Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.09.21

Margaret Dickin, A Vehicle for Performance: Acting the Messenger in Greek Tragedy.   Lanham, Md.:  University Press of America, 2009.  Pp. v, 212.  ISBN 9780761843559.  $32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Simon Perris, Victoria University of Wellington (
Word count: 2908 words

[A table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

In this thought-provoking study of tragic messengers, Margaret Dickin examines role-divisions in Greek tragedy with a view to better understanding 'Dramatic Messengers' (to whom I shall refer as DM's). Departing from the premise that such constraints as the Three-Actor Rule were treated as aesthetic principles rather than formal limitations, A Vehicle for Performance (re)appraises this 'rule' and its consequences for performance and interpretation of fifth-century Greek tragedy.1 Dickin concludes that tragic poets developed messenger speeches into histrionic show-pieces, and that the DM part could be -- and was -- combined with other parts in the drama to create a 'star vehicle' for actors. In general, this is all to the good: serious misgivings notwithstanding, I consider A Vehicle for Performance a useful addition to the literature, of likely interest to a fairly wide readership within the spheres of classics, reception, and theatre studies, as well as to potential directors of Greek tragedy.

Given the technical nature of much of the supporting material (didaskaliai, Greek verb tenses, etcetera), I suspect that non-specialists with an interest in tragic performance will find the fifth and final chapters of most use, in which the author applies her 'performative' model of the tragic messenger to individual texts, making specific suggestions as to how roles were originally (and might now be?) apportioned. On the other hand, students of theatre history wishing to familiarise themselves with tragic messengers or the Three-Actor Rule would be better off grappling with Pickard-Cambridge and Csapo and Slater.2 Prospective directors should find plenty to chew on here, particularly in Chapter Five, ideally read alongside Taplin's Greek Tragedy in Action, as well as, say, Raeburn on the histrionic potential of lead roles in tragic performance (neither of which Dickin cites).3 Ultimately, however, it is for specialists in Greek drama and its performance -- 'pure' classicists and receptionists alike -- that I would expect this book to hold the most interest. One corollary of the performative turn is (or should be) engagement with Greek tragedies as playtexts for performance by actors, and A Vehicle for Performance is an admirable essay in such engagement.

The objective here is "to examine the role of the Messenger in the extant tragedies of the fifth century in order to identify the factors that may have first made this role an attractive one for a leading actor" (p. 3). An introductory chapter ('The Significance of the Messenger in Fifth-Century Greek Tragedy') examines reporting figures in tragedy, with a view to establishing how and why DM's might have constituted particularly attractive 'star roles'. After introducing the figure of the tragic messenger and its fame in antiquity, Dickin surveys various attempts to define the messenger speech -- an ubiquitous but surprisingly evasive term -- by Di Gregorio, et al.4 Observing the lack of consensus, Dickin duly offers her own promising definition based on 'performative content'. A reporting figure is "any individual character whose function in the drama is to bring news or an announcement to the other characters on stage" (p. 7). So far, so good. Within this set, which also includes announcements by Heralds, a subset of "(dramatic) Messenger Speeches" is defined, to which I will refer as DMSp's: DMSp's contain a higher incidence of narrative. Dickin appends a further category of Aristocratic Messengers, such as Tecmessa. Despite an apparent circularity at work, I find much to like here. The data in Chapter Two, particularly the graphs for Euripides (p. 42), support the notion of (two) distinct subsets of tragic reporting figures. Asserting the connection between narration and mimêsis, Dickin disallows any assumption that spoken narrative is less conducive to virtuoso acting than dialogue or soliloquy. DMSp's, by virtue of their 'vivid performative content' encoded as narrative, afford the opportunity for histrionic display. Dickin's performative model is an effective manoeuvre, which aims to "take the [messenger's] role off the page" (p. 6).

Although unexciting in its presentation of the data, Chapter Two ('Quantitative Evaluation of Narrative Speeches in Tragedy') makes a crucial distinction between DM's and other reporting figures: DM's use more 'narrative verbs'. (I am less convinced of the need to separate Aristocratic Messengers. Given that these are defined by character status rather than by language, the otherwise all-important performative content has no bearing on this particular subset.) Narrative verbs are defined as third-person indicative aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect verbs, as well as aorist participles connected to such verbs. So-called historic presents (to which I refer as narrative presents or NP's) are excluded, as are first-person predicates and present participles. The quantitative data, collected in an appendix, compare narrative verb frequency (narrative verb count over number of lines) for reporting figures with narrative verb frequency across the entire play. A more dedicated reviewer might have undertaken a thorough check of the results; my own rudimentary survey revealed no major aberrations.

Dickin gives short shrift to methodology (pp. 15-16), which at least allows her to initiate promptly the identification and categorisation of reporting figures. On the other hand, one occasionally questions the author's rationale. For example, the data in the first appendix divide the lines of a given play between spoken narrative and 'general speech', with song and recitative apparently forgotten or ignored. Claiming to use MS designations such as ἄγγελος "for the sake of convenience" (p.14), Dickin still tends to treat them as authoritative, opening discussion of Hippolytus by noting that it "contains one reporting figure who is designated an ἄγγελος in the dramatis personae" (p.33) rather then relying on the recently-outlined performative definition of the DMSp. Similarly, having first claimed that NP's are 'action verbs' (p. 7), Dickin discounts them from the count of narrative verbs: NP's are identified through context; it is that context which the tally is intended to determine; NP's are thus excluded (p. 15). I would counter that identifying NP's and counting third-person past-tense verbs are independent activities. The context in which NP's are identifiable is not an "abundance of past tense verbs in proximity" (p. 43), a purely syntactic phenomenon, but narrative context, a syntactic-semantic phenomenon. Given that NP's constitute a distinct narrative tense, the count of 'narrative verbs' should include them.5 The inclusion of aorist participles 'connected' to past-tense verbs (which I take to indicate circumstantial participles) likewise raises a few questions. Does periphrasis count double? What about absolute constructions? Why not present participles? The combination of present participle and aorist verb is surely as capable of expressing two distinct verbal ideas in historic sequence as the combination of aorist participle and aorist verb. With respect to third-person predicates, one ponders the status of impersonal verbs. And why not first-person predicates? For this reviewer at least, it is not enough merely to state that first-person verbs are "not ubiquitous in messenger speeches, so they are not a definitive indicator of a messenger's account" (p. 14). Given that DMSp's are defined by performative content, it ought to have been made clear how and why first-person predicates are less performative than third-person predicates. Needless to say, I find this an unattractive proposition. While Dickin uses third-person past-tense indicatives as an index of performativity, her argument implies that a better index would be distinct historic-sequence verbal ideas in spoken narrative.

Through a survey of reporting figures, quantitative data in hand, Dickin demonstrates that the stereotypical late fifth-century (Euripidean) messenger is not the last or first word. Aeschylean reporting speeches are "strongly dictated by functionality" (p. 23) yet far from formulaic; Sophoclean drama, which manifests the highest incidence of Aristocratic Messengers, is especially varied in its treatment of reporting roles, particularly the 'lying messenger' and the double messenger scene.6 It is in the Euripidean oeuvre (and in the OC) that we find the eventually ossified, easily parodied messenger, mostly distinct from the κῆρυξ or παιδαγωγός (p. 43), who delivers a grand, action-packed, epic (?) narrative of important events. From IT onward, we tend to find two DMSp's, the consequence of an earlier tendency to include a second servant-figure. Finally, and here I find myself mostly in agreement, these figures represented desirable, actable roles. DMSp's "would have given leading actors the opportunity to act in a way that is common in the medium of modern motion pictures, but was comparatively rare in ancient drama" (p. 47). It is thus far established that (a) there are different types of reporting figure, and (b) one of these types manifests a higher incidence of the sort of vivid narrative appropriate for mimetic display.

The premise of Chapter Three ('Representations of the Dramatic Messenger on Vases') is that vase paintings related to tragic texts attribute particular significance to the DM. This proposition is not in itself unworkable, but the manner in which it is substantiated renders this the least successful and most dispensable of Dickin's chapters. For example: "It seems likely that the artist who decorated his pots with dramatic scenes would probably himself have viewed many of the theatrical productions as part of the audience" (53-4). This sentence covers as much ground as the entire first section of Taplin's Pots & Plays, a major recent (2007) work on tragedy and vase-painting not mentioned in A Vehicle for Performance.7 Taplin's mediation between 'philodramatic' and 'iconocentric' approaches might have improved the observations made in this chapter.8 Drawing heavily on Trendall and Webster for the relationship between theatre and vase painting,9 Dickin is old-school philodramatic: "[W]e must carefully examine the evidence to ascertain whether the painting represents a staged performance rather than a more general scene from mythology" (p. 53).

The author aims to use vase paintings to "see what we can learn about the significance of these characters in the drama" (p. 53). I am as yet unconvinced that a survey of vase paintings (most of which are from Magna Graecia and date from the fourth century), although fascinating, can prove that actors in any period, let alone fifth-century poets, considered the DM an especially significant role in tragic performance. Indeed, the performative definition of the DM supersedes iconographical definition: it is claimed that the DM and the παιδαγωγός are distinct in vase-painting specifically because the same distinction obtains in the textual data (p. 64). Given that Dickin mostly offers a brief survey of the subject and a digest of secondary literature, it might have been more efficient to direct the reader to, say, Trendall and Webster, Green, and Taplin, outlining those points on which A Vehicle for Performance differs. For all its praiseworthy willingness to engage with comparative non-literary evidence, this central chapter nevertheless interrupts the flow of the argument, and would be less egregious as an appendix. Better still, with some none-too-delicate pruning, it could be integrated into Chapter One -- especially given the concern of that chapter with establishing the 'significance of the messenger'.

Chapter Four ('Factors Affecting the Assignment of Roles in Tragedy') is essentially a beginner's guide to role assignment in Greek tragedy, and specialists familiar with the evidence might balk at the cosy treatment it receives here. As a brief introduction to a fairly heavy subject, it is to some extent a 'Jack of two trades, master of none', although, for this reviewer at least, it formed a useful refresher course: the Three-Actor Rule; the (un)likelihood of role-splitting; 'lightning' costume changes; lead actors and lead roles; recognition of actors' voices; combining roles; reported direct speech and 'roles-within-roles'. The argument here, and it is an attractive one, is that tragic poets composed in such a way that the part of the DM could be constituent in a starring role. "By taking advantage of the necessity to group parts together, as a result of the restriction on the number of actors, the playwright could manipulate the tragic convention to allow the maximum amount of dramatic exposure of an important performer and at the same time also draw attention to his own high level of skill" (p. 99). All of which I like well enough, but Dickin leaves important questions unasked. Could not the messenger's importance be a matter of later reception? Could not reperformances, say, in Magna Graecia, use role-distributions other than those of the original performance? Dickin presents a comparatively simple Thespis-Aeschylus-Sophocles-Euripides teleology.10 And where Pickard-Cambridge avoids or ignores the aesthetic side of role-distribution, Dickin is unequivocal. "We may therefore maintain that the playwright, in the course of creating the structure of his play, would have taken into account a variety of casting permutations before making his final role distributions" (p. 89). This is the crux of the book: a substantive relationship between role distribution and dramaturgy, made possible by audience recognition of different actors' voices.11 Dickin is not the first to posit such a relationship,12 and A Vehicle for Performance is a welcome reminder that the case is not yet closed.

Chapter Five ('Identification of the Casting of the Dramatic Messenger'), outlines the various permutations of (possible) role division, poet by poet and play by play, in accordance with the principles established in the previous chapters, offering an alternative to Pickard-Cambridge's summary in Dramatic Festivals. In particular, we are told that because Aeschylus predates the acting prize of c.449 B.C., Aeschylean reporting figures (pp. 106-12) are subordinate to the dramaturgical requirements of individual plays, while Sophocles (pp. 112-21), on the other hand, manipulates ironic associations between the various roles taken by an actor to engender a particular sort of metatheatrical role-playing.13 In Euripidean drama (pp. 121-38), then, we find this notion developed into a dramaturgical principle: the part of the 'stereotypical messenger' is combined with the part of a heroic character to create a star role. In particular, it is possible in every extant (genuine) Euripidean tragedy -- except Trojan Women -- to give to the same actor the part of the DM and the aristocratic character whose tragic experience is narrated in the DMSp. So, for example, the part of Hippolytus, a comparatively small one for a tragic protagonist, can be combined with that of the messenger who narrates Hippolytus' death (p.123). Crucially, Dickin treats this performative possibility as a dramaturgical technique developed by Euripides to its fullest extent in various forms: 'dramatising news of death', e.g. Hippolytus; 'dramatising the death of an absent victim', e.g. Andromache; 'dramatising the good news', e.g. Helen; and 'double role play', e.g. the two messengers in IT. The short concluding chapter recaps the argument in easily digestible form, adding an intriguing last-minute suggestion, that the stereotypical messenger of late Euripides is the forerunner of the 'running slave' (servus currens) in later comedy. More could (and perhaps should) have been made of this: the strength of A Vehicle for Performance is that it gives such so-called minor characters their due. As Dickin demonstrates, tragic messengers deserve serious consideration as dramatic characters in performance.

Overall, the main thrust of the argument is convincing or at the very least plausible, but the devil, as it were, is in the detail. Infelicities of style abound; controversial or problematic assertions are made in a matter-of-fact manner; the treatment of primary evidence leaves something to be desired, painting a more monochrome picture than the sources allow; the treatment of secondary literature is likewise less than ideal. At the risk of advocating bibliographical excess and footnote-mania, I would suggest that a work such as this, with a wide-ranging, cumulative argument requiring the reader's full support at every stage, could have benefited from a larger net cast into the ocean of scholarship on Greek drama. Better qualified readers than I will likely note rather more omissions than mentioned in this review. Finally, and most importantly, I am not certain that the argument belongs in book form. Chapters Two and Five at times read like an appendix, despite containing the book's strongest material; Chapters One and Four, on messengers and role-division respectively, add little to the accounts in standard reference works and handbooks; Chapter Three is oddly positioned and somewhat underdone. The main body of the text is a svelte 148 pages including notes: with judicious editing, A Vehicle for Performance could have been an excellent long article or two. Nevertheless, it remains a work to be digested carefully, in toto. Although not substantial enough to satisfy, it is certainly tasty enough to whet the appetite.

Table of Contents

1. The Significance of the Messenger in Fifth-Century Greek Tragedy
2. Quantitative Evaluation of Narrative Speeches in Tragedy
3. Representations of the Dramatic Messenger on Vases
4. Factors Affecting the Assignment of Roles in Tragedy
5. Identification of the Casting of the Dramatic Messenger
6. Conclusions


p.10 n.4 Publication details for Barrett, Staged Narrative should read Berkeley: 2002.

pp.14-52 The header for Chapter Two appears to be spaced incorrectly.

p.42 The y-axis in the lower chart in fig. 2.1 should be labelled "Number of plays".

p.64 "care givers" should be "caregivers" (according to the OED).

p.127 "from the excerpt form Strattis" should be "from the excerpt from Strattis"

p.150 The Art of Ancient Spectacle, containing J. R. Green, "Tragedy and the Spectacle of the Mind", is dated 1991 in bibliography and notes; it should be 1999.

p.151 Théâtre et Spectacles dans l'Antiquité, containing F. Jouan, "Réflexions sur le Rôle du Protagoniste tragique", is given as Strasbourg: 1981. This should read Leiden: 1983. (The conference from which this Leiden volume stems was held in Strasbourg in 1981.)

p.151 The entry for N. W. Slater, "The Idea of the Actor" omits the editors of Nothing to do with Dionysos?, J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin.


I have no connection with the author. In light of my comments regarding Oliver Taplin's work, I should perhaps note that Professor Taplin supervised my doctorate at Oxford.

1.   Dickin excludes Rhesus and Cyclops, but includes PV.
2.   A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, second edition, Oxford 1968, revised with new supplement (1988) by J. Gould and D. M. Lewis; E. Csapo and W. J. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama, Ann Arbor 1995.
3.   O. Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action, London 1978; D. Raeburn, "Greek Tragedy and the Actor Today" in J. Redmond, ed., Drama and the Actor. Themes in Drama 6, Cambridge 1984, 25-37. Taplin's The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, Oxford 1977, appears in the bibliography.
4.   L. Di Gregorio, Le scene d'annunzio nella tragedia greca, Milan 1967; J. M. Bremer, "Why Messenger-Speeches?" in J. M. Bremer, S. Radt, and C. J. Ruijgh, eds, Miscellanea tragica in honorem J. C. Kamerbeek, Amsterdam 1976, 29-49; Taplin, Stagecraft (note 3); I. J. F. de Jong, Narrative in Drama: The Art of the Euripidean Messenger-Speech, Leiden 1991; J. Barrett, Staged Narrative: Poetics and the Messenger in Greek Tragedy, Berkeley 2002; B. Goward, Telling Tragedy, London 1999.
5.   Dickin's discussion of NP's (pp.43-44) relies on De Jong, Narrative in Drama (note 4), 38-45. However, for the NP as a narrative tense, required reading should also include C. M. J. Sicking and P. Stork, "The Grammar of the So-Called Historical Present in Ancient Greek" in E. J. Bakker, ed., Grammar as Interpretation: Greek Literature in its Linguistic Contexts, Leiden 1997, 13-68; A. Rijksbaron, Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek: An Introduction, Amsterdam 2002, 22-5, and "On False Historic Presents in Sophocles (and Euripides)" in A. Rijksbaron and I. J. F. de Jong, eds, Sophocles and the Greek Language: Aspects of Diction, Syntax, and Pragmatics, Leiden 2006, 127-50.
6.   Cf. M. E. Payne, "Three Double Messenger Scenes in Sophocles", Mnemosyne 53.4 (2000), 403-418, not cited.
7.   O. Taplin, Pots & Plays: Interactions between Tragedy and Greek Vase-painting of the Fourth Century B.C., Los Angeles 2007. (One might have expected at least a note to the effect that 'Pots & Plays appeared too late for me to incorporate its findings, etc.' Dickin does refer to Taplin's earlier work on comedy and vase-painting (Comic Angels, Oxford 1993).
8.   This is the case despite the fact that Dickin cites the criticism of 'archéologie philologique' in H. Metzger, "Une nouvelle approache de l'image," Bulletin de liaison de la Société des amis de la Bibliothèque Salomon Reinach II (1984), 5-9, and suggests a "balanced approach ... in our attempts to identify scenes from tragic drama on the vases" (p.57). For a middle way similar to Taplin's, cf. S. Lowenstam, As Witnessed by Images: The Trojan War Tradition in Greek and Etruscan Art, Baltimore 2008. BMCR 2007.10.37 and BMCR 2009.04.43.
9.   A. D. Trendall and T. B. L. Webster, Illustrations of Greek Drama, London 1971. Dickin also makes liberal use of J. R. Green, "Tragedy and the Spectacle of the Mind: Messenger Speeches, Actors, Narrative and Audience Imagination in Fourth-Century BCE Vase-Painting" in B. Bergmann and C. Kondoleon, eds, The Art of Ancient Spectacle: Studies in the History of Art 56, New Haven 1999, 37-63.
10.   Contrast B. Gredley, "Greek Tragedy and the 'Discovery' of the Third Actor" in Drama and the Actor (note 3), 1-14, not cited.
11.   Dickin relies on Z. Pavlovskis, "The Voice of the Actor in Greek Tragedy," CW 71 (1977), 113-23. For the opposing view, which Dickin does not comprehensively refute: G. M. Sifakis, "The One-Actor Rule in Greek Tragedy" in A. Griffiths, ed., Stage Directions: Essays in Honour of E. W. Handley, London 1995, 13-24.
12.   For example, M. Damen, "Actor and Character in Greek Tragedy," Theatre Journal 41.3 (1989), 316-40.
13.   Dickin cites M. Ringer, Electra and the Empty Urn: Metatheater and Role Playing in Sophocles, Chapel Hill 1998.

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