Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.28

Gustav Adolf Seeck (ed.), Euripides. Alkestis. Griechische Dramen.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2008.  Pp. x, 231.  ISBN 9783110188769.  $71.00.  

Reviewed by Niall W. Slater, Emory University (
Word count: 1830 words

G. A. Seeck's edition of the Alcestis with accompanying German translation and commentary is part of a new series from de Gruyter intended to offer detailed access to the text not only to philologists but to literary and theatre scholars more widely. The format is designed for accessibility. Following an extensive introduction, the German translation and Greek text are printed one above the other on the left hand page with commentary on the facing right hand page. The lemmata are generally keyed to the German translation, which aims to follow the Greek line for line. The format often leaves white space, but the result is highly user-friendly and should serve all its audiences well.

Seeck has been engaged with this play for almost forty years (his 1969 Habilitation was published as Unaristotelische Untersuchungen zu Euripides: ein motivanalytischer Kommentar zur "Alkestis" [Heidelberg 1985]), along with numerous other publications on tragedy. He has thus distilled a great deal into the extensive introduction to this volume. One of the great virtues of this work is its understanding of the play for and in performance and of Euripides as a theatre professional working within the civic structures of Athens. In his biographical sketch of the tragedian, Seeck is quite willing to speculate about what "must" have been true for a recognized major poet living in the Athenian democracy: e.g., that Euripides would have been a leader in assembly discussions about using Delian League funds for theatre reconstruction or that his departure from Athens in 405 might have been a "flight" from the recalled Alcibiades, whom Euripides had opposed politically. These suggestions may strike some as in advance of the evidence, but they offer a refreshing contrast to the withdrawn figure in the ancient Life of the poet. Seeck also imagines that the archon's offer to the poet of a slot at the festival was based on a complete written copy of the play and seems to believe the state archive of plays went back as far as Euripides' lifetime (21). His clear discussion of the later textual transmission of the plays will serve both his philological and broader literary audiences. It is salutary to be reminded that, given the life expectancy of papyrus, Euripides would have had to copy out his own Peliadai at least once to have it still available at the end of his life. Though the bibliography is generally quite up to date, he has missed Marshall's treatment of the important evidence for a performance of the play in later antiquity ("Alcestis and the Ancient Rehearsal Process (P. Oxy. 4546)," Arion 11: 27-45), though he cites the papyrus itself. In his invaluable discussion of the play's later literary reception (25-29) we learn, among many other tidbits, that the 12-year-old Montaigne played one of the play's principal roles in a performance of a Latin translation. He traces the story of translation, adaptation, and production as far as Petras's 2004 Alkestis, mon amour. The Anglophone tradition is well served, although one misses any mention of Ted Hughes' version.

Seeck's treatment of the evidence for the Alcestis myth before Euripides as well as the poet's careful and limited deployment of references within the play to previous action is far more precise than that of many critics working on the play. He argues for a separation between the mythic world of the prologue and a demythologized world in which the action then plays out. Seeck's introduction singles out four larger themes of literary interpretation for discussion (the issues of contradictions and gaps, irony, psychology, and the notion of "tragicomedy"). Euripides omits Admetus's voyage on the Argo and participation in the Caledonian boar hunt in the process of making him "ein König ohne Ambitionen auf heroischen Ruhm und genaugenommen nur ein bürgerlicher Familienvater" (32). Indeed, the poet's treatment of the house of Admetus portrays it much more as an ordinary Athenian dwelling than as a palace out of the mythic past, and thus the scene of a "burgerliches Drama" (41ff.). Euripides says nothing about the time between Alcestis's promise and the day of her death---but nothing invites the audience in the theatre to focus on that during the course of the performance. Three paragraphs on irony will not satisfy all, but Seeck lays out the case that irony resides more often in the play's reception than in explicit textual signals.

A section on several more structurally oriented "special questions" follows: the prologue, xenia, the scene with Pheres, the nature of Admetus's learning or "recognition," whether his reception of the veiled woman is a betrayal of his marriage, and finally the question of Alcestis's silence. Seeck suggests the prologue's account of previous events is not abbreviated because Euripides has no time to tell us more: the text is carefully formulated so that we do not know whether Admetus asked Alcestis for her sacrifice (though he explicitly did ask his parents), nor do we learn when Alcestis made her decision. The life exchange theme is therefore background, while the focus is on Alcestis's sacrificial death. The scene with Pheres has been an increasing problem for later reception, but Seeck argues that the father's claim not to care what anyone thinks of him would strike Athenian audience members as not just unheroic but "eine ganz unerhörte Schamlosigkeit" (38). He treats the much-discussed silence of Alcestis as one of the play's blanks or gaps which critics have rushed to fill but argues it is of a piece with the distancing of Heracles' actual victory over death from the on-stage action. The three-day purification must be a Euripidean invention---but Seeck does note that it is then curious that Admetus may touch her hand without requiring cleansing, even though hearing her voice would somehow violate ritual purity. So precise about details generally, Seeck perhaps misses one here, as he seems to accept the widely shared view that Alcestis is here incapable of speech. As many translators in English do, his translation of line 1144, "Mir dir zu reden ist ihr nicht erlaubt," turns the focus to her speech (or silence), where Heracles' Greek more precisely refers to Admetus's hearing: "It is not yet right for you to hear the speeches/words of this woman." A final section of the introduction discusses the play's form and relation to lament.

Seeck's text offers a number of differences from other recent editors, often defending the manuscript readings. A few examples will give a sense of his approach. Where Diggle's OCT and Kovacs' Loeb follow Dindorf in deleting line 16 as an interpolation, Seeck defends it dramaturgically: otherwise, we would not know until 290 that Admetus even had parents to whom to appeal. Alone among recent editors, he keeps the reading endikos at 41 in some mss., arguing that a copyist was more likely to attempt to eliminate irony rather than import it. On the other hand, he follows Wilamowitz at 144 in correcting the chorus's usage of the second person harmartaneis, which should address the offstage Admetus rather than the maidservant who is present before them, to third person. It might be worth noting here that while Kovacs retains the second person, his translation neatly circumvents it: "Unhappy man, being so good a husband to lose so good a wife!" Like Kovacs and Parker, Seeck deletes 208 but not 207.

Seeck certainly is not hostile to the possibility of interpolation, histrionic or otherwise. His deletion of 285-286 as interpolation is novel; Seeck finds them inconsistent with the next two lines. Logical nicety, however, may not be requisite in a dying speech, and Alcestis might still regard her children as orphans even in a second marriage. He does concede that the virtually verbatim quotation of Alcestis' earlier words at 651-652 raises suspicions of interpolation, but noting their emotional effectiveness, he chooses not to bracket them. On the other hand, he thinks 790-791 interpolated, since Aphrodite figures nowhere else in Heracles' speech and, while he might want the servant to join him in drinking, a reference to the joys of Aphrodite would not be appropriate. At 811 he prints thuraios, although he finds Dale's suggestion of othneios very appealing. Where most solve the problem at 818-820 indicated by the scholiast's note by deleting the first two lines, Seeck opts to delete only 820---producing in my view a much more effective shock of recognition. At 829 he prints tuchas rather than the "trivialisierende Leseart" pulas (cf. his apt note on tuche at 889). Most editors delete a pair of lines out of 1093-1095 to avoid the repetition of a form of aino, though Seeck argues for repetition with a meaningful difference. Like Kovacs, at 1097 he keeps the mss.' gennaion, where Lenting proposed the adverbial form. Debate over the subtle difference in meaning does not get us far, but Parker is surely right to point out how rare such an adjectival use would be in Euripides.

It is for a native speaker to judge the German translation, but it seems to succeed quite well in conveying the meaning of the Greek while adhering closely to a line for line structure. Where a literal translation of a word or phrase might be awkward, Seeck regularly notes the literal structure in the facing commentary.

With its multiple audiences in mind, the commentary tends to feature points of larger interpretive significance (and sometimes surprising modern relevance, as when ad 15-18 Seeck compares the search for a substitute to contemporary organ donation). For wealth of parallels and linguistic detail, the Anglophone philologist will need Parker and Dale still at hand, but Seeck has a keen eye and ear here too. One or two examples must suffice. At 202 where the servant reports Admetus's begging speech to Alcestis, most commentators and translators assume Admetus as an object of the infinitive prodounai---producing the bathetic meaning that he begs her not to "betray" him. Seeck's parallels instead support his argument that without an express object here it means rather he begs her not to lose heart or "give up." At 1042 he gives a good account of using the title anax.

The commentary will be particularly useful for meaning in performance. Seeck's suggestion that the chorus may arrive singly from both parodoi, for example, before grouping together in the orchestra is very appealing. His discussion in favor of Dale's proposal at 393ff. that the actor of Alcestis sings the child's lament is thorough and persuasive. A particularly intriguing suggestion is that the drunken Heracles' arrival at 773 to change the course of the action might be one model for Alcibiades' arrival in Plato's Symposium. His discussion of 903ff. nicely highlights how unusual this chorus is in citing their own personal experience, perhaps part of the "demythologizing" trend he sees in this play (where Parker is oddly exercised over biographical nicety, i.e., whether the chorus could actually share one common relative).

The volume is thus a welcome addition to the growing ranks of commentaries on this play. One looks forward to other entries in the de Gruyter series.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 09:07:05, Friday, 08 May 2009