restricted access Euripides' Escape-Tragedies: A Study of Helen, Andromeda, and Iphigenia among the Taurians (review)
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Reviewed by
Matthew Wright. Euripides' Escape-Tragedies: A Study of Helen, Andromeda, and Iphigenia among the Taurians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. viii + 433 pp. Cloth, $125.

Due to their putatively lighter tone, exotic foreign settings, and concluding "resolutions" of past misfortunes, Euripides' Helen, fragmentary Andromeda, and Iphigenia Among the Taurians (henceforth IT) have often been described as proto-romances or tragi-comedies. Wright's study follows recent trends in defining ancient Greek dramatic genres above all through their performance context; he argues that the plays belong firmly in the tragic camp and develop serious philosophical and religious themes that deliberately leave their audience in a state of aporia. The plots of these plays share an escape from disaster/remote and threatening environments. Although we cannot firmly date IT, Wright tries to make the case that these apparently unique shared elements suggest that the plays were performed as a coherent trilogy in 412 B.C.E. The book does not [End Page 465] attempt to address in detail many aspects of these (relatively neglected) plays that have been extensively discussed by other critics. Instead Wright focuses on the plays' generic status, their possible mythical innovations, their remote settings, and their philosophy and theology.

Although there are many unusual mythical elements in these plays, Wright makes a detailed case that Euripides most probably recombined elements previously known in the tradition to a novel effect, rather than inventing them. He casts considerable doubt on Stesichorus' palinode and Herodotus as origins for Euripides' innocent Egyptian Helen, however. Wright challenges previous assumptions by arguing that Euripides does not develop the plays' barbarian settings. Indeed, there is little ethnic or geographical detail beyond a few initial sketchy references, and the plays blur the differences between Greeks and barbarian "others." The Egyptians Proteus, Theoclymenus, and Theonoe are, genealogically speaking, Greek (183). After a lengthy discussion of the problems of defining philosophical elements in tragedy, Wright links the plays' extensive treatment of the unreliable nature of human language and knowledge of reality to discussions of comparable themes in the fragments of the Sophists, especially Gorgias and Democritus. Finally, Wright argues that the plays, by stressing the impossibility of understanding the divine forces that govern the universe, represent an unusually bleak theological picture. The dei ex machina that conclude Helen and IT belatedly outline mysterious divine patterns governing the confusing dramatic events, but humans can only repeatedly misinterpret their experience and name the divine forces governing their lives, erroneously in Wright's view, as tuche\.

These issues, above all the themes of illusion and reality and the nature of divinity in the plays, have in fact been discussed before, but Wright attempts a fuller (with the exception of his attenuated discussion of ritual) and methodologically tighter discussion. This represents both the book's strength and weakness. Without its exhaustive review of dated and (putatively) weakly argued earlier critical views, the book could, and in my view ideally should, have made its positive case more forcefully in half the length. At the same time, by failing to engage with important earlier treatments of central topics, Wright leaves the reader with the impression that scholarly work on these issues is far less nuanced than it has in fact been. To give a few examples that he neglects altogether, his discussion of Aristophanes' parody of Euripides in Thesmophoriazusae (120, n. 196; see also 50–51) does not take advantage of Zeitlin's seminal article on the topic ("Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae," published most recently in her Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature [Chicago, 1996], 375–416); he does not make use of John H. Finley's extensive study of Euripides, Thucydides, and the sophists (Three Essays on Thucydides, [Cambridge, Mass., 1967]); other important methodologically sophisticated work on philosophy and tragedy, such as that of Mary Whitlock Blundell (Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics [Cambridge, 1989]) or Christopher Gill (Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue [Oxford, 1996]), does not even appear in the notes. [End Page 466]

Moreover, Wright engages in the very kind of special pleading that he criticizes...