The Everyman edition of Aeschylus
Edited and translated by Michael Ewans
University of Newcastle, N.S.W.
J.M. Dent (London)/Charles E. Tuttle (Vermont USA)
Volume 1: The Oresteia (1995)
ISBN 0-460-87548-5 (paper) £5.99 UK; $7.50 US; $14.99 CAN
Volume 2: Suppliants and Other Dramas (1996)
ISBN 0-460-87755-0 (paper) £5.99 UK; $7.50 US; $14.99 CAN
Reviewed by Bill Bly
Department of Drama, Tisch School of the Arts
New York University
New York, NY
As Professor Ewans points out, 'The surviving Greek tragedies are the prisoners of their eloquence' (Oresteia xv). These plays have been admired for millenia primarily for their literary qualities, and most of their translators have been either scholars or poets, not practitioners of the theatre. But without a solid sense of how these plays were first presented, it is impossible to discern in any comprehensive way what the author intended for his audience to receive from them.
What Professor Ewans has provided is a collection of all the extant work of Aischylos in a two-volume edition whose stated aim is 'to encourage readers to approach Greek tragedies not as literary texts but as scripts which were originally part of a performance including movement, dance, and song, designed for one single presentation at the Festival of Dionysos in Athens' (Ewans, Didaskalia 2.2, 'Ewans.html').
Of the modern versions of the Oresteia, Richmond Lattimore's is still the most famous -- a classic in its own right -- but it is now almost half a century old. Robert Fagles' free poetic translation has also been very popular, but accessibility and fine English are not the only virtues to be desired in a new edition of Greek tragedies. And then there is the notorious translation of the Oresteia by Tony Harrison, prepared for the Royal National Theatre's 1980 performance in London (which also appeared at Epidaurus in 1982), with its fused words like 'bedbond' and 'bloodbond' and its galloping (some mightsay galumphing) meter.
As for the other Aischylean tragedies--Suppliants, Persians, Seven Against Thebes, and Prometheus Bound--the picture is bleaker. This might in part be due to the fact that, with the exception of Prometheus Bound--a special case in many ways--they are rarely read by the general student and even more rarely produced. William Arrowsmith and Herbert Golder recently tried the well-intentioned if not always illuminating strategy of pairing a scholar with a poet in translating the 'other Aischylos.' But otherwise the standard American edition of these very interesting plays has been the companion volume to Lattimore's Oresteia in the University of Chicago's Complete Greek Tragedies, which first appeared in the mid-1950s.
New Greek editions of the Attic tragedies have come forth since then, and the study of the text has progressed considerably as well. It was ho kairos, the perfect time for a new edition to appear. (Everyman's two-volume edition of the extant plays of Sophokles is projected for 1998 and 1999). The present volumes of Aischylos appeared separately, and although they share many features deserve to be given separate treatment.
The Oresteia opens with a brief Note on the author and the editor, then follows with a very complete en face Chronology of Aischylos' life and times. Then comes a 33-page Introduction which first lays out Ewans's main aim: '...to help students and readers to imagine what the Oresteia was like for its original audience; and to supply theatre practitioners with an actable and accurate script, together with a conception of how that script originally worked in Aischylos' own performance space' (Oresteia xvii). The introduction is comprised of sections on 'Community and Festival at Athens', 'Performance Space and Performance Style', 'Form and Meaning in the Oresteia,' which contains Ewans' new interpretation of the drama, and a short essay on how this translation attempts to meet the monstrous challenge of rendering Aischylos into English. The front matter concludes with a technical Note on the Text and Translation and an initially promising list of the Actors and Their Roles.
The text itself is set in the eminently readable Sabon font, and the apparatus that can frequently clutter up a scholarly edition has been thoughtfully moved to the back matter and there rendered into an extensive Notes section (a detailed scene-by-scene commentary addressing both interpretation and staging) and two full Glossaries, one of proper names pertinent to the story and the other of Greek technical terms. This last is particularly helpful in explaining the interrelation between critical cultural concepts such as the agathos (the great or noble man), time (the honor or status of the agathos, always understood in terms of material possessions or privileges), oikia (the great household of the agathos), miasma (both literal dirt and psychic pollution), and that concept most central to the Oresteia, xenia (the sacred bond between guest and host that is only feebly conveyed by our term 'hospitality'). And of course the glossary of proper names makes it possible for the neophyte to at least begin to keep all these characters straight.
Also contained in the back matter are two bibliographies, a short list of suggested readings and an extensive catalog of other works cited in the Introduction and Notes. Completing this already feature-laden arrangement of parts is a Text Summary for each play and a short page of Acknowledgments.
Volume 2, Suppliants and Other Dramas, follows the same pattern, with some important exceptions. The Introduction is nearly half again as long, in part because each of the plays requires individual attention, whereas the three plays making up the Oresteia can be treated as parts of a whole. But Ewans also extends the discussion of tragedy introduced in the first volume with sections on 'The Origins of Tragedy', 'Tragedy and Society', and 'Performance', before giving each of the complete tragedies and the fragments a thorough exposition.
These sub-introductions, in addition to giving general and historical information on the plays in question, also contain subsections on such matters as 'Dramatic Technique' and 'Performance', as well as a full description of the now-lost companion plays of the original tetralogies presented at the first performance in fifth-century Athens.
Because the dramas in this second volume are all singletons, their arrangement in the text portion of the book is not as seamless as in Volume 1. Persians, Seven Against Thebes, and Suppliants appear first, in the generally-accepted chronological order. Then follow the Aischylean Fragments of tragedy and satyr-drama that have come down to us in quotations by other writers or in the Oxyrynchos papyrus from Egypt.
Next comes that most problematic text Prometheus Bound, a more or less complete play long attributed to Aischylos, but recently widely believed not to be his for many reasons-- among them, according to Ewans, its near-unstageability. Also included here are the extant fragmentary passages of Prometheus' Release, an apparently late play which may or may not be by the same author as the composer of Prometheus Bound. And for the sake of completeness, the text section concludes with an Appendix containing the so-called Spurious Ending to Seven Against Thebes, which Ewans proposes may have been an attempt to adapt the play for a later double-bill with Sophokles' Antigone.
In the back matter of this second volume, the Glossaries are significantly different from those in Oresteia, and notably longer (in particular the Proper Names), having to cover as they do much more mythological and conceptual territory. There is a list of sources for the Fragments, the items of which are laid out side by side with their counterparts in the Loeb and Radt editions as well as the original sources.
I have gone into such detail over the contents of this edition because it is the first collection of Greek drama I have encountered that both the general reader and the advanced student can read and study in depth without having to consult any other books (except, perhaps, a Greek version of the text and a lexicon, for the compleat Graecophile).
I like Ewans' decision to go all the way in transliterating words directly from the Greek original rather than using the old-style Latinized spellings-- or worse, havering between the two, as some recent translations have done. Thus we get Klytaimestra not Clytaemnestra and Dareios not Darius. Although this can be slightly disorienting at first, especially with a name like Oidipous (Oedipus), more and more scholars are adopting this convention as being less cumbersome and truer to the original work. One could quibble over this or that detail, such as the orthographical choice of indicating eta and omega by using a pointed circumflex rather than a macron, or the apparent indecision of using y for upsilon in 'stichomythia' but u in 'ekkuklema.'
In all respects that matter, however, this is a shapely and accessible rendering of difficult material. The translation of the text, being aimed at playability rather than literality on the one hand or literarity on the other, must foot it featly, so to say, and this Ewans does with style and occasional humor (which in modesty he ascribes to Aischylos).
There are some clunkers, to be sure, and no matter how vehemently Ewans asserts that this is the effect the author intended, they still clunk. But one understands: how, for example, does one render Agamemnon line 1312 when, just before Kassandra enters the house, she reels back from the stench of death, and the Choros says, 'ou Syrion aglaisma domasin legeis'? Lattimore takes the high road: 'This is no Syrian pride of frankincense you mean.' Harrison dodges the issue altogether: 'It's only the incense the priests always burn.' Ewans is not squeamish: 'You certainly aren't speaking of a Syrian incense in the house.' One applauds his earnestness--and his accuracy--but even if it is a sick irony perpertrated by the crafty playwright, the line rings like a cowbell, not a chime, and it's hard to imagine the actor who could ever find a way to say it right.
Happily, such moments are extremely rare in these volumes; both are highly readable, whether silently or aloud, which is not surprising, since '[t]he translations themselves were developed during the rehearsal process for productions in a half-size replica of the Greek theatre shape, so as to make them completely actable. ' (Didaskalia 2.2).
Whatever virtues or faults these translations may have as literature, the excellence they aim at is elsewhere, and it is by that light that they should be judged. And it is here that this edition shines: these plays are eminently actable, with every decision having been no doubt painstakingly worked out in the rough-and-tumble of rehearsal. Much of this process is chronicled in the Notes section, which often reads more like a director's prompt book than a scholar's apology. The main text, having been carefully prepared for in the front matter, is a model of stageworthiness: legible, uncluttered, yet flexible.
It is Ewans' contention, for example, that the choros in performance was hardly Schlegel's 'ideal spectator' but a vital and active group of people intensely involved in the action, most often singing and speaking as individuals, not in concert. Thus he assigns speeches not to some monolithic 'Chorus' but to '1 Elder' or '1 Fury' 'with the expectation that directors and actors will decide which individual choros member will speak each line -- just as Aischylos himself doubtless did' (Oresteia xxiv). This is an ingenious conception, one that demystifies much about Greek tragedy, and which instantly makes the production of any of these plays easy to visualize.
Ewans also enhances this effect by devising a system of stage directions and positions that are dictated by the shape of the Greek theatre, where the audience virtually surrounds the orchestra. Positions in the orchestra he indicates by using a combination of letters denoting its parts as viewed by an actor just coming out of the 'skene' -- the low building (most likely a wooden or even tent-like temporary structure in Aischlos' day) where the actors changed costumes. Left, Right, and Center stage remain L, R, and C, respectively, but upstage becomes B for back; downstage is F for front; and a new designation is invented, E for extreme, i.e., at the perimeter.
In a playing space of this shape, with audience on three of four sides in steeply rising tiers, weak and strong positions are considerably different from those on a proscenium-type stage. Thus ranging the Choros ELF to ERF (Extreme Left Front to Extreme Right Front) gets them out of the way of a scene playing at C in this type of theatre, where in proscenium staging this would blot the scene out entirely. Though based entirely on conjecture, all of Ewans' staging suggestions seem very sound, being the product of much trial and error with real actors in a playing area of the proper shape.
I do have one question about the rather different matter of casting. In the Notes to the Oresteia, Ewans proposes the following solution to the vexed matter of how to distribute the various roles that must be played by only the three actors available to any Greek tragedy: 'The first actor (presumably Aischylos himself) played Klytaimestra throughout; the second actor played the sequence of inadequate males who encounter her [i.e.,Watchman, Herald, Agamemnon] and the lover [Aigisthos] who is -- like Claudius in 'Hamlet -- a counterfeit, inferior replacement for the king he has just played; the third actor represented the one character [Kassandra] who, though young, female and a slave, is able to check Klytaimestra's course' (Oresteia 128). This sounds fine, and nicely embodies Ewans' formulation of Aischylos' unique telling of this homecoming story.
However, 'In 'Libation Bearers' the first actor again plays the central figure -- now Orestes; the rest of the distribution is dictated by the fact that the third actor must play Elektra, who has an extensive singing part [i.e., as extensive as Kassandra's in 'Agamemnon']. In 'Eumenides' the first actor agains plays the person on whom a tragic dilemma devolves -- Athena' (ibid.) He then adds the footnote, 'Like Klytaimestra in 'Agamamnon', Athena is required to chant anapaests but does not sing full lyrics.' Klytaimestra appears in all three plays -- why not have the same actor (Aischylos or not) play her throughout? This would provide the second and third actors some nice star turns while still permitting the first actor to be the star, at least of the first and last plays of the trilogy.
To put it briefly, this is an impressive as well as a timely and extremely useful version of Aischylos' works. Putting my students' money where my mouth is, I have already adopted the first volume for my Introduction to Theatre Studies course, and will certainly use both volumes for an advanced course, Ancient Greek Theatre, which I will offer next year.
If the proposed volumes of Sophokles (and, presumably, Euripides) live up to the accomplishment of this edition of Aischylos, the entire series will set an eminent standard for generations to come. I for one can't wait until they appear.
(Bill Bly's hypertext novel We Descend, a scholarly whodunnit concerning the recension of ancient texts, is forthcoming from Eastgate Systems.)