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Choral Ventriloquism in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

Sarah Nooter

This paper examines voice and identity in performance through the use of quotation and vocal characterization in the first two choral odes of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. I refer to these phenomena as “ventriloquism” to underline the effects of the chorus’ “throwing” of voice from their onstage collective identity into the bodies of absent speakers, both those who speak for gods and those that sound like animals. Voice is a powerful individualizing force, each one recognizable through its particular materiality. In allowing people to understand the location and identity of others, voice is paramount in preserving stability in the social world (Dolar 2006, Cavarero 2003). Mimetic performance destabilizes the presence and identity implied by voice, particularly mimesis involving masks that completely cover the head like those used for Greek drama in classical Athens (Davis 2003, Vovolis and Zamboulakis 2007, Wiles 2007). This paper argues that in Agamemnon the chorus extend the capabilities of masked performance to communicate the instability of human voices and human identity in general: their voices are not only displaced by others but are also cast into the dangerous realm of the nonhuman (Heath 1999), adding to the dissolution of social structures at work at all levels of the action. Further, I will suggest that instances of alliteration and other marked forms of repetition and patterning in song draw attention to the grain of choral voice itself and undermine the superficial messages of stability that the chorus attempt to impose.

            It is well known that the Oresteia draws attention to ambiguities of language and communication (Goldhill 1984), particularly its dense and difficult first play, but the role of the voice as more than a simple conveyer of language has been overlooked. The Agamemnon places particular emphasis on voice as a physical or animated presence (e.g. conflicting voices as oil and vinegar, 321-25, Cassandra’s foreign voice as swallow-like, 1050-1) and on silence as a sign of extinction (e.g., the silence of the watchman, Iphigenia, and Cassandra, q.v. Taplin 1972, Montiglio 2000). The play is also unique in its reliance on choral quoting and depiction of offstage voices (Bers 1997, Fletcher 1999), which draws the attention of audiences to the force of vocalized absence as well as to the displacement of vocal presence. The chorus’ songs and statements are ostensibly meant to limit the impact of ominous utterance (Peradotto 1969); yet the embodying of other voices through ventriloquism in conjunction with the marked materiality of their song communicates a loss of control that overwhelms their stated intentions.

            The paper starts by showing how the chorus attempt to locate their voice within a system of authority (Bers 1997, Detienne 1967). Their effort to control their choral identity is also evident in their ritualistic use of refrain (Moritz 1979) and through their attempts to exclude disturbing events and disavow the declarations of embedded speakers. But sound intrudes: in the parodos, for example, Calchas both assumes the god’s voice and also seems to take over the chorus’ own refrain (138); his scream, twice evoked (156, 201), invests him not only with the terrifying force of war (48) and divine power (cf. Il. 1.46-9, Pindar, P 4.41), but also with the inhuman screech of birds (Il. 10.276, 12.207). In the first stasimon, the voice of the embittered Greek people is buried in indirect discourse, yet said to “snarl in silence” (445-51), doglike and dangerous. The chorus’ description of the people’s speech as “heavy with anger” (456) points back to the weighty texture of the sounds just sung about the Greeks’ sons’ buried bodies (heavy in the earth, heavy with alliteration) and echoes inauspiciously the heft from Agamemnon’s embedded speech in the parodos (206-7). Through these and other examples, this paper will show how the play exploits the capacities of voice as a focal point for identity and dislocation, song and speech, humanity, animals, and the gods.

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Voice and Sound in Classical Greece

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