GREEK TRAGEDIES AS PLAYS FOR PERFORMANCE

David Raeburn

Wiley Blackwell (2016) p/b 216pp £26.99 (ISBN 9781119089858)

As an academic, translator and director of eighteen tragedies in over thirty school and university productions, R. is well-placed to write authoritatively on fifth-century dramas as performance scripts rather than texts to be studied and read. His interest lies not in modern versions or adaptations, but in original stagings, especially how plays may have sounded.

After a short introduction covering issues including the nature and context of Greek tragedy, audience, actors and performing style, R. explores Aeschylus’ Persae and Oresteia, Sophocles’ Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus and Electra, and Euripides’ Medea, Electra and Bacchae—ten plays in all. Brief assessments of each author list surviving plays, sketch biographies, and outline dramatic achievements, ‘thought and outlook’, technique, characterization and style. R. is particularly strong when considering the evolution and development of tragedy, as well as the styles and interests of each tragedian, though readers may question statements such as ‘Sophocles had developed the basic form of Greek tragedy as far as it could go’. ‘Would go’ might be more accurate.

The meat lies in analyses of individual tragedies, each preceded by a synopsis and discussion of historical background, interpretation and dramaturgy. Leading readers through texts episode by episode and stasimon by stasimon inevitably leads to some lengthy plot exposition, but the analysis more than compensates. While attempts are made to imagine scenes’ visual impact, R.’s main achievement lies in exploring the power of poetry on the ear: acknowledging that melodic scores are lost, he avers that ‘an important, very possibly, the chief dimension of Greek tragedy’s music does survive in the lyric metres’.

Treating plays almost like symphonies, R. writes passionately of ‘the relentless throb of the iambic metres … which pulses through the long threnodic exchange’ of Persae’s exodus or the ionic metre of Bacchae’s first stasimon ‘employed to peculiarly sensuous effect’.

To help illustrate this, a website accompanies the book. Here R. talks listeners through metres before he and other performers intone passages in the original, enabling non Greek-readers to experience the rhythms. There is, however, something declamatory and (endearingly) English about these readings that may cause some to question whether this was really how they sounded. Metres and technical terms are covered in the book’s appendices, too, and each chapter has a short bibliography. This engaging enterprise will undoubtedly be most useful to classroom teachers and anyone interested in how Greek drama was originally staged or trying to mount an ‘authentic’ production today.

David Stuttard

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