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486Comparative Drama Michael X. Zelenak. Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy. Artists and Issues in the Theatre Series 7. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Pp. 156. $23.95. This is a puzzling book. In his introduction, the author says he wants to help his audience recover "some of the immediacy which I believe the original audiences experienced" by dispelling "the reverential mist that continues to keep [Greek plays] distant from most readers and enthusiasts of drama and theatre" (1). Since Zelenak teaches drama, I assumed that his way of recovering immediacy would be to discuss ancient plays as scripts for performance, either in their original production context, or now, or both. In The Greek Sense ofTheatre (1996), a volume as compact as Zelenak's, J. Michael Walton shows what valuable insights into ancient drama can be offered by a scholar who combines training in classical studies with a theater practitioner's perspective. Zelenak's project is more ambitious, however. He wants to offer an overview of tragedy as an Athenian institution, including its connection with democracy and the relationship of particular plays to their historical context, particularly the Peloponnesian War, and he is especially interested in tragedy's representation of gender. Athens was a deeply patriarchal society with strong restrictions on women's political and social power. The tragedies were written , produced, performed, and possibly viewed exclusively by males. So why do so many tragedies feature strong, transgressive female characters and raise questions about the nature and role ofwomen? Studies such as J. J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin's Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context (1990) depict tragedy as a state-sponsored institution that allowed Athenians to debate important civic issues, including gender. Zelenak, however, apparently regards this view as part of the "reverential mist" that he aims to dispel. He takes a strongly polemical position, arguing that Athenian tragedy is a massive example of bad faith. It only pretends to raise questions about gender while actually reinforcing male dominance . It does so by offering a psychological escape valve that "provided the male citizen audience with the imaginative inoculation against any guilt they might have felt about their gender ideology" (67). After three introductory chapters on tragedy and democracy, the female as a category invented by males, and drama as a masculinist institution, he discusses individual plays, including Aeschylus's Suppliants and Oresteia, Sophocles' Antigone and Philoctetes, and Euripides' Alcestis, Medea, Helen, Orestes, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Bacchae. Zelenak's position resembles that of Sue-Ellen Case in the first chapter of her Feminism and Theatre (1990; not cited by Zelenak), but he goes much further. The complex question of tragedy's origin is solved: it began as "a male-bonding ritual" (2). A monolithic collaboration between authors, pro- Reviews487 ducers, and audience, tragedy "is not ideologically subversive" and "does not celebrate chaos but order" (14). This reductive view leads him to disregard complexities and contradictions both within individual scripts and between different plays. Aeschylus's Suppliants is "not about women's rights or feminism . . . not addressed to women . .. not concerned with understandingwomen but defining and controlling die female" (56). Antigone's "life is meaningless, a total waste. She dies a zero, a nothing" (80). He is especially fond of binary oppositions: for example, all female characters in Athenian tragedy fit into one of two categories—the "passive, suffering 'female' victim" and the "active, destructive, 'male' woman." As a result Antigone is grouped with Clytemnestra and Medea in the second category (22). Male protagonists, however, are not criticized: Agamemnon "does not emerge as evil" (61); "Creon's values were not wrong ... just too extreme" (78). Fortunately, in his discussions ofPhiloctetes and Euripides, Zelenak moves beyond his simplistic categories. Admetus in Alcestis is "an embarrassingly honest representative of the male egocentrism of his audience" (96), Jason in Medea is "not only discredited but also ridiculed," while Medea "gives voice to the suffering and rage ofall the nameless and faceless oppressed ofAthens" as "a new dramatic sign ofthe female" (107-08). Zelenak sees Euripides in his last plays confronting "the deepest anxieties and nightmares of the Athenian experience" and re-encoding and empowering the female "with almost...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 486-489
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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