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Recent years have seen a greater appreciation of props as vital components of tragic performance (e.g., Segal 1980; Chaston 2010). There has also been a generous amount of work done on metatheater (“theater within theater”) and its tragic applications (e.g., Segal 1982; Bierl 1991; Ringer 1998). Missing from these discussions, however, is the role of repetition, and what it means in terms of theater and theatrical tradition to have the same prop showing up in various guises in rewritings of a particular tragedy (or tragic story-type). In this paper, I focus on how certain props help craft something like a literary genealogy, sensitizing their audiences to the notion of tragic tradition. Taking the urn and its various manifestations in all three “Electra” plays as my case in point, I argue that in its appearance as a prop in each of the later Electra tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, the “urn” offers its audience an interpretive handle on the present work and the presently featured Electra character; its “meta” status invites the audience to engage with the performance event as already an act of reception, and therefore to read the praxis as it unfolds as being self-consciously in dialogue with other Electra performances.

In the world of the theater, no sign is to be discarded straight off as irrelevant, no act as mere accident. Everything—word, gesture, or object— is potentially significant. Even within the semiotically charged space of the theater, however, props can be elusive entities. Props are subject to the conflicting interpretations of human characters within the play, of course; but certain props also gesture metapoetically to source texts and contexts beyond the present performance. In Euripides’ Electra, for example, the heroine’s insistence on carrying her own water vessel has metadramatic implications. Wanting to “make a display to the gods of Aegisthus’ hubris” (El. 57–58), Electra positions the jug as a key witness in her personal quest to prosecute Aegisthus before a divine jury. The iconoclasm of the prop’s new role, however, depends on the audience’s familiarity with its poetic precursor(s). As an act of reception, Electra’s display of her “urn” derives meaning from the tension between the urn’s original role (as a libation vessel in Aeschylus’ Choeophoroi) and its transformation into a domestic accessory that Electra self-consciously deploys as a theatrical prop.

Sophocles’ Electra also uses the urn to retool Electra. Prompting reflection on the pain of her original separation from her brother, the urn’s weight in her hands transforms Electra’s grief over a past loss into extended mourning for her present, childless status (El. 1126–70). Electra as a mother in mourning is Sophocles’ bold revision to the Aeschylean prototype of Electra as grief-stricken daughter. Only the urn brings out this strangely moving facet of her character, however. The mourning-mother motif is hinted at earlier in the play, with allusions to Niobe and Procne (El. 107, 145–152), but only in the somatic remembering the urn elicits from her does the audience grasp the peculiar nature of Electra’s pathos. My argument will focus primarily on these two Electras as protagonists within a literary tradition shaped by the urn’s stage appearances. In the final part of my talk, however, I draw attention to how such props point also to their future reception(s). From the vantage point of posterity, tragic props possess the curious ability to gesture to their own afterlife. Props “predict” the modes of reception that will guarantee their continued survival, not only in theatrical performances, such as that of the remarkable actor named Polus, who supposedly substituted the ashes of his own son for Electra’s empty urn (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 6.5.5–8), but also in iconography such as the fourth century B.C. Lucanian bell-krater attributed to the Sydney Painter, where the urn functions as a visual shorthand for the dramatic praxis and the tragic “Electra” tradition.

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