CJ Online Review: Roisman and Luschnig, Euripides’ Electra

posted with permission:

H. M. Roisman and C. A. E. Luschnig, Euripides’ Electra: A Commentary. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture. Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2011. Pp. xvii + 366. Paper, $32.95. ISBN 978-0-8061-4119-0.

Reviewed by Karelisa Hartigan, University of Florida

What a pleasure it was to see this commentary arrive on my desk. Having used the Roisman–Luschnig commentary on the Alcestis in my middle-level Greek class for years, I was delighted to see I would have another Roisman–Luschnig work for my students to use. This commentary is, as the authors say, designed for students at various levels in their reading of Greek tragedy. It provides basic information for those reading the Electra early in their Greek studies, and both review and guidance for the more advanced student. In their Introduction Roisman and Luschnig include common grammatical and literary terms, and the standard abbreviations for Greek authors and their works. They then offer basic information about the three tragedians, the myth that forms this play, and the form and conventions of Greek drama production in ancient Athens, including three line-drawings of the Greek theater. Graduate level students could use these pages for refreshers and then turn to the straightforward presentation of meter and prosody; note that metrical analyses for the odes and monody are given in Appendix I. Roisman and Luschnig conclude the Introduction with a discussion of the play’s date, presenting both sides of the issue and tentatively favoring (I myself am happy to note) a post-Sophoclean date of composition.

The Greek text is based on Murray’s 1913 edition and Diggle’s 1981 text, with readings from Cropp’s 1988 edition, as well as the earlier texts of Denniston and Paley. The Greek is printed in easy-to-read italics. I mention this benefit because it is a definite plus for all who have peered intently at the very small print of the standard Oxford texts. Some might miss the formal app. crit. at page bottom; the authors explain (24) that they have noted any substantial changes from Murray and Diggle in the Commentary.

What makes this book exceptional are the pages which follow the Greek text. The Notes and Commentary are wonderfully inclusive. Roisman and Luschnig give line-by-line information that is far more than mere notes. History, geography, and mythic references are explicated, grammar and alternate readings are noted along with scholarly debate on theme and meaning. Students who turn to these will often find a translation for the more difficult passages, guidance in translating more straightforward phrases.

Appendix 2, “Discussions,” reviews the three Electra plays. The authors do not do this in the usual Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides presentation but rather set out the material by characters and theme: Electra’s plots, Orestes’ tokens, and how the major characters are portrayed, e.g., Orestes’ purposeful return in Sophocles’ play, his hesitation in Euripides’ script. The role of the divinities in the various plays is also discussed: how Aeschylus’ Orestes is god-directed, that deities do not appear until the end in Euripides’ play. Appendix 2 concludes with a discussion of two post-classical versions of Euripides’ play. Jean Giraudoux’s Électre was staged in 1937 Paris. Here the playwright wrote his script as a sort-of detective story focused on the ambiguity of the myth itself, and in which Électre is another one of Giraudoux’s exceptional young women. Michael Cacoyannis’ created his film Elektra in 1962. Film allows all action to be seen and Cacoyannis takes full advantage of his medium, allowing the visual to largely replace the verbal.

Roisman and Luschnig’s edition is a user-friendly text, for its appendices make it possible for a reader to need to have only one book on hand. In Appendix 3 they offer an Index of Verbs in the forms and lines in which they appear in the text. Such a listing makes such a difference to the student who cannot recognize the more unusual forms of a Greek verb. Appendix 4 is a Review of Grammatical and Rhetorical constructions. Here one can find clarification of crasis, the use of the objective clause after a verb of fearing or an example of anastrophe; again, all this information is offered line by line.

Appendix 5 permits readers to leave their LSJ on the shelf: here is a very complete vocabulary of words used in the text; those appearing more than five times are printed in bold face—an obvious encouragement for the early student to learn these words. A nine page bibliography rounds out the book followed by an inclusive index that covers themes, loci, and names mentioned in the commentary.

In sum, Roisman and Luschnig’s commentary on Euripides’ Electra is a masterful work and (as I have said before) after its publication “there will be no need for another commentary [on this play] for decades.” Finally, I must report that the authors kindly let me use their book in its nascent form when I was teaching the Electra in my final graduate seminar on Greek Tragedy at the University of Florida. So I can verify that my students found this book truly useful for their reading and understanding of Euripides’ Electra.

CJ Online Review: van Steen, Theatre of the Condemned

posted with permission:

Gonda van Steen, Theatre of the Condemned: Classical Greek Tragedy on Greek Prison Islands. Classical Presences. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv + 354. Hardcover, £71.00/ $125.00. ISBN 978-0-19-957288-5.

Reviewed by Betine van Zyl Smit, University of Nottingham

Theatre of the Condemned deals with a topic that has hitherto received little attention in work on the reception of Classical Greek Tragedy. The reason for this neglect is that it inevitably revives memories of painful episodes in modern Greek history, for it deals with the role of Classical Greek Tragedy in the lives of those imprisoned on the islands of Makronisos, Trikeri and Aï Stratis from the 1940s to the early 1960s. The defeated opponents of the Greek nationalists in the civil war in liberated Greece were confined to the islands in an attempt to eliminate their influence by removing them from society.

Gonda Van Steen’s pioneering work presents the context in which these political prisoners were held and the ways in which they used the study, creation and performance of plays as a means of education, a release from their plight, but often also as an opportunity to express covert resistance to the regime. As there was no systematic documentation of these activities, Van Steen has supplemented available information by interviews with survivors. One of the merits of this volume is the creation of a permanent record of many aspects of theatrical activities on the prison islands which risked passing into oblivion with the demise of the participants. Plays studied, written and produced on the islands included many later and modern works as well, as indicated by Van Steen, but her concentration is on Classical Greek Tragedy. She demonstrates that Greek prisoner theatre in some of its features predates the radical revisionism of Classical Greek Tragedy that was to become the trend in the West from the 1960s onward.

Van Steen singles out four tragedies that resonated particularly with the inmates and could be understood to reflect the complexities of their situation and continued resistance to the regime. These were Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Aeschylus’ Persians, and Sophocles’ Antigone.

The portrayal of Prometheus as a stalwart hero, who suffers but remains defiant in the face of his abuser, is situated in the context of similar wider leftist and Marxist interpretations of the tragedy in twentieth century Eastern European literature. The eponymous hero of Philoctetes was also seen as epitomising the plight of the exiles: “he remains an exemplum of integrity and defines the concept of tragic heroism anew in—temporary—defeat and isolation” (71). Van Steen points out that in some cases the people she interviewed could not remember whether a play had actually been staged, but that even the process of rehearsal had given the participants the opportunity to experience the emotions evoked by their collective engagement with the play.

In a production of Persians on Aï Stratis in 1951 the exiles explored the effect of the recent military defeat of the Left. It was a counterpoint to the National Theatre’s productions of the tragedy which identified the modern communist enemy with the Persians of antiquity. This is just one example of many instances Van Steen adduces of the authority and prestige of Greek Tragedy being claimed by both the regime and the prisoners as endorsing their cause.

Another tragedy which often gives rise to conflicting interpretations is Sophocles’ Antigone where some champion Antigone’s cause as the noble defence of freedom, while others support Creon’s desire to maintain order and control as desirable. Van Steen discusses several versions of this play associated with the prison islands. The first was produced on Makronisos in 1948 (65–70) by a group of actors who had “repented.” Thus their performance was intended by the authorities to enhance the importance of patriotism. Van Steen shows that players and audience nevertheless interpreted the themes in their own way. The second Antigone discussed (108–13) is a reading of the play by female prisoners on Trikeri. The process, led by an interned actress, served both to educate and to raise awareness amongst the female prisoners who saw Antigone as exemplifying their own predicament. The third Antigone analysed is offered as an example of creative playwriting by an island inmate. Van Steen argues that its inclusion compensates for the lack of detail of other productions. It is in fact the only play from the prison islands that has been published. The full text of this adaptation of Antigone by Aris Alexandrou is included (172–230), as well as an English translation by Van Steen (239–306). This play, which has influences from Brecht and Anouilh, was not produced during the lifetime of the playwright, but first staged in 2003. Van Steen notes that Alexandrou’s version has “an expressly democratic subtext that undermined dogmatic leftism” (150). Her analysis of the play and its production is sensitive and illuminates the complexities of the political and social identities that were involved in the prison camps.

The references (318-44) form a substantial bibliography for the topic.

Gonda Van Steen in this book sheds light on an important period in the recent history of Greece and in particular the part of Classical Greek Tragedy in it. Theatre of the Condemned contains scrupulous scholarship, sophisticated analysis and a huge amount of new material. Everyone who works on the reception of Greek drama should read it.

Thracian Remains at Tsarevo

Another tantalizingly brief item from Novinite:

Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered a Thracian settlement during the first ever excavations in the town of Tsarevo on the southern Black Sea coast.

The team is led by Milen Nikolov, an archaeologist from the Regional History Museum in the Black Sea city of Burgas.

The settlement is very close in location to the town church “Uspenie Bogorodichno.” The find proves that Tsarevo and nearby areas have a history more ancient that what was believed until now.

During the excavations, the archaeologists have found remnants showing that as early as the 4th – 5th century BC Thracians have built a town that existed until the 1st century AC.

Nikolov explains the discovery is a 2 500-year history rewind, saying the finds further include a four-wick lamp, tomb gifts, and a number of vessels.