BMCR 1995.07.04

1995.07.04, Croally, Euripidean Polemic

, Euripidean polemic : the Trojan women and the function of tragedy. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xii, 315 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521464901 $59.95.

“This is the end of civilization as we have known it.” These words ( CR 41 [1991] 301) were provoked, not by some cataclysmic social or political upheaval, but by the appearance from Oxford of an OCT with a preface in English. As if in confirmation of Martin West’s plangent jeremiad, Cambridge have now published a book that contains the sentence, “Who should they believe?” And yet the book, N. T. Croally’s Euripidean Polemic, is concerned with the end of civilization as the Trojans (and, perhaps, the fifth-century Athenians) had known it. And it is a particularly intelligent and stimulating book, so that the solecism (p. 161; to be fair, this is not at all representative of the way Croally writes) may be intended as a subtle reminder that a civilization does not flourish by remaining exactly as we have known it. Indeed, this book succeeds, to the extent that it does succeed, precisely through the application to Euripides’Troades of approaches that were not known to classicists of twenty or thirty years ago. Euripidean Polemic originated as a Cambridge doctoral thesis. It shows on every page the influence of the work of scholars like Loraux, Vernant and Zeitlin, but unlike many studies that share this pedigree, it is lucidly written and free of irritating jargon. Indeed, it can be safely recommended to those classicists who are somehow uneasily aware that naive positivism has died, but who are too embarrassed to ask what has taken its place.

“My subject,” Croally begins, with a reminiscence of Wilfred Owen, “is Euripidean tragedy and how, in the cultural and dramatic context of war, it performs its didactic function.” In his introduction Croally explains clearly and concisely what he means by this and how he intends to go about demonstrating it. For Croally, Attic tragedy, as civic discourse, is inherently didactic, its didactic function taking the form of the relentless “questioning of received wisdom” (11, 16). Such questioning (12) “can be achieved most potently when the dramatic context is that of war and its aftermath,” and for this reason (16) Croally regards “Troades of extant tragedies as perhaps the most extreme self-examination produced by Athens.”

Chapter 1, “Teaching, Ideology and War,” sets out, again, clearly and intelligibly, the theoretical basis for the reading of Troades that constitutes the remainder of the book. Here Croally seeks to establish that it is indeed the function of tragedy to teach, and that tragedy teaches by questioning ideology, which is defined as (44) “the authoritative self-definition of the Athenian citizen.” This questioning takes the form of representing the “other” against which the “self” is constructed. Ideology is most severely put to the test by war, which, because of its fundamentally agonistic nature, intensifies those polarities that are the basis of self-definition. Finally, tragedy, especially tragedy that is under the influence of the eristic practices of the sophists, is, like war, itself agonistic in character. Thus, tragedies (like Troades) that take war as their subject are particularly polemical in exercising their didactic function.

The power and subtlety of Croally’s reading of Troades in Chapters 2-4 are quite remarkable. Chapter 2 examines Euripides’ examination of the polarities (man/woman, free/slave, Greek/barbarian, friend/enemy) along which Athenian ideology is constructed. Croally shows brilliantly and conclusively that Euripides’ play subverts and undermines each of these polarities in turn. Of particular note is the success with which Croally illuminates the way in which these polarities are inextricably interrelated within the terms of Athenian ideology (e.g. barbarians are represented as both servile and effeminate) and the way in which, under the probing scrutiny of war and of Euripidean dramatization of war, these polarities can be seen to lose their power to clarify and define. And in Chapter 3, “The Agon,” scrutiny is itself scrutinized, and we are shown how the very conflicts that supposedly define and validate the opposing terms of these polarities—on the one hand war, on the other hand the agonistic debate which is a specialty of tragedy, and of Euripidean tragedy in particular—are problematic and inconclusive. One might single out for particular praise the penetrating comments (159) on the correspondence between the questionable outcomes of the Trojan War and of the agon between Helen and Hecuba, or (126) the provocative series of questions raised by Cassandra’s paradoxical affirmation that the Greeks were not in fact the victors in the war. With this latter we may compare the bouleversement that Euripides effects (see p. 222) when he has Hecuba question the anthropomorphic character of the gods in a play which had opened with a conversation between Athena and Poseidon, or when the hero of Hercules Furens, the product of an adulterous union between Zeus and Alcmene, denies that the gods are subject to illicit passions. In fact, Croally intends his reading of Troades to serve as a model for the reading of other tragedies (12, 16), and the value of his book will be found to reside as much in the light it sheds on other (particularly Euripidean) plays as on its interpretation of Troades.

Chapter 4, “Space and Time,” is the longest in the book. In it Croally first establishes the importance of spatial definition for the construction of Athenian ideology (city walls keep out and help to define the “other,” women are confined indoors, etc.) and then shows how Euripides himself constructs a tragic space that scrutinizes and subverts the neat spatial categories that ideology imposes. In general, by representing the “other” on the tragic stage, which is itself located at the very center of the polis, tragedy puts ideology at risk. And specifically, and most radically, by his depiction of the effects of war in Troades, Euripides dramatizes the dissolution of conventional spatial determinations. For example (192-93), the very walls of Troy, which formerly defined the existence of the city, before they are utterly obliterated are used as the “place from which to throw Astyanax, the last hope for Troy’s continuation.” This leads us to a consideration of time: the past, present and (lack of) future of Troy, as well as the time of Euripides and his audience. Croally argues that Euripides seeks to break the dramatic illusion by the inclusion of anachronistic reference and by questioning the generic integrity of tragedy itself. In this way (Chapter 5, “As if War had Given a Lecture”), Euripides questions the didactic function of tragedy, which function was itself a part of Athenian ideology. Troades can thus be summed up (257) in the two words that Thucydides uses when he describes war as a biaios didaskalos (3. 82. 2).

Euripides, then, has written a play that probes and questions. Croally’s stimulating book does the same. It would be negligent of the reviewer if he did not, in turn, question and probe. For there are, after all, elements of this probing book that are questionable. Croally’s standard of accuracy, both in making assertions and in proofreading, is high, and there are only occasional minor slips. 1 But there are several places where, I think, one is entitled to challenge Croally’s argument. The most problematic section of Croally’s discussion is his treatment, in Chapter 4, of the question of time. The difficulty is that he has not established, as he has done in the case of space, that a concern with temporal definition is integral to ideology. For Croally, one of the ways in which Troades questions ideology is by representing (221) “a blurring of differences between past, present and future.” But he has not shown that this blurring is inconsistent with ideology. On the contrary, Nicole Loraux ( The Invention of Athens [Cambridge, MA 1986] 143-44) has argued that the dissolution of temporal distinctions is one of the elements of the ideology of the Athenian funeral oration. Indeed, Croally himself appears on occasion to be uncomfortable with his discussion of temporal issues. For example, his account of the anachronistic inclusion of sophistic elements on the Euripidean stage is in large part couched in spatial terms (223-25). Another way in which “the temporal character of Troades is complicated depends on playing off earlier literary representations” (227). But this is not a feature that is confined to Euripides, or even to the polis-based genre of tragedy. It is, of course, characteristic of all Greek literature. 2 There are, however, sensible comments (231-34) on anachronism in the form of possible contemporary allusion. Croally steers a prudent middle course between the hammer-and-tongs approach of the “Philoctetes equals Alcibiades” school and the attitude of those for whom literature refers to nothing but literature. (For discussion of anachronism of a different sort, see now P. E. Easterling, “Euripides Outside Athens: A Speculative Note,”ICS 19 [1994] 73-80.) One may question, however, whether Euripides presents a more extreme case of anachronism than what we find in Aeschylus’Eumenides. But even Croally’s treatment of space, for all its elegance and persuasiveness, is not without difficulties. For example, following Detienne, Croally makes much of the expression es meson as used to reinforce the civic order “based on the spatial and hierarchical model of centre and margin” (165). But in Croally’s hands the words “es meson” have taken on a life of their own, having little connection with their actual use in Greek authors. He occasionally (165 n. 9, 201) uses the expression “es meson” in cases where the Greek would need to be en mesoi. This is merely venial carelessness. Of greater moment is the fact that usage shows that the words es meson do not necessarily imply reference to “centre and margin.” Compare the use at Soph. Phil. 609, where the words are correctly glossed by Genthe and Ellendt (s.v. mesos) by “palam.” This sense is even clearer at Tro. 54 (cited by Croally!), where only two parties are concerned, so there can be no question here of “centre and margin.”

But there may be more fundamental problems with Croally’s general thesis. Croally’s focus is on Euripides, and on Troades in particular. Yet he claims that “the novelty of the thesis presented here consists in arguments which are germane to tragedy generally” (11; cf. 12, 16). But why only tragedy? Everything Croally has to say about tragedy as civic discourse, about the performance of tragedy at the center of Athenian civic space, about the context out of which tragic representation arises, is necessarily true of comedy as well, and even of satyr-play and dithyramb. Do the representatives of these genres also engage in the same questioning of ideology that Croally regards as characteristic of tragedy? But even if we confine ourselves to tragedy, it seems to me that Croally has constructed a thesis that cannot reasonably be tested. Let us apply to, say, Sophocles’Trachiniae the kind of reading that Croally applies to Troades. If we find that Trachiniae differs significantly from Troades, we cannot know whether the differences arise from the different personalities of the two poets, from the circumstance that the two plays were produced in different years, or from the fact that the former does not employ the dramatic context of war and its aftermath. If, on the other hand, we obtain the same results, we will not know (without further and very extensive investigation) whether what Croally has revealed is common only to Sophocles and Euripides, to tragedy generally, to Attic drama, to fifth-century Athenian literature, to Greek literature generally, or even to Western literature as a whole. But, of course, it is further and extensive investigation that this stimulating book both provokes and deserves. Still, I am not sure that Croally hasn’t cleverly devised a hypothesis on the basis of which he can say, “I told you so,” no matter what results are obtained. Such hypotheses either embody profound truth or are so qualified as to be of very limited usefulness.

Further, there is a tension, which Croally has not resolved, between the demands of ideology and the originality and autonomy of the individual poet. We are told that Troades is not unique among Euripides’ tragedies in its questioning of ideology, and that Euripides shares this method of questioning with other fifth-century tragedians. What is different about Troades is that its setting (war and its aftermath) make it an extreme case. But, of course, it is Euripides who chose to write a play with war and its aftermath as its setting, as he chose not to do when he wrote, e.g., Ion. The poet, then, was free to elect the extent to which he subjected ideology to scrutiny. And yet the reader comes away from Euripidean Polemic with the overwhelming impression that the tragic playwright was a mindless pawn under the direction of relentless civic ideology, even when he was constrained to question that ideology. I think it is more fruitful to pursue the matter from a different point of view. It is characteristic of tragedy that it represents extreme situations. Some such situations (e.g. unknowingly murdering one’s father and marrying one’s mother) often have the effect of calling into question the ordinary categories of human existence, without necessarily involving matters of civic concern. But, in part because tragedy was, unlike epic, a genre based in the experience of the polis, it had a fondness also for representing extreme situations that did have political implications. Such situations are not confined to war and its aftermath, but include, for example, exile, which is the subject of a dissertation currently being written under my direction by Ms Angeliki Tzanetou. (I should like to note that this review has benefited from helpful discussion of Croally’s book with Ms Tzanetou.) It remains to be seen, however, whether the dramatization of such extreme situations serves to subvert or, rather, to reaffirm the standard point of view. Or does it perhaps depend on the personality of the individual poet?

Croally seems to have been aware of this difficulty. He repeatedly stresses his conviction that Euripides differs from the other tragic poets, but in degree rather than in kind (e.g. 15, 191, 252). Tragedy is itself a product of ideology (5, 178), and the function of tragedy is to question ideology (43). This function Euripides carries out in a more thoroughgoing fashion than other tragic poets and, indeed, his Troades represents the most thoroughgoing questioning of ideology to be found in fifth-century Athens (16). Paradoxically—and Croally’s argument thrives on paradox—the extreme nature of Euripides’ questioning of ideology itself derives from the fact that tragedy is an ideological product. The tragic poet (and, for that matter, the comic poet: 36) can be regarded as having been chosen by the Athenians as representative of the citizen body (55 n. 124). For this reason, when the tragic poet represents on the stage of the Theater of Dionysus the voices of such “marginal” characters as women (85) and sophists (223), the risk to the stability of the standard ideology is all the greater. But the playwright can put marginal characters on the stage for one of two reasons (to simplify matters for the purpose of argument). He can either use them to pose a challenge to the status quo or he can put them in their place, thereby reaffirming the status quo. I suspect that Croally would regard this last statement as essentially reductive, and that he would prefer to have it both ways at once. Indeed he says (97), in connection with Euripides’ questioning of the polarity man/woman in Troades, “the audience, gathered at this central event of civic discourse, sees its ideology affirmed (women are other) as well as questioned (women are very problematically other).” But when we get down to specifics, it becomes more difficult to both eat our cake and have it. Croally is eloquent and persuasive in showing, for example, that in this play “the ideology … which demands that women be silent, stay inside, nurture sophrosune and obey their husbands (or rather their masters), comes under attack from all sides” (94). But at the same time it is perfectly possible to read this play as dramatising the disastrous consequences (namely, the total breakdown of ideology) that result from Helen’s conspicuous failure to observe the dictates of ideology. In other words, nothing prevents us from reading the play as a ringing endorsement of standard ideology and as affirming that, if only Helen had followed the party line and rejected Paris’ advances, all would be well both in Sparta and in Troy. Just so, Croally will reply; tragedy both questions and affirms ideology. But how can it be reasonable simultaneously to locate Euripides at both ends of the spectrum and to claim that he is more extreme in what he does than other tragic poets (who necessarily, according to Croally’s view of tragedy, share Euripides’ autoantithetical stance)?

Finally, not everyone will be convinced by Croally’s attempt (17-37) to demonstrate the didactic intention of the fifth-century tragic poet. Indeed, the argumentation here seems particularly questionable. Croally uses at length the evidence provided by Plato and Aristotle, yet he had earlier (10 n. 44) criticized Malcolm Heath for using precisely those two authors as evidence for fifth-century views regarding the unity of works of literature. Nor can Croally defend himself by arguing for the continuity of the didactic function, for he elsewhere (251-52) shows that he believes that tragedy in the age of Plato and Aristotle was no longer didactic, and his argument here is clearly concerned with “tragedy in fifth-century Athens” (33, my emphasis). In the end, however, it is not entirely clear what value Croally’s demonstration would have even if it were successful. An important piece of evidence for Croally (21) is the assertion by “Euripides” at Ar. Ran. 1009-10 to the effect that “we poets make men better.” We may perhaps be reminded of Socrates’ cross-examination of Meletus (Pl. Apol. 24d-25a), in which Socrates’ accuser is led to affirm that every citizen of Athens (with the exception, naturally, of Socrates) makes young men better. The absurdity of Meletus’ response to interrogation lies not so much in his assertion that everyone improves the youth of the city as in the unrealistic contrast between the vast number of improvers and the single corruptor. Indeed, Meletus’ claim that the entire citizen body improves and educates the young is quite consistent with democratic Athenian ideology. 3 But if Athenian ideology alleges that all citizens serve to educate, what is gained by trying to show that one Athenian citizen (namely Euripides) serves to educate? Has Croally, by investigating Euripides’ questioning of ideology, himself fallen victim to Athenian ideology? Is it, in the end, even possible for those who investigate ideology to distinguish between the purveyors of ideology and those who question it, and can they conduct their investigation without speaking the language sanctioned by ideology? Who, in other words, should they believe?

  • [1] Of the few misprints the only truly alarming one is (114 n. 107) “Bum” for A. R. “Burn.” On p. 61, for “The first” and “the latter,” read “The latter” and “the first.” And Heraclitus (18) is incorrectly included in a list of “wise men who wrote in verse.”
    [2] Croally’s familiarity with the secondary literature is in general very impressive, but one misses a reference in his discussion here to R. Garner, From Homer to Tragedy: The Art of Allusion in Greek Poetry (London 1990).
    [3] See E. de Strycker and S. R. Slings (eds.), Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Mnemosyne Suppl. 137 (Leiden 1994) 108-12.