Cecelia Luschnig’s Three Other Theban Plays, like the rest of the Hackett Greek and Roman Drama series, is a book clearly intended to appeal to students. The glossy cover features a black-and-white photograph of heavily robed, exotic-looking women carrying huge clay jars on their heads; the photograph was taken, so the back cover tells us, in Cairo circa 1860. The choice is provocative—almost as good as Elvis’ mugshot on the cover of Paul Woodruff’s translation of the Bacchae in the same series —and, like much of the material supporting the three smooth and lucid translations in this volume, is designed to nudge students to ask good questions.
Three Other Theban Plays offers new translations of Seven Against Thebes and Suppliants, while reprinting Luschnig’s 2011 Hackett translation of Phoenician Women.1 The book is written primarily for university (or possibly high school) students who have no prior knowledge of Greek history, theatre, or mythology. It offers generous help with these topics throughout and is sprinkled with brief but rich observations about connections among the three plays. It seems that book’s main objective is to create a reading environment in which students are most likely to make discoveries on their own, rather than relying solely on professors to guide them to a more complete understanding of the plays. In this, it is very successful.
Luschnig’s edition also anticipates its own use in a performance context, though this is clearly secondary to its intended use in the classroom. The footnotes offer advice about untranslatable “tragic noises,” draw attention to staging choices available to the director (e.g. do Eteocles and Polyneices obey Jocasta’s command to look at each other at Phoen. 454–58?, p.131 n.70), and, once, suggest an alternative translation better suited to a modern production. The two appendices discussing the division of roles and listing the succession of scenes in each play will be equally helpful to students and directors.
As stated in the translator’s note, Luschnig’s goal is to offer translations that are both readable and speakable and in this she has succeeded admirably. The Classics professor will feel she is offering her students a translation that captures the nuances of the original Aeschylus or Euripides (though not a literal translation appropriate for students who are also reading the plays in Greek) and the stage director will feel confident that these plays ‘work’ for an audience in the 21st century. Potentially awkward lines are translated with the right compromise between accuracy and elegance (e.g. Sept. 246, μή νυν ἀκούουσ᾽ ἐμφανῶς ἄκου᾽ ἄγαν, is translated, “You hear it, but try not to hear it so noticeably.”). To my ear, Luschnig’s translation occasionally errs in the direction of the colloquial (for example, ξυνῆκ(α) at Phoen. 744 is translated, “I get it” rather than, “I understand,” and pauses and exclamations are sometimes translated with modern interjections like “uh” and “whoa”). But, on the whole, Luschnig’s translations achieve an admirable balance between accessibility and faithfulness to the Greek. Both the tragedy expert and the novice will enjoy reading these translations; the stage actor will enjoy speaking these lines.
The Hackett Greek and Roman Drama series offers classroom instructors an alternative to the widely-used and comparably priced Greek tragedy translations published by the University of Chicago Press. By comparison with the Chicago versions of Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, and Phoenician Women (found in separate volumes and translated by David Grene, Frank William Jones, and Elizabeth Wyckoff, respectively), Luschnig’s edition offers a more extensive introduction and more substantial student support throughout the translations themselves (the Chicago endnotes cover only issues of textual criticism). Though recently updated since their original publication in the 1940s and 50s, the Chicago translations also feel, as a rule, more archaic and stilted than Luschnig’s more approachable translations. Compare, for example, Phoen. 700–2 (selected at random). The Greek reads,
καὶ μὴν ἐγὼ σ᾽ ἔχρῃζον εἰσιδεῖν, Κρέον·
πολλῶν γὰρ ηὗρον ἐνδεεῖς διαλλαγάς
ὡς ἐς λόγους συνῆψα Πολυνείκει μολών.
Good, I am eager to see you too, Creon.
I found the truce utterly useless when
I entered into discussion with Polyneices.
While Wyckoff’s Chicago translation reads,
Creon, be sure I wished to see you too.
I found the terms of peace from Polynices,
when we discussed them, far from what we need.
Although Luschnig does not translate in iambic metre as Wyckoff does (note: not all Chicago translations share this characteristic), her translation is easier to read, without sacrificing formality or sense.
It should be noted, however, that Hackett’s drama series does not yet offer translations of all the Greek tragedies and is haphazardly organized. Sometimes a volume contains only one play, and when several plays are presented together they may be grouped by author or, as here, by theme. By contrast, the Chicago editions offer all of the tragedies grouped by author. Aeschylus and Sophocles appear in two volumes each, Euripides in five, making it easier to plan a syllabus if the instructor already knows what plays she wants to include in the curriculum.
Luschnig’s three translations are generously supported by footnotes, which both repeat and expand on elements of the introduction and greatly increase the utility of this volume for all students, and particularly those who may be speed-reading tomorrow’s assignment at 2am. In addition to helping students with details of myth and geography, the notes point out running motifs in the plays, remind students of technical details (e.g. what is a parodos?), contextualize content (mostly through citations from Homer and other tragedies), point out important metrical changes, explain suspected interpolations, and occasionally offer brief historical context. The book is somewhat lacking in this last category. For example, not to mention the Peloponnesian War when discussing criticism of Sparta in the Suppliants (p. 61, n. 21) seems an oversight. It is also unfortunate that the notes are not always evenly distributed. Many juicy passages receive no comment at all, which would be quite usual in a volume like this one but for the fact that some passages receive detailed analysis (for instance, the second stasimon of Phoenician Women).
Both the introduction and the footnotes occasionally cite secondary scholarship. While potentially helpful, this seems to be the one feature of the book that is not conceived with the student reader in mind. These notes often point to minute details of interpretation that are unlikely to be important to the novice reader (e.g. p. xxviii, n. 13 where Luschnig cites Storey on the possibility that Adrastus and the chorus of boys might have come onstage separately at the beginning of Suppliants). These specific references are also unevenly distributed throughout the book. Some sections are heavily cited, while others go without secondary citation for pages at a time. Given the target audience, it might have been more effective to leave these references out and, instead, revise the select bibliography at the end of the book—currently an alphabetized list—into sections organized by topic to serve as a starting point for students writing term papers (e.g. Athens and Thebes, performance and staging, female characters etc.). Not all sources would be easy to categorize in this way, but this set-up would better serve the student reader.
Aside from the glossary of Greek theatrical terminology, the only section of the book I have not yet addressed is the two-part introduction. Part I is geared toward the complete novice, covering basic details on the City Dionysia, the three main Attic playwrights, the mythical subject matter of tragedy with brief remarks about their relationship to historical Athens, and theatrical conventions of the fifth century. Some of the sections are rather eclectically organized (e.g. Section I.5.4, “Actors, Masks, Roles, and Messenger Speeches”) but, on the whole, this part of the introduction does exactly what it should, and does so clearly, concisely, and often in a gently humorous tone that will appeal to most students.
Part II of the introduction, which focuses on the three Theban plays in greater depth, is less successful. It repeats from Part I information about the myths of tragic Thebes without adding much new analysis. It also offers rather uneven coverage of a few topics relating to the interpretation of the three plays without making it clear why these and not other topics have been chosen. The comparison of the treatment of the Oedipus myth in these plays (though, naturally, with almost nothing to say about Suppliants) and the discussion of all three dramas as plays about war is justifiable and useful, but Luschnig’s in-depth argument as to why Jocasta holds together the plot of Phoenician Women seems out of place, particularly without corresponding analysis of the other two plays. This section represents a lost opportunity for Luschnig to expand further on her comment in the translator’s note that the convenience of having these three plays in the same volume will facilitate “comparisons of the tragedians’ styles and world views” (lix). The book would have benefitted from more discussion of all three plays together.
While there are certainly small adjustments that could be made to improve this volume, it is a useful addition to Hackett’s offerings in Greek and Roman Drama. Three Other Theban Plays offers a reliable, thorough resource to its primary audience of students. Undergraduates are likely to find these translations more accessible than those in the similarly targeted University of Chicago Greek tragedy translations and will certainly find this edition, as a whole, more supportive of their efforts to contextualize and interpret these plays.
1. Euripides: Electra; Phoenician Women; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis. Translated, with notes by Cecelia Eaton Luschnig and Paul Woodruff; Introduction by Cecelia Eaton Luschnig. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2011. The translation is a word-for-word reprinting with minuscule modifications to the notes.