Table of Contents and Introduction
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]
How do you define ‘object’?
The book under review is about objects on stage in Athenian drama. Objects on stage can be props — physically present because a character mentions handling or seeing them, or objects that are mentioned but not visible. The costumes worn by actors are objects too: textile objects with the ability to represent, which are lodged in their own materiality and thus surely also ‘objecthood’. Furthermore, the skene, stone pillars, and parts of the physical theatre space are also objects, sometimes representing nothing in particular, sometimes strategically incorporated into the meanings of a performance, or again embodying the fourth wall.
These are just some examples of what a stage object might be, when related to some classic dramatic functions. The book, as I shall discuss, deals with these functions and much more. With fourteen essay contributions and three substantial appendices, this book walks the squiggly line of applying various definitions and approaches to the word “object” through discussing an eclectic range of examples that are all somehow connected with Greek drama.
The book lacks a substantial introduction laying down the groundwork of how to think about objects; as it stands, the introduction contains an announcement of each of the papers and brief summaries of their content. This would be my main criticism of it, although it is also impossible to do so without special expertise in philosophy since the philosophical notion of object has a very long history. As a substitute, here is the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry for “object”.
In lieu perhaps of such a theoretical introduction, the editors provide three appendices of substantial length, of which two are philological occurrence charts. In the first, Francesco Puccio has compiled all occurrences of objects in Greek tragedy, categorizing them into three types: real objects actually used by actors; objects that are only evoked; objects that are not evoked but must be there. Sabina Castellaneta and Anna Lisa Maffione have compiled a similar appendix for the works of Aristophanes.
The essays collected in the book could be broadly divided into two types: those that take a literary-studies approach to Greek drama and its objects, and those taking an art-and-architecture focused approach, working with pictorial evidence and text simultaneously. The third appendix, written by Monica Baggio, proposes nothing less than a grammar of written and visual culture, as a help to navigate the breadth of approaches taken by individual contributors to the book. Baggio’s contribution strikes me as unique and should be essential reading for anyone studying Greek drama.
The book sits perfectly next to two recent monographs: Colleen Chaston’s 2009 inquiry on the cognitive function of props in Athenian tragedy, and Melissa Mueller’s 2016 book on objects and actors.1 This is yet another example of fecund migration of ideas from theoretical archaeology into the field of classical drama studies.
In a discipline that concerns itself so much with objects as does archaeology, discussion of the ontological status of objects has flourished anew at least since 1991, when Bruno Latour proposed the concept of a ‘symmetrical archaeology’.2 In this conceptualization, the human, animal and plant remains, cultural and biological, artistic and non-artistic objects excavated are all placed on the same ontological plane by archaeologists. Biology and culture, human and non-human, all things excavated are valued as equally important and relevant. Lively discussion continues in theoretical archaeology on how, or how much, this approach changes the work of archaeologists and the critical framing of their work.3 Symmetrical archaeology was a reaction to historicist archaeology, which prioritized ancient culture of specific periods, in turn leading to museum displays evincing an image of antiquity based on such biased excavations.
In a museum, objects are part of a curated vision of ancient culture, categorized according to modern systems of cultural classification that perhaps (or probably) ill suit their actual embedding in the distant historical reality that is antiquity. Inextricable from curation, this view of ancient culture leads the modern viewer into a hall of mirrors of ‘prepared antiquity’ more closely moulded in the image of their own Zeitgeist than in that of the ancient world. Here, the supposedly graspable reality of ancient historical culture recoils further and further away from the beholder. Arguing that all meaning seen in objects is in the eye of the beholder, and that objects actually represent nothing in themselves but themselves, cultural theorists critically challenge the idea that objects can be media, or that objects are receptacles of cultural information, that they can contain narratives, myths, or anything immaterial at all.
Objects do not accidentally turn up in a Greek tragedy. In one way, the heterocosm of an Athenian tragedy is like a curated world, a fictional universe hermetically sealed from the real world of its audience. Every object existing in such a heterocosm is part of a curated alternative reality. Encased in a context of state-funded entertainment production and competition for festival prizes, it is clear that very little in Athenian tragedy productions would have been left to chance. Thus studying the objects should yield enlightening results.
This point is proven from the first chapter in this volume, Anna Beltrametti’s essay on Euripides’ Alcestis and the shroud Alcestis wore. Beltrametti’s is an exciting exposition of how Alcestis’ shroud covers and reveals contextual meanings throughout the play, for it unites in itself the two contradictory symbolisms of marriage and death. This dual representative function layers ambivalence on numerous scenes, as Beltrametti shows. Alcestis’ shroud here is conceptualized as a material embodiment of the dissoi logoi so important to Euripides.
Some stage objects, instead of dispersing meaning, catalyze and direct it. The most discussed stage object in recent years is the urn held by Electra (Chapter 3 of Melissa Mueller’s 2016 monograph comes to mind,4, as does Nancy Worman’s 2015 paper on exquisite corpses5). First presented as containing Orestes’ ashes, later revealed to contain nothing at all because Orestes is alive, the urn moves from representing Orestes’ death to representing Orestes’ shrewdness, and, depending on interpretation, conveys much more besides.
Caterina Barone’s contribution on the urn and the casket in Trachiniae argues that stage props are ‘strictly functional to the delineation of character and the development of the plot’ (35). Drawing attention to how both the casket and the urn are closed receptacles, Barone suggests an introspective parallel here with the psychology of the characters handling these objects. This is certainly a bold claim, but Barone makes her case well.
Melissa Mueller’s contribution goes even further. In an analysis of mimesis and costume in Euripides’ Bacchae, Mueller argues that props and costumes give key impulses to performance, even more so than the script. Mueller argues that, rather than being afterthoughts that simply accessorise an already scripted performance, the objects are themselves part of the script. “In the true spirit of Dionysian mimesis”, she writes, “one becomes what one wears: the change happens from the outside in” (66). Some may find that this line of argument requires some getting used to, but if nothing else, Mueller’s approach here draws attention to one very important point about Greek drama and its objects, namely that everything we see or find on a stage belongs to a world of fiction, a forged universe, a world where everything is scripted and carefully calculated.
With Aristophanic comedy, there is a certain amount of direct banter with the audience (although that still was scripted) and personal references to individuals living in the city. Simultaneously, characters like the Aristophanic Socrates, Dionysus etc. are ontologically fictional, and the objects they use and wear exist only as functions of their fictional purposes in a fictional world. Olimpia Imperio’s contribution on cosmetics and objects of female vanity in Aristophanes turns to the notion of how such objects as make-up and silk slippers manage to construct female identity long before anything is said by the character using the objects. Simultaneously, these objects are used by Aristophanes to give rise to the familiar jokes and humor involving gender reversals and gender role switches. Readers should note that Imperio’s chapter concerns itself primarily with the fragments of the Second Thesmophoriazusae, and offers a fully-fledged commentary on these fragments in combination with a focus on objects, so prominent in the fragments. Imperio’s work relates well to the article that precedes it, Alessandra Coppola’s piece on props and accessories in Aeschylus, and also reads well in conjunction with Alexa Picqueux’ piece on clothing and identity in Aristophanes’ Wasps. Scholars of Aristophanes should find these chapters most useful.
Coming from a material-culture angle, Giulia Tozzi’s essay shines the spotlight on architectural elements of the stage and highlights the ambiguous ontology of the ‘stage house’ and/or the stage building as a whole. By shifting attention to the materiality, necessity, and at times creatively exploited presence of permanent theatre fixtures, Tozzi’s paper makes an elegant argument on the coexistence of both concrete and metaphorical representation achieved by one and the same material object (the stage building).
The essays I have chosen to mention here demonstrate well the book’s breadth and variety in terms of methodology, approaches taken, and types of argument. Although such a broad spectrum could detract from a collection’s cohesion, this is not the case here at all. I would recommend this book to all who are working on objects or Greek drama or both. I should highlight that most of the book is written in Italian, excepting two pieces in English and one in French, in case that was going to put anybody off reading it.
Table of Contents
Alessandra Coppola, Caterina Barone, Monica Salvador. Introduzione – 7
Anna Beltrametti (Pavia). Alcesti non aveva il velo. L’oggetto assente che genera i suoi sostituti – 13
Caterina Barone (Padova). Stage Props and the Extrascenic Dimension: the Casket in Trachiniae and the Urn in Sophocles’ Electra – 35
Sabina Castellaneta (Bari). «Un tintinnio di sonagli»: gli “strumenti” della nutrice nell’Ipsipile di Euripide – 45
Melissa mueller (Amherst, Mass.). Dressing for Dionysus: Statues and Material Mimesis in Euripides’ Bacchae – 57
Francesco Puccio (Padova). Oggetti in scena: uso scenico e funzioni letterarie nelle Baccanti di Euripide – 71
Giulia Tozzi (Padova). Euripide e l’architettura: fregi, triglifi e cornicioni come oggetti sulla scena teatrale – 91
Alessandra Coppola (Padova). Le porpore, i sandali, la spada: l’Oreste fra Greci e Persiani – 115
Olimpia Imperio (Bari). Vanità femminile e oggetti di scena: tragicomico disordine nelle vite di uomini e poeti – 129
Oliver Taplin (Oxford). Aeschylus, “Father of Stage-objects” – 155
Monica Baggio (Padova). Tra testo e immagine: il sistema degli oggetti nella Medea di Euripide – 165
Luigi Todisco (Bari). Egisto, i coreghi, Pirria e la cesta rovesciata – 185
Giuseppina Gadaleta (Bari). L’anguilla di Diceopoli ed altri pesci nel teatro attico e nella documentazione archeologica – 211
Alexa Piqueux (Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense – UMR 7041). Le manteau imaginaire de Philocléon (Vesp. 1122-1173). Vêtements masculins et identité du personnage comique – 237
Monica SalvaDori, Alessandra Marchetto (Padova). Vasi magno-greci e sicelioti a soggetto fliacico: riflessioni sulla resa dello spazio scenico – 261
Francesco Puccio. Gli oggetti nelle tragedie superstiti – 305
Monica Baggio. Gli oggetti tra testo, teatro e immagini. Identità, ruoli, statuti – 393
Sabina Castellaneta, Anna Lisa Maffione. Gli oggetti nelle commedie di Aristofane – 447
Bibliografia – 551
1. BMCR 2010.04.41 review of Chaston, Colleen Tragic Props and Cognitive Function: Aspects of the Function of Images in Thinking. Mnemosyne Supplements 317. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010); BMCR 2017.04.27 review of Melissa Mueller, Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy. (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
2. Latour, Bruno, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes : Essai d’anthropologie symétrique. (Paris, La Découverte, 1991).
3. Tim Ingold’s 2007 article “Materials Against Materiality” in Archaeological Dialogues is advertised by the journal as its #1 most cited article. In the last decade the journal has published several articles tackling theoretical issues with archaeological objects, how to frame materiality, representation, etc. For those wishing to read up on the debate I would suggest starting with Lindstrøm’s 2015 paper, “Agency ‘in itself’. A discussion of inanimate, animal and human agency”, in the same journal.
4. Melissa Mueller, Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy. (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
5. Worman, Nancy, “Exquisite Corpses and Other Bodies in the Electra Plays”, BICS 58 (2015), 77–92.