Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 14.
James Barrett, Staged Narrative: Poetics and the Messenger in Greek Tragedy. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. xxiv + 250 incl. an appendix, list of works cited, index locorum and general index. ISBN 0-520- 23180-5. US$49.95; UKú35.00.
P. J. Conradie
Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch
The messenger in Greek tragedy is frequently regarded as a conventional figure who, in epic style, gives an objective report of events off-stage. In this book James Barrett shows that matters are more complicated. He traces the origin of the tragic messenger back to the epic and lyric poet for whom he uses the term 'literary messenger'. 'This literary messenger is swift, reliable and tells all' (p. 23). The poet appeals to the authority of the Muses. The tragic messenger thus depends on the narrative practices of epic and claims the privileged status of the literary messenger. He is, however, but one of many voices in the play and relies on what he has seen himself. He does not always tell the whole story and sometimes it would have been impossible for him to have seen all he tells. Consequently the tragic messenger in his narrative sometimes removes himself from the action -- a process which Barrett calls 'self-effacement' or 'disembodiment'. He is caught between his claim to be present at all events and his need to absent himself. Therefore Barrett concludes that ' the messenger makes competing, even contradictory claims as eye-witness and narrator' (p. 168). As a good example of the problems raised the messenger-speech in the Persians is analysed. This messenger admits more than once that he cannot tell the whole story. At the same time he gives a large-scale view of the battle, but can also give a close-up view of a warrior's beard (p. 33).
In the introduction Barrett states: ' . . . the angelia finds itself the subject of a substantial amount of self-directed commentary staged by the plays' (p. 22). In the second part of the book he examines the relation between the messenger-speech and the rest of the play in four tragedies. The Bacchae is analysed from a meta-theatrical point of view. While Pentheus desires to become a spectator but fails disastrously, the messengers in the play, the herdsman and the servant, share the privilege of being spectators; they see but are unseen. With regard to the Electra of Sophocles the author discusses the influence of Homer at length, especially the parallels between Orestes and Odysseus. The messenger-speech of the paidagogos has become 'a self-conscious staging of tragic convention' (p. 133). In the Rhesos the messenger differs radically from the normal one who describes what has happened and is himself invulnerable, for the charioteer does not see how Rhesos is killed and is himself wounded. This exception confirms the rule. The play ostensibly tries to revive the reputation of Rhesos but in the end 'reveals this figure to be the hollow coughing up of its own sense of absurd humor' (p. 174). In the Oedipus Tyrannus the conventional figure of the messenger is manipulated. The Corinthian looks like a typical messenger but does not deliver a messenger-speech. The exangelos calls attention to his report as flawed and incomplete. Since Jocasta closed the doors he did not see how she committed suicide. Oedipus also attempts to make the hidden visible and in this respect his task is parallel to that of the messenger. Both figures can be seen 'as part of the plays larger commentary on the limits of human knowledge and speech ' (p. 204).
This book presents the reader with a thorough study of the characteristics of the messenger-speech in tragedy. The author makes good use of the existing books and articles on this subject which until recently has been strangely neglected. He treats extensively the relations between the epic narrator and the tragic messenger. Especially fascinating is his discussion of the tragic messenger's claim to omnipresence and omniscience and the realities of his position as an eye-witness.
The book is user-friendly in that all Greek quotations are translated by the author, but one may well object to the all too frequent use of the jargon of modern literary theory, with terms like 'extradiegetic' which sometimes make it difficult for the ordinary reader to follow the argument. There are also instances in which the author, with his interest in intertextuality, seems to press the textual reminiscences too far, such as when Orestes in Sophocles' Electra chooses trickery instead of force, Barrett remarks: ' . . . while explicitly adopting the ways of Odysseus and departing from those of his father, Orestes in fact adheres to (the Odyssean) Agamemnon's advice' (p. 147). This tendency is especially noticeable in the second part of the book. On the whole, however, this is a challenging book which should inspire new research.