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CJ-ONLINE  January 2010

CJ-ONLINE January 2010

Subject:

CJ Online 2010.01.02 WRIGHT, Euripides: Orestes

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Euripides: Orestes. By MATTHEW WRIGHT. Duckworth Companions to Greek and
Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. 176. Paper, $24.00. ISBN
978–0–7156–3714–2.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at
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CJ Online 2010.01.02

Although Euripides’ Orestes is often overlooked among classical
tragedies, it has much to recommend it, as evidenced by reviews of the play
during its run this past spring as part of the New York Classic Stage
Company’s production of An Oresteia. Wright’s (W.) fine introductory
treatment of Orestes highlights the richness, complexity and entertainment
value of the play in a way that should benefit both the book’s primary
intended audience—students and theater practitioners unfamiliar with both
Orestes and details of Athenian theater—and more advanced scholars who
have been without a new book-length treatment of Euripides’ tragedy for
14 years.

The first two chapters are prefatory. In “Setting the Scene,” W.
provides background information on Euripides, tragedy, and tragic
festivals, and explores why Orestes has received so much less attention
than other tragedies in the 2400 years since its initial production. One of
the main problems, he suggests, is that Orestes does not correspond to many
people’s sense of what tragedy is. There are no murders or suicides;
there are comic elements; and the play ends happily (at least on the
surface). Furthermore, there is a sense of absurdity in the extent to which
traditional portrayals of heroes have been stretched to fit the innovative
plot. Chapter 2, “Dramatic Structure and Performance,” provides a
cursory summary of each scene and a brief yet effective explanation of its
value to the play as a whole. It also gives numerous illustrative examples
of how productions, from the Reading School’s in 1821 to that of
London’s Shared Experience in 2006, have set the tone of the play and
dealt with ambiguous or challenging scenes.

At this point the book moves more to matters of literary interpretation,
and the author’s thoroughly reasonable point of view becomes clearer,
even as he gives respectful space to his scholarly colleagues and
predecessors. In Chapter 3, “Humans and Gods,” W. attempts to interpret
the play as a classical Athenian might have, with “heredity, reciprocity,
familial love, revenge, guilt,” etc. brought to the fore (p. 52). He
examines each character with the aim of bringing to light the ethical and
moral complexity that, he claims, many scholars, starting with the
scholiast, have overlooked. W. then looks at three issues that complicate
the characters’ choices: the conflict between loyalty to friends and
enmity to enemies that confronts characters who often fall into both
categories at once; the dubious portrayal of the gods, who are absent for
most of the play and are accused of malevolence toward their human wards;
and the ambiguous deus ex machina appearance of Apollo, which resolves
matters on a practical level while leaving many tensions simmering.

W. next addresses more theoretical approaches to understanding the play. In
Chapter 4, “Late Eurpides,” he explores ways in which Orestes’ status
as a work produced late in Euripides’ life, in extant Athenian tragedy,
and in the Peloponnesian War has influenced its interpretation. While
appropriately skeptical of the veracity of the biographies’ portrayal of
Euripides’ late life, including his supposed flight to Macedon, W.
examines how the identities the biographies attribute to the poet in his
old age—as an embittered outsider or a rebellious innovator—have
affected and perhaps distorted critics’ interpretation of the play. He
cites Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy as an influential view that Euripides
was reshaping tragedy so radically late in his life that he was effectively
destroying the genre. W. also notes a perspective common among contemporary
scholars that Orestes reflects a moroseness common to depictions of
Athenian life at the time of the play’s production: Athens was on the
brink of falling, tragedy was on the wane (in the estimation of later
observers), and Orestes was full of mythical figures humbled. Thus,
according to many, the play pessimistically reflects the finality of
everything the now-resentful artist once held dear. While W. admits that
the symmetry of Orestes with these events is somewhat compelling, he
cautions readers not to take the parallels too far—Athens was still
several years away from losing the Peloponnesian War, new tragedies
continued to be produced well past Euripides’ death, and Euripides
himself produced later tragedies, like Bacchae, that suggest an attachment
to traditional tragic forms that some would see Orestes overthrowing. W.
concludes the chapter by exploring how the play corresponds to “late
style” in authors throughout history, as Edward Saïd identified it in
his 2006 book on the subject. [[1]]

W. starts Chapter 5, “Politics,” by laying out various scholars’
thoughts on whether Athenian tragedy as a whole should be taken as
political, and if so, whether its political content was focused on Athens
of the time of production, or on more universal political issues. W. claims
that the whole of tragedy is so diverse that it would be difficult to
classify the genre as a whole as political, though individual plays likely
were both broadly political and specifically attentive to events of the
time of their production. A particular message along those lines, however,
he argues, is difficult to discern, due to the dialogic nature of the
genre. While Orestes offers many anachronistic reflections of
contemporaneous Athens, it is among those W. contends is devoid of an
obvious message, since no one group or point of view comes away looking
particularly good. The cowardice of Menelaus, for example, works against
any sense of heroism or martial glory, perhaps reflecting Athenian fatigue
over the prolonged Peloponnesian War. The mastery of the assembly by
honey-tongued speakers who convict Orestes despite reasonable objections
also seems parallel to an exasperation with the Athenian democratic process
like that expressed by the Old Oligarch. And Orestes’ friendship with
Pylades can be likened in many ways to the murderous hetaireiai that caused
havoc in Athens before the oligarchic revolt of 411. Based on this
uniformly unflattering portrayal of all groups, W. claims, “There are no
political lessons to be learnt from Orestes” (p. 114). If political
messages require both a protagonist and an antagonist, that is a valid
interpretation. But someone else might contend that this uniformly
malignant portrayal is its own political message—everything is amiss,
both in Argos and, likely, Athens—but that difference of opinion is
better addressed in another venue.

The final chapter, “Euripides’ Cleverest Play,” appears to be one in
which the author took particular pleasure. While W.’s conclusion is
aporetic (“In the end, it is … hard to find a philosophical
‘meaning’ in Orestes,” p. 136), the chapter is full of his
explanations of apparent (or at least possible) references to Presocratic
philosophers, sophists, Euripides’ own prior work (particularly Electra
and Helen), genre expectations, etc., all of which W. takes as guided by a
principle of novelty. W. peppers the chapter with unanswerable questions
(“Is the tone of this ‘clever’ scene comparable to comedy?” p.
124), tentative assertions (“Electra’s strange remark seems to have an
additional … level of meaning if interpreted…,” p. 122, italics
mine), and recognitions of the limits of interpretive speculation (“Even
if no particular philosophical point were being made here, this description
would…,” 134). Some of the best observations scholars and teachers make
are those that cannot immediately be packaged into tightly coherent
arguments, and this chapter seems to be W.’s collection of such
observations. The questions are carefully researched and eruditely
presented, but are generally left open for readers to reach their own
informed conclusions.

As with many ostensibly introductory works from scholarly presses, W.’s
book is not just for beginners. Beyond its explicit objectives, it also
serves as an efficient overview of academic approaches to Orestes for
scholars needing to be current on it. W. has written several articles on
(or at least engaging with) the play in the past few years, and has been
active on others tragedies of Euripides as well. [[2]] His immersion in the
play and its author is apparent in his lucid engagement with contemporary
scholarship and his admirable coverage of pertinent work. Though the
bibliography omits a few notable articles and books (for which W. can
certainly be forgiven in a work of this sort), his attention to scholarly
work relevant to contemporary study of this play makes his book a valuable
source for professional academics. [[3]] It serves as an update of sorts to
Porter’s Studies in Euripides’ Orestes (Leiden, 1994), which has much
more specific scholarly objectives, but which was the last book-length work
dedicated to the play.

W.’s Duckworth Companion to Orestes, well-researched, accessibly written
and carefully edited, is a welcome addition to the field on a number of
levels. It deserves a place in the library of nearly every institution in
which Classics and/or classical theater are taught, and at its reasonable
paperback price, it should also affordable to many individuals who teach or
conduct research on the play.

ROBERT HOLSCHUH SIMMONS
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
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[[1]] E. Saïd, On Late Style (London, 2006).

[[2]] Among W.’s relevant scholarly works are the following: Euripides’
Escape-Tragedies (Oxford, 2005); “Orestes, A Euripidean Sequel,” CQ NS
56 (2006) 33–47; and “Enter a Phrygian (Euripides, Orestes 1369),”
GRBS 48 (2008) 5–13.

[[3]] Most notable among the (again, entirely forgivable) omissions in are:
W. Biehl, ed., Euripides’ Orestes (Berlin, 1965); H. Erbse, “Zum
Orestes des Euripides,” Hermes 103 (1975) 434–59; T.M. Falkner, “The
Conflict of Generations in Euripides’ Orestes,” in K.V. Hartigan, ed.,
From Pen to Performance (Lanham, 1983) 13–22; C. Fuqua, “The World of
Myth in Euripides’ Orestes,” Traditio 34 (1978) 1–28; M. Hose, Drama
und Gesellschaft (Stuttgart, 1995); M. Hose, Euripides: der Dichter der
Leidenschaften (Munich, 2008); O. Longo, “Proposte di lettura per
l’Oreste di Euripide,” Maia 27 (1975) 265–87; J. de Romilly,
“L’Assemblée du peuple dans l’Oreste d’Euripide,” Studi Classici
in Onore di Quintino Cataudella 1 (1972) 237–51; and B. Zimmermann,
“Die Krise der Polis im Spiegel der attischen Tragödie (Euripides,
Orestes; Sophokles, Philoktetes),” in J.V. Bañuls, et al., eds., El
teatre classic al marc de la cultura grega i la seua pervivència dins la
cultura occidental (Bari, 1998) 369–80.


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