Euripides: Phoenissae, ed. with intro. and comm. by Donald J. Mastronarde.
Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 29.
Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0 521 41071 1
Cloth: pp. viii + 673. UK 55 (US$90).

reviewed by Niall W. Slater
Clare Hall, Cambridge

The Phoenissae is, after many years of neglect, experiencing a considerable revival in interest. Striking enough in its original performance to have merited parodies not only by Aristophanes but also Strattis, and studied as a central school text in the Byzantine curriculum, it appealed much less to the more rigidly Aristotelian tastes of the last century. Its curious, sometimes bizarre variations on what we think to have been the standard Theban myth, its sprawling structure and superabundance of incident, its unusual chorus, and above all the growing suspicion that its text was heavily interpolated combined to push it from center stage in Euripidean studies. Now the tide has shifted, and its complex relations with Sophoclean and especially Aeschylean intertexts seem profoundly challenging rather than just muddled and eccentric.

Mastronarde's superb and richly detailed commentary will be an indispensable tool for the quickening discussion of this play. It is the fruit of fifteen years' work preceded by both his Teubner text and his joint book with J. M. Bremer on the textual tradition of the play. In general, Mastronarde is less inclined to delete passages of the text as interpolation than is James Diggle in the new third volume of the OCT of Euripides and more willing to do so than Elizabeth Craik in her Aris & Phillips edition. Ascribing Euripidean authorship to text which Diggle deletes, however, often entails emendation. Mastronarde is also willing to tolerate (and indeed eloquently defends, pp. 45-49 of the introduction) more rarities of usage and hapax legomena than some other textual critics are. Detailed discussion of the constitution of his text is beyond my capabilities and has already received close attention: while there are some changes subsequent to the Teubner text, Diggle's review of that text in CR 40 (1990) 6-11, now reprinted in Diggle's Euripidea: Collected Essays (Oxford l994) is certainly the place to start.

The introduction is divided into seven sections. The first, simply entitled 'The Play,' defends the Phoenissae as an example of 'open form' and 'complex but well-organized' structure, focussed on themes of salvation and conflicting loyalties. As one would expect from his well-known article on the use of the crane and the theologeion, Mastronarde is also keenly alert to the performative dimension and its role in structuring the play. A more detailed consideration of staging, movement, and props follows his clear discussion of the vexed problem of the play's date and its possible trilogy. Two further sections offer extensive treatment of the play's relation to earlier treatments of Theban myth, both epic and dramatic, and the introduction concludes with a section on the constitution of the text.

The remaining section of the introduction deals with the question of interpolation, offering an excellent overview of two and a half centuries' debate about this play. It has always been acknowledged that interpolation can originate both within the literary transmission of a text (marginal glosses or parallel passages creeping in) and within the performance tradition (from actors' own embellishments of the text or borrowings from other performance vehicles). In D. L. Page's Actors' Interpolations and much work before him, the emphasis was on histrionic interpolation, based on the belief that most play texts survived because they were part of the performance tradition and copies for readers often the product of actors' dictation to scribes. Mastronarde vigorously questions this assumption, arguing for a substantial circulation of written play texts independent of the actors. N. J. Lowe, 'Aristophanes' Books' Annals of Scholarship 10 (1993) 63-83 has also recently maintained that Aristophanes possessed a substantial library of Euripidean scripts (as well as other works), which implies a substantial book trade in the late fifth centry. Mastronarde claims in particular that the number of texts reaching Alexandria must imply literary transmission, for the actors' texts 'would have been confined to the plays that were in the active repertory' (p. 40).

Why this should be a small number is not clear to me; one might argue that, before the establishment of the great Hellenistic guilds of the Artists of Dionysus, there might have been more companies keeping more plays alive in performance. It is sometimes implied (though not by Mastronarde here) that the notion of actors dictating is an anachronistic retrojection of Elizabethan practice (i.e., the explanation of some of the 'bad quartos' of Shakespeare as pirated editions based on one actor's recollections). As Rosalind Thomas has pointed out, however, the story of Lycurgus's creation of the state archive of authorized texts at the end of the fourth century relies on just such a dictation procedure: the clerk is to read out the authorized text, and prospective performers must check their own against it by listening, not by reading the state copies and transcribing directly from them.

Mastronarde's detailed introductory discussion and careful treatment of individual passages (see for example his notes on 753-5 as a possible alternative scene ending for a performance omitting some of the text) offer an ample basis for further work on the question of actors' interpolations in particular. To the traditional textual critic interpolation is a disease to be excised, but for the historian of theatre practice it may be precious evidence for the performance and reception of the play in later periods. Colley Cibber's Lear with a happy ending (wherein Cordelia recovers!) may appall us today, but it tells us some extremely interesting and valuable things about the audience of his day. A clear sense of what parts of the much-disputed ending of the Phoenissae have been contributed by actors would greatly enrich our understanding of Hellenistic theatre and its audiences. As Mastronarde notes (p. 47), if the whole of the exodos of the Phoenissae is in fact by a later hand than Euripides', it nonetheless displays an acute ear, for it imitates late Euripidean metrical style quite accurately.

The commentary as a whole offers extensive introductions to each section of the play, detailed metrical notes, and generous treatment of individual passages (with some material even added in footnotes). An appendix on 'The Poetic Topography of Thebes' with map and an extensive bibliography round out the volume. The wealth of detail given on many passages would likely overwhelm undergraduate Greek students, but given the necessary price of volumes in this series, it is extremely unlikely to be used in any such course. This seems quite a pity, for the wealth of incident in this play might make it an interesting choice for students who have read Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannos already in English---perhaps in more than one course. One wonders if an abbreviated version, on the model of the Jebb shorter Sophocles commentaries or Dover's abbreviated Clouds, might not find a market. The full commentary deserves a place in any serious university library, for it will be the standard for years to come.

Niall Slater
Clare Hall, Cambridge

(Niall Slater is enjoying a productive time as a Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge.)