Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.08.48
Bernard Deforge, Une vie avec Eschyle. Vérité des mythes. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010. Pp. 304. ISBN 9782251324586. €35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Antonella Candio, Pisa (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“D’une certaine façon j’ai passé ma vie avec Eschyle.” The first words of the introduction well represent the spirit of Bernard Deforge’s volume, which provides the reader with a meaningful synthesis of the career of the author and of his relationship with Aeschylean tragic poetry. Deforge has dedicated some major contributions to Aeschylean drama, among them the translations with L. Bardollet (1975) and with F. Jouan (2001), and the essays Eschyle, poète cosmique (1986) and Le festival des cadavres. Morts et mises à mort dans la tragédie grecque (1997).
In this work, Deforge asserts his lifelong interest in the Athenian dramatist, by collecting in a section entitled Eschyleia sixteen articles written between 1983 and 2008 to which he adds a significant personal final section (Une vie avec Eschyle), where he chronicles the steps of his own intellectual and scientific training, marked by an uninterrupted symbiosis with Aeschylean tragedy. His continuous and pervasive interest in Aeschylus has been constantly cultivated, often coming back to topics already addressed in the past, maybe in the form of a closer examination, a better focusing or a correction. According to Deforge the most significant elements of Aeschylean production are represented by his capacity for revealing the secret connections on which processes of the world are based, his strong religious inspiration, the synthesis and transmission of the cultural heritage of the Near East, of which Aeschylus represented the true “passeur culturel” into the Western world and finally the great innovative power of the mise-en-scène.
In the first essay (Fonctions du mythe chez Eschyle) Deforge demonstrates how Aeschylus not only contributed to developping and transmitting the myths as narrated events, but transformed them in a way to interpret reality and to enlarge the spatial and temporal boundaries of the story, by introducing evocative speeches that recall past events and announce future ones. He also inserts lively details of distant places, both real and divine.
The contacts with the oriental tradition are emphasized in the second essay, where Deforge shows how the three Aeschylean plays dedicated to the myth of Glaukos could be reconducted to the same Cretan roots. The most evocative feature of this contribution is the final connection between some traits of the Hellenic story of Glaukos and the Gilgamesh poem.
The author’s interest in the (often hypothetical) reconstruction of tetralogies, even when it depends on slight and often enigmatic fragments, is visible in the third essay, where Deforge tries to reconstruct a tetralogy of Argonautic subjects.
The fourth essay (Pauvre Eschyle. Réflexion sur un livre d’Ismaïl Kadaré ) is dedicated to a question of literary criticism: Deforge defends the greatness and value of Aeschylus, deflecting the negative light that a volume published in 1988 by I. Kadaré would cast on him.
One of strengths of the first section of the book is the in-depth examination of the so-called “structure thématique du voyage” presented in the essay Eschyle et la terre divine. Dealing with the description of the beacon journey in the first episode of the Agamemnon, Deforge underlines Aeschylus’ ability in merging realistic descriptions with the mention of imaginary places, in order to make his geography wonderful, evocative and highly symbolic. This is the case, for example, in Ag. 281-311, where the amazing description of the journey of the beacon develops in two stages: from Troy to Argos the fire is transmitted through more and more contracted stages in order to produce an impression of speed; on the other hand, when the flame approaches places more familiar to the audience (from Mt. Cithaeron on), the insertion of geographic denominations with a magical and symbolic flavor enhances the wonder of the fire transmission, in spite of a slower speed.
In Un mythe politique babylonien à la source du mythe des Sept (n.6), Deforge attempts an interpretation of the Seven against Thebes. He approaches the play from an uncommon point of view, calling attention to strong points of convergence between the Seven against Thebes and an ancient Babylonian poem. His analysis is not limited to the content of the play, but also explores the cultural exchanges between the two different geographical areas.
The essay La mort tragique ou tuer n’est pas jouer (n.7) introduces another one of Deforge’s most interesting arguments. In the steps of W. Burkert1, the author argues that the taboo of the death on stage was not active in the Greek classical theatre. The idea of the existence of such a prohibition arose as a consequence of the aesthetic and moralistic preoccupations of later critics, and of a factitious reading of Aristotle’s Poetics. Death on stage was possible and sometimes fundamental for the spectacle, but was largely avoided by the dramatists, since it was not easy to represent. Even in this case, Aeschylus found an optimal solution to amplify the effect of the unseen murderous acts, through the invention of extra-scenic screams and a masterful use of messenger speeches.
In the eighth article Deforge widens his research perspective, focusing on Ajax’s death on stage: a careful scenic commentary of Sophocles’ Ajax, beginning from l. 646, shows how the visual impact of the announced suicide is enhanced by the particular relationship of the hero with his sword, here not a mere accessory but a companion in misfortune and a magical object.
The study Le cadavre en morceaux (n.9) defines Deforge’s view about the dramatic festivals, labelled by him as “festivals des cadavres” because of the high number of dead bodies present on scene in the extant tragedies. In Deforge’s perspective the tragic plays, whose origin must be reconducted to ancient funerary rites and sacrificial practices connected with Dionysiac cult, were created to exhibit death to the audience. He admits however that the only trace of a Dionysiac and sacrificial cult represented on stage can be found in Euripides’ Bacchae.
The tenth chapter deals with the dramatic function of childrens on stage. Aeschylus is not a primary subject here, since in his plays childrens are mentioned only in narrative sections. A thorough review of the relevant Sophoclean and Euripidean scenes shows how they were not a merely silent, instrumental presence (e.g. a child who helps an old man walking), but contributed to emphasize the emotional content of a situation and could be a powerful mean to call the audience’s attention to the connection between different scenes (for example Eurysaces, who is a simple supporting presence in the first episode of the Ajax, becomes the focus of the final scene). They were also used to amplify the perception of an imminent danger or of horror in the case of a violent crime.
In Eschyle l’Etnéen (n.11) Deforge underlines the presence and the symbolic influence of the topic of the island in Aeschylus’ production. His analysis of the Aetnaeae highlights the contacts of the poet, both in the historical and in the literary dimension, with Sicily, presented as a source of poetic and religious inspiration.
Deforge’s study of the dramatic structure of the Choephori (n. 12) aims to highlight the innovative structure of this drama “d’action et d’intrigue”, in which Aeschylus introduces new features like the recognition scene, the nightmare foreshadowing evil, the vengeance accomplished through a double murder, the denunciation of the dead bodies. He also analyzes the relationship of the two Electra plays of Euripides and Sophocles with the Aeschylean model. Euripides, though largely following Aeschylean suggestions, makes a completely different scenic choice by focusing on Electra’s humiliation, ridiculing the mechanism of the recognition and displacing Aegisthus’ murder to extrascenic space. He also introduces in the plot the intriguing element of Electra’s pregnancy. The Electra of Sophocles is judged by Deforge dramatically weaker than the model, with the exception of the final 120 lines, where, in a very small lapse of time, we find an incredible escalation of violence, that brings us to the accomplishment of the revenge.
In the thirteenth study (Œdipe eschyléen) Deforge draws the picture of the Aeschylean contribution to the transmission of the Œdipus myth, of which the poet offers a re-shaped and re-elaborated version that can be reconstructed through the analysis of the Seven against Thebes.
In essay n. 14 Deforge focuses on the poétique du corps in the Persians, whose peculiarity is given by the fact that, though death is not directly represented, two ‘dead’ characters are on stage: the ghost of Darius and the quasi-dead Xerxes. A feeling of death is pervasively present in this tragedy: the interaction between the evocation of the defeat and a series of contrasting elements (the memory of the glorious past opposed to the anguish of the Chorus) increase the pain of the return of Xerxes. Within this framework, the body of Xerxes, whose dress, previously richly decorated , is now torn and lacerated, plays a primary role. The motif of tearing dresses into pieces is present from the beginning of the tragedy: it is an element of the prophetic dream which marks the fear of Atossa for the future. The emphasis given to the images of laceration creates a deep identification between Xerxes and his wounded army, which is invisible because it has been destroyed far away.
In the fifteenth study, Deforge analyzes the different phases of Io’s history, a complex genealogical and historical myth which can be read as a as a fusion and a synthesis between myths of Near East and Greece. Two Aeschylean plays develop themes that can be traced back to time-old Eastern wisdom: Io’s wanderings are the core of the Suppliants, a tragedy with a great exotic atmosphere, and the Prometheus Bound, where the scenery is a primordial land without boundaries.
In the last article (La Grèce ancienne: héritage et devenir des pensées mythico-symboliques du monde méditerranéen. Le rôle crucial et méconnu d’Eschyle), starting from the researches of Ph. Descola2, Deforge tries to find in the aeschylean tragedies some traces that can cast light on an archaic level of the perception of reality, where the nature is free and uncorrupted by cultural pressures. In the theatre of Aeschylus, the remnants of this ancient world are dreams, forebodings, curses, the power of the dead and the so-called mots concepts (like Ate, Dike, Moira).
In the final section of the book (Une vie avec Eschyle) Deforge remembers his educational and intellectual training. This section is very pleasant to read, and it is pervaded by the author’s great passion for classical studies and the fortunes of ancient texts. The pages where the author narrates private events with great freshness and vividness depict a career lived with dedication, enthusiasm, respect for his teachers and hope for the future.
The book analyzes various aspects of Aeschylean poetry and raises many interesting issues which make it appealing for the reader. Its strongest points of interest are represented by the search for the historical and geographical elements in the text and by the author’s ability in establishing connections between the Greek tradition and the wisdom of the Near East, so spatially close to the Greek world. Deforge casts a brand new light on usually submerged, but very stimulating relationships. Even though not everyone will necessarily agree on every point, Deforge’s suggestions are always well argued and offer a good starting point for scholars willing to broaden their perspectives in the field.
This tenacious effort deserves great appreciation. Aeschylean scholars will be certainly grateful to Bernard Deforge for having collected in one easily accessible volume his lifelong research.
Table of contents
1. Fonctions du mythe chez Eschyle (2001)
2. Le destin de Glaucos ou l’immortalité par les plantes (1983)
3. Eschyle et la légende des Argonautes (1987)
4. Pauvre Eschyle. Réflexions sur un livre d’Ismaïl Kadaré (1988)
5. Eschyle et la terre divine (1988)
6. Un mythe politique babylonien à la source du mythe des Sept (1990)
7. La mort tragique ou tuer n’est pas jouer (1995)
8. Le glaive d’Ajax (1995)
9. Le cadavre en morceaux (1998)
10. Les enfants tragiques (1995)
11. Eschyle l’Etnéen (1996)
12. Le modèle des Choéphores. Contribution à la réflexion sur le trois «Électre» (1997)
13. Œdipe eschyléen (1999)
14. Poétique du corps dans le Perses d’Eschyle. Corps déchiquetés et haillons (2008)
15. La main de Zeus. Polysémie poétique et mémoire mythique (2008)
16.La Grèce ancienne: héritage et devenir des pensées mythico-symboliques du monde méditerranéen. Le rôle crucial et méconnu d’Eschyle (2008)
II. Une vie avec Eschyle
IV. Bibliographie de l’auteur
1. See, e.g. W. Burkert, Greek Tragedy and sacrificial ritual, GRBS 7, 1966, 87-121, but Deforge’s view is influenced by the whole production of W. Burkert about myth and sacrifice.
2. Ph. Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris, 2005.