Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Evina Sistakou, Tragic Failures: Alexandrian Responses to Tragedy and the Tragic. Trends in Classics. Supplementary volumes, 38. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. xi, 249. ISBN 9783110479126. $154.00.

Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (

Version at BMCR home site


Evina Sistakou informs us in the introduction to Tragic Failures that, in examining a selection of Hellenistic texts, her goal is to observe how poets, particularly those associated with Alexandrian sensitivities, responded both to Athenian tragedy and to the tragic in general. As she succinctly notes: "Tragedy is a historical literary entity, the tragic a transhistorical category of thought" (9). As one can imagine, Aristotle's description of tragedy as a drama about a noble hero (spoudaios) who moves from good to bad fortune, arousing pity and fear in the audience, looms prominently in the background.

In the first chapter, "Tragedy, from Athens to Alexandria," Sistakou examines factors that may have been in play in the evolution of tragedy beyond the Athenian stage. One factor posed is the change from Athenian polis culture to the cosmopolitan centers of the Hellenistic world, where attention was focused more on the individual than the community. Like gymnasia, theaters continued to mark Greek identity in the diaspora, but did Hellenistic performances replicate the genre established in Athens, particularly in Alexandria where the Ptolemies exploited literary artists to promote their ideological agenda? Did something significant change?

Alexandrian interest in tragedy would have been expected given the overall interest in Archaic and Classical Greek literature during the Hellenistic period. In particular, the Ptolemies, who traced their lineage to Dionysus, would have had a special relationship with drama. Failing to lure Menander to Alexandria, Philadelphus attracted a group of tragic playwrights to the Museum whose work was distinctive enough to earn them the nickname "the Pleiad." What changed, according to Sistakou, is that the theater's repertoire expanded and included mime, pantomime, music, dance, virtuoso monologues and songs, and performances of excerpts from the Classical stage. Such performances occurred both on public stages and in private symposia, as is thought to be case for other literary works of the time. Furthermore, two members of the Pleiad, Alexander Aetolus and Lycophron, also edited Classical dramas, raising the possibility that their own productions were as learned as the works of Callimachus and others. While hard evidence is lacking, Sistakou's overview reasonably sets tragedy proper within the intellectual framework of contemporary literary practice.

In the second chapter, "The Metaclassical Tragic," Sistakou argues that the eventual separation of poetry and philosophy was critical in the evolution of the Hellenistic response to tragedy and the tragic. Plato saw tragedy as a threat to the polis; Aristotle envisaged tragedy as emotionally educational; the Epicureans were hostile to poetry; good poetry for the Stoics portrayed moral truths. Hellenistic poets for their part turned toward non-mimetic, non-unified narratives focused not on heroic praxeis, but on the kind of melodramatic emplotments spearheaded by Euripides that morphed into New Comedy. Focus on the third Aristotelian character type, "just like us," as opposed to the spoudaioi of tragedy and the phauloi of comedy, represents a significant shift away from Athenian tragedy. As Sistakou will argue, the literary artists of this era came to accentuate pathos to such a degree that it came to displace action as the centerpiece of tragic narratives.

How does Callimachus fit into this conversation? The Prologue to the Aetia offers insight into the Cyrenian's thinking about Classical tragedy: rejection of a unified narrative engaging in universal truths; focus on style over content; and obsession with euphony. Iamb 13 adds polyeideia to the mix, all pointing away from a model such as the monolithic and weighty Aeschylus. Furthermore, statements in his epigrams hint at disdain for the kinds of theatrical productions that appealed to the low tastes, as opposed to textual dramas suited to elite sensibilities. In sum, Sistakou offers a cogent argument for Callimachean incompatibility with Aristotelian tragedy.

In the third chapter, "Alexandrian Tragedy," Sistakou returns to the Pleiad and suggests that, since they were scholars and tragedians, their productions were not intended for popular consumption; on comparison with contemporary docti poetae, this makes good sense. Equally plausible is the suggestion that their plays, in tune with the times, upgraded minor or concocted new characters for their productions. Also symptomatic of the era in which writers looked to Archaic models is the return of the historical play (as in Phrynichus and Aeschylus), a possible model for the Roman fabula praetexta. Sistakou notes also the intrusion of religion, a phenomenon anticipated by Euripides in his Bacchae and possibly reflected in Phili(s)cus' Adonis, which appears to have introduced pathetic suffering caused by love into Classical tragedy. Though hard evidence is lacking, the thoughtful speculation offered advances our sense of what might have been.

We return to Callimachus in "Callimachus Displaces the Tragic." While none of his dramatic works listed in the Suda survive, Sistakou investigates whether or not the poet might have incorporated the tragic in his surviving works. For instance, the Hymn to Delos, the Bath of Athena, and the Hymn to Demeter all involve narratives that feature individuals suffering because of the opposition of a god. In all three, parents experience extreme pain brought on them by factors beyond their control: Leda was raped by Zeus, Chariklo's son accidentally stumbled upon Athena's bath, Erysichthon's parents faced their son's implacable hunger. Yet those who suffer are victims, not agents, as required by Aristotle. In the case of the Hecale, at the core of the epyllion lies the undeserved misfortune of a woman of non-heroic status and a conversation focused on character, not action. We encounter a person neither excessively good nor base, but like us, who suffers through no fault of her own, a scenario Sistakou calls "metatragic."

Sistakou turns to Theocritean verse in the next chapter, "Redefining the Tragic in the Idylls of Theocritus." She begins with Idyll26 which focuses on the sparagmos of Pentheus at the hands of his mother and aunts, representing an homage not only to one of Euripides' last tragedies, the Bacchae, but even to the origin of tragedy itself, given that Thespis was said to have composed a Pentheus. Theocritus, according to Sistakou, deconstructs the tragic plot by removing the presence of the divine and constructing "a philological exercise in commemoration of the Dionysiac origins of tragedy" (121). Elsewhere in the corpus, Sistakou observes a tendency toward "theatricalism," an approach that highlights the artificiality of the theatrical experience. For instance, Idyll 1 includes a play within a play that offers metatheatrical commentary on the tragic event celebrated. Thyrsis' song about Daphnis has a prologue, an agon, a chorus and an audience. Like Classical tragic heroes, Daphnis attempts to resist powers he cannot escape. But once the song is over, Thyrsis and the goatherd, untouched by the tragedy, embrace the pleasure of their surroundings. "The transition from the tragic to the aesthetic moment has occurred for the first time in a single masterful poem" (131). Idyll 2, on the other hand, provides an example of a failed tragedy. While Simaetha's predicament recalls Medea, whom she cites, the deserted woman is in fact a girl-next-door who encounters self-knowledge that does not lead to utter annihilation as in the case of Oedipus.

In "Tragedy into Epic in Apollonius' Argonautica", Sistakou examines allusions to specific plays, the integration of dramatic narrative strategies, and the presence of the tragic through human suffering. In the first part of the chapter, Sistakou turns to the Lemnian and Phineus episodes that were likely influenced by Aeschylean and Sophoclean plays. The former episode is described as having a prologue, three episodes, chorus, deus ex machina and exodos. Although not enough survives of the Classical plays to gauge Apollonius' engagement with them, the underlying dramatic structure proposed speaks to the poet's interest in genre mixing. With regard to Medea's story, Apollonius slows down the pace of the epic significantly in Book 3, providing a divine prologue, an exchange of rheseis, and a praxis that focuses on the success of the Argonautic expedition. Specific plays by Sophocles and Euripides lurk in the background but none more insistently than Medea. At first Sistakou categorizes Medea's falling in love as romance, distinguishes her situation from that of a Classic tragic hero who fights against an overwhelming power in that her strife is internal, and finds in general a study of character rather than action, adding "(w)hat makes the Hellenistic Medea fascinating is her psychic transformation from an innocent girl to an evil-doer under the influence of extreme passions" (165). Yet this sounds quintessentially Euripidean, as found in Medea and Hecuba. With specific figures from the Classic tragic stage firmly in the background (including Phaedra), I would not characterize her presentation as a "gesture towards melodrama" (166). Rather the impending tragedy broods over the narrative as Medea indeed fights against an overwhelming power that rendered her falling in love far from romantic. At the end of the chapter, however, Sistakou concludes that Medea's story is tragic after all, adding the fascinating observation that, contrary to comedic conventions leading to marriage, the union of Jason and Medea is "the most tragic of all endings" (167).

The penultimate chapter, "In the Metatragic Cosmos of the Alexandra," should inspire even the weak of heart to take up Lycophron's seemingly impenetrable poem that resembles a tragedy (size, Aeschylean coloration, dialogue) but in fact represents only a fragment of a play, the messenger speech. As Sistakou points out, the entire speech belongs to a character of low status, far from the Aristotelian demand for figures of heroic stature. Notably, the narrative covers over 1000 years of myth and history, from Trojan prehistory to the rise of Rome, thus blurring the boundaries between drama and epic. Cassandra, called Alexandra to distinguish her from her earlier Aeschylean and Euripidean incarnations, emerges as a metaphor for emotional suffering that speaks to and comments on the contemporary taste for sensational versions of famous monologues. Throughout the reported speech, the reader is "flooded with tragic snapshots that encode already accomplished narratives," revealing Cassandra's "textual unconscious" (187). Sistakou sees the sentimentalism featured in the poem as a trend that will culminate in the pathetic melodramas of Parthenius, with whom the last chapter will conclude.

"The Romantic Tragic." examines several late minor poems and Parthenius' Erotika Pathemata. The Megara, attributed to Moschus, begins where Euripides' Heracles ends, capturing Megara's isolation in the wake of tremendous loss. Contrary to Attic tragedy, the action takes place inside the home where Megara's suffering has no end: "surviving tragedy is more tragic than experiencing tragedy" (199). Even more pathetic is the plight of the titular character of Eratosthenes' elegiac Erigone, who commits suicide at the loss of her father: "(d)ying of filial love reflects the romantic agony of a female obsessed with her own sentimentality" (202). Both poems reflect the emotionalism of late Alexandrian poetry, creating what Sistakou calls "the romantic tragic." Following brief discussions of the Fragmentum Grenfellianum and Idyll 23, both of which underscore the pathetic and melodramatic fates of their leading characters, Sistakou turns to Parthenius. Contrary to tragic heroes of the Attic stage, Parthenius' protagonists are passive and totally overwhelmed by the power of love. For Parthenius, love is a disease from which its victims cannot escape. As such the prose summaries represent "a case that most vividly illustrates how the tragic idea gradually collapses into pathetic sensationalism during the last centuries of the Hellenistic world" (216). The book concludes with a brief and helpful summary of its findings ("Conclusion: Tragic Failures and Hellenistic Challenges").

Given the lack of evidence regarding Hellenistic tragedies, it makes perfect sense to look for tragedy and the tragic in non-dramatic poems because of the contemporary predilection for mixing genres and Ptolemaic interest in preserving and promoting tragedy. Sistakou does an admirable job in teasing out both in her study. It is true that the characters and plots discussed appear to move toward the pathetic and melodramatic in the present discussion. But was that the direction that tragedy proper took? Although we cannot know for sure, scholars examining titles and fragments of Hellenistic tragedies would do well to keep in mind the literary trajectory described here. Tragic Failures succeeds in raising important questions and offering fruitful directions for further thinking about postclassical tragedy. The book is enjoyable to read and meticulously researched.

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