- The Mortal Voice in the Tragedies of Aeschylus by Sarah Nooter
Moving on from the well-received When Heroes Sing: Sophocles and the Shifting Soundscape of Tragedy (Cambridge, 2012), Sarah Nooter's new book extends her exploration of the aural world of Greek tragedy through the plays of Aeschylus. This book examines all of the extant dramas, including many of the fragmentary ones, culminating in an in-depth reading of the Oresteia. Nooter takes as her subject the concept of voice, not as a worn metaphor for identity, but as a physical, embodied sound experienced in the moment of performance. Early in the book, she establishes a programmatic distinction between voice and language, arguing that, while the nature of our evidence (scripts) has led to an almost exclusive focus on words and their linguistic meaning, the voice as sound both "precedes and exceeds language" (6), a more concrete and honest counterpart to the evasiveness of language that we can investigate even without access to original performances.
After a brief introduction, the book begins with a chapter that explores the conceptualization of the voice in archaic and classical Greek literature. The chapter establishes the human voice as existing somewhere between the extremes of the articulate divine and the inarticulate bestial (a category which includes babies). Nooter connects voice to the idea of breath; it represents a physical, material point of contact between the mortal and the divine as the gods literally inspire mortal voices in the form of prophecy or poetry. Breath and sound bridge the gap between inside and outside, arising from deep within the vocalizer and invading the body of the listener. Such sounds can produce both somatic and psychological effects that are more difficult to evade than visual stimuli. Harsh labial plosives can, for instance, reflect Zeus' power (27) or drive Agamemnon to the conclusion that he must kill his own daughter (156–57).
The book's second chapter considers specifically Aeschylus's voice as it was perceived in the ancient world, focusing on its parody in Aristophanes's Frogs. Nooter offers a sophisticated analysis of Aeschylus's role in this drama, showing that the presentation of the playwright and his voice in Aristophanes's play exemplifies three categories of vocal presence that can be observed in Aeschylean [End Page 117] drama itself (voice described, voice performed, voice as plot). At the same time, she maps the way in which these three categories describe the vocal progression that Aeschylus undergoes in Frogs (his movement from silence to defensiveness to attack) and ultimately explain his unexpected victory in competition with Euripides. Progressing category by category, Nooter first elucidates these vocal effects as employed in the Frogs and then turns to vignettes from the Prometheus Bound, Seven Against Thebes, Persians, Suppliants, and assorted fragmentary tragedies and satyr plays that exemplify the same dramatic uses of voice by Aeschylus himself. Those looking for sustained discussion of plays beyond those of the Oresteia will find it in this chapter.
The heart of the book is a three-chapter exploration of voice in the Oresteia, a trilogy that has been analyzed extensively for its ambiguous and indeterminate use of language, but has not been sufficiently considered through the lens of the physical voice. Nooter addresses precisely this issue in a powerful three-chapter sequence that largely stands on its own. Nooter frames the Agamemnon as a play in which the usual reliability of voice is called into question through mimetic performance. The chorus in particular "ventriloquizes" (124) characters who are either dead or absent (Calchas, Iphigenia), displacing the normally secure voice from its body. This introduces an element of instability into the drama that reflects the broader social instability of Mycenae. Ultimately, the truth of the voice supersedes the circularity and deceit of language, as the sonic effect of what the chorus is doing (through repetition and alliteration) overcomes the linguistic meaning of what they say. Aural patterns that should impose order on the world instead reveal its disruptions and the chorus's attempts to reassert order ultimately...