Sunday, April 22, 2018


Edmund Stewart, Greek Tragedy on the Move: The Birth of a Panhellenic Art Form c. 500-300 BC. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xviii, 261. ISBN 9780198747260. $95.00.

Reviewed by Elodie Paillard, Universities of Basel and Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


Stewart's book is part of a recent trend that has seen scholars develop an interest in Greek theatre outside the geographical and chronological boundaries of Classical Athens. In the last 5–10 years, a number of studies have been published on the subject, including, but not limited to, K. Bosher's Theatre outside Athens (2012), V. Vahtikari's Tragedy Performances outside Athens in the Late Fifth and the Fourth Centuries BC (2014), and the publications resulting from E. Csapo and P. Wilson's extensive research on the topic, among others, Greek Theatre in the Fourth Century (2014). Belonging to this trend in scholarship one also notes a new interest in early reperformances of tragedies. The work under review here was published almost at the same time as A. Lamari's Reperforming Greek Tragedy. Theatre, Politics, and Cultural Mobility in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries (2017) which focuses on a topic strikingly similar to Stewart's.

Greek Tragedy on the Move is a revised version of Stewart's PhD thesis. Its aim, as outlined in the introduction, is to show that Greek tragedy had always been a Panhellenic art form, using from its very beginnings a festival network already established in the Archaic period in the context of a 'song culture' from which tragedy supposedly emerged. The author tries to demonstrate how tragedy was 'on the move' through the activities of professional travelling tragic poets (as well as audiences). Athens is still seen as an important centre of this Panhellenic network, both as a place which 'exported' tragedy and as a place where tragic poets came from elsewhere to present their works. However, it is no longer considered as the ultimate origin of and privileged place for tragedy.

In the first chapter, Stewart shows how, more often than not, the mythological stories chosen for tragedies revolve around different Greek communities or locations and tell tales of travel between them or explain or problematize the links that came to exist between them. Here, the author draws a parallel between the wandering heroes of myths staged in tragedies and the travelling poets, arguing that both travelled in order to acquire fame and material gain. His interpretation of the reasons for mythological heroes' travels might appear questionable (heroes in myths rarely seem to travel of their own volition but are very often forced by negative events or external elements or deities), and the author also downplays the religious aspects which might have led poets to travel to festivals where tragic contests took place. His claim that heroes and poets travelled for fame and material gain sounds somewhat anachronistic.

In the same chapter, Stewart opposes the idea of seeing Athens as the exclusive centre for Greek tragedy by noting that only a very limited percentage of those texts to which we still have access are concerned with stories that take place in this city, although he rightly acknowledges that the fictive geographical backgrounds are not enough to prove that these plays were performed outside Athens. Stewart concludes this section by saying that tragedy can be understood as Panhellenic because the subjects of its plays are the Greeks in general, their origins, moves, and relations.

The second chapter is devoted to the Panhellenic networks of travelling poets and to the question of their professionalism. The author reviews the evidence available in ancient sources for the existence of networks of travelling poets, both on the Greek mainland and in other Greeks areas around the Mediterranean. The reasons for their travels are also surveyed. Stewart shows that, from very early on, poets were mobile around the Greek world (and audiences in part as well) and willingly visited different cities or sanctuaries in order to present and perform their works. He argues that this well- established Panhellenic network provided a sort of 'infrastructure' (p. 63) which allowed tragedy to be disseminated. Yet the sources quoted by Stewart contain, for the overwhelming majority, information related to non-dramatic poets. The question that immediately arises from this argument and is not really dealt with in the book, is whether one can really so easily draw a parallel between the dissemination of tragedy and that of other literary genres, especially non-dramatic ones. While the performance of, for example, lyric poets might only have required a space wide enough to accommodate a chorus, dramatic performances required much more than that (a theatre, to mention only the most obvious). The expenses linked to tragic performances were also no doubt on an entirely different scale from what an epic poet might have requested in order to come to a specific city to recite his verses.

Chapter 3 focuses on tragic performances in Attica from 500 to 300 BC. In this section, the author once again treats evidence not directly related to tragedy (e.g., musicians, choral performances) in the same way as evidence that clearly concerns tragedy. This has of course the result of downplaying the specific characteristics that tragedy had as a literary and performative genre. Despite the scarcity of the evidence directly related to tragedy, Stewart convincingly shows that Athens was not isolated in the Classical period in performing tragedy: performers came to play in tragedies in Athens from far afield. In fact, non-Athenian poets competing at the Great Dionysia were not as rare as previously thought, according to Stewart's review of the available evidence. By paying attention to the chronology of this evidence, the author is also able to show that the dissemination of tragedy is not a fourth-century development: Athens was, from the early stages of tragedy, only one of the centres (admittedly an important one) of a larger network of cities were the genre was developed. It is, however, acknowledged in the conclusion of this chapter that Athens 'almost certainly played a key part in the dissemination of tragedy to the wider Greek world' (p. 91), a claim that tends to be downplayed in the rest of the chapter and in the book in general.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine the question of tragedy outside Attica from 500 to 300 BC. Chapter 4 focuses on the period between 500 and 450 BC. As expected, the question of Aeschylus' visit(s) to Sicily is examined in detail. Stewart shows how Aetnaeae and Persians (taken as re-performed for Hieron in the 470s) contained elements that were Panhellenic enough to appeal to a Sicilian audience. During this period, tragic poets emerged, alongside poets of other literary genres (lyric, epic), as professionals whom cities and tyrants could hire to celebrate their links to the entire Greek world. Stewart argues that the dissemination of tragedy had never been a late feature of this genre but that it was a reality from its earliest stages and was contemporary to its development.

For the period 450–400 BC (chapter 5), Euripides' works are examined more closely (esp. Archelaus, Temenus and Temenidae; Andromache; Captive Melanippe and Aeolus). The fundamental question asked in this chapter is whether those plays were merely Athenian 'exports' (i.e. plays intended to be first performed in Athens and then re-performed later elsewhere), or were in the first place intended for non-Athenian audiences, or were representative of tragedy understood as an essentially Panhellenic product (and thus intended to be performed elsewhere in the Greek world). After the examination of Euripides' case and the presentation of various hypotheses (sometimes speculative, but within reasonable limits) about the plays at the centre of this chapter and their place(s) of performance, Stewart concludes the chapter by saying that, contrary to the usual view on the question, tragedy did not begin to be exported outside Athens in the second half of the fifth century. He argues that the period 450–400 BC is only in continuity with the 50 previous years. A new 'market' for tragedy had opened in Macedonia, but the mechanism of dissemination of tragedy there was the same as was noted for the earlier period in other places. Once again, tragedies tell the stories of heroes in a way that highlights the links and connections between different parts of the Greek world. Poets who were eager to please rulers whose empires were situated at the margin of this world refashioned mythological stories in order to adapt to the contexts of performance.

The sixth and last chapter of the book deals with 'Tragedy outside Attica' from 400 to 300 BC. Stewart includes in this chapter reflections about the supposed changes specific to this period, namely the questions of whether tragedy became less political, the phenomenon of the emergence of professional actors, and the view that tragedy's content might have undergone substantial changes at that time. Here again, the author emphasizes continuity and argues against the idea that tragedy fundamentally changed between the fifth and the fourth centuries. In his view, tragedy had always been political and remained so. Cities, whether Athens or others, had always been interested in the performance of tragedy, which was from the beginning more concerned with Panhellenic themes than with local internal political questions. What was important in tragedy, Stewart argues, in the fifth as well as the fourth century, were the connections between cities that were part of a Panhellenic network. It would have been interesting to compare more closely those conclusions with regard to comedy. Another difficulty that might have been considered is the fact that, in order to gauge the extent to which a tragedy referred to local political interest, one needs to examine closely the full content of the work. As our knowledge of fourth-century tragedy is only fragmentary at best, the picture might be biased.

As for the supposed 'rise of the acting profession', Stewart again argues for continuity rather than radical change in the fourth century. While acknowledging the role of the actors in the dissemination of tragedy during the fourth century, he thinks that they were already doing so in the fifth when they travelled in the company of tragic poets. In this, he downplays the importance usually given to actors in the fourth century and the links between professional 'star actors', reperformances of older plays, and spread of tragedy. For him, the difference between the fifth and the fourth century is best explained by the fact that cities and rulers increasingly recognized and used tragedy as a Panhellenic genre rather than by seeing tragedy spread from Athens to other places.

The book included a summary conclusion and three appendices, the first of which gives a list of the fictive settings in which the stories narrated in tragedies take place. The overwhelming precedence of the Troad as a location for those stories should make us cautious about drawing any kind of link between fictive localization and real place of performance. The second appendix lists non-citizen performers in Attica, including performers/poets of other, non-tragic, genres, which somewhat artificially extends the amount of evidence actually available for the precise purpose of the book. The third appendix contains a short discussion in which Stewart argues in favour of the hypothesis that Phrynichus travelled to Sicily.

All in all, this is an interesting book, which has the merit of restoring tragedy and its dissemination to a wider geographical and literary context. Although at times one cannot help but feel that Stewart underestimates the role of Athens, his book is an important step in direction of seeing tragedy as not exclusively centred on Athens or limited to this city. Likewise, Stewart's taking other literary genres into account in his examination of the dissemination of tragedy is to be commended, although the widespread use of evidence related to non-tragic genres in chapters aimed at demonstrating a specific point about tragedy can be questioned. This is a well-argued, well-researched book, with a very clear structure (sometimes to the point of irritatingly repeating intermediate questions or conclusions). Stewart reveals a complete command of the relevant bibliography, including works in languages other than English. It is all the more regrettable that no one at Oxford University Press thought it worth proofreading non-English titles and quotations: almost every one of them contains at least one error.

No comments:

Post a Comment