Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.06.39

Justina Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy.   Oxford:  Blackwell, 2005.  Pp. xviii, 552.  ISBN 1-4051-0770-7.  £85.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew Wright, University of Exeter (
Word count: 2055 words

Not another introductory book on Greek drama? The reviewer's heart initially sinks, as thoughts of dreary old views and boring plot-summaries come to mind. The last couple of decades, in particular, have seen the publication of a large number of such books (some better than others). But in fact this new volume, like others in the excellent Blackwell's 'Companion' series, stands apart from the crowd. It is not just a boring re-hash of well-known material but a superb, lively, genuinely stimulating collection of essays which make the plays come alive. Reading this book is rather like listening to a series of cracking lectures by some of the best scholars in the business. Rather than taking a predictable chronological, author-by-author, or play-by-play approach, each chapter deals with a thematic topic or a particular methodology and takes the reader through it with the benefit of the most up-to-date scholarship. There are few notes, but each chapter is equipped with a reliable guide to further reading.

The book is divided into four main sections and thirty-one chapters (authors and titles are listed in full at the end of this review). A brief review can only hint at the variety of subject-matter on offer.

The essays in Section I ('Contexts') in various ways attempt to sketch the historical background and setting for the plays. Debnar (1) offers a general discussion of why and how tragedy is to be seen as 'historical', as well as a detailed analysis of several plays; she (I think rightly) questions the extent to which characters and events in the plays would have directly reminded audience members of contemporary politics. Scullion (2) asks whether scholars are right to see tragedy as a religious phenomenon in origin: he examines a number of popular theories and shows that none is adequately supported by the evidence. Scullion's hyper-sceptical approach is salutary: it will come as no surprise to those who have read his earlier work (e.g. CQ 52 [2002] 102-137), though inexperienced readers will have to read as far as the endnote (pp. 36-7) to be told how much his views differ from the current orthodoxy. By contrast, Seidensticker (3) takes a very different, more orthodox line on the relationship between tragedy and its 'sibling' genres dithyramb, comedy, and satyr-play. His last section, though it is called 'mutual influences' (pp. 49-53), is actually a wide-ranging discussion of a large number of plays with relation to their 'tone' (recalling, in miniature, the author's earlier work, e.g. Palintonos Harmonia). Croally (4) presents a convincing image of tragedy as essentially a didactic genre; he criticizes those who fail to distinguish between the intentions of the playwright and the expectations of the audience. Allan's (5) focus is on a particular type of teaching: how far does tragedy reflect, or contribute to, the Greek philosophical tradition? Allan is right to stress that serious discussion of such matters as cosmology, epistemology and theology is not the exclusive preserve of 'philosophers' but of many Greek intellectuals, including tragedians, who are all parallel explorers of similar issues. Pelling's (6) contribution is a punchy, readable survey of tragedy's place within Athenian performance culture and rhetoric. Finally, Small (7) delivers another dose of healthy scepticism, demonstrating that vase-paintings are not 'pictures of tragedy' and trying to develop a methodology for dealing with these artefacts which is more nuanced than previous approaches (though she is perhaps just a little unfair to describe Oliver Taplin as a 'non-skeptical classicist', p. 118).

Section II ('Elements') is concerned with the formal 'building-blocks' of tragedy: the construction of the plot, the subject-matter, the music and dancing. All of the pieces in this section, while presenting a great deal of factual information, are at the same time completely open about the limitations of the evidence. Anderson (8) offers a thematic overview of distinctively 'tragic' myths and how they relate to society. Roberts (9) examines the construction of the plays, and, in particular, the way in which the plot is 'framed' by the beginning and ending. Her essay is nicely balanced by Halleran's (11) piece, which focuses on the episodes: this slightly unusual perspective yields some interesting results about plot structure and the manner in which the 'pace' of the plays is maintained. Battezzato's (10) contribution is an excellent overview of the role of the chorus: after a useful description of the different sung-and-danced elements in tragedy, he considers the social and poetic status of the chorus with regard to the other characters and the plot; he ends by questioning the popular view that Euripidean lyrics were unusually experimental. Wilson (12) concentrates on the music itself -- how it actually sounded (so far as this can be known) -- and offers a valuable discussion of the appropriate methodology for studying music that can never be heard. Davidson (13) combines a useful digest of recent approaches to stagecraft and theatrical space with plenty of detailed examples from the plays: despite the problems with evidence, his essay creates an exciting, almost visible sense that real-life performances are under discussion.

Section III ('Approaches') offers a variety of ways of interpreting the plays. The first three pieces, by Saïd, Scodel, and Gregory (14-16), attempt to give a flavour of just what is distinctive about the work of each of the three major tragedians: it is particularly pleasing to see that the traditional image of each of these playwrights (which is, essentially, a composite of views from Aristophanic comedy, ancient biography, and the nineteenth-century critical tradition) is subjected to pressure. Cropp (17), whose views of the genre and its development (and, particularly, of Euripides) are rather more traditional, gives an interesting survey of the evidence for lost tragedies. Sourvinou-Inwood (18) advocates anthropologically-based, historicist readings of tragedy, arguing that it is important to minimize 'cultural determination' and, as far as possible, read the plays through ancient Greek 'filters' (which are, according to the author, largely synonymous with experience of religious ritual). Sourvinou-Inwood's distinctive 'ritual' reading of tragedy, relying on 'zooming' and 'distancing' techniques, will already be familiar to scholars from her earlier work, but here it is presented in a concise format, extremely helpful for beginners. A different kind of 'Greek-filtered' approach is offered by Cairns (19), who concentrates on ethical values central to Greek society (such as shame, honour, and revenge). He gives an ethical reading of certain plays as well as a critique of various important approaches, stressing how hard it is to pin down 'what the Athenians believed'. The remaining four pieces in this section focus on particular types of character in the plays and the problems of interpretation which they present. Mastronarde (20) discusses 'the flexibility of the supernatural apparatus in tragedy', including the gods, fate, and fortune. Griffith (21) discusses figures who can be seen to embody 'authority' of various sorts (political, military, domestic, religious, cultural), and explores ways in which the plays themselves came to acquire a particular kind of 'authority' as cultural products. Mossman (22) discusses strategies for interpreting women's speech in relation to the plays' male-dominated setting and context of production: her fine, nuanced essay contains a particularly good discussion of Clytemnestra's scene with Cassandra in Agamemnon. Ebbot's (23) piece examines 'marginal' figures in a more general sense, and concludes that such characters are 'paradoxically central'.

Section IV ('Reception') deals with the afterlife of the plays, including their transmission and re-performance. The first essay, by Kovacs (24), is an admirably concise introduction to the history of textual transmission: an extremely clear presentation of material which students often find daunting, this piece manages to be not only informative but also entertaining and witty. Halliwell (25) examines a variety of ancient critical responses to tragedy, from Aristophanes onwards: he traces several characteristic strands in the way tragedy tended to be viewed, including its didactic function (or effect) and its particular emotional or intellectual effect on the spectator. Like Kovacs, Halliwell succeeds in making his difficult subject-matter highly accessible to a general audience. The remaining essays range even more broadly in time and space. Panoussi and Di Maria (26-7) discuss the afterlife of the Greek plays in (respectively) ancient and modern Italy. Henrichs (28), in another admirably concise essay, discusses Nietzsche's highly individual conception of tragedy and sketches his influence on the later European critical tradition. Lada-Richards (29) gives an interesting account of acting and the role of the actor in tragedy, with relation to later views of the actor's art (though some may disagree with the extent to which she identifies metatheatricality as a feature of Greek tragedy itself), while Altena (30) suggests a number of answers to the question of why there seem to be more productions of tragedy in recent times than ever before. The final essay in the collection, by Woodruff (31), addresses the question of translation in performance: his sensitive discussion, based on practical experience, will be of great value to would-be producers and performers.

The particular strength of this collection lies in its range and diversity of material. The authors make imaginative use of all types of evidence (not just the texts themselves) to produce a real sense of a living, multifarious genre at the centre of Athenian polis life: one leaves the book with an almost tangible feeling about what it was like to be in the fifth-century audience. Not only the material itself but also the range of approaches is pleasingly diverse. Most of the essays are, broadly speaking, historicizing in their approach, but they are also quite different from one another. There are no overall statements about 'what Tragedy is', and no attempts to homogenize the material or to create artificial patterns. The dominant mode of writing is interrogative rather than assertive or dogmatic: the writers are careful to stress the limitations of our knowledge, often moving away from (rather than towards) definite conclusions, and often questioning received 'wisdom'. This open-ended approach is very refreshing to see, especially in an introductory book of this sort.

This Companion will surely become required reading for university students who want an accessible but learned introduction to the texts. The essays are (without exception) so well written and entertaining that they can also be recommended to actors, producers, audience members, and general readers. It is well edited and attractively produced (though perhaps one would have liked to see more pictures). It is to be hoped that the publishers will eventually produce an affordable paperback edition, so that this admirable book can reach the widest possible audience.

Authors and titles:

1. Fifth-Century Athenian History and Tragedy: Paula Debnar (Mount Holyoke College)

2. Tragedy and Religion: The Problem of Origins: Scott Scullion (University of Oxford)

3. Dithyramb, Comedy, and Satyr-Play: Bernd Seidensticker (Freie Universität Berlin)

4. Tragedy's Teaching: Neil Croally (Dulwich College, London)

5. Tragedy and the Early Greek Philosophical Tradition: William Allan (University of Oxford)

6. Tragedy, Rhetoric, and Performance Culture: Christopher Pelling (University of Oxford)

7. Pictures of Tragedy? Jocelyn Penny Small (Rutgers University)

8. Myth: Michael J. Anderson (Yale University)

9. Beginnings and Endings: Deborah H. Roberts (Haverford College)

10. Lyric: Luigi Battezzato (Università del Piemonte Orientale, Vercelli, Italy)

11. Episodes: Michael R. Halleran (University of Washington)

12. Music: Peter Wilson (University of Sydney)

13. Theatrical Production: John Davidson (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

14. Aeschylean Tragedy: Suzanne Saïd (Columbia University)

15. Sophoclean Tragedy: Ruth Scodel (University of Michigan)

16. Euripidean Tragedy: Justina Gregory (Smith College)

17. Lost Tragedies: A Survey: Martin Cropp (University of Calgary)

18. Tragedy and Anthropology: Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (previously of University of Oxford)

19. Values: Douglas Cairns (University of Edinburgh)

20. The Gods: Donald Mastronarde (University of California, Berkeley)

21. Authority Figures: Mark Griffith (University of California, Berkeley)

22. Women's Voices: Judith Mossman (University of Nottingham)

23. Marginal Figures: Mary Ebbott (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts)

24. Text and Transmission: David Kovacs (University of Virginia)

25. Learning from Suffering: Ancient Responses to Tragedy: Stephen Halliwell (University of St. Andrews)

26. Polis and Empire: Greek Tragedy in Rome: Vassiliki Panoussi (Williams College)

27. Italian Reception of Greek Tragedy: Salvatore Di Maria (University of Tennessee)

28. Nietzsche on Greek Tragedy and the Tragic: Albert Henrichs (Harvard University)

29. Greek Tragedy and Western Perceptions of Actors and Acting: Ismene Lada-Richards (King's College London)

30. The Theater of Innumerable Faces: Herman Altena (freelance academic)

31. Justice in Translation: Rendering Ancient Greek Tragedy: Paul Woodruff (University of Texas, Austin).

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:05, Friday, 03 April 2009