Dying Acts: Death in Ancient Greek and Modern Irish Tragic Drama
By Fiona Macintosh.
Cork: Cork University Press, 1994.
pp. xx + 212.
ISBN: 1-85918-015-9.

Reviewed by Richard Jones
1408 East 19th St.,
Lawrence, KS 66046,
Telephone: 913-865-2989

It takes only until the second sentence of the Acknowledgments for Fiona Macintosh to establish a good deal of credibility: the examiners for the doctoral dissertation from which this book grows were two of the foremost authorities on ancient Greek theatre (Patricia Easterling and Oliver Taplin) and the author of an important book on John Millington Synge (Nicholas Grene). The dust-jacket also includes a testimonial from Katherine Worth, balancing the equation by adding a second major scholar in the field of Irish drama. If these people find value Macintosh's work, there's probably a good reason--and indeed I believe there is.

Macintosh is primarily a classicist, more comfortable in teasing out shades of meaning from Greek originals than in discussing either modern drama or staging techniques. The inclusion of a separate index of Passages Cited from Greek Authors (by play and line number), in addition to listings in the standard index. This is not to say that the discussions of modern Irish plays are unsophisticated or that the analysis of Greek texts is opaque to all but card-carrying classical philologists. Indeed, quite the opposite: one of the principal strengths of this impressive volume is the fact that Macintosh bridges the gap between the ancient and the modern, neither excluding specialists in the one from discussions of the other nor 'dumbing down' her critiques in order that they might be more readily followed. The flip-side of this is that she does also seem to presume that her readers are well-versed in both Greek and Irish dramatic literature: even relatively non-canonical plays from both periods are cited almost without introduction.

In all, some twenty-eight Greek tragedies are specifically cited, whereas only twenty or so Irish plays (from a much wider pool) are discussed. Macintosh passes over Lady Gregory's plays about Irish legend to discuss Synge's The Shadow of the Glen at some length, despite its fundamentally comic tone. Similarly, the recent proliferation of Irish plays based directly on Greek originals is reduced to a single paragraph on page xviii of the preface. The comparison, then, is not really between Greek and Irish tragedy, but between Greek tragedy and selected plays by William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, and Sean O'Casey-- admittedly the canonical figures in Irish drama in the first half of this century. The omission of Lady Gregory's plays, of AE's (George Russell's) Deirdre (especially since both Yeats' and Synge's versions are explored in some detail), or of more recent playwrights (Brian Friel, Thomas Murphy, et al.) results, as Macintosh herself says on pp. xix-xx of the Preface, from the problem of selection and her attempt to narrow her field to manageable size.

The book contains an introduction and six chapters, each of which deal in one way or another with both Greek and Irish materials: sometimes by swirling the two cultures together, more often by creating a sort of critical lattice-work, using one set of paradigms as a means of reading another. Not surprisingly, Macintosh strays not infrequently from a strictly comparative model and uses Greek tragedy as a lens through which to view Irish drama.

The introduction, titled 'The Irish Literary Revival and the Classical Tradition', is a well-documented study of materials from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, chronicling the extent to which the classical tradition played a role as both positive and, importantly, negative exemplar in the development of the literary trends of the Irish Renaissance. That is, Macintosh shows both the appeal of classical mythology as a means of expressing peculiarly Irish concerns and the concern expressed by many, Yeats included, that concentration on classical themes would distract from the project of resurrecting and re-encoding Ireland's own legendary history. This latter point, under-explored by scholars, makes for one of the more thought-provoking short discussions in the book.

The first two chapters after the introduction, 'Attitudes to Death: Ancient and Modern' and 'Representing Death', further refine the scope of the book's focus. Macintosh concerns herself not with the entire concept of death in a culture, but rather with the outward manifestations of that concern. That is, philosophical discussions of death and afterlife are significant in terms of this study only insofar as they are tied to formal or informal rituals associated with the act of dying. In this regard, Macintosh finds particular affinities between ancient Greek and modern Irish culture, especially in the notion of death impinging on community rather than simply personal prerogatives. She also draws interesting parallels in discussing the translation of legendary epic into tragedy in the two cultures: especially interesting is the linking of Sophocles and Yeats in terms of the eloquence of their dying heroes (and as contrasted with those of Euripides and O'Casey).

The remaining four chapters, 'Dying into Death', 'Last Words: The Big Speech Convention', 'Reported Deaths', and 'Responses to Death' total roughly two-thirds of the book's length, and comprise the heart of Macintosh's analysis. The following comments are intended to give only the flavor of the arguments rather than to summarize them.

Probably the most sustained comparison in the book is between Agamemnon and O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, centering on the nature of death as process rather than as singular moment, and on the extension of this process past the individual (Agamemnon and Johnny Boyle) to the entire family: both characters are 'denied access to the process of living', ultimately achieving 'a supra-human status as spectres in the land of the living' (90).

The 'big speeches' by the dying heroes of Greek tragedy (as opposed to epic), Macintosh notes, are 'rarely prophetic or consolatory', the predictions at least occasionally 'blatantly false' (93). The 'big speech' is highlighted, in fact, largely by its formal qualities rather than its content. Macintosh argues that the title character in Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows is the most direct Irish parallel, although Cuchulain in Yeats's The Death of Cuchulain and At the Hawk's Well also receives some attention. The tradition is more obvious in the breach than in the observance in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars: I had hoped for rather more discussion of a different kind of 'big speech', that of 'the Man' (clearly Patrick Pearse) in Act II, but Macintosh's description of the 'surrogate 'big speech'' (125) allowed to mourners is as insightful as it is fascinating.

The chapter on reported deaths re-emphasizes the concept of death as process, citing a host of Greek examples and using Yeats's Deirdre and Synge's Riders to the Sea as the principal Irish examples. For me, this chapter was the least effective of the book, not because Macintosh's conclusions are unreasonable, but rather because the comparisons are more readily apparent: Macintosh is more successful here in demonstrating the weaknesses of other theories than in presenting a coherent strategy of her own.

Macintosh varies her strategy slightly in her concluding chapter, still employing a host of Greek examples (in this case of stylized lamentations by survivors), but here treating Irish plays in much the same manner, rather than concentrating attention on one or two exemplars. For this reason, the chapter is simultaneously one of the most sophisticated in the book and probably the hardest to encapsulate in a few words. Suffice it to say that Macintosh is demonstrably in her element, moving, as George Huxley writes in his Foreword, 'sure-footedly within and between the literatures of Greece and Ireland' (xiv).

This is a fine book, broadly and meticulously researched, carefully considered, and written with considerable respect for the reader. Macintosh's work will, one trusts, inspire other scholars of the classical tradition (and of modern drama) to follow some of the paths she has laid out: not only in terms of Irish drama, but (especially) of the dramas of other countries which might share certain affinities with Ireland: one thinks of Spain and Eastern Europe, for example. Contemporary criticism often stresses inter-disciplinarity and cross-cultural perspectives rather for their own sakes: here we have a book that employs such strategies to illuminate one aspect of some of the greatest dramatic literature in the history of the world. Humanists of all description can rejoice in that.

Richard Jones
University of Kansas

( Richard Jones is a PhD candidate in Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas.)