Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Greek Tragedy. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xii + 218, incl. 7 black- and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4051-2161-3. UK£19.99.
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Here is another book to add to the long list of titles aiming to offer readers an introduction to the ancient Greek theatre. It is part of the series 'Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World' which, according to its programmatic announcement, 'will provide concise introductions to classical culture in the broadest sense'. The books in the series, moreover, are written 'by the most distinguished scholars in the field' and 'survey key authors, periods and topics for students and scholars alike'.
I must admit that I approached this book with some scepticism, assuming that it would fall between two stools -- that of the introductory Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series whose titles are devoted to one specific tragedy in each case, and that of longer and more comprehensive introductions to Greek tragedy or the Greek theatre which deal with more plays in more detail than this one does. In the event, however, I was won over by it, and feel that Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz has made a most useful contribution to the field.
After a short Introduction which touches on a range of different theoretical / scholarly approaches that are taken to Greek literature in general and Greek drama in particular, and which also serves as an apologia for the writing of another book on Greek tragedy in the 21st century, a discussion in two parts unfolds.
Part I (pp. 11-84), entitled 'Tragedy in its Athenian Context', contains three chapters: 'What Was Tragedy?', 'Tragedy and the Polis', and 'Tragedy and Greek Religion'. Part II (pp. 85-179), entitled 'Thematic Approaches', contains four chapters: 'War and Empire', 'Family Romance and Revenge in the House of Atreus', 'Victims and Victimizers', and 'The King and I'. The book concludes with a chapter entitled 'Epilogue: Modern Performances' (pp. 180-98), co-authorship here being ascribed to Sue Blundell. A bibliography of works cited and an index follows. There are suggestions for further reading after the introduction, after the epilogue, and after each of the chapters in Part I. The suggestions for further reading for all the chapters of Part II come at the end of the last chapter.
Part I first offers a sensible coverage of basic information about tragedy and the Athenian theatre. I just note that the initial discussion of the word ‘tragedy' (pp. 13f.) tends to focus on the scale of suffering rather than on the 'x factor'. Also, the treatment of Aristotle's Poetics is defective. Specifically, no distinction is made between metabole and peripeteia, with only the latter term being used, and being defined at that as 'overturn or change in fortune' (p. 14). In addition, the concept hamartia is confined to a 'small mistake', which overlooks Aristotle's megale hamartia.
The discussion in 'Tragedy and the Polis', understandably geared to US and UK readers, appears stronger and covers much thought-provoking ground. An emphasis on the Athenian democracy and the democratic context of performance is nicely supported by modern parallels but with a clear statement of the differences between ancient and modern practices. Particularly useful are the balanced accounts of such topics as whether Euripides was or was not 'anti-war', the composition of the audience and the fact that not all members of an audience will think and respond in exactly the same way, the fact that people's response to events in real life and events on stage may be different, and whether tragedy served more to question or to affirm.
The following discussion of the relationship between tragedy and religion is also most useful. Links are made between various rituals and specific plays, and there is a concise account of the connection between Dionysos and the theatre and the differing scholarly views of that (pp. 64f.). The section ends with a good treatment of the Bacchai (pp. 81-84) which ties many of the threads together. I just note that the uninitiated may find it a little puzzling to be told that the wife of the king archon has to be a virgin when entering the sacred marriage alliance with Dionysos (pp. 62f.). Moreover, the relationship between the two stories about Dionysos' birth is not made clear.
The introduction to Part II advises us that the readings of the plays to be considered will be 'indebted to structuralist, as well as feminist and multicultural, modes of analysis' (p. 85). In the event, this proves to be a two-edged sword. On the positive side, significant insights are gained via polarities such as barbarian / Greek, female / male, and slave / free. On the down side, such a schematized approach creates a straitjacket from which I sense plays struggling to be freed. For example, in the discussion of the Persians, emphasis is rightly placed on clothing, and we are told that 'finery and robes are associated with the East and with women' (p. 92). It is also noted that Xerxes never gets his new clothes. If you want to be strict about such things, that might be a plus with regard to Xerxes' masculinity. However, we're also told that 'his (i.e. Xerxes') lack of that apparel marks him as a failed man, not as masculine' (p. 92). Very convenient. Then we read, 'He goes into the house, the realm of the female, having suffered greatly in the warrior's world' (p. 92). This is where, in my book at least, things start to unravel, so to speak. Orestes goes into the house on occasion, to murder Clytemnestra. Does that mean he becomes feminized? Oedipus comes out of the house at the start of the OT. Has he already been feminized? And so on. While I don't deny that there is much to be gained from the 'gendered' approach its full application can becomes at times extremely problematic. In general, I found the discussions of the Oresteia (pp. 95-108) and the IA (pp. 108-15) more helpful and less open to 'deconstruction'.
The discussion of Euripides' Elektra (pp. 117-22) is finely nuanced, with a well-balanced discussion of how to interpret Elektra herself. However, Rabinowitz doesn't bring out the point, in her mention of the chorus' offer to lend a dress (p. 119), that Elektra can't go to the Festival of Hera because she's neither unmarried nor married in the full sense. The longer discussion of Sophocles' Elektra isn't so well-balanced and successful, despite a good analysis of the heroine herself. The obvious point that the 'tragic heroine' has to be different from normal women and be more like a man isn't made. Rabinowitz doesn't investigate the 'dark' reading of the play satisfactorily and doesn't tune into the Odysseus/Orestes connection. I get the impression that she just isn't sure about this play!
Useful discussions of Trojan Women (pp. 133-38), Hekabe (pp. 138-146) and Medea (pp. 146-54) follow in Chapter 6, with Chapter 7 being devoted to Antigone and OT. The Antigone discussion is good, though I hesitate about the statement on p. 156 that the play has 'no single protagonist', the notions of 'protagonist' and 'hero' being muddled here. The OT discussion I found to be one of the least satisfactory. While there is inevitably some 'telling the story' in the discussion of all the plays, in this case it gets out of hand and almost takes over. The idea of hamartia is again introduced (p. 172) but is not placed in the context of Poetics chapter 13. On p. 174 there is a brief and unhelpful reference to the Lévi- Strauss analysis of the story which leaves far too much unexplained. And finally, while the gendered aspect of many interpretations of the myth and play is rightly stressed, much more needs to be made of the 'human vulnerability' line of approach which applies equally to women and men (it is mentioned, however).
The epilogue contains a good coverage of a range of modern performances, with Australia even getting one brief mention. More could have been made, though, of modern Greece. It almost appears as though lip service is being paid to this important part of the story, the focus of interest being placed on the US and British Isles and, to a lesser extent continental Europe and Africa. The discussion is good on the conflict between 'faithfulness to the past' and 'relevance to the present' in modern stagings. What is blurred, however, is the question of modern stagings of the tragedies vis-à-vis stagings of modern adaptations of the tragedies, though this distinction is mentioned. In the reference to Heiner Müller, there's a confusing statement that in Medeamaterial the playwright took 'a cue from the Argonautica, which ends with Jason killed by a board from the Argo' (p. 184).
There are the occasional inconsistencies in this book, such as having a term like 'eponymous archon' (p. 11) explained, but leaving Ichneutai (p. 12) for beginners to puzzle over. The thorny questions of the spelling of Greek names isn't satisfactorily resolved. I'm quite comfortable with the solution of having 'Oedipus' spelled that way because the name is well-known, while also using 'Kreon' and so on (this is explained on p. xi in the preface). However, why adopt 'Kassandra', but then 'Clytemnestra' (p. 47)? The latter name is hardly better known than 'Kreon', for example. On p. 18 read 'satyric' for 'satiric', and on p. 66 'Ephebes' for 'Epebes'.
In general, though, this is an insightful discussion of tragedy which is up-to-date with scholarly developments and academic debate, which offers helpful modern parallels throughout in connection with political and social issues, which stresses the variation of response in both ancient and modern audiences, which refers to modern productions and underlines the living reality of Greek tragedy as theatre, and which offers balanced critiques while also stressing important ambiguities. It should be thought- provoking for students, and I'll certainly recommend it to mine as an important 'way in' to the subject. It's not really a book for scholars, though.