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Choreographing Frenzy: Auletics, Agency, and the Body in Euripides’ Heracles

Caleb Simone

Columbia University

In the startling peripeteia of Euripides’ Heracles, Lyssa—“madness” personified—arrives at Hera’s command to orchestrate the hero’s slaughter of his household. As Lyssa’s powers take hold, she describes them in terms of choreography and aulos-performance (auletics). This paper examines how Euripides uses movement and music to frame Heracles’ mental breakdown. It centers on a close reading of the peripeteia, analyzing the proxemics that spatially orient the aulos music. Lyssa’s music is characterized by compounds that map her frenzied strains in specific relation to Heracles’ body and to the dancers’ bodies onstage (kataulein, enaulos, epaulein).

Critics have drawn attention to the centrality of dance and music in Euripides’ Heracles (Heinrichs 1996; Wilson 1999-2000); Peter Wilson in particular focuses on what he terms the “destructive Dionysian mousike” associated with the aulos. He reads the aulos as an invariably menacing presence which always points to the absence of its binary opposite: the lyre. I argue that the aulos plays a much more variable and nuanced role within the Heracles, one that underscores the instrument’s relation to the body. Offering a comparative reading of Lyssa’s key term kataulein, I show how “piping over” a body can be performed to beneficial or deleterious effect. Furthermore, Lyssa’s appropriation of the aulos’ powers becomes especially marked when read against the instrument’s celebratory contexts earlier in the play. In the second stasimon for example, the chorus associates Heracles with a cluster of celebratory associations, including pipes: the Muses, Dionysus-Bromios, wine, song, and lyre and aulos in harmonious cooperation (673-684).

At her appearance, Lyssa reluctantly assumes full agency for Heracles’ destruction (864-6). She then elaborates the bodily signs of her frenzy’s manifestation through monstrous affects (867-70): Heracles is like a raving bull, head twisting, Gorgon-eyes rolling, breath heaving, bellowing terribly. Finally, in an apostrophe, Lyssa utters performatives to frame the atrocities she will soon drive him to perpetrate: “Soon I will set you dancing more still and I will pipe over you (katauleso) with panic” (871). Lyssa’s manipulation of the hero’s body is thus portrayed as a choreography which she directs as the aulos-player, casting the instrument as the channel through which her powers operate.

In the song that follows, Lyssa’s auletics take center-stage. In dochmiacs accompanied by the aulos, the chorus laments Greece’s loss of Heracles, “who has now been set dancing to frantic frenzies ringing on the aulos” (enaulois, 877-9). The chorus members then position this new aulos music as a reversal of their earlier encomium, explaining that a perverse dance is beginning without Dionysus’ tympana, inimical to his thyrsus, ending in bloodshed rather than wine (889-91). They single out the aulos music that directs their choreography with a deictic: “Ruinous, ruinous is this tune here that is piped on the aulos” (epauleitai, 894-5). Lyssa’s manic music thus not only choreographs Heracles, but also the chorus members as they perform to its rhythm.

Following this acoustic display of Lyssa’s dire auletics, the messenger relates Heracles’ frenzied behavior and murder of his family. I draw attention to the repetition of dancing terms used to describe Heracles’ movements, language that reflects Lyssa’s pledge to set the hero “dancing” as she “pipes over him.” Nancy Worman (1999) has shown how this “spinning” imagery corresponds to a loosening of the secure family ties asserted earlier in the play. A similar pattern of unraveling is expressed musically in the accompaniment, as the pipes that immortalized the hero in the second stasimon now serve as the instrument of his ruin.  

My paper concludes by discussing how tragic mimesis works in Euripides’ Heracles at both kinesthetic and acoustic levels through the play’s auletic accompaniment. Instead of seeing Heracles’ rampage onstage, we hear the aulos that choreographs his off-stage movement and terrifies the chorus. As Euripides’ language highlights the staged enactment of Lyssa’s madness through its auletic acoustics, the viewers are drawn to feel its effects by witnessing the chorus’ kinesthetic response to it.

Session/Panel Title:

Agency in Drama

Session/Paper Number

9.3

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