- Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy by Edith Hall
This marvelous book is—as Maria Warner aptly observed—“a biography of a myth in motion” (“After Aulis,” TLS September 6, 2013, 11). And motion is a key descriptor here, for the book is in fact a tremendously exciting and deeply learned literary travelogue, a world cruise if you will, with Edith Hall wearing two hats, the first as the ship’s intrepid captain and the second as its charming and deeply humane cicerone. Guided by Hall, the reader journeys through centuries of time and across land and sea, tracing Iphigenia’s path through our cultural history up to the present day. And with eighty-seven photographs, two maps serving as endpapers, another on page 49, a timeline, and pages of documentation, the reader has no need for a camera.
In thirteen chapters the reader is made aware of a wide array of evidence drawn from literary sources and from material remains (coins, vase paintings, statues, funeral and votive reliefs, sarcophagi, metal work, and murals) as well as from modern costume and theater design, both dramatic and operatic, and from prints, paintings, and playbills of the last few centuries. This aggregation of evidence is in itself extremely valuable. For oddly enough, despite [End Page 138] the popularity of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Tauris, which premiered in 405 B.C. not long after the playwright’s death, the play has—as the book’s jacket copy says—“been curiously under investigated in both mainstream cultural studies and more specialized scholarship.” With Hall’s extensive study of the play, this is no longer true.
The lively and learned narrative piques the imagination and whets the reader’s appetite for more. And because Iphigenia has so thoroughly penetrated our psyches (see, for example, Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial [New Haven 2011], an account of the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova of Queens, N.Y., who was accused of killing her husband in a battle over their daughter), it is not hard to find ideas and materials to follow up with one’s own studies. The anonymous “H.W.N.” whose essay, “A Drama of Woman,” in The Nation (London, March 23, 1912), cited by Hall (243, 317), is surely Henry Woode Nevinson (1856–1941), British activist, suffragist and war correspondent whose “middles” appeared from 1907 to 1923 in The Nation. One wonders if Iphigenia (as a woman held in servitude by another race) played a part in other aspects of his work such as his study of the slave trade in Angola (1904–1905).
The reader also wonders what moved the American classicist and former slave, William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926), to write a pair of essays, “One Heroine—Three Poets: Part I—Iphigenia in Aulis,” and “One Heroine—Three Poets: Part II—Iphigenia in Tauris” (Education 1898, 1899), comparing Iphigenia’s portrayal in the plays of Euripides, Racine, and Goethe. Perhaps Iphigenia was of special interest to Scarborough, for his autobiography mentions the showing of an early film of The Oresteia in Cambridge during the Classical Association Meeting of 1920, which he attended.
Too late, perhaps, for inclusion and analysis by Hall, is the discovery by the British sculptor Jon Edgar of a Roman capital base or column top, known as the “Fittleworth Iphigenia,” in a small West Sussex village, where it was being used as a garden planter. Dating to the first or second century a.d., the carved cylinder shows Thoas, Orestes, Iphigenia, Artemis, Pylades, a Fury and some guards, and is, according to Edgar (E. Black et al., “A New Sculpture of Iphigenia in Tauris,” Britannia 43  243–49), “the only known work from the Roman Province [of Britain]” that refers “to a Greek play.”
Hall’s book has been very carefully assembled and edited. But if a paperback...