Book Review: The Complete Greek Drama: Volume Two

The Complete Drama:  Volume Two, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr.

I’m not sure how many people would find the thought of reading more than 1200 pages of material that contains mostly obscure and sometimes fragmentary plays from the Greek drama appealing.  I’m one of those people, though, so I read this collection of plays despite (or maybe because of) the fact that most of them were rather obscure to me.  Suffice it to say that they are not obscure to me now, and I am not sure how I feel about that.  There are some very good plays here, some of them justly famous, but a lot of these plays were less pleasant, and the editorializing that continually attacked Christian moral standards when it came to the comedies of Aristophanes was a bit irksome as well given my own views on the matter [1].  As is often the case in reading, the challenge of dealing with the massive amount of material is increased by having a serious disconnect in moral worldview between the author and (this) reader, which made me enjoy this book less than I would have done otherwise had the editors been less strident in their anti-Christian mindset.

In terms of the contents of the plays, the results are a mixed bag in many ways.  There are eight plays by Euripides translted by E.P. Coleridge, Gilbert Murrary, and F.M. Stawell, including such famous plays as Helen, Electra, and Orestes on the one hand, the only surviving satyr play from any Greek tragedian, The Cyclops, which is pretty amusing, and a few obscure tragedies like Rhesus, resulting in a somewhat mixed perspective of plays that are not quite as good as the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus.  After that we have the entire set of comedies by Aristophanes, and if these are more familiar (mostly), because of the popularity of The Knights, The Clouds, The Wasps, Peace, The Birds, Lysistrata, and the Frogs, they also demonstrate the challenges that Aristophanes had in mastering comedy during both the early and middle period of Greek comedy in the fifth and fourth centuries AD.  Quite a lot of these plays come from anonymous translations (except for Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Frogs), and quite a few of them make fun of Euripides for his commoner origin and pathetic emotional sense and have strong feminist perspectives.  The last three plays are fragmentary works by Menander that are melodramatic “new comedies” that feature characters who take themselves extremely seriously.  I would have liked these to have been complete works, as they would have been more enjoyable.

In reading these plays, I felt rather ambivalent about much of their material.  Menander’s plays were easy enough to relate to because of how the Greek new comedy influenced Renaissance and later drama, but the constant emphasis on extramarital sex and foundlings was unpleasant.  Aristophanes’ characters did not take themselves too seriously on the one hand, but their morality was clearly questionable at best and the author’s love of anarchical silliness is not really my cup of tea.  Nor did Euripides’ plays offer the sort of well-constructed and solid dramas I most appreciate, and though The Cyclops was funny, its humor was of the awkward kind that makes fun of rape and exploitation that would clearly not be suitable today unless it was done in a more campy fashion.  Reading this book, surprisingly enough, in making me more familiar with the surviving relics of Greek drama, made me like it less because previously I had only been familiar with the best of that dramatic tradition and reading the survival of plays that are mediocre to bad in addition to those made me think less of that theater tradition, and reminded me of the tensions and difficulties of theater in any age.  If disappointing, it was at least instructive.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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