BMCR 2005.07.43

A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama. Blackwell Guides to Classical Literature

, , A guide to ancient Greek drama. Blackwell guides to classical literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005. xi, 311 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 1405102144. $29.95 (pb).

Blackwell Guides to Classical Literature are designed to complement and introduce primary source material. Ian Storey and Arlene Allan (SA) have composed the first work in this series, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama. SA contextualize the plays, giving background information on the authors and genres. They also provide summations of current directions in scholarship, various interpretive approaches and synopses of all extant plays. A lack of full references and bibliographic footnotes limit the book’s potential to serve more advanced students. Nevertheless, with a few reservations, it is an excellent companion for students new to ancient Greek drama. Its comprehensive scope and inclusion of minor figures makes it especially useful for teachers wanting to give students a more complete picture of the subject.

SA divide their book into 6 chapters (drama, tragedy, satyr-play, comedy, approaches and synopses), each further divided into sub-chapters. Chapter 1 is a general introduction to Greek drama, providing discussions of the dramatic festivals, drama’s relationship to Dionysos and to the polis, the physical space and mechanics, and the audience. SA cite primary sources and current scholarship, introducing some of the ongoing debates on the nature of Greek drama.

Chapter 2 covers tragedy. SA begin with an overview of tragedy and its origins, where they seek a working definition of tragedy that takes into account both Aristotle’s views and more modern understandings of the ‘tragic.’ Following discussions of plot, character and the primacy of word over staging effects, there is an excellent, detailed look at the structure of a tragic play. SA give brief overviews of other, less well-known playwrights but focus their efforts on the tragic triad: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Each section on the major tragedians has an overview of life and works, dominant themes, importance of character, choral technique, innovations and their relationship to contemporary social, political and philosophic movements.

The section on Aeschylus is very thorough, and the overview of works even includes the debate on Prometheus. SA also provide a good discussion of Aeschylus’ tragic technique, pointing out that he made good use of the limited stage effects available. SA’s treatment of Aeschylus’ use of tension, as opposed to Aristotle’s emphasis on reversals will surely help students appreciate Aeschylus’ unique approach to drama. There are good introductions to the scholarly debates, giving ample and very good examples, especially on the moral and divine apparatus of various plays. From a teaching standpoint, the discussion of fate is especially welcome. As SA point out (and teachers of ancient drama know only too well), modern readers often fall back on Fate as a convenient explanation for what happens in Athenian tragedy. However, most tragic heroes are not without choice and are responsible for their choices. In a brief section titled ‘Aeschylus and his Age,’ SA give an informative overview of the major historical and political events of Aeschylus’ life. They discuss how some of Aeschylus’ plays, specifically Persians, Eumenides and Suppliants, reflect these historical and political developments. Overall, the Aeschylus section is clear and concise, with enough information to start students down a path without forestalling their own ideas.

The section on Sophocles is disappointing. The views are traditional and, for the most part, uninteresting. Unlike the discussion of Aeschylus, there is not much here to excite students to want to read a play by Sophocles. Even the discussion of Sophocles’ irony is dry and, although it is one of the longest parts of this section, seems rushed. Oddly, in a book so careful to define terms, SA never define what they mean by ‘tragic irony,’ giving instead a series of examples as a definition.

Most disappointing, however, is the discussion of Sophocles and the polis. One problem may be that they seem to be working under a pre-Goldhillian notion of the ‘political’. For SA, a play does not have “Athenian relevance” or “definite political overtones” (130), unless it addresses, as Aeschylus’ Eumenides and Persians do, specific historical developments. In looking at the possible political significance of each play, SA simply ask whether or not Kreon is Perikles or whether Ajax reflects his status as an Athenian hero or whether Oedipus is an allegory for Athens. This limited understanding of the ‘political’ may have led them to dismiss any political reading of OT, stating: “Athens is all but invisible in this drama” (131). An uninspiring introduction to Sophocles and the political.

The bibliography on Sophocles is symptomatic of their approach to Sophocles’ relationship to the polis. With the exception of three discussions of specific plays, SA list no studies of Sophoclean drama later than 1989, and J. Griffin’s excellent Sophocles Revisited (1999), which provides a number of interesting and more recent political approaches to Sophocles’ drama, is conspicuously absent. Also absent from the more general bibliography is C. Pelling’s Greek Tragedy and the Historian (1997), which also has chapters devoted to recent historicist approaches to Sophocles.

Useful and interesting, however, is the discussion of Sophocles’ moral universe. Beginning with the various approaches to Sophocles’ morality taken by scholars over the years, SA do an excellent job pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each. However, I was surprised to discover no discussion of fate in Sophocles. Surely Oedipus Tyrannos is the play that sends students down the ‘all tragedy can be reduced to fate’ spiral. They do, however, take up the issue of the ‘tragic flaw,’ a welcome and clear dismissal of this common mistake.

In contrast, the treatment of Euripides is exciting and will certainly stimulate students to read his plays. SA do a good job of preparing students to approach the sometimes unorthodox myths found in Euripides. A short discussion of psychology leads into one of the touchstone debates in Euripidean scholarship, his representations of women. SA take up the age-old question: Was Euripides a misogynist or feminist? They do a good job of laying out both sides of the argument without privileging either. And, although short, the section sufficiently introduces the major questions surrounding Euripides and women for students who will definitely encounter it.

SA also delve more readily into the contemporary context of Euripidean tragedy. They briefly examine a number of plays in this context, including Suppliant Women. Of great interest to students will be the short discussion of how Trojan Women especially seems to be permeated with anti-war sentiments even as Athens engages in the Peloponnesian War. The discussion of Euripides ends with a look at ‘New Music’ and Euripides. Although the section is interesting, it will be lost on students reading in translation, who will not recognize the metrical variations and structures. Also, this section would have been perhaps better located with the discussions of Euripides’ innovations and dramaturgy.

Chapter 3 gives a brief overview of the typically overlooked genre of satyr play. This chapter efficiently covers what little we know of satyr plays, making good use of extant fragments and Cyclops. This is a very enlightening and generally interesting read, which will be especially useful for students reading Cyclops.

Chapter 4 takes up Comedy. This chapter is structured slightly differently. While SA start with an introduction to the genre in general, the sub-chapters are divided chronologically using the traditional delineations of Old, Middle, and New Comedy. Within each of these sub-chapters are located discussions of the various comedians. Although Aristophanes gets the fullest treatment, there is ample information about other known comic poets such as Kratinos and Eupolis. This larger look at the world of comedy is a welcome perspective since, as SA point out, our knowledge of Old Comedy, at least, is probably skewed due to a reliance on Aristophanes.

The section on Old Comedy, not surprisingly the longest, will be especially useful for students whose expectations about comedy are conditioned by sitcoms or stand up. SA begin with the primary defining characteristic of Old Comedy: the lack of a real ‘plot.’ Old Comedy, they emphasize, was rather a ‘fantasy’ or ‘farce’ centered on a great idea. Next, come useful discussions of staging conventions, the use of the chorus and four smaller sub-sections on types of comedy: artistic parody, Golden age themed, political or topical and, of course, the comedy of ideas. Each of these sections gives ample examples not just from Aristophanes but also from the extant fragments of other comedians. Following this are sections on each of the various generations of Old Comedy, beginning with the semi-mythical Chionides and ending, of course, with Aristophanes. Each section is well-written and informative on the evolution of the genre.

Like the three tragedians, Aristophanes gets his own section. Although Aristophanes is only allotted 9 pages as opposed to the 30 allotted per tragedian, SA do an excellent job in that space. Since they have laid the groundwork in the previous section, SA simply point out where Aristophanes seems to have excelled or been innovative. His fondness for tragic parody is highlighted as is his panache for political satire and topicality. It is a stimulating introduction (when read in conjunction with the preceding sections) of what makes Aristophanes so good.

The sections on Middle and New Comedy combined take up 10 pages, not surprisingly considering the exiguous remains. SA treat Middle Comedy as a transition period from the fantastic, topical and brash Old Comedy to the plot- and type-driven comedy of Menander. SA deduce the rise of the mythological burlesque (which they suggest has its roots more in the romantic tragedy of Euripides than in Old Comedy) from fragments as well as the development of the well-known stereotypes of later New Comedy such as the parasite, the cunning slave, young man in love, etc. This last suggestion comes more from known titles of plays ( Heiress, Pimp, Soldier, Vine-Cutter, etc.) than from actual remains. They also point out that the rise of domestic themes is an important segue to New Comedy, where most of the action focuses on the household.

Chapter 4 ends with an examination of Menander and New Comedy from which our own staged comedies, primarily television sitcoms, derive. The section, though brief, reveals the style and influence of New Comedy. They point out the hallmarks of the genre: the standardization of the comic plot and characters, the almost complete disappearance of the chorus, and the more realistic and domestic settings. The section is well-written and makes good use of the few sources available. When read in conjunction with the rest of the chapter, this section provides a good introduction for students reading Menander.

Chapter 5 gives brief overviews of some of the major scholarly approaches to Greek drama, beginning with textual criticism and New Criticism and including more theoretical approaches like psychoanalysis, gender studies and performance criticism. Overall, I found the chapter disappointing. SA use Sophocles’ OT as its touchstone text and do not provide examples of analyses from comedy. The brevity of the descriptions are useful in some ways, but they can also be somewhat reductive. Only gender gets its own bibliography. There is not much here that will inspire students or make clear to them the variety of ways one can interpret or approach a dramatic text.

Chapter 6 is composed of synopses of all the extant tragic and comic plays. Each synopsis includes: 1. All the titles under which a play may be listed; 2. a proposed date and place of initial performance (if known); 3. list of characters and members of the chorus; 4. a description of the setting; 5. a synopsis; and 6. a brief analysis. The synopses are short and clear, giving just enough information for a student to understand the generalities of a play without allowing them to get by without reading the play itself. The analyses do a good job of pointing out what are typically the major scholarly issues with a play and its major themes.

Although the synopses are useful, they occasionally present a certain avenue of interpretation only to say it is not necessarily a good approach, effectively shutting off a possible path of inquiry that a student may be interested in taking. For example, when discussing Aristophanes’ Birds, SA state that many scholars see political undertones in the play, including a possible comment on either the recent Sicilian disaster or Athens’ empire. SA respond: “But on the balance it seems preferable to regard this comedy as a marvelous piece of fantasy, without investing it with any more serious or sinister overtones.” Of course, in composing an introductory guide, SA must walk a fine line between their own and different opinions; here they perhaps too quickly shut off a possible avenue of interpretation.

In a brief Appendix, the reader is also provided with a glossary of common terms and the short ‘Notes on Meter.’ These are both very useful, although I recommend reading the notes on meter before reading the rest of the book since SA typically discuss meter in a way that assumes knowledge of it.

Two limitations of this introduction are the lack of consistency in references and the bibliography. There is no uniformity in the use of references within the body of the text. Sometimes no source is given, sometimes a name is given without further reference, sometimes a name with parenthetical date, and sometimes (rarely) a full footnote. For example, when discussing the debate on the relationship between Dionysos and drama, SA quote Taplin (1978) but give no page number. This is followed by references to both Goldhill and Seaford with no citations whatsoever but a reference to Scullion (2002). This is typical of documentation for the entire text and can pose any number of difficulties for a student wanting to read further on this or another topic. For while there is only one Taplin text and one Scullion article listed in the bibliography, there are a number of Goldhill listings, leaving one puzzled as how to find where this particular issue is discussed. Also, the Seaford to which SA refer is a chapter in a collection of essays and is not listed separately in the bibliography. The one Seaford article listed separately does not deal with the question of Dionysos. This may cause some confusion.

The bibliography also leaves something to be desired. First and foremost, the formatting is not user-friendly. The listings are broken down into sections, which appear to coincide with the chapter headings, but do not. Moreover, each section is structured as a continuous paragraph and the listings are neither alphabetical nor chronological. Because of this, one cannot simply look up a name that was cited in the text and easily find the article or book in question. Together with the lack of consistent citation within the text, students looking for further reading on a topic or preparing to write a research paper will be at a loss.

Overall, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama is a valuable companion text for an introductory course in Greek drama. It is clearly and engagingly written, and only occasionally does the language becomes dense and difficult (e.g. the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1). There are problems with references, but this should not deter one from using the book. Students will find it informative and instructors will find themselves free in class to focus their efforts on interpreting texts rather than simply introducing them.