BMCR 2017.04.27

Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy

, Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016. x, 272. ISBN 9780226312958. $55.00.


Concern with the performative continues to loom large in the study of Greek tragedy. While this is perhaps a good reason to start contemplating the limits of such an approach, how stage objects could, in effect, act has received relatively little attention.1 As Mueller demonstrates, however, careful attention to the use of props in tragedy—much like the importance of gesture, acting styles, and delivery—can fundamentally reorient what and how we think about tragic poetics and tragic productions. Mueller’s methodology is eclectic (5–6), often proceeds through close readings, and generally hews to New Historicism. The overall result is a thoughtful and well written book about tragic props and their metapoetics.

Mueller highlights in the Introduction how props can be entangled with or even drive stage action, signify “conceptual updating” (4) from earlier poetic treatments and tragic performances, transport spectators both back in time and towards a future recognizable as the present of the performance, and invoke sensory experiences. Mueller posits “experienced theatergoers” (2), whose grounded knowledge of theater enabled a performance’s complex reanimation of past works and whose existence supports Mueller’s readings of tragic props in terms of their nuanced agency and residual meanings derived from past performances; Marvin Carlson’s work on the recycling of dramatic material and the resultant “haunting” and “ghosting” effects provides conceptual orientation throughout.2 Acknowledgment of the “uncanny power” (6) of props, most clearly called into being onstage through the use of deictics, is essential to deciphering their intertheatrical role in generating tragic action.

Chapter 1 unravels the mysterious agency of Hector’s sword in Sophocles’ Ajax. Indeed, the particular emphasis placed on Ajax’s sword as an antagonist was rather anomalous and, as in Exekias’ earlier painting of Ajax’ suicide, marked a dramatic innovation. Elaborating Alfred Gell’s notion of “distributed personhood,” in which objects exhibit a certain social agency and embody human behaviors, Mueller shows that the exchange of weapons between Hector and Ajax in Iliad 7 marked a cessation of fighting that is nonetheless continued through the sword’s mysterious power, which simultaneously marks Ajax’s loss of autonomy in Sophocles; Hector’s haunting of the sword ultimately destroys Ajax.3 Mueller argues (23–29) that verbal clues in the play transport spectators back to the Homeric exchange, which now—as Ajax comes to realize—reaches its conclusion by undoing him. This provides a valuable updating of Ajax’s “deception speech” and his “decision” to commit suicide: close analysis of the theatrical valence of the sword resolves the riddle of Ajax’s performance. Finally, the traditional merging of the warrior’s “autonomous self” (35) with his armor, as expressed on Geometric vases, is briefly contrasted with Euripides’ Heracles, whose eponymous hero consciously decides to keep his tainted weapons to mark his tragic dilemma, and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, where the bow’s historical ability to forge affective relations converts Neoptolemus to Philoctetes’ side. The antagonistic agency of Ajax’s sword similarly marks Sophocles’ departure from previous tragic treatments and entangles the hero in conflicting temporalities.

The role of the fabrics in the carpet scene in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and its reception in Sophocles’ and Euripides’ Electra is the focus of Chapter 2. Mueller’s mode of intertheatricality explains subsequent interest in the “signifying potential of cloth and clothes” (48) as a critical response to Aeschylus’ play. For example, the skillful manipulation of props by the Euripidean Electra, her self-imposed austerity, and disdain for her mother’s luxuries provide a “sort of meta-commentary” (68) on Clytemnestra’s (ab)use of wealth in Aeschylus; a similar recycling of the sartorial imagery surfaces in Sophocles with Aegisthus’ appropriation of Agamemnon’s clothing. The Aeschylean fabrics themselves embody labor that is nonetheless occluded in the fetishization of what Agamemnon calls the “silver-bought weavings” (52) and for Clytemnestra problematically represent the household’s infinite wealth. Mueller demonstrates how these characters’ interpretations are insufficient in light of the uncanny agency of the fabrics, which appear to overload the senses of Agamemnon (and perhaps even smelled of the putrefying sea creatures used to make the dye) and rebound on Clytemnestra in Choephoroi. Attention to the materiality of performance underscores how props —similar to the way in which costume can create characters (67–68; cf. 58–60)—act as onstage interlocutors.

Chapter 3 explores the recognition scenes in Euripides’ Ion and Electra with a focus on the material objects subtending the poetics of identity that interweave personal and political narratives. Starting from the premise that objects can “interpellate” (Althusser) a subject, Mueller suggests that when Ion examines the recognition tokens in the basket the audience sees them too (82), thereby transforming a private moment of recognition into a public display/replay of Athens’ legendary past—a process of interpellation in which Ion and the “Athenians” recognize who they are. It is unclear, however, how this process relates to the play’s simultaneous critique of Athenian values.4 In Electra the family’s recognition tokens are sidelined in favor of criteria approved by the city; indeed, Mueller notes that these tokens were not visible (91, 107). Not determined purely by culture or nature and not linked to an exclusive social identity (as with the other tokens), Orestes’ scar provides an “acquired” sign that emerges as the “perfect token of recognition for the democratic age” (98). Mueller links the Old Man’s inspection of Orestes to the dokimasia, the civic ritual of vetting a man’s right to citizenship and public office, while noting the ritual’s disregard for qualitative distinctions among citizens. Rather than reflecting Orestes’ questionable heroism or juvenility, the scar in this reading foregrounds grafting the democratic city’s forms of legitimacy on heroic narratives.

In Chapter 4 we turn to Sophocles’ Electra and the urn, a prop that metonymically recalls past dramatic treatments and metaphorically addresses the illusions of the theatrical event. Mueller shows how Sophocles’ urn exploits audience familiarity with Aeschylus’ Choephoroi while also complicating it by having the urn “hidden somewhere in the bushes,” as Orestes tells the Tutor: the urn thus emerges as a “material actor” (119) whose potential was not previously realized. Here the urn becomes a vehicle for Electra’s working through of her sorrows: emphasis on her hands and frequent deictics underwrite the physicality of the prop, which triggers comparisons with mourning maternal figures (e.g., Niobe) and unleashes autobiographical memories spanning past and present. And yet the emptiness of the urn encourages us to attend to the object’s “self-reflexivity qua signifier,” potentially revealing the “fictionality…at the very core of the tragic recognition scene” (128). Props can also influence the future, as subsequent performances (e.g., Polus’ famous version: 112–13) and theater-related vase-paintings marshal the prop’s affective associations to accentuate Sophocles’ innovations (e.g., Electra as mourning maternal figure) and to tease out the emotional complexity of this character. With this “overlooked object” now transformed into a “character-defining prop” (132), Sophocles’ play encourages us to reflect on the process of creating tragic poetry through the innovative use of this object.

Whereas the discussion of the sword in Sophocles’ Ajax in Chapter 1 evoked its problematic epic lineage, Mueller considers his shield in Chapter 5 in terms of the reception of the hero in democratic Athens as one of the eponymous tribal heroes. As a “second skin” (135) the shield merges with Ajax in epic poetry, thus blending “human and material actors” (139); but in the play, once separated from his body, the shield becomes a symbol entangled with Athens’ cultic and political realities. Pointing to the relationship between father and son and that between the “shield-bearing men” of the chorus ( Ajax 565) and Ajax, Mueller suggests the shield becomes a “metaphor for political cohesion” and the staging of these relations proleptically signals the “cult of the Aiantids” (144). This metaphor can be traced back already to Solon and his invocation of the sakos (fr. 5 West) as a means to reconcile opposed classes; details of the shield’s manufacture in the play further contribute to its (hybrid) status as a “heroic-hoplite weapon” (146), bridging epic past and civic present through the transformation of Ajax into a cult hero through the transmission of the shield via Eurysakes. The play’s final tableau finds a striking parallel in the iconography on a fourth-century documentary decree, thus extending the play and Ajax’s shield into the lived experiences of the Athenian audience. Mueller’s attention to civic discourse and identity does, however, downplay the social tensions inherent in the tragic construction of such ideals.

The last chapter makes a case for writing tablets ( deltoi) as props with which to reflect on the process of plotting and composing tragic poetry. Whereas in Sophocles’ Trachiniae the deltos)—a “hidden prop” that prescribes tragic events unfolding onstage in tandem with the centaur Nessus’ instructions enacted by Deianeira— serves as a metaphor for an “oracular script” (157) and synchs human and divine temporalities, Euripidean deltoi symbolize the plays’ contested outcomes. Rather than underscoring the scripted and thus preordained nature of tragedy, Phaedra’s tablet works pre-emptively to undercut Hippolytus’ potential slander and to teach him to practice sophrosune ( Hippolytus 731)—not simply to punish him. Mueller emphasizes the tablet’s “animacy” (169) by delineating Phaedra’s agency from the tablet’s legibility to Theseus: through this gap embodied in the prop (unreadable to the audience) Phaedra’s self-defense is transfigured into Hippolytus’ destruction. In a detailed analysis Mueller argues that the deltos is capable of such animacy through its close resemblance to a curse tablet; viewed as a form of “pre-emptive judicial strike” (177), the tablet underwrites the tension between Phaedra’s self- defense and Aphrodite’s retributive punishment of Hippolytus.5 Through its verbal echoes with Iphigenia’s prologue, the deltos from which the eponymous heroine later reads in Iphigenia among the Taurians serves as a mise en abîme of the play, thus calling attention to the usually invisible creation of dramatic dialogue. The struggle over Agamemnon’s tablet in Iphigenia in Aulis signifies a contest over the maiden’s sacrificial body and thus a metapoetic struggle over the play’s outcome; the prop embodies the overdetermination of possible scenarios.

The Epilogue briefly notes the interest in the agency of props and their (potentially dangerous) personhood in Athens. Given this emerging consciousness of objects, tragic props acquired more complex roles including their performance of metapoetic work.

Although Mueller’s analysis is cogent as far as it goes, I was at times curious about the relationship between tragic props and additional aspects of the plays. For example, despite the democratic vetting of the somewhat shabby Orestes and his identification by means of the scar (not the tokens), he is nonetheless hailed as an elite hero in Euripides’ Electra (e.g., 850–77); does this trajectory complicate the disavowal of distinctions between citizens in the dokimasia (cf. 97)? And perhaps despite the generally New Historicist approach (e.g., 5), discussion of the political is rather narrow.6 For example, recourse to the “city” as an abstract political entity elides social tensions amply documented in extant sources; thus the idea that Ajax’s shield serves as a metaphor of “political cohesion” (144) overlooks the structure of (class) dependency between the Salaminian sailors and their leader (cf. 143). Symptomatic is the invocation of Althusser (73–74) untethered from his reflections on ideology and the role of interpellation in (re)producing consent to the status quo.7 The idea of objects “hailing” a subject is a helpful addition to our understanding of tragic performance, but the erasure of class struggle (in Althusser’s case) or other forms of social conflict renders illegible the contested social conditions to which these objects respond through their intervention onstage as props; what is at stake with this particular construction of the subject?8 This erasure also affects the book’s invocation of spectators (i.e., the “interpellated”), who are often defined as “Athenian” (e.g., 79, 84, 140) in order to isolate the meaning of particular props. And if props can collaborate in the construction of a collective identity, I was left wondering about the role of fantasy in shaping subject-object relations. Mueller’s thought-provoking discussion helpfully teases out such questions about the connections between props and the political.

This is a refreshing addition to our understanding of tragic objects. Mueller’s attentive readings (leavened with discussion of particles or verbal aspects) of familiar objects at times dazzle, while ably demonstrating the value of coming to terms with the life of tragic props.


1. C. Chaston (2010), Tragic Props and Cognitive Function: Aspects of the Function of Images in Thinking (Leiden); BMCR 2010.07.41. See also G. Harrison and V. Liapis, Performance in Greek and Roman Theatre (Leiden, 2013); BMCR 2013.11.27.

2. For a related approach to tragic poetics see I. Torrance (2013), Metapoetry in Euripides (Oxford); BMCR 2014.07.03. “Haunting” effect: M. Carlson (2001), The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor).

3. A. Gell (1998), Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford).

4. See e.g. K. Lee (1997), Euripides Ion (Warminster), 35–36. Discussion of Ion adapted from Mueller (2010), “Athens in a Basket: Naming, Objects, and Identity in Euripides’ Ion,” Arethusa 43: 365–402.

5. Discussion adapted from Mueller (2011), “Phaedra’s Defixio : Scripting Sophrosune in Euripides’ Hippolytus,” Classical Antiquity 30: 148–177.

6. Mueller mostly (cf. Chapter 2) eschews economic considerations (e.g., exchange value or production), which could help unpack the “uncanny” nature of tragic objects; cf. J. Harris and N. Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge 2002).

7. See e.g. P. Rose (2006), “Divorcing Ideology from Marxism and Marxism from Ideology: Some Problems,” Arethusa 39: 101-136.

8. Interpellation draws on pre-existing historical conditions, and resistance to it, however fleeting, can undermine the state’s internal coherence; see e.g., K. Silverman (1992), Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York, 1992).