BMCR 2001.11.21

Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the Late Fifth Century

, , , Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the Late Fifth Century. Champaign: Stipes Publishing, 2000.

1 Responses

This volume comprises 25 articles, a large portion of the proceedings of a 1999 conference on Euripides held at Banff, Alberta. It is also in a certain sense a Festschrift, as it explicitly memorializes Desmond Conacher and will, I am sure, be felt also to memorialize Kevin Lee, one of its editors, who died unexpectedly six months after the volume’s completion. It is also a double, special issue of Illinois Classical Studies, which thus brings itself up to date.

On the whole, there is much here for which to be grateful. Many of these essays make important contributions to the study of either or both of the parts of the volume’s title—that is, to our understanding of the late 5th C. tragic theatre in general and/or of the work Euripides in particular, and one can even envision as many as four or five of them becoming touchstones for future criticism. Inevitably there is some unevenness in the collection when taken piece by piece: in particular, the amount of revision between oral and written versions was clearly quite variable. Magisterial, even encyclopedic, contributions like those of Csapo (on the New Music) and Moretti (on the current state of the archaeology of the Theatre of Dionysus) abut much less ambitious efforts.

Indeed, although the volume’s title, on one interpretation at least, seems to promise a compendium of some kind, and a great deal of effort seems to have been expended in an attempt to make the essays hang together into a sort of state-of-the-scholarship collection, I am afraid to say that to my mind the universal bibliography, the tangential cross-references between articles, and the three sectional introductions point the more strongly to the extremely disparate approaches and interests of the contributions. The result is an unhappy medium between a handbook and a proceedings volume. The tripartite division of the essays (Tragedy and Other Genres, Myth and Religion, and Performance and Reception), which reflects with some alteration the make-up of the Banff conference, certainly makes a great deal of sense as an approach to current scholarship of Euripides and the Late 5th C. Tragic Theatre, but within the divisions the connections between topics, made in occasional telegraphic footnotes, are quite strained.

In particular, I cannot think what reason the editors had for amalgamating the bibliography: coming from so many different essays on highly specialized topics, it cannot be useful as a research tool in itself, and it cannot but be very frustrating to the researcher interested in one or two of the articles, who must nevertheless photocopy the entire thing. The Index Locorum and General Index cannot be other than helpful, of course, especially the former, but the brevity of the latter (5 pp. of index for 467 pp. of text) threatens frustration. The volume has been well-produced and well-proofread; I found only two minor typographical errors, both in the same essay (401: “innovation” should, I think, be plural; 415: “advertized”).

Helene Foley contributes a keynote on “Twentieth Century Performance and Adaptation of Euripides,” which is better thought of as an address than an essay or article. Foley’s meditations on various modern versions of Medea are very stimulating, but the inclusion of the address makes one wonder whether there was a coherent vision behind the construction of this volume, which elsewhere tries so strenuously to assert its transcendence of the proceedings genre.

The three sectional introductions, by Mastronarde (Tragedy and Other Genres), Wildberg (Myth and Religion), and Csapo (Performance and Reception) are perhaps best taken together. Mastronarde’s, when read together with his more extended contribution which serves as the first paper of the section, provides a comprehensive overview of the state of genre criticism of Euripides, with a gesture toward the state of genre criticism in general. Wildberg and Csapo, their own longer contributions more narrowly focussed, spend more time in their introductions dealing with the state of the art in the sections’ respective areas. The introducer’s task is usually thankless, since the essays in each section were not written to fit together, and any attempt to link them to one another and to a general view of the field must seem artificial, but these introducers deserve our gratitude for the orientation they provide in such little space. Csapo’s introduction in particular, which could in five minutes give a curious student a relatively firm grounding in the state of performance criticism of tragedy, deserves wider promulgation than it will probably get.

The nine essays that follow Mastronarde’s in the “Tragedy and Other Genres” section range from close-readings like Michelini’s study of “registers” (a term she substitutes for “genre”) in IA to broad surveys like Davidson’s study of Homeric influence in Euripides (and quite a bit of Sophocles). A middle ground is claimed by the fascinating contribution of Gibert, who opens the exiguous remains of Andromeda, into general insights about Euripidean generic innovation.

In particular, I found Gregory’s essay both elegant and persuasive: she effectively complicates the efforts of those who still seek to find in Euripides straightforwardly “comic” moments. Her note 22, on critics who “humorize” Euripides through paraphrase, is worth a trip to the library, if not the price of this volume.

Scodel’s contribution, though, may prove the most enduring of the works in this section. With great patience, she elucidates the codes that mark Euripidean speakers as aware of their speech as performance. The approach seems quite promising, and worthy of more study, as it would seem to cut through the Gordian knot of Euripides’ relation to the sophists and give us a body of concrete dramatic evidence in order to examine to appreciate his tragedies’ participation in the intellectual climate of which they and he were part.

The six essays of “Myth and Religion” are evenly divided between the general and the specific. Two of each sort seem to me worthy of mention: Giannopoulou on Ion and Segal on Bacchae on the one hand, and Scullion on aetiology and Wildberg on divine/human reciprocity on the other.

Wildberg’s is probably the most theoretically sophisticated contribution to the volume—which is really not saying much: he wins the title by invoking Nehamas’ “postulated authorial character” as a means of escaping the morass of authorial intention. The essay is difficult and problematic, but these flaws arise from Wildberg’s working in it towards something quite new, which we may hope will eventually bear sweeter fruit. In the present effort, he attempts in short order to prove the importance of hyperesia (reciprocity of service between humans and gods) in the religious/intellectual environment of Late 5th C. Athens and to demonstrate that certain tragedies of Euripides are constructed (I would paraphrase Wildberg’s arguments) as allegories of that very concept. Clearly too much is going on here for a 21 pp. article, and I would fault Wildberg’s easy exclusion of tragedies that do not fit his model, but I am glad to see that the volume’s bibliography lists Wildberg forthcoming, Hyperesie und Epiphanie: zur Bedeutung und Funktion der Goetter in den Dramen des Euripides.

Giannopoulou, like Wildberg, is clearly onto something. His reading of the role of chance in Ion is both very revealing of the inner workings of that play and extrapolable to a range of Euripidean tragedy. The breadth of the argument is greatly assisted by an incisive survey of the usage of tukhe up to the time of Euripides (pp. 258-61), but at the same time this concentration on tukhe betrays the problem of the article’s construction: Giannopoulou is really writing about far more than the usage of a single term, and needs to support his dramatic argument with a fuller preliminary analysis not just of tukhe but of other terms as well, some of which he identifies himself in the later stages of the essay.

Scullion and Segal contribute tours de force to which I cannot do justice by paraphrase, and so simply commend to the reader’s attention by means of some laudatory sentences. Scullion is to my mind the most exciting scholar working at the interstices of literature and religion these days; the finesse he employs as he takes a sledge-hammer to the standard view of tragic cult-aetiologies, that they must refer to actual historical cults, seems to me to demonstrate extraordinary acumen. Segal gives us an analysis of the end of Bacchae that is worthy of his reputation as well; anyone advancing an interpretation of this most-interpreted tragedy will need to take the cogent arguments of this article into account, for with Segal’s study our exiguous remains of the tragedy’s ending have taken on a new coherence; in particular, Segal’s comparison of the end of the tragedy to the end of Antigone is very compelling.

The final section of the volume, “Performance and Reception” has the greatest claim to being the state of the art of Euripidean criticism at the moment; one need only consider the ring-composition effected by Foley’s keynote, on adaptations of Medea, together with Revermann’s fascinating survey of the evidence for the Macedonian reception to get a sense of the current direction of the criticism. As I mentioned above, Csapo’s introduction to the section is also well worth looking into.

All the essays in this section, in fact, would repay the reader’s effort in lugging the book about and/or photocopying them. In addition to Revermann’s opening up of new, Hellenistic ground, two essays on music, Csapo’s survey of the evidence for the “New Music” of the end of the 5th C. and Wilson’s meditation on the different ways Euripides’ uses music as a semantic register in his tragedies (esp. the lost Antiope, where Amphion’s own new music was clearly essential, and of whose political valence Wilson offers a compelling interpretation), are highly recommendable. Of the contributions on individual plays, I found Rehm’s (on HF) cogent and Marshall’s (on Electra) thought-provoking.

As I noted above, the volume falls short of what seems to be one of its aims—providing a comprehensive overview of scholarship in Euripides as of 2001 CE. On the other hand, it will certainly serve as a fine starting point for anyone seeking to get a sense of why such an overview is well-nigh-impossible to come by. In exchange for that service, along with the superior quality of so many articles in the volume, students of tragedy should render thanks.