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Staged Narrative

Staged Narrative: Poetics and the Messenger in Greek Tragedy

James Barrett
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 274
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  • Book Info
    Staged Narrative
    Book Description:

    The messenger who reports important action that has occurred offstage is a familiar inhabitant of Greek tragedy. A messenger informs us about the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus, the madness of Heracles, the slaughter of Aigisthos, and the death of Hippolytus, among other important events. Despite its prevalence, this conventional figure remains only little understood. Combining several critical approaches-narrative theory, genre study, and rhetorical analysis-this lucid study develops a synthetic view of the messenger of Greek tragedy, showing how this role illuminates some of the genre's most persistent concerns, especially those relating to language, knowledge, and the workings of tragic theater itself. James Barrett gives close readings of several plays including Aeschylus'sPersians,Sophocles'ElectraandOedipus Tyrannus,and Euripides'BacchaeandRhesos.He traces the literary ancestry of the tragic messenger, showing that the messenger's narrative constitutes an unexplored site of engagement with Homeric epic, and that the role illuminates fifth-century b.c. experimentation with modes of speech. Breaking new ground in the study of Athenian tragedy, Barrett deepens our understanding of many central texts and of a form of theater that highlights the fragility and limits of human knowledge, a theme explored by its use of the messenger.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92793-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xxiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Shortly after theIliadbegins it becomes virtual drama for more than 100 lines: beginning with Kalkhas’s plea to Achilles for protection (74–83), the narrator speaks only single lines introducing the characters as they speak in turn (with the exception of one 5-line passage, 101–5).¹ Following Kalkhas’s plea and Achilles’ pledge to protect him, Achilles and Agamemnon trade insults and threats for nearly 70 lines. At line 188, however, these two fall momentarily silent, and the “drama” gives way to the voice of the narrator (188-92):

    Ωςφάτo× Πηλεΐωνι δ'ἂχoς γένετ'᾿ ἐν δέ oί ἦτoϱ

    στήϱεσσιν λασίoισι διάνδιχα μεϱμήϱιξεν,...

  7. ONE Aeschylus’s Persians: The Messenger and Epic Narrative
    (pp. 23-55)

    Although far from satisfactory, the view of the messenger as a functional device is not entirely without merit. Even if we insist that every narrator is a focalizer and as such renders the narrative in question something both more and less than a transparent representation, we can agree that the tragic poets made practical use of the messenger along the lines indicated by J. M. Bremer. In this capacity, the tragic messenger does not appear ex nihilo: he stems, in fact, from a tradition that goes back at least to Homer. Prior to the time ofPersians,there is traditional,...

  8. TWO The Literary Messenger, the Tragic Messenger
    (pp. 56-101)

    In the previous chapter I suggested that Aeschylus’sPersiansmakes reference to an established literary figure who predates the tragic messenger. This literary messenger appears already in Homer and is characterized by swiftness and reliability. More specifically, the messenger’s reliability appears not only as the accuracy (άτσεχέως, atIl.2.10, for example) but also as the fullness of her/his report: a messenger who leaves nothing out performs the assigned role well. Such a figure lies behind tragedy’s use of its messenger, offering a ready-made model that supports the tragic messenger’s conventional claims. But there is more in the tradition of...

  9. THREE Euripides’ Bacchae: The Spectator in the Text
    (pp. 102-131)

    If tragic messengers make claims such as those I have identified, not all critics are seduced by them. In a study examining the various reports from Mt. Cithaeron in Euripides’Bacchae,Richard Buxton argues against reading the narratives of Euripidean messengers as impartial or transparent accounts of the events they describe. In concluding his careful analysis of the messengers in this play Buxton claims that “these narrators too stand firmlywithinthe drama” (1991, 46).¹ From articulating what distinguishes the narratives of these figures, Buxton proceeds to include the messengers with the otherdramatis personaein a single category of...

  10. FOUR Homer and the Art of Fiction in Sophocles’ Electra
    (pp. 132-167)

    If Aeschylus’sPersiansreveals the Homeric underpinnings of the conventional tragic messenger and if Euripides’Bacchaedisplays the ideal form of spectatorship that is the province of this messenger, Sophocles’Electrajoins these two defining characteristics. The play does this as it puts on stage the only fictitiousangeliain the extant tragic corpus. Any study of the tragicangeliawould have to take account of the false messenger-speech performed by the Paidagogos in Sophocles’ play, if only because of its unique status. But insofar as this lengthy false narrative displays in metatheatrical form the practices of conventional tragic messengers...

  11. FIVE Rhesos and Poetic Tradition
    (pp. 168-189)

    The narrative practices on exhibit in theangeliaidiscussed in the preceding chapters are not, in fact, always adopted by tragic messengers. I have argued that the messenger makes competing, even contradictory, claims as eyewitness and narrator. The messenger’s bodily presence as eyewitness—and asdramatis persona—competes to some extent with his claim to extradiegetic status. This contradiction is fundamental to the messenger’s identity as conventionally conceived. There are, however, several moments at which tragic messengers either explicitly deny claims to knowledge or perform a narrative that implicitly makes no allowance for a claim to extradiegetic status. In short,...

  12. SIX Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus: Epistemology and Tragic Practice
    (pp. 190-222)

    IfRhesosshows how a play may distort the conventional form of anangeliain the service of its thematic interests, Sophocles’Oedipus Tyrannusoffers a parallel example of how a play may profit from manipulating conventional form. The play’s second messenger, theexangelos,provides a lengthy account of Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s self-blinding. Thisangelia,however, is framed and punctuated by announcements of its own insufficiency. Conspicuously departing from the practices I have outlined above, this play offers a treatment of the messenger that brings us face-to-face with the larger issues at stake in tragedy’s use of this conventional...

  13. APPENDIX: Messengers in Greek Tragedy
    (pp. 223-224)
    (pp. 225-238)
    (pp. 239-244)
    (pp. 245-251)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 252-252)