Thursday, December 6, 2012


Dorothea Zeppezauer, Bühnenmord und Botenbericht: zur Darstellung des Schrecklichen in der griechischen Tragödie. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd 295. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. ix, 295. ISBN 9783110257045. $120.00.

Reviewed by Francesca Spiegel, Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Dorothea Zeppezauer's investigation ventures into a thorny topic area, rarely discussed in its own right by scholars, and discusses the manner in which violent death, and terrible or awful events generally, are actually represented in Greek tragedy, given the firm apparatus of ancient criticism prohibiting the direct show of death, violence, etc. on the stage. The book focuses on the forms of representation that can be observed in the extant plays, forms that circumvent, replace, or in some way convey the awful events around which Greek tragedy revolves, and which yet are not customarily represented on stage directly.

The major sections of the book are firstly, 43 introductory pages outlining the theoretical basis and discussing scholarly and performance-critical strands of theory focusing on audience response, visual effects and dramatic techniques of representation vis-a-vis 'the dreadful' (I use the term 'dreadful' in this review for the German 'das Schreckliche', which subsumes a range of meanings including 'terrible', 'awful', 'shocking', etc.). Zeppezauer's first chapter also includes some reflections on the effect that dreadful sights have on viewers, touching on the psychological interpretation of tragedy and analysing emotions and phenomena such as catharsis, mimesis, and fear and pity, through a tightly focused reading of Aristotle's Poetics.

The second section, which forms the core of the book, starts by drawing up a list of the types of representation of the dreadful that the author has observed and summarising them in a set of five type scenes (laid out on pp. 51-4), and then moves on to an exhaustive analysis of such scenes as they occur in the Oresteia. This section on the Oresteia (pp. 57-110) functions as an exemplary study focused on one trilogy, whereas in the sub- sections that follow, type scenes are discussed in topical order and with reference to examples drawn from many further plays besides the Oresteia, encompassing all three tragedians and in particular discussing Trachiniae, Persae, Medea, Electra, Antigone, Septem, Hippolytos, Bacchae, Ajax, Orestes and Oedipus Tyrannus

Through her practical critical discussion with examples from so many different plays, Zeppezauer succeeds in persuading readers that her categorization into specific type scenes is a valid and useful one. The categories themselves are: representation through messenger speech, through an 'ecce-scene', through an 'iou-scene', through threats of violence, and through the prophecy of awful events.

(An 'ecce-scene' is a scene in which the dreadful event itself (such as the death, or serious injury of a person) is shown on the stage as fait accompli and is bemoaned after the fact by the remaining characters, or in some cases, the characters themselves. An 'iou-scene' is one in which the dreadful event is happening in real time but out of the sight of the audience, while the characters visible on stage express reactions to the horror in progress which they, presumably, can see, whilst the audience cannot.

Zeppezauer's analyses and discussions of both individual passages and whole plays are carefully argued and often very sharp on points of detail, presenting a plethora of learned and original insights as well as beautiful, strong translations into German of all the Greek passages quoted. The argument of the book belongs in the scholarly sub- field which one could broadly label 'audience response theory', or even more broadly 'performance theory'. It is less indebted to the sociological, quasi-anthropological direction taken by, for instance, post-structuralist critics in both the French and Anglo-Saxon regions, and is more oriented towards the German philosophical tradition of aesthetic theory. Thus for example one finds in the bibliography (helpfully subdivided into separate sections) editions and translations (pp.251ff.), grammatical and syntactical reference works (p.257), modern authors (pp. 257-8) and scholarly secondary literature (pp. 258-86), a list of modern philosophical and/or critical works cited, including names such as Adorno, Goethe, Brecht, Hegel and Schiller.

Already the introductory chapter states an especially close focus on Aristotle as a source of information on ancient playwriting, and in the remainder of the book, an apparatus of footnotes draws attention to select philological insights, whilst the body of the argument itself is entirely original, rarely adopting arguments of other scholars without critically assessing them.

In the analysis of the Oresteia(pp. 57-110), I commend especially Zeppezauer's comments on the function of oneiric accounts in the representation of horror on stage (pp.82-7), and the interesting connections she makes with regard to the interplay of dream and prophecy in character speech and the accompanying emotions from anxiety to fear as felt by the dramatic characters as well as the audience. Showing how characters recoil from uttering 'the unspeakable' (in accordance with the dramatic conventions it would be inelegant for the playwright to indicate violence too crudely), Zeppezauer takes readers to a dense and rich section on 'messenger report and insanity' (pp. 98ff.).

Although Zeppezauer claims not to be an expert on literary analysis, she works out a vivid view of the stage action and speech through close attention to imagery and the development of recurring images in the language, as well as striking stylistic figures. In this way, she manages to make the most pertinent use of her literary analyses for the purpose of studying drama from the audience-response angle.

Moving on from the Oresteia to Zeppezauer's discussion of several examples of every scene type, the material is variegated and offers a plausible view of the five-fold classification proposed at the outset. Provided that one accepts the latter, the second part with its wealth of examples from the three tragedians could allow one to form conclusions on the development of Greek playwriting and its use of the different forms to represent the dreadful. Zeppezauer's stated aim is to establish views with the help of, but not with heavy focus on, literary analysis, and in particular to elucidate the audience-response aspect. This aim she fulfils, although it strikes me that more use could have been made of audience response theory as discussed, for example, by Roland Barthes in Sur Racine (Paris, Seuil, 1979) and more recently in Paul Hammond's The Strangeness of Tragedy (OUP 2009). Whilst the book's bibliography lists the majority of works on performance of recent decades in Anglo-Saxon criticism, the argument is blissfully free of jargon.

Assessing the book's argument and use of evidence, it seems to me that further forms exist to represent dreadful events in Greek tragedy. Although I would not argue with Zeppezauer's five-fold division into type scenes, from which I would not substract anything, at least one further dramatic technique came to my mind upon reading the book's title and subject heading. It strikes me that a strong dramaturgical technique in representing dreadful events on stage is the manner in which a playwright construes a plot, how catastrophic reversals occur through the peripetiae of the plot, throwing characters into agony and playing with the effects of suspense, surprise, and anxiety amongst the audience. Zeppezauer might have included an investigation of just this, but it is recognizably outside the scope of her proposed aim and only strikes me as a further possibility in the general study of 'the dreadful' in tragedy. The topic is vast, and allows a great variety of approaches and vantage points , touching upon some of the fundamental questions scholars have asked themselves about the nature and the definition of tragedy and the tragic. Zeppezauer's book offers many insights into the Oresteia and other plays, and represents a contribution to performance theory that stands even without technical jargon. For this alone I would recommend the book to readers of Greek drama, and also for its methodological honesty, conscientious referencing and the treasure trove of original insights that it is.

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