by Graham Ley
University of Exeter Press (2015) 245pp £15 (ISBN 9780859898935)
The book is the fruit of several years’ theoretical and practical teaching of Greek drama and dramaturgy by L., who is a respected and widely-travelled exponent of the mechanics of theatre (his Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theatre is probably his best-known work). Refreshingly, the book has an associated website (www.actinggreektragedy.com) which features short film of scenes from several tragedies, directly linked to the discussions in the book.
L.’s main idea is the division of interplay between characters and chorus into what he calls ‘transactions’ (this term is explained in detail in a solid introduction. Each character has an aim, shall we say, and this informs his/her speech or his/her part of any dialogue; these, sometimes conflicting, aims can be tracked throughout a scene). I was impressed with the many insights this approach produces, and L. weaves it into his very detailed commentary, e.g. pp. 95-98, on the use of monologue technique to explain the progress of a dialogue in Euripides’ Electra. ‘What emerges in this dialogue is that it moves on in phases, rather as a monologue will do, and our understanding of these phases will be enhanced by an awareness of the larger and wider context of the dialogue and the scene.’
L.’s approach to the various scenes is methodical and informative. It builds gradually from monologues to dialogues, three-handers and scenes involving a specific prop (the definition of this is quite wide, as it includes costume). There is much thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary on the chosen scenes, many of which are acted out on the website. The dialogue between Hermione and Andromache (from Euripides’ Andromache) is particularly effective; the altercation between the women, one gloating, but vulnerable, one in mortal danger, is timeless (I have heard something similar in a recent TV drama). This is where the book will be invaluable to anyone considering staging a Greek tragedy, especially to those who plan to do this for the first time.
Although blessed with indexes, the book lacks a bibliography, and one is left with the unsettling thought that L. does not feel the need to refer to such important predecessors as Taplin’s Greek Tragedy in Action. Strange, when books on Greek tragic dramaturgy are so thin on the ground.
Terry Walsh—Ratcliffe College