Kenneth McLeish (tr.), Four Greek Plays. London: Duckworth and the Bristol Classical Press, 1998 (first published London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1964). Pp. xviii + 205. ISBN 1-85399-583-5. UKú8.95.
Paul D. Streufert
With so many collections of Greek tragedies in print, especially those of high quality, such as the Grene and Lattimore University of Chicago series, one may wonder why Bristol has chosen to reprint Kenneth McLeish's curious 1964 Four Greek Plays. The choice may have been motivated by two factors: not only does this brief anthology include an unusual grouping of plays (the Oedipus the King and Antigone of Sophocles and the Acharnians and Peace of Aristophanes), but it also targets a neglected audience. McLeish hoped to reach 'young readers and those making their first acquaintance with Greek drama,' and it is in this arena and on this level that the volume succeeds (p. xviii). Teachers of grade school and early high school students will undoubtedly find the volume useful and accessible, particularly in its inclusion of Aristophanes, an author often unfairly excluded from school reading lists.
The volume includes a sound introduction that not only explains the hardware of the ancient theater with appropriate terminology (taking time to explain 'orchestra,' for example), but also locates the included plays in their performative and political contexts. McLeish stresses the exteriority of Greek life, reminding students that fifth-century Athenians were quite likely to meet out-of-doors for political and social events, and he illustrates this idea with examples from Acharnians. Such contexts are also used to link the two playwrights and to justify the seemingly arbitrary pairing of the four plays. McLeish argues, rather ingeniously, that while Sophocles represented Athens at its apogee, Aristophanes examined the city-state at its depths, in a time of social turbulence and political corruption. McLeish also broaches the issues raised in performing the plays, and includes a helpful doubling schedule for Oedipus (p. xi). He carefully differentiates the tragic chorus from the comic, preparing his young readers for those sections of the texts that often prove the most challenging. Since the introduction is so general, there exist very few debatable points; my only concern lies with McLeish's description of Greek celebrity, when he implies that the Athenian playwright's motivation to win the playwriting contest at the annual festival existed in part through a desire to increase readership of his play scripts, a hardly supportable claim.
The translations of the Sophocles selections are clear and straightforward. With an eye towards his younger audience, McLeish takes great care in emphasizing each play's most significant plot points through stage directions. During Oedipus' fateful interview with the shepherd, Jocasta stands 'stricken with mounting horror' (p. 38). Later, he writes of the children Ismene and Antigone, 'The little girls, not really understanding what is happening, begin to cry bitterly at the thought of being parted from their father' (p. 51). The choices are good ones, considering the translator's intended readership. McLeish does not shrink from including the more disturbing, and powerful, moments of these stories. Though he sanitizes the messenger's description of Oedipus' eye-gouging, he clearly intends his readers to understand the incest and parricide taboos that drive the story's action. Difficult names and mythological figures are listed in a glossary, though it excludes several key terms and characters such as 'Sphinx' and 'Thebes,' terms included in textual notes but important enough to bear repeating. The necessary background information for each play has been laid out in introductory notes, all of which are quite helpful, especially the description of the Seven against Thebes in relation to the Antigone.
Though I was skeptical at first about the inclusion of Aristophanes in this volume, McLeish's notes and translations provide more than adequate information for younger readers to follow each play's plot and political invective. Unfortunately though, there are a number of problems with the translations, beginning with the necessary editing of much of the sexual and scatological humor. So many of the funniest moments in Aristophanes happen in these contexts, and perhaps McLeish should have either included more of them or turned to another author. He thankfully preserves the infamous feeding of Trygaios' dung beetle in Peace, but omits numerous other comic touches, including Dikaiopolis' phallic procession in Acharnians. Curiously, McLeish makes a considerable effort in both Acharnians and Peace to identify those moments when Aristophanes lampoons Euripides, but I cannot help but think that such care will be lost on the young audience, especially since one can only assume that they have no first-hand experience with Euripides. Perhaps if McLeish had included a play of his in the collection, such information would have a greater impact. At the same time, he excludes mention of Aesop in the Peace, a Classical author more likely to be known to children than Euripides. He drastically re-writes the epilogue to Acharnians, and, while this may be forgivable as it captures the play's spirit, its inclusion may mislead younger readers. Acharnians also includes an unfortunate and distasteful anachronism in labeling the play's Persian characters as played by 'blacks' (p. 105). Though younger readers may enjoy McLeish's volume, unfortunately, I cannot recommend it for university, or even advanced high school, students as there are simply many other collections superior in translation and conception. If we entrust our students with a sophisticated translation, especially one that preserves the complete choruses, we may very well find that they will discover much more than we might have expected. Speaking from experience, I was first introduced to the idea of studying the Classics by reading Paul Roche's translation of Oedipus the King in high school. One of the choral odes in particular, the Chorus' shout of joy in praise of Mt. Cithaeron, captured my attention and imagination, and Roche's beautiful, but very literal and difficult, translation more completely captures Sophocles' language and ideas. Teachers should beware then that while McLeish's volume may be more accessible to younger readers, it might occasionally rob them of the text's beauty and complexity.