- Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy by Melissa Mueller
Mueller’s book teaches us that unless critics do more than simply acknowledge that ancient actors sometimes had something in their hands—unless we think through what objects are doing in a scene—we risk missing the whole point. Props do more than enhance the spectacle or reify a symbolic or thematic thread in the text; they themselves are agents of tragic action and can even subvert what characters are saying. Mueller’s treatment of props in some plays, especially in the Ajax and the Hippolytus, is radical and will not persuade everyone, but the [End Page 592] value of this well-written, engaging book lies in its overall lessons on how to focus fruitfully on the prop within tragic performances.
After its introduction, the book is divided into two parts, the first of which focuses on props read metonymically. Connected with “well-known epic or theatrical objects,” such props interact with a “fully formed anterior episode” to affect how the audience understands their deployment in the new tragic setting (8, 114). Chapter 1 explores the actions of Ajax’ sword in Sophocles’ play: Hector’s gift in the Iliad, but on terms that Ajax misapprehends; the weapon now has, in tragedy, its intended deadly effect because it shares a “distributed personhood” with Hector (15–16; Alfred Gell’s notion). The startling claim that the sword actually interferes with Ajax’ reasoning in his final two speeches seems to transgress the limit to which a prop’s literal agency can be pushed, but the case is well laid out. Chapter 2 takes up the textiles that play a prominent role in tragedies about the House of Atreus. The main focus is on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, but Euripides’ inversion of the monetary symbolism of cloth in Electra suggests how the audience perceived the tapestries as collaborating with Clytemnestra’s beguilement in the older tragedy. The third chapter examines the action of recognition tokens in Euripides’ Ion and Electra. It fruitfully distinguishes between the royal heirlooms in the former and the hyper-scrutinized tokens in the latter, subjected to the fifth-century intellectual categories of physis versus nomos and refracted through the prism of the dokimasia, Athens’ process for identifying legitimate citizens.
The book’s second part reads props metaphorically, as objects whose relationship to intertextual or real counterparts is an insertion “into a narrative frame of its own making” that may subvert or even “radically refurbish” the audience’s understanding of a familiar object’s significance (114). Chapter 3 examines the funerary urn of Sophocles’ Electra. Mueller’s focus, in contrast to older studies of this object, is on Sophocles’ stage sense: he picks up this urn from Aeschylus’ Choephori, where it had a barely articulated and unseen role, in order to reimagine Electra as a “childless, mother-in-mourning” (131). This is another deft chapter, deeply practical about how ancient playwrights and productions worked. In chapter 5 Mueller returns to the Ajax to study how Ajax’ shield, in contrast to his sword, points forward, through Eurysaces, into the audience’s awareness of its own veneration of this hero for the city’s protection. The discussion is enticing, but there is not enough evidence for the shield’s appearance on stage to be fully convincing. The final chapter studies the role of deltoi, or letters, in Sophocles’ Trachiniae and Euripides’ Hippolytus and the Iphigenia plays, and its main argument is troubled. It is hard to accept that Phaedra’s deltos is an actual defixio, or curse tablet, not intended by her to kill Hippolytus, especially since the discussion fails to engage fully with Theseus’ summary of the deltos, which he first reads silently. For such a radical reinterpretation of this scene, it is not enough simply to observe that we cannot be sure of what the deltos actually says.
Readings that push too far for what props can tell us, however...