Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.49
Ian C. Storey, Euripides: Suppliant Women. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. 160. ISBN 9780715636268. £12.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Simon Perris, Victoria University of Wellington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Joining the diverse, ever-increasing stable of Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy, Ian Storey's volume on Suppliant Women more than holds its own. Naturally, a work such as this serves two masters: it addresses a ready-made audience and yet, although it need not make a splash, ought to justify its own existence on its own terms. In turn, one of the virtues of this series is that it allows for a multiplicity of approaches within the general remit. For example, Rosenbloom's Persians tends towards full-blown scholarly commentary, Roisman's Philoctetes offers a useful layperson's introduction to Greek drama, and Goff attacks Trojan Women with Rezeptionsgeschichte.1 Storey is rather more traditional, but no less worthwhile for all that. After some introductory background ('Prelude to a Play'), Storey gives a four-chapter scene-by-scene walkthrough, a chapter on interpretation ('Reading Suppliant Women'), a chapter on performance ('Staging Suppliant Women'), and the requisite chapter on reception ('Postludes'). The result is an eminently readable, thoughtful, informative essay on one of Euripides' lesser-known plays, in which attention to staging and other noteworthy matters leavens the inevitable dose of apologetics.
'Inevitable', that is, because Storey's beginner's guide to Suppliant Women explicitly aims at rehabilitating "an unfairly neglected master work by the most controversial of the three great tragedians of Ancient Greece" (blurb). Yet Storey's nuanced, undogmatic approach to such an agenda renders this more than an exercise in Desert Island Books. Invoking Conacher in the preface, Storey recalls being "captivated by this drama, by its modern and gritty feel, by the way ancient myth and contemporary Athens were juxtaposed, by the uneasy feeling that nothing should be taken at face value" (p.7). This is all to the good: I for one have no problem with reading Suppliant Women as a worthy, quintessentially 'Euripidean' tragôidía, charged with ambiguity and dissonance.
The first chapter, 'Prelude to a Play', consists mostly of material indispensable for the neophyte: other treatments of the myth, Aeschylus' Men of Eleusis, the Thebes-Argos-Athens triad, the Eleusinian context, and the political background. At this point, Storey offers a five-page excursus (pp.23-28) on the dating of the play (covering trimeter resolution statistics, and outlining the pros and cons of various possible dates) which I do not consider quite so indispensable, at least not for the aforementioned neophyte.
Chapters Two through Five present a careful scene-by-scene commentary on the action of the play, with many valuable insights offered, and helpful air-time given to interpretive cruxes. Storey's lemmatised commentary approach works for me, although this is ultimately a matter of taste.2 I find this the most illuminating portion of the book, where Storey repackages philological argument most effectively for a Greekless audience. A few examples should suffice. With reference to line 707, Storey helpfully discusses στρατηγός, βασιλεύς, and ἄναξ (pp.56-7). Storey elucidates verbal echoes in the Greek, such as at 1145, θεοῦ θέλοντος, echoing line 499 and Seven 427 (p.79). Finally, the explanation of supplication drama (pp.29-31) nicely brings out the tension of the opening tableau.
The chapter on 'Reading Suppliant Women' is a useful guide to interpretation of the play. Storey treats specific issues in turn, arguing throughout against the 'ironic reading': Euripides depicts Athens in an essentially positive light; Theseus is a worthy monarch-democrat; Adrastos' Funeral Oration is sincere; and the Iphis-Evadne scene is not only excellent theatre, but recasts Kapaneus as a family man just as Adrastos had cast him as a good citizen. The best thing about Storey's analysis here, as throughout, is its openness to multiple approaches and its willingness to engage with Euripidean ambiguity and ambivalence. Thus Storey wrings a great deal out of the text, and equips his reader well to pursue the interpretation further. My only quibble is that Storey is a little too reasonable at times. Generously allowing readers to situate themselves within the critical spectrum, Storey doesn't quite give away his own 'take' on the play; one must piece it together. "This is a play about parents and their children" (p.37); "things are sadly out of joint in the world of this play" (p.77); "A final theme of the play is that no one or no state can count on unbroken success" (p.88); "If there is an intentional irony in this play, it is more likely to reside in the depiction of the gods" (p.104). So, then, we have Theseus, Athens, and Periclean democracy; parents and children; the vicissitudes of fate; and ironic treatment of divinity. This is all eminently Euripidean, and I would have preferred--and I think those new to the play could have benefited from--a concrete statement of Storey's interpretation. Still, it is all good stuff.
My only other criticism is that certain passages seem out of place in an introductory volume. Storey's own BMCR review of Roisman's Duckworth Companion to Philoctetes lamented insufficient engagement with critical history,3 and Storey in turn makes good reference to scholarship on Suppliant Women. However, Storey could elsewhere have taken a leaf out of Roisman's book, as it were, and better targeted the notional audience of the series.4 For a start, Storey includes too much transliterated Greek for my liking, especially inflected forms. (This may well have been an editorial rather than authorial choice.) On one page the Greekless reader must contend with ponos, ponon, and ponoi (p.42). Why not stick with the nominative, as does the glossary? Elsewhere, a six-line translation from Thucydides contains four bracketed Greek words or phrases (p.51): do we need to know that 'active labour' translates ascholian epiponon? More egregiously, Storey gives pones (sic) for 'πόνης', 'I laboured', at line 195 (p.42).5 Storey rightly identifies an emphasis on πόνος and πονεῖν, but it seems a bit much to expect readers to guess etymological connections via transliteration. In addition to the treatment of dating mentioned above, Storey at one point pauses to outline the textual crux at 250-1, which adds little to the discussion at hand (p.36). Note also Storey's compelling, detailed argument that the skênê doors represent not the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, but the outer gates of the precinct (pp.111-13). Storey uses (transliterated) Greek plurals and plurals-for-singular, topography, and archaeology, to make what is a rather sophisticated point. Perhaps the lay reader could have been offered the conclusion but spared the discussion. Likewise, Storey's argument that there was no raised stage between the orchêstra and the skênê (pp.108-11). Storey might have sent interested readers straight to Rehm's excellent discussion (to which he does refer).6
On the other hand, Storey's concern with staging is for me the great strength of this volume, and he successfully mobilises performance criticism in defence of the play. Particularly effective, for example, is the discussion of entrances and exits via the eisodoi, and the significance of the fact that the skênê-doors are never used (pp.113-15). I also like the suggestion of 'touching' as a recurring dramaturgical motif (p.118). Ultimately, this volume succeeds because Storey engagingly conveys his appreciation for the text and its dramaturgical potential.
The reception chapter ('Postludes') covers rather disparate material and, as Storey himself notes, it was more the myth than the play which took hold in later writers' imaginations. Most useful here is Storey's account of how Euripides' version became an accepted part of Athenian history (pp.121-4), and the discussion of modern productions (pp.136-9). Performance reception supports Storey's contention that Suppliant Women deserves more attention, and "shows clearly how modern these ancient plays are and how well they can speak across the centuries to another time and place" (p.139).
In sum, Storey achieves his aims admirably, and for the most part achieves those of the series as well. At any rate, he encouraged this reviewer to read--and appreciate--Suppliant Women better. Accordingly, I recommend this introduction to anyone ready to rethink the canon, treat Suppliant Women as drama, and allow a little Euripidean ambiguity into the interpretive process.
1. David Rosenbloom, Persians, BMCR 2007.11.24; Hanna Roisman, Philoctetes (reviewed by Storey), BMCR 2006.04.08; Goff, Barbara, Euripides: Trojan women. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy (London: Duckworth, 2008).
2. Contrast the criticism of this approach in the BMCR review of Rosenbloom's Persians (note 1).
3. See note 1.
4. From the back cover: "This new series provides accessible introductions to ancient tragedies. Each volume discusses the main themes of a play and the central developments in modern criticism, while also addressing the play's historical context and the history of its performance and adaptation." For a recent review of the series as a whole, see JHS 128 (2008), 192-3.
5. This should read ponês. Likewise, I suggest dôroumetha for doroumetha (p.81).
6. Rush Rehm, "The Staging of Suppliant Plays," GRBS 29.3 (1988), 263-307.