Bloomsbury (2021) p/b 304pp £22.49 (ISBN 9781350124370)
For us, all that remains of Greek tragedy are scripts to be read, studied and sometimes staged. For fifth-century bc Athenians, however, drama was primarily about performance, and at the heart of that performance was the human body. In this exhaustively argued and painstakingly written study, W. sets out to explore ‘the ways in which Greek tragedy pulls up close to human bodies, examining their physical edges, their surfaces and parts, their coverings or nakedness, and their postures and orientations’. Using close textual analysis and often quite dense exposition of plots or scenes throughout, she takes as her starting point ‘the ways in which proximity, touch, and affective dynamics are envisioned on the tragic stage’, observing that, unlike vision or hearing, touch is one sensation in which an audience cannot participate directly ‘at least in its most fully haptic form’. Thus, the audience must be encouraged to experience touch at one remove through often heightened language.
Words themselves become a kind of skin through which sensation might be experienced, but they are not the only carnal surrogates to appear in drama: clothes and other coverings can intercede on behalf of their wearer or owner (think Deianira’s poisoned robe or Clytemnestra’s ‘net’), while objects such as Ajax’s shield or Philoctetes’ bow can define those who possess them, and others, such as the urn supposedly containing Orestes’ ashes, might appear to encompass them entirely. At the same time, costumes not only send key signals but reveal much about their wearers’ state of mind, whether they be Euripides’ clothes-obsessed Electra’s rags or Clytemnestra’s finery. Nor is it only audiences who might respond to such semiotic indicators: in Oedipus at Colonus right-thinking Athenians see something very different in the hero’s mien to what the grasping Thebans see.
In her final short chapter, W. considers how twentieth-century writers and intellectuals responded to Greek tragedy—especially feminist authors such as Virginia Woolf (on whose relationship with the genre W. has written at some length elsewhere) and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)—and by now it is already clear that it is chiefly from this vantage point that W. has herself been approaching the subject. While the observations of Derrida and Artaud are undoubtedly useful to the analysis of texts in comparative literature, and while W. acknowledges the value of work of scholars such as Oliver Taplin (for example in examining physicality in vase paintings), some readers may feel that she might usefully have compared ways in which other Greek genres (both literary and visual) approach issues such as touch or concealment (where some of what might seem unusual or even distasteful to enlightened modern eyes might turn out simply to reflect common fifth-century imagery, vocabulary or tropes). Perhaps, too, W. might in future usefully broaden her analysis to include comparison with wider ‘lived’ Greek practices, not least those of other rituals and festivals.
Although it is probably not for general readers with an appetite for Greek tragedy or, indeed, for many with specific interests, students of semiotics will undoubtedly find this densely written and exacting book—with its bibliography, index locorum and general index—a useful addition to their library.