The Politics of Greek Tragedy is a well-written contribution to the discussion on the nature of this much-studied genre, directed at students and the general reader as well as specialists. The title of the book lends itself to a number of interpretations, a fact its author, D.M. Carter, is well aware of and exploits in his discussion. The first part addresses primarily the student while the main chapters engage a scholarly audience as well.
After a preface presenting the organization of the volume, the introduction outlines some methodology and guides the general reader through the history of the Athenian polis as well as the development of the theater. The subsequent chapters develop the author’s main argument starting with a number of influential theories on the nature of the tragic genre. In the third and, I think, most important chapter the weight is on the author’s theory of the political function of Greek tragedy, while the fourth offering his methodology for analyzing specific dramas, includes four concrete interpretations. A final chapter, apparently disconnected, traces the impact of political tragedy in modern European performances. Partly presented as a contrast to the original performances these modern versions aim at bringing the central thesis into focus. This may be summed up as following: fifth century tragedy was an expression of the establishment, fundamentally different from modern theater; it did not voice political dissent but invited the audience to political reflection.
Four appendices, a section of further reading, and an index conclude the book. The appendices are mainly directed at the student and general reader, Appendix A drawing parallel lists of political and theatrical events from the later 6th through the 5th centuries, Appendix B presenting the works of the tragic dramatists and Appendix C delineating the genealogical stemmata of tragic heroes and heroines while Appendix D presents a glossary of Greek terms (all transliterated). The section Further Reading offers a useful survey of the relevant literature commented on for the benefit of the student. This literature pertaining to ‘the study of tragic politics’ (188) understandably focuses on the last 20 years. Not surprisingly most is of Anglo-American origin, although Christian Meier, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Suzanne Saïd are represented (in English).
In the preface Carter orients the reader towards the center of his inquiry: ‘Above all I aim to explore ways in which the concerns of the classical Greek polis are mapped onto the dramas’ (x). The first section of the Introduction already opens the central question of this inquiry: ‘How can tragedy be political?’ He concludes that tragic dramatists offer us more subtle theater than their comic alter ego Aristophanes proclaims, moving somewhere between the poles of moralizing and criticizing.
Ch. I, ‘Introduction,’ then launches the author’s analysis of the concept of ‘political drama’: in the weaker interpretation the main characters are political figures (e.g. kings), in the stronger interpretation this kind of drama has a political function in society. Carter suggests that frequently tragedy is also political in the stronger sense. This he understands in such a way that ‘tragedy could engage with contemporary issues…; and the festival…can be considered as a political organ, allowing the audience to reflect on issues and problems relevant to city life’ (4). Acknowledging the entertaining function of tragic drama Carter underscores his view that ‘most (not all) tragedies have some political function alongside the poetic one’ (5), the specific criterion being the dramatization of the interaction between citizens, or of citizens with the wider community, with political authority, and with the law, the presentation of the role of cities, in its protecting role towards its citizens or in its dealing with enemies and other foreigners.
Carter introduces his methodological approach by first defining the ‘political’ and distinguishing between the political and the social function of tragedy. Furthermore Carter aims at reconstructing ‘what the original audience made of the plays’ (6). To this audience questions about the nature of citizenship and the treatment of enemies and suppliants were important. Behind the dramatic events there are strong political values. While the values of the polis may be ‘put to the test’ they ‘tend to emerge intact’ (7). Later on Carter will set out to support his working hypotheses with theoretical inquiry, and in order to bring students and the general reader along in this inquiry he starts with some elementary information about early Greek politics and Greek tragedy in the last sections of the Introduction. These sections include a useful overview of the Athenian democracy and the main political events during the 5th century. That the level is that of students and the general reader appears from clarifications as ‘resident aliens, known as metics’ (8), or ‘recorded by the historian Thucydides’ (12). The organization of the theater festival is given in pedagogical detail, occasionally engaging in scholarly debates, such as the question of the Theoric Fund (14) or the attendance of women at the theater festival (15). The heterogeneity of the audience is emphasized, although the Athenian citizens constituted the majority, making up ‘a more diverse gathering than was seen in the democratic assembly’ (16). We receive in addition a brief interpretation of the origin of drama, an achievement which Carter attributes to Athens’ democratic tradition, in particular to the city’s promotion of free speech (parrhesia), as well as to its accumulated wealth. ‘So there seems to be something distinctively Athenian about a genre in which several competing voices are heard at once’ (19). The conclusion is that although the City Dionysia in some way were a political organ alongside the assembly, the theater was a forum for political reflection rather than decision making, and its political nature manifested itself in ‘a concern with the life of the Greek polis in general’ (19f.).
Ch 2, ‘Some Views, Their Implications,’ investigates six modern (i.e., within the last fifty years) contributions to the debate about the political function of Greek tragedy, followed by a case study on Aiskhylos’ Oresteia. According to the author his inquiry into the political function of Greek tragedy is ‘crucial to our understanding of Greek drama and political culture’ (21).
Anthony Podlecki’s The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy from 1966 (reissued 1999), labelled as the historicist approach, is judged as too much occupied with precise historical allusions to contemporary events, although he is also sensitive to broader issues and political ideas (e.g. his analysis of Aiskhylos’ Prometheus Bound is appreciated as a discussion of the nature of tyranny and thus ‘one of the very earliest pieces of political theory in European literature,’ 24). In addition, the biographical tendency to hear the opinion of the dramatist should, in Carter’s opinion, make way to an audience-based approach perceiving the many voices heard in this drama. Political tragedy should be understood as a wider field than political action, a concern with general issues as the position of women and slaves, or ‘how to run a city, how to be a citizen’ (27).
The next political interpretation is C. W. Macleod’s article ‘Politics in the Oresteia’ from 1982. Although he too pays much attention to the historical context of the drama his approach is opposed to Podlecki’s: while Podlecki is too eager to look for topical references Macleod is too intent on denying them. Macleod’s definition of the political in tragedy as ‘a concern with human beings as part of a community’ (e.g. the Eumenides is concerned with dikê and timê, 31) is applauded by Carter although he considers it too wide, suggesting that one should distinguish between social and political issues (33). For example, Carter thinks that Macleod’s interpretation of the Oresteia as a demonstration of the lack of respect for the institutions of marriage, the household, kingship and generalship is in harmony with Macleod’s definition, but he is in doubt whether all this should be defined as political concerns (‘some of these institutions—marriage, the household—are not on their own political, but most of them are: kingship, law, and so on,’ 34).
The third approach under consideration is Simon Goldhill’s influential article of 1987 on the Great Dionysia. Carter approves of Goldhill’s overall view that tragedy ‘problematizes’ the polis (38; Carter has discussed Goldhill’s theory in a separate article in Polis 21, 2004, 1-25). However he finds serious weaknesses in Goldhill’s argument that these ceremonies should demonstrate the democratic nature of tragic drama, on the basis of the civic ceremonies previous to the performances; there is nothing distinctively democratic in the ceremonies except the libations poured by the ten generals and only few dramas represent Athens as a democracy. In addition most of the ceremonies express general Greek values. In Carter’s opinion it is Athens that puts itself on display to a wider Hellenic audience. This point of view has been anticipated by Henk Versnel in an article countering several claims about the democratic nature of tragedy: Versnel argues that Athens, far from manifesting its democracy, demonstrated its imperial position in the Great Dionysiac festival.1
The next approach to be discussed is Mark Griffith’s article ‘Brilliant dynasts,’ (note 37 gives the wrong year for this article, repeated in the Further Reading section, page 190; it should be 1995) that argues for the complex nature of tragic drama, which negotiates between the perspectives of the mass and those of the elite. Even though Carter appreciates Griffith’s views, (45), he has difficulties with the way ‘ordinary people in the audience could relate to the lesser characters on the stage.’ I do not think Carter does justice to Griffith’s subtle view of the multi-dimensional relationship between the social world of the audience and the symbolic world of drama. Griffith’s view, elaborated further in an article from 1998,2 does not assume any simple case of identification, he envisages a complex process of harmonizing social groups and coping with conflicting cultural norms.
Richard Seaford’s Reciprocity and Ritual from 1994 is discussed as a representative of the ‘new ritualism.’ Seaford’s approach to tragic drama stresses the re-enactment of polis formation: the house of the tyrant is destroyed, as manifested in the perversion of ritual, and a new ritual is instituted for the benefit of the polis’ citizens. Carter does not make entirely clear in what way he disagrees with Seaford, except that in his view most plays do not fit the model, and the fact that ritual as an explanatory factor is too narrow. The most serious flaw, I think, is rather Seaford’s two-dimensional formula of re-enactment, with drama being an artistic representation of historical developments—something which may be satisfying to the investigator, but not necessarily illuminative of the ancient festival realities.
The last approach seems to be the easiest to accommodate to Carter’s own views of political tragedy. In Edith Hall’s Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy of 1989 Carter sees a useful foundation for his own views on tragedy, although Hall’s work does not address the politics of tragedy but rather its sociology. By portraying a person who is without a city or not living in a stable oikos tragedy is in the most genuinely Greek way political, according to Carter (57, underscoring that tragedy most often deals with polis as well as oikos problems). This is an interesting point (by staging people who are not living in an ideal state the theater implied that ideal state) although he does not express himself in such clear general terms.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to an analysis of the Oresteia by hand of the approaches just outlined. Carter concludes with a somewhat disappointing statement that ‘to search for a single theory is hopeless’ concluding that ‘Different plays are political in different ways’ (63). Do we here meet the British anxiety for theory in favor of observing the wide variety of empirical facts? Since the time span is 50 years Carter could have discussed Jean-Pierre Vernant who is the origin of Simon Goldhill’s ideas or Christian Meier, who most emphatically has voiced the political and democratic function of Greek tragedy (both are recommended in the Further Reading section, 190f.), or W. Robert Connor (rather than Richard Seaford), whose theory of the origin of tragic drama in the ‘liberation’ from tyranny has caused much debate.3
Ch. 3, ‘The Political Shape of Tragedy,’ once more addresses the problem of how to define ‘political’. Refining and restricting (not ‘extending,’ as the author states) Macleod’s definition of ‘the political’ Carter adopts his own as ‘a concern with human beings as part of the community of the polis’ (67). Prior to this conclusion Carter discusses the various conditions for some events falling within this category of the community of the polis. Even if the author nuances his analysis this discussion owes much to modern categories of public and private realms, outdoors and indoors, male and female, political and domestic, which do not necessarily mirror ancient conditions, as David Cohen and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood have pointed out.4 E.g. ‘A tragedy can thus be said to be the more political the more its male characters are engaged in the public life of the city’ (67). Carter applies his definition for identifying the ‘political’ nature of a tragedy. This method betrays a fundamentally empirical approach: the description of male (seldom female) characters active in a specific arena, preoccupied with the polis, while an instance like ‘Wives (like Clytemnestra in Agamemnon) [who] may exercise a kind of…control over their husbands…but…only serve to transgress a domestic norm’ (68) is not explored more thoroughly. Once more Carter misses the opportunity to grasp the nature of the tragic medium. He sees it as just a document for the audience to observe, to reflect and think about, and continues his ranking of different character constellations from the not really political (featuring a chorus of women and characters less preoccupied with the city, 68, e.g. Soph. Electra) to the most political (‘a dialogue between powerful men,’ 69: Eur. Iphigeneia in Aulis is meant here). In this way we may learn more about present day conceptual categories and values than about ancient realities.
The author observes another way tragedies can be political, when they are preoccupied with issues of justice and the rule of law and still another when tragedies are concerned with the life of the polis (and occasionally with citizen status, 70f.). All this is basically what the scholar can register in the text. Detaching himself somewhat from the text Carter proceeds to examine the use of physical space in the performance. Starting from the notion of ‘conceptual space,’ he identifies the dichotomies of the oikos vs. the polis (separated by the door, visualized by the stage building erected in 458) and the oikos/polis vs. ‘the outside world’ (demarcated by the eisodoi). Carter considers the fact that the dramatic characters appear from the stage building (the palace), which in his view means that they move from the domestic or private into the public or political space (74f.), distilling a political message from these scenic arrangements. Violent acts are relegated to the private realm (indoors) or into ‘the outside world’, beyond the walls of the city. Carter derives as a conclusion from this fact that even if individuals are destroyed ‘the city is the perennial survivor’ (78). This is, I think, a somewhat bold inference from the observed data. Yet it is once more an extremely interesting observation. However, within a framework that does not seriously study ‘the political’ nature of the interface between drama and audience this point fades away. Another way tragedy could be political is the role of the people in tragic drama. Carter observes that the people of the city are seldom responsible for tragic suffering (82, exceptions being Euripides’ Orestes and Bakkhai), indicating that the city is seen as a precious thing and that, with its people being rarely at fault, once more, the city survives. Finally Carter discusses the fact that tragic drama stages a heroic world, and therefore in principle could not be politically relevant. He sees, however, features that sustain the idea of a political function in spite of this, in the way various kinds of constitutions are found in single dramas and conventionally associated with specific cities (Argos with democracy, Thebes with tyranny and Athens with democracy, 86, while oligarchy never appears, 88), creating a system of value-charged oppositions.
Ch. 4 ‘Four political tragedies’ launches a concrete methodology. Starting with the working definition of the political (‘a concern with human beings as part of the community of the polis’) Carter brings up three questions: When was this play first performed? What is the political environment of the play? What is the political identity of the chorus members? (90). The questions thus posed lead to examining the ‘environment’ within the drama, i.e. the nature of the social world and of its characters as well as the status of the chorus. It seems that the author has preferred questions that will lead safely to empirically verifiable results at the sacrifice of the more pressing (and interesting) questions: what was the function of this particular dramatic presentation in the theater performance? This kind of questions is evaded, probably because they are less concrete, while the author warns us against ‘trying too hard to reconstruct the response of individuals in an ancient audience’ (71). I would not recommend such a strictly empiricist method either: the ancient audience is irretrievably lost to us. But we should study the nature of the genre. Thus far we are presented with a concept of tragic drama as an image of bits and pieces of a socio-political world. And in spite of the fact that the author appreciates scholars who do not forget the dramatic quality of the texts under examination, he does not make serious attempts at investigating this aspect himself, still less the nature of tragic drama.
The first tragedy discussed here, Sophokles’ Ajax, features a polis at war, its citizens being both soldiers and sailors, while the hero’s tent introduces a surrogate house and thus saves the domestic element that Carter identifies as regular part of a political drama (91f.). According to Carter this tragedy is ‘about how to live with other people in a political community’ (including a military camp), it makes a point about authority (98), and it stages the tension between competitive and cooperative ideals (99). Thus far it may be difficult to see we are dealing with drama, let alone a tragedy, although the author makes an interesting observation telling us ‘What brings unity to this play in two parts? The thrust of the plot is the rehabilitation of a fallen hero.’ However Carter does not follow up this line and continues to clothe his analysis in terms that have become standard, implying that watching a tragedy was an intellectual (reading) exercise: ‘The play can be read as an exploration of citizenship, specifically the interdependence of the members of a political community’ (104), offering as a possible conclusion that ‘loyalty within the family or neighbourhood might lead us to question conventional political authority’ (103). Carter here seems to include modern audiences in his analysis, who are conditioned to receive drama from an aesthetic distance, contrary to what must have been the ancient experience.
The analysis of Sophokles’ Antigone likewise includes interesting observations, e.g. that ‘Creon’s speech made perfect sense’ to the contemporary audience, assuming a distance to our human rights age, with propounding the idea that the city should be given priority to the individual (107). Still, instead of discussing the way Kreon in the end proves to be mistaken (which is made undeniably clear by Teiresias) and the reason for this transformation in the dramatic movement, he catalogues the way various characters respond to this ‘city first’ norm, often in psychologizing terms up to the claim that ‘Haimon as a man will have spent far more time in public than the two sisters’ (112).
The next tragedies to be analyzed are Euripides’ Suppliants and Trojan Women. The Suppliants is classified as particularly political, according to the author — in spite of the prominence of women — poising democracy with monarchy, and contrasting Athens with Thebes. Carter thinks Euripides’ drama is ‘unusual for the depth of its engagement with constitutional theory’ (129). Here again we meet an assumption about the essence of tragic drama, this time couched in a confident statement: ‘It seems inevitable that, as a highly political medium, tragedy should also have contributed to the debate [on political theory] at least once’ (120).
The political character of Euripides’ Trojan Women is argued for in spite of the fact that the main characters are women. The drama is ‘preoccupied with the institution of the oikos, [and] in forcing the audience to consider the effects of war it is an undeniably political play’ (139). Carter wisely pays attention to the ancient sources, concluding that war was accepted as a fact of life and rejecting—a rather unique instance— the idea that the Trojan Women was a play making a pacifist statement. Carter suggests that Euripides did not criticize warfare, in spite of the fact that he was influenced by the Melian blockade.5 In sum Euripides steps forward here in the guise of a present-day distanced intellectual.
Concluding this chapter Carter suggests that ‘These four plays take us through several levels of political inquiry, from…the micro-political (how should citizens behave towards citizens?) to the macro-political (how should cities behave towards cities?’ (139). The author undeniably demonstrates a firm grasp on the political and historical material he is dealing with, investigating both the realities of the polis and the oikos. However he projects his own historical curiosity onto the dramas, suggesting that ‘these plays take us…through [a] political inquiry.’ The rule of Kreon in Antigone‘asks questions of a “city first” political ideology’ (140); ‘One question posed by all four dramas…’ (141). By using this terminology the author runs the risk of mistaking his own historical inquiry for the theatrical expression of the 5th-century Athenian community.
Carter does in fact not argue for his views, but expresses himself in hypothetical expressions: ‘If political tragedy is concerned with the community of the polis’ (73), ‘if it is in the nature of drama to present several points of view at the same time it is also likely to provoke them. If I am right, the didactic function of tragedy goes no further than to make the audience think’ (90). ‘If it is the nature of tragedy to present agonizingly extreme situations, it can also test the most reasonable ideas to extremes…Thus Sophocles can ask difficult questions of popular political morality without undermining it entirely’ (113). This intellectual attitude (tragedy tests ideas and asks questions), I think, prevents a full understanding of the genre.
Statements about the nature of tragic drama are then frequently made without proper discussion. Instead tragedy is regularly personified, ‘the plays describe for us what may have been current concerns’ (7), tragedy is ‘preoccupied with issues…’ (70f), ‘concerned with…’ (73), it ‘speaks to the problems…’ (139), ‘tragedy can underline the virtue of living in a stable oikos… [it] also gives these various others a public voice’ (57), ‘ [a tragedy] in forcing its audience to consider the effects of war…’ (139), ‘the tragedies performed there asked important questions about Greek polis culture’ (145). Or there are impersonal processes which reduce the living performance to a static picture: ‘the concerns of the classical Greek polis…are mapped onto the dramas’ (
As we have seen that (the poets’ as well as) the audience’s role is firmly intellectual, ‘this theater was …more conducive to political reflection’ (19). ‘The tragic poets create dramatic problems around these concerns, putting popular values to the test’ (7, cf. 57). And its response is in principle that of identification (see the discussion on lack of correspondence, equation and similarity between chorus or protagonists and audience, 80-84). Though Carter aims at finding out ‘what the original audience made of the plays’ (6, cf. ‘much of this book will be concerned with the relevance of tragic politics to the Athenians…,’ 19), still it is the role of the scholar which intrudes into the description of audience response.
This may be no coincidence. Early in this study the author rejects the idea of ‘the politics of tragedy in terms of a mass, collective experience …[when] the citizens of Athens sat down together at the festival’ (7). He argues that although ‘shared entertainment promotes a clubbable sense of togetherness,’ the appreciation of political messages does not (7). Here (already early in his book!) I am afraid the author has landed in a circular argument. From the study of ‘the politics of individual plays’ he slides towards a general statement of the tragic genre, ‘all this is crucial to our understanding of Greek drama and political culture.’ (21). And assuming a priori the dominance of ‘politics’ in tragic drama and advocating ‘an audience-based approach’ — equalling the heterogeneous mass with the ‘many voices’ heard in the drama (26f.) — Carter reduces the tragic performance to a political poll denying the communal workings of this ritual theater festival.
I challenge the way the nature of Attic drama and its audience response is taken for granted, and I would in fact encourage a deeper inquiry into the ‘workings’ of the genre, signalling the extremely complex processes we may assume were going on in this ritual and collective experience. In order to grasp the ‘workings’ of the theater festival we have to free ourselves from notions of an intellectual exchange. We have to include the affective and symbolic processes that were going on and study the cultural effects these mythical epiphanies may have caused in the civic community. Of course these dramas certainly staged some mimesis, a recognizable world. But Aristotle tells us in his definition of the genre that all genres do so. The specific difference of tragedy was to create disturbing action, not in order to test a proposition or to launch an academic question but to draw the audience into some collective agonizing experience. It is our task to keep this in mind and study the course of the agonizing events, doing justice to their bounded and self-contained muthos. It is not warranted to observe disparate political elements on the mimetic screen and draw conclusions on the overall political nature of the tragic genre, mistaking the whole for its parts.
The brief last chapter (Ch. 5, ‘The Political Reception of Greek Tragedy,’) is devoted to the way ancient tragedy fares on the modern stage. Here the author is clear in distinguishing between the ancient and modern roles of the theater: the way the modern stage operates within liberal democracies is very different from the ancient theater institution. Modern performances are frequently staged at the initiative of counter-cultural groups, who aim at defying the state and threatening the political establishment, while the ancient theater was controlled by this establishment, celebrating the Athenian polis. While ancient tragedies rarely made allusions to contemporary politics, modern performances of these dramas or dramas inspired by them often do so, or acquire a political meaning due to the context in which they are staged. This difference is partly due to the modern relationship of independence between individual and state, in contrast with ancient norms of the subordination of the individual. Carter discusses a number of illustrative examples, such as the Antigones by Sophokles, Anouilh, Brecht and others, staged during or after the Second World War or during the Apartheid regime, the Solidarity struggle in Poland and elsewhere, and Euripides’ Trojan Women, embodying anti-war protests. This apparently loosely added chapter succeeds thus in bringing one of the main theses of the volume to the forefront: that ancient Greek tragedy was political in a radically different way from our contemporary ‘political’ tragedy. Carter’s final sentence, ‘tragedy could ask broad political questions important to the life of the Greek city-state’ (160) suggests that, contrary to the demands of protest voiced in modern Greek tragedy, these questions were academic. I have signalled my disagreement on this point, advocating a wider inquiry into the ‘workings’ of this ritual theater festival.
The Politics of Greek Tragedy takes an important step forward in the debate on the nature of Greek tragedy. What is really good is Carter’s suggestion that we are dealing with a theater of the establishment, that it is not particular democratic and that ‘behind the dramatic events there are strong political values.’ While these values of the polis may be put to the test, they ‘tend to emerge intact’ (7), and while the citizens in tragedy suffer, the city survives (78). Although ‘put to the test’ is understood in too intellectual a fashion as ‘[asking] difficult questions of popular morality’ (113), this is an attempt at leaving the simple representation model. There is also an attempt at searching for some dramatic composition (in the unity of the Ajax, 94), both suggesting some awareness of what we may call the politico-cultural ‘workings’ of the plays. With his thorough scrutiny of the historical contexts, both political and theatrical, the author offers a presentation that is firmly rooted in history and widens our perceptions of the ancient world. Several times Carter increases our awareness of the cultural distance that separates ancient political values from those of our age. It is to be hoped that he will continue to delve into the ‘workings’ of the theater festivals and deepen our awareness of still another cultural distance.
1. Henk S. Versnel, ‘Religion and Democracy,’ in Walter Eder (ed.) Die athenische Demokratie im vierten vorchristlichen Jahrhundert (Stuttgart) 1995, 367-387.
2. Mark Griffith, ‘The King and Eye. The Rule of the Father in Greek Tragedy,’ PCPhS 44, 1998, 20-80.
3. W. Robert Connor, ‘City Dionysia and Athenian democracy,’ Classica et Mediaevalia 40, 1989, 7-32; Repr. in Aspects of Athenian democracy, with a preface by J. Rufus Fears. (Classica et Mediaevalia Dissertationes 11), Copenhagen 1990, 7-32.
4. Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Male and Female, Public and Private, Ancient and Modern,’ in Ellen D. Reeder, Sally C. Humphreys (eds.), Pandora. Women in Classical Greece Baltimore, Md. 1995, 111-119; David Cohen, ‘Public and Private in Classical Athens,’ Ch 4 in Law, Sexuality and Society. Cambridge 1991, 70-97.
5. As A. Maria Van Erp Taalman Kip, ‘Euripides and Melos,’ Mnemosyne 40, 1987, 414-419 argues, even if the Melian episode had taken place before the performance the dramatist must have composed his drama some 9 months before, that is, well before the Athenians voted to attack Melos.