The connections between ritual and tragedy are notoriously complex, and have been the subject of considerable contention for well over a hundred years. Most simply, Greek tragedy is full of the representations of rituals: marriage, prayer, prophecy, purification, supplication, initiation, funeral. One influential theory posits that tragedy, rather than being at heart a dramatized narration, itself derives from pre-literate ritual, and originated in the worship of Dionysus. A complementary formalist position holds that, since all rituals involve enactment and performance, ritual is therefore a kind of theater.
In her reading of the plays of Sophocles, Adriana Brook explores the analogy between ritual and dramatic narrative. This analogy is on the one hand quite straightforward, as both ritual and narrative entail an expected progression, a muthos, “story” or “plot,” with beginning, middle and end. More abstractly, Brook proposes that both ritual and narrative bring their participants to a new status and to membership in a new community, which may be a marriage, an alliance, a family, the favorites of a god, the ranks of the dead, or the citizen audience of Athenian tragedy.
Rituals are meant to be highly predictable. Yet onstage rituals often do not proceed as planned. Brook suggests that rituals in the plays of Sophocles are frequently mis-performed. She identifies three types of “ritual mistakes”: ritual conflation (e.g. a wedding that is also a funeral), ritual repetition (e.g. endless mourning with undiminished grief), and ritual status (e.g. a living man attempting to direct his own funeral). This schematic hinges on the idea of audience expectation. For a spectator in the theater of Dionysus, any ritual action undertaken onstage would unfurl against a backdrop of ideas about how that ritual should begin, progress, and conclude. A deviation from this expected pattern would cause the spectator to sit up and take notice.
For her understanding of ritual Brook appeals to two anthropologists: Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. Van Gennep suggests that all rituals can be described by a tripartite progression that he calls the rite of passage: separation, a liminal phase “betwixt and between,” and reintegration. Turner focuses on the liminal phase and proposes instead a bipartite model for ritual, suggesting that human social life alternates between periods of structure and periods of undifferentiated communitas. Van Gennep wrote in 1909, and Turner in 1967; neither was a classicist. Brook in a footnote explains that she will not attempt any comprehensive description of modern work on theories of ritual, and suggests some bibliography. One wishes, however, that she had taken some time in the body of the introduction to discuss, however briefly, more recent thinking, e.g., the contributions of Catherine Bell on religion and ritual, of Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood on tragedy and ritual in Athens, or of Barbara Kowalzig on ritual performance.
Chapter 1 develops a concept of normative rituals, against which the ritual mistakes that Brook identifies can be seen more clearly. Brook considers examples of funeral, marriage, sacrifice, supplication, oaths, purification, initiation, and prophecy in the extant plays. Her discussion is necessarily cursory. Because of the analogy between ritual and narrative, when any of these onstage rituals go awry, the audience anticipates that the drama will go awry in a parallel way. Ritual mistakes thus shape an audience’s expectation of both plot progression and character development, as Brook demonstrates through concise analysis of Antigone, Trachiniae, and Oedipus Tyrannus.
The next four chapters, the bulk of the book, each examine one play in detail to demonstrate how ritual shapes plot and character. Chapter 2 analyses Ajax as a series of three ritual scenes: Ajax’s slaughter of the herds, figured as a perverted sacrifice where Ajax is both officiant and victim; Ajax’s suicide, which is at the same time a purification; and finally Ajax’s death, where supplication and curse rituals are conflated in the debate over the hero’s burial. The manifold confusions of ritual in the play, Brook contends, highlight the contradictions inherent in Ajax’s character. The play as a whole may also be read as a rite of passage according to the theory of van Gennep: Ajax separates himself from the Greek army through his brutal action, passes through the liminal phase of death, and then as a corpse is reintegrated into his community with a new heroic cult status.
Chapter 3 discusses repetitive ritual actions in Electra. For the house of Atreus, mistakes and corruptions in ritual performance create an endless need for further rituals, which are again perverted, so that no return to structure is ever possible. Clytemnestra perpetuates the crime of Agamemnon’s murder by desecrating his body after death, and by holding monthly celebrations with dance and song to commemorate the day of his murder. As a result, the members of the family remain trapped in a liminal phase: Agamemnon is never piously integrated into the community of the dead, and Electra is never able to complete her rites of mourning and be re-integrated into the community of the living. Brook suggests that ritual repetition also generates expectations about the future beyond the end of the play: the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus will demand new deaths, new death rituals.
In Chapter 4, in many ways the strongest of the book, Brook turns to Philoctetes. Here for the first time she elucidates the dramatic world of the play by detailed reference to actual ritual practices in fifth-century Greece. The juxtaposition of historical evidence and dramatic narrative is innovative, and intriguing. Neoptolemus, as a youth, and Philoctetes, as an exile, lack the status necessary to participate in rituals such as supplication and the swearing of oaths. The play’s setting on Lemnos means that the characters act in social and geographic isolation, apart from gods and men. Sophocles thus stages an “extended thought experiment” about a “microsociety” where two men make their own ritual rules (p. 109). Brook thoughtfully adduces evidence about the ephebeia, the ephebic oath, deme and phratry admission, and the festival of the Apatouria to prove Neoptolemus’s problematic status as a ritual participant in the play. Parallel discussion of fifth-century legal and ritual practices for exiles would have shed welcome light on how an audience might perceive Philoctetes.
Chapter 5 examines Oedipus at Colonus from a broad perspective, considering how the play incorporates all three of the ritual mistakes identified by Brook. The play stages a series of five supplication scenes as Oedipus attempts to win acceptance from the Eumenides. But Oedipus cannot be integrated into this chthonic community while he still occupies a medial position between two cities, Thebes and Athens: he is held at the threshold until he has been accepted by his new polis. After the example set by the previous chapter, I would have liked to know more about the rights of metics, exiles, and foreigners under Attic law, especially because this is one of our few tragedies with such explicit ties to Athens.
In her conclusion Brook considers the issue of “closure.” Further clarification of this vexed term would have been appreciated. She gestures toward “straightforward” or “definitive” closure several times in the book (e.g. p. 52, p. 165) and links this to an idea of “catharsis” (p. 72) and to a “satisfying and realistic solution” to the problems of the drama (p. 140). But Greek tragedy is a genre where closure is notoriously difficult to define. Brook’s footnote on “standard works” of literary closure mentions Kermode (1967) and Smith (1968), but she acknowledges that there is not much work on closure that is specific to Sophocles. Given this bibliographical lacuna, Brook might have taken the opportunity to sketch out her own position more fully.
Brook’s close-readings are careful and thorough, and I came away with a new appreciation of many details of the plays under discussion. The individual chapters could profitably be assigned as reading for undergraduate or graduate classes on Sophocles. However, I have two overarching reservations about Brook’s approach. The first, already mentioned above, is her reliance on scholarly paradigms for ritual that are fifty to one hundred years old. The second is her inattention to any dimension of Sophocles’ plays other than narrative and plot construction. For instance, throughout the book there is very little sustained discussion of choral odes, which I consider a lost opportunity. Plays and rituals both have muthos, but they also both rely on compelling performance for their efficacy. Music and dance are central to many rituals, as well as to tragedy, and to ignore the role of the Chorus is to miss much of what would make these rituals come alive for the audience.