Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Donald J. Mastronarde, The Art of Euripides. Dramatic Technique and Social Context. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 361. ISBN 9780521768399. $99.00.

Reviewed by Justina Gregory, Smith College (

Version at BMCR home site


The survival into modern times of eighteen plays by Euripides, as opposed to six by Aeschylus and seven by Sophocles, has both helped and harmed the poet's reputation. The accident of transmission has expanded knowledge of Euripides and enhanced appreciation of his artistry. On the other hand, it has fostered the impression that he is uniquely volatile and various—as if the fragments of Aeschylus and Sophocles did not make plain the diversity of their own oeuvre. As a practical matter, eighteen is an unwieldy number of plays to cover in a scholarly monograph (six or seven, by contrast, is ideal). Although there has been an enormous amount of work on Euripides over the past forty years, no synthetic study has appeared in English1 since Desmond Conacher's Euripidean Drama. Myth, Theme and Structure (Toronto, 1967). In setting out to fill this gap Mastronarde, who was Conacher's doctoral student at Toronto in the 1970s, departs from his teacher's organization: instead of devoting a chapter to each tragedy, he discusses them piecemeal (with occasional reference to the fragmentary plays and to the satyr-play Cyclops) under the categories of genre, structure, the chorus, the gods, rhetoric and character, and gender, status, and age. While this method results in illuminating juxtapositions and comparisons, it also breaks each play apart and promotes an open-ended interpretation.

Mastronarde's work on tragedy invariably combines scrupulous and exact philology with close attention to performative aspects. His first monograph, Contact and Discontinuity (Berkeley, 1979), was a detailed study of tragic conventions related to dialogue and physical action. His study of the manuscript tradition of Euripides' Phoenissae (Berkeley, 1982), followed by a Teubner edition (Leipzig, 1988), and a major commentary (Cambridge, 1994), rescued the play from opprobrium and neglect. His commentary on Medea (Cambridge, 2002) and his articles on characterization, stagecraft, and dramatic technique (six of which are incorporated into the book under review in revised form) are indispensable for students of tragedy. His general study of Euripides has been eagerly awaited. There is a mismatch, however, for which the publisher may be partially responsible, between his scholarly strengths and the present book. Although Mastronarde expresses the hope that his treatment will be accessible to Greekless readers (viii), it is anything but an easy read. One must know the plays very well indeed—and keep the three volumes of the Oxford Classical Text within reach—to stay abreast of the discussion, which is presented in compressed and abstract form with a minimum of quotation. What little Greek appears in the body of the text is transliterated, a presentation at odds with the austere level of the analysis. One concession to the Greekless reader seems ill-advised: after surveying the reception of Euripides from the fifth century through modern times, the introductory chapter concludes with fourteen pages of potted plot summaries. Scholars will skip this appendix, as Mastronarde recommends (28), but I am not sure how it will serve general readers either. The space could more profitably have been devoted to the survey of Euripidean style that he considered adding to the book at an earlier stage (308).

The book makes two major points with great authority. Mastronarde leads off with a discussion of genre—a fundamental starting point for the poet whom Aristotle deemed "the most tragic"(Poetics1453a29), but whose plays have also been described as satyric or pro-satyric (Alcestis), comic (Ion, Helen, Iphigenia among the Taurians), and parodic (Electra, Orestes). His argument (as set forth in Illinois Classical Studies 24-25 [1999-2000], 23-39) has already had a liberating effect on younger Euripidean scholars.2 Rejecting a "retrospective" or prescriptive viewpoint on Greek tragedy, Mastronarde declares his allegiance to a descriptive, "temporally embedded or prospective" poetics (47). Tragedy, he points out, was "inherently a genre of varied form and content" (49). Its elements represented a composite of earlier poetic traditions, and the myths on which it drew provided story-patterns of varied shape and outcome—episodic as well as linear, happy as well as sad. The competitive framework of the tragic festivals encouraged innovation, and tragedy continued to develop throughout the fifth century and into the fourth. In his variety and experimentation, then, Euripides "is not abandoning or corrupting a fixed genre, but exploring the potentialities of a living genre" (54). This comprehensive approach frees critics from the arid task of categorizing the plays as pro-satyric , satyric, realistic, romantic, tragicomic and the like, and makes it possible to take their tragic status as a given, as Mastronarde does throughout the book.

Related to this first point is a second, equally consequential. If tragedy was "a living genre" in Euripides' time, then it is necessary to reject the teleological narrative that is an unfortunate legacy of the nineteenth century. According to this account, the tragic form is "crude and underdeveloped in Aeschylus, perfect in its harmony, control, and organic unity in Sophocles, and declining and decadent in Euripides" (11). Mastronarde not only draws attention to Wittgensteinian "family resemblances," but also documents specific similarities between Euripides' practice and that of his predecessors. If Euripides prefers female choruses for his tragedies of domestic conflict, so too do Aeschylus and Sophocles (103). If Euripides' youthful heroes struggle with the transition to adulthood, so too do Sophocles' (305). Yet Mastronarde also highlights significant differences. One such is Euripides' tendency to elide differences of status when it comes to verbal argument, so that all his characters, from kings to women to slaves, command the same level of rhetorical virtuosity (209-10). Even as Mastronarde acknowledges the "creativity and avant-garde nature of Euripides' work" (54), he insists that the poet is developing tendencies latent in the genre.

More problematic is Mastronarde's thesis that tragedy in general, and Euripidean tragedy in particular, propels the audience toward confusion, uncertainty, and aporia. The evidence he cites does not necessarily support this conclusion. For reasons of space I will consider only Chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3, on dramatic structure, focuses on the Euripidean plays of "open" form (the term is Pfister's): either double or episodic, and in any case lacking the connecting threads of probability or necessity. Mastronarde argues that such plays pose daunting intellectual challenges: in Heracles, for instance, critics have trouble integrating the two parts of the play because Heracles' madness, which triggers a violent transformation in a previously sympathetic protagonist, appears so arbitrary and unmotivated (71). Yet surely the arbitrariness is just the point: this, readers and spectators are given to understand, is how the universe works. The juxtaposition, parallelism, and contrast that Mastronarde documents in the play and identifies as organizing strategies characteristic of the open form can help make sense (admittedly bleak sense) of the outcome.

Chapter 4, on the chorus, makes similar points and is open to the same objection. While it abounds in subtle distinctions and observations (on the gender and status of tragic choruses; disparities of knowledge between spectators, actors, and chorus; the chorus' use of myth; degrees of linkage between choral odes and their context), what Mastronarde is concerned to emphasize is the typical chorus' lack of a stable identity and its inability to provide the spectators with privileged and authoritative guidance on unfolding events (89). Again his evidence is questionable. Mastronarde describes the choral odes of Hecuba as working against the pathos of the episodes to create an unsettling emotional distance from the protagonist: the chorus "deflects attention…from the particular to the general or from the individual to the group without concluding apostrophe or explicit application" (143). But ancient spectators would not require any prompts to make the relevant connections. By drawing together past, present, and future and evoking Greek as well as Trojan experiences of grief, the choral odes encourage a synoptic and empathetic perspective on war—a perspective the contemporary audience would readily associate with the high literary tradition, since it pervades the Iliad.

For Mastronarde, watching tragedy (especially Euripidean tragedy) is akin to listening to sophistic rhetoric; the enhanced level of emotion associated with the theater serves merely to "complicate…the audience's reception" (229). He rightly stresses that reading or watching tragedy is a complex and demanding experience, since the audience is exposed to a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints and compelled constantly to revise its assumptions. Yet this continual shifting of response does not only confuse the spectators; it also ensures that they are surprised, stimulated, and moved. Mastronarde's brief discussion of the pleasures associated with Euripidean drama (309-311) does not acknowledge either the pleasure of suspense or (tragedy's central paradox) the pleasure of participating at a safe remove in the sufferings of others. Mastronarde can get away with dismissing Aristotle as a theoretician writing "at a couple of generations' remove from the fifth-century theater" (25 n. 68), but he should pay more heed to the testimony of Gorgias, the tragedians' contemporary, who like Aristotle stresses poetry's power to awaken fear, pity and longing in the audience (Helen 9). The tragic emotions get short shrift in Mastronarde's analysis, and that is an opportunity lost.

Mastronarde assumes that the audience identifies "intermittently" (229) with the characters; that is, emotional engagement waxes and wanes depending on the characters' conduct. Thus at the end of Heracleidae Alcmene, a feeble old woman who has hitherto adhered scrupulously to female norms of behavior, insists on putting the prisoner-of-war Eurystheus to death, simultaneously defying Athenian custom and taking upon herself a revenge more appropriately left to men. For Mastronarde, her transgressive conduct "cause[s] revulsion" in the audience (260; cf. 68, 86). This alienated and alienating response is in the spirit of Jason's fatuous comment about Medea: "No Greek woman would ever have dared this deed!" (Medea 1339-40). Presumably at least some spectators will instead experience an enlargement of understanding and sympathy as they recognize the potential of extreme suffering to affect human beings, including themselves; indeed, the chorus leader points the way to such a conclusion when he comments that Alcmene's hostility is at once "terrible and understandable" (δεινὸν καὶ συγγνωστόν, Heracleidae 981). An enlargement of understanding and sympathy brings with it a sense of closure, however ambiguous the formal conclusion of the play.

In an early essay whose argument he incorporates into the present book, Mastronarde discussed three "optimistic rationalists" in Euripides. Reflecting the influence of the fifth-century enlightenment, these characters (Theseus in Supplices, Jocasta in Phoenissae, Teiresias in Bacchae) "believe that the world is orderly and comprehensible and that there are elements in that order which have been fashioned for the good of man" (215). While Mastronarde is far from claiming that Euripides was himself an optimistic rationalist, he does not give enough weight to the poet's (and his audience's) affinity to the pessimism that runs deep in the Greek tradition. This pessimism finds particular expression in the choral odes of tragedy and in the gnomic statements that Mastronarde too readily dismisses as banal and simple-minded. Mastronarde's study is valuable for its emphasis on the commonalities of the tragic tradition and for its perspicacious analysis of formal elements of Euripidean drama. To consider the ways in which tragedy represents, interrogates, and comes to terms with the pessimistic strain would, however, qualify his conclusions.


1.  Recent surveys in German are Kjeld Matthiessen, Die Tragödien des Euripides (Munich, 2002) and Martin Hose, Euripides. Der Dichter der Leidenschaften (Munich, 2008).
2.   Cf. Matthew Wright, Euripides' Escape-Tragedies (Oxford, 2005) 6-43 and William Allan, Euripides. Helen (Cambridge, 2008) 67-72.

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