Here we have a striking instance of the weakness of the star-rating system—a system that I ordinarily have no problems with. For I believe it is entirely possible and reasonable to respond to the question “How much did you enjoy this book” with a star rating. But with this book, more than any other so far, I felt flummoxed.
Did I enjoy reading the book? Yes I did. But that enjoyment was not of a simple or continuous kind—not that I demand simple, continuous enjoyment from things, least of all from books. Reading this book took effort of more than one type. For one thing, as is my policy with both poetry and drama, I read all the plays out loud, even though only the works of Aeschylus and Aristophanes are translated as verse, while those of Sophocles and Euripides are in prose. And gradually, as I overcame my inhibitions (I did my reading at home!) and started to work harder at acting the parts, I came to appreciate the plays much more. By the time I was reading Aristophanes, I was experiencing strong feelings of delight at the material; comedy hasn’t changed in 2,000 years—who knew? No doubt he was a lot funnier to the people of his own culture, whose people and institutions he was satirizing, but we get the gist of it and easily recognize the social problems and human failings he holds up to ridicule.
As I try to parse the components of my enjoyment, here’s what I’m coming up with:
First, for me, was the fact that this was volume 5 of the Britannica Great Books series and therefore part of my program of reading the whole set, which I own. This in turn is part of my effort to become liberally educated, and so I feel a sense of accomplishment and enrichment with every page I read. Without this program I would never have picked up this book, and now I’m so glad that I did. Occasionally in my other readings people allude to the works of the Greek dramatists, and now I’ve read them—all of them, in their entirety, beginning to end. I no longer have vague feelings of awe and mystery about these plays, and no longer will feel at a disadvantage to those who have read them and can quote them. I’ve read them too—and because I’ve got the book, I can quote them. And there is a great deal in there that is worth quoting.
Second, the dramas themselves are, in the main, very good. It’s not for nothing that these works have been preserved for thousands of years. As a writer of drama myself, I observed closely what stories these authors chose to tell and how they developed their conflicts. The tragedy writers (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides) were all excellent at finding the root conflict in situations and depicting this in dialogue (relatively little staged action is mentioned in the surviving texts). (Aristophanes as a comedian is a special case, but he too found provocative comic ideas and developed them cleverly.)
Third, I got to read some very famous plays, scenes, and lines—all in context. One such is Sophocles’ Antigone, in which occurs, among other things, this famous line: “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man. . . .” Now I’ve read that line in the context of its scene, its play, as well as in the body of its author’s work and as part of Greek drama as a whole. Wow!
Fourth, I came to grips with great, important ideas. This volume is part of the Britannica series because these playwrights contributed to what the Britannica editors call the Great Conversation: the dialogue of ideas that has run through the major literary works of Western civilization. For example, in the very first play in the book, the Suppliant Maidens of Aeschylus, the action features a group of Egyptian women of Greek descent arriving at the shore of Argos, fleeing the Egyptian men who want to marry them. They appeal to their Greek kinsmen to protect them, even if it means war with the Egyptians. In this situation Aeschylus creates difficult conflicts of duty and responsibility. And I realized with some awe while reading it that he is probably the first author in the Western tradition to raise seriously and without prejudice the issue of women’s rights. And he does all this in 14 pages—and that’s just one play. Many of these plays, the majority of them, deal with ideas that are still among the deepest and most difficult that we face as human beings. To enjoy these plays fully, you need to be willing, and preferably eager, to think about serious things.
Fifth, I took positive pleasure in the verse translations of Aeschylus and especially of Aristophanes. I’m not an experienced reader of poetry, but I felt I was getting a great dose of worthwhile verse here. I recognize that poetry cannot be translated, only reinvented, and I don’t know the standing of these translators (G. M. Cookson for Aeschylus and Benjamin Bickley Rogers for Aristophanes) in the world of ancient Greek drama, but this reader feels that they did a great job at a task that must have been extraordinarily difficult. When humorous verse works, it really works, and there were many passages in Aristophanes where I thought that, against all odds, the translator came up with the goods.
And sixth, all of the plays were collected together in one volume, with no translators’ introductions or explanatory notes beyond a 1-page biography for each playwright. I’ve long been used to reading such introductions and notes for important literary works, feeling that to be a kind of studently duty. But the editors of the Great Books believe strongly in exposing the reader as directly as possible to the words and thoughts of these writers, encouraging you to go commando with these greatest and most challenging works of literature. I felt timid at first with no Virgil to hold my hand as I entered the strange world of ancient Greek drama, and in fact tried to rely for a little while on a separate guidebook that gave brief synopses of the plays, explaining the situations leading up to their openings, and so on. But soon I dropped that as I realized that the plays really are complete in themselves, and that there is a distinct and enriching pleasure in just diving in to the text—kind of like diving into the open sea without any lifeguard or flotation device. If you can swim you can dive into the sea; and if you can read you can dive into these plays.
In sum: three stars for the difficulties and longueurs that I experienced in reading these plays; four stars for my general feeling of enjoyment and appreciation as I read; and five stars for my sense of accomplishment and my conviction that my afternoon reading period over these past months has probably never been better spent.