Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.2.05


Lowell Edmunds and Robert W. Wallace (edd.), Poet, Public and Performance in Ancient Greece. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 167. $37.50. ISBN 0-8018-5576-6.

Contributors: Maurizio Bettini, Giulio Guidorizzi, Antonio Aloni, Lowell Edmunds, Joseph Russo, Charles Segal, A. Thomas Cole, Robert W. Wallace, Maria Grazia Bonnano, Bruno Gentili.


Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge, sdg1001@Hermes.cam.ac.uk.

There are two specifically relevant frames of reference for this collection of articles. The first is the work of Bruno Gentili, in whose honor the conference from which this volume emerged, was held. Gentili's writing has been influential particularly in America and Italy for its turn towards performance contexts for the understanding of archaic lyric especially. Gentili himself dates this turn to his encounter with the studies of Havelock in 1969; and although he has never deserted a traditional philological approach to the texts of archaic lyric, both his own contributions, culminating in the widely used Poesia e Pubblico nella Grecia antica (1985, translated by A. Thomas Cole as Poetry and its Public in Ancient Greece [1989]), and those of his équipe, centred on QUCC, have constantly stressed the importance of the institutions of recital and patronage in an oral culture. Most of the contributions to this volume stand firmly within this intellectual tradition.

The second frame of reference is the current boom in performance studies. J. L. Austin's category of the performative in linguistics, together with Judith Butler's articulation of the performativity of gender, along with cultural studies which privilege the work of Bachtin, Turner and Goffman for a sense of the performance of everyday and of ritual life, have produced a heady theoretical nexus which informs much recent analysis of social practice (especially outside classics). This frame of reference is significant largely in its almost complete absence from this volume.

There are eight brief articles, preceded by a very short preface by Bettini and followed by even shorter remarks of gratitude by Gentili himself. There are two temporal focuses of study, the culture of archaic Greece up to the Persian wars, and the dramatic festivals of democratic Athens in the classical polis. The first half of the book has four pieces. Guidorizzi considers first the manic and bizarre laughter of the suitors in Odyssey 20, which, he claims, is best understood as a form of 'loss of soul' experience, a state particularly studied in Asian cultures: 'The Malaysians call it latah, the Yakut amurak, the Tungus olon'. This state, he asserts, is similar to ekstasis or enthusiasmos and finds Dionysiac possession to be the model needed to understand the suitors' behaviour in the Odyssey. On the one hand, this argument would need a much more careful comparative method to be convincing: the lack of reference to Dionysus in Homer, the lack of fit between Asian and Greek constructions of possession, the lack of parallels for the Homeric scene in Homer or elsewhere, would need some addressing at least. On the other hand, the argument has little to do with the themes of the volume. The introduction can only bring it in under the rubric by lamely asserting that the passage 'poses a problem of communication between poet and public' (while the author actually claims what he has shown would be 'immediately recognisable by the audience'). It is a rather unsatisfactory beginning to the volume.

Antonio Aloni and Lowell Edmunds with Simonides on Plataea and Theognis' seal both treat elegiac verse in a more scholarly manner closer to Gentili's own concerns. Aloni, through a close reading of the proem of Simonides' account of Greek triumph (fr. 10-18 W [2]), argues that Simonides was commissioned by the Spartans and possibly Pausanias himself to commemorate the Greek victory over the Persians, which thus sharpens the political thrust of the fragments and develops our understanding of the possibilities of the genre of elegy. Edmunds, engaging specifically with Gregory Nagy, argues for a 'politicial and ethical stance' in Theognis' most famous fragment, as a spokesman for the once and future aristocracy. Both articles make (thus) interesting and bold claims (Aloni's rhetoric is more cautious than his conclusions), but it is regrettable that there is no connection between the two pieces beyond their juxtaposition. It would have been profitable if they or the editor had attempted to explore the implications of what two such claims together might mean for our understanding of the form of elegy and its performance context(s).

Joseph Russo concludes the first section of the book with a brief introduction to the possibility of understanding the traditional wisdom of proverbs, apophthegms, and maxims in archaic culture. This piece shows a welcome awareness of the usefulness of socio-linguistics for the interpretation of such material (though his bibliography is brief), but the lack of historical specificity, perhaps prompted by the apparent timelessness of such linguistic usage, is rather disconcerting. What Plutarch is doing in collecting, say, 'The Sayings of Spartans' is quite different from Aristotle's theory of the commonplace and from Aristophanes' mobilization of a proverb for comic effect. The construction of Herms at the crossroads of Attica, inscribed with maxims, would make a fascinating test-case for one extreme form of the use and display of traditional wisdom, as Robin Osborne has stressed: indeed, a 'speech event worth preserving in memory for its embodiment of some key cultural value' (as Russo puts it) is one important description of such material. But there are other functions and powers at stake, too. This article could do with extensive expansion -- and was probably a stimulating performance piece.

The second half of the volume, also with four chapters, is concerned with drama. Charles Segal begins with a first-rate enquiry into the chorus in the Bacchae. It is thoroughly up-to-date and engaged with current critical interest -- with a particularly good critique of Richard Seaford's recent treatments of the play -- and it is clearly argued, and focused on a central issue of tragedy -- the relation between community and individual, transgression and normativity -- considered through the specifics of the chorus' distance from civic values. Although neither 'performance' nor 'the public' is an explicit topic, it is an argument rich with implications for these categories. This is a piece which could be given immediately and profitably to students, as well as making a significant contribution to scholarly debate.

Thomas Cole and Robert Wallace are both concerned with 'the public'. Cole tries to find the audience(s) of Euripides' Ion and investigates the politics of myth-making. The questions of how tragedy's normative messaging functions and of how a fifth-century audience responds to myth and what seems to us to be mythic innovation are boldly expressed, and are important indeed. Thinking (through) polytheism is a difficult process, and the evidence for responses to any ancient play is rare and needs careful analysis. Cole's analysis is very brief -- barely nine pages -- and quotes only three lines of Greek for discussion, and consequently has none of the depth that Loraux and Zeitlin have bought to the analysis of this play. This does not invalidate the questions -- but it makes it harder to find the answers fully satisfactory. Robert Wallace looks at the history of audience response in a different way. Following Plato's lead, he argues that in the fourth century theater did become less serious, both in that didactic roles were increasingly taken over by rhetoric and philosophy, and in that an anti-democratic, elite, intellectual millieu developed. But he also notes that accounts of noise and emotional disturbance in theater audiences is a constant from the earliest days. Wallace puts together the evidence (which is not as 'unexpected' as Bettini suggests in the introduction) to construct a neat enough argument; and there are enough who take Plato at face value in this area to justify such a project. Beginning with a sociology rather than an aesthetics of fourth-century drama is a move in the right direction, it seems to me, but there is still a lot to be done in the rehabilitation of post-classical drama.

Finally, Maria Bonnano reflects on performance itself with a focus on the need for 'space', or 'making space' in an article that flits in eleven pages from Alcman to Heidegger to modern French theater to Passolini's cinema to question again why Aristotle dismissed opsis -- suggesting that it is the spatio-temporal ephemerality of the performativity of opsis that makes it unattractive to the philosopher's more serious concerns. Here, too, an interesting topic is barely treated and insufficiently explored.

There is undoubtedly some good and provocative material in this volume which marks well the influence and stimulation of Gentili's work. It would have made an excellent volume of QUCC, where the briefer pieces might have been more at home. As a book, however, it lacks a coherent agenda or articulated overview, not least in the failure to address the transition between archaic and democratic performance spaces and practices. There is no editorial introduction and the preface of Bettini makes the scantiest inroads into the topic. It limits itself to archaic poetry and classical drama, without any express reason for such limitation: much of the best recent work on performance, however, has been precisely on the interfaces between, say, assembly and theater, law and other narrative genres. What is more, the volumes edited by Kurke and Dougherty on the cultural poetics and performance of archaic society or on the theatrical culture of the democratic polis by Winkler and Zeitlin have shown how much more broadly the topic of 'performance and the public' could have been conceived and discussed. It is, thus, finally, a thin volume on a major topic.