BMCR 2003.09.41

The Living Art of Greek Tragedy

, The living art of Greek tragedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. xii, 224 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0253342317. $39.95.

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It is a sad fact that many modern productions of Greek tragedy fail to engage their audiences. Whether they are striving for authenticity or (as more commonly) originality, directors all too often create an effect which is pretentious, incomprehensible or alienating. Many twenty-first-century spectators, whether or not they were already acquainted with classical drama, leave the theatre unsure what all the fuss was about (but feeling that they really ought to have enjoyed this ‘high-brow’ cultural experience). Of course, it is fairly easy to see why this should be the case. The main problem lies not so much in the subject-matter of tragedy as in the degree of stylization. That is, the original performance conventions of Greek theatre, so far as they can be constructed at all, are so foreign to modern taste that ‘authentic’ productions are deeply problematic. Original re-workings of tragedy, on the other hand, ‘update’ both form and content, which tends to result in a confusing mish-mash of ancient and modern elements. Despite the salutary reminders in scholarly literature of the last twenty-five years that we have to deal with plays, not ‘texts’, it can often seem that Greek tragedy is far more powerful when read from a book. If we read the texts, we experience these great but difficult plays without the additional layers of difficulty and inaccessibility which a director may impose — but this is only an incomplete experience. Why is it that these powerful plays seem to lose so much in performance?

McDonald’s book is a welcome attempt to deal with these problems. The Living Art of Greek Tragedy sets out to explore how tragedies can be performed today in such a way as to make them accessible and alive. It is an introductory, practical handbook, aimed at students of drama, or would-be directors of new productions, rather than a scholarly audience. In her Preface, McDonald (henceforth McD) writes that Greek tragedy is still ‘relevant’ to-day, and that it ‘has something to say to everyone’ (ix-x). McD promises to provide ‘a balanced overview, adequately covering both performance and textual analysis’ (ix): as she observes, rightly, no other introductory book on Greek tragedy attempts this useful and potentially fascinating task.

This short, clearly-written book is divided into a brief introduction and three chapters, each devoted to a single playwright. Each chapter is organized on the same principle: an opening section gives, play-by-play, a plot-summary along with general information about the playwright and his work, including brief remarks concerning the play’s original staging in the Theatre of Dionysus. A rather longer second section (‘Performance Tradition’) in each case deals with productions and adaptations of the original tragedies down the centuries, from Seneca to Ted Hughes. A large amount of fascinating information is gathered in these pages, taking in a huge chronological and cultural range. All readers will find something new here: as well as the familiar plays of Racine, Goethe, Anouilh, Tony Harrison et al., we are treated to interesting descriptions and anecdotes covering such diverse works as José Triana’s voodoo Medea (banned in Cuba after its first performance), Ariane Mnouchkine’s multicultural, musically inventive Les Atrides, Stephen Berkoff’s Agamemnon, with its ghoulish echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. I was particularly intrigued to learn that a jazz rendition of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas!’ featured in the original (1968) staging of Ted Hughes’ adaptation of Seneca’s Phaedra.

The impulse behind McD’s book is admirable, and the range of material covered is extremely impressive. However, it would be difficult to recommend the book whole-heartedly. While it contains much of interest, it suffers from certain shortcomings. I suspect that McD’s intended audience will fail to find much stimulation here (beyond the stimulation provided by the raw material itself). If the tragedies ‘come alive’ in these pages, it is not because of anything which McD says about them.

The general introduction and the earlier sections of each chapter, contain certain generalizations and unsupported assertions which one would have liked to see defended at a little more length. These include (for example): McD’s claim that the winner of the Dionysia was chosen by the citizens’ vote, thus earning the Dionysia the title ‘democracy in action’ (pp. 1-2); Aeschylus’ supposed preference for connected trilogies (p. 3); the peculiar distinction made between ‘connected trilogies’ and ‘a more socially directed drama’ (p. 3); the sketchy treatment of skenographia (p. 5); the implication that there were no major tragedians except Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (p. 5); the assertion that Aeschylus’ plays have a straightforwardly didactic aim — as if the ‘Aeschylus’ of Aristophanes’ Frogs were to be taken literally — (p. 8); the suggestive claim that Antigone‘earned’ Sophocles public office (p. 45); the description of Sophocles as ‘the playwright of heroism’ (p. 46); the confusing labelling of Ajax as a ‘double’ [i.e., ‘diptych’] play (p. 57); the reference, without any comment, to the hoary old view that Euripides was an ‘atheist’ (p. 96); the labelling of certain elements in Euripides’ later plays as ‘comic’ (pp. 98-128 passim); the description of Andromache as ‘propaganda’ (p. 109); and the treatment of ‘metatheatre’ and ‘comic realism’ as synonymous (p. 133). Although in a book of this scope a certain degree of simplification is inevitable, many of these statements are questionable, or (at least) demand fuller exposition or clarification. This is not just for the sake of accuracy, but because all of these issues have a bearing on the ‘relevance’ of tragedy for which McD is arguing. What the book really lacks, then, is a critically annotated reading list for each play, directing students to fuller discussion of the main points of interest and the scholarly debates surrounding each play. As it stands, McD’s general bibliography (pp. 209-15) is too short and offers insufficient guidance. A further problem with the sections of general discussion is that, although McD promised to provide ‘adequate’ textual analysis (ix), scarcely any text is ever quoted or discussed except in the broadest terms. This is likely to leave the reader wondering what the text really says, and why McD has chosen to focus on just those few portions or themes which she does mention.

The ‘Performance Tradition’ is a lot more interesting, but its arrangement seems uneven. Why are some plays discussed at considerable length and others in just a few lines? It is hard to discern any organizing principle: it seems that McD spends more time discussing those performances which she has personally attended or directed, but this is not always apparent. Nor is it made clear why cinematic adaptations of tragedy are given only the most perfunctory treatment: are they less important or ‘relevant’ than staged productions? (Aeschylean and Sophoclean films get a tiny paragraph each [pp. 44, 94-5], while a little more space [pp. 157-8, 160-6] is devoted, for no very obvious reason, to filmed versions of Medea and Hippolytus.) The overall effect is of a miscellaneous collection of theatre reviews, without very much in the way of linking material or a discernible argumentative thread.

This is really the problem with the whole book: its lack of ideas. One looks in vain for the ‘big picture’, for any attempt to synthesize this heterogeneous material into a coherent argument. What is at stake? Why are these plays so ‘relevant’? What do they, individually or collectively, have to say to us to-day? Why do modern directors turn to certain (especially Euripidean) plays so much more often than others? What makes some modern productions better than others? One looks in vain for the answers to these questions, which really ought to have been at the heart of McD’s project. A huge subject — the reception of classical drama in its entirety — demands a huge conceptual scope, not simply the display of a huge range of material.

A hazy impression of just what is meant by ‘relevance’, or what makes for a good or bad production, emerges only implicitly and gradually, as one reads McD’s scattered verdicts on a variety of modern adaptations. ‘By far one of the best’ productions of Medea is said to be Ninagawa’s 1978 version (p. 149), seemingly on account of its effective combination of music and emotion. Dramatic ‘tautness’ (not defined any further) is sometimes mentioned with approval (pp. 16, 21). ‘Intelligence’ may be a criterion (p. 31). Violence in modern productions is thought to be undesirable (pp. 40, 170).

It emerges that the ‘relevance’ of tragedy is very often defined in terms of political relevance. However, the range of political uses which have been made of tragedy is very diverse. Nazis and democrats have both found something ‘relevant’ to their cause in Aeschylus (p. 25); the Theban plays have been perceived as ‘relevant’ to the American and Greek civil wars as well as the Irish ‘troubles’ (pp. 10-11); the Prometheus has been seen as ‘relevant’ to Irish politics, but also as a text for revolutionaries in the Enlightenment (pp. 40-3) — and so on. All of these political situations are very far removed from the democratic context of fifth-century Athens. Does it matter? McD suggests not.

There are some odd, unfocused attacks on unnamed interpreters or schools of thought (e.g., p. 18) — or even slurs on national characteristics, the English and French emerging with less credit than others. Cocteau, we are told, somewhat disparagingly, ‘plays all the intellectual tricks for which the French are famous’ (p. 69; cf. ‘clever tricks’, again pejoratively, on p. 75), while Gide’s Oedipe is said to be ‘typically French, in that we find asides on love and fashion (p. 70; cf. p. 74 section 5). Meanwhile (p. 36), the English (any English critics in particular?) are said to favour an ‘optimistic’ reading of the Oresteia, which McD earlier criticized for its lack of ‘intelligence’ (p. 31).

The vague, bland nature of McD’s critical vocabulary, as well as the lack of any clear programmatic statement, makes it difficult for the reader to get to the bottom of things. For instance, Aeschylus’ language ‘is as usual richly poetic’ (p. 13); Seneca’s plays are ‘philosophical ramblings’ (p. 21); ‘this play is more contemplative than others’ (of Cocteau’s Infernal Machine, p. 54); a Japanese production of Oedipus is ‘riveting’ (p. 67). Writing approvingly of Ted Hughes’ Alcestis, McD finds its final scene ‘even more dramatic’ than the original: what, exactly, does she mean? (When talking about drama, could one not call everything ‘dramatic’?) None of these descriptions or value-judgements leaves us any the wiser regarding the author’s critical outlook: we never learn on what basis these plays are really being criticized. Similarly, McD’s final summing-up (pp. 206-7) leaves one with a profound sense of dissatisfaction. She concludes that tragedy ‘makes us think’ (but about what?); that it ‘engages our intellect’ (but how?); and that it ‘tells us about the world we live in’ (but in what ways?).

‘Faithfulness’ to the original texts is a problematic issue. In the Preface (ix), McD refers to the debate about authenticity vs. originality, somewhat cryptically, as a ‘pseudo-conflict’; but here and there it does seem that ‘fidelity’ is — on some level — at stake. But there is a degree of ambiguity present: although the apparent ‘intention’ of the original dramatists is sometimes seen to be relevant (e.g., pp. 36, 92, 160), it seems that modern playwrights and directors are at liberty to diverge from this intention (e.g., pp. 30, 179).

Is McD saying, then, that tragedy is up for grabs? In that case, surely, one production is as good, successful or ‘relevant’ as any other (depending on one’s own political agenda or personal taste). However, it turns out that this cannot be the case since McD believes that some productions are better than others and that ‘misunderstanding’ of plays is a possibility. It is sometimes said that the plays are written to expound a ‘lesson’, which — presumably — we can get right or wrong (e.g., pp. 8-9, 122). Or, perhaps, ‘faithfulness’ is to be understood with reference to some basic ‘essence’ which remains despite the addition or subtraction of details.

Apropos of an ‘unsuccessful’ production of Medea by Jonathan Kent (1994), McD tells us that the play’s ‘elemental tragic messages are elided’ (p. 155). But what is an ‘elemental tragic message’? Is it something unique to Medea, or does it represent something at the heart of Greek tragedy as a genre? McD (in common with the authors of many general books on Greek tragedy) leaves it unclear whether some fundamental essence (‘the Tragic’, vel sim.) exists at the heart of Greek tragedy as a genre, or whether it is individual plays that have their own unique ‘messages’. (Cf. p. 69, where ‘the essential drama’ is said to elude Cocteau.) Is it ‘tragedy’ or ‘tragedies’ which have something to say to us? Are all plays equally ‘tragic’? McD’s title and Preface strongly imply that there is some defining generic quality such as ‘the Tragic’ (cf. pp. 10, 49), but the subject is nowhere discussed. Nor is it suggested how (or if) an awareness of genre contributes to one’s interpretation of individual plays. In this respect, one might note McD’s decision to include discussions of satyr-drama ( Ichneutai and Cyclops) in a book which purports to be about tragedy: nothing about these discussions suggests that there is anything fundamentally different about satyr-drama or its modern adaptations.

One might, perhaps, look for some clarification in McD’s descriptions of her own productions (since, presumably, these fall within the boundaries of acceptability). McD’s 2003 adaptation, Medea, Queen of Colchester, unlike Euripides’ original play, featured a South African drag queen (and former drug-runner), a Las Vegas casino-owner, and a number of rap songs. Here we are told that ‘issues of colonialism, gender and gay rights all factor into the plot’ (p. 157). Leaving aside the problematic implications of the term ‘factor into’, it seems clear that McD and her audience were able to find a ‘relevance’ which did not exist in the original text. This seems fair enough, so long as one is prepared to accept the principle that ‘anything goes’; but elsewhere, as we have seen, McD does not accept this principle. So one is left asking more big questions. On what grounds is Medea, Queen of Colchester acceptable, while other adaptations are unacceptable? Why are McD’s own radical alterations not to be seen as ‘gimmicks’ (rejected at p. 189)? Why is this revisionist performance not to be described as ‘against the text’ (rejected at p. 160)? Once again, it all seems to come down to a matter of individual taste.

At the end of the book, then, one is left with a sense of inconclusiveness. From the mass of diverse uses which have been made of tragedy, no overall picture emerges. Some readers may find McD’s transhistorical, ‘universalizing’ approach an interesting antidote to the cultural-materialist trend in current scholarship. But ultimately one is left no closer to finding out what is really so great or worthwhile about Greek tragedy, or how one should best perform it to-day.

The book is quite attractively produced, with only a few trifling misprints (‘success’ for ‘successful’, p. 23 section 6; no section-heading for Prometheus, p. 40; an omitted question-mark, p. 42 section 1; Knox’s book wrongly referred to as The Heroic Tragedy for The Heroic Temper, p. 46 section 4; ‘ Greeks‘ for ‘ Greek, p. 75 section 4; ‘is’ for ‘in’, p. 109 section 6; Tony Harrison’s entry in the Bibliography misplaced, p. 212). It is nicely illustrated throughout with photographs from a variety of the productions discussed. The cover illustration, perhaps unusually for a book about the so-called living art of tragedy, depicts some deserted and overgrown ruins.