Space in Greek theatre is an inherently malleable thing. As a theatrical device, it needs to represent a multitude of situations through the aid of scenic machinery, the text of the play, and the audiences’ imaginations. Depending on the needs of the play, it must represent both internal and external space, therefore embodying a liminality which was not found in other public spaces such as the agora. The skene was the space between the back of the theatre and the playing area. As a space where the actors changed their costumes in between scenes, it embodied the imaginative nature of theatre, becoming a halfway point between the “real” world and the mythical world of the play’s action, to which it served as a backdrop. The use of costuming and masks created issues of identity and materiality, further layered and ambiguated by the space in which these changes happened. The skene was, therefore, part of this ambiguity.
In tragedy, where space was made more liminal by the often emotionally complex actions portrayed on stage, the skene went beyond a simple theatrical tool or waypoint between the fiction of the play and the material reality of its performance. It embodied the “oppositions of the seen and the unseen, the known and the repressed, the conscious and the unconscious.” In the case of the Agamemnon, the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, the skene becomes the very real and very physical boundary between the audience and the grisly murder of the titular king. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, the skene once more represents the threshold between the audience and Orestes’ act of vengeance for the murder of his father. In both plays, the exterior is where death is plotted and schemed for, and the interior is where the actual murders are carried out.
There is, of course, a practical element to this: the fictive space of the play is a representation of the space directly outside of the royal palace of Argos, while the skene represents the doors that lead into it. Characters moving between the exterior (the courtyard) and the interior (the palace), necessarily interact with it not just on a metaphorical level, but on the very real and technical level of moving in and out of it throughout the action of the play.
However, through the use of the ekkyklema, a machine which brought interior scenes ‘outside’ of the skene and onto the stage, the violence that is perpetrated inside (away from the audience’s perception, and, technically, ‘outside’ the playing space) is abruptly brought out in full view. This is particularly evident in Clytemnestra’s final speech in the Agamemnon. The murder of Agamemnon happens ‘off-screen’, but the fruits of it are presented to the audience by a remorseless Clytemnestra. The ekkyklema is wheeled out to reveal her standing above the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, whom Agamemnon had brought back as a prize from Troy. Here, the Argive queen divests herself entirely of her human nature and embraces that of an avenging spirit, to finally wreak justice for the death of her daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon sacrificed before leaving to fight.
The skene is a threshold. Inside of it, violence is kept away from the audience, and then made that much more powerful when it is brought to the forefront with the ekkyklema, crossing the (supposedly) safe barrier of this scenic doorway. Inside the royal house (beyond the skene) is also the first place where the erinyes appear: the spirits of vengeance who, in the third play (Eumenides), hunt down Orestes for his murder of Clytemnestra, perpetrated in The Libation Bearers. In the Agamemnon, Cassandra claims to see “a group of singers that never leave this house … this revel-band drinks human blood … they sing a song of the ruinous folly that first began it all.” After killing his mother, Orestes sees them encroaching upon him, and must flee. Through the presence of the erinyes, the theatrical royal house, already made liminal in virtue of it being beyond the skene and as such represented by it, becomes a haunted house.
Andrew Hock Soon Ng defines the haunted house as a material construct, rather than the more generally accepted definition of it as a simple psychological construct. He argues that, beyond the metaphorical meanings that a haunted house might have (and there are many), the physicality and materiality of the house as a building also plays an important role in how haunted it is. A haunted house is not only haunted because there are ghosts in it but because the house, in and of itself, is physically liminal. Hock Soon Ng’s haunted house must be a mirror of another space (based on the Foucauldian heterotopia), “disclosing the fault lines … by inverting, rivalling and/or mirroring”. A haunted house must be a space which is “folding”, where common fixed points are constantly in flux, and therefore become changeable and unpredictable in ways that then have direct impacts on those who inhabit them. Finally, a haunted house must be a “melancholy object”, a space where the inhabitants’ psychological states extend to the physical space they occupy.
How does this apply to the skene, in particular the skene of the Oresteia?
As I have explored above, the skene is a fictional reflection of a real-life space: depending on the play’s needs, it can be the entryway to a house, a gate into a courtyard, the colonnade of a temple. Through the fiction that unfolds onstage, it becomes a ‘real’ environment within which the characters/actors operate. As Hock Soon Ng explains, the mirrored space is “a counter-site” of another space, and therefore becomes a “place without a place,” like a reflection in a mirror. However, the use of the ekkyklema makes the onstage space malleable and changeable, breaking the perception of the skene as a 1-1 reflection of the ‘real’ world, and instead blurring the lines between the scenic ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Through ‘folding’, a lack of place is therefore reinforced.
The final aspect of the “melancholy object” comes into view when we return to the apparitions of the erinyes. In both instances, the demons would have been offstage. It is generally accepted that they do not physically appear until late in the third play, and therefore it is a given that in the instances where Cassandra and Orestes see them, they are describing something happening off-stage, and so beyond the skene. This is all but confirmed by Cassandra’s monologue through describing how they are trapped within the house. In both cases, the ‘ghosts’, if we can call them so, appear in moments of great distress: Cassandra is about to die, and Orestes has just killed his mother. In ghost stories, the psychological dimension always influences the presence of the supernatural. Unresolved trauma often lies at the core of most ghostly apparitions, from Stephen King’s classic horror The Shining to Netflix’s anthology series The Haunting. This trauma is more often than not violent in nature, as violence is inherently dehumanising, and leads to alienation on the part of the person. Both the ghost-seer and the ghost are part of this alienating process, and the ghost, tied to the space it inhabits, becomes enveloped in the ‘melancholy object’.
It is the same for the visions of avenging demons that plague Cassandra and Orestes. Just beyond reach, the erinyes fully inhabit the liminality of the skene, bringing to full fruition both its role as a meta-theatrical haunted house, bridging the gap between the fiction of theatre and the reality of the audience, and as an actual haunted house in its representation of the House of Atreus. The erinyes are not there, neither for the audience nor for anyone who isn’t the characters seeing them. Similarly, the skene exists in ambiguity, and its true nature escapes definition.
Written by Justin Biggi
Aeschylus, Oresteia, translated by A. H. Sommerstein.
Bakola, E. “Seeing the Invisible: Interior Spaces and Uncanny Erinyes in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.” In Gaze, Vision and Visuality in Ancient Greek Literature, edited A. Kampakoglou; A. Novokhatko. 2018.
Davidson, J. (2005,) “Theatrical Production.” In A Companion to Greek Tragedy, edited by J. Gregory. 2005.
Hock Soon Ng, A., “Conceptualizing Varieties of Space Horror Fiction.” In The Palgrave Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by K. Costorphine and L. R. Kremmel. 2018.