Most readers of Greek tragedy do not make it through all thirty-two complete plays which have survived from classical Athens. The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Theban plays featuring Oedipus and his family, Euripides’ Medea, his Trojan Women, his Bacchae with their more vivid misery: these are the plays we attend to. As we attend to them, it is easily assumed that they typify the genre of Greek tragedy as it was known – far more so than the leaden Prometheus Bound or farcical Helen. The Oresteia, we remember, won first prize at the City Dionysia, and has been admired ever since. What we forget is that many of our other favourites were not so lucky. Though it formed the paradigm for Aristotle’s work on tragedy maybe even a century later, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King did not propel its trilogy out of second place when it premiered. The sequence which included Euripides’ Medea came third, which is to say last. Athenian taste, it seems, was not the same as our own, and many ancient favourites have fallen foul of the tragic canon’s ongoing curation. It is for an audience keen to know more about the wide variety of plays Athenians saw and might have preferred over their most famous literary products that Matthew Wright gives us The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy, with Volume I, Neglected Authors, reviewed here, and Volume II, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, due out in 2019. Enthusiasm for Greek tragedy is assumed, and the book will be of great interest to anyone eager to learn more about the genre as a historical phenomenon – about Greek tragedy as a complicated, plural practice born in a particular time and place. Wright’s display of the evidence is comprehensive, certainly comprehensible, and he includes as an appendix a complete set of translations for those fragments included in the first volume of the otherwise forbidding Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Fragments of the Greek Tragic Poets, TrGF), a scholarly reference work most undergraduate students will avoid. There can be no doubt that this publication makes a great deal of knowledge available to those who would otherwise be unable to access it, at the same time that it offers a great many sound points of interpretation, and so the book deserves to be picked up far and wide. Wright’s epilogue makes plain what we learn from the tragic fragments, and why we neglect them at our peril. Above all we may recognise the scope of the tragic genre, and the range of its interest. Listing the plays that we know once shared mythological subject matter (pp. 203–5) immediately debunks any misconception, for example, that fifth-century Greeks thought that the story of Alcmaeon was obscure compared to that of Ajax. On the way towards this conclusion, the volume reflects on the meaning of individual fragments, but it is inspired most of all by ‘the aesthetics of loss’ (p. x) and a passion for the unknowable, which turns us towards the producers of these fragments. The book moves to offer a series of discussions structured by author-figure, with each figure earning at least a few lines of commentary and most gaining a substantial set of pages. Taken with the volume’s ponderous tone, this produces something like a catalogue of ghosts, whose forms appear either more or less distinct over the course of the book. The bittersweet experience offered by this exercise is inevitable. Without names and personalities to set them against, it is difficult to imagine that our fragments ever amounted to a grand body of work. By themselves they form little more than a short booklet of found words, sententiae, and speeches (pp. 207–43 in Wright’s translation). But of course, biography has become a losing game in literary studies over the past fifty years. The more we come to recognise how little any author’s persona may tell us about their real-life personality 2,000 years ago, the less we may presume to find out about those authors whose personae we only know from echoes and debris. As Wright emphasises, to study fragments, ruins, and remains is always to engage in speculation, and the obscurity of those figures who once wrote tragedy means that we sometimes do not even know how to spell their names correctly. So we meet Neophron – or maybe Neophon – on page 36. The sketchy nature of these descriptions stands out against the long tradition of biographical scholarship in Classics, which sees commercial translations often introduced by a Life of the author when they are published today, and once saw translations include a portrait of the author’s bust on the inside cover. Why, then, should we bother? At stake in our approach to the tragic fragments, besides an understanding of tragedy itself, must be our approach to the ancient world as an extended field of cultural study, since this study often rests on similarly scant evidence. The gaps in our knowledge will always outnumber the facts we have at hand, whether that knowledge has been lost through active neglect or through the passage of time alone. As he begins, Wright appeals to this bigger problem, reflecting that ‘perusing fragments is rather like standing among architectural ruins … Like the archaeologist, the fragmentologist has to find some way of constructing a plausible narrative out of scanty and intractable source-material’ (p. xxiv). These comments lead us to recall the debates surrounding method that have shaped archaeology’s course over the long twentieth century, not least its transformation from a pastime for wealthy enthusiasts into a skilled profession. They recall the lesson that, whatever narrative we construct, this product is only one part of the story. How we get to our material and how we handle it are just as important questions. This side of the exercise is less openly discussed in Wright’s response to tragedy’s remains. As he notes on pages xix–xxiii, the majority of our fragments were purposefully broken off from their wholes, and come to us as quotations in works of encyclopedia, scholarship, and mannered erudition. Indeed, a great deal of The Lost Play’s material comes from one source in particular, the tenth-century Suda encyclopedia. This work gains thirty-five entries in the book’s index, and seems only to be beaten by the canonical tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, such is its import as a source for our fragments. Now, the Suda is notoriously unreliable as a source of information on both ancient material and, indeed, popular tenth-century opinion: I am familiar with it as a work that rejects both ancient consensus and the consensus of the manuscript tradition in its attribution of pseudo-Homeric poetry, as it privileges one ancient source over several others and makes inferences that our ancient sources do not. Wright reminds us of the miscellany’s problems on pages 7–8, among others, but the Suda remains a difficult companion throughout the volume, providing citation after citation and often forming the starting point for discussion, rather than colouring a broader range of evidence. The work frequently has more to say than other sources, and at times this loquaciousness seems to afford it more authority than it is due, to the degree that at one moment the volume’s rhetoric slips into giving this Byzantine work the status of an ‘ancient encyclopaedia’ (p. 178). The Suda is joined throughout The Lost Plays by other important works of miscellany, such as the fifth-century adAnthology produced by Stobaeus, whose name is anglicised into the less familiar John of Stobi, and Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (translated as The Learned Banqueters by the Loeb Classical Library), which dates to the second or third century ad. Discussion moves between a good number of other high- and late-imperial sources, but the context and purpose behind their acts of quotation seem unknowable. Our understanding of this literature is a world away from what it was at the moment of TrGF’s first revision in the 1970s and 1980s, and so it seems odd that throughout The Lost Plays one finds little comment on the stratigraphy of moving from Plutarch to Lucian to John Tzetzes, for example, in order to construct an image of the playwright Dionysius (pp. 130–43). Even Aristophanic comedy draws little developed discussion as a source with its own narratives and emphases, despite its significance and heavy presence throughout the book. Wright’s closing words, in the fourth appendix, are on the lost plays’ reception. ‘It is hardly worth pointing out’, he comments, ‘the reasons why there has been virtually no reception of the lost plays’ (p. 254, emphasis his). It is clear from the paragraph which follows that by this Wright means that there have been few creative acts of modern reception which respond to the fragmentary plays, but these final observations nonetheless highlight The Lost Plays’ lack of acknowledgement that Wright, alongside other fragmentologists, is engaged in an extreme study of ancient literary reception. In the book’s introduction (pp. xxiii–xxvi), Wright wants for any ‘branch of literary theory specifically designed with fragmentary literature in mind’ (p. xxiv), appealing to Barthes’ notion of the ‘writable’ text. In his first chapter, he turns to the idea of ‘submerged’ literature (pp. 2–10) after Rossi. Both of these approaches are used to emphasise the difficulties of interpretation and the openness of the fragments as literary material, rather than to construct a methodology for analysing reception's impact. They guide the volume as it attends more closely to the absent parts of these ancient tragedies than those present, and so Wright argues that some plays are ‘more lost than others’ (p. 3, emphasis his), while the book’s final chapter refers to ‘The Very Lost’ in its title. By looking in this direction, rather than towards the acts of reception which inform its study’s main sources, speculative questions become the volume’s backbone. At times, these questions appear to revel in uncertainty and the pleasure of the unknown, rather than demonstrate what might be done with Classics’ analytical method in this microcosm. The playwright Agathon receives a full chapter of his own (pp. 59–90) as he is surely the most famous Greek tragedian outside the canonical three, featuring in Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria. In this chapter, discussion rises to an itemised list of fifteen possible interpretations for the way that Agathon is represented in Aristophanes, dressed in women’s clothing (pp. 67–9). From the footnotes, it is clear that some of these suggestions have more adherents than others, but it is also clear that these interpretations are not all equally plausible and are not all mutually exclusive. Agathon’s suggestion in Aristophanes that ‘[a] poet must adopt habits that correspond to the plays that he has to write’ (Thes. 149–50; Wright p. 65) is well below the standard of proof one might expect to suggest that ‘Agathon may have invented (or espoused) the theory that Art and Life are inherently linked’ (Wright’s item iv), while the suggestion that ‘Agathon really was a transvestite or transsexual’ (item i) elides away the problems both that transvestism was undoubtedly the norm within tragic performance (and so a norm of citizen experience) and that it is thus unclear how classical Athenians would have recognised such behaviour as the meaningful expression of any distinct gender identity. The idea that ‘Agathon is perhaps being used, more generally, as a focus for anxieties about acting and role playing’ (item xiv) seems impossible to refute without suggesting that the scene is not intended to be humorous, but we are not asked to consider what kind of anxieties Aristophanes’ portrait plays on, as is the question raised by Wright’s citation for the point, Anne Duncan’s Performance and Identity in the Classical World (Cambridge 2006, p. 29). I find it difficult not to be disquieted by this approach to analysis, and the model it offers for classicists dealing with larger or smaller fragments – with fragments less isolated or more decontextualised. It may be that I am not the ‘type’ who finds herself attracted to the lost (p. x). Yet it also seems to me a truism that too great an emphasis on what could be distracts us from what is there in the ground ahead of us, turned over as we dig. And so we risk falling into our imaginations rather than moving forward on a clear path. Wright is not alone in his appetite for raising questions about the unknowable – indeed, there appears to be suggestion growing in the air that aporia is the lifeblood of Classics. Those coming to the subject through Bloomsbury, not least, will encounter ideas sympathetic to the spirit of Wright’s investigation in Shane Butler’s edited volume Deep Classics (2016), in which the discipline becomes ‘an early species, and partial origin, of Deep Time thinking’ (Butler p. 4): an exercise that may only ever produce ‘deeper questions’ the better our skills of investigation become (Butler p. 14). But it must remain the case that the formation of better questions creates – if only as a by-product – more assured and circumscribed knowledge about the ancient world. By working with what we have, some options will always be more likely than others. To ignore this is to cede to the argument that studying the arts and studying the humanities produces nothing of worth to those outside the academy. The first volume of Wright’s work on the tragic fragments undoubtedly furthers our understanding of Greek literary history and the fragmented works themselves, but it nonetheless seems dangerously reluctant to admit that it does so. The book has not been written from a position of ignorance, but its tone often suggests that its author is capable of less than a professor of Classics with Wright’s credentials must be and less than he proves himself to be at other moments. It may be that this approach is necessary in a world where the public needs its mind to be opened, above all, and open questions are the only way to provoke thoughts that go beyond the limitations of received wisdom. But we should not forget the ever-pressing need to guide those who have accepted the call to study and are looking to reach answers, as long as we hope that they will develop their rational minds as well as their creative abilities. It will be other books that teach those interested in Classics how to make the most of this one. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Cambridge Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 1, 2018
It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.
Enjoy affordable access to
over 18 million articles from more than
15,000 peer-reviewed journals.
All for just $49/month
Query the DeepDyve database, plus search all of PubMed and Google Scholar seamlessly
Save any article or search result from DeepDyve, PubMed, and Google Scholar... all in one place.
Get unlimited, online access to over 18 million full-text articles from more than 15,000 scientific journals.
Read from thousands of the leading scholarly journals from SpringerNature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford University Press and more.
All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.
“Hi guys, I cannot tell you how much I love this resource. Incredible. I really believe you've hit the nail on the head with this site in regards to solving the research-purchase issue.”Daniel C.
“Whoa! It’s like Spotify but for academic articles.”@Phil_Robichaud
“I must say, @deepdyve is a fabulous solution to the independent researcher's problem of #access to #information.”@deepthiw
“My last article couldn't be possible without the platform @deepdyve that makes journal papers cheaper.”@JoseServera