BMCR 1997.01.06

Euripides, Selected Fragmentary Plays, Vol. I.

, , , Euripides, Selected Fragmentary Plays, Vol. I.. Warminster: Phillips, 1995. ISBN 9780856686184 $24.95(pb); $49.95(hb).

Was it Nikos Kazantzakis who abandoned in frustration a limerick beginning, “There once was a maid from Naupactus/who had an affair with a cactus”? Curse the day I ever knew. A fragment like that lingers in the mind, too intriguing to forget and too intimidating to complete.

Fragments of ancient poetry add a sobering element to the characteristic mix of intrigue and intimidation, for they remind us of how merely specific are our fondest generalizations about ancient literature. Too much is lost or in ruins for it to be otherwise. How different would be our histories of fifth-century drama if whole works by Eupolis and Cratinus suddenly hove into view, or Agathon’s first success, or the plays by Philocles that snatched a first prize from Oedipus the King ? Even within the corpus of a single author, the gaps can and probably should be worrisome. We count ourselves lucky to have eighteen intact plays by Euripides, but there were once about ninety, including an Andromeda that infatuated the Dionysus of Frogs and a Telephus that greatly amused his creator. Such plays, though lost, are not entirely unknown quantities. Aristophanes and his scholiasts provide important testimony. Images from the tragic stage may survive on vases, and echoes of tragic plots linger among the mythographers. And there are texts, some culled from ancient anthologists and some from the very trash heaps of antiquity. Some are continuous, and some are mere tatters. Most are in some way problematic. Yet a good deal of Euripidean theater survives in these remains. The problem lies in integrating the testimony of these disparate witnesses and bringing their message into the interpretive process. To be simultaneously a papyrologist, art historian, philologist, and literary critic is a bit more than most of us can manage.

T. B. L. Webster nearly did it. In The Tragedies of Euripides (London 1967), he made the fragmentary plays equal partners in his interpretive endeavor by weaving discussion of them into the very fabric of his argument. Though the resulting reconstructions and literary judgments have not always aged particularly well, the book has the enduring virtue of providing access to the array of textual and artistic material on which our knowledge of the fragmentary plays is based. An expository format, however, forced Webster to tuck the necessary references into footnotes and an appendix. He quotes sparingly and only in translation. He is very much the intermediary. For direct access to texts and testimonia, even students have still had to consult the uncompromising pages of Nauck and Austin. 1 R. Kannicht’s forthcoming volume of Euripidean fragments for the new, five-volume Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta will at least unite the textual material in a single authoritative edition, but it too will be hard sledding for neophytes. Nor, at least to judge by the recent edition of Sophoclean fragments, would a Loeb volume be likely to provide the kind of access that new readers require: the format is too austere and exclusively text-oriented. 2

The publication of two volumes of Euripidean fragments by Aris and Phillips is thus very welcome. I have, I admit, raged for years against the incongruity of this series, which foists a crib on Greek students and a philologist’s commentary on Greekless ones. The result is too often a don’s nightmare in which distinguished scholars spill their learning into hellishly contorted vessels. Yet the format so grotesquely inapposite for most normal purposes turns out to be ideally suited for presenting fragmentary plays. Because nearly all of us come to such complex material as in some sense amateurs, the facing translation, English apparatus, full commentary and introduction are a godsend. The series’ insistence on English lemmata (a convention these editors often manage to turn to their advantage) seems a small price to pay for the clarity and even elegance of this sequential presentation.

This is in fact an extremely user-friendly volume. After a general introduction and extensive bibliography on the study of Euripidean fragments, it presents all we have of Telephus, Cretans, Stheneboea, Bellerophon, Cresphontes, Erectheus, Phaeton, Wise Melanippe, and Captive Melanippe. 3 Each play receives its own detailed treatment including a list of sources and bibliography, an extensive introduction ranging from the ordering of the fragments to the staging of the original, and then the text (stage directions and apparatus in English) with linear commentary. Typeface and layout are clear and spacious, avoiding the cramped and ungainly look of too many other Aris & Phillips editions. Papyrus texts are reproduced with Leyden conventions intact and their significant insecurities are carried inobtrusively into the translations. This is well done, for all readers deserve to know the reliability of our witnesses. The editors have also been able to adopt Kannicht’s numbering scheme, and avoid the many awkward quirks that often plague editions of fragments with multiple sources and rival editors. I leave it to others to comment on the details of the editing and commentary. My concern is its value for the common reader of Euripides.

Who will profit from this book? The list is wonderfully long. Many will appreciate the elegance and detail with which complex issues of text and interpretation are introduced. There is more than enough material here to get professionals thinking seriously about these plays and to encourage graduate students to expand their horizons in both the literary and technical realms. Advanced undergraduates in Greek will be able to use and perhaps even enjoy what this volume will tell them about Euripidean dramaturgy and Aristophanes’ parody of it. And, since this is an area where everyone needs to see the tenuous quality of the evidence, serious students of Greek drama in translation should not find themselves unduly discouraged or intimidated. There is something here for them, too. To encounter in the ruins of Stheneboea, Cresphontes, and Phaethon the same melodramatic vigor that so surprises them in Ion and Iphigeneia in Tauris may well encourage second thoughts about the norms of Euripidean tragedy and force their teachers to look beyond the all too canonical texts of the usual syllabus. There are many more trees in the Euripidean forest, though not all of them remain standing. This volume brings us close to its fallen giants and by skillful presentation provides powerful tools for taking their measure. Its editors really know how to cope with fragments. I wonder how they would deal with the girl from Naupactus.

1. A. Nauck, Tragicorum graecorum fragmenta, 2 ed. with supplement by B. Snell (Hildesheim 1964) and C. Austin, Nova fragmenta euripidea in papyris reperta (Berlin 1968), both as rich in detail as they are forbidding of aspect. Commentaries on individual plays, such as G. W. Bond’s Hypsipyle (Oxford 1963) are considerably more accessible, but they have not actually broadened the field of inquiry as much as we might wish.

2. Sophocles, Fragments, ed. and trans. by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge 1996), an elegant presentation of texts and translations, restricts headnotes to matters of plot and offers few interpretive notes. Contexts and testimonia are not translated.

3. The second volume will include Alexandros (with Palamedes and Sisyphys), Andromeda, Antiope, Archelaus, Hipsipyle, Oedipus, and Philoctetes. (The fragments of Euripides’ first Hippolytus appeared with Michael Halleran’s edition in this series.) The order of the presentation is approximately chronological.