What are the lost Greek tragedies?

Laura Swift
August 23, 2017

The original impetus of Fragments was that we wanted to explore the idea of rediscovering lost plays. But why are they lost, and why should we be interested in finding them?

Thirty-two Greek tragedies have survived into the modern period. In practice,only a handful of these are performed regularly nowadays – many of you have probably seen a production of Medea, Antigone, or Bacchae, but how many people reading this have seen Women of Trachis, Children of Heracles, or Iphigenia among the Taurians? But these thirty-two plays represent a tiny fraction of the number of plays that were originally put on in the festivals of ancient Athens. For example, seven of Sophocles’ plays survive, out of a total of around 120: a survival rate of only just over 5%.The figures are similar for Aeschylus (though slightly better for Euripides), and we have nothing at all for the many other playwrights who competed against these three.

It’s often assumed that this doesn’t really matter as what we have is the best, but it’s not something we can be sure about. The reasons that led to certain plays surviving are unclear, and tastes change over time. For example, the three most popular classical plays in the Byzantine period were Euripides’ Orestes,Phoenician Women, and Hecuba, none of which is particularly popular today. Ancient texts survived by being copied and recopied over a period of hundreds of years, firstly by ancient scribes onto papyrus rolls, and later in medieval manuscripts, and it only took a small chance or accident to wipe out an entire tradition. All of Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ plays survive because they were selected as particularly fine or typical examples, though for Euripides we also have a more random selection which seem to have survived largely by chance, and the survival of these plays reminds us how precarious the entire process was.

Fragments from a papyrus of Plato found at Oxyrhynchus

But what about the plays that didn’t survive? Calling them ‘lost’ is slightly misleading, since in many cases, fragments of them survive. These fragments may consist of a single word (or even just a few letters), or they may be a run of several lines, or occasionally a good chunk of a speech or piece of dialogue.Some survive on tattered pieces of papyri, and are still being discovered today; others were quoted by ancient authors, often to illustrate a point they are trying to make. Even though most of the fragments are no more than a few lines long, in total they fill 6 large hardback scholarly volumes. They represent a vast and largely untapped resource.
But why did we want to work with fragments? The project partly started from the curiosity of finding great stories that had been lost, but we realised early in the process that a large part of what attracted us to them was the aesthetics of fragmentation itself. A fragmentary tragedy is a pile of broken lines, jumbled dialog and startling images that are alternately funny, beautiful and confusing. With so little context, they can be assembled in a multitude of ways to expose wildly different motivations and interpretations of what happened. As soon as you start to work with them, you can’t stop yourself from trying to extrapolate, fill in the gaps, and jump to conclusions about what has happened before and what must come in between. And as soon as you do that, you quickly lose track of what is certain and what has come out of your own assumptions.

We decided straightaway that we wanted to capture this sense of a desire to fill in stories. The plots of the Greek plays are often roughly known from ancient plot summaries, but we didn’t want to do something purely reconstructive,and we certainly didn’t want to write our own scenes with faux-Euripidean dialogue: what would be the point of that, when you could just wait for the next production of a real Euripides play? This led us onto the project’s biggest challenges: how can you construct a meaningful and gripping story out of fragments? And what it is that draws us to fill in the gaps? Exploring the second of these took us into the world of neuroscience, which had a huge impact on the way we approached fragmentation.

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