Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.12

C. W. Marshall, Aeschylus: Libation Bearers. Companions to Greek and Roman tragedy.   London; Oxford:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.  Pp. xii, 181.  ISBN 9781474255080.  $22.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Emmanuela Bakola, University of Warwick (


C. W. Marshall’s Libation Bearers is the latest of the Bloomsbury Companions to Greek and Roman Drama, a high-quality series that has proved invaluable for university and school students. It joins the excellent Eumenides by R. Mitchell-Boyask (2009), and, even more so than that book, its method ‘privileges theatrical performance as a means of interpreting a dramatic work’ (p. x). Beyond performance criticism, the book is adept in a multitude of other approaches, which it interweaves effectively with its main framework, and knowledgeable in the vast scholarship on the Oresteia. Despite being a general companion, it goes the extra scholarly mile and demonstrates solid original research and great sensitivity to the Aeschylean text, in the tradition of Alex Garvie and Winnington-Ingram. It is this reviewer’s view, however, that privileging performance criticism and using it thoughtfully and imaginatively is probably this book’s most important contribution. For, as this and a stream of recent publications show, even with the legacy of Taplin, Wiles, Rehm, Revermann and others, performance criticism remains richly fruitful and absolutely necessary as a central framework for interpreting dramatic works.

After the first chapter, the book reads mostly like a scene-by-scene analysis of the play with emphasis on meaning in performance, and with the interpretative engagement with the play’s political, social, religious and ritual context, ancient and modern reception (in a variety of media), as well as modern translation, integrated within this analysis. This combined approach succeeds in offering several fresh perspectives, which is a significant achievement given that the Oresteia is one of the most trodden texts of the Greek literary corpus.

Chapter 1, ‘Theatre and Theodicy’, offers an all-round introduction to the theatrical and literary context of Athenian drama and the trilogy, drawing on the latest scholarship on the dramatic festivals, ancient theatre space and audience literacy of performance. It also addresses classic Oresteia staples, including the mythical tradition post-Odyssey, religious and political context, the playwright and his influence, the extant plays that predate the Oresteia, and the system of trilogies. Moving to the Libation Bearers itself, Marshall introduces, among other things, the significance of the festival context for this particular play and the unique transmission of the text. As several other scholars before him, Marshall adopts a balanced view on the much-debated question of dike in the Oresteia, arguing that ‘Aeschylus does not claim that the gods are necessarily just …; the moral complexity and richness of the Oresteia emerges because there is no certain answer to the questions posed. There is only the problem, and a recognition that human institutions struggle with it’ (13). He also recommends caution against a linear interpretation of the ending (‘an idealized origin-story for the court system’), and insists rightly that ‘Aeschylus does not sacrifice theatrical effectiveness to make a political point’ (12). Similarly, in the Garvie and Winnington-Ingram tradition, he adopts a nuanced and balanced view on the question of the competing divine forces and their influence on human motivation, especially Apollo’s role and his relationship to the forces of the earth (developed later on, at pp. 83f.).

As in earlier publications, Marshall is interested in the interpretative potential of the three-actor rule, especially the implications of having certain characters played by the same actor throughout the trilogy (e.g. Watchman, Herald, Agamemnon, Aegisthus, Orestes). His suggestions are balanced and fair, and at every point Marshall is careful to show that his arguments are not certainties (even revising a previous thesis of his, which is always welcome to see in scholarship). Despite the lack of certainty, opening up the reader’s horizons and drawing attention to further and more nuanced interpretative possibilities is fruitful.

Marshall adapts and uses Wiles’ axis model of theatre space and his emphasis on the centre point of the orchestra, which is effective—although the lack of a vertical axis in Marshall’s version is a curious omission, especially for a play like Libation Bearers. In the Taplin tradition, he pays appropriate emphasis to the skene door and its semantics—but one would expect a more open mind, or at least a more cautious attitude, regarding the traditional view that Athenian theatre was ‘pre-door’ before the Oresteia (20). He ends the chapter with a well-researched section on the reception of Libation Bearers in visual arts, not only vase iconography but also the less-known reliefs possibly linked to the play. The section on reception in ancient art is further amplified in a separate appendix at the end of the book.

Chapter 2, ‘Reperformance and Recognition’, focuses on the opening of the Libation Bearers, and starts with an analysis of its early reception in Frogs, iconography and art, ‘as evidence for reperformance’. Marshall is right to show that the Oresteia must have had a rich reperformance tradition in the 5th and 4th century stages around the Greek world, and that its influence on subsequent drama was enormous. He also makes the attractive suggestion of a reperformance of Libation Bearers and Eumenides at the Lenaia as a dilogy, which would explain why in Frogs the opening of the Libation Bearers is spoken of as the opening of the Oresteia. An important part of this section is dedicated to making the traditional ‘refocusing’ approach to the dramatic setting (as per Taplin) more nuanced and more convincing, an argument developed further at pp. 88–91. Marshall is right to argue that the tomb did not need to ‘cease to exist’; on the contrary, the tomb would have provided a visual cue for much of the complex motivation of the dramatic action. (Later on, at 91, he rightly notes that ‘The continued presence of props [i.e. libation vessels] actively deny that the play has refocussed its setting. The grave remains in the visual field, not in a spatial relationship with the events transpiring at the palace door, but in a conceptual one, deepening Orestes’ ongoing ties with his mother’.) Marshall also makes attractive suggestions regarding the extensive role of mirroring in Libation Bearers, including that the visual representation of the nostos of Orestes evokes that of Agamemnon in the first play; perhaps more convincingly, that the entrance of the chorus of servant women in the beginning of the play mirrors the entrance of the women carrying the fabrics in the Agamemnon’s ‘tapestry scene’; and finally, following Wiles, that the likely removal of Orestes’ shoes at the very beginning of the play echoes the removal of Agamemnon’s shoes in the same scene. Wisely, he rejects modern editors’ deletions of the text in this section of the play, especially the verses on the footprints.

It is in this chapter that Marshall integrates the ‘Modern reception’ section of other Bloomsbury companions, under the heading ‘Further libations’. Here he makes a case for the impact of the Oresteia in modern times through intermediate Latin adaptations of the myth and translations, from the 12th to the 16th century. He also gives snapshots of translation and production history in English and in Italian down to the 20th century, adaptations in literature, music, dance and even spaghetti western. It turns out that the Libation Bearers and the myth as rendered in the Aeschylean version did not have a rich performance tradition independently of the other plays of the Oresteia. This is understandable in many ways, including, as Marshall had shown earlier, that much of the play’s force derives from mirroring scenes in relation to Agamemnon and Eumenides (and Marshall is right to argue that there were plenty more of these than we know from Taplin).

There are a couple of contradictions in this chapter, for example the statement on p. 31 that the skene ‘will be identified as the palace in the second half of the play’, when the chorus have explicitly said at Cho. 23 that they have come ‘from the house’ ek domôn. More importantly, on p. 43, that Cho. 283 ‘is the first mention of the Erinyes by name in this play, and indeed the first mention of them in the Oresteia’. This is a bafflingly incorrect statement, since the Erinyes have been named many more times in the Agamemnon, including at Cassandra’s famous pronouncement in front of the house Ag. 1190.

Chapter 3, ‘Chorus and Characters’, focuses mostly on lyric structure and effect, initially drawing attention especially to visual and aural echoes that could be exploited in performance (62). I fully agree with Marshall’s contention that ‘the analysis is necessarily limited, but every effort to understand the performative dimension of the chorus is repaid’. Marshall does justice to the great kommos as a musical masterpiece (65) and identifies multiple functions in it. In the analysis of the song’s design, he advocates the identification of ‘mesodes’ and the meaning that emerges from considering their correspondence with each other within the song. Although not every correspondence is as distinct as we would have liked, this argument sheds some welcome light. In the following section, ‘Ghost and the dream’, Marshall asks whether the failure of Agamemnon’s eidôlon to emerge (unlike e.g. that of Darius in Persians) signifies something: is this an anti-climax and should we assume that Agamemnon rejected the drive of his children and the chorus? The most attractive of the solutions he offers suggests that the presence of Orestes, instead of Agamemnon, at the tomb would have invited the audience to associate Orestes directly with his father’s vengeful spirit. Marshall also raises the possibility that the musical structure of this section echoes the anapaests of Agamemnon’s arrival.

Carrying on with an analysis of the song on ‘evil women’ (Cho. 585–652), Marshall points out a convincing link between the chorus imagining an avenger holding a sword and the presence of Orestes holding his travelling weapon. This is because he argues effectively that Orestes and Pylades do not exit the acting area during this song, but remain on stage. Other refreshing contributions include a reconsideration of the theory that Cho. 691–9 are spoken by Electra, not Clytaemestra, although Marshall wisely points out that both scenarios introduce new depth to the character speaking.

The final chapter, ‘Matricide and Madness’, focuses on the last third of the Libation Bearers, showing that it ‘presents a whirlwind of activity that is meant to be dizzying to a spectator’ (103). He argues that the action from Cho. 479 to 1076 is characterised by ring composition, showing a distinct poetic architecture and arguing for a conscious crafting by the playwright. Not so convincingly, perhaps, Marshall insists on the distinction between the Erinyes ‘of Agamemnon’ and those ‘of Clytaemestra’ (112, cf. 42); because the Erinyes are forces that incite a crime as well as avenge it, this distinction is not necessary, and indeed, may dilute the central role of these daimones in the trilogy. In the section on Aegisthus, Marshall gives an excellent economical solution to the hypothesis that a second door was used (116), which had been advocated most influentially by Garvie. The issue of the number of doors, I believe, needs to be put to bed now. Marshall’s attention to the three-actor rule comes back in his analysis of Pylades, and he also finds further correspondences between Agamemnon and Orestes (121). In relation to the matricide, he insists on Orestes’ conscious choice, and emphasizes the visual correspondences with Agamemnon. Marshall also makes a good point about the absence of a scream at the murder of Clytaemestra, which defies audience expectation.

The next section of this chapter, on ‘Humor and tragedy’, looks at the shifting of tone in a number of places in the Libation Bearers, as a feature which has not been properly recognised in scholarship. He argues that this should be regarded as ‘transgressive for the genre of tragedy’ (129), making the excellent point that Aeschylus demonstrates conscious generic innovation which should warn one against the scholarly tendency to assign this feature automatically to Euripides. The final section of the chapter considers the possible apparition of the Erinyes in the scene of the revelation of the corpses. Here, Marshall is sharp and convincing on the use of the ekkyklema and the effect of the mirror scene, which makes Orestes’ action evoke that of his mother in the first play. He is also certainly correct to gravitate towards the scenario that the Erinyes did make an apparition to Orestes in this final scene, but (especially given his solid theatrical method) it is a shame that he misses the implication of Cho. 983-4, that the fabric ‘traps’ Orestes inside it, evoking his father’s earlier entrapment in the fabrics of the Erinyes.

The book closes with an Appendix on ancient illustrations of Libation Bearers, a glossary of Greek and technical terms, a guide to further reading, and a selected chronology of the Oresteia’s afterlife.

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