Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.50

Enrico Medda, La saggezza dell'illusione: studi sul teatro greco.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 487.  ISBN 9788846735799.  €35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Suzanne Saïd​, Columbia University (

Table of Contents

This collection of sixteen previously published papers devoted to Greek theatre by E. Medda is complemented by a general introduction, a copious bibliography, and three indexes of passages, names and topics. As the list of its contents indicates (see link above), it deserves the full attention of scholars interested in stage action, textual criticism, monologue, comic parody and modern reception of Greek theatre.

I would like to focus first on Medda's interest in the importance of stage action as an approach to critical interpretation (in line with the book he wrote with V. Di Benedetto La Tragedia sulla scena. La tragedia greca in quanto spettacolo teatrale, Torino, 1997), which comes to the fore in Chapters I to IX.; secondly on his use of the grammar of dramatic technique in textual criticism (Chapters X and XI); and thirdly on his studies of monologues and soliloquies in Chapters XII to XIV (in line with his first book La Forma monologica. Ricerche su Omero e Sofocle, Pisa, 1983); before concluding with his forays into comic parody (Chapter XV) and modern reception of Greek tragedy (Chapter XVI).

Chapter I demonstrates the interaction between what is seen and what is said in the representation of tragic lament.

Chapter II on Ajax is an excellent illustration of Medda's method. In the first part of Ajax (lines 1–814) the scenic space is defined in the background by the barrack of Ajax, with its interior vividly suggested to the audience's imagination by the two descriptions by Athena and Tecmessa. The extra-scenic space encapsulates the opposition between the army and Ajax: the first side entrance, leading to the Greek camp, is used by Odysseus in the prologue, the chorus in the parodos (according to Medda 29 n. 11), and the messenger (line 719), whereas the second one, which leads to the countryside and the sea, is used only by Ajax at the end of his so called deceptive speech (line 692). In the second part (815–1420) the scenic space is redefined: it is now defined by the 'thickets' (νάπους 892) where Ajax commits suicide and Tecmessa finds his corpse. Accordingly, the meaning of the side-entrances is transformed. One of them is still supposed to lead to the Greek camp and is successively used for Teucer's entrance and Menelaus's, Agamemnon’s and Odysseus' entrances and exits, whereas the other one, which is now supposed to lead to Ajax' barrack, is used by Tecmessa for her exit (989) and re-entrance with Eurysakes (1168-70), and by Teucer for his exit (1184) and re-entrance (1223). The opposition between the side of Ajax and the side of the army is thus maintained until the end: since Odysseus is denied any participation in the funeral, the scenic space remains dominated by Ajax's corpse surrounded by his family and the chorus of his fellow soldiers. Medda's conclusion also takes into account the diegetic space, which coincides with the non-tragic world of the audience, since the far away fatherland of Ajax and the chorus, Salamis, is assimilated to Athens by Tecmessa, Ajax and the Chorus and portrayed as a place of peace and happiness in the first and second stasima.

In Chapter III, Medda demonstrates "the emptiness of revenge" in Sophocles' Electra, a grim play full of reminiscences of and contrasts with the Choephoroi, whose conclusion, according to him, does not necessarily compel a reassessment of Electra's behavior and a questioning of her justice.

Chapter IV is devoted to a convincing comparison between the scenic space and scenic moves of the two Electras and the Choephoroi. In Sophocles' tragedy, Agamemnon's grave has been displaced to the extra-scenic space, but the scenic space is still defined, as in the Choephoroi, by "the palace of the sons of Pelops" now characterised by its "disasters" (line 10) and its sorrows (line 93) and deserted by an heroine who chooses to remain outside it until line 1383, as opposed to her sister Chrysothemis. The appearance on stage of the corpse of Clytemnestra also changes its meaning. In Aeschylus, its exhibition together with the corpse of Aegisthus was an obvious visual parallel to the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra in the Agamemnon, and a validatation of the matricide. With Sophocles, it becomes a trap set against Aegisthus. The conclusion of the play, with the re-entrance into the palace of Orestes, Pylades and Aegisthus and an Electra who is left outside according to Medda (p. 96) excludes an exile, but the future of the heroes does not look bright either, as suggested by the allusion to the future woes of the Pelopidae (1497–8). In his Electra Euripides squarely opposes both Aeschylus and Sophocles: the palace is replaced by the poor house of the virtuous farmer located at the extremities of the country, and the tomb of Agamemnon, expelled from the house and outraged by the new rulers, is also displaced far away. In contrast with Sophocles, Euripides also chooses to conclude his play with the remorse of Electra and her brother and their departure for an exile without return.

In Chapter V on Orestes the scenic space, occupied at the beginning by the bed of Orestes, is again defined by the palace of Agamemnon occupied by Helen and surrounded on both sides by the hostile city, a translation into visible terms of the central theme of the play, the opposition of oikos and polis (p. 112). The side entrances lead further away to the assembly and the tomb of Agamemnon on one side and the harbour of Nauplia and perhaps the tomb of Clytemnestra on the other. If this is the case, which is doubted by Medda, it would posit an interesting opposition between Menelaus and Tyndareus who enter from the side of Clytemnestra's tomb, and Orestes and Pylades who leave the scenic space on the other side to go to Agamemnon's tomb. Many comparisons between the Orestes and other tragedies also help to define its specificity. I quote only one example (pp. 145–7): the departure of Orestes helped by Pylades to the assembly which is not conclusive (they come back on stage from the assembly without any result) is opposed to the conclusions of Euripides' Heracles and Phoenissae and Sophocles' Philoctetes in which Heracles, Oedipus and Philoctetes definitively leave the stage with the help of another character.

Medda devotes two papers to the cast and dramaturgy of the Phoenissae. In Chapter VIII, the replacement of the Theban maiden with a foreign chorus only related to Thebes by its founder, the Phoenician Cadmos, is justly interpreted by Medda as a way of distancing the Phoenissae from Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes: instead of conversing with the characters and sharing their fears, the chorus directly addresses the audience in stasima devoted to the mythical past of the city. In Chapter IX, Medda points out other Euripidean innovations: his introducing Polynices on stage, his separating the fate of Thebes from the destiny of the Labdacidae by inventing the self-sacrifice of Menoeceus, and his substituting an episodic play for a tragedy centred on one character.

Medda also uses the grammar of dramatic technique as a tool to reconstruct the text. This is already obvious in Chapter V (pp. 156–165) devoted to a discussion of Orestes 1347b–1348, attributed to Orestes by the manuscripts or to Electra by Di Benedetto (1965) and West (1987) but also condemned as an interpolation by Willink (1986) and Diggle (1994). Medda concludes with an attribution to Electra supported by the absence of any parallel for a short reply delivered by an unannounced character. In Chapter X the much disputed distribution of the lines among Aegisthus and the leader of the chorus in Ag. 1649–54 is solved by Medda's proposal to give 1649–50 and 1652 to Aegisthus and 1651 and 1653 to the chorus, a solution made possible by a new and well argued interpretation of 1651, εἶα δή, ξίϕος πρόκωπον πᾶς τις εὐτρεπιζέτω "let any one clap first his sword with hilt forward": interpreted as an address to the Argive citizens off stage, this line becomes indeed compatible with a chorus of old men not wearing swords. Chapter XI focuses on the vexed question of interpolations in the text of the Phoenissae. Medda begins (pp. 310–3) with an important philological excursus reminding us that the elimination of a long passage is usually the direct consequence of an implicit belief in the existence of a unitary dramatic action. After an illustration of this trend of modern textual criticism from Morus (1771) to the six most recent editions of the Phoenissae, opposing on the one hand Diggle (1994) and Kovacs (2002), who both expelled more than 400 verses from the 'genuine' text and on the other Amiech (2004) and Craik (1988), who limit the interpolations to 4 or 12 lines, Medda, relying on parallels—especially with the Bacchae—and a close reading of the exodos, convincingly gets rid of all the so-called interpolations with the exception of the inapposite allusion to Oedipus' exile at Colonus (lines 1703–7). In spite of Mastronarde's defense, Medda also wants to eliminate from the play as inappropriate the catalogue of the Argive leaders (1104-1140) given the general obliteration of individual exploits in the narrative of the battle.

The three papers devoted to monologue (XII, XIII and XIV) are also in line with Medda's first book. In Chapter XII Medda, relying on Koenen's Michigan papyrus, demonstrates that lines 83–109 of Cresphontes F 448a Kannicht belong to a monologue delivered by the hero in the prologue. Relying on the parallel between this tragic address to the heart and its parody by Dikaiopolis, he proposes to date the lost Euripidean play not long before 425, suggesting also to pay more attention to the variant of manuscript O at Alcestis 840 because of its echo in Cresphontes. In Chapter XIII he looks at the few speeches delivered by a character on an empty stage, either in the prologue (the prayer of Eteocles in Sept. 68–77, the laments of the heroine in Andr. 91–102, the speech of Electra in Or. 126–135) or in a scenic space left empty by the departure first of the chorus and then of the concierge (the two speeches of Menelaus in Hel.. 386–434 and 483–514), and suggests that Menelaus' second speech has at least one precedent in Euripides' Cresphontes. In Chapter XIV he proposes a typology of Aristophanes' soliloquies, contrasting the parodies of tragedy (the asides of the Paphlagonian in Eq. 1229–52, the pathetic outbursts of Lamachos in Ach. 1204–5, 1208, 1212, the lament of the sycophant in Plut. 850–3, the complaint of Euripides' relative in Thesm. 765–784) with the soliloquies of Strepsiades (Nu. 1131–45) and Blepsidemus (Plut. 335–342) who both think aloud, before concluding with the juxtaposition in the Plutus of the god's soliloquy, which combines various tragic motives, and Chremylus' soliloquy cast in a purely comic style.

Chapter XV ('Aristophanes and the reversal of the hymn: the power of Plutus in Plut. 124-221') supplements Medda's contribution to a better understanding of Aristophanic parody: a typical aretalogy is comically distorted by the character of its addressee, a god who looks like a miserable beggar.

The last paper (XVI) is an interesting foray into the modern reception of Greek tragedy and the problematic and fruitful relation of Pasolini to Aeschylus. It parallels the Aeschylean Oresteia, as an attempt to integrate into the new democratic state the archaic elements symbolised by the Erinyes, and Pasolini's African Oresteia where the irrational and the primitive are also reclaimed and transformed.

To conclude, there is much to learn from these papers, even if one may regret the absence of any rewriting which could have suppressed some repetitions, e.g. Chapters V, 145–166 and VI, 193–5 comparing Orestes with Heracles and Phoenissae; Chapters VIII and IX, 246–252 on the foreign chorus of the Phoenissae; Chapters XII, 335–346 and XIII. 360–5 on the prologue of Cresphontes.

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