Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.12

Oliver Taplin, COMIC ANGELS and other approaches to Greek Drama through vase-painting. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. xii + 127; 24 plates. ISBN-0-19-814797-X.

Reviewed by William J. Slater, McMaster University.

1. Athenian drama reaches a wider audience at the Dionysia especially. Theatre scenes rare in Attic vase painting; survey of 14 from 420-390.
2. S.Italy ca.400; and its vase painting, esp. in regard to tragedy and comedy.
3. Interpretation: criteria for finding real theatre in vasepainting, e.g. the Capodarso painter.
4. Survey of ca.300 S. Italian comic vases from 400-325, half Apulian, mostly on craters and oinochoai. Ca. 100 are significant, esp. those from Tarentum 400-360. Theatricality is indicated by mask, phallus, tights, and the stage.
5. History of the erroneous 'phlyakes theory'; Rinthon.
6. Study of the Choregoi vase.
7. Metatheatricality; esp. flute1 players e.g. the Bari pipers.
8. Paratragedy and para-iconography.
9. Transplanting of Athenian comedy to S. Italy.

I had intended to start this review by stating that it was no longer "controversial", as Taplin says [p.3], to argue that Old Comedy was performed outside Athens. That seemed to me to have been reasonably certain since the publication of the Würzburg comic "Telephus" in 1980, with the independent commentaries of Taplin, "Phallology" PCPhS 33 (1987) 92ff. and Csapo, Phoenix 40 (1986) 379ff. I have since discovered that there are still some who believe in an independent South Italian comic tradition. Even so, I should still maintain that the case made here for the influence of Attic Comedy on Southern Italy is so strong, that it is now up to its opponents to refute it. To that extent this book can be considered revolutionary, though more credit is due to Webster who first mooted the idea. It is an interesting phenomenon that this revolution has been engineered by philologists rather than the art historians who have so expertly classified, dated, and made sense out of the ca. 300 vases with comic themes which continue to appear out of South Italy. But it was primarily philologists who created the problem by linking these vases to "phlyakes", so that they were dated a hundred years too late; and even when the connection with Attic red-figure became apparent, the vases were still held to be indicative of an independent tradition of comedy in South Italy, even when it was recognized that the contemporary vases showing tragedy were based on Attic tragedy. K.J. Dover could write in 1988, eight years after the "Telephus transvestitus" was published, that: "We lack evidence that any play of Aristophanes was acted after its author's lifetime, and I shall be surprised if evidence to that effect ever presents itself."

But -- and it is a necessary but -- everything hangs on the Telephus vase. If a single Attic vase appears with that comic iconography, Taplin's case is gone. We have the comic obeliaphoroi on both Attic and S. Italian vases, so we can be certain that some comic iconography could be transferred. Given the extraordinary discoveries of the last years, the uneasy feeling remains that more of the comic iconography of the S. Italian vases could have been inherited from Attica, and then the case for arguing that the performances and not the iconography were transmitted, begins to collapse.

Taplin admits that he has produced this book in a hurry, and there are misprints, wrong numbers [p.10: 8.28A should be 8.26A], incoherent English [58n.8] and misleading translations [Acharnians 642 on p.5 is most serious because of the false conclusions] all of which show his haste. On the other hand the book is well written and interesting; the pictures are well chosen, situated conveniently in the text, and easy to consult as one reads. The footnotes are also below the text, and altogether this is a book that students will find easy reading. The pictures are an invitation to teachers to discuss these vases with their classes, if a decently cheap paperback become available.

This reviewer readily declares himself a convert to Taplin's general thesis. Aristophanic comedy with some limitations and modifications was, it would seem, available in South Italy, particularly at Tarentum. The central evidence is still the "Telephus" which points to the performance of Aristophanes' Thesmophorizusae, though a number of other vases now point in the same direction, either because of the dialect in the "balloons" or the rare theme, as in the Berlin "Frogs". Taplin is scornful of those, who believed that Aristophanes was not performable outside Athens; but he could have pointed out that while we had good evidence for reperformance of New Comedy, there was nothing similar anywhere for Old Comedy save these vases, and even he admits that only dramas not specifically Athenian in reference would travel well.

Taplin argues well for his thesis, and it is not surprising that he presses the evidence enthusiastically for all it is worth; some may therefore grump about breathless rhetoric. Any reader must of necessity be less convinced than the fervent missionary, and my notes consist largely of "this isn't certain". Even Taplin himself no longer seems to hold so firmly to his view that the Getty Birds refers to Clouds or Birds or necessarily Aristophanes; indeed he is puzzlingly vague about where he now stands. There may indeed still be too much old-fashioned zeal to identify vases with known texts. But Taplin's case is cumulative. It is simply reasonable to assume that these comic figures who wear the costume of Attic actors from 400 onwards have something directly to do with Attic comedy, especially when they occur on vases influenced by Attic red-figure. They are as Taplin emphasises thematically different from Attic vases, which show almost no interest in comic themes. Only a few vases like the Cyrene Herakles and Centaurs [ca. 410 B.C.] or the Anavyssos chous even look remotely like the S. Italian vases. Yet Attic r.f. potters were working in S. Italy from 430 onwards; Taplin thinks of Thurii and Metapontum as well as Tarentum, where there is a strong interest in painting tragic themes, influenced sometimes by performance.

Much of Taplin's time is rightly spent on the hermeneutics of vase painting, though this discussion is scattered in the chapters after no.3., esp. 8. Usually he is judicious; but his central question "Does the image call for acquaintance with a text?" leads him to conclude that this would be so if the understanding of the viewer is enhanced by knowledge of a performance of e.g. Euripides [esp. p.26]. But of course that is not adequate, -- I should call this the academic fallacy -- and he emends this unconsciously in later chapters into the better argument that details of the picture make no sense unless the viewer knows the relevant tragedy or comedy; ergo the artist presupposes acquaintance with a specific drama. He nowhere points out, but does assume, that tragedy must be immune to this argument, since tragic myth could always be known from the declamation of the schoolroom and the intensive study of myth there.

Taplin's book raises endless questions as to just how performance is related to the representation on the vases. He points out that an iconographic theme can be developed independent of the text that inspired it, that the comic stage can parody art, that a comic scene on a vase can parody a tragic theme on a vase, and much else; in short, that there are a whole set of relationships of imitation and parody that can usually not be unravelled. The opening of Helen's egg was in a comedy since the vase shows it on a stage; but it occurs as a serious picture of myth. Was it in a tragedy? Taplin opts against this; I am not so sure, but the question is well put. One of the strongest features of this book then is that it introduces students to the complexity of the problems in reading Greek vases for evidence of reality, and swiftly disillusions us from seeking, and thinking we can find, mere illustration. Each vase is different in its relation to performance.

Oddly Taplin claims [31] that at least the NY Goose play is close to a snapshot of a moment in the theatre. Yet he fails precisely to mention the word "tragoidos" in the top left attached to a naked youth hovering above the stage, a problem he treats separately on p.62. Clearly this is no part of a "snapshot", nor is it as "scene specific" as it could easily have been. But this raises in an acute form just how far the painter could in fact breach a representation of a comic performance. Here I am less sanguine than Taplin. The Aigisthos who enters through the stage door in the Choregoi vase is not obviously masked; he is dressed as a tragic figure. He obeys the conventions of Tragedy and is uniquely situated on a comic stage [60]. Yet I have no certainty that such a figure did appear in a real comedy with two comic Choregoi. The choregus-painter [Trendall-Cambitoglou, 2nd Suppl to r.f. vases of Apulia, III p.495] has had another vase in Cleveland assigned to him recently, -- too late for Taplin to take account of it -- and it is clear that he was an artist of great originality. A huge head of Dionysus has a small comic figure picking grapes from its hair, and an equally small papposilenus with a crater on the other side. This combination is totally unique, and must represent major artistic inventiveness with Dionysiac motifs. I incline to think that even Taplin underestimates the license taken with real or iconographically transmitted themes, just as he underestimates what Old Comedy could put on the stage.

Taplin thinks that there are only about four or five likely candidates among the vases to be identifiable representations of Attic comedy, with the Wuerzburg Telephus the only reasonably certain one. Beyond that there is plenty of room to disagree. I cannot see why he thinks a comic chorus to be likely: there is no evidence for such a chorus. The unAttic female flute player he does accept as normal. He does not discuss why the fluteplayer is in the orchestra in one vase, on the stage in another; why the steps to the stage are three on most vases, eight on the Bari papers vase, why the actors are usually on stage but also in the orchestra with no ladder shown. Puzzles remain. His interpretation of the Choregoi vase is most likely to meet with opposition, so I take this as an example. He sees Aegisthos + one choregos as opposed to the comic actor + the other, and spins out of this what to my mind is a fantastic scenario of tragedy versus comedy with half-choruses. One can think of easier interpretations. Since we are told that S. Italian choregos meant frequently didaskalos [Epicharmus fr.104K], one should start by assuming that this is meant here. Then the comedy is most easily considered to be about two different producers trying to put on a tragic drama, with Purrias trying to declaim tragically on his upturned basket; whether the tragic Aegisthos is an artist's license or they could play a tragic character in tragic clothes on a comic stage, I know not. But Taplin's pile of hypotheses are unnecessary .

Lastly [41-2] there are the odd unDoric vowels on various vases, even Ionic KASSANDRH by the potter Asteas. The Attic iambic on the NY Goose play of ca.400 is most notably a sign of Attic influence, but with a local Tarentine "h". For Taplin these Attic vowels are proof of Attic texts. But the objection remains that any Atticism could be a sign of the influence of Attic drama, as the Ionic is a sign of epic. That leads to the question, who were these actors in S. Italy? Taplin speaks of travelling players with a temporary stage. But others have seen rather permanent scene-buildings. We do not know if there could be Athenian actors in S. Italy at a time when relations with Athens were not good, but it cannot be ruled out, if Thurii is a staging post. From Thurii came later the leading poet of Middle Comedy, Alexis. A serious question is whether we have in these vases performances at a Dionysus festival, for outside of a festival it would never be possible to fund the kind of drama to which the Athenians were accustomed at the Dionysia. It was the extraordinary economic backing for the festival of Dionysus that made Athenian drama preeminent. Travelling actors will not easily put together a chorus, and the Artists of Dionysus, based on festival performance, do not show up until after the end of the comic vase series from S. Italy.

There is much to quibble with in this book, but anyone who is interested in the history of drama must feel grateful to Taplin for bringing his thesis to public attention in such an interesting format and with sufficient illustration that even those not normally interested in vase painting will feel the attraction of these fascinating vases.


  • [1] An ethnocentric English Scholar has recently abused those who fail to translate aulos as "pipe". The use of the translation "pipes" cannot be welcomed or approved by his more northerly and more musical neighbours.