BMCR 2024.05.13

Greek tragedy in a global crisis: reading through pandemic times

, Greek tragedy in a global crisis: reading through pandemic times. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. 296. ISBN 9781350348110.



This book illustrates in a timely and important fashion the ways in which the ancient world can arm us with hermeneutical tools to process trauma and conflict. In this fifth year of an ongoing pandemic, with countless examples of “tragic” conflict, loss, and injustice firmly imprinted into the human consciousness by autopsy and media amplification, Telò’s observation that “the poetic form of ten emblematic plays of Greek tragedy can speak to us about the pandemic as well as the crises it has aggravated and come to epitomize” (4) calls us to consider how we as humans respond to forces outside our control and how those forces are not endemic to any one time or place. This process of reading necessitates two simultaneous vectors of interpretation, from the past into the present and vice versa: “This interpretive approach entails not simply reading tragedy through the pandemic, reading the pandemic into tragedy … but also using the ‘stasis of constant crisis’—the defining psychic atmosphere of the moment, the Zeitgeist of no-time or of saturated time—to inhabit the unsettling non-normativity, the queerness of tragic feeling” (3, emphasis original).

Telò’s approach to each of these ten plays comprises novel and insightful philological analysis, reception as illustration of the benefits of dialogic interpretation, and interdisciplinary elucidations of theory. The book is divided into four sections that each tackle one of the many aspects of the pandemic that Greek tragedy can address. Each chapter focuses on one Greek play and can largely be read in isolation, though obviously all chapters together form a cohesive whole that explores the connections between the pandemic and Greek tragedy from a variety of angles.

Part One, “Air Time Faces,” considers environmental contagion and states of being. In Oedipus Tyrannos (Chapter 1, “Oedipus”), the themes of congestion and contagion find formal expression in polyptoton, paronomasia, alliteration, and consonance, with asphyxiating collocations of consonant sounds and thematic cognates, throughout such purple passages as the parodos and Oedipus’ and Teiresias’ agōn. The Bacchae (Chapter 2, “Teiresias Cadmus Dionysus”), particularly in the queer scene between Teiresias and Cadmus, encapsulates the “continuousness alreadyness of disaster” (44), what Blanchot terms the déjà, in which the evisceration of Pentheus is part and parcel of a disaster that is both imminent and immanent. Cadmus’ breaking of Agave out of her mania ruptures the ubiquitous sense of achrony, timelessness, that pervades the Bacchae in a manner that parallels modern governments’ attempts to rupture the achrony of the pandemic with “back to normal” mandates, economy be lionized and human lives be damned (50). Various games, verbal and physical, and inordinate focus on mundane activities in Iphigenia at Aulis (Chapter 3, “Iphigenia”) attempt to fill unfillable air and time, and we find in the tragic masks that frustrate Iphigenia’s attempt at connection with her father Agamemnon an analogue to our modern masks which “became the necessary intermediary of our daily social interactions … sharpening racialized hierarchies and stereotyping along with ‘face hunger’” (66). Iphigenia as a “willing” sacrificial victim becomes a precursor to the elderly, the immunocompromised, the “frontline heroes”—those shockingly and callously deemed sacrificial or expendable to the modern pandemic by government officials like Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick (67-70).

Part Two, “Communities,” explores the various nexuses of (dis)connection that are exposed in times of crisis. In Alcestis (Chapter 4), the queer undertones of the Admetus-Apollo-Heracles relationships throw into relief the “tragedy of heterosexuality” and “toxic domesticity” (78) that doom Alcestis to die for her husband. This is one of three chapters that draws on visual comparanda, with examples like the paintings “Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis” and “Orpheus and Eurydice” by Frederick Leighton illustrating the “strikingly queer” (79) resonances and relationships of those male figures. Telò’s analysis of Euripides’ Suppliant Women (Chapter 5), on the other hand, explores disrupted community, as mothers are precluded from connecting tactilely with their unburied sons in a manner that evokes modern massacres and mass graves in Ukraine. The funeralization of the city of Thebes with haptic acts of supplication creates a sense of proto-feminist solidarity, as expectations around familial relationships are reconfigured and the ineffective state, embodied by Adrastus (a-drastos), is forced into action.

Part Three, “Ruins,” marshals as its material plays with eschatological resonances. What is left when human constructions and relationships crumble or, worse, are destroyed by forces outside our control, and we are forced to reckon with the ends of the worlds that we knew? In Sophocles’ Antigone (Chapter 6), what is left is the earth itself. Telò’s geopolitical reading of the play situates Antigone’s cave as “a locus of intimate contact with the most literal foundation of life itself (human and non-human)” (124), a space that supports and nurtures despite attempts to weaponize it or bleed it dry by characters like Creon and entities like modern “extractivist dynamics” (109). He draws effectively on Saidiya Hartman’s “Litany for Grieving Sisters”, in which a Black Antigone wanders through a deserted, post-apocalyptic New York City holding a baby, as a space in which to think through a world existing beyond and after our imaginations (111-112). By comparison, Aeschylus’ Niobe (Chapter 7) serves more as a starting point for an exploration of Niobe’s lithic nature and connection to frozen environments in sources such as Aristophanes’ Frogs and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Tristia than as a focus in its own right, due to the play’s fragmentary nature. Niobe’s “glacial ancestrality” (136) elevates her beyond mortal existence and connects her in an almost immortal fashion to the natural world. Telò’s brief but powerful discussion of a Bansky Niobe in Gaza and the ruins that surround it (139-140) has heightened impact in light of the current attacks on Gaza and the Palestinian people.

Part Four, “Insurrections,” sweeps across three plays that resonate with modern protests and uprisings such as the Black Lives Matter movement. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (Chapter 8), Telò makes his most compelling connections between the ancient and the modern by reading “Prometheus as a figure of the colonisé stripped of the right to breathe by a necropolitical police state, living in an atmosphere in which respiration has been obstructed by the polluted air of colonization” (148). Here, he explores most effectively the social justice issues inherent in the pandemic and contemporary events, like the police’s murders of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Elijah McClain, through comparisons of Prometheus Bound’s diction, structure, and musical qualities to contemporary dance performances like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s “WE. DANCE.” (created in response to the murder of George Floyd) and Akram Khan’s Xenos and media like the photograph “Untitled (Face in Dirt)” by David Wojnarowicz.

The gradual disappearance and increasing silence of the eponymous Hecuba of Euripides’ play (Chapter 9) leads to a state of silent insurrection at the play’s end, in which the plosive quality of Hecuba’s final word pais diffuses through Agamemnon’s final plosive-laden lines, figuring an appropriation of Agamemnon’s breath and the air of the environment around them (178-180). Hecuba’s atmospheric survivance finds fruitful comparison in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and the end of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The referent of The Trojan Women in Chapter 10 is less Euripides’ play than Rosanna Bruno and Anne Carson’s The Trojan Women: A Comic, a format suited for the “notorious episodicity” (182) of Euripides’ version. The noir world of the comic atmospherically evokes Picasso’s Guernica, which in turn evokes the destructive news of Astyanax’ execution, Andromache’s metamorphosis into a tree, and Hecuba’s transformation into a dog. (The chapter’s brevity—at 7 pages, the shortest chapter in the book—comes as something of a surprise).

A brief Epilogue explores Clare Pollard’s 2022 novel Delphi and the Theatre of War’s Zoom production of Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women with a chorus of Ukrainians as a means of tying the various themes of the book together: “To reimmerse oneself, affectively and interpretively, in the contagious oversaturation of Greek tragedy is to breathe the sensation of this pandemic—a curdled, clinging aggravation that, densifying the atmosphere, portends not a singular ‘storm-beaten whirlwind,’ but a proliferating, unbound agitation, a force of de-individuation that confounds the homogenization of time, never ceasing to bristle the air” (195).

Telò’s writing style is extremely dense; it frequently ventures into jargon-laden territory and rewards slow, careful contemplation of each and every sentence. Form matches content as his prose exhibits similar flourishes of wordplay and rhetoric as the Greek tragic texts to which he applies his philologically rigorous analytical lens. For example, at the outset of his introduction, he describes our experience of images of the pandemic as follows: “The ‘sonic images’—perceptive flashes arranged in a pristine parataxis of no’s; losses; voided, deserted spaces—capture the contradictory sensations left by the pandemic: the frightening yet liberating feeling of reaching the end of the world, imminent extinction—an imminence, however, laden with the chronic exhaustion of ongoing non-eventality—combined with the realization that nothing has changed, that the systemic inequalities structuring the world as we know it, the race-, gender-, and class-based hierarchies constituting the social, have not been interrupted but heightened” (1-2, emphasis original). Each phrase is a gut-wrenching encapsulation of pandemic-era emotions, from fear to exhaustion to aporia, and the sentence’s almost stream-of-consciousness composition embodies in structural character the dizzying, disorienting experience of the last few years. For all its insightful truth, though, it is difficult to deny that Telò’s diction and writing style will stymie a non-specialist or a reader whose impulse is to speed-read or engage with the text superficially. For this reason, this book best serves an audience at the graduate level and onward, especially a reader interested in tragic philology, theory, reception, and/or interdisciplinarity.

The bibliography is admirably up-to-date, with the most recent publications dating (necessarily) to 2022, and the capacious index helpfully points the interested reader towards anything from “authoritarianism” to “heterosexual melancholy” à la Judith Butler. Endnotes are extremely helpful in situating Telò’s scholarly interventions and evince careful, thoughtful engagement with his sources. All Greek in the book is transliterated into Latin characters, an understandable editorial decision (if one that slightly saddens a Greek alphabet lover like myself). Occasional black-and-white images are produced as necessitated by Telò’s discussions and used as visual comparanda in Chapters 4, 7, and 8.

In all, Telò’s thoughts on these ten plays demonstrate in admirable form the myriad of ways in which one might utilize the bread and butter of literary analysis (close reading, philological scrutiny, rhetorical evaluation) in constructing theoretical arguments. Greek tragedy arms us with tools to think through the injustices and anxieties of the Covid pandemic because of “the queer unhistoricism of tragedy, its distinctive collapsing of present, past, and future, which derives from its recontextualization of myth as a notional past in a performative present that is always a potential reperformative future” (6). This collapse of temporal boundaries ensures that Telò’s contributions to our understanding of these plays and our own current situation will remain valid far beyond the current pandemic era into, gods forbid, the next global crisis.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Reading Greek Tragedy through Pandemic Times (1-14)

Part One: Air Time Faces

  1. Oedipus (17-35)
  2. Teiresias Cadmus Dionysus (36-52)
  3. Iphigenia (53-73)

Part Two: Communities

  1. Alcestis (77-91)
  2. The Suppliant Women (92-106)

Part Three: Ruins

  1. Antigone (109-125)
  2. Niobe (126-142)

Part Four: Insurrections

  1. Prometheus (145-168)
  2. Hecuba (169-181)
  3. The Trojan Women (182-188)

Epilogue (189-195)

Notes (196-249)

Bibliography (250-276)

Index (277-286)