BMCR 2001.06.19

Figures of Play: Greek Drama and Metafictional Poetics

Gregory W. Dobrov, Figures of play : Greek drama and metafictional poetics. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (viii, 238 pages). ISBN 1423759796 $45.00.

Figures of Play examines the way Athenian drama of the late fifth century BC exploits and explores its own theatricality. Dobrov provides five detailed studies of staged scenes within tragedy and re-enactments of tragedy within comedy. Although the relationship between Aristophanes and Euripides is, not surprisingly, a central theme, Dobrov discusses Sophocles as well. The book is relatively short but carefully documented (160 pages of text, 80 of notes, bibliography, and index). All the Greek is translated, making the book accessible to students of drama or comparative literature as well as to classicists.

The book is divided into three parts: “Metatheater: Three Phenomenal Modes,” “The Anatomy of Dramatic Fiction: Tragic Madness,” and “The Anatomy of Dramatic Fiction: Comic Utopia.” The first part gives definitions and background. Dobrov draws on recent work in theater studies and film studies, where metatheater and the self-awareness of theatrical performance and genre are major topics of study. For Dobrov, metatheater is a subcategory of a more general “metafiction,” “that process whereby a representation doubles back on itself, where a narrative or performance recognizes, engages, or exploits its own fictionality” (p. 9). That is, explicit acknowledgment of the world outside the text, or of the bookishness of a text, is possible in genres other than the theater. Although Dobrov focuses here entirely on the theater, this highly general definition opens up the possibility of applying similar techniques elsewhere.

The first part concludes with a case study to serve “as a programmatic example in which demonstration is given priority over originality” (p. 33), treating the use of Euripides’ Telephus in Acharnians as a paradigm of the comic contrafact. “Contrafact,” a term borrowed from music theory, means an art work (a musical composition or, as here, a play) that is based in interesting and significant ways on another work. In the technical musical sense, a contrafact uses the same harmonies as the original piece, but a different melody; in literature, Dobrov points out, Joyce’s Ulysses is a contrafact of the Odyssey, as is the first part of the Aeneid (p. 16). Similarly, Acharnians re-works Telephus in comic terms. Because this is such a familiar example, Dobrov uses it to demonstrate the type of analysis he will apply to other plays.

A key point in the Acharnians-Telephus example is that Aristophanes chooses precisely what is new and clever in Euripides’ play as the center of his contrafact (p. 47-48). The hostage scene of Telephus is generally held to be Euripides’ own invention, and it is this scene that Aristophanes parodies in the coal-scuttle scene of Acharnians. Dobrov observes that Aristophanes repeatedly focuses on the innovative or unusual features of the tragedies he re-works. According to Dobrov, the resulting comedy is “an intelligent rereading of tragedy with a response motivated by the particular nature of the object” (p. 160). In other words, an Aristophanic contrafact is a close reading of a Euripidean tragedy (or, occasionally, a Sophoclean one), but transformed by the difference in genres. Just as Euripides in Electra re-works and refutes the recognition scene of Choephoroi (cf. p. 18), so Aristophanes refutes tragedy, constantly saying “yes, but what if…?”

The second part of the book analyzes two plays, Ajax and Bacchae, in which a (divine) character stages a scene. In Ajax, Athena displays Ajax in his insanity to Odysseus. In Bacchae, Dionysus stages the tragedy of Pentheus. The two plays are similar because in each, a god makes a mortal insane as a punishment, and the madness in each case is staged for other members of the mortal community. Dobrov argues, however, that Ajax and Pentheus themselves are also spectators, watching a hallucination presented by Athena and Dionysus respectively. The delusions of madness and the illusions of the theater are similar; the old folk-etymology connecting ἀπατή with ἄτη makes sense.

Dobrov’s reading of Ajax focuses on the prologue scene, in which Athena stages Ajax’s madness for Odysseus and for Ajax himself. He argues that this scene is recognizably an inset or insertion into the play (p. 58-59), partly because this is the only time we actually see Ajax mad. Yet this scene is the necessary bridge between the two halves of the play, before and after the death of Ajax, because it is this drama that causes Odysseus to pity Ajax and, finally, argue for his burial. When Odysseus comes back at the end of the play (1316), after an absence of almost 1200 lines, he is much like a deus ex machina appearing from nowhere to resolve the action, yet he is no deus but a mortal, manipulated by Athena almost as much as Ajax himself. Dobrov argues that the spectators identify with Odysseus in the first scene since he is also a spectator and they are all watching together, and therefore they are led to identify with his moral decision later on (p. 68-69). Odysseus, as spectator, is also a figure in Ajax’s drama, both in his own person and as represented by the tortured animal of ll. 102-110. Dobrov argues that every spectator is similarly involved in the drama, both an observer and a participant; just like Odysseus, the audience in the Theater of Dionysus has some responsibility for what they are seeing enacted. This may go too far, and is not clear whether Dobrov means that the Athenian audience perceived Ajax as a metaphor for the Peloponnesian war and the growth of the Athenian empire. (Whether this is even possible, of course, depends on the date of the play, which Dobrov does not discuss. The usual view is that Ajax is relatively early, hence before the war, but Lloyd-Jones in his Loeb edition argues for a date in the 30s or 20s, roughly contemporary with Oedipus the King. But such a nearly-allegorical reading of the play seems unlikely in any case.)

Dobrov argues in the next chapter that it is Bacchae that makes Dionysus into the “god of drama” (p. 71). In this play, “[Euripides’] contribution to subsequent Dionysiac symbolism was to invent an explicitly theatrical god and to demonstrate on the tragic stage exactly what this meant” (p. 71). Innovations in the traditional story of Pentheus create a new role for Dionysus. Dobrov points out that in earlier versions, Pentheus attacks the maenads on the mountain with an army; he does not dress as a maenad and try to infiltrate their revels. In Bacchae, on the other hand, there is no army, and Pentheus would be in no state to lead it. Then, instead of dying in a fair fight, Euripides’ Pentheus is killed by his mother, “perhaps Euripides’ most daring innovation” (p. 82). This sets up the metatheatrical return to the stage of the first actor, now in the role of Agave, but carrying the mask of Pentheus. In “the last spectatorial act of the inner play” (p. 84), Agave finally recognizes the mask and what it must mean.

The third part of the book, and the longest, returns to the comic contrafact, with three detailed studies of comic re-writings: Peace and Euripides’ Bellerophontes, Birds and Sophocles’ Tereus, and Frogs and Euripides’ Peirithous. The reconstructions of the lost tragedies, with summaries of current scholarship on them, are particularly valuable. This part of the book is stronger than the second. Each of the three chapters begins by laying out what is known about the tragedy that stands behind the comedy, quoting major fragments and referring to significant studies. Dobrov then goes on to discuss how Aristophanes re-works the tragic material to produce a comedy that solves a similar problem in a very different way.

In Peace, the dung-beetle Pegasus echoes the “spectacular exit” (p. 96) of Bellerophontes near the end of Euripides’ play. Bellerophontes flies to Olympus to find out whether the gods even exist, while Trygaeus has no doubts about their existence. He knows exactly where they are and where they are hiding Peace. But the gods have in fact left Olympus, burying Peace in a cave from which Trygaeus must dig her out. Of course he succeeds, directing the digging operation in a scene that may be adapted from a satyr-play of Sophocles about Pandora, the Sphyrokopoi or Hammer-wielders. Bellerophontes fails, falls, and dies; Trygaeus succeeds and returns safely to earth with Peace. The grim situation at the end of the tragedy becomes the problem that comedy must solve (p. 104). Bellerophontes is filled with isolation and despair; Peace with unity and hope.

Birds similarly starts from the end of a tragedy. The hoopoe is Tereus, transformed at the end of Sophocles’ play. Whereas he was a barely civilized Thracian in the tragedy, now he is a thoroughly Hellenized bird, who has taught the other birds to speak Greek. The tragic Tereus silences Philomela, but cannot silence the “voice of her shuttle” (Soph. fr. 595 Radt, Arist. Poet. 1454b37). The comic Tereus makes communication possible; without him the birds would not be able to follow Peisetairus’s instructions to build the new city. In Tereus, the “barbarian suppression of language” (p. 124) provokes the sisters’ gruesome revenge. In Birds, language is essential to the new city, ranging from persuasive speech to praise poetry, and Cloud-cuckoo-city itself becomes a play under the direction of Peisetairus.

Frogs starts from the end not of a tragedy but of a tragedian. The contrafact here, however, involves the second part of the play, after the parabasis, when Dionysus disguises himself as Heracles. Dionysus is on his way to the underworld, and he asks advice from Heracles, who has been there before, when he went to rescue Theseus and Peirithous. Dobrov argues that the Peirithous story was originally treated as comic, and the main innovation in Euripides’ play was to treat it seriously (p. 135). Aristophanes, in rewriting Peirithous, returns to the originally comic view of the material.

In all three of these comedies, Aristophanes’ contrafact is a systematic contradiction or counter-creation of the tragedy he has selected. More than mere parody, this contrafact is a criticism and a response to the tragedy. It is easy to observe that a comedy is somehow involved with an antecedent tragedy; Dobrov’s contribution is in explaining just how Aristophanes engaged with tragic drama.

The two series of case studies, the tragedies in part two and the comedies in part three, are both thought-provoking, but imperfectly integrated. The connection between them is that madness is as ubiquitous in tragedy as utopia is in comedy (p. 4); in each case, studying the use and development of a typical theme or motif sheds light on the development of the genre itself. Both tragedy and comedy use metatheatrical techniques, and more as the fifth century goes on. Yet the two different kinds of metatheater emphasized in the two parts of the book, the embedded spectacles of the tragedies and the comic contrafacts, work in very different ways and produce different effects. These two metatheatrical modes are not tied to tragedy and comedy respectively. The trial scene of Wasps is a spectacle much like the dressing scene in Bacchae (p. 24), and Helen can be read as a contrafact of the Stesichorean palinode, with many allusions to Birds as well (p. 126 ff).

In short, this book covers a lot of ground, from tragedy to comedy, performance to intertextuality, and will be of interest to scholars in many areas.