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276 Comparative Drama Thomas G. Rosenmeyer. T he A r t o f A esch ylu s. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1982. Pp. xiii + 393. $34.95, hard cover; $12.95, paper. The tragedies of Aeschylus are remote from us. We have learned to read them as dramas of the rise of the city-state and of democratic values; there are studies that describe the intricate tracery of Aeschylus’ images; we can even recognize Aeschylus as a man of the theater, both as an innovator and as a craftsman who staged episodes with careful attention to entrances, gestures, dramatic timing. And yet, the very scope and sublimity of his themes, die massive grandeur of his agents, and the formal gravity of his choruses and dialogue seem nearer pageant than drama. The slow crescendo of catastrophe in the Persians, the succession of exchanges, almost didactic, with the shackled Prometheus, and the forensic display in the E u m en ides have little of the nimble probing of character and complex patterns of action that Euripides and Sophocles excelled in. By comparison with these younger playwrights, Aeschylus has an archaic air, like that which attaches, perhaps, to the renaissance morality plays. Professor Thomas Rosenmeyer, in his subtle, provocative, often brilliant book, addresses squarely the special strangeness of Aeschy­ lus’ art. He does not explain away the differences, or submerge them in stirring accounts of the meanings of the plays. Indeed, there are no chapters here on individual tragedies or on the trilogy of the O resteia, on what each drama “is about” (I take the phrase in quotation marks, merely for the sake of illustrating a different procedure, from Brooks Otis’ posthumous book, C osm os a n d T ragedy: A n E ssay on th e M eaning o f A esch ylu s [1981] p. 88, where the O resteia is said to be “about Zeus and dik e” ) . The grounds of Rosenmeyer’s interpretation of Aeschylus are different—and Rosenmeyer’s book, despite certain modest disclaimers (“my preferences and obligations put me closer to the footing of the historian,” p. 2), is very much an interpretation, both sophisticated and coherent, of the Aeschylean corpus. Rosenmeyer looks to the conditions of dramatic expression in Aeschylus, the nature of his verse, the quality of character, the nature of speech (there is an excellent section, for example, on catalogues and inventories, pp. 109-17), or of dramatic exchange, what Rosenmeyer calls “communication”; we may suggest the implications of this last category by citing, albeit stripped of context and argument, a short passage: Dramatic speech on the Aeschylean stage is often conducted by disembodied voices, borrowing temporary mouths through which to speak. One feature that helps to drive home this aspect of Aeschylean speech is the naturalness of self-praise. In The White Devil (5.1.100f.), Francisco says: “I did never wash my mouth with mine own praise for fear of getting a stinking breath.” In Aeschylus no such Christian humility prevents people from talking about themselves as if they were talking about somebody else. Speech in an Aeschylean tragedy originates from a source which lies beyond the center of gravity of an individual soul. It is not the segmental creation of a char­ acter, and thus needs no censoring by the character’s sense of what is fitting. (P. 213) In Rosenmeyer’s reading, the meaning of Aeschylean drama and its dis­ tance are implicated in its very mode of being. Rosenmeyer begins his study with three chapters of what he calls Reviews 277 “hard data,” beginning with matters of text and transmission, where the reader will gain some insight into the kinds of operations textual critics perform, and the degree to which our texts depend upon their efforts and limitations. The second chapter discusses meters and music (Rosenmeyer challenges the conventional idea that song is associated with passion, speech with reason, p. 35), the choral odes and episodes that constitute the formal structure of a tragedy, and the variety with which the parts of our surviving plays are arranged. Rosenmeyer apologizes more than once for the inevitable dryness of such topics (e.g., p. 44), but there...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 276-280
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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