Book Review: The Complete Greek Drama: Volume One

The Complete Drama:  All The Extant Tragedies Of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, And The Comedies Of Aristophanes And Menander, In A Variety Of Translations:  Volume One, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr.

This book certainly lives up to its name.  It indeed includes half of the extant dramas extending from the fifth to the third centuries, namely all of the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles and a bit more than half of the dramas of Euripides.  It is striking just how fragmentary this collection of plays is.  To be sure, the plays included are among the most famous ancient Greek plays in existence.  The plays of Aeschylus are as follows:  The Suppliants, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, Prometius Bound, Agememnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides, the last three of which, the Orestia, are the only known complete trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies in existence.  The extant plays of Sophocles are:  Ajax, Oedipus The King, Antigone, The Trachiniae, Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus At Colonus.  The plays of Europides included in this volume are Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Hecuba, Andromache, The Heracleidae, The Suppliants, The Trojan Women, Heracles, Iphigenia In Tauris, and Ion.  These various plays are translated more or less capably by such people as E.D.A. Morshead, Robert Potter, Paul Elmer More, R.C. Trevelyan, R.C. Jebb, Thomas Francklin, Richard Aldington, E.P. Coleridge, and Gilbert Murray.

Acknowledging the general skill of the translators in providing us with this nearly 1200 page massive (even epic) work of translation of the ancient Greek plays, which is only about half of the existing corpus of ancient Greek drama (the other of which I hope to be able to review soon), this collection is not a perfect one.  For one, the dramas included are not always good ones even within the limitations of the ancient Greek drama.  At times the dialogue between characters can be a bit stiff and there are certainly failures of unity in some of the plays.  Some of the translators used the Roman names of these heathen deities instead of the Greek ones, adding an element of anachronism.  Of course, the philhellene perspective of the editors of the project is more than a little bit off-putting when one considers the thoroughly heathen perspective of the authors and the frequent use of imaginary Greek gods and goddesses as characters in the drama, indicating that the cultural influence of Athens on contemporary society is not secular, as many would believe, but a distinctly heathen perspective that is contrary to the right and proper biblical standard.  The characters regularly engage in immoral conduct, attempt to justify their conduct through human reasoning, and regularly point out that the Greek gods themselves were hardly models of moral probity in their own conduct and thus were poor models for human behavior.

Even with these criticisms, though, and it is understandable if there are some who would not wish to even know about these dramas given their heathen cultural perspective, there are at least some interesting and worthwhile conclusions that we can draw from these plays.  Many of the plays urge an acceptance of the fact that human beings are not in control of our existence and that much happens to us that is beyond our ability to control or sometimes even to understand.  For another, the plays themselves are told from a resolutely Greek perspective and often a pro-Athenian perspective that is sometimes brutally honest in its chauvinism.  In The Suppliants, for example, Euripides portrays a swaggering and self-confident democratic Athens exporting its values by force to nearby nations like Thebes that are viewed as more backwards.  Euripides’ Iphigenia In Tauris, to give another example, shows the Greek skill at self-justification in stealing the idols of other culture in order to enrich the religious statuary of its own heathen temples.  Some of the plays show different traditions of the same characters–there are different accounts of the life of Heracles, of the death of Iphigenia, and of the goings on at Thebes in the Oedipus cycle presented here.  Many of the plays not only show the influence of heathen religious thought and various hostility to anthropomorphism in the later plays of Euripides (for example), as well as the recourse to frequent and often unjustified deux et machinas, but also the influence of the politics of the time, reminding us that just like our own evil times, so too the Greek art suffered because of the pressure of the plague of politics into its cultural life.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: The Complete Greek Drama: Volume One

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s