Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.49

Ingo Gildenhard, Martin Revermann (ed.), Beyond the Fifth Century: Interactions with Greek Tragedy from the Fourth Century BCE to the Middle Ages.   Berlin; New York:  De Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. viii, 441.  ISBN 9783110223774.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Bob Cowan, The University of Sydney (

Table of Contents

Tragedy has always enjoyed a particularly prominent place in reception studies. This in part reflects the enduring role which the genre and the idea of the genre have continued to play in the shifting scenery of Western (and non- Western) culture. In part, it reflects the wider scope which re-performance and restaging give to the sheer quantity of receptions of drama, in contrast to that of genres whose performance contexts have disappeared inside books. As a result, much of the focus on the reception of tragedy has been on its re-performance in the last two or three hundred years, and even exploration of its creative reception rarely extends more than a century or two earlier. The agenda of this ambitious volume is to showcase aspects of tragedy's reception from the immediate aftermath of its fifth-century heyday to the mediaeval period. The chronological range is therefore immense, and that of the methodological approaches no narrower. Tragedy is treated as everything from a recognizably "literary" genre which docti poetae such as Ovid and Seneca can exploit for recognizably "literary" ends, to a cultural practice whose contextual association with the civic life of Hellenistic poleis has little relationship with its content. Many of the chapters span several bands of this spectrum, while taking in also the meanings which the idea of tragedy had over the best part of two millennia. Topics include ancient Vitae, vase-paintings, Republican tragedy, Lucian, Byzantine manuscripts, and Italian vernacular passion plays. The success of the contributions is uneven, but all make a substantial contribution.

The editors' "Introduction" is splendid by any standards, let alone those of a notoriously difficult genre. They succeed in providing a concise but sophisticated survey of the main approaches to the reception of tragedy and their limitations, before defining and justifying the agenda of their own volume within it. As such, this will serve as important reading for students and scholars of reception, introducing the former to the field and provoking the latter to reflect on how their approaches might be adjusted and nuanced. Even the survey of the volume's contents provides both a narrative and a commentary on the changing modes and contexts of reception which transcend mere paraphrase.

The first of the four sections, "Getting the Show on the Road", contains three chapters discussing very different aspects of tragic reception in the fourth-century and Hellenistic Greek world. Johanna Hanink's "The classical tragedians, from Athenian idols to Wandering Poets" builds successfully on the methodology familiar from Graziosi and Haubold's Inventing Homer to show how the depiction of the Attic tragedians in the ancient Vitae, particularly their associations with places outside Athens, such as Aeschylus' with Sicily and Euripides' with Macedon, both reflect and form part of their early and ongoing reception. Revermann's chapter, "Situating the gaze of the recipient(s): theatre-related vase paintings and their contexts of reception", is a cutting-edge contribution to the study of vases from Megale Hellas featuring tragic iconography. He combines methodological sophistication, considering the role of the recipients' gaze in understanding how the images might be received as well as the way in which the paintings re-enact a kind of performance, especially in a sympotic context, with detailed case-studies. The title of Paola Ceccarelli's chapter on "Changing contexts: tragedy in the civic and cultural life of Hellenistic city-states" is potentially misleading, since its focus is the narrower question of when and where the award of honorific decrees was made at tragic festivals (or not as the case may be) in various poleis. Ceccarelli demonstrates a formidable command of a wide range of primarily epigraphic evidence across the Hellenistic world. Her conclusions are necessarily somewhat tentative and provisional. However, as an exemplar of how such evidence can be interpreted and as a repository of that evidence, Ceccarelli's chapter is an extremely useful one.

"From Greece to Rome" begins with Gildenhard's contribution, "Buskins & SPQR: Roman receptions of Greek tragedy", which combines a state-of-the-question survey of this exciting field while making important and innovative contributions both to broader issues and individual plays. His overarching argument is a reaction against the prevailing tendency to emphasize the political dimension of Republican tragedy in its contemporary context. The rebuttal of this approach's worst excesses, seeing in every tragic Trojan a proto-Roman, is salutary and well- handled, though Gildenhard perhaps swings too far to the other extreme, and his tabulated synkrisis of the Fifth- century Athenian and Mid-republican Roman contexts of tragic performance is rather tendentious (165). To claim that Athenian "staged material" is "always of (implicit) thematic relevance for the political culture of democratic Athens" while at Rome it is "foreign subject matter domesticated via translation and adaptation" tends towards circularity, quite apart from the question as to whether Thrace, Troy, even Thebes were any less foreign to an Athenian than to a Roman whose city had been steeped in Greek culture for centuries. Nevertheless, Gildenhard's is a skilful and provocative argument, and one of which all future scholars of Republican tragedy, especially its political dimension (if any!) will have to take account.

It is perhaps surprising that, in a volume of such broad scope, two chapters should be devoted to Ovid and none to any other non-tragic Roman author. Alison Keith's "Dionysiac theme and dramatic allusion in Ovid's Metamorphoses4" has the promising notion of extending the analysis of tragic imagery, which Hardie and others have detected in the Theban sequence of Met. 3 and the later Athamas and Cadmus episodes of book 4, to the inset narratives of the Minyeides. Unfortunately the results are disappointing by this excellent scholar's high standards. There are many telling insights, but there is too vague a sense of the relationship between the Theban, the Dionysiac, and the tragic which, while undeniably overlapping, are not identical categories. Moreover it is the non-tragic Dionysiac which is most often to the fore and, though this is valid in itself, it feels out of place within the present volume. Several of the connections are also rather strained, notably the alleged connection between Pyramus and Thisbe's superlative beauty and Dionysus' (201). Much more successful is Jennifer Ingleheart's "'I'm a celebrity, get me out of here': the reception of Euripides' Iphigenia among the Taurians in Ovid's exile poetry", tracing sophisticated (if not always convincing) engagements with that play in Ovid's two extended narrations of the myth (Tr. 4.4, Pont. 3.2). Crucially, Ingleheart draws the strands of her argument together and reflects on its wider implications for the exile poetry, the sort of conclusion which several of the chapters lack.

There follow two chapters on Senecan tragedy, sharing a new section, "The Roman Empire" with the odd bedfellow Lucian. Seneca's inclusion in such a volume needs no justification, though it is striking that neither chapter focuses particularly on his plays as "interactions with Greek tragedy". Annette M. Baertschi's "Drama and epic narrative: the test case of messenger speech in Seneca's Agamemnon" does argue for strong similarities between the peculiarities of Eurybates' ῥῆσις ἀγγελική and that in Aeschylus' Persai, particularly in their shared so-called "hyper- epic" narrative features. The chapter contains several perceptive intertextual and other observations but little overall sense of these "hyper-epic" features' significance. There is a clearer and more forceful argument (though even less interaction with Greek tragedy) in Alessandra Zanobi's chapter, "Seneca and Pantomime", which convincingly argues that certain features from the latter genre can account for what otherwise appear oddities in Senecan dramaturgy. Zanobi treads a fine line between explaining and apologizing for Seneca, and the use of such terms as "charitable" (269) and "critical benevolence" (277) teeter towards the old cliché of a flawed writer for whom generous allowance must be made. Yet the majority of the chapter makes a strong case that pantomimic influence does not merely account for such formal features as fluid, episodic structure and "running commentaries" but contributes to Seneca's thematic aims. This is an illuminating perspective on Senecan tragedy and one which is likely to be influential on future research.

Thomas Schmitz's "A sophist's drama: Lucian and classical tragedy", though grouped with the Senecan chapters, looks forward more towards the rather different world of late Antiquity in the Greek East. Schmitz offers more of a survey than a new or focused perspective on his topic, even to the point of providing more background on Lucian and on the Second Sophistic as a whole than most readers will probably require. Yet it is a splendid survey, combining numerous close readings with a lucid overview of the distinctive cultural landscape of the period, and especially its ambivalent relationship with the Classical past which tragedy partly emblematized.

The final section moves into Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Byzantium. Timothy Barnes' "Christians and the Theater" nuances the usual picture of that relationship by stressing the continuities in theatrical performance and the fact that much Christian writing for and against the theatre is referring to the dominant genres of mime and pantomime rather than tragedy. In "The tragedy of the middle ages", Carol Symes produces a wonderfully polemical revision of the traditional narrative of the decline of tragedy over the Mediaeval period. Her attack is two-pronged. She stresses how tragedy began to lose touch with its original performance context as early as the fifth-century BCE itself and how many of the elements of decline usually blamed on the middle ages can be detected much earlier. The flip-side is that many of these elements need not be considered as elements of decline in a Darwinian grand narrative, but rather engagements with tragedy which are changed but no less valid or less historically contingent than our own. At times Symes seems to over-simplify and even caricature the communis opinio against which she is so vigorously reacting: even her own tendentious paraphrase of Garland's Surviving Greek Tragedy (336) does not really assert, as she proceeds to claim, that "Medieval people alone lack 'the expertise or the staying power to read a whole play'" (337, my emphasis). Equally provocative and revisionist is Andrew White's "Adventures in recording technology: the drama-as-performance in the Greek east", which makes sophisticated arguments for the roles of musical notation, minuscule manuscripts and marginal scholia in the transformation of tragedy as performance into tragedy as text in Byzantium. Occasionally White's polemic feels overstated, in particular his foregrounding of music, which swings too far from the previous neglect of this aspect of tragedy. To write that "music was the main attraction at the Dionysia" is certainly an exaggeration, and neglects the wider semantic range of the Greek μουσική; moreover, by stressing the influence of tragic music on later developments, White neglects the significance of lyric, especially the dithyrambs and nomes of the "New Music". Nevertheless, for its innovative perspective and methodological sophistication, White's chapter remains essential reading.

The best is left till last. Domenico Pietropaolo's "Whipping Jesus devoutly: the dramaturgy of catharsis and the Christian idea of tragic form" is a quite outstanding discussion ranging from Dante's Inferno through Mediaeval Christian engagements with the very notion of tragedy and especially Aristotelian catharsis to an astonishing analysis of two astonishing texts, Passion plays in which enactments of sections of the Passion were integrated into church services. The methodological reflections on the relationship of performance and text, especially paratextual features such as stage directions, would be of interest and use to anyone working on drama of any period, and their application to the Devotione de Zobiadi sancto and Devotione de Venerdi sancto is exemplary.

Typos and errors are few and innocuous, but note that Carcinus is fourth-century not Hellenistic (7n.28, correct at 83), and Telephus was wounded defending Mysia not Troy (73).

This is a splendidly conceived volume, whose contents are always stimulating and in several cases attain the high standard which the editors' introduction sets for them. If the topics it covers are not unfamiliar or revolutionary in themselves, nevertheless the approaches to them often are, as is the very act of collecting them within a single themed volume and thus conceptualizing them as interrelated aspects of the reception of tragedy.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 18:30:24, Tuesday, 22 November 2011