Are we living in an age that is defined by tragedy, or one that is fundamentally incompatible with a tragic worldview? And what, if anything, does this question have to do with fifth-century Athenian drama? Via textual and contextual analysis of what she pointedly terms “rewritings” of Greek tragedy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Eleftheria Ioannidou has issued a fresh intervention into this age-old debate, mounting a twofold argument. On the one hand, she asserts that, mutatis mutandis, the tragic art form is alive and well in this era. Underpinning this assertion is one that is perhaps more ambitious, namely that a postmodern aesthetics and outlook is not inherently incompatible with seriousness of purpose and political engagement. This monograph is framed as a riposte to Terry Eagleton’s critique in his 2003 book Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, namely that tragedy requires the sort of coherence, meaning, and value that postmodernism gleefully rejects. According to him, there has emerged in certain intellectual quarters a Neo-Nietzschean outlook that celebrates Dionysian dissolution and destruction for its own sake, divorced from any genuine political or ethical implications. In her readings, Ioannidou demonstrates that postmodern aesthetics are not merely the product of a self-indulgent intellectual narcissism, but that they can be harnessed to manifest a dynamic and materialist form of tragedy that showcases the historical and cultural processes of its creation. She asserts in her introduction that “to adopt a deconstructive approach to tragedy does not equal dematerializing the tragic experience, but rather wishes to question the exclusions entailed in aesthetic readings and cultural discourses of tragedy” (3). On her reading, these rewritings not only foreground the contingency of canonicity and those who have languished on its margins, but also harbor a constructive, liberatory potential.
The first chapter, “Tragedy and the Modern Critical Debate,” offers a compressed aetiology of Eagleton’s intervention. Ioannidou deftly traces the way that Nietzsche’s formulation of tragedy as a dynamic interplay between the Apolline and the Dionysian has continued to resonate in both critical and performance theory throughout the twentieth-century and beyond as both an inspiration and a locus of contestation, touching on the work of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, George Steiner, Raymond Williams, and others. She then places this dialogue in further conversation with the ritual turn in classical studies, noting that in both Eagleton’s attack on postmodernism and the pushback against understanding Attic tragedy as ritual in its origins, a preoccupation with the Dionysian is charged with depoliticizing the genre. While Eagleton insists that the obsession with the Dionysian in contemporary thought is demonstrative of an irrationalism that precludes tragedy’s democratization, Ioannidou uses the structuralists Vernant and Vidal- Naquet as a counterexample. Pointing to their Marxist underpinnings, she notes that their understanding of tragedy both centers around Dionysus (who is, for them, “associated with all the notions that are frequently dismissed as postmodern obsessions: otherness, transgression, theatrical illusion, and ecstasis” ) and situates tragedy firmly within the context of the polis, as the creation of a specific historical and cultural context. She then proposes to follow Williams in “basing the study of tragedy upon its theatrical articulations” asserting that “the encounter between postmodernism and Greek tragedy… makes it possible to examine the attractions and repulsions between tragedy and postmodernism.” (36) This is a dense and closely argued chapter, and while some might wish for more generous explication in places, it rewards careful reading.
In Chapter 2, “Viewing through the Frame of Tragedy,” the author turns to her analysis of specific rewritings of Greek tragedy. In her readings of Greek (a version of Oedipus Tyrannus) by Steven Berkoff, La Ville parjure ou le réveil des Erinyes (a version of the Eumenides) by Hélène Cixous, and Cruel and Tender (a version of the Trachiniae) by Martin Crimp, she queries the practice of using Greek tragedy as a lens through which we might view immediate contemporary sociopolitical injustices. These authors push beyond facile analogy between ancient myth and modern-day conundrum, instead actively negotiating with the texts and their reception histories to subvert traditional aesthetic hierarchies (like those affirmed by George Steiner) and reveal the mechanisms of oppression. By manipulating the politics of viewing, Ioannidou argues, the ethical burden generally placed on the tragic protagonist is here imposed on the spectator.
In the third chapter, “Tragic Absences and Metatheatrical Performances,” Ioannidou notes that when the term metatheatre was coined in the 1960’s, it was defined in explicit distinction to tragedy, as a technique that undermines the reality that tragedy seeks to affirm. She counters this claim by asserting that undermining our perception of reality is not tantamount to denying true suffering; on the contrary, she asserts that “the failure of human perception to grasp reality and the entrapment within an inscrutable world is for the modern man no less agonizing than the plights of Greek tragic characters” (76). This argument is supported with her analysis of four plays that demonstrate the range of what we might consider ‘metatheatrical.’ First, she considers Roar by Pavlos Matesis (which dramatizes the spectral aftermath of the Oresteia), and notes that the metatheatrical elements therein do not serve so much to undermine reality as to probe the nature of the relationship between modernity and antiquity, the way our access to the past is disrupted and mediated. She then turns to Clytemnestra? by Andreas Staïkos and Living Quarters: After Hippolytus by Brian Friel, which test the limits of an Artaudian disruption of Western logocentrism by displaying characters who try, and fail, to resist their own textualization. Ioannidou argues that the tragedy of these rewritings lies in their expression of the deadlocks of theatrical representation. The Island by Athol Fugard, a postcolonial play about a performance of the Antigone that took place in a South African prison under apartheid, offers a more liberatory metatheatrical model. Ioannidou details the many ways that the real lives of those involved filtered into the performance, which in its climax presents a male character taking on the role of Antigone as “overcom[ing] gender and cultural divides … play[ing] the female Other as well as … adapt[ing] a Greek classic associated with the colonial canon” (93). Finally, the author turns to La Medea by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. This performance, she claims, would meet Artaud’s standard of non-representational, non-logocentric theatre. For Ioannidou, the play not only questions patriarchal convention by casting Medea as a “new woman” who, in her unspeakable crime, rebels against traditional prescriptions of femininity, but in its very form disrupts the oppressive dynamics inscribed in traditional modes of textual reproduction by blurring representational boundaries.
Chapter 4, “From Author-God to Textual Communion,” contains what is perhaps the most compelling articulation of the author’s overarching thesis. She reminds us of a common critique of the deconstructive analysis (typified in Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author”): that in abolishing authorship, the critic merely deifies and abstracts the text itself. In this view, divorcing the text from its author also divorces it from a meaningful reality, another postmodern trick that renders art incapable of true political engagement. Ioannidou counters that we might instead take this move as an opportunity not for the dematerialization of the text, but for its rematerialization, by exposing the social, cultural, and institutional forces that shaped its creation. She proceeds to demonstrate this by turning to rewritings that that are particularly textual in their approach, that hover somewhere between translations of the classical texts and adaptations of them, an orientation that Ioannidou flags as especially prevalent in recent decades. In these versions, the ancient texts stand not as progenitors of an inheritance but as participants in a creative interchange, provoking interpolation and anachronism. Ted Hughes’ Alcestis and Simon Armitage’s Mister Heracles both paint an unflattering portrait of the male hero, but their true anti-patriarchal work happens at a formal level. These texts demonstrate that “the demise of the Author is coincidental with the demise of god as well as with a rupture of the superhuman male hero who has substituted god in a modern post-religious context” (112). Kennelly’s version of Trojan Women redefines tragedy as a particularly female collective suffering and endurance, as opposed to a tragic act performed by an individual. In her analysis of Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, Ioannidou argues the post-colonial text subverts cultural hierarchies by demanding equal status with the “original” text, creating a piece characterized by its hybridity, which is evident even its title. These texts evince a new Dionysiac poetics of translation, in which the Author “re-emerge[s] as a conduit of collective experiences and preoccupations” (130).
The fifth chapter, “Textual Fragments and Sexual Politics”, is concerned with the postmodern aesthetics of fragmentation. The Dionysian turn continues here, as Ioannidou argues that the postmodernist urge to foreground fragmentation (as opposed to the modernist urge to overcome it) is no mere self-indulgence; instead, “… the textual sparagmos is an embodiment of the violence inherent in a reality constituted by power, desire, pleasure and difference” (134). The rewritings addressed here— Medea: A Sex- War Opera by Tony Harrison, A Mouthful of Birds by Caryl Churchill, and Medeamaterial by Heiner Müller—use the corporealization of the fragmented text as a way to interrogate “gender discourses, politics, and ideology.” They ultimately disrupt the idea of a timeless and universal text while using its refracted polyphonics as a way of addressing human suffering. In a conclusion to this chapter, the author makes a striking observation based on analysis of performance databases, namely that in recent years the Oedipal plays seem to have fallen out of favor in exchange for a greater focus on those concerned with filicide (Medea, Bacchae, Iphigenia). She writes, “it would seem that at a time the popularity of Oedipus appears to wane in theatrical repertoire, we find plays concerned not with the Oedipal anxiety of influence in any Bloomian sense, but with the agony for survival and continuation” (165). This is a compelling analysis, one that convincingly and elegantly demonstrates the interimplication of sexual and textual politics.
Whether or not the reader has a stake in the Marxist dispute into which the author wades, they will find much of value in the sophisticated readings presented here. Anyone interested in contemporary performance theory will find a fascinating overview. On a larger scale the book queries the very nature of contemporary encounters with antiquity and the immediate political potential of ancient texts. Ioannidou has demonstrated that there is a great deal of value in considering the ways in which even the most iconoclastic works of contemporary art might be in dialogue with an ancient past, and that these negotiations are promising sites for the development of a proactive politics. Indeed, it is the very urgency of the work that prompts me to ask: why does this study purport to terminate in 2005? Of course any effort at periodization will be, to some extent, arbitrary, but the author is clearly aware that the concerns she raises continue to be relevant; she discusses at least one primary text written and performed after her stated terminus (69), and opens the second chapter with a quote from a Syrian refugee in 2015 (38). This reader, at least, was primed for a conclusion that might touch on the continued proliferation of tragic rewritings over the course of the last decade, and perhaps even gesture into the future. But there are many worse things than being left eagerly awaiting a follow-up.