CUP (2019) h/b 314pp £75.00 (ISBN 9781108481830)

There is no evidence that Pindar and Aeschylus ever met, though an encounter in Athens, Syracuse, Aegina, Cyrene or Thebes cannot be ruled out. Had a conversation ever taken place, they would have discovered that, despite writing in different genres, they shared much in common—not just patrons and audiences but an approach to choral performance and a way of exploring ideas through imagery, language and choral song. Deliberately departing from the ‘overwhelmingly historicist bent of scholarship on Pindar and Aeschylus in recent decades’, U., therefore, adopts a trans-generic comparative perspective informed by proponents of modern performance studies (especially Rebecca Schneider and Joseph Roach) to ‘focus on one strand of their commonality, namely the way that both poets use their songs to explore the idea of performance’ and to effect ‘a meditation on what it means to imagine performance, to practice [sic] scholarship as a conversation’. 

Declaring her belief that ‘the particular form of theatrical reflection found in their work is … unique to these two poets’, she sets out her thesis in five densely-argued chapters, beginning with a study of how both share a use of embedded speech (oratio recta) that sets them apart, characterised as it is by ‘atypically asymmetrical exchanges, a blurring of boundaries between embedded and framing voices, and a temporal uncertainty’. U. then offers a detailed analysis of the parodos of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the opening narrative of Pindar’s Pythian 4, which, she writes, ‘epitomize the conscious deployment of embedded speech as a means of reflecting on choral performance’ and as a prism that ‘transforms what passes through it’, allowing both authors to explore the fluid boundaries of time and to ‘transform the ubiquitous and seemingly anodyne poetic technique into a paragon and paradigm for choral performance’. 

Having set out her stall, she now considers how the two poets use material objects (such as Bellerophon’s bridle in Pindar’s Olympian 13 and the attackers’ shields in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes) as conduits through which voice can be transmitted between performers separated by time and space. Like Athena’s aulos, embodying the gorgons’ past baleful lament and enabling it to resonate each time the instrument is performed, and Bellerophon’s bridle which ‘creates a performance that looks both forward and back’, enabling the hero both to recall Athena’s appearance to him in a dream and (in discussions with the seer Polydios) discover its future use, the shields of Polyneices and his allies permit the messenger to vocalize not only slogans embossed upon them but the words of their owners (which he has himself heard in the past), while enabling Eteocles to allocate his forces for the impending battle. In U.’s words: ‘Like the shields, the semblances that find voice in Aeschylus’ theatrical composition can only appear as replicas of what is absent, accessible only through the recursive folds of syncopated time. Through the surrogate reenactments of the messenger, Aeschylus invites his audience to consider the unseen tools and absent craftsmen, whose work gives rise to, and is reduplicated by, the performance that comes before their eyes and ears.’ 

Next, U. considers how the two poets utilize bodies (in Aeschylus’ Choephoroi and Pindar’s Olympian 8 and Pythian 2) ‘not just as objects existing in the here and now, but as things that find expression in surrogates, re-emerging in iterative patterns of embodied reenactment’. Finally, she turns to one area in which the two men’s ‘models of theatricality’ differ: their portrayal of ghosts (especially in Pindar’s Pythian 8 and Aeschylus’ Persians), a discussion that draws on theoretical developments in contemporary performance studies. While Aeschylus’ phantoms are firmly located in space (Clytemnestra materializes at Delphi, Darius at Sousa), Pindar conjures his ghosts (‘the very essence of his poetic world’) ‘into a mimetic world characterized by a spatial and temporal instability analogous to that of the revenants themselves’. 

Although U.’s imagined conversation between Pindar and Aeschylus is, as she acknowledges, just ‘one duet heard within the raucous chorus of fifth-century song’, the book with its many case studies (where quotations of extended passages appear in Greek with a literal English translation, though shorter citations are given only in the original) should prove worthwhile and fascinating for specialists in both early fifth-century literature and classical performance studies.

David Stuttard