Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.08


Eric Csapo and William J. Slater, Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. xiv + 435. $44.50 (hb). $24.95 (pb). ISBN 0-472-10545-0 (hb). ISBN 0-472-08275-2 (pb).


Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, University of Michigan.

This title may mislead some people. This is a sourcebook, and the "context" to which it refers is theatrical. It seeks to provide readers without Greek or Latin access to the primary evidence about such questions as what ancient productions looked like, how they were arranged and paid for, and how audiences behaved.

In reviewing a sourcebook, the first question must be whether it was needed, and whether it meets the need. The gap the authors seek to fill was a real one, and they have unquestionably done the job. In aiming to help the widest possible audience, though, I suspect that they have served the most sophisticated segment of their market best. English professors who teach the history of the theater will bless the authors' names; the volume is full of documents they should know about which were previously completely out of their reach. On the other hand, I would be uneasy about assigning the book in a standard class. civ. course on the history of classical drama. I couldn't assign more than half the material, because my students, at least, are easily frustrated by sourcebooks. They lack the historical knowledge to place the snippets, and the intellectual confidence and enterprise to compensate for their ignorance. The authors provide good, but limited background; they assume the book will be used in a lecture course. The authors invite us to be grateful for their economy, and from the scholarly perspective I can admire their judicious selection. My students, though, are likely to resent having to pay for the book when we don't read all of it. On the other hand, if it included only the material I would be likely to want for my students, I wouldn't have learned anything from it, and I did encounter a number of inscriptions I'd never looked at before. The plates add immensely to the book's usefulness, and appendices offer a translation of Pollux and chronological tables.

Organization is a perennial difficulty for sourcebooks. This one is divided into five main sections, labeled "Kinds of Evidence: Their Nature and Reliability," "Origins of Greek Drama," "Organization," "Actors and Audience," and "Mime and Pantomime." The first section is largely about how to evaluate literary and archaeological evidence, but it also is the main presentation of some important material. It provides evidence about how dramatic texts survived and on ancient scholarship, and introduces the major inscriptions (actual fragments are given in IV, under "Actors' Competitions"). There is a good discussion of the pictorial evidence ("Artifacts" means pots, figurines, wall paintings, mosaics, and manuscript illustration); and there are descriptions of theaters (illustrated at the back). The main sections are subdivided into subsections and chapters, which, sensibly, follow a chronological division. So, for instance, III, "Organization," includes three subsections for classical Athens, the Greek world in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, and the Roman world; IIIA, Athens, is further subdivided into "Festivals," and "Regulations," and these areas are then further subdivided. "Regulation," for instance, includes "The Choregic System," "Judges," and "Freedom of Expression." Items are numbered within each overall section, and arranged within each sub-heading by the date of the content. This is all satisfactory, and there is some cross-referencing when it is needed. It will not be too difficult for someone teaching Greek drama, or Roman comedy, to isolate the appropriate sections. But I fail to understand why nobody apparently thought a book this length needs an Index Locorum, especially since it is provided with a glossary and bibliographical notes (these are excellent for non-specialist scholars, though the glossary is incomplete: diaskeuai, for example, appear in the text but not the glossary). Indeed, there is no index apart from the glossary, even though the authors admit in the introduction that costume, for instance, receives no separate treatment.

Accuracy and selections are the next inevitable issues. I have not even attempted a systematic check of the translations and references, trusting that if there were frequent errors, I would notice them. I caught a few (for instance, 316 and 346 seem to have been exchanged on p.40; O)/RXOS means "testicle," not "penis"), but not enough to trouble me. The book selects very well within its parameters, though I might have set these differently. The decision not to include biographical material about poets means that the volume is very informative about the social status of actors, but provides little about the social or political standing of playwrights (except when author and actor intersect, as with Laberius); Roman comedy seems somewhat neglected.

In a work that treats this much material, there are plenty of small points for disagreement, but they should not interfere with the book's usefulness to anybody. The general interpretive bias of the authors is quite clear: given a choice between religion and politics, they always choose politics; given a choice between religion and entertainment, they choose entertainment. So, for example, they comment on the Athenian vases showing a Dionysus-ship accompanied by satyrs as demonstrating "the connection of satyrs with public amusement." They view tragedy as basically a secular entertainment, and argue that comic freedom of speech in Old Comedy is a testing of democratic limits, very like the license sometimes found in the courts. I would not dissociate comic and ritual abuse so completely, especially because abuse of individuals and obscenity tend to be associated. However, at a time when scholarship is much preoccupied with grand cultural significance and the ritual aspects of drama are much belabored, it is refreshing for the scholar, and I hope for the student, to plunge into the aspect of drama this volume presents, a world of actors making money, theaters needing repairs, politicians trying for prestige, cities trying to ensure that the entertainers they've hired actually show up, special effects, and booing audiences, a world of spectacle of which our precious texts were only a small part.