Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 11.
John Burgess, The Faber Pocket Guide to Greek and Roman Drama. London: Faber & Faber, 2007. Pp. xxix + 384. ISBN 0-571- 21906-3. UK£8.99.
Arlene L. Allan
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
This is indeed a ‘guide’ intended for those seeking a generalized introduction to the dramatic texts of ancient Greece and Rome. Its author is a man of the theatre, having served as a ‘freelance director’ for the National Theatre of London for several years and as ‘Head of New Writing’ there between 1989 and 1994. Thus, as one experienced in both the writing and the directing of stage productions, this guide is especially well suited for theatre-goers wishing to gain an overview of a particular play before attending its performance. But it also provides easily digested background information on the context of ancient drama and on the individual playwrights for those seeking such information. The book contains eleven un-numbered parts: an introduction to Greek drama (pp. ix-xxix), eight sections on the tragic and comic playwrights of Greece and Rome (pp. 1-376), a short section on further readings (pp. 377-8), and an acknowledgements section containing bibliographic information on the translations of plays quoted in the body of the text (pp. 379-84).
The introduction offers a concise overview of context of Greek tragedy, discussed in terms of origins, its political and religious dimensions, and the theatrical space and conventions governing its performance. By way of contrast, the observations on Greek comedy are exceedingly brief (one paragraph), overly generalized, and present the division of the genre into ‘three separate periods’ (p. xxviii) as though these divisions were not disputed. The introduction then concludes with comments on the quality of several publishing houses’ translations, highly critical of some, more generous to others. Thereafter, Burgess proceeds to deal with each playwright and his extant plays in individualized segments. These are presented in order, from earliest to latest on the basis of generally accepted chronology: Greek Tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides), Greek Comedy (Aristophanes, Menander), Roman Comedy (Plautus, Terence), Roman Tragedy (Seneca). Also included are three brief discussions, one each on Middle Comedy (pp. 287-89), Roman Comedy (pp. 301-03) and Roman Tragedy (pp. 335-38).
The format remains the same throughout the Greek and Roman tragedy sections. After introducing the playwright, each tragedy is discussed under the following headings: ‘The Legend’ (an overview of the story behind the story), ‘The Story’ (a synopsis of the plot), ‘About the Play’ (a combination of explanatory, interpretative and informative commentary), ‘Translations’ (least and most recommended) and ‘In Performance’ (a brief note about the play’s later life in performance).[] These five sub-sections take up, on average, eight pages per play, making each a quick and easy read.
One admirable feature of Burgess’s approach is his inclusion of extracts from several translations in his ‘About the Play’ sub-sections. While these are clearly chosen to best illustrate his particular point, they do expose the reader to a variety of translation styles and can serve as the basis on which to assess his recommendations in the ‘Translations’ sub-section. However, this feature also has its drawbacks: in opting to include so many direct quotations from each play, Burgess’s actual discussion amounts to slightly more than half the sub-section’s length in the majority of cases. Nevertheless, these sections are helpful in providing the reader with a sense of the overall tone of the play and in highlighting key moments in the plot.
Less helpful are the ‘The Legend’ sub-sections for the tragedies. The reader might expect to encounter information about the multiple versions of a mythic tale, in order to see how certain elements were selected and developed by the playwright in his plot, which Burgess then summarises in ‘The Story’ sub-section. However, comparison of this sub-section for any two plays based on the same mythic figures, for instance, Euripides’ Hippolytus and Seneca’s Phaedra, the Oedipus plays, or those dealing with the House of Atreus, reveals that much of the material presented as ‘The Legend’ is taken from the play itself. Thus, both the sub-title and the information presented under it are misleading insofar as they imply that each playwright was working with a different ‘legend’ rather than interweaving elements from different versions of a particular event in the mythic figure’s life to create his own drama.
In addition to the misleading effect of ‘The Legend’ sub- sections, there are inaccuracies in detail contained, for the most part, in the ‘About the Play’ subsections. For instance, Burgess erroneously states that ‘[i]n Aeschylus’ Agamemnon Orestes and Electra encounter each other . . . ’ (p. 192); that it was Clytemnestra (rather than Aegisthus) who feared the birth of a noble grandchild in Euripides’ Electra (p. 173); that Heracles goes to Hades in Frogs (p. 272); or, that Athens is Corinth’s ‘northern neighbour’ (p. 99); that the satyr play was ‘part of Athenian drama from the beginning’(p. 247); and that the erect phallus part of comedy’s ‘usual costume’ (p. 283).[] There are also several typographical errors (pp. 58, 100, 103, 189, 294, 304, 349) which mar the prose.[]
Burgess seems to show a particular interest in those plays most likely to be viewed in performance by his readership or encountered in secondary school and undergraduate syllabi. Thus his coverage of Greek and Roman drama is selective and heavily weighted in favour of tragedy. All the extant works of the Greek tragedians are treated individually, but only four of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving plays are discussed (Acharnians; Clouds; Birds; Lysistrata). The section on Menander is exceedingly brief, with only one of his two extant plays assessed (The Girl from Samos), while both tragic and comic Roman poets receive the same abbreviated treatment. Of Plautus’ twenty extant plays, Burgess discusses two (The Swaggering Soldier; The Menaechmus Twins); of Terence’s six plays, one (Eunuch); and, of the eight secure tragedies of Seneca, four (Phaedra; Oedipus; Medea; Thyestes).
As might be expected, this is not a book designed to be read cover-to- cover. Rather, it is formatted to permit easy access to information on a particular play without requiring the reader to be familiar with material contained in other sections. Although Burgess does make reference to some similarities and differences of characters and / or actions from other plays, reading those plays (or even his discussion of them) is not required to gain a sense of what any given play is about. Thus, while this Guide might certainly prove useful to the theatregoer or general reader unfamiliar with plays of the Greek and Roman dramatists, I would not recommend that it be placed in any educational institution’s library for use by students. However, it might be wise for teachers or lecturers on ancient Greek and Roman drama to keep a copy on their bookshelves, because, unfortunately, its easily understood content and its format render it an excellent resource for students seeking shortcuts.
[] As the extant comedies of both cultures were not myth-based, ‘the Legend’ section is omitted from the discussion of individual comedies.
[] In fact, Burgess had earlier correctly noted that the limp phallus was the standard feature of comic attire (p. 248).
[] Although perhaps more a stylistic than a grammatical matter, the use of the adjective ‘literal’ as though it were a noun is jarring (e.g., ‘ . . . there is something to be said for approaching it [the play] by means of a scrupulous literal such as that provided by . . .’ (p. 12, cf. pp. 39, 147, 204, 220)).