BMCR 2021.10.28

Refiguring tragedy: studies in plays preserved in fragments and their reception

, Refiguring tragedy: studies in plays preserved in fragments and their reception. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 80. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. 162. ISBN 9783110659740 $118.99.


Like ancient pottery shards, textual fragments can provide a wealth of useful information about antiquity, but both pottery and textual pieces present significant interpretive challenges by virtue of being separated from their larger wholes. Ioanna Karamanou’s Refiguring Tragedy: Studies in Plays Preserved in Fragments and Their Reception presents a series of case studies that (partially) reconstruct ancient Greek tragedies surviving only in scraps by locating the fragments within contexts of reception, commentary, and the playwrights’ other works. In addition to trying to understand the plays in themselves, Karamanou uses the process of context exploration—a concept she borrows from Charles Martindale—to assess audience reactions to these plays and how those reactions influenced the playwright’s dramaturgical choices. Karamanou regularly returns to the concept of an audience’s horizon of expectations to assess how viewers would have received particular dramaturgical points. Refiguring Tragedy brings together a range of approaches to context exploration, modeling a dynamic attitude to the reception of ancient fragments.

In addition to the Introduction, Karamanou’s book is divided into four sections with different areas of focus. Part I examines how subsequent dramatists adapted the work of plays now surviving only in fragments. The chapter study reconstructs Euripides’ Antigone by assessing evidence for how it differed from the Sophoclean version to which Euripides was replying (24-25). Among other sources, Karamanou traces trends in Euripides’ later plays to provide dramaturgical context for the author’s approach (21-23) and traces Euripides’ influence on Astydamas’ mid-fourth century BCE version (18). The methodology in this case study involves tracing a constellation of influences and reactions to reconstruct the lost Euripides play.

Chapter two utilizes a similar methodology to examine three different versions of the Alope myth—by Choerilus, Euripides, and Carcinus—which reflect differing values and concerns in the late sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE respectively. These different versions of the same myth reflect shifts in the political, cultural, and aesthetic tastes of dramatists and audiences over roughly a century and a half. As Karamanou argues, examining these three versions may elucidate “the varied strategies through which the mythic material is reshaped and the complex dialectic between the dramatic work and its socio-cultural conditions. This exploration may also yield insight into each poet’s dramatic agenda, as well as into the ‘horizon of expectations’ of the audiences of each different time period” (47). Whereas chapter one compares dramatic versions of a myth to reconstruct a lost play, this chapter compares versions to understand each play’s dramaturgical and receptive context.

Chapter three argues that Menander’s Periceiromene reworks Euripides’ lost Alcmaeon in Corinth’s plot and themes, shifting them from a tragic to a comic milieu (54-55). One major argument of this chapter is that Menander’s fourth-century audiences would have been familiar with and attuned to Euripidean tragedy, and therefore would have recognized the sophisticated ways in which Menander metatheatrically borrows, recontextualizes, and even quotes from Alcmaeon in Corinth (57). The methodology demonstrated in this chapter involves not only drawing insights about a lost play from a later text, but also assessing the influence of Alcmaeon in Corinth on fourth-century audiences based on their recognition of Menander’s source material.

The second section of Refiguring Tragedy looks specifically at Aristotle’s Poetics and how it reflects the reception of several plays that are otherwise completely lost. The Poetics contains numerous references to works not discussed or preserved anywhere else—such as Agathon’s Antheus or Anthos, Theodectes’ Lynceus, or a Polydidus play about Iphigenia and Orestes—and chapter four specifically catalogues these references, trying to reconstruct as much about the plays as possible by supplementing Aristotle’s descriptions with sources about the general myth cycles. However, what Karamanou ultimately concludes is that the way Aristotle discusses these plays reveals his aesthetic views, particularly his dedication to mythos/plot, as well as his complex attitude toward audience influence on dramatists (71-72). Here she uses a strategy of reading back from a commentary on lost plays, which gives useful insights into both the plays and the agenda of the commentator.

The following chapter examines in detail Aristotle’s reception of Theodectes’ play Lynceus, which Aristotle identifies as having a particularly strong plot (80-81). As Karamanou established in the previous chapter, Aristotle’s commentary often reveals his theatrical preferences, including the importance of plot in his schema. There are other sources which may discuss Theodectes’ play, but it is not certain whether they refer to Lynceus specifically, or are later treatments of the Danaid myth in general; however, Karamanou notes that “We are on a much safer ground for the recovery of a lost plot when consulting, assessing and combining evidence from ancient sources, as far as possible, rather than when having to resort to mere conjecture” (80). This is a good methodological summary of Karamanou’s approach throughout the book, which tends to build constellations of evidence from various sources to triangulate these lost plays and audiences’ reactions to them.

The two chapters of Part III look at visual representations of dramatic scenes on South Italian vases and mirrors to assess the influence and visual language of Greek theatre. Chapter six looks at a South Italian vase, which helps fill in missing info about Euripides’ Dictys, including which god’s altar the suppliants fled to—Poseidon’s (91). Interestingly, while the vase differs in significant ways from Attic dramaturgy—such as in depicting more characters than would be able to speak in fifth-century tragedy (94)—the painting still likely reflects a theatrical performance/inspiration seen by the artist and possibly signals a revival of and renewed popularity for Dictys in South Italy in the fourth century (95). Drawing on visual depictions of theatre performances not only helps reconstruct plots but also locates Attic tragedy within a larger cultural and artistic context.

Chapter seven continues looking at Italian receptions of Greek drama. Fourth- and third-century BCE Etruscan reliefs on the backs of mirrors depict a version of the chase and supplication scene from Euripides’ Alexandros, and while they might help fill in some details of Euripides’ plot, they may also reflect later reworkings or alterations to the tragedy. However, regardless of how helpful they are for reconstructing Euripides’ original plot, the mirror back reliefs do show a continuing engagement with Alexandros among fourth- and third-century Etruscans, who obviously recognized the theatrical scenes (105-106). As in the previous chapter, Karamanou here shows the importance of physical artifacts in the quest to understand the continuing influence of tragedy throughout the Mediterranean world following the fifth-century peak of tragic production.

The final section/chapter examines contemporary receptions of Euripides’ Alexandros, which can be partially reconstructed using other depictions of Paris’ life before the Trojan War. The play has had numerous multimedia afterlives, being reconstructed for the stage, opera, and TV/movies, with different writers drawing to greater or lesser extents on Euripides, myth in general, or other sources about the Paris legend. Both stage and cinema adaptations reflect contemporary values and aesthetics, either scholarly (in the case of theatre productions) or building on popularly known myths (especially with movies) (126-127). In this case study, Karamanou’s methodology draws on much more recent works to assess what they reveal about modern attitudes toward ancient drama.

There has lately been an upsurge in interest in ancient fragments and the attempt to reconstruct lost plays and other literary works. For instance, Matthew Wright’s recent Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy series similarly tries to understand lost dramatic works from textual scraps. Refiguring Tragedy makes a useful contribution to this discipline by modeling how to build constellations of context from various sources, reception by ancient works, visual representations, and so on in order to understand lost drama. The variety of approaches Karamanou takes in these case studies offer use examples of different methodological approaches for reconstructing lost plays. Her chapters demonstrate techniques like comparing and contrasting versions of a story from different eras to assess changes in approach, looking at physical artifacts like vases to see how visual artists translated stage scenes, or working backward from a commentary like the Poetics to make educated guesses based on the author’s preferences. This range of methodologies provides excellent examples of ways scholars working with fragments can approach reconstruction.

The other excellent strength of Karamanou’s book is the focus on reconstructing audience reception of Greek drama at various times from the sixth to third century BCE. Assessing ancient audience’s reactions is difficult in any case, but it’s particularly challenging (as is everything else) when working with fragments because there’s so little extant information. However, Karamanou frequently tries to determine the audience’s horizon of expectations by extrapolating from the popularity of certain fragments or depictions of a performed scene, as well as what commentaries say about them. She uses the term horizon of expectations “to refer to the receiver’s mind-set defined by his/her literary and socio-cultural context and to frame the reciprocal relationship between source text and receiver” (6). In other words, the density of references to and depictions of a particular play reflects—to a certain degree—its popularity and familiarity, and if we assume that audiences would be most familiar with plays that meet their dramaturgical tastes, then the types of plays which were popular in a particular time and place (e.g., fourth century South Italy) hint at the audience’s aesthetic.

One shortcoming of the case studies in this book is that it’s often unclear what the larger stakes for the chapter are. This is a common pitfall for case studies. The book taken as a whole provides several models for reception studies, but the individual chapters would benefit from clearer articulations of how the analysis would be useful to readers who aren’t working on these specific fragments. If I’m not studying Theodectes’ Lynceus, for instance, what should I be taking from chapter five? There is clearly a lot the chapters could be teaching readers, but the stakes are often understated in the interests of focusing on the reading of the specific lost text and audience reception.

Karamanou’s Refiguring Tragedy is insightful and ambitious in its attempts to recovery lost plays and audience responses from fragments, images, reception, and commentary. The book will be extremely useful to receptions studies scholars, Classicists, Greek drama scholars, and performance studies scholars. The chapters are quite concise, which makes them relatively quick to read and easy to return to when writing critically about Karamanou’s work. However, the references to classical texts, commentaries, and other sources are sometimes quite dense, which may make the book challenging for graduate students and scholars without thorough training in sixth- through third-century BCE Greek and Roman texts. Overall, Refiguring Tragedy makes an extremely useful contribution to the increasingly popular discipline of reconstructing fragments of ancient Greek plays, particularly in the methodological insights it provides.