Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 20.
Rush Rehm, The Play of Space, Spatial Transformation in Greek Tragedy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 448 incl. 12 halftones and an appendix. ISBN 0-691-05809-1. US$52.50.
Classics, University of Warwick
This is one of those books where the title provides only a partial indication of the breadth of material included; for Rehm's study of ancient tragedy, while pointed towards an exploration of space (in its widest context), manages to include much that will be of interest to students looking for new avenues of interpretation of the plays discussed. It is also a book worth persisting with, certainly beyond the introduction, which at times has a tendency to pretentious verbiage, and in places seems incapable of letting two sentences pass without some equally inflated quotation from other works. When Rehm turns to his main task, on the other hand, it is clear that the eight years taken in its production have resulted in something that deserves serious consideration -- over a hundred pages of notes is ample indication of the wealth of scholarship that lies within it.
Rehm's opening words (p. 1) aptly sum up his theme: 'I base this book on the simple premise that space is a proper value of the theater, part and parcel of what it is and how it works'. To those, like myself, whose interest in the ancient theatre has been traditionally rooted in Aristotle's view of plays as actions fleshed out by character, and who have taken such factors as setting as given, simply to be accepted unless of obvious significance, such a study comes as something of an eye-opener, something that goes far beyond the usual distinctions between public and private, what appears on-stage and what lurks unseen elsewhere. Rehm also underlines (p. 8ff.) the need to resist the temptation to introduce into our study of the genre thought- patterns and analyses that are rooted in our usual approach -- through reading -- a factor that both limits our own view to an internal private experience, and obliterates any sense of what the original audience experienced in the broadest sense of content, delivery, context, and immediacy. As he says (p. 10), 'Missing in a text-driven approach is the simple fact that theatrical space demands presence -- the simultaneous presence of performers and audience'.
In his first chapter, 'The Theater and Athenian Spatial Practice' (pp. 35-62) Rehm examines the Theatre of Dionysus itself and the festival for which it provided the venue before turning to an examination of specific tragedies used to illustrate the five themes which form the basis of subsequent chapters: space for homecomings, eremetic space, space and the body, space time and memory, and finally space and the other. In dealing with each of the plays he draws on six spatial categories that he regards as basic to the Theatre of Dionysus: (i) theatrical space, (ii) scenic space, (iii) extra-scenic space, (iv) distanced space, (v) self-referential space, and (vi) reflexive space. These he defines on pp. 20-25 as: (i) 'the basic constraints and opportunities' of the theatre; (ii) the setting of a tragedy determined by 'backcloth' and stage furniture but capable of considerable mutation, as plays like Ajax, Choephoroe, and Eumenides indicate through the changes of location that their action indicates; (iii) those elements of setting immediately off-stage: palace interiors are the most obvious; (iv) those places which are further removed from the immediacy of the stage: distant cities like Corinth in Oedipus Tyrannos, Troy in Agamemnon; (v) references within the play to aspects of the theatre itself -- allusions to choral dance or theatrical performance, most graphically illustrated by the recognition scene in Euripides' Electra; (vi) allusions to contemporary features of Athenian polis-life designed to draw the city and its workings into the action of the play.
In turning to the theme of space itself Rehm illustrates his first category, space for homecomings, with a close analysis of Oresteia and Heracles Mainomenos (although he takes care to point out that there are several other tragedies where return forms an element within the action). The basic nostos elements here are clear enough: Agamemnon returns to disaster, Orestes returns for revenge and then moves in time and space to acquittal; Heracles returns to rescue his family only to destroy it, before being himself rescued from suicide by Theseus. Rehm demonstrates, however, that there are many other elements in the plays which have a bearing on his theme: in Agamemnon the use of interior space, the creation of ritual space, the manner of Aegisthus' entry (used to demonstrate his role as usurper); in Choephoroe the dichotomy of the setting between the tomb and palace, Orestes' contrasting entry into the palace by deception, announcing his own death only to bring death to others; in Eumenides the shift of scene from Delphi to the Acropolis and thence to the Areopagus (he argues that of these the interior of the temple at Delphi, like Athena's temple, is represented not behind the scene, as usually thought, but in the very centre of the orchestra). In turning to the Heracles Rehm juxtaposes Lycus' threats to send the hero's family to the underworld with Heracles' own return from it. As the hero falls into madness, he mentally converts the home he seeks to preserve into the vastness of his travels, just as his children, his latest quarry, shift their locations within the familiar, seeking safety from his violence. And finally Heracles gains respite from his disaster by a further shift, this time to Athens, just as the Erinyes shift their function, becoming Eumenides, by a similar incorporation into their adoptive city.
In dealing with eremetic space Rehm concentrates on the desolation that takes the stage in Antigone -- how this resonates through the play in reality and image -- and in Ajax with both its shift to the emptiness of the sea shore and the hero's increasing isolation from his family. But how was the vital shift of scene in this play engineered? Rehm suggests intervention by one of the actors, with Tecmessa ripping down the fabric of the tent in the course of her outburst at 803-12, a symbolic destruction of her home that is soon to become reality through Ajax's suicide. Two further plays figure in this aspect of the study, Philoctetes, set on the deserted island of Lemnos but replete with shifting references to other locations and character developments, and Prometheus Bound, set on the very edge of the world, fixed upon the static figure of the Titan, but ranging over the whole earth through those who come to visit him. As Rehm observes (p. 163): 'He is the other characters' audience and ours, just as we are his, a process of mutual observation that runs through the play'.
In Chapter Four, 'Space and the Body' (pp. 168-214), Rehm draws attention to the way that playwrights at times emphasise dichotomies by using the same actor to play significantly different characters, and how clothes and accessories are often used to transform and amplify the spatial entity that is a character. In this he targets plays like Hecuba with its ghost, corpses, mutilation, and prophesied metamorphosis, and Euripides' Electra and Bacchae, where appearance so often underlines developing themes.
In 'Space Time and Memory' (pp. 215-35) Rehm fixes upon a single drama, Oedipus Tyrannus, ranging as it does over Oedipus' life and those memories that nudge the action to disaster as he pieces together solutions to interlocking puzzles by concentrating on important places in his life, each here carefully examined. Finally, Rehm moves to 'Space and the Other' (pp. 236- 69), a topic he regards as over-emphasised by many. Arguing that commentators have too often sought to locate in 'the other' all that is un-Greek or un- Athenian, Rehm demonstrates instead that this same 'other' often encapsulates those very qualities Athenians regarded as their own. The obvious focal plays here are Persians and Medea. In the first Rehm points out something that is often lost in works on the play -- the fact that it was staged in a city still very much a ruin after its capture by those depicted on the stage, and yet it displays a remarkably restrained response both to that disaster and to the Greek victory that followed. In treating Medea Rehm asks what kind of 'other' Medea actually is, examining how Euripides uses space to emphasise the situation in which Medea finds herself and how the play can be seen as a self-referential mirror of Athens in terms of the (mis)use of rhetoric and, in the years following Pericles' citizenship law of 450, its implications for marriage with non-Athenian women. And why exactly did Euripides introduce the apparently new development in the myth of Medea killing her own children? A number of possibilities are investigated. Rehm himself, though, suggests that such a course allows the depiction within the single character of a conflict between the masculine need for vengeance and the feminine instinct to preserve, a conflict that was already making itself felt in the wider context of contemporary Athens.
No review can adequately represent the width of ideas, analysis or discussion that Rehm has managed to inject into this work, many of them inserted in passing while dealing with more major topics. This, in fact, is part of its strength, an ability to combine the wide-ranging with the specific and to introduce a broad spectrum of detail within an overall theme. Of course, there is much that more traditional students of the ancient tragic theatre will inevitably find to take issue with -- myself included -- but a great deal of this stems ultimately from the author's approach to drama as a freelance theatre director. Time and again it is clear that his thoughts are founded not so much on the text as a piece of reading, but as something to be visualised and actualised within the theatre. In a Greek context he stands as didaskalos, but this, after all, is how the ancient record describes the playwrights themselves.