THE LOST PLAYS OF GREEK TRAGEDY: Volume 1: Neglected Authors

Matthew Wright

Bloomsbury (2016) p/b 277pp £21.68 (ISBN 9781472567758)

This Volume 1 by Matthew Wright, a self-confessed ‘fragmentologist’ (why not ‘thrausmatologist’? McHardy, vid. infra), will in due course be followed by a second volume, in which the lost plays of the three major dramatists will figure. What we have here is a very useful vade mecum to the legion of the lost dramatists and their pitiful remnants. First, however, this is how W. has covered the field: after a longish Prologue, successive chapters deal with ‘The Earliest Tragedies’ (including Thespis and Phrynichus); ‘Some Fifth-Century Tragedians’ (e.g. Ion and Neophron); ‘Agathon’ (who has a chapter to himself); ‘Tragic Family Trees’ (including Sophocles the Younger, Iophon, and Euripides I and II); ‘Some Fourth-century Tragedians’ (including Chaeremon); and ‘The Very Lost’ (tragedians attested only in literary sources, etc.).

Perhaps naturally, by far the fullest chapter is that devoted to Agathon, despite the fact that a bare 34 fragments of his work remain (one of which is a single word). That we are better informed about him than others comes in large part from his portraits in Plato’s Symposium and Thesmophoriazusae (and Frogs) of Aristophanes (and it is worth observing that it is only thanks to the licence afforded at Athens by ὀνομαστὶ κωμωιδεῖν, that we have, in some cases, any useful information at all). This chapter also fleshes out what other sources can be available—in this case, Athenaeus (as so often), Aelian and Plutarch—but, as Christopher Pelling has asked in relation to Aristophanes, ‘What needs to be the case for the comic poet to have written the scene like that?’ On that basis, W. posits no fewer than fifteen possibilities for how we may read Aristophanes’ portrait of Agathon; but when he goes on to write that ‘Agathon’s Greek is extraordinarily elegant and mannered’, and develops that theme, we can only say ‘It may be so; but the fragments that have survived may not be typical’—especially if, as W. goes on to say, ‘Agathon’s aculeated style seems to be designed for maximum quotability’. W. points out that Aristotle associated Agathon with a major structural change in the composition of tragedy (though he did not view it positively); W. also tells us that there was a style of aulos- playing sufficiently distinctive for it to be named Agathonian; and more to this effect, including the truly interesting fact that he composed a play that was not taken from a myth, but was completely invented. This is a long and detailed chapter—40 pages—and it is essential reading not only for what it tells us or hypothesises about Agathon, but also for exhibiting the possibilities of reasoned speculation and the limitations of our knowledge.

In an epilogue, W. gives us a conspectus of classical tragedies which share the same title or subject-matter. This is of the greatest value, showing as it does that there are, for example, no fewer than nine versions of Medea and as many of Oedipus—which may reasonably give one pause before confidently assigning a scene depicted on a vase to one of our surviving plays—and indeed W. is suitably agnostic on this score (he refers to, but does not discuss, Trendall and Webster’s Illustrations of Greek Drama [1971]). Then, in Appendix 1, W. provides a translation of the ‘tragic fragments of every neglected author in their entirety’, in the same order as Snell’s Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, though this is not the order in which their authors appear in the book. (In a later Appendix, W. warns readers that, since TrGF is designed exclusively for professional scholars, ‘the student or general reader will find TrGF difficult or impossible to use’: but it hardly seems likely that many of the readers of this book will be unable to read Latin and Greek).

In general, W. deliberately uses as little Greek as possible: it appears, normally translated, sparingly even in the footnotes, which, let it be said, are both numerous and admirably detailed; as W. observes, he has aimed to eliminate clutter. And, since ‘many of the ancient works cited or discussed are relatively abstruse’, W.’s footnotes always ‘refer to authors and titles in full’: o si sic omnes! In conclusion, it is right to report W.’s opinion that ‘we would have a very different view of Greek tragedy today if all those (lost) plays—or a different selection of them—had survived’.

The reviewer regrets, as indeed W. implicitly seems also to do, that the fragments (pp. 206-243) are given only in English, though doubtless adding the Greek would have added greatly to the cost of the book: after all, as W. points out, ‘there has been virtually no reception of the lost plays’ and it is among the ‘receptionists’ that knowledge of Greek is likely to be weakest. There is a full, but not absurdly full, Bibliography. Recommended—especially if read in conjunction with the excellent chapters 1 and 2 of Lost Dramas of Classical Athens, edited by McHardy, Robson and Harvey (2005).

Colin Leach

 

 

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