Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 1.
Brad Levett, Sophocles: Women of Trachis. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp. ISBN 0-7156-3188-8. UK£10.99.
Classics, University of Otago
The Duckworth series, Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy, has provided excellent introductions to the plays so far included, and Brad Levett's Sophocles: Women of Trachis is no exception. In keeping with the character of the series as an introduction for the undergraduate and general reader his account is reasonably comprehensive, clear, and illuminating. It is comprehensive in its coverage of the play and its context, clear in its uncluttered expression, and illuminating in the measured manner that it addresses some of the theoretical questions that ancient drama raises for the contemporary student. The series format, though modified for each individual play, is designed to cover areas of interest to students of Classics, Literature, and Theatre. From a personal viewpoint it is refreshing to see some complementarity between a literary and a theatrical understanding of ancient drama.
The book's format is straight-forward enough: seven chapters, including a summary of the play, context, plot, character, performance, theme, and reception. However, those of a less conservative inclination should not be put off by these very traditional headings (perhaps too reminiscent of those crib notes to Shakespeare, or Dickens -- the plague of teachers of English). These are not mere potted summaries but intelligent analyses of what the terms mean, especially the often vexed notion of 'character'.
Perhaps the most difficult task in writing a book of this nature is to condense, coherently, the complex elements that make up the context of Athenian theatre, to outline 'the chief political, social, and ideological factors that gave this text meaning for its original audience . . . ' (p. 16). The political significance of tragedy is contentious, and for the plays of Sophocles perhaps more so than for those of Aeschylus and Euripides. If 'Athenian tragedy projected democratic ideals against an aristocratic backdrop' (p. 17), it did so in a particularly obtuse fashion and it is difficult to see what 'democratic ideals' might be conveyed through Women of Trachis. However, this is to quibble and to expect a more elaborate account of Athenian institutions than is appropriate for a book of this kind. More illuminating in Chapter 2 are discussions of the family and the significance of reputation.
The first of these is a succinct account of oikos and the role and status of women, encapsulated, perhaps, in a reference to the ambiguity of the word damar. The second raises questions of individual / group relationships and identity, laying a foundation for a more detailed discussion of Character in the fourth chapter. The key to this section is the following distinction (p. 22):
'Today reputation is often understood as a superficial factor that can, if anything, distort our understanding of the 'true' self. However, the ancient Greeks generally were more accepting of the notion that the individual is in large part a social figure. That is, how others saw and judged any given person was not somehow neatly separate from an inherent personality or character; rather the persona created by public opinion was in large part the individual.'
This is not an easy notion to get across to contemporary students whose conception of the angst of domestically abused women is represented more by Nora Helmer than Deianeira, Clytemnestra, or Medea. The distinction is, I think, important and a significant factor in understanding much of the driving force and the ethical dimensions of Greek tragedy.
If there is a criticism of this section of the book it is that the concept of philos might have been better integrated, or at least its dimensions made more explicit -- that is, the family or clan, not merely as an institution but as a context for the world of relationships that Greek tragedy explores. Aristotle's observation that tragedy requires events that happen en tais philiais gets a mention, but only in a paragraph about 'helping friends and harming enemies' as a 'basic Greek ethical stance' (p. 23) tacked on to the discussion of reputation.
The next section of the chapter covers the Athenian festivals and their audiences, the chorus, the masking of actors, the three actor rule, and the stage. This is all, perhaps, a little breathless and rather a lot to fit into five pages, but as a summary it is succinct and unexceptionable, not least in pointing out that, though part of a ritual occasion in the Dionysia, the plays 'were not themselves rituals' (ibid). And this long chapter continues with an account of the life of Sophocles, of earlier treatments of the myth, and a brief discussion of the date of the play. The second of these is particularly valuable, not merely for underlining Sophocles' individual treatment of Deianeira, but in pointing up the complex intermingling of human and divine that drives desire and action through all Greek tragedy. This is a common element in all the variants, as Levett's reference to Bacchylides indicates: 'The line 'Ah, ill-fortuned wretch to have devised such a thing!' [Bacchylides 16.30] seems clear enough in attributing the plan [to give the robe to Heracles] to Deianeira herself, even if she was under the influence of an overmastering emotional state (which the Greeks often viewed as both a part of the agent, and simultaneously as an external force or god)' (p. 33). The point is elaborated on at various points later, particularly in the section 'Gods and Oracles' in Chapter 6. Although it is not particularly explicit, Levett allows a sense of the centrality of religion and the relation between the human and divine worlds as an integral component of the concept of tragedy to accumulate as the analysis proceeds. It might have been advantageous to underline this by noting how the gods suffuse the plays of Sophocles even when they don't actually appear.
The chapters that follow, on Plot, Character, Performance, and Theme all address a variety of interpretations of the play that suitably acknowledge its richness. There is no need to cover these in detail, but I would like to refer to particular aspects of Levett's analysis which usefully point up some more general features of Greek tragedy. The discussion of plot, for example, actually analyses the 'theme' of knowledge (more than a theme, knowledge, or the various states of mind that fluctuate around it are conditions of Sophocles' dramatic world). Hence in Women of Trachis, which consists more than any other play of characters telling stories that need to be interpreted by others, when plot reversals occur they ' . . . are often not so much a result of changing conditions or new events. Rather it is often the limits in human knowledge which creates different responses to existing conditions.' The plot 'enacts the play's fundamental theme of humankind's inability to see things clearly for what they are' (pp. 38f.). The apparent disjointedness of the play that has for so long concerned critics is, then, a function of its meaning.
The one curious note in this is the observation that Sophocles has frustrated generic expectations of the nostos play by failing to allow Deianeira and Heracles to meet on stage, and so to 'create a sense of shock' in his audience. This could hardly have been a surprise to any audience with some familiarity with the myth, in whatever version. If there is any 'shock' it is more likely to be in Deianeira's silent response to her son's accusations and the Nurse's report of her death. The focus on Deianeira at this point provides a vivid context for the histrionics of Heracles that follow.
The three major characters are comprehensively discussed in Chapter 4. I would, however, reiterate Levett's brief general discussion of character and his salutary pointing out of the obvious; that 'a tragedy is made up of speeches which convey the opinions and dispositions of the characters that make them' (p. 45). Hence, though distinguishable from the post-Romantic conception of an 'innate inner disposition that retains its nature regardless of action' (p. 46), the Greek focus on discernment of character through action gives us recognisable individuals rather than mere character types. And it is, perhaps, one of the reasons why these ancient plays are still so accessible.
Similarly, the brief chapter on performance demonstrates an illuminating interpretive tool and points out that 'we should beware of simply privileging performance over reading' (p. 73); they are merely different ways of experiencing the same thing. One could also point out that performance is usually derived from a reading and that Sophocles' words were undoubtedly prior to the application of theatrical conventions that shaped them into the first performance of his play.
Themes are comprehensively dealt with: sex, family and gender; late learning (as an inherently tragic human weakness); gods and oracles; and the apotheosis of Heracles -- this last concluding in some valuable reflections on the nature of interpretation.
The final chapter on Reception is necessarily brief; Women of Trachis has a leaner stage and literary history than almost any other Sophoclean play. However, missing from Levett's short catalogue of adaptations is Timberlake Wertenbaker's Deianeira, performed on radio in 1999 and published in her Plays Two (London 2002). Levett's commentary is, though, very useful and is well crafted for its particular audience. One looks forward to Duckworth extending the series beyond the six plays now available.