Thursday, March 31, 2016


Victoria Wohl, Euripides and the Politics of Form. Martin Classical Lectures. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 200. ISBN 9780691166506. $39.95.

Reviewed by David Kawalko Roselli, Scripps College (

Version at BMCR home site


This is an important and thoughtful analysis of the relationship between politics and aesthetic form in a select number of Euripidean plays. After a brief Preface defining terminology and outlining the major goal of showing that "dramatic form is itself a kind of political content" (xiii), Wohl describes in the Introduction the two problems motivating this study: the "oddness" of Euripides' tragedies and the relation between the plays and fifth-century Athens. The first has often led to genre reclassification (e.g., tragicomedies) or blaming Euripides for destroying tragedy. The issue of historicism is typically tackled by collapsing drama into pre-existing political content, thus disregarding the sensuousness of aesthetic form. Instead Wohl proposes (re)turning to formal analysis and invokes the model of immanent critique practised by the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno. The challenge is to hold aesthetics and politics together while analyzing the work done in and by form; to paraphrase Adorno, what we grasp as problems of form embody unresolved social antagonisms. After reviewing ancient critical discussions of drama and politics, Wohl provides a brief reading of Euripides' Alcestis. This "odd," apparently apolitical, play solicits the audience's investment through the characters' emotional outpourings, yet it reveals a politics in its structure: the "democratic audience" (15) desires the reunion of Alcestis and Admetus, but finds itself celebrating elite privilege. The dissonance between political values and the "dramatic ends" demonstrates how tragic structure frames ways of believing.

Chapter 1 argues that Ion's dramatic form creates similar affective conditions so that the audience longs for Creusa's reunion with Ion. And yet inescapably yoked to this is Ion's significance for Athens and its empire. By tracking how the play repeatedly threatens the audience's desire for closure (e.g., Ion's false recognition by Xuthus), Wohl shows both how Euripides' "open structure" and the prominence of tukhe reflect the freedom of democratic Athens and its penchant for questioning, and how dramatic topsy-turviness intensifies the emotional longing for certainty because of the formal uncertainty of reaching that desired ending.1 Ion thus models how we become politically and affectively attached to Athens (23, 38). Problematic issues (e.g., imperialism, noxious democratic politics) serve as threats that are papered over by the desired ending and Athena's promise of Athens' glory. Civic ideology can thus be both promoted and critiqued; the key point is that it "emerges from the [drama's] very structure" (37). With ideology understood as an "affective relation" (22) to beliefs (e.g., autochthony, imperialism), rather than a basket containing them, aesthetic form raises critical awareness of such beliefs even as we end up longing for them at the very moment when they appear uncertain and arbitrary.

Chapter 2 addresses the effects of "beautiful suffering" in Trojan Woman and Hecuba. Wohl argues that pity is a politically insufficient response: aestheticized scenes of suffering do not make spectators more humane or just. Instead, Euripides' formally "ugly" (41) plays defamiliarize and critique dramatic form, thus encouraging us to recognize what symmetry, wholeness, and beauty can mask. Spectatorial pleasure in suffering, sublimely presented in Trojan Women, is thus questioned, and the poorly integrated prologue promising justice (an idea that is subsequently dropped) opens a space for spectators (especially Athenians) to "take responsibility for the suffering we have watched and enjoyed" (49). Hecuba similarly questions the adequacy of pity and implicates Athenians in the Trojans' aesthetically pleasurable suffering (53, 57). Although the divided plot (Polyxena's sacrifice and Polymestor's punishment) appears to construct a symmetry of suffering and punishment, Wohl suggests that the formal structure makes us question the excessiveness of Hecuba's justice: the lack of connection between the two plots reveals a gap between "tragic pity and legal recompense" (62) and highlights the injustice we may be hoodwinked into accepting as justice. Not beauty but ugliness as Verfremdungseffekt promises justice.

Class and empty illusions are the focus of Chapter 3. The somewhat anomalous realism of daily life in Electra is often viewed as promoting utopian egalitarianism, but for Wohl the utopian potential is foreclosed by the play's formal structure, in which forms of heroic recognition and the mythological/theatrical tradition—clearly marked by Euripides as hollow—"de-realize" the egalitarianism of the play's first part and its apparent challenges to elite hegemony. It is "the deadweight of tragic form that prevents [the] development [of egalitarian ideas]" (65). The odd recognition scene appears to reinforce the dismantling of traditional elitist props—the tokens of identity are "empty beliefs" much like external signs (e.g., wealth) used to classify people—but Wohl emphasizes that this rather shabby Orestes is nonetheless recognized as the hero, and we are asked to play along—so much for the democratic idea of judging people by their character (70). The formal handling of the rest of the play shows how tragic form "stifles" the radical potential of egalitarianism but stages (with a nod to Luk√°cs' concept of realism) emergent forces—and therein lies its radicalness.

In Chapter 4 Wohl confronts tragedy's allegorical nature and argues that Suppliants formally critiques historicist readings and the humanist appeal to universal truths. The formal paradox of the "democratic king" Theseus representing the demos serves to question the very possibility of political representation in tragedy; formal structure (agon, individual protagonist) also contributes to misrepresentations of the demos (e.g., suppression of class divisions), thus challenging tragedy's ability to "be a form of political discourse" (98). If tragedy as politics appears doomed, the play's handling of despair underscores the inability of tragedy's "anti-politics" of lamentation (following Nicole Loraux) to respond to suffering. The insolubility of the tragic and the political is, however, mastered in the final kommos with its procession of Argive orphans anachronistically recreating the civic ritual of the procession of Athenian orphans in the Theater of Dionysus; spectators are thereby hailed as humans/citizens, and this "affective synthesis" (108), the political effect of which is the Argive alliance, produces a new kind of political tragedy that enacts politics.

Chapter 5 focuses on the "broken" Orestes performed in 408 between the two civil wars in 411 and 404. Wohl makes some good points about the usual (and problematic) practice of excavating Thucydidean "reality" before looking for related reporting in Euripides. Such approaches disregard aesthetics, reducing plays to reified historical context. Wohl argues that Euripides' plays also create context by shaping historical reality: they forge an "affective and cognitive framework" (112, cf. 131) for spectators to realize historical events. After a brief review of Helen and Trojan Women emphasizing a certain cross-fertilization between tragedy and historical reality, Wohl analyzes the formal oddities of Orestes. Since we become affectively attached to Orestes' and Electra's salvation, the sudden peripeteia with the protagonists ("companions" (hetairous, 804) staging a wild attack precipitates a dilemma: continued support for this hetaireia—an elite social/political group of the sort that fomented the oligarchic putsch in 411—begins to feel like support for political revolution: the play produces the "structure of feeling" (from Raymond Williams) of social unrest. The improbability of the deus ex machina's commands is nonetheless formally effective: by modeling past tensions and pointing to future ones, the play provides a framework for experiencing civil war and for the improbable but successful reconciliation in 403.

The conclusion helpfully unites the book's various strands and reviews the conditions enabling Euripidean tragedy to explore the imaginary relations that make up ideology. It is the articulation of these relations through experimental aesthetic form that provides the potential structures for future transformations—both aesthetic and political. Euripides typifies not the exhaustion of form and content but the emergence of a new formalism in politics, philosophy, and art.

With its clear and judicious articulation of the many complexities involved in these plays, detailed attention to past scholarship, and sustained engagement with critical theory, this is an exciting book that should be widely read. Certain aspects will hopefully encourage discussion and doubtless elicit some quibbles.

Despite the post-Marxist approach, there are some unresolved class issues related to matters of form. For example, in Orestes Apollo allows that agent of the "blind repetition of the crimes of the past" (127)—Orestes—to rule Argos, a detail that underscores the real lack of reconciliation: this dramatic resolution appears miraculous but suspiciously leaves elite criminals in power, thus complicating the cognitive framework put forward to process civil unrest. In Suppliants the affective merging of citizen and human appears to conjure away the specter of class divisions (cf. 96–98), and in Wohl's discussion the play's enactment of politics seems to erase class considerations rather than encourage audiences to notice that erasure. In Hecuba, the Trojan queen's revenge seems less unfair given the situation that produces it (despite Polymestor's wild Thracian ravings claiming it is incommensurate) and thus our critical awareness of complicity in "injustice" (61) appears questionable. Although Wohl brackets class from this chapter (42), Hecuba's elitist disdain for common people (e.g., the "mob") points to the play's formal (and problematic) coupling of pleasurable vengeance and certain brands of elitism.2

A corollary of Wohl's immanent critique is the necessary downplaying of viewing tactics, in which spectators can manipulate smaller dramatic units to their own ends, and the lack of interest in "hidden transcripts" that disguise the voices of subordinate groups.3 Wohl rightly notes that comedy appears more forthright in its critique of class relations (70) and emphasizes the formal limitations placed on tragedy's dramatic structure (the myth must be realized!)—limits that Euripides ably (ab)uses to make audiences reflect on the implications of tragic form. This suggests to me that we need to be even more attuned to what tragedy does with the form in which it operates and what spectators can do with it. Euripides was no Brecht (whose engagement with spectators as a collective subject through formal methods [cf. 145n22] contrasted with Adorno's aesthetic theory addressed to intellectual elites), but the contradictions and formal oddities in Euripides' productions may offer more possibilities for resistance to domination than current scholarly practices suggest.4 Matters of performance thus need to be considered alongside dramatic form. Wohl pays little attention to opsis (143n3) and the ways in which staging, spectacle, and music helped forge those affective relations to ideology, so there is more work to be done.

This leads to the question of the audience, which for Wohl was "primarily Athenian citizens" (xii). Thus in Alcestis the play's contradictions are defined in terms of the values of democratic citizens and elite privilege (15–16). Would all metics and slaves (or even all citizens) have shared this perspective? Similarly the idea that the audience of Ion "long[s] for their own national and imperial destiny" (22), while capturing an important aspect of the play, posits a shared affective relation to Athenian imperialism among metics, xenoi, slaves, and citizens. Wohl rightfully stresses the production of meaning at the level of form but unnecessarily restricts judgments and perspectives to citizens, thus silencing other social antagonisms contributing to formal dissonance. Democracy is something of a fetish in discussions of ancient Athens (perhaps because today many experience less and less of it), and it is good to think with. But drama was produced for more than citizens in the imperial city, and some poets seem to have had an eye on (re)performances outside Athens. The ideological attachments that Wohl argues are enacted through tragic form can be expanded still further.

As my comments hopefully make clear, this is an insightful study that is accessible to students and rewarding for scholars. It makes a major contribution to the study of Euripidean drama and offers a productive model for rethinking how tragedy worked through aesthetic form.


1.   See D. Mastronarde (2010) The Art of Euripides: Dramatic Technique and Social Context (Cambridge) for a different approach to Euripides' "open structure;" BMCR 2011.02.43.
2.   See J. Morwood (2014) "Hecuba and the Democrats: Political Polarities in Euripides' Play," Greece & Rome 61: 194–203 for Hecuba's anti-democratic elitism.
3.   J. C. Scott (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London); see also A. Richlin (2014) "Talking to Slaves in the Plautine Audience," Classical Antiquity 33: 174–226. Scott's notion of resistance nonetheless tends to downplay the power of domination on consciousness.
4.   See S. Buck-Morss (1977) The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York) for discussion of Adorno's praxis.

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