Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.12.4


C.A.E. Luschnig, The Gorgon's Severed Head: Studies of Alcestis, Electra and Phoenissae. Mnemosyne Supplement 153. Leiden: Brill, 1995. Pp. xv + 255. $74.25. ISBN 90-04-10382-1.


Reviewed by Francis M. Dunn, University of California, Santa Barbara, fdunn@humanitas.ucsb.edu.

C. A. E. Luschnig, who has written articles on various plays of Euripides and monographs on Iphigenia at Aulis and Hippolytus, now "looks at three plays of Euripides, one early, one middle and one late in his career" (to quote the jacket copy). The book consists of three independent essays, each with a separate bibliography and a separate subject index. They do not advance a single argument, but all address similar concerns: the uses of stage and imaginary space, the ways in which characters create or recreate their identities, and literary self-reference and metatheatre.

The first essay, on Alcestis (1-81), is a running commentary on each section of the play from prologue to exodos. It begins by briefly discussing the play's generic ambiguities and setting out the author's main argument: that Alcestis as "the best" wife has heroic qualities, and that these qualities are reflected in her ability to control the plot and "create" its characters. In emphasizing Alcestis' exemplary and creative qualities, Luschnig revises the more negative reading of her virtues by O'Higgins (Arethusa 26 [1993] 77-98). In the first episode, for example, the maid's description of Alcestis dressing herself for death transfers to a domestic setting the Homeric warrior's preparations for battle (29), while the maid's narrative is both a work of art and a metatheatrical rehearsal (33). In the second episode, the demands that Alcestis places upon Admetus serve to secure her kleos and the perfection of her marriage (45), and succeed when Admetus agrees and promises to keep an effigy of her (48). Admetus himself plays a similar role, keeping Alcestis alive (in effect) by promising to act as mother to their children (47) and by denying her death to Heracles (61). And by the end of the play, Admetus has become a better man, the virtues of Alcestis return to life, and both live happily ever after (78). The argument is interesting and challenging. Its effectiveness, however, is limited in two ways. The first problem is mechanical: the running commentary does not allow adequate scope to develop a thesis, explore its implications, and address possible objections or counter-arguments. It is one thing to claim, for example, that by asking Heracles in the exodos "Shall I place her in the dead woman's room?" (line 1055), Admetus "mentally puts [the new woman] in his wife's bed" (77) and thus remakes Alcestis and brings her back to life (78). It is another to explain what is meant by characters creating themselves and others, and to demonstrate that the notion is critically useful; if the rhetorical question simply prepares the audience for the reunion to follow, what is gained by calling this "creation"? On the other hand, if characters create in the manner of an artist, then why is this creation not, like that of the artist, factitious and potentially false or misleading? The second related problem is conceptual: the author's arguments have not been thought through, and are sometimes inconsistent. A central thesis, for example, involves the heroism of Alcestis and her success in winning recognition for her virtues. What does it mean, in Greek society and drama, for a woman to claim heroic stature? If Alcestis' heroism consists in serving her husband and family, even to the point of giving her life for his, this would seem to be a deeply ironic or problematic heroism. Luschnig notes in passing the paradox of "carrying to superhuman extremes the subordination of women" (8), but otherwise treats her achievement as purely positive. And how does the notion of heroism work in this plot? If a hero exchanges his life in battle for the more valuable commodity of kleos, what does Alcestis receive in exchange? If the demands Alcestis makes of her husband have the effect, as Luschnig argues, of keeping her and her family role alive (11, 44), then the protagonist and the plot are both in important ways anti-heroic -- the protagonist insofar as she attempts to preserve her personal and social identity rather than exchange it for something more valuable, and the plot insofar as Heracles keeps the exchange from being consummated. The essay fails to grapple with such issues.

The second essay, on Electra (86-156), concentrates upon the displacement and alienation of the play's characters. The first half of the essay explores this theme in detail, while the second discusses the recognition scene and the (offstage) murders. The focus throughout is on stage setting, and on the dislocation of this setting as "a metaphor for the distancing of the characters from their deeds in addition to their alienation from each other" (94). The setting at a humble cottage on the outskirts of Argos indicates how far Electra is removed from the palace and the social status that are rightly hers. But there is no return to her proper place. The children have revenge, but never return to the house of Atreus (99); Electra and Orestes are reunited with difficulty and only for a moment before separating again; Aegisthus and Clytemnestra do not meet and never realize that revenge is at hand; and in the most general terms, political and moral order are not restored (100). Luschnig also points to Electra's water pot as a symbol of her dislocation from the palace and from the ritual power of libation (91); argues that because of Electra's outcast status, the reader is meant to sympathize with her (101); and draws attention to metatheatrical devices (93, 118). The theme is a broad one, and it allows the author to touch upon most of the important scenes and issues in the play, although at times the theme is too vaguely defined and at times it is inconsistent. The main thesis that dislocation of the setting is a metaphor for (or better, a theatrical correlative to) the political, moral and social rootlessness of Orestes and Electra is clear and convincing. But when displacement and alienation are so broadly defined that they include Clytemnestra's regrets for her crimes, the indecision of Orestes and the blaming of Apollo by the Dioscuri (94-95), the terms are no longer meaningful. It may be true that the delayed recognition of Orestes and Electra suggests "physical and ethical displacement and alienation" (118), but we are not told why this delayed recognition is more alienating than those in other plays. Luschnig notes in passing that Electra with her water jug (93) and Orestes in disguise (98, 118) are overtly playing parts; is the overt gap between actor and role a theatrical correlative to the characters' discomfort at the tasks expected of them? Is the contrast between "Cyclopean" Argos and the farmer's sooty hovel part of the larger contrast between myth and reality that has often been noted in this play? Since critics have noted many such contrasts (myth/reality, serious/parody, heroic/mundane, high/low), do alienation and displacement simply provide an umbrella under which to house these? Or does the essay propose a new interpretation? Most recent readings of the play are negative, and Luschnig on the whole agrees, noting the final "diaspora of the characters" (154) and abandonment of the house (155). But she also hints at an opposite reading. At various points a contrast is drawn between the interminable chronos of Electra's waiting and the climactic akme or kairos of Orestes' arrival and revenge (105, 115-7, 121, 142). This would seem to suggest a significant peripeteia, a suggestion supported by the comment that "once Orestes is identified, everything is transformed from the ordinary to the mythic and monstrous" (126), and by the argument that after the recognition Orestes belatedly finds his identity and takes on his traditional role (142-3). My own view is that the traditional role fits Orestes as poorly as the rustic role fits his sister, and that there is no real akme (note that where Sophocles' tutor heralds the kairos and akme of action at Electra 22, Euripides' Electra rebukes Orestes for letting the akme pass by, at line 275). If the recognition and Orestes' self-discovery fail to affect the characters' alienation, this failure should be explained.

The third essay, on Phoenissae (160-237), is again a commentary on successive sections of the play. The central argument is that the stage setting in Thebes is impersonal and claustrophobic (164), that this oppressive atmosphere is reinforced by the confining imagery of walls and rings (235-6), and that these help to dramatize the annihilation of the city and the house of Cadmus (195). The vistas that are offered of spaces outside the city and of times beyond the present only heighten this claustrophobia (164), which is effectively dramatized by bringing the feuding brothers within the walls, and in particular by bringing the "hunted" Polyneices from the wild into the city (199). The annihilation of city and royal family are anticipated by the agon, in which words and names are emptied of meaning (210), and by the choral odes, which are full of bestial and monstrous images (220). Luschnig is always attentive to questions of staging, noting a scene in which all three actors play minor characters (223), and drawing our attention to the curious mixture of public and private space in the teichoskopia (184) and to the alienating effect produced when actors regard the audience as members of a hostile army (187). On the whole, the author presents a negative reading of the play, and is most indebted to Arthur (HSCP 81 [1977] 163-85). But as in the previous essay there are details inconsistent with such a reading. Most striking in this regard is the discussion of Jocasta's prologue speech. Her opening words herald a decisive day "in which time is compressed to the length of a tragedy in which things more final than the ordinary" occur (172); her narrative endows events with the tragic significance that comes from "artistic distancing and seriousness" (172-3); in her account of the past "the relation of the beginning and the end gives a kind of wholeness" to the story of Thebes (173); and Jocasta at the play's beginning and Oedipus at its end understand events as a meaningful whole (173). This argument for the drama's tragic unity (restated at 201, 213, 228) is doubly problematic. First, it misrepresents these parts of the play. Where tragedy (as Luschnig uses the term) presents a single climactic moment, Jocasta (in the longest prologue speech in Greek tragedy) recounts an almost interminable series of events, beginning with Cadmus' departure from Phoenicia, ending with the present showdown between Eteocles and Polyneices, and including nearly every detail of Theban legend in between. Where tragedy (thus understood) ends with the protagonist finally understanding what has happened, Oedipus enters with a narrative that reads like a belated prologue speech (1595-1624) and departs with lines that, if genuine, quote from OT (1758-63); there is nothing to indicate a new understanding. And where a tragic sense of distance and wholeness involves seeing in hindsight how events necessarily fit together, Jocasta's speech is remarkable (as Luschnig points out, 178-81) for stressing the role of chance: "the Euripidean Oedipus ... just happens to learn" and the end of his story is "not knowledge but the sad bloody outcome" (181). If the prologue speech, with its endless catalogue of chance events, is anti-tragic, the same could be said of the play as a whole, with its proliferation of characters and episodes and its multiplication of meaningless deaths. This brings us to the second problem. If Phoenissae somehow portrays a breakdown of order into chaos (225) -- and does so in a manner that is less than final, as Oedipus and Antigone depart for exile and Creon remains to rule the city -- is the play a "tragedy" in any meaningful sense of the term? If not, how would we characterize this unusual drama? Answers to these questions might help to articulate more clearly the author's reading of the play.

The Gorgon's Severed Head quotes as epigraphs lines in Alcestis, Electra and Phoenissae that allude to Perseus beheading Medusa. What do the allusions mean? I would argue that the image suggests monstrous features lurking in the familiar: Admetus is instructed by Heracles to touch the woman who died for him (and who enforced a living death upon him), and as he performs the gesture of unveiling the bride, he remarks that he also performs the gesture of turning aside to behead the Gorgon (1118). The image can also suggest a failed distinction between the monstrous and the familiar: Jocasta, in trying to mediate between Eteocles and Polyneices, tells the brothers to look one another in the eye and tells Eteocles he is looking not at a Gorgon's head but at his own brother (455-6). Finally, the image offers a disturbing prospect of the monstrous become banal and familiar. As Electra waits for her savior Orestes to enact revenge upon Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the chorus describes on the shield of Achilles the hero Perseus carrying off the head of the Gorgon (459-60); but when Orestes does kill Aegisthus, the messenger announces that "he comes to show you a head, not bringing the Gorgon's head, but Aegisthus whom you loathe" (855-7); and after killing Clytemnestra (in a passage not included in the epigraphs), Orestes reports that "holding my cloak before my eyes I slaughtered my mother" (1221-3). The repeated image offers interesting points of comparison among the three plays. But after quoting these lines as epigraphs, Luschnig makes no mention of them.