Hanna. M. Roisman, Sophocles: Philoctetes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp. vii + 159. ISBN 0-7156-3384-8. UK£11.99.
Emma Griffiths, Euripides: Heracles. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. vii + 175. ISBN 0-7156-3186-1. UK£11.99.
Classics, Victoria University of Wellington
These two volumes are welcome additions to the most useful and rapidly growing Duckworth Companions series, the aim of which is to provide 'accessible introductions to ancient tragedies' through discussions of 'the main themes of a play and the central developments in modern criticism', which also address 'the play's historical context and the history of its performance and adaptation' (cover). There is a standard format, which includes endnotes, a bibliography, a glossary, a chronology and an index. In common to Roisman and Griffiths are chapters on the mythical background and Nachleben. The discussions of the plays themselves, however, show considerable variations, caused by the differences between the two plays and the issues which they raise, and by the particular interests and emphases of Roisman and Griffiths.
Roisman begins with a preface which informs us (unnecessarily) that the Philoctetes is 'an extraordinary and timeless play' (p. 7). Chapter 1, entitled 'Theatre and Performance' (pp. 9-23), offers an admirably succinct overview of the conditions of performance for fifth-century tragedy (it is also much fuller and more satisfactory than Griffiths' equivalent section). There are, however, some rather strange and/or misleading comments. Thus on p. 9, for example, we are told that the many other tragedians (apart from the canonical three) 'have left only their names'. Then again, after being informed (p. 9) that 'we have relatively few certainties' about fifth-century drama, we are asked to accept that the three tragedians for the Great Dionysia in any given year were selected 'from among the many applicants' (p. 10), that the mechane was 'fixed to the left side of the stage-building' (p. 14), and that gesture was used 'only to a limited extent'. On p. 15 it is stated that 'songs' make up around thirty per cent of the lines of the Philoctetes, and that a Greek tragedy 'generally ends with a choral song, sung as the chorus exits the orchestra'.
In Chapter 2, entitled 'The Myth' (pp. 24-40), Roisman offers an excellent discussion of the various sources of the Philoctetes myth, especially the ways in which Sophocles may have adapted it (though the later treatment in Chapter 4 of the Homeric intertext could have been flagged). Once again, however, there are some strange comments. On p. 24, for example, after noting that most of the possible sources for the tragedians (apart from the Homeric poems) are lost, Roisman goes on to say: 'Whether this is because texts have not survived or because the bulk of mythic lore was oral, we do not know.' But, for a start, we do know about Sophocles' use of the Epic Cycle. Then again, we are told on p. 26 that the fact that Aeschylus and Euripides had previously written a Philoctetes play 'does not necessarily mean that Sophocles actually created his version after they did theirs . . .' I can only conclude that Roisman means that Sophocles could have conceived his idea of how to handle the story years before he wrote his play. As Roisman has expressed it, however, it would be somewhat confusing for the aspiring student of tragedy. In addition, the entire Epic Cycle appears on p. 30 to be ascribed to Lesches, and a very good discussion of the Neoptolemus figure in surviving literature omits any mention of Euripides' Andromache.
Chapter 3, entitled 'The Play' (pp. 41-56), gives a useful plot summary, while raising various issues as it goes. I just note another rather misleading comment in note 3, p. 130. Roisman casts doubt on the approach often taken that the three possible methods of getting Philoctetes to Troy (force, trickery, and persuasion) all fail. She argues that force is never really tried, that trickery does work till Neoptolemus' conscience gets the better of him, and that Heracles does persuade Philoctetes. However, it is given that Philoctetes' possession of the bow will ensure his victory in a trial of force, in the event trickery does fail, and human persuasion doesn't work. Roisman also wants the trader to be Odysseus in disguise, despite what he says in the prologue, but it seems to make more dramatic sense to understand Odysseus as being behind the scenes, manipulating and pulling strings rather than doing the 'dirty work' himself.
There are certainly positives in Chapter 4, 'Contexts' (pp. 57-71). Thus attention is nicely drawn on p. 61 to the climate of uncertainty in the play which can be summed up by the question 'What shall I do?' And it is suggested that this is basically why Sophocles introduces Neoptolemus into the story. Roisman also makes a good point about the Sophoclean strategy of 'establishing Homeric underpinnings for his play and then deliberately departing from them'. However, the chapter as a whole is somewhat discursive, starting with Homer and proceeding via Athenian democracy to the sophists and Aristophanes' Clouds, the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War and so to Pericles, Pericles' death and the Sicilian expedition. The conclusion is that the sense of uncertainty in the Philoctetes may well stem from the circumstances in Athens following the death of Pericles. Now there's no doubt that Sophocles must have been affected, like everyone else, by events in his life time, and that what he wrote would have reflected his life experience in some way. However, the concept of uncertainty is not exactly an unknown in Greek literature prior to the last quarter of the fifth century!
In the next three chapters, Roisman approaches the play through its characters, dealing in Chapter 5 with Odysseus and Philoctetes, in Chapter 6 with Neoptolemus, and then in Chapter 7 with Heracles. As far as Odysseus and Philoctetes are concerned, she argues against the view which basically labels the former as 'bad' and the latter as 'good', rejecting 'oversimplification' in favour of moral complexity and ambiguity (p. 72). Thus, despite his clearly negative aspects, there is something to be said for Odysseus' actions (p. 75). Similarly, the 'destructiveness of Philoctetes' fury' (p. 79) and the fact that he is 'unable to give up his rancour' (p. 83) significantly modify the hero's claims for sympathy. And it is through the portrayal of Odysseus and Philoctetes that Sophocles shows 'the enormous complexity of the choices facing Neoptolemus' (p. 87). Few would disagree with this. However, what is obscured in such an analysis, when it is left hanging in the balance, is the fact that Odysseus is ultimately routed and discredited -- a surprise awaits us, however, in Chapter 7!
When we come to the discussion of Neoptolemus in Chapter 6, we encounter further problems. Roisman's understanding, as expressed on p. 103, is that Neoptolemus 'does act honourably in the end and does show a change of heart. This does not, however, mean that the play demonstrates the triumph of physis over nomos.' Although she thankfully eschews that mischievous position which reads Neoptolemus as simply a base liar, she nevertheless concludes, pointing to the young man's 'rapid corruption' and 'the skill with which he lied' that we are dealing with 'a combination of Odysseus' teaching and natural inclinations, or physis, in his conduct' (p. 103). Well and good. However, there is no escaping the fact that his basic nobility or honesty which he has presumably inherited from Achilles (what other source could there be?) is what does triumph in the end.
The chapter on Heracles is a let down. Firstly, we're informed that the divinized hero's injunction for co-operative action on the part of Philoctetes and Neoptolemus indicates a philosophical shift from 'Homeric to Athenian society' since hoplites fought in a closed phalanx. But it takes more than two 'to phalanx', so to speak. More disappointingly, we find that Roisman's interpretation all through has been coloured by the bathetic theory, to which she subscribes, that Heracles is really Odysseus in disguise. One of the arguments used is even that if this is not the case, then Philoctetes would be the only extant play (remember that there are only seven) to use the deus ex machina. The theory, of course, makes a total mockery of the moral issues raised in the play.
All in all, then, this is certainly a provocative presentation of the play which engages with all the hotly debated issues. My main concern is that it might be too 'Odyssean' for the inexperienced readers at whom it is aimed.[]
In her contribution to the series, Griffiths has the rather more daunting task of trying to bring 'order' to the multi-dimensional, not to say self-contradictory and chaotic figure of Heracles which springs up like a hydra from Euripides' play. In general, she succeeds admirably in drawing the reader's attention to a great variety of theoretical approaches and perspectives on the Heracles, while remaining lucid and concise. The strain of trying to handle such a mass of material within the constraints of her brief does, however, show at times.
Griffiths draws on and engages with a much wider range of modern scholarship than Roisman does, and this is reflected in her bibliography of nineteen pages (as opposed to the nine pages of Roisman). In general, her references are highly pertinent. At times, however, we appear to be in the territory of misguided selection or footnoting for its own sake. I am thinking here, among a number of examples, of note 14 on p. 135 where, as referencing for a general comment about one of Sophocles' plays, we read: 'On the Women of Trachis, see Bowman, 'Prophecy and Authority in the Trachiniae'; Sorum, 'Monsters and the Family: the Exodus of Sophocles Trachiniae'. Without in any way wishing to belittle the value of these two works, are they really the two most useful starting points for the new reader?
In Chapter 1, 'Introduction' (pp. 9-14), Griffiths outlines a much more sophisticated theoretical framework for an understanding of her subject than Roisman does and, in connection with the Heracles myth, she delves into such areas as the conflicting claims of the 'universality' and 'cultural and social construct' approaches. Chapter 2, 'Heracles and Greek Myth' (pp. 15-29), is a concise discussion of the complexities of the subject of Heracles and myth which nevertheless ranges widely, even touching on aspects of the modern world and the general concept of 'the hero'. I just pause over a quotation from the Poetics being described as belonging to 'the early fourth century' (p. 15).
Chapter 3, 'Euripides, Heracles and Greek Tragedy' (pp. 30-41), offers another wide-ranging discussion which moves from an all too brief account of the context of fifth-century drama, to a consideration of Heracles in tragedy and comedy, and then to an initial treatment of Euripides as a playwright, with even a glance at the idea of metatheatre at the end. Cursory indeed, but nevertheless pleasingly coherent. A few notes of caution. The orchestra of the theatre of Dionysus is stated categorically to have had an altar at its centre, we are said to possess today nineteen plays by Euripides plus the Cyclops plus the Rhesus (p.32) and a quote (p. 31) from Goldhill, 'Programme Notes', will have the reader searching the bibliography in vain.
The richest chapter (and the longest in the book), entitled 'Dramatic Structure and Unity' (pp. 42-64), now follows. An initial plot summary is then enhanced by a more detailed investigation of each scene approached through speculation about its possible original staging. This is capped by nuanced discussions of the relationship between the theatre architecture and the idea of 'the house', key imagery (in particular bird and boat imagery), and concepts of vision and story telling. Various approaches to the question of the play's dramatic unity or lack of it complete this most rewarding chapter.
Chapter 5, 'Family Values' (pp. 65-80), is a closely argued assessment of Greek ideas of family and the different types of family relationships in the play. The final section on Lycus and the debate on the bow, however, seems artificially stitched on to this discussion. The short Chapter 6, 'Violence and Madness' (pp. 81-90), starts a little uncertainly without a clear sense of direction. The first sub-heading is 'The death of Lycus and the role of song', but this is misleading and the link with 'song' is rather forced. The discussion becomes stronger when it moves on to Iris and Lyssa, the madness of Heracles, and the possible reasons for Hera's attack. There is a very useful coverage of the different scholarly approaches to the madness which focuses on the question of whether this is imposed and 'unfair' or whether it stems from an inherent aspect of the hero.
We then have another shortish chapter, 'Suicide and the Gods' (pp. 91-99), which does struggle to find a focus. The question of suicide and Heracles' ultimate rejection of this is followed by a discussion of the divine-human connection and the link between storytelling and tragedy. The chapter concludes with a look at Zeus and then Athena who provides the transition to the treatment of Theseus in the next chapter. One gets the strong impression that a brief chapter like this simply can't do justice to the 'big' issues at stake.
Chapter 8,'Theseus and the Role of Friendship'(pp. 100-113), is a little problematic and some might well say that Griffiths is in fact 'over-problematising' the Athenian hero's intervention -- she follows the line that raises significant doubts about the nature and effectiveness of his 'friendship'. Considerable emphasis is placed on Theseus' bad behaviour in other stories and sources without any real grappling with the general issue of whether any of this can fairly be said to be relevant to this particular play. Griffiths also moves into the minefield which involves the play's possible date, the war, and what Euripides might be saying to his fellow citizens in this context. She ends indeed with Alcibiades and the claim (p. 113) that the story could be taken as a 'warning to value family structures, rather than pursue individual aims and friendships'.
The final Nachleben chapter is an extremely brave effort, given that there have been relatively few documented productions/adaptations of this play. Because of the vast 'afterlife' of Heracles himself, however, Griffiths includes some of this material in her discussion, which is announced (p. 114) as having twin foci -- 'What, if anything, does the play have to say to modern audiences? How have changing fashions and interpretations of Heracles brought us to his point?' The meaning of the second question is a little unclear and the chapter overall lacks a certain coherence, though it does provide much interesting information.[]
Overall, this is a very successful book. In general, I like Griffith's approach to interpretation -- she offers a wide range of approaches from the scholarly literature and, while usually not coming out with 'the definitive' interpretation herself, from time to time she indicates particular views as 'plausible', while at the same time pointing to other factors which still have to be taken into account. Perhaps the main problem remains the fact that a short book like this simply cannot do justice to the material and, in a sense, Griffiths ironically shoots herself in the foot by attempting to introduce too many open-ended dimensions into an introductory study. For all that, though, this is an admirable resource which may well stimulate further interest and reading.
[] A few technical points. Note 3 on p. 127 should have been rewritten to avoid talk of 'the institution of the choregoi'. In the last line of p. 30, there is an incorrect and confusing use of the word 'It'. On p. 73 line 7, we need 'On the other hand'. On p. 117, in the Nachleben Chapter 8, we are introduced to Heiner Müller's Philoktet, which is then spelt Philoctet later on the same page and also on p. 118. Finally, on p. 124, after the information that Sophocles' play has been produced / adapted less often than other Greek tragedies in modern times, we're told that of this tragedian's extant seven 'it ranks fifth in the number of productions, following Ajax and Women of Trachis'. I simply don't know what this is supposed to mean.
[] On p. 122, at the beginning of line 9, there is a rogue quotation mark, and on p. 125 (also p. 145, n. 37) there is a perhaps inevitable substitution of 'Griffiths' for 'Griffith' with reference to Mark Griffith, 'The King and Eye: The Role of the Father in Greek Tragedy', PCPHS 44 (1998) 20-84.