THE MATERIALITIES OF GREEK TRAGEDY: Objects and Affect in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides
M. Telò and M. Mueller (eds.)
Bloomsbury (2018) h/b 302pp £85 (ISBN 9781350028791)
I. C. Storey
Bloomsbury (2019) p/b 192pp £17.99 (ISBN 9781350020221)
I have chosen to review these two recent books together because I think their comparison is instructive in revealing the different attitudes towards Greek drama that are prevalent in scholarship at the moment. On the one hand, we have The Materialities of Greek Tragedy. This collected edition is at the cutting edge of theoretical engagements with Athenian tragic drama, and showcases world leading scholars teasing out the implications of the tragedians’ obsession with objects and their connections to emotional experience. The editors argue that the volume is intended to ‘defamiliarize’ Greek tragedy, to encourage its readers ‘to see how Greek tragedy generates and dramatizes circulating feeling … and to direct attention to the energies, extrapolated from language, that connect or separate human and non-human agents onstage and bring these relations to bear upon audiences’ (3). They draw on the theoretical and philosophical work of ‘new materialists’ like Jane Bennett, Graham Harman and Timothy Morton to consider the way that Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles highlight the limitations of human agency when faced with a world of objects, phenomena and events that lie beyond their control.
Pronouncements about the limitations and futility of human agency are a central part of the worldview of Greek tragedy, while the theatrical metaphors that predominate in some of these theorists, where objects and humans are so many actors on the stage of the world with their conflicting wills and passions, resonates with the dramaturgical concerns of ancient drama. As this suggests, in most of these essays objects are used as a way of considering affect and not the other way around.
We see this particularly in contributions that combine discussions of well-known examples of objects in Greek tragedies, like Mario Telò’s exploration of Philoctetes’ bow and Josh Billings’ focus on the urn of Orestes’ ashes that features in Sophocles’ Electra. Telò is concerned with the emotional dynamics of friendship in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, and with how Sophocles explores the differences between respectful or cannibalistic friendship. The latter is a type of friendship where one party disregards the human identity of the other and simply uses them as an object, to be consumed and used as they wish. In the first instance Telò sees Sophocles exploring the dangers of this type of friendship metaphorically in terms of how different characters wish to possess and thereby consume the bow; in the second instance he looks specifically at the interactions between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes to examine the different equations of use and abuse that are present in the different scenes.
Billings, on the other hand, is more interested in the object itself: he charts the changing attitudes towards the urn in Sophocles’ narrative to consider its implication in the deception narrative that Orestes sets up at the start of the play. In Billings’ view, ‘in rendering the urn a significant object, language creates a reality which then proves hard to escape’ (61); rather than necessarily possessing agency itself, the fictional urn of ashes creates a network of human cathexis and activity surrounding the hypothetical idea of Orestes’ death that threatens to derail the intentions of the characters involved and create unexpected outcomes.
As many of the authors point out, the conspicuous positioning of objects in drama is also often a sign of metatheatrical considerations: A. C. Duncan in ‘The Familiar Mask’ offers an evocative comparison between the Greek practice of masked-acting and the conventions of Japanese Noh drama. The links between objects and the emotions is made particularly clearly in this chapter when it dwells on the relationship between the mask and the face, the most famous locus of ancient theatrical expression and the most obvious (though often the most deceptive) space of human emotional signification.
Other highlights include Ava Shirazi’s speculations about the presence of metaphorical mirrors in Euripides’ Hecuba, and Seth Estrin’s excellent essay on ‘Memory Incarnate’ which focuses on Euripides’ Ion and its ecphrastic descriptions of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Estrin thinks about this in terms of the everyday ancient Athenian experience of memory provoked by the sight of the ubiquitous funerary monuments of the city. The closing essay of the collection, Edith Hall’s ‘Materialisms Old and New’, offers a trenchant invitation for classicists to remember the old Marxist materialisms, rooted in dynamics of human labour, oppression and technology, for the sake of the dazzling theoretical treasures offered by the new materialisms on show in the rest of the book.
On the other hand, Aristophanes: Peace is an affordable and informative handbook on one of the A Level set texts that effectively sets out the historical context and textual complexity of one of Aristophanes’ more sincerely absurd comedies. The six chapters work through various different approaches to the play: as one of Aristophanes’ peace plays (‘Old Comedy, Aristophanes and a Play about Peace’), as an example of the genre of Old Comedy (‘Peace as Old Comedy’), as a response to the Peace of Nicias (‘Peace and its Historical Background’), as a literary text (‘Themes and Motifs in Peace’), as a performative text (‘Staging Peace’), and as a play with a rich legacy of reception and transformation in antiquity and modernity (‘Peace: Poets, Plays and Posterity’). There is also a short appendix on the debate, sparked by Alexandrian scholiasts, as to whether or not Aristophanes wrote another version of Peace to the one performed in 421BC (spoiler: Storey thinks not).
Storey is most compelling when writing about the formal structure of the play in the chapter on Old Comedy, as well as when setting out its historical and performative contexts. That being said, the author does a good job of bringing all these disparate approaches and contexts together and presenting the reader with a very readable account. The book is especially useful on account of its catholic structure: most treatments of Aristophanic comedy have a particular commitment to one or other approach to the plays (be that formal, historical, philosophical, etc.) and it is rare to have all of these ideas collected in one slim book.
The Materialities of Greek Tragedy is best aimed at higher-level students, and certainly those interested in literature, while Aristophanes: Peace has a more historical flavour and is suitable for all levels. But one lurking concern with this reviewer is the fact that little seems to unite the visions of Greek literature, and of what we should think about it, on show in these two books. There is apparent a growing schism between those who would approach a text as a showground for theoretical fireworks, and those who would use it as a document for historical reconstruction. Indeed, the frames of the different books make the plays under discussion look very different: you come away thinking that Sophocles is a continental philosopher à la Deleuze or Derrida creating mischievous, polyvalent texts, while Aristophanes is a jobbing comedian writing plays that respond to historical events and entertain the audience. Maybe that was the case (though I’m tempted to say it could have been the other way round); perhaps by giving these two texts alongside each other to students to think about they might be able to divine the direction in which Greek literary studies is going.
Adam Lecznar, UCL