BMCR 2020.10.55

Tragic workings in Euripides’ drama: the anthropology of the genre

, Tragic workings in Euripides' drama: the anthropology of the genre. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2018. Pp. 512. ISBN 9788763545952 $60.00.

The book under review focuses on Euripidean drama, but also argues, more broadly, that analysis based on anthropological theory provides an interpretative key to understanding not only individual plays, but Athenian responses to tragedy in general. In the process, the author rejects a series of earlier approaches to Athenian tragedy, suggesting that as scholars we must search not for the meaning of any individual play, but rather its effect(s) on the original audience. The basic thesis is that ancient tragedy, and the dramas examined in this book in particular, revolved around violations of “socially unquestionable” institutions or values (passim) as part of a “collective social process” (p. 17) that ultimately reinforced social norms and promoted cohesion within the audience-community.

The book is divided into two parts, one on theory (chapters 1-3), and another consisting of analyses of seven plays by Euripides. Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) concentrates on refuting several hermeneutic approaches that have dominated the study of Greek tragedy in recent decades. Des Bouvrie is especially critical of the “intellectual mode of critique” (p. 19) that looks at tragedy as an artistic movement that challenged or questioned Athenian norms, but the shortcomings of psychological or moralizing interpretations of ancient drama (among others) are also singled out for attention. According to Des Bouvrie, all of these share a tendency to view ancient drama through modern eyes, with the result that we often focus on flaws in the plays (lack of unity, lack of a real protagonist, etc.) that would not have been evident or meaningful to the original audiences.

The second chapter (“The culturally-symbolic nature of Attic theater”) traces the origins of Athenian drama and argues for the ritual nature of the performance setting. Of particular interest is Des Bouvrie’s contention, in the first part of the chapter, that Attic drama may have evolved as a response to the threat of stasis, as a means of re-unifying the Athenian body politic. Drawing on the anthropological work of Stanley Tambiah, Victor Turner, and Barbara Myerhoff (and others of that generation), Des Bouvrie then argues that tragedy should be understood as a total ritual experience. As such, it “discouraged inquiry into the ‘unquestionable’ social order” and instead provided a “mobilization of the group into some collective response” that reaffirmed Athenian norms and values (p. 71-73, italics in original). The chapter closes with the argument that tragedy produced an effect of “under-distancing” (as opposed to the “over-distancing” provoked by comedy), whereby Athenian audiences became so absorbed by the dramatic action that they experienced a loss of “self-awareness.”

Chapter 3 (“Theory and methodology”) outlines the “effects” of tragic theater on its audience, and how these were achieved. Due to the condition of under-distancing, Des Bouvrie envisions an audience that observed the dramatic action with intense focus and silence, its primary affective experience being “shock and horror” (corresponding to Aristotle’s eleos and phobos). Because of this, rather than questioning central values and institutions of Athenian society, tragedy brought audiences together in their horror at violations of social norms, and may ultimately have “contributed to uniting the competing parts of the polis” (p. 104). Des Bouvrie then identifies a handful of formal features that provoke under-distancing, including the structure of the dramatic events, the avoidance of “improbability,” and the use of cultic mousikē. Above all, however, it is the “disruptions” of “‘socially unquestionable’” institutions and values that produce “‘tragic workings’” (p. 109) and generate the appropriate collective responses of shock and horror.

Part II (“Interpretation of dramas”) examines seven different Euripidean plays following the theories set forth in Part I. For each play, Des Bouvrie begins with a catalogue of “Problems of Interpretation,” in which she identifies areas in which uncertainties about the play persist, often attributing these to faulty critical approaches. After that, we see an outline of the “tragic workings” of the play in question, namely the “socially unquestionable” institution or value around which the tragedy revolves, and whose violation moves the audience to shock and horror.  Finally, each chapter moves sequentially through the tragedy, addressing each episode and song of the play but focusing on moments that show how a disruption of social norms is the central aspect of the play, and how the audience is gradually affected by this disruption. In general, it is either explicit or implied that by focusing on the ‘tragic workings’ of each drama, the interpretative difficulties outlined at the beginning of the chapter disappear.

Andromache revolves around the dissolution of the oikos, and following Des Bouvrie’s analysis, many major events and elements in the tragedy fall into that category fairly neatly: Hermione’s inability to conceive, the question of the identity and legitimacy of Andromache’s son, the death of Neoptolemus, Peleus’ despair. The resolution of the drama, in which we learn that Andromache’s son will carry on the family line, both ‘resolves’ the disruption of the oikos and adds a new problem, insofar as the Athenian audience sees “a slave intrude into the oikos line” (p. 148).

In Hecuba, the social norms disrupted are the reciprocal values of philia and xenia. The major dramatic moments of the play thus focus on violations of these two principles, first by Odysseus, who refuses to help Hecuba save Polyxena, and second by Polymestor, who has killed Hecuba’s son Polydorus. Intriguingly, we learn that the emphasis on the violations of these core principles ultimately “justif[ies Hecuba’s] act of revenge” for the Athenian audience (p. 174). The solution is a neat one and contributes to an ongoing discussion of one of the play’s many confounding aspects.

With Iphigenia in Tauris we return to the question of disrupted descent lines, this time in the House of Atreus. The analysis is convincing for the first part of the play, during which the threat of Orestes’ death, as suggested (for example) by the dream sequence related by Iphigenia, is indeed prominent. Less convincing is the argument that the aetiological ending of the play fits into this disruption of the oikos that make up the tragic workings of the play.

Iphigenia at Aulis consists of an “inversion of the social order, and interchange between male and female destinies” (p. 220), exemplified in particular by Iphigenia taking on the (institutionally male) role of sacrificing herself for the good of her fatherland. Des Bouvrie astutely argues that the many changes of mind throughout the play “create a tragic current that pulls the audience between hope and fear” (p. 226) concerning the impending violations of social norms.

In the final three plays examined in this book (Troades, Heraclidae, and Heracles), Des Bouvrie sees disruptions of the ‘institution’ of the male warrior class. Of these three, the analysis of Troades is the most successful and intriguing. Here we see that the absence of the male warrior class, emphasized by the many laments for the loss of Hector and symbolized by the murder of Astyanax, “expos[es] the (male warrior) audience…to a ‘shocking and horrific’ provocation” (p. 255), namely the suffering of the women of Troy. Des Bouvrie argues that the effect of this disruption is not to cause the Athenian audience to question the act of war or its justifications, but rather to reinforce the necessity of the male warrior class in the polis.

Heraclidae and Heracles propose similar violations of the warrior institution, with similar emotional outcomes. Heraclidae does so through the presence of characters either too young or too old to fight effectively, and above all by the need for a young woman to sacrifice her life to save her family.  Heracles’ disruptions revolve around the main character himself, first his absence, then his madness, and finally with Theseus’ resolution of the problem at the end of the play. In each case, the effect is again to restore a collective faith in the importance of the warrior class.

The book’s studies of individual dramas are on the whole convincing, though (as with any book) some interpretations are more successful than others. The analyses of the narrative and formal features of the play are lucid and generally support the author’s conclusions; textual analysis, when present, is sound, though one might wish to see more of it. Naturally, not every aspect of any play can be explained by focusing on a single set of ‘tragic workings.’ The fact that Des Bouvrie essentially passes over entire episodes and choral odes in every play strongly suggests that the ‘tragic workings’ only tell part of the story. Nevertheless, many of the book’s interpretations help advance conversations about the individual plays, such as the idea that the tragic workings of Hecuba push the audience to accept Hecuba’s final acts of vengeance (to name just one example).

The book’s general approach to the study of Greek tragedy is perfectly reasonable and oftentimes illuminating: Des Bouvrie capably shows how we might use anthropological theory as a means to understand the communal affective experiences of Athenian audiences. Still, it is a mistake, in my opinion, to present this as the only way to properly understand tragedy, even from the perspective of the original audience. While tragedy surely provoked a collective response from its audience – nearly all large and intentional gatherings of humans do so, ritual context or otherwise – it seems unlikely, to this reviewer at least, that either the goal or the effect of every tragedy was “the orchestration of identical experiences” (p. 74) that promoted social cohesion amongst all members of the audience; in recent decades, scholars of ritual studies have themselves complicated those notions.[1] As a result, the focus on refuting other critical approaches and interpretations is excessive, and at times distracting: it is important to understand where the author stands in relation to current scholarly trends and consensus, but it need not be the primary emphasis, as it often is in Part I.

Moreover, in building her case for a single approach to the genre, Des Bouvrie sometimes pushes farther than the evidence admits. On a general level, and regardless of the individual merits of anthropological theories regarding the functions and effects of communal ritual performances, we simply do not have the evidence to state with certainty that the City Dionysia occupied a similar cultural space as those rituals examined by modern anthropologists, nor indeed do we know the extent to which the ritual experience of the City Dionysia remained consistent throughout the fifth century BCE. More specifically, regarding the organization and behavior of tragic audiences, the evidence from primary sources is not as straightforward as Des Bouvrie suggests, and at least one of the essays cited[2] to support the notion that tragic audiences were typically silent actually argues the opposite point.

The book nevertheless holds much of interest for students and scholars of Greek tragedy, and in many ways provides an important counterweight to recent critical trends in the study of the genre, including those to which the current reviewer subscribes. The argumentation is clear and concise throughout, including the discussions of anthropological (and other) theory. The book will in general be accessible to readers who are not experts in the field(s) of study per se, though the absence of translations for most of the Greek quotations may be a prohibitive factor. Ultimately, it proves a fine guide and survey of how we may use anthropological theory to understand ancient Athenian responses to tragedy.


[1] The literature on the subject is vast. For very different takes, one theoretical and one practical, see C. Bell, Ritual Theory and Ritual Practice (Oxford 1992); and R. Brightman, “Traditions of Subversion and the Subversion of Tradition: Cultural Criticism in Maidu Clown Performances,” American Anthropologist 101 (1999): 272-287.

[2] R.W. Wallace, “Poet, Public, and ‘Theatrocracy’: Audience Performance in Classical Athens.” In L. Edmunds and R.W. Wallace (eds.), Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece (Baltimore 1997): 97-111.