BMCR 1994.02.18

1994.02.18, McAuslan and Walcot (eds.), Greek Tragedy

Greece and Rome Studies, Volume II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Pp. 225. $49.95.

Northrop Frye once observed that we can’t lose in the humanities: a good piece of work is a contribution to knowledge, while a poor one becomes a document in the history of taste. A retrospective volume of essays will inevitably enshrine some of each, but the present collection, which includes seventeen articles published in Greece and Rome between 1972 and 1989, is in fact generous with the former. A complete list of contents appears above. Texts are essentially unaltered from their original appearances, but authors could update their contributions with notes and comments, which they have generally done with good sense and admirable restraint. Though it would be impertinent to pass judgment on essays that have already run the gauntlet of peer review and the editors’ own selection process, the collection as a whole merits comment.

In introducing his challenging reinterpretation of theodicy in the Oresteia, David Cohen observes that in their general assessment of the trilogy “most interpretations are, with some variation and shading, cut from the same cloth.” The same could be said of this volume. Consider: of the seventeen articles, nine deal with imagery, theme, and that sort of thing in single plays. One treats the dramatic structure of two plays together. Cohen himself deals with the Oresteia play by play. Few authors get beyond particulars. Even Michael Silk, for example, constructs his chosen topic, “Heracles and Greek Tragedy,” so narrowly that he can write seriously about just two plays ( Trachiniae and Heracles), with but passing reference to Alcestis and Philoctetes and bare acknowledgement of testimonia and fragments recording Heracles’ appearance in lost tragedies. Nobody, in fact, discusses any dramatists except Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. “Greek Tragedy” thus means not just (as so often) “Fifth-Century Athenian Tragedy” but (as even more often) “Selected Fifth-Century Tragedies by the Big Three.” The canon is alive and well.

So is the text-based approach to it. With only one exception—more on that in a minute—none of these articles engages seriously with the theoretical issues that have thrust Athenian tragedy into the avant-garde of Hellenic studies. Some were of course written before the revolution. P. E. Easterling on character in Aeschylus (1973) and Sophocles (1977) and W. G. Arnott on “Euripides and the Unexpected” (1973) themselves contributed to the current ferment. Yet other, more recent pieces remain surprisingly untouched by the new state of affairs. For most of these authors, tragedy = text, and while that text is certainly known to be the product of a culture, a genre, and an occasion, meaningful interpretation does not seem to require consideration of the actual presentation (i.e. performance) of that text to the audience, the social context of that presentation (i.e. the festival), and the broader intellectual and literary developments that shaped its creation and reception. Discussion can thus be simultaneously thick and thin. All these scholars know Greek well. How well, we start to wonder, do they know literature?

The one clear exception—and the editors’ one sop, albeit a potent one, to modernity—is Simon Goldhill’s “Reading Performance Criticism.” This is, as the title suggests, a polemical essay, made even more polemic here by a new “bibliographical note” that is an unashamedly tendentious review of performance criticism and its alternatives. I do not blame G. for the polemic: blow your horn loud enough and others may start whistling the tune. I do blame the editors, however, for printing this essay alone. It was written, as G. duly notes, in response to David Wiles’ “Reading Greek Performance” (1987). Why privilege the reply by ignoring the provocation? The Wiles/Goldhill exchange was valuable. Diligent readers, treated here to only one-half their conversation, will have to look up the missing half anyway. The editors could have saved us that trouble and, in the process, offered a more varied and more challenging collection. But I should not complain too much. With the twentieth century now almost over, we at least have proof that Greece and Rome has moved firmly out of the nineteenth.