BMCR 2020.06.38

Theatrical reenactment in Pindar and Aeschylus

Anna Uhlig, Theatrical reenactment in Pindar and Aeschylus. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. x, 307 p.. ISBN 9781108481830 $99.99.

This is a distinctive and ambitious book, investigating commonalities between Pindar and Aeschylus through embedded speech and deixis. It is driven by close reading and comparative approaches to theatre. Uhlig aims to overcome barriers of genre and disciplinarity by analysing theatricality and performativity. She seeks, laudably, to foster new methodologies for these two authors. The applicability of the term ‘theatricality’ to Pindar may surprise; the methodological commitment is challenging, but usefully prompts reflection on the nature of our engagement.

The introduction, ‘Pindar and Aeschylus in Dialogue’, outlines the comparativist approach, using the work of Rebecca Schneider and Joseph Roach.[1] Performance involves re-enactment; theatre is a disposition: ‘a desire to bring into presence what is absent, to explore the relationships between what is here and what is not, between past and present, between self and other’ (14). Mimesis gives ‘new form – new voice, new body, new expression – to something that already is/was’ (15). Pindar and Aeschylus demonstrate ‘a strong tendency towards iterative, recursive patterns – of voice, body, and action’, ‘to reenact, to bring what is absent into presence though performance’ (16). Schneider’s approach to theatrical mimesis as ‘not not’ is repeated throughout; this is a phrase that is most useful for thinking with temporality and not solely bodily mimesis.

Chapters 1 and 2 explore re-enactment through embedded speech. The overview in Chapter 1 starts with the Deliades in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo: embedded speech showcases poetic values (30). Pindar and Aeschylus are then insightfully seen to share characteristic handling of embedded speech, in both frequency and complexity of use, in terms of i) the isolation of the embedded speaker from an expected interlocutor, ii) the blending of embedded and framing voices, and iii) attendant temporal complexities. Adrastus in Olympian 6 is nicely discussed – though the examination of his present-ness could be amplified through more attention to πάρεστι (line 18): not technically ‘befits’, but ‘is present’. Indeed, the same verb is present in the next passage, Agamemnon 408–31 (twice: lines 412 and 421), where again translation may obscure detail.

Chapter 2, ‘Anachronistic Harmonies’, discusses the parodos of Agamemnon, and Pythian 4. Embedded speech is a ‘mediation on the recreation of voice and identity across time’, ‘a paradigm of performance itself’ (65). Schneider (or rather Michel Serres?) is used for the temporal fold or crease – in theatrical performance. Discussion of Calchas in Agamemnon is particularly interesting, though more attention to how temporal and sonic gaps may belie the homophony of the refrain that picks up Calchas’ prophecy might be appropriate. While the discussion of Pythian 4 is reliant on Nancy Felson’s interpretation, the conclusions drawn for vocal complexity (89) are useful: by owning Medea’s prophetic voice, Pindar’s relation to his own sense of singing ‘today’ (σάμερον, the poem’s first word) is reimagined.[2] Access through deixis to the victor’s own time becomes freshly problematic.

Chapter 3, ‘Vocal Tools’, analyses Pythian 12, Olympian 13, and Seven Against Thebes, via the dependency of ‘vocal surrogacy’ upon crafted objects. Discussion of Olympian 13 is particularly original, though argumentation is dense. The vividness of Athena’s speech is juxtaposed with her gift of the bridle to Bellerophon, who thereby becomes a paradigm for the disastrous consequences of an incapacity to understand the materiality of speech (117). Bellerophon then also becomes a potential model for others’ own relations to Pindar, each time his songs are heard. The section on the ‘Speaking Shields’ of Seven Against Thebes is also stimulating, though the extent to which the Redepaare can be treated ecphrastically is handled inconsistently. That the shields-scene stands ‘as a commentary on the complex structures of mimetic performance’ (159) is valuable, if not perhaps original. Coverage of Pythian 12 is brief. Given the poem’s focus on musicality, more attention could have been paid to the potential relation of embedded speech and objects to the poem’s own structuring of its lyrical musicality. Pages 112–13 involve a mistranslation of the phrase εὐκλεᾶ λαοσσόων μναστῆρ’ ἀγώνων, line 24. μναστῆρ’ means something like ‘incentive for’ or ‘summons to’ (Slater s.v.), not ‘memorial of’ / ‘remembrance of’. The phrase thus potentially has more to do with unfolding collective reflection upon the experience of listening to music – or indeed the processes of our musical imagination in our experiences of lyric –, than reminiscence of performance.

Chapter 4, ‘Somatic Semblances’, explores the agency of performing bodies. It discusses Choephoroi alongside Olympian8 and Pythian 2, treating bodies and tools similarly, following Chapter 3. Dithyramb 2 focuses on the material agency of Athena’s aegis; ‘performing bodies are constituted by and as surrogate objects, not fully one or the other. Their composite status marks out mimetic performance itself as a construct, an artifice, in which bodies and voices are crafted to seem to be what they are not’ (169).

Exploration of Choephoroi focuses on Orestes’ projected snaky self-transformation. Orestes is a performative interpreter of Clytemnestra’s dream ‘as a script for his own future performance’ – though this is ground already covered by Simon Goldhill.[3] The upshot is thought-provoking – ‘the somatic drama invites us to rethink the mimetic reality of what we (seem to) see before our eyes’ (199–200). Nevertheless, discussion might have incorporated Orestes’ climactic vision of the Furies, even as Goldhill had covered vision in Choephoroe (noted: 186 n. 67).

Discussion of Olympian 8 presses continuities between the two authors’ shared interest in performing bodies, and ‘the syncopated rhythms of theatrical time’ (201). The genealogy of corporeal embodiment extends both from the snakes at Troy that serve as embodied doublets with the Aiakidai, and ‘mirrors and surrogates of the wall on which they leap (dance?)’ (210), and, for Pythian 2, from Ixion through to the centaurs and beyond. Temporal complexities are claimed to match the ‘performance genealogy’ articulated by Roach, who is again followed (216). Overall, Pindar and Aeschylus offer meditations on the complexity of vocal and corporeal surrogacy.

Chapter 5, ‘Locating the Revenant’, is generally successful, discussing ghosts in Pythian 8 and Persians. It investigates, finally, the differences between the authors’ articulations of theatricality. The argument again builds upon Roach, but now exerts some pressure. Ghosts are symbols for and articulations of the distinctive complexity of absence and presence in Pindar and Aeschylus respectively. Discussion of Pythian 8, ‘Dream of a Shade’, focuses on the encounters with Amphiaraus and Alcmaeon. The pay-off comes at 238–9, where the thematization of the revenant incorporates a clever re-reading of the well known lines 95–6: ‘Who are the mimetic surrogates who bring the disparate figures – poet, performer, mythical hero, modern-day victor – together to share the presence of a common song?’, Uhlig asks, suggestively: ‘And who are they not?’ The final section offers a neat reading of Darius’ ghost in Persians, ‘a reflection upon and of the very essence of theatrical reenactment’ (249). On this basis, it is then claimed (251) that, for temporality and deixis, Pindaric lyric is more volatile than the relatively stable platform provided by the theatrical stage (251). This idea is not new; but the articulation of deictic and temporal differences between the two poets is a useful and important feature of both this chapter and the whole book.

As part of the still-ongoing re-negotiation of Herington’s ‘song culture’,[4] the book aims to provide ‘a description of how Pindar and Aeschylus give a distinctive shape to the voices and bodies within their compositions in order to reflect on the practice of choral performance – of creating a world of song with voices and bodies.’ It is admitted, moreover, that the focus is intended to be not only illustrative but also provocative: ‘The highly circumscribed nature of this study, focusing only on a handful of illustrative passages from two poets amongst many, does not constitute a comprehensive claim about choral song in its totality. It is, rather, a provocation, with ample space for many more voices and imagined encounters’ (7 for both quotations). Such openness is welcome, though readers may have a range of qualms about the book’s approaches. For instance, it is broadly surprising to find no coherent theory of ‘voice’;[5] the handling of theatricality may feel too loose to do justice to the value of mimesis as an aesthetic, critical term.

Scholars of lyric may raise other issues. The investigation of how Pindar and Aeschylus create ‘a world of song with voices and bodies’ (again, 7) is driven by interest in performatives, J. L. Austin, and Judith Butler: thus linguistics and the politics of embodiment and identity, rather than the relations between sound or music, musicology, and textuality. Uhlig states that ‘the vast holes in our understanding of even the most basic features of fifth-century performance are nothing short of staggering’ (162; cf.163, and the index-entry ‘music and dance, scholarly ignorance regarding’). This risks underappreciating advances made by Armand D’Angour and others, and does not build on new understandings of metre, rhythm, and sound-effect to press mediations within poetic/musical manifestations of voice for the questions they prompt about the lyric ulterior.[6] It is accordingly uncomfortable that the argument is frequently expressed through metaphors of harmonies and rhythms without systematic undergirding. Moreover, the language of embodiment is sometimes opaque: how, for example, should we understand ‘the bodies of their songs’ (218) – literally, performatively, textually, formally, metaphorically? While texts/songs and bodies may not be the same thing, thinking with one may help with thinking with and understanding the other. A new-materialist perspective is adopted in ch. 3 especially, but more space could have been devoted to the viability of its application to lyric.

Absorption of comparativist lyric theory – which, for balance and completeness, would have seemed appropriate – is less apparent. Thinking with ‘lyric’ as a discrete category has become foundational, especially thanks to Jonathan Culler.[7] Culler’s book is not cited in the introduction, but does find a place in chapter 1 (24 n. 13), though without reference to its methodological import, including, especially significantly, Culler’s rich account of lyric epideixis – as opposed to mimesis – and critique of Austin. The diversity of work that Culler’s approach has already spawned poses an unresolved challenge to Uhlig’s attempt to correlate lyric and drama within a performativist methodology.

Nevertheless, performative re-enactment may prompt useful reflection. What are we even doing when we experience such voices, whether or not we are interested to reconstruct original performances? Should we imagine voices on the basis of quasi-anthropological observations of how ancient texts might originally have conjured up a sense of dramatic presence from almost tangible realms of myth? Or can we think in terms of the creative affordances of lyric surface as musical sound or text as we moderns (or indeed those ancients) enact, consume, and imagine (partly, undeniably, through, as Classicists, our desires to know, via the allure of our texts)? There are signs within Pindaric lyric that these latter heuristic attitudes may well be in play, and it is here that recent comparativist lyric approaches have made advances. That we may ask ‘re-enactment of what exactly?’ is not so much a criticism as much as a sign of the level of reflection that these discussions may help further to stimulate.

Methodological puzzles should not obscure this book’s distinctive contribution, namely the suggestiveness of its comparative gestures. And if there is more methodological work to do to press advances in creative thinking about lyric into thinking about drama – including its own lyric aspects – and vice versa, then this can only be a good thing.[8]


[1] Schneider, R. 2011. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York); Roach, J. R. 1996. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York).

[2] Felson, N. 1999. ‘Vicarious transport: fictive deixis in Pindar’s Pythian four’, HSCP 99: 1–31. The debt is acknowledged at 82 n. 38.

[3] Language, Sexuality, Narrative (Cambridge 1984), cited twice on 196–7 without further elaboration.

[4] Herington, J. 1985. Poetry into Drama: Early Tragedy and the Greek Poetic Tradition (Berkeley, CA).

[5] Cf. e.g. Cavarero, A. 2005. For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (Stanford).

[6] Contrast e.g. the approach of Phillips, T. 2013. ‘Epinician variations: music and text in Pindar, Pythians 2 and 12’, CQ63: 37–56; also now contributions to D’Angour, A. and T. Phillips, eds. 2018. Music, Text, and Culture in Ancient Greece(Oxford).

[7] Culler, J. 2015. Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge MA). Also e.g. Michael, J. 2017. ‘Lyric history: temporality, rhetoric, and the ethics of poetry’, New Literary History 48: 265–84; other contributions to Budelmann, F. and T. Phillips, eds. 2018. Textual Events: Performance and the Lyric in Early Greece (Oxford), beyond Uhlig’s own.

[8] The book is well edited, though typos and errors of formatting appear at 3, 59, 89 n. 53, 114, 164 (Pindar’s O. 1, not P. 1), 199, 268, and 269.