Sophocles, Four Dramas of maturity: Aias, Antigone, Young Women of Trachis, Oidipous the King

edited by Michael Ewans, translated by Michael Ewans, Graham Ley, and Gregory McCart, London:  J. M. Dent (Everyman) 1999.  Pp. lxxx + 331.  ISBN:  0 460 87743 7 (pb).[*]

Review by Thomas H. J. U. Talboy

Centre for Ancient Drama and Its reception (CADRE)
University of Nottingham

Michael Ewans, this time in the company of Graham Ley and Gregory McCart, presents another volume in the Everyman series that promises to be a rewarding contribution to the study of Greek Drama.  Like the editions of Aeschylean plays,[1]fn2[2] this volume presents a well-tailored and very workable edition of four of Sophocles? plays.  The introductory notes are thorough as are the extensive endnotes.  This welcome edition is an incentive to look forward to the next volume. The introduction first tells the reader that the purpose is ?to place Sophokles? texts firmly in their original theatrical context, as scripts for performance.? (p. xvi)  But, it is not until the end notes that the purpose is again stated and then seemingly addressed:  ?[the series] concentrates on the practicability of the script for and in performance? (p. 243). Nonetheless, this purpose is well met, and the extensive notes on performance help to show how these goals are accomplished.  The layout, without intrusive notes, permits the reader (performer? director?) to appreciate the style, language and plot first, before being confronted with other issues such as blocking that can readily be addressed later.  Though some points raised in the introduction and the notes (e.g., the shape of the orchestra) are debatable, addressing them does not override the stated purpose or distract from reading the text.  Indeed, the translators? own Classics backgrounds contribute vitally to achieving their aims, and the added appreciation for scholarly concerns with the ancient theater makes the volume useful in the academic realm.Always problematic, however, is any attempt to ?prove? how a dramatic presentation ?must? have been, and the tendency to believe that one can actually recreate the performance of the ancient theater is perhaps too ambitious.  Sometimes supporting annotation can be misleading to the student; sometimes it could be more informative in support of the position of the translators.  Regarding the shape of the orchestra, I am not sure that Wiles[2] really puts an end to the discussion; he may in fact create further controversy (p. xxv, fn. 29).  McCart writes about his production of Oidipous the King that ?the seating conformed to the configuration of the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens (three-quarter circle)? (p. 267), by which he presumably means what is accepted as the seating arrangement of the theater for the dates Ewans gives in the introduction, ?between around 430 and 420, or at latest 413 BC.? (p. lxxv) or does he?  On the other hand, some notes, in order to be effective, especially for the student, could be more extensive.  For example, Ewans is concerned with the assignment of roles in Aias and in passing mentions that ?the practice of normally having a maximum of three actors was not elevated into a ?rule? until Horace, Art of Poetry 192,? (p. 175, fn. 1) which is, to say the least, a considerable oversimplification.[3]As readers of Classics Ireland will wonder, this volume shows that there is relevance in the study and performance of Sophocles today.  Relevance can be addressed on at least three levels.  Does the volume present stageable/performable versions of the plays?  Does the volume interest lay people?  Does the volume engage potential students?  The first question is divisible into three subparts:  a) actual staging; b) enjoyment of the performance; and, c) modern concerns.  In answer to the first question, the matter of stageability/performance is addressed by each of the translators, and it is clear that the plays as presented (consistent with the stated purpose) can be performed and can be placed in a modern setting, if necessary.  The question of enjoyability can only be answered by the audience, and the response may well be influenced by the plays? perceived contemporary relevance or lack thereof.  In the introduction, Ewans analyzes, ?[t]hese four dramas revolve almost obsessively around five themes which reflect central problems in contemporary Athenian society:  [ ] mutability[,] tensions between loyalties to philoi and loyalty to the polis[,] the importance even in wartime of some fundamental human decencies [and] the destructive power of human emotions.? (p. xxi)  All these in some form or another are issues today and just as any text or movie can add to our understanding of these elements, surely then Sophocles can, too.  But Ewans seems to contradict himself when he says that ?the conservative view of Sophokles as loftily detached, concerned with ?timeless? or ?universal? themes is mistaken.? (p. xv)  The five themes he mentions are indeed timeless concerns, and though he attaches them specifically to ?contemporary Athenian society? this does not rob them of their universality.Can these plays, and especially, this volume interest lay people?  Yes, without a doubt, for the concerns that are addressed in each of the plays are those that many take with themselves to the reading.  And lay people who have some further interest in Greek drama would welcome the open door for further exploration and understanding.            Is this volume useful for meeting the needs of students?  In order to do so, it must be engaging on all levels, it must keep students? attention and give them enough information to help them understand, yet in other cases only give hints that make them yearn for more.  This volume certainly does ask the student of Greek drama to seek further for greater understanding of concerns in the Greek theater.  Indeed, the discussions of such things as the ekkyklema, skene, orchestra, philoi, polis, death in the view of the audience, and the number of actors, would surely incite students not only to ask why, but to seek to discover an answer.  The whole volume works well to introduce students to these questions and to the issues surrounding performance in the ancient theater.  Textual concerns and transmission of the text, though not heavily treated in this volume can stimulate the interest of students and will likely serve to link them to other works treating these concerns in greater detail.  The bibliography, though lacking some information that needs to be taken into account (MacDowell and Scullion[4]) gives the student good starting points.  Once again, Ewans has presented an engaging, delightful, and rewardingly controversial work that should be considered again and again for the casual reader as well as the instructor, and the director/actor.  He does well too in his exercise of editorial control, coordinating the translation of Trachiniae (Graham Ley) and Oidipous the King (Gregory McCart) with his own of Aias and Antigone so that variation in style by the translators is consistent with the aims of the volume.  The analysis by each of the translators and their experience with the production of their translations is of added benefit.

* For some reason the publisher prints Sophocles on the cover while the title page and throughout (as Ewans desires) Sophokles is printed.

[1] Aeschylus:  The Oresteia (London:  J. M. Dent (Everyman) 1995) and Aeschylus:  Suppliants and Other Dramas (London:  J. M. Dent (Everyman) 1996). 

[2] David Wiles, Tragedy in Athens (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press 1997). 
[3] For one thing, Horace ("nec quarta loqui persona laboret") is concerned with the number of speaking characters on stage at once, not the number of actors; for another, if there was no three-actor limit in the fifth century, the fact that every known fifth-century tragedy can in fact be performed by three actors is left unexplained.  Cf. also Douglas M. MacDowell, ?The Number of Actors in Old Comedy,? CQ 44 (1994) 325-335. 
[4] John Scott Scullion, Three Studies in Athenian Dramaturgy (Stuttgart:  G. B. Teubner 1994).  Ewans notes that he provided his own argument and additional bibliography in the works indicated in my footnote 1 (p. xxv, fn. 29), where he relied on Scullion, The Athenian Stage and Scene-Setting in Early Tragedy (Harvard PhD thesis, 1990), but he does not reference him by name in the present volume.
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