N.T. Croally. Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy.
CUP, 1994. Pages xii+315. ISBN 0 521 46490 0. L37.50 (US $59.95).
Reviewed by C.W. Marshall
Croally's argument in Euripidean Polemic is developed around two theses: first, that the purpose of Athenian tragedy was principally didactic, and second that this didacticism manifested itself through polarities. The discussion is interesting and well- documented, and travelling this journey with Croally is itself a learning experience. Ultimately, however, it fails to convince its reader on anything beyond the specific example under scrutiny, Trojan Women.
Croally argues that the Athenians used tragedy to construct their own identity, and that the principal means of doing so was through the mediation of self/other. The Athenian self is defined in terms of 'other', and Croally (pages 70-119) addresses the polarities of human/god, male/female, free/slave, Greek/barbarian, and philos/ echthros, as they impact Trojan Women. Athenian identity (the privileged identity) is seen (or constructed) as male, free, Greek, and characterized by philia. This is the first aspect of teaching that the play offers its audience. Croally's specific conclusions include 'Athenian civic discourse is male-controlled' (97), and 'Slaves...may not produce a sustainable self-definition for the free' (103), neither of which seems too startling, and both of these ideas exist alongside a radical Euripidean critical analysis of the conclusions themselves.
Croally privileges the didactic purpose of tragedy, in contrast with Aristotle and Heath, who instead foreground the emotional response of the audience. But his argument seems specious, for not all polarizations will map onto a self/other paradigm. Certainly, there could be a didactic purpose to tragedy, but why it would be placed before an entertaining purpose, for example, is not sufficiently demonstrated. The unquestioned belief in the truth of certain lines in Aristophanes' Frogs (20-21) does not prove Croally's case. Even assuming didacticism is the principal agenda for a playwright, both intellectual and emotional appeals are surely functioning to various degrees towards that end. In taking issue with Heath, Croally implicitly claims didacticism is only an intellectual exercise. Perhaps such a premise is valid for Trojan Women; could it possibly be for any play by Sophocles, where polarized ambiguities are habitually left unresolved?
Croally specifies how the didactic purpose accomplishes what it does: 'tragedy questions ideology' (43), and ideology is the city's discourse, the 'authoritative self-definition of the Athenian citizen' (44; the citizen is the enfranchised male determined as 'self' in all the polarities Croally selects). Tragedy constructs these polarities of self/other, and then proceeds to deconstruct (not Croally's word) them straightaway: 'Euripides represents the difficulties of attributing otherness, whether that be to god, women, slaves, barbarians, or enemies' (119). War is the agent that effects this critical reappraisal (at least in Trojan Women), and this leads to the second way that tragedy teaches.
Having read Trojan Women in terms of polarities, Croally generalizes the procedure in terms of agones (120-162). Certainly, the notion of agon is key for interpreting tragedy, though the mapping of agon (as formal debate) onto war is not as unproblematical as it appears in this book. Croally provides a close reading of lines 353-405 (122-134; Cassandra), and 895-1032 (134-162; Hecuba and Helen), but the reader may struggle with Cassandra's discourse being necessarily self-defeating (131), despite ironic use of Bacchic verbs for Apollonian madness (133-134).
In general, the argument about didacticism ends at page 162. The conclusion (249-258; 'As if war had given a lecture') returns to this, repeating parallels that had been made earlier with the Thucydidean account of Corcyra (257: 'a central text for my thesis'). It is only on the last page that Croally limits the applicability of his argument: 'Nowhere does Euripides produce a dramatic world so conducive to such an acknowledgement as in Troades' (258).
The remaining chapter (163-248) is an interesting discussion of Euripides' use of space and time. Less specifically concerned with Trojan Women, the chapter addresses how the geography of the polis intersects with the use of the tragic stage. Hippolytus, OT, and Medea are all used as examples, though not without their own problems (190: 'Whether [Medea] reaches Athens is uncertain'?!). The examination of the use of space specifically in Trojan Women (197-207) is quite good, though perhaps not as unique as Croally believes: the insights on 204-206 equally (and helpfully) inform the use of space in Hecuba. In fact, there are several problems with Croally's reading of Hecuba, seen also (for example) on pages 194 (other extant Euripidean plays set in regions away from a city include Helen, IT, Cyclops, and Children of Heracles; is it therefore really 'rare?), and 197 (Hecuba is off stage also at 629-665 and 1024-1044). Croally's analysis of time in Trojan Women (215-234) is supplemented by a brief analysis of Supplices (207-215). Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of self-reference in Trojan Women (235-247) which could have warranted more attention than it received.
'Tragedy questions ideology' by problematizing war, to achieve an authoritative self-definition for the male, enfranchised citizen. Croally's reading of Trojan Women supports this notion, but the ripples of this interpretation do not extend far. Euripidean Polemic provides a coherent account for many aspects of Trojan Women, but particular difficulties remain, and the general applicability of the thesis to the rest of tragedy is far from certain.
(C.W. Marshall's translation of Trojan Women was performed in Vancouver at the Jericho Arts Centre, June 2-25, 1995, by the United Players of Vancouver.)