GREEK TRAGEDY AFTER THE FIFTH CENTURY: A Survey from c. 400 BC to c. AD 400

Edited by Vayos Liapis and Antonis K. Petrides

CUP (2018) h/b 415pp £72.00 (ISBN 9781107038554)

The title could hardly give a clearer indication of the book’s contents, which, after an Introduction, comprise eleven chapters divided into three sections: Text (four chapters) , Contexts and Developments (five chapters) , and Reception (two chapters). I shall delay discussion of the Introduction until the end of this notice.

1. Text. In Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Century: The Fragments, L./S. consider the four ‘major’ figures—Astydamas, Carcinus (Junior), Chaeremon and Theodectas—as well as seven other playwrights of whom even less is known. L./S. give details of the works of the ‘majors’, insofar as they are known, while admitting that such fragments as we have are sadly insufficient to enable us to form rounded judgments: even in the case of Astydamas (240[!] plays), who was exceptionally popular, we have only 17 titles and a ‘handful’ of fragments; of minor names, Antiphon (not the orator) had the misfortune to be executed by Dionysius 1 of Syracuse—himself a minor and despised dramatist—while an ambassador there, and Diogenes of Sinope (the Cynic) composed, we are told, highly provocative and even outrageous dramas, though his authorship has been called into question. The authors sum up by regarding the fourth century as a ‘transitional period’ eventually leading to the neoteric aesthetics of Hellenistic poetry.

We waited 80 years for a commentary on Rhesus and then two appeared within a couple of years: first, Liapos’s outstanding edition of 2012 (which put paid to any remaining belief in Euripidean authorship), and now that of Almut Fries’ Pseudo-Euripides: Rhesus (2014). Since her chapter here on the drama is a ‘modified and abridged version’ of part of that commentary, which is of course in the public domain, perhaps no more be given here than F.’s conclusion, in which she points out just why Rhesus was so popular in later times (part of the school curriculum): simple language, plot based on Homer (or ‘Homer’), and relative brevity.

Much the same applies to Simon Hornblower’s chapter on Lycophron, in which, in addition to reprising his own earlier outstanding work, he has the task of considering whether, or to what extent, the poem can be said to partake of the nature of ‘drama’, consisting as it does of one long tragic messenger speech: so, a ‘monodrama’? It is, after all, also a historical document; and H. goes on to consider what other genres are co-present with tragedy in the poem. Earlier, H. tells us that over 60 Hellenistic tragic poets are known by name, and it has been estimated that ‘several thousand’ plays were written between the death of Alexander the Great and the battle of Actium (which, by an unfortunate misprint, is placed in the year 331BC). But ‘the trouble … is that so little survives of this prodigious output’. H. concludes, with K. Ziegler, that ‘Roman tragedy is the best proof of the vitality of Hellenistic Greek tragedy’.

The final offering in this section comes from P. Lanfranchi on The Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian (of which 269 lines survive, derived from Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea). Its subject is taken from the first 15 chapters of Exodus; a long section is given here in translation (but the Greek text would have been welcome). While much inconclusive debate has taken place about this curious work, L. sums up that the author employed the language, rhetorical devices, images and structural elements of classical Greek tragedy, while pointing out that the content, form and performance contexts of the praetextae are in every way comparable to those of the Exagoge. 

2. Contexts and Developments: In Brigitte Le Guen’s long chapter (Beyond Athens), the three tables giving details of festivals of dramatic performances, with details of documentation and references, throughout the Greek world, are of especial value. Naturally, these skeletons are fleshed out in the accompanying text: the underlying theme is the expansion of tragedy throughout the Greek and Hellenized world.

The long chapter on Theatre Performance after the Fifth Century by Anne Duncan and V. Liapis manages to mine nuggets of interest from a field in which, after all, only one play—Rhesus—survives. Noteworthy is the development of acting styles via ‘realism’; there seems to have been audience interest in vocal mimicry, and some tragic scholia can be adduced to throw light on Hellenistic performances of ‘classic’ tragedy; actors’ masks began to demonstrate ‘emotional’ states: and the tragic mask developed the onkos, an elevated tower of hair, for important characters. Yet, as the authors observe, ‘the vitality of fourth-century tragedy can be hard to discern in the extremely fragmentary remains of the texts and the heavy influence of Euripides’. 

Mark Griffith, on Music and Dance in Tragedy after the Fifth Century, argues strongly that tragic drama remained a highly musical event (i.e. into the fourth century and later), thereby correcting some common misconception; two musical papyri exist (and have been studied in detail by E. Poehlmann and M. L West); ‘tragedy without music’, says Griffith, ‘would be almost unthinkable’.

The Fifth Century and After: (Dis)Continuities in Greek Tragedy. Francis Dunn disagrees with E. Hall’s view that the technology of dramatic performance changed considerably, while its content remained unchanged: for D., there is no reason to think that fourth century tragedy was less diverse (in content) than that of the preceding era. He looks in detail at Song, Plot, Naturalism, Self-Consciousness and Ethical contingency (the uncertainty of living in the present): while connections exist, it is ‘well to remember that the fourth century was probably as varied and unpredictable as the former’. 

David Carter, in Society and Politics in PostFifthCentury Tragedy, also takes issue with E. Hall’s view that Aristotle was deliberately silent on questions of tragic politics. After all, Aristotle was more interested in the construction of tragedy (form, subject matter, plot, character) than in its religious and political significance: his work reflected his own priorities. C. makes the interesting point that where Athens appears in tragedy, it tends to fill a particular role as the defender of suppliants; the city is only occasionally represented as any kind of democracy; and C. dismisses the ‘myth’ that fourth century tragedy was more rhetorical than political.

3. Reception and Transmission. For Ruth Webb (Attitudes towards Tragedy from the Second Sophistic to Late Antiquity), the complexity of the reception of tragedy stemmed from its double life: i.e. the coexistence of classic texts with a continuing performance tradition, involving both reperformances in new ways and entirely new compositions. 

Finally, Johanna Haitink (Scholars and Scholarship on Tragedy ) gives a useful conspectus covering the time from the Athenian Archive to the Alexandrian Library; H. also reminds us of Mastronarde’s ongoing Euripides Scholia project, and the new editions of tragic scholia which have benefited from the development of imaging techniques.

I revert to the Introduction, by A.K. Petrides. It should have been evident from the foregoing just how tenuous is much of our evidence for tragedy after the fifth century: the only surviving play probably owes its existence to being attributed to Euripides. When P. writes ‘Pejorative semantics will insinuate themselves into scholarly discourse, for example through the use of such terminology as tragici minores to refer collectively to any tragedian from the fifth century or later beyond the ‘Big Three’ ’, or when he adds ‘The very term post-classical is problematic’, with its ‘negative suggestions of epigonism’, one fears that he faces an uphill struggle; nor, one feels, does he improve matters by referring to ‘negative upshots in metadiscursive situations … tendency to fit everything into prefabricated interpretive moulds’ (he gives the Gyges fragment as an example, citing Denys Page’s ‘circular logic’ and ‘distorting lens’ in dating it as Aeschylean rather than Aexandrian [as indeed it is now accepted as being]). P. insists that any totalizing aesthetic judgments … ‘should be withheld, or even better, avoided altogether’. Of course, there is much of interest in the Introduction, even if one cannot go as far as P., and his claim that the volume under notice aspires to fill a bibliographic gap , i.e. a comprehensive study from all angles of Greek dramaturgy after the fifth century, can fairly be said to be justified.

There is, as is customary nowadays, a huge Bibliography of 40 pages, an Index Locorum, and a General Index. The book is attractively presented , and deserves to reach a wide audience.

Colin Leach

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