Lucie Thévenet, Le personnage: du mythe au théâtre: la question de l'identité dans la tragédie grecque. Vérité des mythes. Paris: Les belles lettres, 2009. Pp. 364. ISBN 9782251324562. €35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Katie Billotte, Royal Holloway College, University of London
Praise is distributed more often than it is deserved. I assure you that this is not one of those instances. Lucie Thévenet's Le personnage: du mythe au théâtre: La question de l'identité dans la tragédie grecque is a refreshingly insightful and well-written book that provides an important and thought-provoking addition to the study of ancient theatre. Each page, from chapter heading to footnote, is an absolute delight to read. The reader of this book is assured fresh, new insights delivered in a concise and clear style as Thévenet's prose manages to deliver complex arguments in a way that is never tedious. Le personnage: du mythe au théâtre moves from strength to strength and is a must read for anyone interested in ancient drama.
As promised by the title, this book wrestles with the inherent tension found in the transfer of mythic characters onto the tragic stage. Thévenet's answer as to how identity might be constructed for these characters is as simple as it is brilliant: Examine those passages in which characters declare their own identities. This thesis is defended through a careful and persuasive reading of the text which demonstrates everything that sound philology should be. Thévenet draws her sources from across the tragic corpus, yet never allows the breadth of her argument to prevent a close and thorough reading of each text. The result of this is a comprehensive theory which, unlike many such theories, does not seem to fall short of its claim to comprehensiveness.
The main body of the book is framed by an introduction and conclusion. Both of these sections are concise and informative and could stand alone as explanations of the book's thesis. Though the reader would certainly deny her- or himself much profit by not reading the entire book, those teaching courses in tragedy or myth might find the independence of these sections helpful as either or both would make excellent secondary reading material for undergraduate and graduate courses.
Aside from the introductory and concluding chapters, the book is divided into two parts. The first is entitled "L'Identité en scènes, entre connaissance et reconnaissance" and contains three chapters: "Historia", "Autopsia" and "Métabasis". Named for the three ways of knowing endorsed by ancient thought, each chapter explores instances in which a tragic character learns something about her or his or another character's identity through each manner of knowing. "Historia" contains many interesting discussions on the importance of geographic origin and genealogy. This includes Thévenet's perceptive discussion of the ways in which clothing is used as an indicator of geographic and ethnic origin. The next chapter, entitled "Autopsia", has the difficult task of examining the many famed 'recognition scenes'. Not only do these scenes make up a great deal of the existent tragic corpus, they also have been repeatedly studied by generations of critics. This makes saying anything particularly original about them difficult. Thévenet, however, manages to offer new insight to familiar work. In particular, her analysis of recognition in Oedipus at Colonus offers a fantastic new perspective on the play. The final chapter of the first part, entitled "Métabasis", concentrates primarily on the characters of Orestes, Oedipus, and Helen. The portions dealing with Orestes are especially thought-provoking, in no small part because it is possible to draw on multiple texts for analysis.
The second part of the book is called "La reconnaissance de soi" and deals primarily with the issue of self-identification in tragedy. The self-identification of tragic characters is a relatively under-researched area; consequently, this section offers a ground-breaking and important contribution to current scholarship. ThéThévenet bases this section of the book around the premise that in order to understand the tragic mechanism for self-recognition, it is necessary to examine those moments of crisis which render self-identification impossible. She holds that in the rupture between the affirmation and the negation of self-identification, it becomes possible to examine the relationship between the character on the stage and the mythic personage. Considering the complexity of the argument presented in this section, it is to Thévenet's great credit that her prose never becomes pedantic or convoluted. This is, at least in part, because the book maintains in the second half the strong structure that characterizes the first.
The second section is divided into two chapters, "Soi-même en héros" and "Le spectacle de soi". The first half of "Soi-même en héros" examines instances in which a character does not recognize his or her identity as a result of divine interference. It should come as no surprise that this section focuses heavily on the character of Agave in Euripides' Bacchae. Any reading of the Bacchae is in danger of being redundant as the play has proven perennially popular with scholars and students alike; Thévenet's, however, offers fresh insight into the character of Agave. The same is true for the discussions of Ajax, Medea, and Hippolytus which are found in the second half of the chapter. The final chapter is entitled, "Le Spectacle de soi". The chapter subsection under the heading, "Le héros corporel" is perhaps one of the best meditations on the corporality of tragic suffering in modern scholarship. The relationship between the body and suffering has been traditionally ignored by scholars and readers of tragedy, with the notable exception of Terry Eagleton's 2003 book Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic. As a result, many have embraced models of tragedy which mitigate or ignore the corporal nature of all suffering, including that of the tragic variety. Thévenet does not fall into this dangerous error and as a consequence can offer the reader a fascinating piece of analysis.
In sum, Le personnage: du mythe au théâtre: La question de l'identité dans la tragédie grecque is the perfect blend of fresh, innovative scholarship combined with the serious attention to texts and language that makes for sound literary criticism. It will no doubt serve as a wonderful source both for professional scholars and students of Classics.