The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy - Matthew Wright

Matthew Wright The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy (Volume 1): Neglected Authors

Matthew Wright The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy (Volume 1): Neglected Authors Paperback Paperback: 312 pages Bloomsbury Academic (2016)  978-1472567758b £14.00


When introducing Greek Tragedy to new students we usually transmit a lot of information about its origins, the organisation of the festivals, tetralogies, satyr plays and so on.  Wright, in this first of two volumes on lost Greek plays shows how questionable much of this information is.  He sets out, in a very readable fashion, exactly what the evidence is and where it comes from for our knowledge of early tragedy and shows just how uncertain we should be about anything outside the surviving texts of the three great tragedians.  Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are absent from this volume, but the promised second one will deal with their lost plays.  They are not entirely absent of course, because along with Aristophanes and Aristotle we depend so much on them.  Wright’s concern however is with figures like Phrynichus, Xenocles, Agathon and Diogenes: authors of tragedies whose works we know something about but whose texts have not survived.  He manages to devote a whole chapter to Agathon whose words only survive in a few fragments but whose influence on literature was considerable.  The evidence here from Aristophanes, Plato and the later writers like Aelian and the Suda is set out and tested thoroughly for its reliability, but in the end what emerges is full portrait of a significant figure.  Wright demonstrates that the actual fragments are not the only guide to these writers, and in fact on their own are often rather dull, consisting of short gnomic utterances which are easily excerpted for easy quotation.  This is how they usually survive: in selected quotation in later writers, as well as occasionally in freshly discovered papyrus documents.  But put together with the anecdotes and criticism found in later literature Wright shows how a much fuller picture can be built up.  This book could be recommended to students beginning their course, as it will give both an overall introduction to Greek Tragedy and a reliable guide as to how Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides should be placed in a wider context.  It is so easy to fall into thinking that the texts we have of the three are all there was of Greek Tragedy.  They may be all there is, but there is a bigger picture to be considered. The fragments themselves are placed in an appendix in translation, but the bulk of the book is concerned with extended studies of individual figures, ranging from the very origins to the fourth century tragedians (who he argues may not have represented the decline in quality so often claimed in the textbooks). Only rarely do the entries become brief listings by name and source.  Both students with Greek and those studying a non-linguistic course (there is very little Greek, and all is translated) will get from this book an idea of how their set tragedy texts fit into a lively and more extensive literary genre.


John Bulwer