Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.21


Rush Rehm, Greek Tragic Theatre. (Theatre Production Studies, J. R. Brown, ed.) London: Routledge, 1992. Pp. x, 168. Plates 2. ISBN 0-415-04831-1.


Reviewed by Eric Csapo, University of Toronto.

An eyewitness describes R.'s production of Euripides' Suppliants at the 2,500 Years of Democracy conference as "fascinating." Evidently, R. has an gift for resuscitating even the most desiccated ancient playtext and is well-chosen to contribute to a series which aims to give students of dramatic literature and theatre history "a clear idea of how the great theatre of the past worked," and to give theatre practitioners "imaginative, practical suggestions on how to revive plays." In doing so R. combines the most interesting of current approaches to Greek tragedy, "performance criticism" and the social-historical, with the relatively more recent focus on reception, exploring the "different relationships [generated] between the characters (and chorus) on-stage and the audience in the theatre" (viii).

Nothing brings out R.'s distinctive virtues so well as a comparison with P.D. Arnott's Public and Performance, the book's nearest rival in subject and date. Both authors combine a classical training with active theatre experience. But Arnott is generally ignorant and dismissive of the archaeological evidence and draws upon little of the social background beyond broad cliches about round buildings and democracy. He claims instead to rely heavily upon his practical knowledge of audience behaviour. R. by contrast makes the archaeology and social history his major vehicle for reconstructing ancient performance. He is keenly aware that communication works contextually. One will not find the banal assumptions about human nature (as revealed by the eternal spectator) which serve Arnott as final instance.

The importance of historical context to R.'s project is evident from the fact that fully one half of the book (Part I) is devoted to the social and institutional background to ancient drama. The result is as complete a survey as is currently available to the non-specialist with only a few hours to spare. Despite its encyclopedic intent, Part I's five chapters (3-74) combine summary with synthesis to develop a sustained view on tragedy's relationship with its audience. There appear to be two principal arguments. One urges a close integration of tragic theatre with the community life of ancient Athens (primarily developed in the first three chapters). The second argument urges the active engagement of the ancient audience in the creation of tragic performance (primarily developed in the last two chapters). The instrument of engagement is the audience's imagination, "the theatre's greatest resource" and "one of the great discoveries of Greek drama" (41). Part II, "Exemplary Plays" (77-147), goes through the Oresteia, Oedipus Tyrannus, Euripides' Suppliants and Ion, reconstructing the significant action and the manner of its reception by the Athenian audience. Both parts of the book hang together, like rule and paradigm, to form a coherent whole. For example, in Part I, ch. 1, "The Performance Culture of Athens," R. describes how ancient theatre was of a piece with the general life of politics, law, ritual, sports, music or poetry. Because of the public and performative quality common to most life activities "one form of cultural expression merged easily with another" (3). The proposition is then demonstrated by the discussion in Part II, where R. repeatedly illuminates the action through its frequent appeal to the cognitive frames of ritual and social convention: Agamemnon's homecoming together in a chariot with Cassandra visually evokes a stereotype of fifth-century wedding iconography, elaborating the theme of the perverted wedding running through the myth and the text. R. shows how the stage performance can match the poetry itself for the depth and subtlety of its images. (Oddly, R. fails in this discussion to acknowledge Seaford, JHS 107 [1987] 128.)

The argument for the Athenian audience's active engagement in its drama is mainly characterized by R.'s opposition to illusionism (a term that seems to embrace Taplin's "Synkrisis" [JHS 106 (1986) 163-74] along with the last century's Wagnerian and Ibsenian bias), but R. also steers well clear of the "trendy view that theatre is always and only self-referential" (45). "The theatre of Dionysus lacked the illusion-making capacities of the modern stage" (38). It required a much more active imaginative response from its audience. The size, openness and public nature of the theatre, aided by its lack of differential lighting between audience and performers, "made [the audience] aware of their collective roles in creating the performance" (39). Greek tragedy's very conventionalism served to compromise the dramatic illusion. The use of masks, for example, presupposes an audience prepared to supply the facial expressions required by the plot. At the same time masked acting, though it aimed at close identification between actor and character, falls short of the psychological realism which privileges "the idiosyncratic and personal" (45). The masks do not create the illusion of real people, but work at the abstract and artificial level of the general and the typical. The chorus too is less sharply defined than usually assumed, and is described as a "raw material to be shaped as the mood and plot demand, a group of performers who influence the audience as much as the action, who are not bound to strict determinants of identity or character" (60). Conventional modes of delivery, like the messenger speech, directly engaged the audience's imagination. The set speeches of the agon and stichomythia recalled contemporary debating practice or cross-examination. Costumes and props also generally recalled contemporary life to create a combined atmosphere of proximity and distance. Euripides, especially, used the framing conventions of the prologue and deus ex machina to create ironic distance or a disquietingly false closure. Dramatic irony, humour, allusion to other tragedies, parody, even the overall coherence of the poetic imagery brought the audience into a "dialectical relationship, alternating between their belief in the illusion of the play and their awareness that they are part of the process by which that illusion occurs" (48). This relationship was part of a more general characteristic of Athenian "performance culture" which conflated modes of experience relegated by the modern world to the distinct categories of "ritual" and "performance," including concepts of active and passive participation, belief and disbelief, and engagement and critical distance.

The argument is largely overstated. These days there is less danger of modern readers approaching Greek tragedy with the illusionist bias of the late 19th century, than the collusionist bias of postmodern aesthetics. When the scant and often contradictory evidence for ancient performance allows for choices, R. opts consistently for an "aesthetic of abstinence" (34) by which he means primarily a medium which remains "undefined" and "uncontrolled." Add to this a general postmodern obsession with language -- "Greek theatre celebrates the superiority of words over things to engage the imagination of the audience and draw them into the world of the play" (cited from R.'s article on staging suppliant plays in GRBS 29 [1988] 272, n. 43) -- and one begins to see a self-defeating tendency in R.'s approach. If the material reality of dramatic performance was not only undefined but insignificant, what hope is there of ever reconstructing it and why bother? Why read a book half devoted to tragedy's social and material contexts and half to reconstructing its performance, only to be told that the playtext is really all that is secure and worthwhile? R.'s treatment of the Theatre of Dionysus is typical of this skewed approach. He argues that the material conditions of the theatre are mere shadows exerting little constraint on the audience's imagination. R. counts two recent archaeological developments amongst his anti-illusionist ammunition. The first is the view that the classical Athenian theatre's orchestra was rectangular, like other contemporary theatres. No circle is taken to mean "no pre-established template," and finally "no fixed form," as if rectangles were less solid than circles (33): "to put this conclusion in architectural terms, the early theatre was conceived more as a space than a building" and "lacked the inherent controls of programmatic construction and architectural order." The other development is Kalligas'/Travlos' downdating of the stone foundation for the back wall of the skene. But even if they are right (which is very doubtful), it does not follow that the earlier wooden skene was small, rudimentary or temporary and it certainly does not follow that it failed to define the acting space (34). Both here and in R.'s above-mentioned article on suppliant plays (279ff.), R. disposes of the low stage, but he seems not to know of the fifth-century Attic chous showing a comic Perseus on a stage approached by three steps (ARV2 1215.1). Moreover, if it is true that those who accept the existence of such a stage misconstrue the way classical drama worked (36), why do low stages regularly appear on Italiot vases depicting performances of Attic comedy and tragedy from ca. 400-325 B.C.? In discussing Suppliants, R. himself vindicates the utility of a low stage. In stating that (124) "as almost all seats in the theatre of Dionysus are above the performance level, the group at the orchestra altar does not obstruct the scene taking place back near the facade," he acknowledges the fact that the chorus would hinder the visibility of the action for the lowest and most important spectators, including Dionysus' priest and, presumably, the judges.

Despite this reservation, the book is well-suited to the general readership at which it is directed. Most professional classicists will also read it with profit. R. writes with wit, flair and precision and knows how to address his audience and bring his subject to life: memorable, for example, is his description of the effect of the dei ex machina in Euripides' Electra (71): "it is as if Castor were trying to rewrite the ending at the last minute, like a political spin-doctor in the U.S. presidential debates, convincing the audience that something contrary to their experience has, in fact, taken place." Above all R. has a genius for recreating the sights and sounds of tragedy in performance, and relating them to the themes in the text. It deserves a place on even the shortest undergraduate reading lists. Some caveats are required. I append a list of minor foibles present despite R.'s evident care in developing and presenting his views.

The inscriptions make it clear that there were ten men's and ten boys' dithyrambs performed at the Dionysia, not five of each (17) and they also show that the comic actors' prize was instituted at the Lenaea in the 5th c. and at the Dionysia between 328 and 312 B.C., not "in the fourth century at the Lenaia and later still at the Dionysia" (27). The non-specialist readership targeted by this book will not realize that many of the statements made in reconstructing performance have no authority outside R.'s imagination: in reconstructing Agamemnon's parodos, for example, a single chorus member is said to deliver Calchas' lines (79) and Agamemnon's deliberations (80); in Suppliants R. misleadingly speaks of Theseus "addressing the audience" (126). Controversial or improbable statements are frequently presented as fact. More caution should have been exercised in such declarations as "in the late fourth century [i.e. B.C.] ... the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were ... often performed without their choruses" (28). Translation of the Greek is sometimes sloppy: kitharode is translated as "lyre" (6), trag + aoidos as "goat song" (16), oide as "I know" (110). I confess being uncomfortable with the claims that OU)/ ME FAIDRU/NEI LO/GOS literally means "your word does not wash me clean" (87) that prosopon literally means "towards the eye" (40) -- particularly when told that Sophocles exploits this meaning by giving the blind Oedipus a new mask -- and, in another discussion of Oedipus, that hamartia "literally implies an archer ... not hitting a bull's-eye" (110). Choral lines are mistakenly given to Clytemnestra leading to the odd claim that Clytemnestra "appropriates Agamemnon's funeral rites" (90) and the vexed lines Agamemnon 1446 f. are rendered "[Cassandra's] death 'brings an added relish [side-dish] to my bed'" to make Clytemnestra seem kinkier even than she is (90).