Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 43.
Barbara Goward, Telling Tragedy -- Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. London: Duckworth, 2004. Pp. 214. ISBN 0-7156-3176-4. UKú16.99.
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
This is the paperback edition of a book first published in 1999, but the text has been left unchanged. Although Goward's work, the application of narrative theories to explore the narrative strategies of the three Greek tragedians, makes considerable demands on the reader, one is rewarded by the insight of her sensitive and thoughtful analysis of the dramas.
Goward summarises her reasons for undertaking this research as follows (pp. 164f.): 'It seems remarkable that a group of play texts, produced for a limited festival context in a small community twenty-five centuries ago, should continue to exert any power today. Analysis of narrative patterns, however, reveals the existence of specific strategies which help to account for our continuing and complex engagement with tragedy's staged stories. Many of these are inseparable from tragedy's intrinsically hybrid and paratactic form; its potent juxtaposition of song, chant and metrical speech, of narrative and dialogue; tragedy adapts and recreates Homer's already potent combination of "showing" and "telling" in a range of new ways.'
After an introductory section (pp. 1-5), the body of the book is divided into four parts: the first deals generally with narrative theory and tragedy, while the second focuses on Aeschylean tragedy, the third on Sophoclean and the fourth on Euripidean. However, each of the parts is subdivided into chapters that have a more specific circumscription.
In Chapter 1, 'Theoretical Aspects' (pp. 9-20), the question of whether narrative theory can be applied to tragedy is discussed. Goward bases her discussion on the work of theorists like Goffman, Genette and Greimas (and others) and concludes that tragedy is a hybrid of narrative and dramatic codes. Chapter 2 (pp. 21-37) is devoted to narrative time in tragedy. This is an important chapter in Goward's argument because the gaps in understanding of the audience and of the stage personae are in her view ultimately caused by the fact that the dramatic action takes place both synchronically and diachronically. These time gaps enable the mechanism of dolos (deceit) to work. She also differentiates between long-range and short-range narratives. The first may point forward (by means of dreams and prophecies) or back, while short-range narratives either relate events in the recent past or describe events as they happen. Narrative deceit or dolos is the focus of Chapter 3, (pp. 39-52). Here consideration of the 'deceitful' relationship between poet and audience, between narrator and narratee, is based on the research of Detienne and Vernant. Goward studies how the playwright involves the audience in the plot, for instance expectations are created and not always realized. This chapter also examines Greimas' actantial theory and seeks to apply it to the structure of Greek tragedy, but it proves an uneasy fit.
Chapters 4 (pp. 55-68) and 5 (pp. 69-83) deal with the work of Aeschylus. The first investigates how Aeschylus reshaped the relationship between the audience and familiar stories. Aspects such as the openings, creation of suspense and emotion, use of time and prophecies and dreams are examined. The next chapter then applies these general traits to what Goward regards as central narrative scenes in three of the dramas: the shield scene from Septem (369-719), the Cassandra scene from Agamemnon (1072-1330) and the Io scene from Prometheus Bound (561-886).
The two chapters of Part III deal with the tragedies of Sophocles. Here Goward introduces a concept of what she calls 'narrative loops'. These 'occur when Sophocles makes a temporary deviation from a plot line, rejoining it again later at the point of exit. All these deviations contain deceitful or at least ambiguous narratives' (p. 87). Three examples of such loops are explored: Ajax (646-865), Trachiniae (180-496) and Philoctetes (541-627). 'Dolos in Electra' is the title of Chapter 7 (pp.103-118) which analyses the structure of the play in detail. It must be said that these analyses of the narrative structure of tragedies or of scenes from tragedies do not seem to be well integrated with the narrative theories referred to. They read more like detailed comment on and interpretation of the dramas with some references to narrative theory. This is not necessarily a weakness, as Goward's knowledge of the plays is considerable and her interpretation often illuminating. However it does suggest that the application of narrative theory to drama is perhaps not as relevant as the overall trend of the book suggests.
The first chapter of Part IV focuses on Euripides' narrative strategies as his plays show marked differences in narrative structure to those of Sophocles and Aeschylus. Goward finds that 'Euripides' most consistent narrative strategy is to present a formal narrative in both prologue and closing section' (pp. 121f.). She illustrates this with reference to some of his plays. Chapter 9 (pp. 131-47) then shows how 'recognition' in all senses of the word, is managed in the non-tragic plays Iphigeneia in Tauris and Helen. The last chapter, (pp. 149-65), 'Gods as prologue- speakers', examines how Euripides used the device of the divine prologue in Hippolytus and in Bacchae.
But then the book ends. There is no concluding chapter to draw together the findings. Perhaps this abrupt ending is due to the fact that it has become clear that abstract theories of narratology cannot explain the details of texts as complex as the Greek tragedies? Although Telling Tragedy thus in some ways promises more than it delivers, it is worthwhile reading for its fine and sensitive analyses of a number of dramas.