Hanna Roisman Euripides: Andromache
Seth A. Jeppesen Plautus: Trinummus
Hanna Roisman Euripides: Andromache
Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy
2022 ISBN9781350256262 Hardback £70.00
Seth A. Jeppesen Plautus: Trinummus
Ancient Comedy Companions
2023 ISBN 9781350126770 Paperback £17.81
According to the Bloomsbury website Roisman’s Euripides Andromache is only available as a hardback book (162 pages), expensive at £70.00, or as an e-book (also expensive at £50.00). A paperback edition is due for issue in April 2024 at £24.94.
Jeppesen’s book on Plautus’ Trinummus is already available as both hardback and paperback.
These convenient and concise companions to ancient tragedy and comedy from Bloomsbury are building up an extensive list, and with the major plays covered we are now reaching some less-read plays: Euripides’ Andromache and Plautus’ Trinummus. Francophone readers may be more familiar with the story of Andromache through their reading of Racine, but The Three Dollar Day is likely to be less well known even to fans of Roman Comedy. Both writers assume that their audience is going to be coming to these works for the first time, and therefore expect no previous knowledge or familiarity. As it is likely that students on non-linguistic courses or perhaps theatre practitioners thinking about performance will be among the target audience for these introductory volumes, it is noticeable that neither of them lists recent translations in their bibliographies. Some discussion of the merits of different versions in different languages and traditions would be helpful, show their relative popularity, and may shed light on the original texts themselves. In view of the history of the reception of particularly the story of Andromache in later literature, particularly in French through Ronsard, Racine and Baudelaire, some consideration of the current regard for these plays in different traditions and languages would have been welcome. Quotations from the text of Andromache are given in English (there is no Greek used) in Kovacs’ or Lloyd’s versions which are listed in the bibliography, but there is no further discussion.
Roisman begins with an account of the play in detail: the complex plot involving Andromache and her relationship to Neoptolemus (whose war-prize she is) and to Hermione his legitimate wife. Roisman comments that the play is more like a modern thriller where the audience does not know what will happen than a classical tragedy where the fate of the characters is somehow inevitable. Attention is paid to the circumstances of performance both of this play and of tragedy as a whole, and the theatrical conventions and settings with masks and costumes. Chapter 2 places the myth of Andromache firmly in its cultural context, beginning with Homer and moving through the epic cycle and many other references including Pindar and Euripides’ other plays about the Trojan Women. Themes and character types from the play are then delineated, including deceit and betrayal, Greeks and barbarians, love and loyalty, marital strife, misogyny and gender among others. All this gives a rich texture to the play which Roisman develops in highly detailed discussion, demanding a precise knowledge of the play in all its intricacies. She concludes that the unifying theme of the play is that of legacy: the continuance of the line through marriage and children. The houses of Peleus and Atreus are central to this discussion: the complex bloodlines and the marriages, births and murders.
Current thematic concerns of identity and gender are clearly and thoroughly addressed in the character analyses that make up the next long chapter (pages 61 to 104). Actors preparing their parts would find much of use here to address their motivations in creating a character for performance. Those studying a cultural history course will find the discussions of the barbarian/Greek distinction and misogyny stimulating as well as the question of possible anti-Spartan bias in Euripides’ text. Each main character is fully analysed individually and for their relations with others. Andromache is identified as of non-Greek/barbarian ethnicity, but Roisman views her portrayal by Euripides as very Greek in her behaviour. There is effective discussion of the misogyny inherent in the text as criticism of the female gender comes just as much from the words of Hermione and Andromache herself. The conflict between these two rivals makes up the heart of the play and Roisman elucidates their use of rhetoric and critically examines the cultural ideas and norms they embody, showing how Euripides twists and inverts the barbarian/Greek, and Greek (Athenian?)/Spartan conflicts. The men of the play (Menelaus, Peleus, Neoptolemus, Orestes) all receive an equal treatment as does Hermione, Andromache’s rival and the other main female role. The Chorus is not forgotten and is given a thorough analysis.
A final chapter treats the reception of the Andromache myth. This is mainly confined to literature with a brief look at opera and one visual representation of the story. The variations on the myth in antiquity are a valuable resource showing how little the story is fixed into a canonical form from the beginning and before Euripides. There are a bewildering number of variations among which the one constant is that Andromache remains faithful to her first husband Hector, no matter who she is given to or married to and what their relations to the other characters are. The later reception begins with Latin versions and major writers (Virgil, Ovid and Seneca) all took this story as a subject. The theme of the Trojan Women becomes a major strand of western literature. Roisman traces the theme through the medieval period and on to Racine and English versions of his play.
Jeppesen approaches this relatively neglected comedy of Plautus Trinummus with considerable gusto and enthusiasm. He opens with an account of a 2nd century BCE Roman festival (ludi Romani) and gives a lively picture of what it might have been like to have actually been there. He firmly believes that Plautus is funny and should be enjoyed by an audience and does his best to transmit this to his readership. However, clearly assuming an anglophone readership, he does this with a highly colloquial style of writing, including lots of jokes and puns, which perhaps recalls the lecture theatre or classroom, but which may be baffling for readers with second language English. Would they understand, for example, what is meant by “improv”? This shortened form of “improvisation” refers to a precise form of stand-up comedy where performers appear (though they are usually well-prepared) to make up their material as they go along, as they engage with the audience and take prompts and suggestions from them. This is a good insight into Plautine performance and does much to help us imagine how a show of Plautus might have sounded and looked to the public, but not everyone may be familiar with this current performance technique.
His interpretation is firmly based on comic performance and the appearance of the characters on stage. He is very good on the stock characters who make up the cast list and the way to read them, making the point that they are not to be taken too seriously and may sometimes be parodies of themselves. The audience should recognise that the character is being sent up or mocked for what they represent: even the sententiae they utter (and there are many of them in Trinummus) should be taken in a sense of parody as the humour lies in their absurdity and pointlessness rather than in their actual wisdom.
Although Jeppesen’s references tend to be centred on anglophone culture, he does, however, discuss many of the Latin words used in the text to elucidate the performance, often single words but also longer phrases which are always translated and explained for non-linguistic course students, who should not feel excluded by their lack of Latin but who are being introduced to the flavour of the original words used. He is particularly good on the meaning and effect of some of the names of various characters (pages 126-7). He examines the Romanness of Plautus showing how he transforms the Greek originals into works that are truly Roman in their flavour and culture, perhaps in the same way that Tom Stoppard transforms some Viennese plays of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries into his own creations.
Reception of this relatively under-performed play is limited but an account of its performance history at Westminster School is included. This independent school in London UK has a tradition of performing a Latin play each year and Trinummus was part of the list of approved plays in the second half of the 19th century. This may have been because its content was regarded as more suitable for performance in school than that of some of Plautus’ other plays. Jeppesen has gone deeply into the school’s archives and sets out a rich account and includes several images of productions. Wider reception of Plautine comedy is noted in the frequent references to contemporary comedy (such as Month Python’s Life of Brian) which illuminate the text rather than refer directly to it.
Though Jeppesen spends quite a lot of time apologising for the play, arguing that it is much more entertaining than some critics have given it credit for in the past, he makes a good case for it and at the same time presents a lively introduction to Roman comedy which can be read with profit even by those unfamiliar with this play.