8. Reading Drama*

During an earlier phase in my career my great passion was Epicureanism, but over the last twenty years I have devoted most of my scholarly work to the field of Greek tragedy, often in collaboration with Pierre Judet de La Combe. Perhaps I should try to explain how this shift occurred. The path from the pre-Socratic thinkers to the tragedians is not a long one. They inhabited the same world, despite their different aims. In any case, I was familiar with the language and the worldview through which the discourses of the tragedies are formed. Playwrights were not philosophers, but they were well acquainted with books, especially the philosophers’ books which informed their own writing, as we can see throughout their work.
My knowledge of Epicurus opened up a pathway to reading the tragedians, with a particular focus on his cautious approach to language and his distrust of rhetoric; he dismissed the rhetoric of others and created a language to suit his own purposes. Epicurus analyzes the discourse of others, as well as his own, and constantly leads us back to the tool of the unspoken, where the discursive situation [1] shows first of all that it is a reply, and that the sentence has thus been remade. A given word is full of meaning because it has been uttered, dispatched, just as in the stichomythia—dramatic dialogue in alternating lines—of the tragedians, whom Epicurus cites frequently.
Among the pre-Socratic philosophers, philosophy formed and expressed itself without any technical constraints save those it took on of its own accord. Epicurus broke away from the legacy of the grand Athenian systems to discover a lost freedom that was almost archaic and highly utopian. The tragic playwrights felt a similar desire for intellectual sovereignty that was probably not recognized as such.
The translation of several plays, which I undertook with Mayotte Bollack, [2] became a different project once the plays were conceived as texts to be performed. Using ancient texts and without resorting to primitivism, the theater offers a rare opportunity to make contact with an audience, to show people what the subject matter entails and what it communicates. When the undertaking succeeds, thanks to the talent of a director who agrees to place his trust in the words, the re-created reality is trans-historical: the very timelessness of theatrical performance annihilates historical distance. Translation and the philology underpinning it prove their worth through the applause of an audience, and they take on the appearance of a manifesto of non-adaptation. Disorientation can be real, and can become part of our culture, when translation takes on the unknown aspects of a different world and endows them with the right to exist.
The transfer of a decoded meaning into another language makes this reception possible, because the language provides access to the author, who for once is reinstated, and, if we mingle with the crowd of Athenian spectators, we have access to others unlike ourselves as well (although not after the fashion of the grotesque scene in which Wilamowitz imagines himself watching Euripides’ last play through Sophocles’ eyes).
Convention and stylization are reduced to almost nothing. In the theater, speech is paramount. Translating Empedocles or the Republic involves a different set of concerns. In the case of drama, the transfer gives an immediacy to discourse that the tragic poet has already uttered secondarily, since he was making a language speak. The exceptional reliability of the translation of the tragedians stems from the use these authors themselves made of effective speech; it is thus directly linked to the act of realization in performance.
Fortunately, in the unique case of the Electra plays, we can observe the metamorphosis of speech in a continuity that is fortuitous, since the bulk of the theatrical production of the time has disappeared. Literary history, whose own history is worth exploring, has been concerned with creating an anteriority, and it has constructed somewhat gratuitously all the situations that could serve to defend a cultural tradition—a tradition that Euripides had, however, undermined; he had to cleave to the truth of the myth at all costs, lest he lose his status as a great poet. He had to be great, even if no one would go so far as to compare him with Sophocles. Neither his greatness, whether reflected or direct, intellectual or musical, nor the truth that he had seen fit to substitute for other more banal truths, was recognized; the experts had to turn him into someone else. And in spite of everything, he was not completely successful. Strauss’s Wagnerian Electra was of a very different caliber from his.
From Wilamowitz on, none of the experts discussed aesthetic preconditions (these went without saying), or the problems that literary hermeneutics might have raised. The blind violence of a heroic struggle was understood without recourse to aesthetic theory; in the case of Sophocles, delving into the complexities of the plot led to problems. Perhaps the latter’s Electra owed her absurd, theatrical voice to the scandalous portrayal of heroism. Sophocles saw clearly the reversals brought about by his rival Euripides; he was imbued with them—a careful reading makes this clear—but he never abandoned his own problematizing and inquisitive method. So there could have been something of Euripides in Sophocles’ Electra even before Euripides had written his own tragedy; and Euripides might have wanted to show what it took to really write like Euripides.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Lire le théâtre,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 309–311.
[ back ] 1. [TN; Epicurus is known to us principally from three letters addressed to three different correspondents, presumably in response to questions.]
[ back ] 2. [TN: At the time this essay was written, three of the Bollack translations had been staged: Sophocles’ Œdipe roi, by Alain Milianti (La Salamandre, Lille, and Théâtre de l’Odéon, Paris, 1985); Euripides’ Iphigénie à Aulis, by Ariane Mnouchkine (Théâtre du Soleil, 1990); and Andromaque, by Jacques Lassalle (Athens, Avignon Festival, 1994). Later productions have included Antigone (Théâtre de la Bastille), Hélène (Printemps de Bourges), and Les Bacchantes (Comédie Française).]