Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.41

Colleen Chaston, Tragic Props and Cognitive Function: Aspects of the Function of Images in Thinking. Mnemosyne Supplements 317.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2010.  Pp. xx, 269.  ISBN 9789004177383.  $147.00.  



Reviewed by David Sansone, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (dsansone@illinois.edu)

This challenging and stimulating book, based on a Victoria University dissertation, devotes each of its three chapters to the examination of one prop from each of the three major tragedians: the shields in Seven against Thebes, the urn in Sophocles’ Electra and the mask of Dionysus in Bacchae. Inasmuch as the shields do not appear physically during the performance of the play, it is apparent that Chaston does not confine herself to the strictly theatrical sense of the word “prop.” Rather, she is concerned throughout with both “visually perceived and mental/verbal images and the way they refer to and connect past and present” (17) in the three tragedies studied.

In her lengthy Introduction (1-65), Chaston clearly lays out the theoretical foundation on which her study is constructed. The first section of the Introduction (6-17) is concerned to relegate Aristotle’s dismissal of opsis, which is done for the most part successfully. (Chaston might have reinforced the structure of her argument with recourse to Martin Revermann’s illuminating demonstration of the role played by aristocratic elitism in Aristotle’s denigration of spectacle: JHS 126 [2006] 106-7.) The abundance of visual terminology in Aristotle’s discussion of mimesis and metaphor is used to show (6-10) that a recognition of the importance of the visual in tragic performance is not incompatible with Aristotle’s views. This is surely true, but it should be pointed out that Aristotle’s use of visual terminology is itself metaphorical (derived from the teaching of his philosophy instructor?), and many of the examples of metaphors that Aristotle cites as “putting things before the eyes” (Rhet. 3.10.7) are not visual at all. When Aristotle discusses the pleasure in mimesis that differentiates humans from other animals he uses visual representation as an example (Poet. 1448b5-19), but the definition of tragedy as a μίμησις πράξεως (1449b24) is dynamic and refuses to be confined within the frame of the visible. Still, it is manifestly the case that audiences in the theater use their eyes--indeed, they are regularly referred to in Greek as θεαταί, “viewers”--and it ought no longer to be necessary to defend opsis against Aristotle’s prejudices.

The second part of Chaston’s Introduction (17-36) describes the various types of images encountered in tragedy. These include not only items seen by the audience--“props” in the ordinary theatrical sense of the word--but objects described by characters on stage, like the emblems on the ships catalogued by the chorus in Iphigenia in Aulis (24), images called to mind by the figurative language of the play, like the house to which Electra compares Orestes’ cinerary urn at Soph. El. 1165 (29), and even the mental dispositions brought about by the sounds of the music (30-31). Many of these types of images, as Chaston briefly acknowledges (28 n. 133), can be found in non-dramatic poetry as well. Her focus will be on the way in which tragedy exploits its distinctive mode of visual presentation to put before the eyes of the audience visual cues that encourage the viewer to make connections. These connections may be temporal in nature, that is, they may relate to what the audience may have experienced in the past or to its expectations for the future (32-33), or they may provoke a recognition of the relationship between the concrete and the abstract (35).

The Introduction concludes (36-65) with a crash-course in cognitive psychology. Chaston subscribes, not unreasonably, to Allan Paivio’s dual-coding theory, as extended in particular by Geir Kaufmann into the realm of problem-solving. We know that the left side of the brain is associated with language and with sequential, or “logical,” processing, whereas the right side is more adept at the manipulation of non-verbal images, whether those images are visual or mental. Tragedy is a unique poetic genre that presents its audience with a complex array of both verbal and visual material, which entails not only the simultaneous processing of the two types of input but also the sequential processing, through memory, of the images generated by each. It is, therefore, not surprising that it was a tragedian, “the mellow glory of the Attic stage,” whose “even-balanced soul” Matthew Arnold praised and who “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” In the remainder of the volume Chaston explores the complex processing of visual and mental imagery that is required of the tragic audience, who experiences this imagery in the context of a sequential and ornately verbal narrative. In addition to using the insights into imagery of contemporary cognitive psychologists, particularly Tore Helstrup and John T. E. Richardson, she is also influenced by the understanding of metaphor promoted by such cognitive linguists as Mark Johnson and George Lakoff.

The shield-scene in Seven against Thebes is an appropriate starting-point for Chaston’s discussion, and it forms the subject of Chapter One (67-130). In the course of the scene the audience witnesses Eteocles’ attempt to solve a series of problems, by thinking with images, and the audience itself inevitably becomes involved in a similar type of mental processing. By taking seriously the shield-devices as mental images that serve to make meaning (and by reproducing illustrations contributed by Tanya Myshkin) Chaston traces with skill and subtlety the progression in the scene from Eteocles’ confident and appropriate responses in the case of the earlier emblems through his response in the case of the problematic imageless shield of Amphiaraus to his (and the audience’s) recognition of the terrible appropriateness of Eteocles’ appointing himself as his brother’s adversary. Chaston is sensitive not only to the play of images in the scene but also to the verbal texture, and her discussion makes a significant contribution to the way the shield-scene takes effect in the mind’s eye of the audience. There are, however, some questionable elements to her treatment. She assumes, for instance, that the moon on Tydeus’ shield should be envisioned as full (86-87), but evidence from vase-painting shows that the moon as a shield-device would have been crescent-shaped: G. H. Chase, HSCP 13 (1902) 102; the device on Munich 1471, which the caption to Plate I.i.a compares, is simply described by E. Kunze-Götte (CVA Munich 7, on Tafel 346) as “rot mit weißem Mittelrund und schwarzem Rand.” More problematic is her attempt (76-78) to connect the circular shape of the shields with the walls of Thebes, leading to a discussion of the fortifications of Athens, which Chaston sees as emblematic of hegemony and empire and hence likely to arouse feelings of “ambivalence” in the audience. Apart from the alarming distance between the starting point of this series of associations and its end, it is relevant to note that Sparta for one was perfectly capable of exercising hegemony and ruling an empire without having built walls.

While Chapter One dealt primarily with the cognitive functions of imagery as manifested in the experience of a dramatic character, Chapter Two (131-77) focuses on the audience’s processing of the imagery generated by Orestes’ funerary urn, which is visually present to the audience when it is brought on stage at Soph. El. 1098. There are illuminating comments (150-51) on Orestes’ willingness to be (fictitiously) confined within the compass of a small vessel, which associates him with darkness and deceit, in contrast to Electra’s “shocking” openness in the face of Aegisthus’ threats of entombment (for which Chaston ought to have cited Seaford’s “The Imprisonment of Women in Greek Tragedy,” JHS 110 [1990] 76-90). The deceptive urn, which serves as visible “evidence” of the death of Orestes parallels and makes concrete the messenger-speech’s emphasis on eye-witness reporting (153-54). The relationship between this prop and the vessels carried by Electra in Aeschylus’ Choephori and Euripides’ Electra is well explored (138-45). Electra’s cradling of her brother’s remains as though the urn were a babe in arms (161-62) focuses the prop’s ambivalent imaging of life and death. More adventurously, the urn is also seen as an image of the head of Orestes (163), the mask of Clytaemestra (167) and the house of Atreus as represented by the skene that faces the audience (170).

Chaston’s approach is most successful in the case of Euripides’ Bacchae, the subject of Chapter Three (179-237). Spectators will have brought to their experience of the play a familiarity with the figure of Dionysus represented as a mask surmounting a column, an image that is exploited by Euripides in increasingly complex ways, as this image is echoed in the mask of the Lydian stranger, the “head” of the thyrsos carried by Dionysus’ worshippers and, finally, by the impaled head of Pentheus carried onto the stage by Agave. The dualities and ambiguities that pervade the text of the play are nicely shown to have potent visual and conceptual analogues. Chaston’s association, however, of the religious extremism featured in the play with Athenian imperialism (185, 191, 216, 219, 222, 224, 228, 231-33) strikes me as arbitrary, a view with which she seems herself to concur, as her use of the very word “arbitrary” (186) suggests.

The volume ends with a brief Conclusion (239-43), in which Chaston refers to the “innovative” (240) way the three tragedians manipulate their props. It is surprising, therefore, that nowhere in this study does its author reflect on the fact that, in the fifth century BC, the drama presented its audience with a thoroughly novel cognitive tool for processing traditional stories. An opportunity has been missed to place the “cognitive function” of theatrical props in a historical perspective. Rather, Chaston’s argument seems to assume that, cognitively speaking, there is no difference between fifth-century Athenians and a population that takes for granted such things as abstract art, the cinema, spread-sheets, graphing calculators and polyphonic music. All these cultural artifacts affect subtly the way in which we process the world around us; impulsive users of MapQuest and Google Earth have a different mental image of the landscape than does Strepsiades, who cannot accept a representation of Athens that lacks jurors and places his city only inches from Sparta (Ar. Nubes 206-16). Chaston provides a good example of a typically modern cognitive image when she reproduces, after David Wiles, a diagram of the “north-south axis” joining the Acropolis with the altar of Dionysus (196), but is there any reason to believe that it corresponds to anything Euripides or his audience would relate to? Studies have shown that “cognitive processes develop together with cultural processes across centuries and continents” (B. Rogoff, The Cultural Nature of Human Development [2003] 281). So, for example, Reviel Netz, in his brilliant The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics (1999), has explored the significance of the lettered diagram as a cognitive tool in the development of mathematical thinking and, in a book published too recently for Chaston to have seen, Iain McGilchrist has produced nothing less than a history of western culture in terms of shifts in brain hemisphere functions (The Master and his Emissary [2009]). I am not suggesting that Chaston ought to have written a book on a different subject but, given the sensitivity with which she treats the interaction between the visual and the verbal on the Greek tragic stage, and given her obvious familiarity with the development of the dramatic genre, it is reasonable to expect that she would at least have raised the question of how the practice of Aeschylus differs from that of, say, Homer or Bacchylides, whose audiences were called on to construct images without the aid of visible props. Also, are the differences among the three playwrights that Chaston briefly outlines (241-42) reflections of the peculiarities of the three individuals or do they represent stages in the rapidly developing new dramatic genre? Still, Chaston’s study represents a valuable first step toward an understanding of how a fifth-century dramatist might have expected his audience to process the words, gestures and props with which he presented them.

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