  Praeger, 2004.  Pp. 190.  ISBN 0-313-28946-8.  $84.95.  

Reviewed by Judith Owen (
Word count: 2138 words

This book is part of a series that presents the 'cultural and political context' (p. vii) of selected highpoints of Western drama, and the series is 'primarily aimed at students of the theatre' (p. xii). With this as his brief, Beer (B.) has chosen Sophocles as the classical playwright around which to structure his discussion of the wider context of fifth-century Greek tragedy. And in this he succeeds admirably. His introductory chapters form a comprehensive but readable account of the various components of the production of Greek tragedy and its political, religious etc. context. Although this information can be found in other introductions to Greek tragedy, its comprehensiveness is an advantage for those 'students of the theatre' who may not been aware of the other available introductions. After the three introductory chapters, B. has a chapter per play, in which he summarises the action and shows how the contemporary socio-political context resonates within it. B. achieves what he sets out to do: the book provides a good account of the political context of Sophocles' plays pitched at a level suited to undergraduates.

This is not to say, however, that this is a book that all Classicists must read. It is most likely to be helpful for students or practitioners of drama or theatre who do not have a Classics background. The book assumes the reader has not read the plays even in translation and provides detailed summaries of their action. I, for instance, would recommend the book to my students of fifth-century Athenian culture, but not to my students reading texts in the original Greek. I would also recommend the book to those writing reading lists for undergraduates, bearing in mind that it is not a book about Sophocles' plays; it is a book on the political context of his plays and how this is reflected in the plays. In this respect, B.'s book is an excellent introduction to the place the dramatic performances held in the life of the community of fifth-century Athens.

In the first few chapters, the level of detail on the socio-political context of Sophocles' plays is required by the aims of the series. For an experienced classicist the detail is unnecessary, but for a non-classicist or a novice the holistic view of the context is excellent. This is an all-one-ever-needs-to-know for understanding the context of Greek tragedy. (It is a shame that it is specifically based around Sophocles' life and plays, because it would make an excellent introduction to Greek tragedy in general.) It is more holistic than many introductions to Greek tragedy, because it links less obviously connected elements, too, giving the wider context that allowed tragedy to flourish.

After the usual Series Forward and Acknowledgements, the book begins with a two-page Introduction stressing the importance of tragedy in the political life of the citizen. This is followed by a five-page chronological table, giving 70 dates starting at c. 650 and ending at 399, under the headings 'Sophocles', 'Cultural Events' and 'Political Events'.

Chapter 1, entitled 'Tragedy, Athens, and the Greek Cultural Mosaic', is a wide-ranging and well-balanced introduction to Athenian society, covering the cultural background, the development of the democracy, citizenship and the polis, religion, and the political background from the sixth century onward. Here B. introduces and explains a wide range of concepts and terms. The chapter shows how tragedy developed in the context of democracy as an expression of Athenian values and concerns.

Chapter 2, 'Sophocles: the Dramatic Beginnings', uses Sophocles' lifetime as a framework for setting out the political and cultural background of the century, starting with political instability and the Ionian Revolt, through the Persian Wars to the Athenian Empire. (The reader may join me in wondering if so much historical detail is necessary.) With this as the background, B. moves on to Sophocles' debt to Aeschylus and his progression beyond him. It is here that B. outlines his interpretation of the term skenographia, which I discuss in more detail below.

Festivals, how the plays are funded, the physical aspects of the theatre and its audience, and the role the dramatic festivals play in the Athenians' self identity are among the topics of Chapter 3, entitled 'Sophocles' Theatre'.

This is followed by a chapter for each of the plays. Again, the focus is on the political dimension. The chapter on Ajax begins (confusingly, at first) with the fickle fortunes of the prominent historical figures Themistocles and Cimon, in order to show the parallels between the world of myth and the contemporary world, and goes on to draw out references to Athens and Salamis in the play. In this play about political change and competing values, B. notes the 'contemporary ring' of the argument between Menelaus and Teucer. He sees a similarity to Eumenides and refers to it frequently, although often to no advantage, particularly for those readers who do not know anything of Aeschylus' play. In the chapter on Antigone B. takes the standard view that 'the traditional religious practices of the oikos conflict with the newer demands of the polis' (p. 67), but with the less standard, and more interesting, view that the 'real protagonist' of the play is the polis (p. 77). He makes useful notes on the use of the theatre space to show that Creon is challenged from all directions: from the eisodos leading to the place where Polyneices' body lies, from the oikos which holds Antigone, and from the city, located down the other eisodos and along which Haemon and Teiresias enter (p. 74).

The chapter on Trachiniae deals with marriage: Heracles' irregular marriages, women's vulnerability in marriage and the importance of a secure marriage for the oikos and for the polis.

Oedipus Rex is set in the context of the fifth century intellectual revolution to show how the play explores the themes of man as the focal point of intellectual enquiry and of the conflict between appearance and reality. An Appendix on 'Blind and Kingly Masks' follows, in which B. suggests that the actor playing Teiresias returned to the stage as the blind Oedipus and that Oedipus' earlier actor played Creon in the final scene.

B. states that the ending of Electra is ambiguous, but his interpretation of the play as a whole and of the ethics of the characters does not allow this ambiguity to stand. He holds a very black view of the moral tone, believing that Electra is degraded by Orestes' immoral behaviour (p. 130). The context in which he situates the play includes Thucydides' depiction of the degradation of traditional values, using as examples the Mytilene debate and the Melian dialogue, the Sicilian expedition and the oligarchic coup of 411BC. He sees the conflict in Athens at the time to be reflected in the conflict within the oikos of this play (p. 130). In an Appendix to the chapter, B. gives the date of the Electra as later than Euripides' play of that name, and probably not long before Euripides' Orestes of 408 BC, on the grounds that the opening tableau of Orestes parallels the final tableau of Sophocles' Electra, and because of the reference to Chrysothemis in Orestes.

In his chapter on Philoctetes B. notes contemporary resonances evoking Alcibiades and the struggle in the north-eastern Aegean Sea, saying that 'the play questions the morality of political expediency and the unscrupulous nature of politicians as dissembling actors' (p. 140).

In the chapter on Oedipus at Colonus, B. looks once more at contemporary political 'upheaval' and 'crisis' (p. 153) in order to illuminate the play, although he admits that it is not an easy fit (p. 166). He concludes that the play suggests that Athens 'should not put its faith in democratic institutions [...], but it must be led by a noble aristocrat like Theseus, blessed by the help of a beneficent hero like Oedipus' (p. 168).

The Conclusion is brief and stresses the importance of the political context of democracy that allowed fifth-century Athenian drama to flourish and that was in turn reflected in that drama. B. also reiterates his view that Sophocles' theatrical innovations consisted of skenographia and the use of the blind mask.

The book ends with a useful, four-page Glossary of Terms, a five-page Select Bibliography citing the usual works, and an eight-page Index containing topics, key Greek words and the names of secondary scholars cited.

This is not a book to choose if you want to read a critical response to any particular play. The chapters on the plays do not provide analyses of the plays from the point of view of their own themes and values, but only as they interact with the wider political theme of the book as a whole. While this means that the book has a unifying theme throughout, it limits the book's value for readers only interested in individual plays. Although B. has been influenced to good purpose by the articles on politics and drama that have appeared in the last couple of decades, his commentary has little substance because the paraphrases are so detailed that they take up most of each chapter. In most of the chapters about the individual plays, there is extensive summary of the action of each play, interspersed with discussion. There are two chapters, however, namely Antigone and Trachiniae, in which there is little or no discussion. The chapters have clearly been included for the sake of completeness, despite their irrelevance to B.'s overall topic, so in these two cases the summaries seem pointless.

B.'s aim is not primarily innovative interpretation, though his approach does not preclude it. His best original point is his definition of skenographia as the (verbal) description of the dramatic setting (pp. 26-29) or 'setting the scene' (p. 29), instead of the usual interpretation of the term as (physical) 'scene-painting'. He points out that this is indeed what Sophocles does, giving Electra 11-14 and Oedipus at Colonus 16-17 as examples (p. 27). This, he says, is something that Aeschylus only does in the Oresteia (p. 28). B.'s other suggestions for resolving old points of contention are appended at the end of the relevant chapters, where they have relevance to neither of the book's two purposes, namely a basic introduction to the plays and a comprehensive account of their socio-political concerns. For instance, at the end of the chapter on Ajax, B. suggests that when Tecmessa enters the stage looking for Ajax she is accompanied by a slave who takes the place of Ajax's body on the stage, with the substitution concealed by Tecmessa's laying of her cloak over the body. Such a suggestion would do better written up as a separate article, where it would be more likely to reach a more appropriate audience. The Appendix to the chapter on Electra is too superficial to address the issue of the play's dating properly and so loses its need to exist as a separate appendix.

Sometimes B.'s need to provide all the relevant background information leads to abrupt changes in topic. For example, within the general topic of the physical description of the theatre, B. jumps from the status of women to a description of the wooden seating of the auditorium (pp. 39-40). While this kind of informative digression is necessary for anyone with no knowledge of Athenian society, it is stylistically awkward and makes the book hard to follow. Furthermore, the transition from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4, the first on the individual plays, is abrupt. Instead of following logically from Chapter 3, Chapter 4 picks up on a theme from the middle of Chapter 2, on the Persian invasions. This transition might not have seemed so abrupt if B. had explained the bipartite structure of the book, with several introductory chapters followed by chapters on the individual plays.

The awkward transitions result from B.'s attempt to be all-inclusive. There is, however, one surprising gap: while B. gives a reference to secondary literature when discussing a character's change of mask (pp. 42-43), and is particularly interested in blind masks, he gives no references on the more ordinary uses of masks, and provides only a vague mention of illustrations of masks, without references. It is here, perhaps, that the absence of illustrations in B.'s own work is most obvious.

The book is well-presented, although there is some inconsistency in the use of italics for Greek and other foreign words. I found only one spelling mistake: p. 8 line 24 has 'Weltanshauung' for 'Weltanschaung'. B.'s gloss of 'hetairai' as 'non-Athenian women' on p. 40 is potentially misleading, since the context does not make it clear that there are other non-Athenian women who are not hetairai. On p. 42, he makes Ismene the twin sister of Antigone, without providing evidence for this close relationship. He shows inconsistency in transliteration, with strategos and tyrannus occurring in the same sentence on p. 78.

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