The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy (vol. 2): Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides

by Matthew Wright, Bloomsbury 2019, ISBN 978-1-4742-7647-4, Paperback, £21.59

There is a vol.1, dealing with Neglected Authors of tragedies (i.e. other than Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides), published in 2016. Though the two volumes are intended as a unit, and some material relevant to the whole topic is covered in vol.1and not repeated in vol.2, the second volume can nevertheless be read as a free-standing volume with little loss.

After a short Introduction, the lost plays of each of the three tragedians are dealt with in the order specified in the title. For each playwright there is a brief outline of his life and work, and this is followed by a discussion of all the known lost plays in alphabetical order, ranging from ten lines or so for the very obscure ones up to three pages or more for those about which quite a lot is known. This might not sound like a very good read; in fact it is, partly because Matthew Wright has amassed vast amounts of information which is very difficult to find elsewhere, and partly because he writes about it with such enthusiasm and clarity that he carries the reader along at quite a pace. He does not avoid the usual specialist vocabulary of Greek tragedy, but terms are explained when necessary and one does not feel weighed down by jargon. In all nearly 200 plays are included in this survey, and though Wright constantly reminds his readers that little is certain in the world of Greek tragedy, he does nevertheless make the most of what the extant fragments and literary references reveal about these missing plays.

Two chapters then follow, the first entitled Unfamiliar Faces. This chapter considers three well known figures from tragedy, Oedipus, Antigone and Medea, in the light of the information presented earlier about the lost plays. Wright forcefully makes the point that the stories that are so familiar to us about these three characters from the surviving plays were far from being in any way fixed in the tradition. Other plays, by one or other of these same three authors, had different versions of the myths, in which, for instance, Oedipus did not blind himself (the servants of Laius did it for him, and violently – in Euripides’ Oedipus), and Antigone married Haemon, and they had a son and lived happily ever after (Euripides’ Antigone).

The second of these chapters is entitled Lost Tragedies in Performance. Here Wright takes a dozen scenes from the extant fragments of the lost plays and other references to them, and tries to recreate how these scenes might have been performed. How, for instance, was Tereus transformed on stage into a hoopoe in Sophocles’ Tereus? How did the weighing-scales work that Zeus had to use in Aeschylus’ Psychostasia? And how were the earthquake and consequent destruction of buildings staged that were the climax of Euripides’ Erechtheus? But in fact it is the few pages (particularly pp. 242-244) which act as an introduction to this chapter which I found especially interesting, since in these few pages Wright sets out very clearly his own principles for ‘performance criticism’. He starts from the premise that it is not now possible to determine in any detail how Greek tragedies were originally performed, and therefore some imagination is needed to produce a modern interpretation of a tragedy. This is surely uncontroversial, since that is what modern producers have been doing for a long time. But there are other views, criticised by Wright, mainly advocating what one might call a minimalist approach to staging the tragedies, and using only those scenic and other aids that the text makes necessary. It seems to me that it may well be of interest to classicists to try to determine how the plays were actually performed in their original context, but performances today, whether purists like it or not, are not bound by any such theories.

In this age of the spell-checker, typos are not what they use to be. I found only a dittographic ‘was’ near the bottom of page 177, and an omitted ‘it’ near the bottom of page 203.

For anyone with any interest at all in Greek tragedy this book is a mine of information about the vast range of plays that the three famous tragedians actually wrote. There is no doubt that anyone who wishes to know more about the plays of these three tragedians will enjoy the detailed survey that Matthew Wright has now provided.

John Thorley

May 2019