The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy
edited by P.E. Easterling. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xviii + 392. ISBN 0 521 41245 5 (hb); 0 521 42351 1 (pb)
reviewed by Michael Lloyd
University College Dublin
The library catalogue at University College Dublin offers 482 items with 'companion' in the title. The commercial potential of companions has not been lost on the Presses of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and the present volume lists 'The Cambridge Companion to...' 24 authors or topics from Old English Literature to Hemingway. A companion to Greek tragedy must have seemed a plausible addition to this list, but it is not so obvious what it should contain. Basic information is readily available elsewhere, for example in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature (Vol. 1, 1985) or in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd. ed., 1996), and there are many general introductions, collections of essays, and studies of specific aspects.
The editor's declared aims are 'to study the plays in relation to the society that created and developed tragic theatre, to make practical use of strategies of interpretation that have yielded interesting results in recent years, and to take note of changing patterns of reception, from antiquity to the present' (p. xv). The book is in practice dominated by a small number of scholars (Simon Goldhill, Peter Burian, and the editor herself account for eight of the twelve chapters), representing a relatively restricted range of approaches, and often unreliable in their accounts of other views. Stagecraft, ritual, and psychoanalysis have inspired important modern work on tragedy, but Goldhill's tendentious survey ('Modern Critical Approaches to Greek Tragedy') is no substitute for an adequate account of the contribution which they have made. An example of Goldhill's method is a quotation (341) from Charles Segal's psychoanalytic interpretation of Bacchae which silently omits the beginning of the first sentence and the end of the last, thus leaving it open to entirely unjustified ridicule. Comparison with Segal's own words is made more difficult by a wrong reference-it should be 'Segal (1986a) 283'.
The book is dominated by the influence of Jean-Pierre Vernant. Vernant's contribution has been to challenge universalising readings like that of Aristotle, and to stress that 'Greek tragedy' was the product of a particular time and place. He thus interprets it as a fifth-century Athenian social institution, and raises questions about its meaning and function in that specific context. The 'tragic moment' comes when myth starts to be considered from the point of view of a citizen, and heroic values are confronted with the legal and political ideas of the democratic polis. This approach has been very fruitful, one of the most important developments in the interpretation of Greek tragedy in the last thirty years. Nevertheless, one can have too much of a good thing, and the style of Vernant's epigoni often degenerates into a litany of buzz-words. Paul Cartledge's chapter, for example, offers deep play, transgression, zero-sum competition, outreach, ephebes, discourse, ideology, problematizing, productively dialectical relationships, and radical critiques of social mores and cultural norms. This stress on the ideological, specifically democratic, character of tragedy seems increasingly questionable. The evidence suggests that tragedy dates back to the days of the tyrant Pisistratus in the sixth century, a generation before the establishment of democracy. The Vernant school persistently overstates the distinctiveness of the treatment of myth in tragedy, and underestimates what the tragedians owed to Homer.
A third of the book deals with the reception of Greek tragedy from antiquity to the present. Oliver Taplin considers representations on vases from 500 to 300 B.C., and raises the important question of why so few 5th-C. Athenian vases show tragedy in performance. He suggests that drama was too close to the day-to-day political life of Athens to be suitable subject matter for vase-painting, while painters outside Athens (especially in S. Italy) were not inhibited in the same way. P.E. Easterling discusses the process whereby Athenian tragedy was exported throughout the Greek-speaking world during the 4th. C., and became a prestigious cultural product detached from its original context. Fiona Macintosh offers fascinating information about productions of Greek tragedy from 1850 to the present. Peter Burian is given the impossible task of covering adaptations of Greek tragedy since the Renaissance, including opera, translation, and film. An entire Cambridge Companion could have been devoted to this interesting and important subject, and these 56 pages might better have been allocated to the original plays.
This oddly-structured book contains some good things, but fails to make a case that it has any function to fulfil in this form. For a more broad-minded and stimulating selection of current approaches to Greek tragedy, readers would be better advised to try the collection edited by Michael Silk, Tragedy and the Tragic (Oxford, 1996).