Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.02

Stavros Frangoulidis, Roles and Performances in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption 16.   Stuttgart:  Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2001.  Pp. 197.  ISBN 3-476-45284-0.  

Reviewed by Ellen Finkelpearl, Scripps College (
Word count: 2414 words

Stavros Frangoulidis, the author of numerous articles on Apuleius and of a book on theater and metatheater in Roman comedy (also with Metzler), has combined his fields of interest to create this book on "roles and performances" in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. F. looks especially at the way that characters' roles in the action change and shift in relation to others and also examines the "intersection of plans or schemes" which confuse the role or performance of a given character. The analysis is carried out partly in terms of the Greimasian narrative theory of "actants"; F. is interested in the ways characters succeed or fail in bringing about their "plot" or change roles from the Greimasian "subject" to "helper" or the like, though his use of this structure is random and of questionable effectiveness. Mainly, the book is composed of a running plot summary of various episodes with a commentary on the characters' changing roles within the story. Overall, while there is not much in the book with which anyone would actively disagree or feel to be in error, there is also disappointingly little--given this fertile topic--that brings fresh light to reading the Metamorphoses, let alone other texts which could possibly be illuminated by an examination of roles and performance in the novel.

In an introductory chapter, F. lays out a simple version of Greimasian theory and explains what he means by "role" and "performance" and the ways that he plans to employ Greimas' terms. "Role" is defined as "the distinct features which the narrative endows the actors/characters with at any given point in the novel's discourse" (5). "Performance" is "the actions undertaken by the actors/characters in order to achieve the object of their goals/values" (7). For these definitions he is indebted to Greimas and Courtés,1 and yet it is important to note that there is nothing intrinsically dramatic about the way that role and performance are delineated here. Although the book is published within a series devoted to drama, the reader should not expect it to focus on role or performance in a theatrical sense, but rather in the sense that narrative is made up of characters who are assigned roles, and plot consists of the performances by these characters. Greimas' aim was to develop a syntax of narrative with his theory of "actants," and to determine its basic units; 'actor' is not for him a dramatic term. On the other hand, F. does not devote himself entirely to Greimas' terms. In a series of disclaimers, he says that he has "replaced the Greimasian term 'narrative program' with less theoretical terms such as 'plan,' 'plot,' and/or 'scheme' so as not to discourage interested non-theoretical readers" (5), and later he makes it clear that he is not interested in the deeper structure of narrative or "semiotic square", and further that he does not plan to present the "character administration in the actantial structure" in every instance (7). Thus, having opted for a mainly non-theatrical definition of "role" and "performance" in favor of a structuralist Greimasian model, F. then waters down its substance. For Greimas, the actantial model is merely one step toward defining a kind of grammar of narrative which is represented in the semiotic square with its fields of opposition. Even a glance at a page or two of his work reveals his concern to find the function not merely of characters but also of symbols in an underlying series of oppositions, always with the goal of determining the nature of narrative. Frangoulidis dilutes its technical aspects to the degree that it is unclear what exactly he is examining; sometimes, in fact, he does seem to be talking about semi-theatrical performance. In the end, there is never a conclusion showing how the use of "actants" helped to illuminate the way that Apuleius changes characters' roles; there are no diagrams with arrows showing one element's influence on another of the sort that decorate the pages of any other Greimasian analysis. This is not really an application of the Greimasian discourse model.

The book is arranged in five chapters: I: Unwittingly Successful Performances; II: Fatally Successful Performances; III: Unsuccessful Performances; IV: Man and Animal; V: Successful Performances. Already it is evident from the arrangement of material that the only criterion for analysis of scenes is the outcome of the performance (apart from Chapter IV which may be the most interesting). If F. had, for example, grouped his discussion of wedding rituals as performance, a topic which comes up several times, more useful theoretical conclusions might have ensued. This arrangement does, however, bring up his point that Lucius' performance in Book 11, as an initiate, is the only intentionally successful performance in the novel.

A close examination of Chapter One, on the Aristomenes episode, will give a sense of Frangoulidis' aims and methods. In this story, the narrator tells how he found his friend, Socrates, who had become involved with a witch and helped him flee. Unfortunately the witch and a companion catch up with them, slit Socrates' throat, insert a sponge, urinate on the narrator, and leave. Magically, Socrates is able to get up and leave the inn where they have been staying, but dies when he drinks water from a stream. Aristomenes then mourns and buries him. Frangoulidis' main point about the episode seems to be that Aristomenes unintentionally collaborates in the murder of his friend. And that, he engages in a hostile act by burying him, thus becoming an accomplice of the witch Meroe: "Unbeknown to him, Aristomenes is thus rendered a foe rather than a friend (16)." F. also mentions various other aspects of the narrative that may be of interest, including the idea that Socrates, instead of attending the spectacle he intended to see, himself becomes a spectacle--presumably in the sense that he is covered in rags, or perhaps in the sense that he is the subject of the story. F. writes of Aristomenes' plan to save his friend as a "performance" and then outlines the Greimasian structure:

In the actantial model, the actor/character administration may appear as follows: Aristomenes fills the subject position as auctor, maker of the plan to save his friend, precisely as Meroe identifies him later in 1:12: fugae huius auctor. Aristomenes' goal/object is to lead his friend to safety; Socrates fills the place of the receiver, since he benefits from the plan. Aristomenes also occupies the helper position, while the witch that of the opponent. (22)

After this, there is much plot narration and comments like: "Intratextuality reveals a certain similarity between Meroe and Aristomenes, for they both alter the fate of Aristomenes, yet with one major difference: Aristomenes does so unwittingly" (31). We then read that we may disagree with Aristomenes' interpretation and instead of leading his friend to safety, he is working for Meroe. "The tale thus highlights the strange workings of magic, which humans are so totally unable to comprehend that they are unable to fight against it" (32).

The analysis seems to me unsuccessful in various respects. First, the use of Greimas seems merely pasted on top of some other sort of investigation; it is never integrated or really used at all, except in the sense that it helps F. say that roles are shifting. Second, it seems unfair to say that Aristomenes becomes a foe because he buries his friend; though it is true that Meroe assigns Aristomenes this role, it seems rather surprising that the witch would care about burial at all. Of course, it is true that he does not help his friend because their attempt to escape was thwarted, but it is not clear that Aristomenes' fundamental "role" changes; from the beginning, his aim was to help, but it was never clear what the outcome would be. At this point we might raise questions about the relationship between plot and role. If anything happens in a story, presumably characters' roles will inevitably shift; how can one look at this process in a way that is useful and illuminating? Third, too much of the space devoted to this tale is plot summary. The readers of this book will doubtless know Apuleius, as there is little reference to other texts, and they will be frustrated by having to read through the lengthy summaries in order to find the substance. In the course of some of the narration, F. mentions the sort of parallels quoted above, about the relationship between Aristomenes and Meroe, that may or may not have significance. Fourth, the conclusion: that magic is too powerful for humans to fight or comprehend is not in any sense a startling statement to make about Apuleius' Metamorphoses.

The chapter on "Man and Animal" contains the most interesting sections of the book. Here F. examines the the Thrasyleon episode (in which a robber puts on a bear costume) in terms of a gladiatorial munus. The owner of the dying bears was to put them in a spectacle, but they all die. The robber in a bear suit fights his opponents in language that strongly recalls the gladiatorial games, forming a substitute for the missed munus. F. is heavily indebted to an article by Habinek (MD 25, 1990, 49-69) for his analysis here, but he puts it to good use; and yet we are able to see the complex interaction of role-playing, metamorphosis, and gladiatorial performance being evoked, as well as the shifting role of the narrator. The second part of the chapter examines the theatrical pantomime of Book 10 in terms of Roman nuptial rites and as a mirror image of Lucius' rites of initiation in Book 11. In addition, F. is to be praised for his control of Apuleian secondary literature, though he does not cite or engage with an article using Greimas' actantial model for analyzing the stepmother episode in Book 10, L. Zurli, "Il modello attanziale di una novella apuleiana," (MCSN 3, 1981, 397-410).

The BMCR guidelines specifically state that a review should not criticize a book for not being the book the reviewer would have written, but it seems important nonetheless in this case to point out that "roles and performances" is a rich theme which could have have offered much more. When I first read the title and the cover description of this book, I was filled with regret that I had not thought of this important and suggestive theme in Apuleius, and I thought of the various chapters and ideas that would be a part of it. First, the Metamorphoses is punctuated by dramatic scenes: the Festival of Laughter in Book 2 that is enacted in a theater, the pantomime of the Judgment of Paris in Book 10, also in a theater, and the various rituals involving masks and role-playing in the long descriptions of the Isiac festival in Book 11. These lengthy scenes, coming just before Lucius' two metamorphoses, suggest an important link between the theater and the action of Apuleius' Metamorphoses which could be explored in terms of ritual performance in mystery cults or a hypothetical link between the origins of the novel and drama (esp. New Comedy in which many have seen a similarity to the Greek novel). Niall Slater has drawn attention to the unstable boundary between spectacle and spectator in the novel; a Roman spectator may be drawn into a "fatal charade" as he argues Lucius is, resigning himself to the roles assigned by others (ICAN 2000 abstracts). In addition to these scenes that take place in theaters, another quite explicitly dramatic episode is that of the stepmother in Book 10, which is closely indebted to Euripides' Hippolytus and Seneca's Phaedra (as many have noted). Here the narrator speaks of ascending "a socco ad coturnum" implying possibly that even the episodes before this were drama, but of a lower sort.

Then one might investigate the performative qualities of the text in terms of its many narrators, as was brought out in Robertson Davies' opera of the Golden Ass, which begins with a huckster/story-teller figure coming into a Carthaginian marketplace. In some sense, much of the novel is a performance by a narrator--particularly in cases like the Cupid and Psyche episode, narrated by an old woman to her young captive. One thinks also of Ahuvia Kahane's analysis of the prologue as a "speech act" and of the complexities in the "performance" of the whole text by Lucius, perhaps a sophistic performer like Apuleius himself (as argued by Stephen Harrison). Like a play, the Metamorphoses has many speakers, and Bakhtin has pointed out its dialogic potential in other respects.

Further, the idea of metamorphosis could be thought of in terms of masks and role playing, particularly when the metamorphosis involves transformation into an animal. One is reminded of the animal choruses in Old Comedy which, according to Sifakis, may even have formed the original basis for the genre. Then, there are also episodes in which characters consciously take roles, put on costumes, and create a drama, like that of Tlepolemus or Thrasyleon. In short, a book of this sort could be of general interest to many readers, as it could address the question of the boundaries between genres, the nature of the novel, and the role of performance in an apparently non-dramatic text.

Some of these things Frangoulidis has done, but he could have done much more if he had dispensed with at least some of the plot summary and devoted that space to serious analysis. The essential point of the book, as announced on the back cover, seems to be that the shifting of roles in the Metamorphoses is related to metamorphosis, the central theme of the novel; further, "the narrative revolves around a series of transformations of a simple basic unit." The latter point, one that would fit well with the Gremasian background, seems never to be explained, though it suggests interesting possibilities, whereas the former seems to be examined in an undisciplined and aimless way. It does seem worth examining whether roles shift more in a novel about metamorphosis, and it seems a good idea to implement Greimasian theory as a way to examine that thesis. Yet F. never asks whether a text like the Aeneid might also involve role-shifting (as I think it does), and, if so, does the Met. use this tactic in a different way or to a different degree? While the book makes some good points, it seems largely a series of missed opportunities in the face of a theme that offers a whole range of interesting directions.


1.   Greimas, A.J. and J. Courtés. Semiotics and Language: An analytical Dictionary. Translated by L. Crist et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

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