Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 5.

C.A.E. Luschnig, The Gorgon's Severed Head. Studies of Alcestis, Electra, and Phoenissae. Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1995. Pp. 255. ISBN 90-04- 10382-1. NLG121.00 / US$78.00.

Elizabeth Craik
University of St. Andrews

Luschnig's previous monograph was in essence a literary commentary on Hippolytus;[[1]] the present work accords similar treatment to three further plays, from different stages of Euripides' career. The book's three component chapters are loosely strung together. The Gorgon of Alc. 1118, El. 458-62, El. 856 and Ph. 456 (cited initially with a passage from Ryman's Was, 'there are only two genres that can deal with family life . . . comedy . . . [and] . . . horror'; and followed by the further prefatory citation, 'gods get bored with men who have no stories') promises but fails to provide a thematic link. The end of the introduction ('Only the mask is fixed, like a statue, the Gorgon's victim turned to stone. A horror story is better than no story at all. The gods will not be bored.' [p. xv]) is a mannered verbal echo of these mannered citations, strong on sound but weak on sense; as specimens of Luschnig's style, we may compare these similar typical sentences: 'Only art can defeat death and despair' (p. xiii), and 'The moaning is the meaning' (p. 243).

The assemblage of allegedly common elements (p. xiv) is arbitrarily contrived and for the most part extremely general: 'All show past and present, tradition and truth in conflict. All show characters acting to escape the stories in which they find themselves. All make innovative use of the spaces, real and imaginary, of the stage and the scene building. All have presented critics with generic doubts. And finally, all three are about women who are moral agents, women who do significant acts in the world, who act within their traditional stories and within their socially imposed roles and at the same time defy them and create them anew.' The epilogue is no more convincing than the introduction in finding common ground and echoes its misguided notions on dramatic character: 'These three women add to the stories of which they are part. They were created to examine the traditional stories and to keep them alive' (p. 243).

Relations between Alcestis and Admetus (who rebuilds 'a better self because it includes the feminine'; between Electra and Orestes (who becomes 'a male clone of his sister' and between Oedipus and Jocasta (who becomes 'a sharer in the grand failure of Oedipus, not just a victim') are explored (p. 243). In all this, character handling is a prime concern; but Luschnig has little to say of the dramatist's craft, taking the view that characters are autonomous agents or victims, often likened to 'ordinary' people from 'real life', or even to 'us' and to 'the rest of us', more or less 'comfortable' in their roles, which they themselves adapt and redefine (passim). Thus, in Alcestis there is 'self-conscious artistry of the main characters in creating new roles for themselves' (p. 5); in Electra 'even a farmer's wife can create a story for herself to give more glamour to her life and the dignity of a history . . . Electra created the characters to fit the story she had to be part of . . . and she killed off or traumatized her fictions and herself . . .' (pp. 155-6). There is pervasive woolly thinking on the relation of character to plot, and of plot to myth; and no attention is paid to the character versus personality debate.

In the index, these elements are common to the discussion of the three plays: Audience; Chorus; Equality; Gender Roles; House or Family [OI)=KOJ]; Knowledge (and Ignorance, Alc.; and Recognition, EL.; and Perception, Ph.); Polarities; Ritual; and Time or Timing. Those which are not simply catch-all show a concern with 'gender' and related matters. Luschnig concludes that the fifth century 'dominant ideology' (which 'included the suppression of women') was 'a straw man, a pawn to be manipulated by the critics' ([p. 242] -- a remarkable mixed metaphor) and so 'the plays . . . are not just phallocratic documents in the history of the repression of women to be read as proof texts of our retrogrievances' but are 'subtle and subversive'; also 'most of all they are self- conscious' (p. 243).

On the individual plays, the arrangement is primarily sequential, and the running commentary is on the whole clear. There is much sensible resume/ of thematic terms and concerns (as on pp. 203, 214, 222); questions such as 'what is accomplished in this scene?' are carefully addressed (as on pp. 61, 218); and on a line to line basis much useful material is assembled, with solid bibliographical underpinnings, reinforced in the references for each play. Most of this is conservative and derivative, but there are a few novel observations or suggestions (as p. 66, on tableau staging). There are some linguistic errors (impossible etymology canvassed for Antigone, p. 180, n. 57; mistranslation of Aristophanes, p. xiv; misunderstanding of Euripides' use of TUGXA/NEIN p. 180 and elsewhere); and there is much otiose repetition in the notes. Luschnig makes occasional use of such terms as intertextuality (p.87, n. 6), semeiotically (p. 217), and metatheatre (pp. 93, 118, 124); but does so tentatively and without conviction.

Overall, the monograph cannot be given an ecstatic welcome, as two of the three studies recapitulate the author's earlier publications;[[2]] while the third (on Ph., which Luschnig admits to finding 'intractably unlovable', p. xiv and 'ungainly', p. 161) draws heavily on, and adds little to, the interpretations of other critics, including this reviewer.


[[1]] C.A.E. Luschnig, Time Holds the Miror: A Study of Knowledge in Euripides. (Leiden, 1988).

[[2]] C.A.E. Luschnig, 'Electra's Pot and the Displacement of the Setting in Euripides' Electra', Dioniso 62.1 (1992) 7-27; C.A.E. Luschnig, 'Playing the Others: The Mythological Confusions of Admetus', Scholia ns 1 (1992) 12-27.