Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.18


Costas Panayotakis, Theatrum Arbitri: Theatrical Elements in the Satyrica of Petronius. Mnemosyne. Supplement 146. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995. Pp. xxv + 225. $60.00. ISBN 90-04-10229-9.


Reviewed by Niall W. Slater, Clare Hall, Cambridge, Emory University.

The influence of mime and its performance on the composition of Petronius's novel, the Satyrica, has long been recognized. All students of Petronius will know the important discussion of mime in P. G. Walsh's still fundamental The Roman Novel (Cambridge, 1970 -- recently reprinted by Bristol Classical Press) and essential work by Gerald Sandy (e.g., TAPA 104 [1974]: 329-46), but as Panayotakis shows in his thorough introductory chapter, the modern debate over the importance of mime influence goes back to Collignon and Rosenblüth. Despite the extent of the discussion heretofore, a monograph on the relations of mime to Petronius's novel has been a desideratum, which Panayotakis aims to fulfill. His crisp and stimulating articles on portions of the text in Classical Quarterly (44 [1994]: 458-467) and Mnemosyne (47 [1994]: 319-336) have promised very well, and the sections of his book based on these are among its strongest. His complete study, focussing primarily on mime elements but also considering the influence of other theatre performance traditions (especially Roman comedy), has much valuable material to offer, although the overall result is somewhat uneven.

The book is divided into an Introduction, seven chapters on what Panayotakis sees as the major divisions of the surviving text, and a brief conclusion. The Introduction (absolutely integral to the book's argument, although curiously paginated in Roman numerals like the brief Preface) begins with a survey of the scanty and mostly late descriptive evidence for the nature of mime. Concerned to emphasize the "realism" of mime (especially in its variety of characters), Panayotakis makes the potentially misleading claim (p. xviii) that "in mime there are no stock characters who star in different comic situations every time." This is true (and it is important to distinguish mime from the rigid character formulas of the Atellan farce), but the reader who does not grasp the essentiality of the word "every" to this statement will be puzzled by later references to such "stock characters" of the mime as the MASTROPO\S (p. 177). The second section of the introduction briefly surveys previous discussions of mimic influence on Petronius, from Marius Mercator to the present. A little more perspective on the hostility of many writers, particularly Christian apologists and theologians, to the very notion of theatrical representation might have been helpful here. As Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley 1981) puts it (p. 43): "It is helpful to recall, when confronted with the high-pitched antitheatrical rhetoric of the Fathers, that they felt themselves embattled, entrusted with the salvation of masses of tepid converts who understood their new religion ill and had no thought of sacrificing their accustomed pleasures to it." In the Introduction and elsewhere, Panayotakis often writes of the "obscene" in mimes. I cannot be quite sure, but he appears to use the term far more in the root classical sense of "not suited for stage performance" than in the narrower modern sense of explicit sexual representation, a usage which may indeed color the unwary modern reader's views.

The subsequent seven chapters form a running commentary on the text, identifying mimic elements and, where possible, whole scenes or episodes in which mime structure is the predominating influence. The grounds for recognizing such structures are not completely consistent. Panayotakis calls our attention to the "triangular pattern" (p. 10) in both the brothel scene (6.1 - 8.4) and the subsequent quarrel of Encolpius and Ascyltus over Giton, and much later the presence of "only three actors" in scenes from Encolpius and Circe's love affair is another argument for seeing this story as "a caricature taken from the stage" (p. 169), but the presence of many more than three speaking characters at the dinner with Trimalchio, for example, is not taken as an argument against theatrical influence.

The explicit reference to "mimic laughter" (mimico risu, 19.1) in the Quartilla episode has led to considerable previous discussion of mime influence here. Panayotakis seeks to take this further with particular emphasis on the visual and gestural elements of Quartilla's performance within the scene, although he admits that her character as such does not come from the previous theatrical tradition (p. 38). Panayotakis even experiments with rewriting the scene as dialogue and stage directions (an experiment later repeated with the quarrel of Encolpius and Ascyltus in 79.11 - 80.6) in order to articulate its theatrical qualities. The results are intriguing and certainly reinforce the general belief in the importance of mime to Petronius's composition of the Quartilla episode. I confess to some nagging doubt, however, as to whether such influence fully explains Petronius's achievement here. Panayotakis quotes with approval Gareth Schmeling's description of the "telescope effect" (p. 35) as this scene is ever more narrowly focussed, first through the outer door, then the inside door, then the crack in that door as Encolpius and Quartilla spy on the mock marriage of Giton and Pannychis. But this interpretive construct of the scene stems not so much from a theatrical as from a cinematic model. Like Encolpius's spying upon Eumolpus's pygesiaca sacra with the young girl at Croton, the Quartilla scene owes something to the eavesdropping scenes of New Comedy, yet this effect of observation through a key-hole (compare also Encolpius watching the maltreatment of Eumolpus at 96.1 by the other lodgers) represents a significant new development. A modern play such as Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw can place the theatrical audience in the situation of voyeurs gazing through a keyhole only because of the existence of cinematic peepshows with such titles; there is no cinematic model already in Petronius's culture. Panayotakis is astringent in his comments on J. P. Sullivan's psychosexual explanations of such voyeuristic scenes, and it is true that straightforward Freudian readings have not worn well. This should not blind us, however, to the depth of Petronius's innovation here: the "telescope effect" is startlingly new and achievable only in Petronius's chosen medium of prose narrative.

The chapter on the dinner with Trimalchio is naturally the longest and is divided into eleven subsections, to some extent following the courses of the meal. While claiming a number of direct stage influences (e.g., that the hunting scenes on couch coverings introduced at 40.1 function like painted mime scenery or that the mulionum fata of 69.5 are related to mimes about mule-drivers), Panayotakis cautiously concludes in the end that the mime influence is here subordinate to that of satire in the overall composition of the Cena. While the chapter again offers a number of valuable observations, there are some curious inconsistencies. On a single page (p. 53) the Cena is described both as a "diligently composed sequence of theatrical events that are interconnected through Trimalchio's stage directions" and as "incidents ... heaped up" which do not "follow a particular pattern in clear order...." The first is a well-justified claim for Petronius's greater artistry as compared to other satiric descriptions of dinners. The latter is a much shakier general claim which attempts to dismiss T. K. Hubbard's elaborate theory of ring composition in the Cena. Some of Hubbard's claimed parallels are less compelling than others, but the overall pattern is considerably more impressive and convincing than Panayotakis is prepared to allow.

Indeed, it is quite surprising that Panayotakis does not seize upon the notion of ring composition in the Cena as a hallmark of the orality of the Satyrica, for throughout this book he is very concerned to emphasize the claim that the original audience of the novel experienced it orally, i.e., by being present at a recitation of the work. The debate over oral influence (especially in the freedmen's language) and original reception of the novel (recital as after-dinner court entertainment versus distribution to a reading audience) remains lively. The notion that the text was designed for oral performance is not, however, a logically necessary consequence of the argument that Petronius was influenced in his work by mime and other theatrical performances. It is perfectly possible for Petronius to have been consistently influenced, not just by the text of mime but also its performances, and yet have written in order to be read, not to be listened to. In his anxiety to keep the influence of stage performance front and center, Panayotakis inveighs against the notion that Petronian characters could have inner lives or psychologies, especially such as we see in the later novel: see for example his rejection (p. 9, n. 34) of Cecil Wooten's very interesting conclusions about the effects of rhetorical education on the character of Encolpius and his comrades. Yet Panayotakis himself tells us (p. 77) that "the passion of Echion, the centonarius, for spectacles in the amphitheatre has had a clear impact on the way he sees life" -- that is, Echion sees life as stage, especially mime performances. Why is a minor character to be allowed a personality and an individual psychology, but the first-person narrator Encolpius is not? Certainly there are "oral" features to Petronius's text (see especially the work of the Tübingen group, notably E. Lefevre and G. Vogt-Spira, cited by Panayotakis), but these should not be seen as limits either to the depths of characterization in the novel or to the complexity of issues Petronius seeks to address.

Panayotakis's discussions of the influence of mimes on jealousy or adultery themes are particularly interesting, since these intimately involve the central characters. More detailed examination of the impact of transferring these plot types to homosexual situations would have been welcome, though: are the parts in these plots truly interchangeable, or is there a wider implication to a farcical scene in which "Encolpius is the callida nupta" (p. 134)? Panayotakis himself finds it "strange" (p. 161) that, while there are numerous explicit references to mime in the legacy-hunting plot at Croton, the inset heterosexual narrative of Encolpius/Polyaenus and Circe contains no mime references whatsoever. Are there any conclusions to be drawn, especially from the contrast with the plots involving Encolpius and Giton?

Some more general remarks on the presentation of the volume are in order. Translation practices are not completely consistent. In general, Panayotakis gives both the Latin text and his own (workmanlike, although occasionally problematic) translations in the main text, while in footnotes he gives only the original text (e.g., p. 131 n. 27). Yet he omits the Latin originals of quotations from Cicero and Quintilian on p. xvi and Cicero and Seneca on p. 55 (where the Latin would be quite helpful) while quoting Moering's 1915 dissertation only in its original Latin (p. xxiv), which will be no help to the (perhaps now entirely mythical) general reader or modern literature student interested in the beginnings of prose fiction. His annotation practice seems to be to give the full bibliographical citation of a work the first time it occurs in the notes and then use a version of social science format (e.g., "Sandy 1974, 329") thereafter. As there are no cross references and full citations are given in the bibliography at the end, this does make for rather overlong notes at the beginning of the book. The bibliography is thorough and wide-ranging.

Panayotakis sets out to study the influence of both mime and other theatrical performances on the text of the Satyrica. He is more successful in the former than in the latter aim. While drawing quite interesting parallels between situations in New and especially Roman comedy (e.g., the use of letters in Plautus and in the Encolpius / Polyaenus and Circe episode), he is honest enough to admit the significant differences which remain. Nor does this mean the attempt was not worth making: Roman comedy was certainly part of Petronius's experience, even if he more likely read than watched it. Panayotakis, like others before him (including this reviewer), often speaks of the "theatricality" of a situation or a character's behavior in the novel, even when there is no suggestion of a specific mimic or theatrical influence. Theatricality is a slippery term, but in the age of Nero it is certainly more than just a literary phenomenon, as Shadi Bartsch's recent and fascinating book, Actors in the Audience (Harvard 1994), so eloquently demonstrates. Panayotakis concludes his book by deprecating "imaginative interpretations" which try to make the Satyrica into something more than the "sophisticated, scabrous book" (p. 196) he conceives it to be. Given the promise of this present monograph, one hopes that in his future work the author will be more willing to engage with the complex relation of literary theatricality to the wider cultural processes and obsessions of the age of Nero.