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Reviewed by:
  • The Gorgon’s Severed Head: Studies of Alcestis, Electra and Phoenissae
  • Justina Gregory
C. A. E. Luschnig. The Gorgon’s Severed Head: Studies of Alcestis, Electra and Phoenissae Leiden, New York, and Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1995. xvi 1 255 pp. Cloth; Gld. 121, $78 (US). (Mnemosyne Supplement 153)

Luschnig offers three self-contained essays, framed by an introduction and an epilogue. She derives her title from the circumstance that each of the plays chosen for study contains a reference (in the case of Electra, two references) to the Gorgon’s head. Although she suggests (xiv) that the tragedies represent “different stages of Euripides’ career, one from each volume of the OCT,” she is not proposing to trace development, whether formal or thematic, from play to play. Her concern is with a constant: the plays’ mirroring of the redemptive power of art. On Luschnig’s account tragedy is fundamentally self- referential, urgently and repeatedly directing attention to “the human spirit at its most creative, creating a life and a story” (xv).

The approach is not unfamiliar. Zeitlin (Ramus 1980) has described Orestes as the most extreme example of a theatrical self-consciousness that permeates all of Euripides, while Goldhill in Reading Greek Tragedy (1986) and Segal in Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow (1993) have explored metatheatricality in Electra and Alcestis respectively—two of the very plays chosen for discussion by Luschnig. Where Luschnig differs from Zeitlin is in viewing Euripidean self-reflexivity not as a symptom of the genre’s moribund condition, but as a way to “examine the traditional stories and to test them and to keep them alive” (243). She differs from Goldhill and Segal, who concentrate on the poet’s manipulations of mythical tradition and generic practice, in emphasizing how the characters within each play replicate the creative process as they vary well-established stories, conjure up imaginary scenarios, and try on roles, costumes and masks. For Luschnig, “not only the author and audience, but the characters are taking part in the debate with the tradition” (132). She maintains that this debate is pursued with especial vigor by female characters, whose social and theatrical roles tend to be more circumscribed.

Luschnig begins her chapter on Alcestis by reviewing the generic problems presented by the play and then embarks on a scene-by-scene commentary which focuses on the “aesthetic choices” made by the principals. There are occasional lapses over details; at Alc. 1148, for example, Heracles does not tell Admetus “to treat strangers better,” as Luschnig translates (241), but to continue to treat strangers well in the future. Nevertheless her distinctive perspective on the action leads to some intriguing conclusions. Alcestis, she asserts, is not a helpless victim but a determined woman who selects her own role and “play[s it] to the hilt” (33). As for Admetus, he starts “as a shell” (74) but grows in self-awareness in the course of the play. He searches throughout for “other, grander story patterns” (72); thus he briefly contemplates, only to reject, the possibility of playing Orpheus to Alcestis’ Eurydice. That role is reserved for Heracles, who succeeds in rescuing Alcestis from Hades. But Admetus, Luschnig asserts, [End Page 126] has laid the groundwork for Heracles’ intervention; when he proposes to commission a statue of Alcestis, and even when he equivocates to Heracles over whether she is alive or dead, he is doing his part to keep his wife alive in memory and story. Admetus thus emerges as a more decent and sympathetic character than is generally held to be the case.

The chapter on Electra appeared previously in article form, and it struck me as the most polished of the three. Organized thematically rather than by scene, it focuses initially on Electra’s water jug as emblematic of Electra’s separation at once from her natal home and from her normal role in myth. The homely jug is contrasted to the “fine ware” (89) employed in the other Electra plays: the libation vessels that characterize the members of the chorus at the opening of Aeschylus’ Choephoroe, and the libation vessel and funerary urn that figure prominently in Sophocles’ Electra. The rest of the chapter...

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