Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Giorgio Ieranò, La tragedia greca: origini, storia, rinascite. Strumenti per l'università 7. Roma: Salerno Editrice, 2010. Pp. 250. ISBN 9788884026958. €14.50.

Reviewed by Letizia Poli Palladini, Liceo-Ginnasio 'Giovanni Meli,' Palermo, and Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA (palladil@dickinson.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

This book sets out to introduce Greek tragedy to Italian undergraduates with little or no prior knowledge of the genre. Having such an audience in mind, the author strives for simplicity of language and shuns philological technicalities. Despite this didactic approach, he is able to give a full and stimulating picture of the genre, from its origins to its zenith, and finally to its modern revivals, from the Renaissance to contemporary times. As a whole, the work succeeds in carrying out this apparently modest, but in fact quite ambitious task thanks to Ieranò's competence, a gift for clarity, and a genuine love for tragedy. The production of the book falls short of perfection by very few misprints.1

In the Foreword, the author dilates on two good reasons for learning more about Greek tragedy: on the one hand, its quasi-ubiquity in our culture; on the other, its deceptively familiar appearance, which can be a source of misunderstanding. This idea of the ancient theatre as radically different from our theatrical experience is taken up again in the course of the Introduction (pp. 21-2), where Ieranò provides basic information on ancient Greek dramatic genres, playwrights, transmitted works, and dramatic conventions. Chapter 1, 'Under the sign of Dionysus,' deals with the problems that surround the origins of tragedy, its relation to 'Dionysism' and to dithyramb. Aristotle's testimony is quoted and discussed, together with modern trends, from Nietzsche to the Cambridge ritualistic school. Then Ieranò moves on to Thespis, the alleged inventor of tragedy, his possible Dionysiac affiliation, and to a description of the Great Dionysia. A discussion of dithyramb as a competing genre within the same festival follows.

Chapter 2, 'A theatre for the city,' deals with concrete details in the organization of dramatic festivals, such as requesting a chorus, and being a χορηγός. While talking about the audience, Ieranò reviews the evidence concerning female participation (pp. 57-60), drawing the conclusion that, even if women were among the audience, they must have been a marginal minority. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to aspects of staging such as the actual theatre, stage machines, actors' costumes and acting, masks, music and dance. Its conclusion emphasizes the loss of two crucial dimensions of ancient tragedy, the visual and the aural, which, in Ieranò's opinion, makes our texts similar to opera librettos whose music scores are missing (pp. 72-4).

The long Chapter 3, 'Fifth-century tragedy,' summarizes the little evidence we possess on such playwrights as Choerilus, Pratinas and Phrynichus, and relates the traditional biographies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Agathon, Ion, and Critias are also briefly introduced. Then Ieranò moves on to a comparison of the three great tragedians' dramatic art and to a discussion of conventions common to all of them. Tragic plots and settings, the elaboration and transformation of myth in the playwrights' hands, tragic inter-textuality, the relation between tragedy and epic poetry are his next concern. Anachronism is explained as inborn to a genre dedicated to actualizing old stories. Regarding the relation of tragedy with politics, Ieranò holds that by adopting a problematic viewpoint and opening up moral complexities tragedy works as the opposite of propaganda and ideology, with their sham of moral infallibility – in a word, the genre is anti-political. On female roles, so prominent in tragedy, it is argued that the poets were not interested in female condition per se, but on a vantage point on the paradoxes of reality. How tragedy deals with supernatural phenomena, the Aristotelian notion of κάθαρσις, and Gorgianic ἀπάτη are the next topics. The chapter ends with a comparison of tragedy and comedy, and with a discussion of satyr-play. In these sections, Ieranò often illustrates his point by means of extensive quotations; he also refers to the most important scholarly contributions and debates without betraying his didactic purpose.

Chapter 4, 'Survivals and revivals,' traces the long history of ancient tragedy from the fourth century, through the Hellenistic and the Roman ages, the Renaissance, the Grand Siècle, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and nineteenth-century avant-garde, to contemporary times. In order to offer a concrete example, he goes through the great number of revivals, or rather rewritings, of the tragedy of Medea in the twentieth century (dramas as well as films), concluding that all this shows the importance attached to ancient tragedy by the past century. In the 'Conclusion,' Ieranò develops this view, as well as the other, cognate, opinion that Greek tragedy keeps being full of novelty because of its inexhaustible capacity to shake contemporary banality. The book is usefully completed by a 'Chronology of Greek tragedy,' an explained 'Bibliography,' an 'Index of names,' and a 'Table of content.'

Ieranò follows the communis opinio on most of the topics he broaches, although they are highly controversial, apparently because he subscribes to it and maybe also because he finds it the safest course to adopt with students who are just beginning to approach Greek tragedy. On material details of tragedy (i.e. festivals and theatrical practice) his treatment agrees with Pickard-Cambridge's still valuable contributions.2 As to subtler aspects of dramatic criticism (like, i.e., tragedy's relation with epic poetry, communal resonance, polyphony, etc.), he reflects the views that have prevailed over the past thirty or twenty years.3 Only occasionally does he express an original stand, e.g. (pp. 28, 30) when he maintains that Arist. Poet. 1449a 9-13 is not evidence for a remote ritual origin of both tragedy and comedy,4 but a brilliant intuition that a singer's extemporizing – in first rather than third person – contained in embryo the whole dramatic experience. He also explains (p. 125) Euripides' polemic treatment of Orestes' recognition as a way of radicalizing the discrepancy between character and traditional role.

One may object that some of the views accepted by Ieranò have become obsolete or at least have lost their primacy, and that clinging to them demands some justification and a brief outline of the status quaestionis. E.g. (p. 14) he gives 445 as date of birth of Aristophanes neglecting the argument that he must have been born about 450.5 He also describes (p. 61) the theatre of Dionysus in Athens according to Pickard-Cambridge's, i.e. Doerpfeld/Reisch's and Fiechter's,6 reconstruction for the fifth century without mentioning that archaeologists have been recently supporting the view of a rectilinear ὀρχήστρα.7 Likewise, the very existence of the θυμέλη (assumed as uncontroversial, p. 57) has been challenged.8 He also states (pp. 23, 63, 84, 159) that ancient tragedy was not concerned about verisimilitude, whereas the contrary has been argued, though making allowance for tragic conventionality.9 The chronology of early tragedy is related with a little scepticism (pp. 13, 37, 75) without providing the grounds for it.10 As Pi. fr.75 Maehler is all but uncontroversial evidence for the dithyramb being performed in the ἀγορά, a note is badly needed on pp. 47-9.11

Sometimes a speculative argument is omitted and the conclusion couched in language that makes it sound like hard fact. Ieranò says (p. 66) that Aeschylus performed roles in his plays and then he reports, as a suspect piece of information or as an inference (see the conditional mode), that he acted (or might have acted) as Clytaemestra in 458. Actually, Ieranò should have reported the tradition about acting by the early tragedians,12 and said that this tradition, combined with a rigid interpretation of the piece of evidence about Sophocles giving up acting,13 is often regarded as sufficient ground for maintaining that Aeschylus always acted as πρωταγωνιστής.14 Yet, things might have gone differently, e.g. if Aeschylus at some point got tired of acting himself. So one has to regard Aeschylus' impersonation of Clytaemestra as a mere supposition. Theodectes' being commissioned with the tragedy Mausolus by the latter's widow Artemisia (p. 186) is likewise mere supposition.15 A mention of Lycophron (pp. 188-9) should at least inform the reader about the view that another 'Lycophron,' alive in the second century BC, wrote the Alexandra.16

It may annoy some readers that the author quite often reports on evidence without giving any references. Surely a brief footnote would help willing students follow up the topic, without mystifying others. So add these references: pp. 28-9, FGrHist 396 F24; p. 33, Bacchyl.18; p. 41, Schol. ad Ar. Ach. 243a; p. 42, Sud. μ 451 Adl., Ps.-Apollod. iii 14, Ael. NA vii 28; p. 68, Ael. VH ii 13; p. 69, Ar. Lys. 644-5, Schol. ad l., FGrHist 342 F9; p. 71, P.Vindob. G2315, P.Leid. 510; p. 98, Aesch. Ag. 437, Sept. 64.

Although this usually has little consequence on his treatment of the main topic, an occasional fault of Ieranò's is inaccuracy of description: e.g. p. 44 (ἄρχοντες); p. 54 (φυλαί); p. 61 (tragic chorus of 15, without mentioning the traditional number of 12 up to Sophocles);17 p. 65 (Gospel 'by' Matthew). He should have expressed fully the year of Sophocles' generalship (441-440, p. 81), and the chronology of the Sicilian expedition (415-13, p. 82). In the finale of Persae, Xerxes does not sing in unison with the Chorus (p. 109), but alternatively. Athens and Argos stipulated in 461 a pact of non-aggression and alliance, not of peace (p. 132).

Random checks have shown a number of misquotations: p. 26, l.28, read Arist. Poet. 1449a 9-13; p. 39, l.13, read Hor. Ars poet. 275-7; p. 80, l.18, read Anon. in Arist. Eth. Nic. 1111a8 (= Aesch. T93b Radt); p. 87, l.15, read Arist. Poet. 1452b; p. 109, l.17, read Aesch. Pers. 931-1077.

Chapter 4, with all its admirable erudition, begs a larger question: do reception studies really help understand ancient works? Furthermore, Ieranò shows here that he is unaware of the methodological complexities involved in this area of investigation.18

Finally, one may wonder whether a few illustrations might have made the book more attractive. Some perplexity can be caused by rare spellings (p. 133 'dì,' p. 135 'dò'), and lexical eccentricity (p. 136 'reo' instead of 'accusato'). Transliterations like orghia and orghiasmos (p. 26) render inaccurately the Greek γ.

These minor flaws can be excused in view of the huge topic taken up. A second learned reader might have helped avoid them, if academic co-operation were more common outside the English-speaking world. However that may be, this fine book will successfully introduce students to tragedy and its long-lasting fascination.


1.   P. 67, l.27, read kothornoi; p. 178, l.16, italicize 'e;' p. 183, l.7, read 'tragedie.'
2.   A.W. Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy, Oxford 1927 (19622); The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Oxford 1946; The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, Oxford 1953 (19882).
3.   As exemplified e.g. by the several contributions collected in P.E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 1997, and in J. Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy, Oxford 2005.
4.   Cf. S. Halliwell, Aristotle's Poetics, London 1986, 256.
5.   K.J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, Berkeley/Los Angeles 1972, 13.
6.   W. Doerpfeld/E. Reisch, Das griechische Theater, Athen 1896; E.R. Fiechter, Das Dionysos-Theater in Athen, i, iii, Stuttgart 1935-6 (19502).
7.   E.g. J.-Ch. Moretti, 'The Theater of the Sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Late Fifth-Century Athens' ICS 24-25 (1999-2000) 377-98.
8.   E.g. R. Rehm, The Play of Space: Spatial Transformation in Greek Tragedy, Princeton 2002, 41, 239.
9.   R. Scodel, Credible Impossibilities. Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy, Stuttgart und Leipzig 1999.
10.   See M.L. West, 'The early chronology of Attic tragedy' CQ 39 (1989) 251-4; W.R. Connor, 'City Dionysia and the Athenian democracy' C&M 40 (1989) 7-32.
11.   See S. Lavecchia, Pindari Dithyramborum Fragmenta, Romae Pisisque 2000, 256-60.
12.   Arist. Rhet. 1403b 23-4, cf. on Thespis Plut. Sol. xxix 6.
13.   Vit. Soph. 4.
14.   E.g. Pickard-Cambridge Dram.Fest. 130, 131.
15.   See Snell (TrGF i) ad 72 (Theodect.) T6.
16.   See e.g. M. Fusillo/A. Hurst/G. Paduano (eds.), Licofrone, Alessandra, Milano 1991, 17-27.
17.   Sud. σ 815 Adl.
18.   Now one can refer to E. Hall/S. Harrop (eds.), Theorising Performance. Greek Drama, Cultural History and Critical Practice, London 2010.

1 comment:

  1. The bit about orghia and orghiasmos I find perplexing. I thought the value of fifth-century BC γ was exactly the same as Italian gh. What am I missing?