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Objects as Actors

Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy

Objects as Actors charts a new approach to Greek tragedy based on an obvious, yet often overlooked, fact: Greek tragedy was meant to be performed. As plays, the works were incomplete without physical items—theatrical props. In this book, Melissa Mueller ingeniously demonstrates the importance of objects in the staging and reception of Athenian tragedy.

As Mueller shows, props such as weapons, textiles, and even letters were often fully integrated into a play’s action. They could provoke surprising plot turns, elicit bold viewer reactions, and provide some of tragedy’s most thrilling moments. Whether the sword of Sophocles’s Ajax, the tapestry in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, or the tablet of Euripides’s Hippolytus, props demanded attention as a means of uniting—or disrupting—time, space, and genre.

Insightful and original, Objects as Actors offers a fresh perspective on the central tragic texts—and encourages us to rethink ancient theater as a whole.

272 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Ancient Studies

History: Ancient and Classical History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Classical Languages


"Overall, this short, tightly-argued read is brimming with innovative ideas. Mueller engages with a wide array of props and tragedies, exploring props' semiotic and dramaturgical possibilities....This book will greatly aid anyone working on Greek tragedy and performance theory, yet will also delight and challenge a more general audience."


"This is a refreshing addition to our understanding of tragic objects. Mueller’s attentive readings (leavened with discussion of particles or verbal aspects) of familiar objects at times dazzle, while ably demonstrating the value of coming to terms with the life of tragic props."

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Objects as Actors is an elegantly written and original exploration of the function and meaning of props on the Attic stage. The premise, that objects participate in a network of social relations and as such have the potential to exert agency, affords a unique perspective on tragic drama and sheds new light on old debates. Wide ranging and ambitious, Objects as Actors puts the field of classics into dialogue with many other disciplines and makes a significant contribution to current debates among anthropologists, historians, and literary critics about the cultural and social life of things.”

Laura McClure, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Original, provocative, thoroughly researched, and well written, Objects as Actors is the first book-length discussion of tragic props, and it deals with many of the most important uses of them in the context of whole plays. Mueller makes deft use of anthropological and theater theory to produce an innovative work on a cutting-edge topic. This is an important book.”

Helene P. Foley, Barnard College, Columbia University

Objects as Actors is a must-read for anyone interested in the mysterious and uncanny powers of theater, whether Greek tragedy or the latest modern productions. Mueller has succeeded in combining meticulous philological analysis of the handling of props by the major classical playwrights with groundbreaking theory concerning agency, cognition, materialist philosophy, symbolic economies, politics, and sociology. The result is a truly illuminating, densely packed book offering fresh discoveries about some of our oldest literature. From the sword of Ajax to the urn of Electra, from stage letters to tokens of recognition, Mueller’s laser-like probing continually reveals strange and moving aspects of the visual experience of Athenian drama.”

Richard Martin, Stanford University

"Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy introduces a new approach to Athenian tragic plays, focusing on the importance of objects in their staging and reception, and showing how props demand attention and participate as agents of tragic action."

Lilah Grace Canevaro | Journal of Hellenic Studies

Table of Contents

Props and the Poetics of Performance
Props and Deixis
Organization and Chapters

Part I

1 Epic Weapons on the Tragic Stage
Exekias’s Ajax
From Text to Performance: Reading the Sword in Sophocles’ Ajax
The “Deception” Speech (646–92)
Hector’s Revenge  (815–65)
A Riddle Resolved
Weapons and the Poetics of Reperformance
Philoctetes’ Bow as a Haptic Actor

2 Tragic Textiles and the House of Atreus
Electra in Rags
Playing Priam in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon
Silver-Bought Textiles and Sensory Overload
Textilizing Agamemnon: Aeschylus and the Dokimasia Painter
The Weaver Woven: The Tapestry Scene Re-played
From Costume to Character

3 The Material Poetics of Tragic Recognition
Euripides’ Ion and the Power of the Replica
Objects and Interpellation
A Mother’s Symbola
Containing Time in an Ageless Basket
Autopsy, Recognition, and Collective Memory
Signatures of the Self: Signet Rings and Secret Signs
Putting Tokens to the Test in Euripides’ Electra
Grafting Culture onto the Body
The City’s Test: Recognition as Dokimasia
A Nature-Culture Hybrid
Falling into the Present: Recognition and Embateusis

Part II

4 Electra’s Urns: Receptacles and Tragic Reception
Receptacles and Reception
Electra’s Urn and “The Haunted Stage”
Hidden in the Bushes
Somatic Memories and Mourning
Temporal Materialities
Props as Props: An Intermedial Turn
Props, Pathos, and Nachleben

5 Ajax’s Shield: Bridging Troy and Athens
Ajax’s Shield as a Second Skin
Eurysakes the Shield-Receiver
Solon’s Sakos
Ajax’s Exodos

6 Tragic and Tragicomic “Letters”
The Deltos from Dodona: A Hidden Prop in Sophocles’ Trachiniae
Co-opting the Plot: Phaedra’s Deltos and Aphrodite’s Revenge
Reading Phaedra’s Deltos as a Defixio
Epistolary Dysfunction in the Iphigenia Plays
The “Rape” of the Tablet in Iphigenia at Aulis

General Index
Index Locorum

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