Some Halloween reflections on ghosts, haunting, and “loops of repetition” in Greek tragedy

10.31.21 | by Johanna Hanink

Renderings of stills from a scene from Netflix’s 2020 miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor.

§1. In a scene from Netflix’s 2020 miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor, Bly’s housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) interviews an applicant, Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli) for the position of cook. The moment that Owen enters the kitchen, Hannah appears thrown off guard and distracted. Her agitation only intensifies when the interview begins, until at last she interrupts herself to say, “I’m sorry, this is going to sound strange, but haven’t we already done this?” Owen draws a breath, frowns, nods, and to Hannah’s surprise answers, “Yes.” His next sentence is even more jarring: “But we have to do it again.”

§2. It turns out that, though she doesn’t know it yet, Hannah is dead. The interview we witness isn’t happening for the first time; rather, it is an experience—a defining one—from her life that she, as a ghost, is “reliving” for the umpteenth time. Hannah is not, in this scene, moving through the “real” world in “real time”; she is “tucked away”: Bly Manor’s term of art for when ghosts unwillingly “slip off” and and rerun the scripts of their most formative, and traumatic, life experiences.

 

§3. Ghosts, especially ghosts in the gothic horror tradition, are often locked into inescapable patterns of repetition. Night after night, at the same stroke of the clock, they are forced to relive their own murder in “loops of repetition” (Crawford 2010). They become, like Hannah, imprisoned in the scripts of the most traumatic scenes from their former lives. Watching Bly Manor and reflecting on Hannah and Owen’s unsettling conversation has lately prompted me to wonder more about how compulsive and compelled repetition figures into Greek tragedy and its several varieties of hauntings.

§4. Over the last couple decades, the concepts of “haunting” and “ghosting” have been increasingly used as hermeneutic tools for approaching questions of performance, “theatrical” and otherwise.[1] In his 2001 The Haunted Stage, Marvin Carlson brought a version of Derrida’s concept of “hauntology” (a pun on “ontology,” introduced by Derrida in his 1993 Specters of Marx) to bear on an analysis of how theater works as a “memory machine.” Carlson notes that:

Because every physical element of the production can be and often is used over and over again in subsequent productions, the opportunities for an audience to bring memories of previous uses to new productions are enormous. (8)

§5. He goes on to explore four aspects of the theater that are perpetually, and definitionally, haunted by the past: scripts, actors, productions, and theatrical spaces. Scripts are “ghosted” at both narrative and linguistic levels; actors’ bodies are haunted by other roles they have played (cf. typecasting) and by their own lived experiences; performances are haunted by prior uses of elements of the “production apparatus”;[2] theater spaces are haunted by ghosts of productions past.[3]

§6. More recent, and more directly focused on the archive that concerns me here, is Anna Uhlig’s chapter “The Ghost’s Refrain” from her highly innovative book Theatrical Reenactment in Pindar and Aeschylus. There she beautifully lays out how both “Pindar and Aeschylus adopt ghosts as emblems of theatrical performance” (229): the “ghosts” explicitly marked out as such in their works are “simply paradigms of [a] broader discourse”:

The poets’ narratives of specters brought back from the dead are exaggerated, self-referential instantiations of the underlying definition of mimetic performance as the act of bringing something back. (224)

§7. “Actual” ghosts, then, represent some of the densest, most overt manifestations of forces and paradoxes that are always present in performance—forces and paradoxes that, as Uhlig skillfully elucidates, Aeschylus and Pindar harness, draw attention to, and experiment with to a remarkable degree. She continues:

The overt theatricality of ghosts, as figures who invite us to interrogate the circumstances of mimetic reenactment, enables a certain paradoxical transparency regarding the fundamental confusions – of time and space, of voice and body – that govern the poetry of Pindar and Aeschylus. (224)

§8. With Bly Manor and the work of Carlson and Uhlig in mind, I keep finding myself returning to one archetype from Greek tragedy: the figure of Electra. And I think of two Electra-moments in particular, one in Sophocles’ Electra and the other in Euripides’ Electra, that now cause me to wonder to what extent the transcendent mythical figure of Electra is herself the victim of the insistent and incessant recursion demanded in the first instance by the Athenian theater industry and, later, by its astonishingly vital afterlife.

§9. In his 2012 Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy, Simon Goldhill draws attention to a moment in the (unusually antiphonal) parodos of Sophocles’ Electra at which Electra’s account to the chorus of the intensity of her own grief “turns into self-announced performance.” She orders the chorus:

ἐᾶτέ μ’ ὧδ’ ἀλύειν,
αἰαῖ, ἱκνοῦμαι (135-6)

Let me rave like this:
Aiai! I beg you. (trans. Goldhill)

Goldhill regards her use of the word ὧδε, “like this” (or really “in the way I myself am doing it”) as “an exemplary performance of a (ritual) grief, in the disturbing self-consciousness of her own behaviour that Electra reveals again and again in this play. Look at me, I will now do a lament…” (115). But I wonder if, bearing in mind the several ways in which the character of Electra is itself “ghosted” by the stories and scripts of Electras past, we might also understand Electra’s “ἐᾶτέ μ’ ὧδ’ ἀλύειν” as a plea to this time, in this play be allowed to give full rein to her grief from the very start. If Electra, like Owen and Hannah, really must “do it again,” this time can she do it her way?

§10. In Bly Manor, the ghosts that are tucked away and compelled to replay scenes from their lives eventually gain awareness of the recursive prisons in which they are trapped and attempt to revise the scripts. (I do not wish to give too much away). I cannot now help but now to interpret Electra’s famous “metatheatrical” recognition scene (508-37) in Euripides’ Electra as a comment on an aspect of Electra’s identity that as time goes on seems to me ever more constituent of it, namely that the character Electra knows she is a character trapped in a loop of repetition, that is, on a path that gets retread with every retelling and restaging of her story.

§11. This time, Electra refuses to “recognize” Orestes on the basis of a lock of hair and footprint left at her father’s tomb. (She even denies the existence of such a footprint, for it is impossible to leave footprints behind on stony ground: 534-5.) This scene is often, and persuasively, taken as moment of Euripidean agonism with his dead playwright predecessor Aeschylus. But now with Hannah and Owen in mind, I am inclined to read it as Electra’s assertion that, if she must run this script again, she will do it on her own terms. Here we might then remember that it is in this, Euripides’ version of the play, that Electra takes the most hands-on role in the murder of her mother.

§12. Ancient Greek mythology and Greek tragedy constantly revisited the same characters and plots. (Aristotle even observes that the best tragedies were about just a few tragic “houses”: Poetics 1453a.) The last several years’ lively interest in ancient Greek theater culture has now also given us a better idea of just how often and in how many places plays were “reperformed.” So, what is the cumulative weight on a fictional character of being, like a ghost, constantly resurrected to rerun the script of their defining life trauma? Over and over again, Ajax is resurrected for a matter of hours, only to fall on his sword (no wonder he feels so profoundly alone). Over and over Clytemnestra must be killed by at least one of her children (no wonder she is so angry). In what ways are these characters always/already shaped by the fact that their only living reality is the loop of repetition?

§13. This sense of accreted self-awareness is what lies behind Medea’s most famous declarations in Seneca’s Medea. Early in the play she resolves: Medea fiam (170); by the end, she can declare Medea nunc sum (970). Like Pindar and Aeschylus’ ghosts, these lines mark the most densely distilled instance of a point that subtends the entirety of the play: we, the audience of this particular Medea have, in a sense, “been here before” with Medea. Now, however, she lets on that she knows she has been here before with us.

§14. Hannah and Owen’s sad story in Bly Manor, and the way in which actors T’Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli so magnificently handle this revelation (a real “recognition scene”) has ultimately opened up an entire new series of questions for me about how dramatic characters are not so much passive objects of haunting by precedent narratives as “ghosts” themselves, hailed back into life with each performance—each time that the clock strikes “showtime.” To what extent do they gain lives—or at least hauntings—of their own, and what are the rules that determine the limits of their ability to reshape their scripts? “No,” says Sophocles’ Electra, “this time I want to lament like this.” “No,” says Euripides’ Electra, “this time I won’t recognize him like that.” Sophocles’ Electra, like Bly Manor’s Owen, does know that we’ve done this before and “we have to do it again”; even so, she begs this time to do it ὧδε—“my way.”

 

Bibliography

Bassi, K. 2017. “Mimesis and Mortality: Reperformance and the Dead among the Living in Hecuba and Hamlet.” In Hunter and Uhlig, eds.: pp. 138-59.

Carlson, M. 2001. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor.

Crawford, J. 2010. “’Every Night, The Same Routine’: Recurring Nightmares and the Repetition Compulsion in Gothic Fiction.” Moveable Type 6.

Derrida, J. 1993. Spectres de Marx: l’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale. Paris.

Goldhill, S. 2012. Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy. Oxford.

Hanink, J. 2017. “Archives, Repertoires, Bodies, and Bones: Thoughts on Reperformance for Classicists.” In Hunter and Uhlig, eds.: pp. 21-41.

Hunter, R. and A. Uhlig. 2017. Imagining Reperformance in Ancient Culture: Studies in the Tradition of Drama and Lyric. Cambridge.

Mueller, M. 2016. Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy. Chicago.

Uhlig, A. 2019. Theatrical Reenactment in Pindar and Aeschylus. Cambridge.

[1] See Uhlig 2019: 221-4 for an insightful overview of recent scholarship, with bibliography. Bassi 2017 also explores theatrical ghosts as reflections upon mimesis and (re)performance.

[2] One thinks of the bow wielded by an overwrought Orestes in Euripides’ Orestes of 408: was it the same bow from the “prop department” as the bow around which the plot of Sophocles’ Philoctetes had hinged at the previous year’s City Dionysia? On props and haunting see esp. Mueller 2016, chs. 1 and 4.

[3] On the Theater of Dionysus as a “haunted stage” on Carson’s model see Hanink 2017: 29-40.

 



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.