Barbara Goward, Telling Tragedy: Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. London: Duckworth 1999. Pp. vi + 214, incl. endnotes and bibliography. ISBN 0-7156- 2795-3. UK£40.00.
Thomas H. J. U. Talboy,
Centre for Ancient Drama and its Reception (CADRE), University of Nottingham
Goward sets herself the bold task of attempting to apply narrative theory to Greek tragedy, tackling Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in turn. Using theoretical language heavily from the start, and laden throughout with narratological terminology not always perspicuous at a first reading, this is not a book for the light reader. While Goward seems thoroughly conversant with the theoretical framework, it is not always clear whether its application in particular cases has produced any insights that could not have been obtained otherwise.
In Part I, Goward assures the reader that applying narrative theory to tragedy is a simple matter, but her argument for this is somewhat question-begging: 'at a fundamental level, narrative and drama are indistinguishable . . . Both are culturally-shaped language communications, liable to . . . literary hermeneutic activity . . . Narrative theory may usefully be applied to dramatic texts' (p. 12). In essence, this is to regard tragedy as merely an epic placed in the theatrical context; it overlooks the extent to which that difference is enough for tragedy to develop techniques that epic cannot.
Goward attempts to assimilate drama to narrative by arguing that 'there is no doubt that the messenger speech frequently has supreme importance in the play overall. . . [A]ll three playwrights seem to have had a highly developed understanding of the dramatic effects to be gained from the juxtaposition of sections of 'showing' and sections of 'telling' in the episodes of their dramas . . . it is often rightly left to the extraordinary capacities of continuous narrative to convey the heart of the matter' (p. 20). As the chapter proceeds it seems increasingly as though the performance of tragedy were being regarded as something merely incidental, an impression strengthened by the statement that 'the message narrative derives strength, not weakness, from being narrated rather than enacted. Given an effective production, the particular stillness and attention accorded to its delivery creates one of the most intense and concentrated focal points of the play' (p. 36).
In discussing audience experience, Goward focuses on dolos. She thinks audiences are deceived unwittingly by the author because 'the sheer power of unfolding narrative seems to suppress our awareness of our own ex eventu knowledge' (p. 40); this deceit is necessary lest the audience becomes bored with knowing the whole story ('at any moment the narratee can put an end to the narrative transaction, withdrawing his attention out of sheer lack of interest or because he has prematurely gained all the information inherent in the communication', p. 43). This over-analytical conception of audience experience fails to take into account the expectation of Greek tragic audiences that the story would be modified by the dramatist: they would expect and wait for such changes, and might be surprised, angered or insulted when they discovered what the changes were.
The successive treatments of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in Parts II-IV read very much like commentaries on, or readings of, a series of tragedies interspersed with references to narrative theory. It is questionable whether Goward achieves her aim of gaining 'a better insight into the unfolding dynamics of individual plays, understanding them both in terms of the continuing debt to traditional narrative patterns and defining more closely the continuous exploration of the new' (pp. 4f.); the reader tends rather to feel that the theoretical varnish serves, if anything, to get in the way of a better understanding of the plays.
In the course of her discussion of Aeschylus, Goward attempts to apply structuralist theory to understanding how an audience (initially of epic, not tragedy) could possibly be willing to put aside their knowledge of myth (which, as she recognizes, could never be recalled in toto by any one person at any one moment) and let the poet control their thinking. Structuralist theory, she says, 'has usefully argued that each narrative consists of two parts: a story . . . plus a discourse . . . Thus the audience familiar with the story can nonetheless still be played upon by all manner of techniques employed in its discourse' (p. 59). Returning to drama, she distinguishes between the world of drama and the world of the theater, between an 'authorial' and a 'narrative' audience. The authorial audience is a 'group of people with similar cultural and historical background to the author himself, people well equipped to appreciate his metatheatrical references to other plays, allusions to recent political events, etc.', while the narrative audience 'temporarily assents to believe that the fictive world is real . . . They react in a simple way to the story as it unfolds, forgetting what they may know already about its outcome. Drama would not have the power to move without the narrative audience's "willing suspension of disbelief", its ability at some level to forget known facts and assent to the validity of others' (p. 59). We surely did not need structuralist theory to understand that part of the enjoyment of the theater (or epic for that matter) is to lose oneself in the story being told; and the dichotomy does not allow for the possibility (in reality surely the rule rather than the exception) that an audience member may function in both these capacities at the same time, or alternate between them, or be in an intermediate state.
For Sophocles, Goward introduces what she calls narrative loops, defined as occurring 'when Sophocles makes a temporary deviation from a plot line, rejoining it again later at the point of exit' (p. 87); such loops are found both where the plot is based on established myth and also 'when it is apparently original and thus unbounded by traditional constraints, . . . in [which] case the 'loop' is all the more to be understood as a deliberately chosen, free creation of the poet' (p. 87) (well, yes; how on earth could it be anything else?). Neither here nor in the discussion of dolos in Sophocles' Electra does narrative theory appear to add much to our understanding of the plays.
Euripides, according to Goward, 're-uses narrative patterns which originated in Homer, reworks and develops existing tragic strategies and re-invests in metrical structures, including those from earlier tragedy which had fallen into comparative disuse' (p. 121); and tending 'to resist creating narrative structures that make satisfying sense over time.' (p. 123) To whom they do or do not make sense is unclear. She finds that three plays follow 'a recognisable tragic narrative pattern. . . But in many other Euripidean plays' she says, 'this overall narrative shape is not present' (pp. 123f.). Goward questions this 'casual treatment of narrative time' and its impact on unity: 'past events are first neatly disposed of in a chronologically sequential prologue as necessary background only and then, once a first action is over, a supplementary rhêsis initiates a fresh action, show[ing] a radically different, apparently more casual approach to narrative time. . . In some plays . . . the reframing moves the action into areas arguably not intrinsically connected to what went before, raising the chimerical problem of unity. . . However, apparently random movements in a play must be considered the result of deliberate strategy, reflecting not poor narrative organisation but rather a different way of perceiving the world.' (p. 124). Indeed it is 'deliberate strategy' just what we would expect.
In explaining the role of anagnôrisis Goward attempts to diagram the 'cognitive possibilities in all narrative', though she at once backtracks by admitting that 'the scheme is of course too simple to convey the ambiguities of actual dramatic situations' (pp. 132f.). The 'scheme' proves to be relevant only to a few of the surviving plays (Electra, IT, Ion and Helen) which share the theme of 'protagonist seeking kin'; and when it is actually applied to IT and Helen, the result differs little from a theoretically naïve 'reading' (except that the reader is assumed to know, without any explanation or reference, what is meant by 'Kleinian theory').
Goward's commentaries, sandwiched between the discussion of narrative technique, are readable, intuitive and insightful. As only a minor example from a much richer collection, Goward shows her understanding of Euripides' Hippolytus. The commentary, treating lines 1-120, elucidates much of the interplay of language and the metaphor ensconced in the description of the garden. There is very little that can be identified as narratological as expounded by Goward, and it is because of this that the narrative technique seems to get in the way of an otherwise helpful commentary.
Very little of the remainder convinces, and the reader reaches the end of the book still hoping for some conclusive evidence that narrative theory has aided the understanding of Greek tragedy. The hope is lost as Goward ends abruptly; her brief concluding remarks might have served better as an introduction. This reader was left thinking that narrative theory, at best, offers an alternative vocabulary for discussing tragedy, and at worst can shed more darkness than light, and that, at least as presented in this book, it does not contribute significantly to an improved understanding of Greek tragedy or of its continuing hold on the imagination.