Electra and the Empty Urn

Electra and the Empty Urn: Metatheater and Role Playing in Sophocles

Mark Ringer
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Electra and the Empty Urn
    Book Description:

    Metatheater, or "theater within theater," is a critical approach often used in studies of Shakespearian or modern drama. Breaking new ground in the study of ancient Greek tragedy, Mark Ringer applies the concept of metatheatricality to the work of Sophocles. His innovative analysis sheds light on Sophocles' technical ingenuity and reveals previously unrecognized facets of fifth-century performative irony.Ringer analyzes the layers of theatrical self-awareness in all sevenSophoclean tragedies, giving special attention toElectra, theplaywright's most metatheatrical work. He focuses on plays within plays,characters who appear to be in rivalry with their playwright in "scripting"their dramas, and the various roles that characters assume in their attempts to deceive other characters or even themselves. Ringer also examines instances of literal role playing, exploring the implications of the Greek convention of sharing multiple roles among only three actors.Sophocles has long been praised as one of the masters of dramaticirony. Awareness of Sophoclean metatheater, Ringer shows, deepens our appreciation of that irony and reveals the playwright's keen awareness of his art.A UNC Press Enduring Edition -- UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

    eISBN: 978-0-8078-3793-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Sometime in the fourth century B.C., an Athenian named Polus became established as a leading tragedian in a generation of actors who carried the histrionic art to new heights of public acclamation. The glamour that the Hellenistic theater gave acting led to an increased interest in actors and their personal idiosyncrasies. Many centuries after his death, Polus’ fame was still sufficient to earn him a place in Aulus Gellius’Attic Nights,a second-century A.D. miscellany. Gellius’ story about Polus may be apocryphal. The story’s value rests in what is suggested about one of Polus’ greatest roles, the Sophoclean Electra. It...

  5. 2 Politics, Sophism, and Deception
    (pp. 21-30)

    Metatheater implies any of a large variety of possible mimetic mutations within the design of a particular play. A character’s use of disguise or role playing within the role carries metatheatrical implications if such a phenomenon seems to acknowledge the condition of deception inherent in the theatrical medium itself. A disguise and deception scene like the “Mufti” charade at the close of Molière’sLe bourgeois gentilhommestands as a handy example of such an occurrence. Cléonte’s disguise and ritual not only win him his bride but also allow Molière to send up the unreal, theatrical world of social pretense, which...

  6. 3 Ajax: The Staging of a Hero
    (pp. 31-50)

    Ajaxis generally considered the earliest of the seven surviving Sophoclean tragedies, probably composed sometime between the 450s to mid 440s. Whatever its actual date of composition, it is arguably Sophocles’ most original work, a construct of dazzling ingenuity. Dramatic suspense is created and sustained through the subtle manipulation of tragic convention and from several almost unparalleled violations of expected dramaturgical practice. Above all,Ajaxis a profoundly metatheatrical work, often calling attention to its own status as a tragedy performed in the Theater of Dionysus. This vital metatheatrical dimension forms an insufficiently understood aspect of the play. It reminds...

  7. 4 Trachiniae: Staging a Double Hero
    (pp. 51-66)

    Trachiniaehas long been the most neglected of the seven tragedies, but it has never been without its advocates. Ezra Pound, in the preface to his outrageous but often imaginative translation, extolled the play as the closest of the surviving tragedies to “the original form of the God-dance.”Trachiniaeis indeed a play that has much to do with Dionysus, and much to do with theatrical self-reference. The self-conscious devices that made such an impact inAjaxare used with heightened sophistication and sublimation.Trachiniaeconcerns itself equally with Deianeira and Heracles, with the mythic subject and its self-consciously theatrical...

  8. 5 The Theban Plays: Illusion into Reality
    (pp. 67-100)

    All of Sophocles’ tragedies engage the spectator in the fundamental metatheatrical problem of appearance versus reality. The dichotomy of appearance and essence is one of the favorite subjects of serious drama. By its very nature, drama deals in illusion, in the creative tension of one person or object standing in for or representing something else. As one of the masters of dramatic irony, Sophocles exhibits the keenest appreciation of the often invisible gulf that separates deeds from words and perception from reality. It is natural that someone so attuned to these fissures in experience would want to explore thoroughly the...

  9. 6 Philoctetes: Roles within Roles, Plays within a Play
    (pp. 101-126)

    In the third book of theRhetoric, Aristotle gives advice for oratorical disputation. “Ambiguous questions . . . that appear likely to make us contradict ourselves should be solved at once in the answer, before the adversary has time to ask the next question or draw to a conclusion.” Aristotle affords an intriguing real-life example. “For instance, Sophocles, being asked by Pisander whether he, like the rest of the Committee of Ten, had approved the setting up of the Four Hundred, he admitted it. ‘What then?’ asked Pisander, ‘did not this appear to you to be a wicked thing?’[τίδέ;...

  10. 7 Electra
    (pp. 127-212)

    In his last play,Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles would use his craft to comment subtly upon his position as a tragic dramatist and to impart a kind of immortality upon himself and his dying polis. InElectra, this same self-conscious craftsmanship seems to point in an opposite, negating direction.Electrawas composed during the final decade of the Peloponnesian War, a time when social and moral standards were frequently at a point of collapse. In the second stasimon ofOedipus Tyrannus, probably written shortly after the outbreak of the war, the Chorus fearfully describes a world lacking moral boundaries. When...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 213-234)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-246)
  13. Index
    (pp. 247-256)