Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Susanna Phillippo, Hellenic Whispers: Modes of Greek Literary Influence in Seventeenth-Century French Drama. Medieval and Early Modern French Studies, 13. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013. Pp. xvi, 577. ISBN 9783034308519. $89.95.

Reviewed by Thomas A. Schmitz, Bonn University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Seventeenth-century French tragedy was one of the culminating points of classical reception in European literature: several theatrical companies in Paris competed for the favor of an elite audience of courtiers and noblemen. The subject matter of their dramatical performances (which have not always been preserved as texts) was most often taken from Greek myth and Roman history. Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) and Jean Racine (1639–1699) are classics in France, and their plays are still performed in theaters all over the world. Their enduring success and status as school authors have eclipsed the fame of most of their contemporaries. Writers such as Alexandre Hardy (1570–1632), Jean Rotrou (1609–1650), or Jacques Pradon (1644–1698) may have been successful in their own time; today, they are little more than names without substance for a general public (or even for students of French literature, for that matter).

Susanna Philippo has devoted a voluminous book to this period. Her preface informs us that it had an unusually long history: its origins lie in a PhD thesis (at the University of St. Andrews) which she completed in 1992. Even in the humanities, twenty years is a long time to complete a book. The volume under review is a strange work, and some of this strangeness may have to do with this long lapse of years.

The bulk of the book consists of three long chapters which each study one particular example of classical reception in seventeenth-century France. As Phillippo explains in her introduction (p. 8), these three chapters are meant to represent case studies in which the fundamental parameters of reception differ. Chapter 3 (pp. 67–150) examines plays deriving from Iphigenia in Tauris: apart from Euripides's Greek text itself, the only available "source" was the Latin translation accompanying Paul Estienne's 1602 edition (more on this translation later). The chapter concentrates on François Joseph de La Grange-Chancel's Oreste et Pilade (1697), emphasizing that the French writer was aiming at "a dramaturgy of multiplicity and variety" (p. 146). As was usual in his time, he added several sub-plots and love interests, thus running the risk of making his plot too subtle and complex for his audience. Chapter 4 (pp. 151–354) examines the Euripidean Iphigenia in Aulide; in this case, there were Latin (Erasmus) and French (Thomas Sébillet) translations as well as earlier adaptations. The three French texts studied in detail are all entitled Iphigénie, by Jean Rotrou (ca. 1640), Jean Racine (1674), and Michel Leclerc (1675). In Chapter 5 (pp. 353–503), Phillippo studies tragedies that depict the fall of Troy, in particular the fate of Andromache and Astyanax. Knowledge of the Euripidean texts (esp. Hecuba, Andromache, and Troades) is here mediated by important Latin versions of the story such as Virgil's Aeneid and Seneca's Troades; Robert Garnier's La Troade (1579) is an important French intermediary. Phillippo here examines Sallebray's La Troade (1639), Racine's Andromaque (1667), and Jacques Pradon's La Troade (1679); unlike the accomplished Hellenist Racine, Sallebray and Pradon knew the Greek texts through Seneca and his French followers. There is a somewhat timid attempt at presenting some results of her research in the form of an extended table (pp. 495–503), which made me wish Phillippo had been more inventive throughout her book—as a reader, I sometimes felt that her long series of examples and quotations did not offer enough guidance as to the book's overall design and that some form of tabular or graphical presentation would have been helpful. A final chapter (pp. 505–43) summarizes Phillippo's conclusions in a clear and succinct manner.

I have mentioned that the book originates in a thesis finished in 1992 (and embarked on several years earlier, I surmise). Phillippo herself admits that these twenty years have brought about momentous change: she mentions (p. viii) that her research was undertaken "before online access became a wide-spread resource," and today's readers would have expected her to be more consistent in mentioning online editions in her bibliography (they are available for many of her key texts). But this is a mere technicality; what is more important is that the years between, say, 1990 and 2010 have seen extremely important changes in the way we look at reception studies, allusivity, intertextuality, and the classical tradition. Phillippo quotes a few recent studies, but overall it is obvious that they have not led her to rethink her approach and that references to bibliographical material published after 1990 are spotty. She gives short shrift to theoretical considerations (pp. 3–25; see esp. p. 21 n. 21); it is surprising to see a section entitled "Allusion and Intertext" (p. 535) without any reference to the relevant discussion. Instead, Phillippo emphasizes the individuality of literary creativity (see, e.g., pp. 524–31 or p. 308: "our central question of the variety of ways in which the influence of Greek drama operated on different writers," emphasis Phillippo's). She defends Quellenforschung as a valid way of looking at the tension between this creativity and the reworking of the multi-layered tradition and of gaining "potential insight into a writer's mental workshop" (p. 14; curiously, the use of the somewhat loaded term "influence" in the book's title is never explained). But as becomes more and more clear as one reads those case studies, the material she has chosen to explore does not lend itself to source criticism of this sort. The sheer number of potential direct and intermediate "sources" available to every individual author is so huge that we arrive at a situation which we would call an "open recension" in textual criticism: rampant cross-contamination renders every vertical link between source and target tenuous, as Phillippo acknowledges. As an example, I quote a few passages from her analysis of the Iphigenia in Tauris plays: "this must remain speculation" (p. 81 and p. 87); "permits only tentative speculation" (p. 88); "it is at least plausible" (p. 105). The expression "may have" is a constant companion throughout the book and the conclusion seems inevitable: neither the nature of the material nor the way most French authors worked allows certain inferences to be drawn (one notable exception being Racine, whose readings of ancient authors we can analyze; see pp. 229–307).

The book has its merits in the treatment of individual passages: Phillippo is attentive to detail and has a very fine ear for poetry and dramatic technique. The volume contains a great number of excellent observations and interpretations; see, e.g., her conclusion on La Grange-Chancel (p. 118) or the observation on a point of dramatical economy in Rotrou (p. 221); on the other hand, her conclusion on Racine's Iphigénie (pp. 304–7) hardly scratches the surface of this playwright's theatrical and moral ideas. Phillippo's close readings alone would justify the book's publication since most of the texts discussed have never been analyzed in such detail by someone who is competent both in classical and in seventeenth-century French literature. Phillippo is sometimes in danger of not seeing the forest for the trees (or at least of overwhelming her readers with too many examples of similar phenomena), but her patient manner of paying attention to every tree, its single branches and leafs is admirable indeed.

However, this emphasis on individual texts and authors seems to imply a lack of interest in the cultural, political, social, and intellectual background. It is by no means a new discovery that the great French "âge classique" was not a harmonious and homogeneous period, but marked by immense tensions: between protestants and catholics, between nobility and royal power, between "noblesse d'épée" and "noblesse de robe," between Jesuits and Jansenists, to name but a few. These tensions occasionally led to violence, unrest, and even civil war (especially the "Fronde" of 1648–1653), but it is important to remember that they were often at the center of intellectual debates as well: the "Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes" which marked the last decade of the century had been prepared by a number of similar "querelles" that opposed members of different social groups. These tensions were also momentous for the way in which classical texts were read and used: whether an author wrote for the royal court, for a (female) public of "salons," or for scholars and intellectuals, will be decisive for her or his use of classical intertexts. Of these debates and developments hardly a trace can be found in Phillippo's book; she presents her writers as a group of talking heads, not as actors on a social stage often involved in heated debates. She does not make use of the numerous poetological treatises that appeared in France during the period, she does not study the relation between the plays and the rules of classicism as they developed from Scaliger to Boileau. Leclerc's Iphigénie (available online at Google Books) contains a "Préface" of seven pages in which the author contrasts his own use of classical sources with Racine's in great detail—Phillippo quotes it just once (p. 322; cf. the fleeting reference pp. 537–8) for an insignificant point. She speculates that France's involvement in the Thirty Years' War may have motivated a surge of patriotism in Rotrou's depiction of Agamemnon (p. 187), but she never pursues these questions systematically: "[...] the twin themes of patriotism and personal honour are more sympathetically treated throughout by Rotrou than by Euripides, partly in line with themes prominent in the theatre of his own time and culture" (p. 204). Why were these themes prominent in this period, how do they integrate into the religious and political landscape, can we detect historical developments and social affiliations? Curious readers want to know, but Phillippo appears to be indifferent to such questions.

Yet for all her aversion to grand theories and all her attention to small detail, Phillippo is not a rigorous philologist either. The Greek passages she quotes are an inconsistent mix of Diggle's modern OCT and the editions (by Aldus and Estienne) that the French authors had at their disposal; all too often she leaves her readers in the dark as to which edition she is quoting: e.g., at IA 1396 (p. 158) and 1115 (p. 216), she cites the unmetrical text offered by the early editions (without a hint at its problematic nature), but at IA 399 (p. 212, p. 328), she prints Triclinius's ἐγεινάμην where both early editions have the transmitted ἐγείναμεν (again without any note). The same problem occurs in her quotations from French texts. In a note at the beginning of the book (p. xiv), she announces that she adheres to the original spelling of seventeenth-century texts unless a modern edition is available, but when I double-checked some of her quotations, I found that they presented an inconsistent mixture of original and modernized spelling (and that punctuation had been modernized throughout). Numerous misprints mar quotations in all languages (p. 58 copiosus instead of copiosius; p. 98 "une cinquième acte" instead of "un cinquième acte"; p. 122 "j'attende" instead of "j'attends"; p. 135 "n'eust" instead of "n'eut"; p. 211 preimerem instead of perimerem; p. 326 "le surmonte" instead of "la surmonte," to quote just a few examples). Even the title of one of the plays is misquoted (p. 548: Sébillet's translation is not entitled L'Iphigénie d'Euripide, but L'Iphigène d'Euripide—a huge difference if you are looking for an online edition...). She is not interested in the philological work of early modern editors and commentators either; there is a wealth of information in prefaces, notes, dedications, and commentaries of which she makes no use. Estienne's 1602 edition misattributes the Latin translation he prints to Willem Canter, but it can be shown to be by Aemilius Portus. All Phillippo has to say about this curious history is a reference to a "staff view entry on the Yale University Library entry for their copy of the 1602 Stephanus edition" (p. 57 n. 8). In a study that defends Quellenforschung, I would have expected more attention to the sources.

In sum, Phillippo's book, for all its literary merits, lacks both philological and theoretical rigor. Its author has a real passion and enthusiasm for her subject; she reads her ancient and modern texts with love and attention, and she is ready to take them seriously as drama that is meant to move its audience. On the other hand, her approach is under-theorized, she is out of touch with current research, and her scholarship is too often slipshod. Her book fills an important niche—as advertisers love to say, "there is nothing quite like it on the market." Racine's use of classical predecessors has not found the scholarly attention it deserves, and the production of minor playwrights such as Rotrou and Leclerc is all but terra incognita (see, however, the works of the Sorbonne Centre de Recherche sur l'Histoire du Théâtre). To this extent, Phillippo's study is a welcome addition. However, it is more a mine of facts and texts and a motivation for further research than a satisfactory contribution in its own right.

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