Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.29

Sarah Nooter, The Mortal Voice in the Tragedies of Aeschylus.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. x, 307.  ISBN 9781107145511.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Naomi Weiss, Harvard University (


On the cover of Sarah Nooter’s excellent book is a visual representation of her voice uttering Cassandra’s first sounds in Agamemnon. The transformation of her own voice into a physical object—jagged black sound waves painted on grainy wood —cleverly communicates her central concern with the materiality of the voice in Aeschylus’ tragedies. In this her book makes a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship on voice and sound in Greek and Roman literature and culture,1 and to the recent turn toward materiality and affect, especially in relation to fifth-century tragedy.2

In contrast with her previous work, Nooter investigates voice here primarily as nonverbal sound emitted from the body. The cover provides a particularly famous example—Cassandra’s cries of otototototoi popoi da; as Nooter demonstrates, Aeschylus frequently uses such inarticulate expressions, along with rhythm, repetition, assonance, and alliteration, to render his famously difficult language as more sound than sense. At the same time, descriptions of sound draw our attention to the voice and its affective impact. Sometimes embodied sound can underscore verbal content, as in the kommos of Choephori, when imagery, language, and sonic effects together produce and emphasize the conjoining of voices, and in doing so push Orestes toward taking vengeance. Sometimes there can be a disconnect between sound and sense, such as when the euphonic effect of multiple near-rhymes in the Watchman’s opening speech in Agamemnon undercuts his language of disruption. Voice can thus be deceptive, but it can also reveal truth, as the chorus of this tragedy suggest when they sing of the opposition between their internal voice’s correct intuition (the heart that “roars”) and their attempts to communicate through language (Ag. 1028–34).

Nooter examines the mortal voice against the divine and the bestial: she conceives of a “mortality spectrum” (85), with human voice situated between the disembodied sounds of gods and the all-body, nonverbal noise of animals. “Mortal” further conveys the fragility of voice, a quality that the cover perhaps also suggests, both with the cracks in the wood and with the single horizontal lines between the eruptions of sound, denoting the absence of voice against its emphatic presence. For voice can dissolve not only into animal sound but into silence, for which Aeschylus was of course famous. This theme—the silencing and replacement of voice—recurs throughout Nooter’s three chapters on the Oresteia: she convincingly argues that the chorus’ encounter with Cassandra in Agamemnon, for example, marks the start of their loss of voice, coinciding with their loss of freedom; in Eumenides Athena replaces the Erinyes’ bestial cries with her own logos, and then with a new human chorus at the end.

The core of this book consists in close readings of the Oresteia. Nooter prepares the groundwork for these with two chapters that reference a more wide-ranging selection of texts in order to demonstrate, first, how the voice was conceptualized in archaic and classical Greek literature and, second, how Aeschylus exploits the potentialities of voice in his earlier tragedies and was recognized for doing so by his fifth-century audiences. Much of Chapter One is focused on showing how frequently extreme, nonverbal vocality was associated with animals, babies, and states of pain and/or desperation; eruptions of sound over sense repeatedly reveal “an ongoing state of vulnerability that is intrinsic to mortality itself” (48). While she includes some discussion here of fifth-century drama (including satyr play), Nooter turns fully to Aristophanes and Aeschylus in Chapter Two. She frames this long chapter with a discussion of the tragedian’s characterization in Frogs, demonstrating how both Aeschylus himself and his songs are described and parodied in terms of bodily affect, especially loud noise; meanwhile the character’s own increasingly virtuoso vocal performance shapes the comedy’s plot. Nooter explains this portrayal by revealing the workings of voice in Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, Prometheus Bound (which she includes as at least “Aeschylean”), and a few fragments. Her rich readings highlight themes that she develops more fully in her chapters on the Oresteia: inarticulate utterances as manifestations of humans reduced to animals or children; the affective impact of choral voices on the audience as well as on characters within a play; Aeschylus’ tendency to grant voice to inanimate things; the efficacy of voice in driving a plot. Though the organization of the chapter is slightly disorienting, with discussions of each play split across multiple sections and subsections, the categorization is important in clarifying Nooter’s project, with its focus on both the nonverbal effects of Aeschylus’ verse (“Voice Performed”) and voice as an object that is discussed and thematized (“Voice Described”).

The discussion of Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides in the following three chapters provides a more coherent and entirely original understanding of voice within the narrative arc of each play. Nooter’s exploration here of voice as a motif, metaphor, and mode of performance makes a major contribution to longstanding debates about the identity, authority, and role of the chorus within this trilogy and Greek drama more broadly. Chapter Three first focuses on three moments of uncomfortable dissonance in Agamemnon: the sonic paradoxes in the Watchman’s opening speech, Clytemnestra’s soundscape of Troy, and Cassandra’s prediction of the “harmonious but not euphonic” chorus of Erinyes (Ag. 1187). The second part of the chapter examines the chorus’ frequent ventriloquy—their embedding of other voices within their songs. Nooter emphasizes the distance between the chorus’ own intentions and the voices that they assume and embody, from Calchas’ prophecy in the parodos to the revelation of truth through sound in the second stasimon. This disconnect marks the gradual diminishment of their authority, until they become entirely ineffective, replaced instead by Clytemnestra, who utters the last words of the play.

In Chapter Four Nooter argues for the reconstitution of the choral voice in Choephori. She reveals the repeated emphasis on both hearing voice and its materiality, in its association with liquids and the earth and in its increasing agency in driving the plot of the play. Metaphor, performance, and action are closely linked: so, for example, Clytemnestra’s scream, the result of a dream in which her serpent-baby draws a mix of blood and milk, first brings the chorus on stage and later motivates Orestes; in the last third of the play, the chorus’ sonic echoes of the final scenes of Agamemnon seem to put the next set of murders into motion. When Orestes reappears at the end, he begins to hear the chorus too well, as their words materialize in his mind as visions that drive him mad.

Chapter Five tracks the progression from the chorus’ extraordinary moans near the start of Eumenides to “the final acts of control, regulation, and assimilation of voice” by its end (246). In this play the corporeal aspect of voice is especially striking, beginning with the priestess’ ecphrasis of the chorus in the opening scene, when she highlights the grotesque sounds and liquids their bodies produce. These have an impact on others’ bodies in turn, both the priestess’ and our own; as Nooter points out regarding the famous anecdote in Aeschylus’ Life about women miscarrying when they saw the chorus of Eumenides first enter, “one can hardly imagine a more evocative way to display the embodied physicality (and liquidity) of one group of females…on another” (256). But Athena defuses this threat by bringing in a new soundscape, first signalled by the trumpet as a prothesis for a new form of human voice; as the chorus’ language dissolves into inarticulate cries, Athena replaces it with Peitho and logos; the Erinyes’ transformation into Semnai Theai is then marked by the resonating chant of chaire. The trilogy ends with entirely new sounds—a new collective of mortal voices and a direction to the audience to use their own voices correctly.

This is an exciting book and should leave any reader more sharply attuned to the aural dimension of Aeschylean tragedy. Throughout Nooter achieves an impressive balance of rigorous philology and more theoretically informed arguments about what voice achieves in each play. Among the wide array of literature she draws upon, I was surprised to find little reference to debates outside Classics on poetry of/as sound,3 to New Materialism’s focus on the agency of objects,4 or to seminal work within Sound Studies, such as Bruce R. Smith on the role of performed and described sound in theater,5 Michel Chion on sound’s relationship to visual narrative in film,6 or Stephen Handel on different registers of auditory perception.7 Yet the inclusion of all such possible intersections could risk a more sprawling argument, when one of the strengths of this book is its tight focus—in its concern not so much with sound more generally conceived but with the embodied voice.

Occasionally I wished for Nooter to talk about voice’s corporeality not just in terms of vocal sounds but in connection with the dancing bodies of the chorus and actors that produce them. This is not to say that she ignores this aspect of performance—in her discussion of the Binding Song in Eumenides, for example, she shows how the Erinyes’ description of their bodies’ movements makes the threat they pose more immediate. But there did seem to be some missed opportunities to elaborate on the materialization of voice through the performer’s body. She argues, for example, that the portrayal of Io in Prometheus Bound depends in large part upon descriptions of her voice and her own sounds, as “[h]er wild grief, her grotesque metamorphosis, and her feminine vulnerability become tangled into one mess of vocality” (63). But both Prometheus and Io herself mix references to her vocal wildness with an emphasis on disturbing kinetics: she wanders, leaps, kicks, and whirls.8 I think Nooter is generally wise to avoid much speculation regarding any sort of original performance, but we do not need to reconstruct an ancient actor’s moves here to appreciate that an audience could be encouraged at least to imagine them through the body present on stage.

The book is well produced and free of any egregious errors. Given that it covers quite a wide range of archaic and classical poetry in addition to the surviving plays of Aeschylus, an Index Locorum would have been helpful. In her concluding two paragraphs Nooter replaces her own voice on the page with a line of Louis Zukofsky’s poetry (“Heart us invisibly thyme time”), which, along with the cover image, provides another way for us to understand her project, opening up questions of sound and sense, hearing and embodiment. But she need not justify this poetic ending on account of any “awkward” academic prose (288), for throughout her writing has its own fine, sonic quality, its own rhythms, wordplay, and echoes, which lead the reader to hear Aeschylus’ verse anew.


1.   Esp. M. Bettini, Voci: Antropologia sonora del mondo antico (Turin, 2008); S. Butler, The Ancient Phonograph (New York, 2015); S. Gurd, Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece (New York, 2016); S. Butler and S. Nooter (eds.), Sound and the Ancient Senses (London and New York, forthcoming).
2.   See J. Porter, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience (Cambridge, 2010); M. Mueller, Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy (Chicago, 2016); M. Mueller and M. Telò (eds.), The Materialities of Greek Tragedy: Objects and Affect in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (London, 2018).
3.   E.g. M. Perloff and C. Dworkin (eds.), The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound (Chicago, 2009).
4.   Esp. J. Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC, 2010).
5.   B. R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago, 1999).
6.   M. Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York, 1994).
7.   S. Handel, Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events (Cambridge, MA, 1989).
8.   On Io as a solo dancer, see S. Olsen, The Unruly Body: Dance, Literature, and Culture in Ancient Greece, ch. 2 (forthcoming).

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