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55.2.Fletcher

Stage props are distinct from passive scene-setting objects: they interact with the presence of the actor, the words of the script, and the reception of spectators who contribute their knowledge and expectations to the creation of dramatic meaning. This paper focuses on the dynamic networks linking objects, bodies, text and audience in two Sophoclean dramas that feature important stage properties: the bow of Philoctetes and the sword of Ajax. Not only are both props weapons, but also gifts that recall narratives of friendship and exchange: Heracles’ bestowal of the bow on Philoctetes, and Hector’s gift of the sword to Ajax (Il.7.303-12). The weapons import the spectral presence of their former owners who never entirely relinquish them. Philoctetes, who re-enacts the agony of Heracles’ flesh-eating disease, repeats his gesture of friendship by giving the bow to Neoptolemus. Ajax, who recalls Iliadic Hector in his interaction with Tecmessa (a surrogate Andromache), is killed by his enemy’s weapon, and like him lies unburied (Brown 1967: 118-21). Both tragedies exemplify Carlson’s concept of the “haunted stage.” The bow and the sword each summon up a “ghost-text,” that relies on audiences’ recognition of earlier stories: the sufferings of Heracles and his attack against Troy in one case, the death of Hector in the second. The weapons exist in the material space of the theater as potent signifiers of a past that is about to penetrate the present.

“By definition, a prop is an object that goes on a journey,” according to Sofer.The bow and the sword illustrate that props “become drawn into the action and absorb complex and sometimes conflicting meanings” (Sofer 2003:2-3). Philoctetes’ use of the bow as an infallible hunting weapon demonstrates how a prop derives significance from the character who handles it. A stage property is never “a static or stable signifier” as Sofer (60-67) recognizes; any prop becomes most enlivened during “periods of semiotic crisis.” Although Harsh (1960: 414) and Gill (1980:137) focus on the bow as a symbol of friendship, its slippery signification is central to this play (cf. Taplin 1978: 89-93). Philoctetes wants the bow to remain in its default function, but it “takes a journey,” gradually changing from hunting instrument to combat weapon: first when Philoctetes draws it against Odysseus (Phil. 1299-01), and again when he promises to defend Neoptolemus. In the final moments Heracles appears ex machina to dictate the function of the bow as a weapon of war, thereby compelling Philoctetes to reenact his own assault on Troy (Il. 5. 638-42).

Like Heracles’ bow, Hector’s sword challenges the notion of ownership or possession. It is still in some way under the control of the dead donor whose presence haunts the drama. It also evolves from an instrument used to kill animals to a combat weapon. This stage property becomes a focal point in the suicide scene, and reveals the absent subject haunting the text. The sword of Hector, even before it physically enters the body of Ajax, has operated in a phantom world where it has supposedly killed Hector’s enemies, the Atreidae and Odysseus, now also the enemies of Ajax. The literary ghost of Hector never really relinquishes his ownership of the sword, just as Heracles never truly lets the bow out his control.

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Chekhov’s famous dictum has a special applicability to Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Ajax. These stage properties take a journey that ends with them being used as weapons. Their implied destination is a violent one, and always looms on the horizon of the audience’s expectations.

Bibliography

  • Brown, E. W. 1965. “Sophocles’ Ajax and Homer’s Hector,” CJ 61: 118- 21.
  • Carlson, M. 2001. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor.
  • Harsh, P.W. 1960. “The Role of the Bow in the Philoctetes of Sophocles, AJP 81: 408-14.
  • Gill, C. 1980. “Bow, oracle and epiphany in Sophocles’ Philoctetes,G&R 27: 137-46.
  • Sofer, A. 2003. The Stage Life of Props. Ann Arbor.
  • Taplin, O. 1978. Greek Tragedy in Action. Berkeley

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