Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.09

M. Ringer, Electra and the Empty Urn. Metatheater and Role Playing in Sophocles.   Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.  Pp. 253.  ISBN 0-8078-2391-0 (hb).  ISBN 0-8078-4697-X (pb).  $18.95.  

Reviewed by Eveline Krummen, Zürich/Bern (
Word count: 2896 words

This book is one of a number of publications, mainly Anglo-American, on metatheater in ancient drama. It is, however, different in that the metatheater-approach is now applied to Sophoclean tragedy whereas previously it had been of interest mainly to researchers on Greek and Roman comedy and sometimes on Euripidean tragedy, especially the Bacchae.1

There is an introductory chapter on the theory of metatheater followed by a brief survey of previous scholarship (1-19). Then each of Sophocles' tragedies is discussed using the metatheater-approach, the Electra in most detail, whence the book's title.2 In the introduction we are given a definition of what is meant by "metatheater" or "metadrama", which is defined as "drama within drama as well as drama about drama" (p.7). This means that the definition extends beyond the conventional "play-within-the-play" to all forms of theatrical self-reference, under which are subsumed "role playing", "forms of self-conscious reference to dramatic convention and other plays", ritual or cult as part of the action and the disruption of dramatic illusion. Of particular importance is "role-playing-within-the-role", whereby an actor, in addition to his actual role, can assume further roles, especially in plots involving an intrigue. He becomes an "internal actor" (p.8). R. also examines the special effect created by the circumstance that, owing to the three-actor rule in Greek theater, one actor had to take on several parts. Thus, the audience perceived that the same actor speaking the role of Tecmessa also spoke the role of Odysseus or Athena some sixty verses earlier, meaning that the person who is closest to Aias is also his revealer and enemy throughout most of the play. R. also emphasises the role of the "playwright/director-within-the-play", who manipulates and directs the "scripts" of the other dramatis personae, resulting in a "play-within-the-play" and rivalry with the playwright, Sophocles himself. Finally, there are "audiences within the play" which steer and channel the reception of the real (external, as it were) audience.

The most important contribution of the metatheatrical approach is surely its emphasis on the performative aspect of drama. R. even speaks of a "performative text", by which he means the "cumulative effect of this interaction of author, actors, and audience". The author is on the whole well informed about modern literature on metatheater, especially as it pertains to English drama, yet there is a lack of critical discussion of secondary literature, above all by German scholars.3 Nor is there an argument to show why this concept of metatheater can and should be applied to tragic drama. It is bluntly stated as a matter of fact, with reference to some books and articles, that Sophocles' (and Shakespeare's) plays are "highly metatheatrical" (p.5).4 Finally, as far as the distribution of roles is concerned, R. is on shaky ground. While no instances are attested of the audience recognizing the voice and the gestures of an actor as those of the same actor in a previous role, there is plenty of evidence that actors were praised for their ability to adjust their voice and gestures to a particular part.5 All interpretation based on this theory is thus highly hypothetical.

I concentrate on the three main chapters to illustrate R.'s approach and methods. In chapter 3 (The Staging of a Hero, 31-49) the Ajax is described as a profoundly metatheatrical work emphasizing the performative aspects of the play. R. gives a demonstration of this concept of a "play-within-the-play" in the prologue (vs. 1-133), in which he discerns a performative scheme with "internal actor", "internal audience", and even an "internal skene". This scheme, once established, is periodically re-enacted throughout the play. Therefore, in the prologue, Athena is supposed to be the "playwright/director-within-the-play", Odysseus takes the role of the audience, while Ajax' tent (skene in Greek) represents the stage (skene in Greek) within the play itself. This also has the effect of placing Ajax on an imaginary inner stage, isolating him from the other characters. Sophocles, R. argues, thus sets up a "great stage of the world", a "world of inversion and substitution", which reflects the phenomenon of theater itself. Later on, however, in the re-enactment of the performative scheme, Ajax himself becomes the "playwright/director-in-the play", when he takes control over the situation in the so-called Trugrede (646-692) and during the monologue before his suicide (815-865), which results, as it were, in the re-staging and rewriting of his own character within the play. Tecmessa, Eurysakes and the chorus of Salaminians become the audience.

While this analysis of the performative scheme is a good example of how R. assumes that metatheatricality organizes the text and imbues it with meaning, his discussion of the funeral scene is, on the other hand, a good example of how he applies his interpretation to the distribution of roles. R. assumes that the protagonist played Ajax and Teucer, the deuteragonist Odysseus, Tecmessa and, presumably, Menelaus, while the tritagonist took on Athena, the messenger and Agamemnon. In the final scene (1316-1420) the prologue is, as it were, re-phrased. Odysseus can again play his first role, Odysseus. This time, however, he is able to put an end to the conflict by re-enacting his role as a spectator and by relying upon his experience of the human condition acquired in the prologue. Finally, by being presented within the framework of theater-within-theater Ajax becomes the paragon of man himself, who stands between the opposite poles of creativity and destruction, but escapes annihilation thanks to his sense of dignity (p.49).

I have already set out the basic difficulties of assuming that the various roles acted by one and the same actor may be read as meaningfully related to each other. Indeed, when this approach is applied to the Ajax, there is no gain in the depth of interpretation. That the final scene relates back to the opening is obvious without R.'s analysis of actors' identities.6 Behind the reconciliatory role of Odysseus there is Athena, whose anger has evidently been appeased, as is made manifest by the sheer possibility of Ajax' funeral. Yet the manifold relationships between individual figures and scenes, which R. presupposes because of the actors' identities, are mostly improbable and arbitrary. On the other hand, the problematic side of the metatheatrical approach, which emerged from New Criticism and Structuralism and thus neglects any historical, cultural or religious dimension, shows up, for instance, in R.'s interpretation both of Ajax' sword, to which a "metatheatrical resonance" (p.41) is attributed, and of the chorus' song of joy after the so-called 'Trugrede' (644 ff.). Contrary to R.'s interpretation, both are in fact fixed elements of a ritual of purification, in the course of which the object causing disaster, the sword, is recognized as such and removed (hence Ajax' sword is buried). In accompaniment or affirmation of this act a Dionysiac-ecstatic song is performed (the song of the Salaminioi, 693-718). Object and song, therefore, are integral parts of the action. They do not break an illusion, nor are they reflections about theater itself, and hence they are not representatives of metatheatricality.7

The Theban Plays in chapter 5 give us, according to R., a particularly illustrative example of the fundamental opposition between appearance vs. reality, and therefore provide us with a paradigm of the metatheatrical approach. Deeds stand against words, reality against perception. Here, in these plays, the irony of a character and of the theatrical situation, the shift "in and out of the illusion" during a performance, becomes apparent (cf. the subtitle 'Illusion into Reality', 67-99).

In the Antigone (p.67-78) this opposition appears in the contrast between Creon's brutal, corporeal ('real') world and the invisible world of the dead, which Antigone wishes to honor. This opposition also has its impact within the structure of the play, where both Antigone and Creon endeavor to dominate as playwrights-within-the-play. Whereas at the beginning Creon can show himself a dominant and self-possessed ruler, Antigone gradually divests him of this illusion and finally manages to make him appear an empty figure. By the end of the play he has lost any sort of "theatrical control", ending as a "spectatorial object", isolated on stage and within his family (like Ajax). Again, the distribution of parts is given a meaning for the exegesis. Creon's increasing isolation is manifested by the fact that his actor alone always plays the same role (i.e., Creon), while being surrounded by colleagues who are constantly changing their roles. In a general sense that means that he, Creon, is isolated from the characters around him, as he is isolated from the city of Thebes and from the city represented by the audience. Metatheatricality in this play, however, is also related to the god Dionysus, to whom the chorus twice refers. The metatheatrical capacity shows up in Dionysus' appearance as dissolver of boundaries and god of ecstatic release, but also, at the end of the play, as the god of destructive madness.8 Via Sophocles Dionysus teaches king Creon and the Athenian audience the boundaries of human power (p.78).

Oedipus in the Oedipus Rex (p.78-90) is presented as a character obsessed with performing actions and speeches as well as with revealing the truth for the entire polis before his palace (79). In the course of the play the illusion surrounding Oedipus is gradually dismantled until he realizes his true identity, which has been known to the audience from the very start. He mutates from a person revealing things to a person being revealed. At the same time, as a cursed child and later a blinded man, he is also an object of pity. Pity is at the center of Oedipus' dramatic situation, and is one of the basic values featured in the drama. The blinding is understood as giving a theatrical experience. Of course, Oedipus is also a "playwright-character", but the concept has been modified in that Oedipus is represented as a prisoner in a play which he does not want to write and in which he is reluctant to appear. The true metatheatrical rivalry is between Oedipus, the playwright-within-the-play, who fulfils his traditional role "unwillingly (...) and Sophocles, who enjoys omniscient power over his creations who are striving in the orchestra circle" (87). "Oedipus is perhaps the greatest of Sophocles' internal director/playwrights" (p.85). Oedipus' metamorphosis into the blinded exile is the greatest example of the instability and duality of human life. "Seeming" and "duality" are at the center of Oedipus' world. In the theater one man performing actions may stand in for any or all of his fellow men. It is this "standing in" that allows the performer and the spectator the scope and resonance that make Oedipus Tyrannus one of the masterpieces of metatheater (p.90).

The Oedipus at Colonus (p.90-99) is the last of the Theban plays. Here, one of the most astonishing features is that the landscape of Colonus acquires an existence of its own on stage, which is to be preserved through all times by a cultic veneration. As far as the distribution of roles goes, we find again a great complexity that can be interpreted as an example of the self-consciousness of Sophocles' dramatic technique. A further metatheatrical peculiarity in this play is the sheer number of intertextual references to other dramatic texts. Oedipus remains the paradigm of theatrical suffering and misfortune. Sophocles uses his craft to comment subtly on his position as a tragic dramatist and to impart a kind of immortality on himself and his dying polis (p.99).

Using the concept of metatheatricality, R. arrives at many innovative conclusions as to how an elaborated dramatic concept of a particular play is linked to its content. But his interpretations along the lines of being vs. appearance and disillusionment in the Oedipus Tyrannus, or claim of power vs. claim of the dead in the Antigone, are already well established lines of interpretation and can be easily found in the existing secondary literature.

The focus of the interpretation of the Electra in chapter 7 (p.127-212) is the urn, allegedly containing the ashes of Orestes, which inspires Electra's big monologue at the center of the play. But the urn is empty, it is just a prop. At the same time, it is a symbol of the metatheatricality of Electra: The urn is playing a role like all the other actors in the play (p.139); it is giving a performance within a performance; and it is indicative of the emptiness of any tragic substance in the play. Electra's heroic status is "a chimera of impressive words and gestures"; it is "illusion within the illusion". For Electra achieves her true heroic greatness at the moment when, holding Orestes' urn in her hands, she is ready to take over the task of killing Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus herself (esp. p.172-185). But as this urn is empty (because Orestes is alive), this heroism is nothing but an illusion. Electra is a highly self-conscious and, in consequence, highly metatheatrical tragedy. But in its metatheatrical virtuosity the play seems to question the foundations of its own existence, the survival of tragic drama in the culture that produced it. This basic pattern, R. argues, may explain the hopelessness of this very controversial play, for which the empty urn is a symbol.

Once again, the playwright/director-within-the-play is found in various constellations (pedagogue, Orestes and Electra on the one hand, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus on the other). There is also the audience-within-the-play, namely Aegisthus and Clytemnestra as the "intended audience" of the urn (p.139 and 162). The skene-within-the-play, however, is outlined by the manner in which Electra enacts the memory of Agamemnon's murder (p.146 ff.). Again there is talk of transgression or dissolutions of boundaries, of ambiguity (p.142), of ritual actions interpreted as metatheater, particularly in the context of the cult at Agamemnon's tomb (esp. p.152), at which point the play itself becomes a kind of "perverted ritual." And, finally, there are metatheatrical choral songs (p.181 f.) which, owing to the reflection about the dance accompanying it at the wrong place, come across as "doubly theatrical" (p.183).

By quoting the Greek original with translations throughout the book, R. aspires to standards of linguistic competence which he is unable to meet. There are plenty of wrong accents, although the author is perhaps not to be held responsible for all of them. The translations are frequently inaccurate, mere paraphrases or even straightforwardly wrong. Take El. 23-24 (p. 135 f.): "O dearest of manservants, how clear the signs you reveal / being the good fellow you are to me", where σαφῆ σημεῖα φαίνεις is taken to be independent of ἐσθλὸς ... γεγώς. Yet the participle γεγώς goes with σημεῖα φαίνεις [φαίνομαι, δῆλος εἰμι with participle] and means: "How clearly you show to me what an excellent fellow you are to me", i.e. the pedagogus can be trusted. The σημεῖα are not external signs read by the pedagogue for his pupil. In the context of the metatheatrical approach the σημεῖα of verse 24 even lead to far-reaching conclusions: they look to the centre of the tragedy, to "Electra's misreading of the deceptive σημεῖα created by the Paedagogus, a misreading that will lead her from her traditionally passive role to the brink of heroic action" (p.136). Other examples: δόλοισι κλέψαι χειρὸς ἐνδίκου [sic] σφαγάς [37 f.] means: "Cunningly and in secret I will accomplish (κλέψαι) the just sacrifice/murder with my own hands" (the transmitted ἐνδίκους should be kept), and not: "by trickery shall I steal off with my righteous slaughtering hand" (p. 137), or v. 9 f. (p.134): πολυχρύσους ( qualifying μυκήνας) is made to go with δῶμα, even quoted as a masculine adjective with a wrong accent (πολυχρύσου, sic!). Colloquial φάσκειν and ὁρᾶν are taken to substantiate theories about performing space or about appearance vs. being. Another example is verse 1177, where, in the anagnorisis-scene, Orestes asks Electra: "Do I see the figure [εἶδος] of Electra in front of me?" Though a conventional term for the human figure in Greek, it is understood as referring to other shapes, forms, or figures in the play, i.e. is supposed to recall "the deceptive shells of the urn, mask, and costume" (p. 190).

In all, R.s book must be welcomed for the emphasis it puts on the plays as performances. There are many revealing insights concerning performative details, but R. often does not pay sufficient attention to the genre , to the text, or to the historical details, even though he is on the whole well-informed about Greek and Sophoclean tragedy. Sometimes, he seems to be carried away by his approach. The big stumbling block of his interpretations is that the structures and relations created by the interpreter according to the tenets of 'metatheater' are used to give the plays their content, while the plays themselves in their own messages, images and actions take on the aspect of second plays, even if one credits R. with trying to make his interpretations refer closely to the text. The framework, however, is so broad that much can be accommodated: the contents become interchangeable. At the end of the day, all seven plays end up being more or less the same in their basic dramatic concept, even if the main message of a play is different (one time appearance vs. reality, another time human creature as placed between creative and destructive passion, etc.). The reader of this book feels somehow lost between all those levels which quite often end up in isolation and annihilation. Perhaps -- to use Ringer's own words -- this is why Electra's urn is empty (p.212).


1.   E.g. T.K. Hubbard, The Mask of Comedy: Aristophanes and the Intertextual Parabasis, Ithaca 1991. M.A. Frangoulidis, Handlung und Nebenhandlung. Theater, Metatheater und Gattungsbewusstsein in der römischen Komödie, Stuttgart 1997 (Drama Beih. 6), 1-20. N. W. Slater, Plautus in Performance, Princeton 1985, 3-18; cf. n.3 below.
2.   Cf. idem: "Reflections on an Empty Urn", in: F.M. Dunn, Sophocles' "Electra" in Performance, Stuttgart 1996 (Drama vol. 4), 93-100.
3.   E.g. A.F. Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragödie: Politische und "metatheatralische" Aspekte im Text, Tübingen 1991, 115-176, esp. 115-119. This item is named (p.16; 219 n.10), but there is no engagement with the criticism of the concept of "metatheater" as discussed by Bierl. Cf. also M. Erler, "Episode und Exkurs in Drama und Dialog," in A. Bierl et alii, edd., Orchestra, Drama, Mythos, Bühne. Festschrift für H. Flashar, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1994, 318-330, esp. 318 n.4; W. Kullmann, "Die 'Rolle' des euripideischen Pentheus. Haben die Bakchen eine 'metatheatralische' Bedeutung?", in. G.W. Most et alii, edd., PHILANTHROPIA KAI EUSEBEIA. Festschrift für A. Dihle, Göttingen 1993, 248-263 (249 n.4 with further lit.).
4.   R. refers to. D. Seale, Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles, Chicago 1982; A.G. Batchelder, The Seal of Orestes: Self-Reference and Authority in Sophocles' Electra, Lanham MD 1995; L. Edmunds, Theatrical Space and Historical Place in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, London 1996.
5.   A. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd ed. rev. by J. Gould, D.M. Lewis, Oxford 1988, 135-156; 167-176.
6.   E.g.: A. Henrichs, "The Tomb of Aias and the Prospect of Hero Cult in Sophokles," ClAnt 12 (1993) 165-180. P.E. Easterling, "Tragedy and Ritual: Cry Woe, woe, but may the good prevail!", Mêtis 3 (1988) 87-109, cf. eadem in: R. Scodel, ed., Theater and Society in the Classical World, Ann Arbor 1993,7-23.
7.   E. Krummen, Ritual und Katastrophe, in: F. Graf et alii (edd.): Ansichten griechischer Rituale. Festschrift für W. Burkert, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1998, 296-325, esp. 311-313 and 323 with n. 63. A similar interpretation seems possible for Antigone 1115-52, a choral song to Dionysus that is commonly given a metatheatrical meaning (cf. Ringer p. 77 f.).
8.   Perhaps Dionysus' role as God of the dead and the underworld should also be taken into consideration. His rights are injured when the dead Polyneices is kept on earth, whereas Antigone, still alive, is given to the world beneath (1068 ff). Thus, the cosmic order is disturbed.

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