Monday, May 27, 2019


Matthew Wright, The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy. Volume 2, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. xi, 308. ISBN 9781474276474. £17.27 (pb).

Reviewed by Andrew Brown, Kent, UK (

Version at BMCR home site


Volume 1 of this work, which was not reviewed by BMCR, was published in 2016 and concerned the tragedians whom we are forbidden to call 'minor', discussing all the known pre-Hellenistic names and translating all their tragic (but not satyric) fragments. The new volume concerns the lost tragedies of the Big Three but operates at a higher level, since, as Wright says (p. 2), to have covered these plays in as much detail as vol. 1 'would have resulted in a book thousands of pages long'. Thus, while all the lost tragedies (but not satyr plays) are discussed in their TrGF sequence, the discussions are quite brief and only a few of the fragments (and not the longest) are translated. Some space is saved by Wright's lack of taste for reconstructing plots (p. 4) and Aeschylean tetralogies (p. 14), and some readers may find this a refreshing change from other work on this subject. However, the absence of satyr plays, while helping to focus the book on the qualities of tragedy as such, will be inconvenient for some purposes, as will the absence of unplaced fragments (meaning that the 'Dike Play' of Aeschylus is unmentioned).

The Introduction begins with some fighting talk (pp. 1-2): 'this material has usually been ignored or underplayed in the standard textbooks and accounts of literary history' and Wright's 'ultimate aim ... is to re-evaluate tragedy as a genre'. However, while the tragedians of vol. 1 can perhaps be fairly called 'neglected', at least from the viewpoint of non-experts, this is hardly true of the works considered in vol. 2. Almost all the significant fragments and testimonia for Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides can be found in English in Loeb Classical Texts and many also in Aris & Phillips editions. The fragments of Aeschylus and Sophocles are also available in Spanish (ed. J. M. Lucas de Dios, respectively 2008 and 1983), those of Euripides in French (Budé, ed. F. Jouan and H. van Looy, 1998-2003). There are many relevant articles, often more or less accessible to non-specialists, such as those in A. H. Sommerstein (ed.), Shards from Colonus (2003). Nor can the lost plays be said to be neglected in such 'standard textbooks' as Sommerstein's Aeschylean Tragedy (2nd edn. 2010) and J. Jouanna's Sophocle (2007). In fact Wright is well aware of this and refers to most of these books (though not those of Lucas de Dios and Jouanna), but they undermine his claim to originality.

Further, while the fragments and testimonia often contain hints of ideas and themes that look foreign to tragedy as we know it from surviving plays, these hints tend to be more frustrating than enlightening as they seldom tell us how these ideas and themes were treated. We have to accept, for instance, that there was somehow a Sophoclean tragedy about the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa (pp. 104-5), but its content and tone defy imagination. By the end of the Introduction (esp. p. 5), Wright has ruefully admitted as much. And in practice he can seldom be accused of pushing the evidence too hard; indeed he treats it with notable (and commendable) restraint. His remark that Aesch. Egyptians 'may or may not belong to the same tetralogy as Daughters of Danaus, Suppliant Women and the satyr-drama Amymone' (p. 17) is characteristic. The sad but inevitable consequence is that much of the book is taken up with telling us how little we know.

The book is written in a relaxed and readable style (though readers are expected to cope with difficilior lectio and 'catasterism'). The brevity of the entries means that anyone with a serious interest will still need to resort to the Loeb and A & P editions, and this is especially true of plays where the evidence is copious, such as Eur. Hypsipyle and Phaethon (pp. 202-5), since the entries do not lengthen in proportion. Still, the A & P volumes tend to be too scholarly and detailed for ready reference and even in the Loebs it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees, while Wright is good at bringing out 'any particularly significant or remarkable features of each lost play' (p. 4). This volume, then, while less valuable, I think, than vol. 1, will certainly have its uses.

In the tragedies that it treats, it is quite comprehensive. Poorly attested plays are generally given the benefit of the doubt (pp. 22-3, 80, 98). Wright includes Aesch. Prometheus Unbound (pp. 53-4) while making no commitment as to its authorship, but I was glad to see both Prom. Pyrkaeus and Prom. Pyrphoros identified with the satyr play of 472. He includes Soph. The Gathering of the Achaeans or Fellow-Diners despite an 'instinct' that it was probably a satyr play (pp. 84-5), but he assumes without question that Inachus was such (p. 153 n. 47) – a little surprisingly given his repeated insistence that 'we need to be very cautious when making judgements about what is or is not "tragic"' (p. 112). An Achilles by a Sophocles, whom West was inclined to identify as the Younger,1 does not appear in either of Wright's volumes but there is little to say about it. Peirithous, Rhadamanthys, Sisyphus and Tennes are attributed to Critias (against Collard and Cropp), but with little conviction (vol. 1 p. 51). The authentic Rhesus of Euripides receives a mention (p. 138) but no entry.

Besides the entries on all the lost tragedies, the book contains a chapter on 'Unfamiliar Faces', tracing portrayals of Oedipus, Antigone and Medea across diverse plays, and one on 'Lost Tragedies in Performance'. The latter is the least satisfactory part of the book. Wright argues at some length (pp. 240-4) against Wilamowitz and Taplin (as he interprets them) for 'an open-ended, provisional approach' to questions of staging, then applies this to twelve topics in the lost plays. The results tend to be quite speculative, as he generally admits. It is true that some lost plays had unique or unusual features (the opening of Eur. Andromeda is a clear example) but if in these scanty remains we seem to keep finding scenic effects unparalleled in surviving tragedies, this must suggest that there is something wrong with the purported evidence or our interpretation of it. And on one topic, the silence of Aeschylus's Niobe, Wright is less cautious than usual and decidedly misleading (pp. 262-6). We have no reason to suppose that initially 'there were no spoken words and no music – only silence' (p. 264). He seems to have been taken in by his own translation of Ar. Frogs 914, 'And then the chorus would let rip ...', where 'then' is not in the Greek. If anything preceded the choral lyrics, it was no doubt choral anapaests; certainly not a silent theatre, which, as Wright himself remarks, would have left the audience uncertain whether the play had begun.

The bibliography is extensive, though I noted one or two curious omissions. There are useful asterisks against 'items which are likely to be of particular use to the beginner or non-specialist'.

Assorted quibbles and observations: The cover oddly depicts a plaque, inadequately captioned, which relates to a familiar scene in surviving tragedy. P. 13: for the avoidance of confusion and in line with Greek usage, could we please agree to restrict the word 'tetralogy' to a set of four plays connected in subject matter? Pp. 17-19: Women of Aetna may not be a correct translation of Αἰτναῖαι: see Sommerstein, Prometheus 36 (2010), 193. P. 17: we do not know that 'Aeschylus visited Sicily several times'. P. 62: for 'an hommage' read 'a homage'. P. 63: in Aesch. Psychagôgoi was a sacrifice really enacted on stage? I too once noted that F273a points to this but it is not easy to believe. P. 73: it was unhelpful to translate Soph. F10c without explaining the names Dryas and Salmoneus. Pp. 78-9: under Soph. Epigoni Wright could usefully have drawn attention to P.Oxy. 4807 since the fragment was unknown to Radt and Lloyd-Jones. Pp. 110, 193: 'benefited' is misspelt. Pp. 168-71: I was surprised to find no mention of Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma (2014), which discusses Eur. Erechtheus at length. Whatever we may think of Connelly's arguments,2 the book has been well publicised, and we should acknowledge its existence. P. 174: it is odd that Hyginus should have regarded the myth of Ino as unfamiliar when Horace treats her as a stock character (AP 123). Pp. 193-4: under Eur. Palamedes Wright might have cited the hypothesis fragment from P.Mich. 3020(a), which adds a little to our knowledge.3 Pp. 194, 232: I am not confident that Daughters of Pelias was literally Euripides' first play, not just one of his first set. P. 212: no play is known to have made Phaedra 'brazenly promiscuous' rather than fixated (brazenly or not) on her stepson. Pp. 221-7: the survey of 'faces' of Antigone barely mentions Eur. Phoenician Women, Soph. Oedipus at Colonus and the transmitted ending of Aesch. Seven against Thebes (which was written by someone after all). P. 231: the attributes of the 'utterly different' Medea of Eur. Aegeus sound very much like those of the Medea of Medea. Pp. 233-5: Wright would like to believe in the Ur-Medea attested by a recent papyrus but reluctantly concurs with its editor in rejecting it.4 No doubt he is right to do so, but one must wonder about the origin of the two trimeters quoted by the anonymous author. P. 247, 'the multiple configurations of space in Women of Aetna ... must have been effected during act-dividing choral songs': maybe but this would make them unlike the scene changes which Wright has cited from Eumenides and Ajax, and we know of no other song during which a chorus drifts from place to place. Pp. 249-50: ἐπὶ δελφῖνος is an anapaestic metron, not a dimeter. Pp. 250-1: if the chorus of Aesch. Daughters of Nereus did enter riding dolphins, this would not make them theriomorphic. P. 268: an Apulian dish depicting Niobe and Andromeda is not evidence for 'intertextuality' in Euripides. P. 273: Prometheus Bound presents Io as a maiden with cow's horns, not as a cow. P. 286: Marie Delcourt's Oreste et Alcméon was published in 1959, not 1939.

If Wright does not quite achieve his aim 'to re-evaluate tragedy as a genre', that is the fault of the material; as he sternly reminds us (p. 237), 'our knowledge of every aspect of Greek tragedy is incomplete'. In his more modest aim 'to bring tragic fragments into the mainstream by making all the lost plays fully accessible' (p. 2) he is more successful, and for this the book can be warmly welcomed.


1.   See M. L. West, ZPE 126 (1999), 43-65.
2.   See F. Queyrel, BMCR 2014.09.14; M. Cropp, BMCR 2014.10.45.
3.   See W. Luppe, ZPE 176 (2011), 52-5.
4.   D. Colomo, Oxyrhynchus Papyri 76 (2011), 84-171, on P.Oxy. 5093.

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