Sophocles Our Contemporary?

The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy

by Jan Kott
Random House, 334 pp., $8.95

Jan Kott’s new book is addressed to those who believe that plays are meant to be played: to the director, armchair or practicing, rather than to the literary critic. At the same time The Eating of the Gods can profitably be read against the ambiguous state of classical antiquity today. Are the classics still part of our “heritage,” something the educated person is supposed to know about, and if so in what sense? A field of force that, however forbidding, must even now be reckoned with? Or a chapter of Western intellectual history that is finally (thank heaven) drawing to a close?

Greek tragedy is one piece of ancient territory that we seem on the whole disposed to hold on to, and Kott’s claim, “the greatest dramatic cycle of all time,” can still just pass cultural muster. Yet if we do want to keep the Greek dramatists, it is far from clear how this is to be done: since so few people now know Greek. The approaches favored by present classical scholarship (especially in England) do not offer much help, nor is that any part of their purpose. This, the learned insist, is a difficult ancient convention that is wrenched out of kilter if we force it to satisfy modern interests.

In interpreting a Greek play, Geoffrey Kirk tells us, it is hazardous to follow our critical bent and assume “some complex and obscure personal intention by the playwright.” If we knew more of the myth he was dramatizing we would have a better answer. Another British scholar, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, a few years ago cautioned us against the kind of amateur incursion into classical affairs that Kott may be thought to have committed. Though full of errors, such a book is likely to go down well with the literary week-lies, “partly through the impression of up-to-dateness given by its invocation of various fashionable names, but partly because the modern-seeming travesty of its subject that it offers is more acceptable to some readers than a serious attempt at understanding would have been.”

One suspects that Professor Lloyd-Jones had this sort of thing in his sights, from Kott’s essay on Sophocles’ Trachiniae: “The naked Deianira, stomach slit [he has had her commit hara-kiri], lies on the nuptial bed in the house. Heracles is also naked.” If this is what the amateurs have to give us, some will prefer to settle for “a serious attempt at understanding” and as it happens Lloyd-Jones offers one himself in the book from which I quoted (The Greek World, 1962). He provides an account of the action which amply sustains his initial warning that the Trachiniae “by no means wholly conforms to modern notions of the dramatic” and then puts the question that should be uppermost in our minds: “Has the poet given us any insight into Zeus’ purposes?” The answer is yes. “Zeus has indeed brought about Heracles’ end, and so has given men one more reminder of his inexorable law of justice …

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