For two-and-a-half plays of the Oresteia the set-building, skēnē, enacts a defined material identity as three prominent physical houses: first of Agamemnon, then of Apollo, and finally of Athena. Each occupies a different location and topography. But in the final shift to Orestes’ trial at the Areopagus (Eum. 566), the skēnē loses a clear identity and seems to go blank. This is especially striking since Aeschylus’ 458 BCE trilogy establishes the identity of the newly introduced set-building (Taplin 1977, 452–59) as a house — oikos or domos — an identity it maintains consistently throughout later Attic tragedy, even when representing a different structure (such as cave, tent, or temple, as Bassi 1999, 426 comments).
This paper argues that Aeschylus exploits the constructed identity of the skēnē as house to cast it as a fourth house at the end of the Oresteia, namely one for the Eumenides. My reading relies on a recognition of the skēnē as frame for enacted meaning, to adopt Peter Meineck’s cognitive vocabulary for interpreting the anchoring capacity of tragic masks (Meineck 2018, 79–111). Attention to the surrounding environment of the Athenian Acropolis, such as Rush Rehm has suggested, attunes us to essential context for the skēnē’s ultimate development as a house for the Eumenides. This paper proposes that the new identity emerges concretely enough that it is possible the Eumenides, in procession with Athena, exited through the skēnē itself. As Télo and Mueller’s collected 2018 volume has suggested for other non-living entities, scholars can and should approach the skēnē as a material thing that partakes in performance, rather than dissolving into a backdrop.
The mutability and vulnerability of each house’s identity on stage is essential to its enacted presence in the Oresteia. Agamemnon’s chorus watches the violent demolition of Agamemnon’s house (Ag. 1530–4) that is then described as “razed” (Choe. κατασκαφαὶ δόμων 50) in rehearsal of the description of the razing of Priam’s Trojan household (Ag. 525, cf. 536). When the skēnē converts from Agamemnon’s house to Apollo’s Erinys-beleaguered temple, characters continue to refer to it as domos (35, 60, 179, 185, 207, and 577), constructing a symmetrical relationship with the iconically unstable human household. At Athens Orestes comes to the goddess’ “house” (δῶμα 242) where he embraces her wooden cult statue, bretas. By projecting Athena’s house upon the same skēnē as Agamemnon’s, Aeschylus has the opportunity to evoke the vulnerability of Athena’s space. Here the immediate environment might remind the audience that destructive fire from the East, earlier evoked by the beacon chain (Ag. 281–316, see Tracy 1986), had indeed ravaged Athena’s house: atop the Acropolis Athena Polias’ temple remained in its demolished state from the Persian sack. Even if some remnant housed the cult statue (Ferrari 2002, 11–35), the skēnē’s enacted presence is fragmentary according to the audience’s consciousness of their surroundings.
Defining Athenian topography at this moment were not only buildings destroyed in the Persian sack but also emerging ones such as the colossal Athena statue (Meineck 2013, 174). Interplay between destruction and reemergence of structures on the stage mirrors this juxtaposition. While it lacks definition during the trial, afterwards the skēnē starts to gain definition when Athena invites the Furies to consider themselves “sharers in her oikos” (833), shaping a place for newcomers within the existing community (Dougherty 2016). Is Athena’s house-cum-temple now re-enacted on the skēnē? A new space emerges gradually (854–54, 1003, 1025–26) as the audience comes to realize that the Furies will live in a cave under the Acropolis and share in Athena’s “house” in an expanded sense. Aeschylus’ creative development of the enacted space in participation with the lived topography may well reflect the political moment of democratic Athens taking initiative towards expansion and empire (Futo-Kennedy 2006). Through its enacted identities the skēnē can be seen to inaugurate a role not as an indistinct background but as an active material participant in the drama’s meaning.
Topography and Material Culture in Fifth-Century Drama