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Athenian Drama, Attic Salt

Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater

by Bernard Knox
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 378 pp., $20.00

Greek tragedy is a perfect subject for wild theorists. Its origins, for scholars today as for near contemporaries like Aristotle, were, and remain, shrouded in Dionysian ambiguities, mostly of a ritual nature. Fertility ceremonies, some more embarrassingly ithyphallic than others, lurk offstage. With the exception of one or two early ventures into recent history—Aeschylus’s Persians, Phrynichus’s Capture of Miletus—tragedy took its plots exclusively from myth. Direct propaganda, as Phrynichus found to his cost, invited political harassment, whereas a well-handled myth could put the same point across with equal or greater force, and pose a general moral at the same time. But if this practice was designed, in the first instance, to present man’s tragic dilemmas sub specie aeternitatis, it has also given modern academic critics a free hand to reinterpret Attic drama through the refracting lens of their favorite disciplines.

New critics have cut the texts loose from their social and historical background; Jungians have hunted through them for archetypes. Lévi-Straussian structuralists have extrapolated ethnological codes from them, and post-Freudian psychoanalysts examined their characters for everything from narcissism to mother-fixation.1 The study of dramatic language and metaphor has never looked quite the same since the impact of Saussure, Jakobson, and Derrida on classical linguistics. Some scholars have even combined two or more of these disciplines: we now, for instance, have a flourishing sub-group, dominated by Jacques Lacan, which pursues structuralist psychoanalysis. Anyone who, like Bernard Knox, is in the business of studying Greek tragedy today must deal with these influential new approaches.

The fatal, and prevalent, temptation is to take up an extremist position: either to surf on the crest of a nouvelle vague, or to dismiss the entire phenomenon as pretentious obscurantism. What is needed is someone with the learning and sureness of judgment to see what is fresh and interesting in such new speculations, plus enough sense of proportion to know when the emperor is not wearing his clothes, and to have no qualms about saying so. On the strength of Word and Action, the collected essays of a quarter-century devoted largely to Greek drama, together with his enormously influential Sophoclean studies Oedipus at Thebes (1957) and The Heroic Temper (1964), it seems clear to me that Knox has superbly met this need. (The award of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism—a unique honor for a classical scholar—suggests that I am by no means alone in this belief.) The clarity, common sense, wit, and style that stamp every paragraph of Knox’s prose are, to put it mildly, not prominent in the work of many of his colleagues.

I can think of no other field in classical studies where speculation is so indifferent to such hard evidence as exists. Indifference is particularly evident in the analysis of character, where most scholars seem to think of themselves as novelists manqués, with the result that they come up with diametrically opposite conclusions while claiming to follow strict Aristotelian criteria. In The Heroic Temper Knox states that “interpretation of character in Sophoclean drama is too elusive and subjective a basis on which to build.” Analysis, he insists, must start from a rigorous scrutiny of the text, “those words which are all we have left of the original performance in the theater of Dionysus.” Imposing general theories on those words, as the reader of Word and Action very soon realizes, is anathema to him. In a brilliant prologue he acknowledges the fashionable expectation that discussion of myths “will deal in wide, if not universal, terms of reference…and…come equipped with at least one complicated diagram.” His aim, he states, is very different: “to deal in specific, pragmatic terms with a limited area—the myths preferred by the Attic tragic poets of the fifth century BC.”

As he says, it’s hard to think of any other period in which the theater so directly, and clearly, expressed the mood and mind of an entire community; and yet in its theater that community dealt exclusively, for cathartic and other purposes, with the characters and legends of myth. Never mind, Knox insists, about vegetation-god theories or modern synthetic rites de passage such as Dionysus in 69 (on which he’s hilariously funny); the first question to ask is, which myths did the Athenians prefer, and why?

His findings are intriguing. No surviving tragedy deals exclusively, and only Aeschylus’s Prometheus to any extent, with gods (comedy and satyr-drama were another matter). By far the most popular myth is that of the Trojan War, followed by the family sagas of Thebes and Mycenae: what Athenians wanted was a re-creation of their past, their ancient Greek heritage and history, intertwined family vendettas grouped about great central events, in a heroic age when gods and men were closer, more intimate, than ever since. Larger than life, yet true to it, the figures of myth—caught in an ineluctable web of familial obligations and divine decree—rehearsed debates and dilemmas that struck home to the fifth-century citizen of the polis. When the problems ceased to be relevant, Attic drama decayed and died. A seductive hors-d’oeuvre, this essay whets one’s appetite for more.

It also provides the proper backdrop against which to study Knox’s interpretation of the Greek tragic hero, an interpretation first formulated over twenty years ago, and given its most memorable expression in his Sather Lectures, published as The Heroic Temper. This gigantic figure, looming out of the Mycenaean past, stands rigid in pride and honor, unreasonable “almost to the point of madness,” incapable of backing down, of making concessions, even of changing his mind. He is impervious to argument, yet acutely sensitive to the world’s mockery, brooding in solitary isolation, abandoned by men and gods alike. This portrait remains perhaps Knox’s most substantial contribution to our understanding of Attic drama and the socio-historical traditions which produced it.2

In Word and Action the best approach to this phenomenon is by way of what is arguably the finest essay in the book, “The Ajax of Sophocles,” first published in 1961 and as convincing today as when it was originally written. Ajax is a compendium of the old heroic virtues, a solipsistic giant haunted by dreams of kleos, renown, and wholly incapable of assimilating the new cooperative virtues, of taking part in the to-and-fro debate of the polis. He is bewildered by changing values and allegiances, by a world in which he is no longer free to love his friends and hate his enemies, to follow the age-old creed of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

A world in which friends and enemies change places is all very well for a slippery and dishonest wordsmith like Odysseus; for Ajax the choice lies between surrender, submission, and death, with small doubt about which he will choose. In a soliloquy—not always recognized as such: another insight for which Knox deserves the credit—“so majestic, remote, and mysterious, and at the same time so passionate, dramatic, and complex, that if this were all that had survived of Sophocles he would still have to be reckoned as one of the world’s greatest poets,” Ajax draws up the account between old world and new, and prepares to die with dignity. The world is smaller for his passing; as Knox says, Sophocles has dramatized a mythic event that marks the passing of the heroic age.

The same blend of cultural penetration and critical sensibility is apparent throughout this collection, at times reinforced by that deep familiarity with the Greek text which has enabled Knox, over the years, to memorize long stretches of play after play by heart. Above all, he has a sense of proportion, a rooted distaste for extreme views. Discussing the lion-cub image in the Oresteia he remarks: “It may safely be said of the text of the choral odes of the Agamemnon that any conjecture which lessens or removes dramatic ambiguity is for that reason alone suspect.” Few today would quarrel with that judgment; but few, also, would see with Knox’s clarity the dangers of post-Empsonian ambiguity-hunting when carried to excess: “It is all too easy to discover ambiguities even in the simplest of texts. It is also just as easy to extract contradictory ambiguous senses as it is hard to establish an objective criterion for choosing between them. The resultant controversies often resemble Plato’s malicious picture of the sophists improving on each others’ fantastic distortions of Simonides’ poem in the Protagoras.” Knox, too, has a lethal eye for sophistic excess, and his devastating asides constitute one of this book’s more enjoyable features.

Why, he asks, was there a long delay before a second or third actor was added? Because actors were paid by the state, and “only a dramatist who knew he had to have a third actor, who thought and talked of nothing else, and brought pressure to bear, would in the end get one.” So much for formalist theory. Who else would have put down Victorian verse-translations with a quote from Walt Kelly (“Blanker verse ne’er was blunk”)? What other classicist would have the honesty to admit that “most productions of Greek tragedy…are a crashing bore”? Pretentious modern stage directions get short shrift from Knox: (“No amount of naked writhing and sacre-du-printemps screaming, no display of motorcycles, cigars, or machine-guns is going to be any help toward a full appreciation of those lyrics”). So do scholarly contortions such as the various attempts to rewrite Euripides’ prologue for the Iphigeneia at Aulis.3

Obviously there are going to be points where every reader will part company with Knox: I list one or two of mine here. Some errors may or may not depend on proofreading, e.g., Knox’s apparent indecision about the total number of surviving tragedies in the canon—“thirty or so” (p. 3), thirty-one (p. 8), thirty-three (p. 58), thirty-two (p. 64), as though he kept changing his mind on whether the Rhesus, the Cyclops, and the Prometheus were genuine or spurious. I think he’s over-pessimistic about the likelihood, even in this age of records and computer banks, of modern American myths getting off the ground: the case of Major Claude Eatherly might give him pause. I very much doubt whether the ancient Greek family was any more octopus-close (at least, short of actual strangulation) than its modern counterpart. Above all, I think he absurdly overrates Cacoyannis’s movie Iphigeneia, even though he does at one point describe it as a “souvlaki Western.” I wish, too, that there had been a concluding essay in this volume, a survey of the complex tensions between tribal and civic beliefs that were central to the dialectic of Attic drama.

But in the specific elucidation of Athens’ three great tragedians, whether he’s reviewing important new studies (Taplin, Burnett) or shedding fresh light on overworked texts (e.g., his incisive piece on Euripides’ Medea and the position of women), he is never less than challenging, and again and again will provide insights that shift one’s whole perspective on a crucial topic. If there is a more original and exciting critic of Greek drama writing in English today I have yet to discover him—or her. Some, like E.R. Dodds in his classic essay “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,” have from time to time written with equal perceptiveness: Knox, as his retrospective collection proves, began, like Pindar, at full maturity, and has never faltered since—an extraordinary achievement.

  1. 1

    See, e.g., Richard S. Caldwell, “The Psychology of Aeschylus’s Supplices,” Arethusa 7 (1974), p. 61: “The final point to be considered is the attitude of the Danaids toward the relationship between Zeus and Io, the cathected father of fantasy and the mother imago with whom they identify…,” etc.

  2. 2

    The durability of the concept is exemplified by the way it has left its mark on almost all subsequent interpretative scholarship to do with ancient drama. One of the few dissentient voices was that of H.D.F. Kitto, who closed his review (Journal of Hellenic Studies 86, 1966, p. 176) with the statement: “It is difficult to think that the current fashion for Sophoclean Heroism will long survive this attempt to prove it”—as things turned out, an unwise prophecy.

  3. 3

    E.g., “They ask us to believe that Euripides wrote a complete anapaestic (or iambic) prologue, that someone else later wrote a complete alternative iambic (or anapaestic) prologue, and that still a third person cut pieces off both prologues and fitted the bits together to form what we have now (perhaps writing some dull verses himself to bridge the gaps he had created). There is no doubt which of these two explanations [the other being that the text is fundamentally sound as is] would have appealed to William of Occam….”

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