Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.18

Jennifer Wise, Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1998.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 0801434599.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Roger Travis, University of Connecticut (
Word count: 2527 words

The haphazard treatment given to the operation in and effect on Athenian drama of the 'literate revolution' (Eric Havelock's term) in Archaic and Classical Greece springs, I think, from two separate anxieties about drama itself. On the one hand, the eternally self-renewing debate about drama's origin and what, if any, effect that origin should have on our understanding of the genre urges caution in making any assertion that could actually be disproven by new evidence (as opposed to those myriad assertions that cannot be falsified); on the other hand, the performative nature of theatrical representation and the significance of the irretrievably lost original modes of performance urge caution in constructing any argument about such seemingly evanescent phenomena. Jennifer Wise's Dionysus Writes is to her (and my) knowledge the first extended treatment of orality/literacy issues in what she, a theatre historian, broadly terms "Greek drama." Dionysus Writes should be welcomed as a book that fills a gap on the shelf both of everyone who studies the Athenian theatre as dramatic and literary performance and of everyone who studies orality and literacy in Ancient Greece.

As with many such gap-fillers, there are several drawbacks to the book, which result mostly from its more or less pioneering status; and like many pioneers Wise is at times ill-equipped to meet the wide range of challenges she faces. The ground of Greek literature in general and Athenian drama in particular seems new to her, and for this reason the book can occasionally be downright irritating for the Classicist reader. The author's knowledge of Greek is cursory, and at times the use of evidence indeed seems dangerous, to the point that there are certain sections I would advise students and non-Classicist scholars (the greater part, it would seem, of the intended audience) not to read without first ingesting, as antitoxin, more balanced treatments of, for example, ritual in tragedy or Aspasia as logographer or the state of our evidence about the anakrisis. Nevertheless, and at times despite undeniable clumsiness in her use both of Classical sources and of Classical scholarship, Wise makes her more or less revolutionary point abundantly clear, that Athenian drama is fundamentally conditioned by the development of writing in Archaic and Classical Greece.

The above formulation represents what I will call the 'weak' form of her argument. My main quarrel with the book, beyond my irritation with the author's failure to be a Classicist, a condition that I am sure would have prevented her from writing the book at all and thus left our gap unfilled, is that very often that weak and cogently argued form gives way to an unnecessarily polemical 'strong' form: that "Theatre ... owes its existence to the alphabet" (5; emphasis in original) -- that writing and writing alone (as opposed especially to ritual) can explain the existence of drama at all, period: the sort of argument students of Athenian drama know very well, the unified field theory of the theatrical genre.

This strong argument produces the book's most choler-inspiring moments, as when Wise dismisses the entirety of Seaford's Reciprocity and Ritual in a single footnote (221n11), saying that his reliance on Bacchae demonstrates the untenability of his position. Those who propose Grand Theories should have more respect for their Grand Theorist comrades, and although Seaford does make much of Bacchae, to say that his entire majestic edifice rests upon it is a gross misrepresentation.

Wise's rough treatment of the "ritual hypothesis" in her introduction and conclusion is both understandable and unfortunate: understandable because theatre historians have made so much of the Cambridge ritualists that the ground needs to be cleared in Theatre History for a study like Wise's; unfortunate because, quite apart from the short shrift she gives more recent, much more sensitive Classicist treatments of ritual and tragedy like those of Goldhill and Seaford, by dismissing the role of ritual in drama so firmly ("Th[e] complex relationship between myth and ritual was not grasped by the advocates of the ritual origins of theatre, and as a consequence they were unable to see theatre in its earliest days for what it was: a species of story-telling whose ritual associations were only circumstantial" (223)), Wise unnecessarily creates a flaw in her argument: she is forced by her complete rejection of ritual origin to ignore completely the religious significance of Athenian drama which, treated more sensitively, would perhaps provide an important corollary to her argument.

Between introduction and conclusion come four chapters, one each on (Ch. 1) the relation of literate drama to the alphabet itself ("The ABCs of Acting"), (Ch. 2) Athenian literate education ("The Student Body"), (Ch. 3) the literate Athenian lawcourts ("Courtroom Dramas"), and (Ch. 4) Greek writing practices ("Economies of Inscription"). Each chapter is preceded by one or two mysterious epigraphs from figures as diverse as Stanislavski and Plato and by (even more mysterious) an illustration by the author, seemingly in the style of Attic Red- (or, in one case, Black-)Figure vase-painting, depicting an imaginary scene that, if authentic, would illustrate the importance of writing to Greek culture. (Indeed it required some work to determine the identity of the artist. Wise is credited on the dust-jacket with the cover illustration, of Dionysus reclining in a boat [with vine as in the Homeric Hymn], reading [presumably Euripides as in Frogs], which also appears as the illustration preceding the book's Conclusion, but I could find no attribution for any of the other pseudo-vase-paintings.)

Chapter 1 presents the evidence for drama's dependence on alphabetic literacy, beginning from Kallias' Grammtikê Theôria and the abundance of references to writing and reading in Athenian drama. Page 17, note 6 may prove the most useful item in the book for the Classicist: there Wise enumerates the 81 allusions to writing she uncovered both in extant dramas and in the dramatic fragments. From drama's obsession with writing Wise moves to a historical survey of what she sees as a transition on the one hand from oral to written and on the other from epic to drama.

Her notion of a shift from epic to drama, which she seems to derive from (what seems to me) a misreading of Herington, informs the entire inquiry and represents one of the dangers I alluded to above. The idea she adopts as an axiom, that drama took the place of epic in the cultural life of Greece, leads to many of the more strident formulations of the book, which paint drama as a sort of evolution from epic that by means of the technology of literacy creates a new, more exciting genre. For example, we find Wise placing much weight on her argument that, "From a strictly chronological perspective ... it is beyond dispute that the emergence and swift poetic hegemony of drama coincided with the advance of the alphabet in Greece" (24).

The weak form of her argument as it comes through in this first chapter is nevertheless convincing to the extent that the reader can substitute a notion of "poetic difference" for the author's idea of "poetic hegemony." Wise argues cogently that whatever view we take of the genesis of the text of Homer, the demonstrable growth of literary proto-criticism in, e.g., Pherecydes and Xenophanes indicates that a fundamental shift has taken place in the culture's attitude toward the traditional orally-transmitted mythic material. And although Wise seems to be unaware of the difficulty of assimilating the mass of "heroic stories" with the textualization of Homer (not least because the tragedians so scrupulously avoided the Homeric stories as we know them), she makes the very telling point that drama relies for its effect on a revisionism of myth that can arise only from a text. To round out this argument, Wise makes another important point, that epic recitation, whether by bard or rhapsode, is highly professionalized where dramatic performance is by (more or less) amateur performers who can memorize their parts from a text. Here I felt the insufficiency of reference to the chorus, with which Wise seems uncomfortable, but the drawing of the chorus from the population of the demes only strengthens this argument about amateurism.

Chapter 2 is an extended comparison of Athenian sophistic education and Athenian drama to the end of establishing drama as a sort of "embodied" school, bridging speech and writing, which is resistant to the sophists' new ideal of the written. As the previous sentence indicates, there is too much going on in this chapter, which vacillates between the theatre and Plato, beginning from an uncritical reading of Diogenes Laertius' anecdote about Plato's recusal from tragedy. Wise's central point, that philosophy's grappling with the mind-body dialectic in terms of text and speech, known to us especially from the Phaedrus, has an important and problematizing corollary in the same problem in literate drama, is very well taken and worthy of much further work, but that point is to my mind somewhat obscured by the un-nuanced discussion of what Wise calls literate education, for example when in a sort of thought experiment she encourages the reader to imagine Aeschylus reciting Sappho for his teacher (78). There is also a great deal of comparative and theoretical material (especially concerning Bakhtin's heteroglossia) that seems to take more away from the argument than it gives.

Chapter 3 adds an important element to the ongoing discussion of the similarities between the theatre and the dikasterion: the parallel importance to each of, respectively, written myth and written law. Again, Wise seems right in her central argument here, that the agonistic nature of both types of performance gives rise to a "pragmatics of performance" that not only must have determined the meaning of drama to its audience, but which we can see reflected in individual dramas, most notably Eumenides, a brief reading of whose voting scene brings the chapter to its climax. A better understanding of Athenian law and procedure might have helped greatly; Todd's and Cohen's work (with none of which, it seems, Wise is familiar) on the nature of substantive law and of elite legal performance obviates a large chunk of this chapter, or at least complicates it greatly -- Wise's point, which at first seems fairly compelling, that by the offices of written myth drama is able to put its characters on trial in the same way a citizen brings a graphe, needs to be much more carefully argued now that we have a firm grasp of the private nature even of public prosecution and the lack of real codification until a later period than the works Wise is primarily engaged in discussing. Likewise, to use Aspasia logographos as proof that the dikasteria admitted a plurality of voices just as the theatre did is, I think, to take the wrong end of the stick -- the argument would be a very useful one made the other way round, that women's voices were ventriloquized in both performance-spaces, but would not fit with Wise's larger point, that isegoria is a literate phenomenon that enfranchises every literate person.

The ill-named Chapter 4 ("Economies of Inscription") seems at first to be about monetary economies, but shifts its focus almost imperceptibly to the literate structures created by literal writing, which Wise calls "the Greek information economy" (182). The lack of section headings throughout the book is frustrating, but in this chapter it becomes nearly unbearable, as the reader struggles to follow the shifting argument. Wise's argument here is that the structure and substance of Athenian drama echo not only the theatre's various monetary contexts -- most notably the payment of tribute on the first day of the Dionysia and the theoric fund -- but also the contexts of writing elsewhere in Greek culture -- most notably "speaking objects" (dedications and funeral stelai) and ostraka. This is another important point, which is again obscured by Wise's substituting theoretical and comparative material for nuanced discussion of the evidence for these cultural practices; her overinterpretation of the evidence for the theoric fund is the most striking example (179-80).

But, as the Conclusion demonstrates, the classicist reader is to a large extent an uninvited guest at a Theatre History party, desperately trying to hide his hands behind his back so that no one sees his involuntarily wagging finger. If the unexplained reference to the Quem quaeritis trope in the previous chapter (lucky for me I'm a medieval liturgy buff) did not serve to indicate that, the sweeping theatrical conclusions Wise draws certainly do. Athenian drama, Wise thinks, when properly understood, tells us two very important, universal things about drama and theatre: "that from their inception, theatre and drama were structured according to the same set of social and poetic principles and therefore cannot be described as two separate art forms; and that we can no longer accept those theories which portray literacy and literacy practices as peripheral to, let alone destructive of, the art of the stage" (213). It is at least very heartening for a student of Athenian drama to see that a real theatre historian sees such continuity between the various discrete moments of the Western dramatic tradition, not to mention, by the implication of her liberal use of non-Western comparative evidence, the even more discrete moments of the world dramatic tradition, and that Athenian drama still holds such pride of place. But the wholly theoretical nature of the chapter makes the student of Athenian drama uneasy, too, since Wise's argument that drama deconstructs the written/oral, text/performance, high/low, literary/non-literary dichotomies is, on the one hand in its sustainable, weak form, self-evident -- that's what drama and theatre do, after all -- and on the other, in its strong form, based largely on the most problematic, least judicious, worst-supported skein of her argument in the book, that the importance of literacy to Athenian drama entirely obviates the influence of ritual.

Wise writes very well and explains difficult theoretical concepts quite clearly, in general without oversimplifying. Although her incessant use of "for" to introduce sentences and an occasional bit of unearned evangelism are less attractive consequences of her passion for the subject matter, that passion elsewhere produces really memorable formulations like, "[B]ecause it is not just actors but all literates who are afflicted, and blessed, with th[e] text-body dialectic, it would seem that drama's ability, rare among the arts, to stage and interrogate this dialectic should be one in which all members of a literate culture retain a significant intellectual and physical investment" (215; emphasis in original). Unfortunately, though, the book is full of typographical errors, including one which has Creon bringing the citizens "under the yolk" (48); there are also many small errors in the footnotes.

To reiterate, the book is not intended primarily for Classicists, as is perhaps most tellingly evidenced by Wise's frequent 'us vs. them' references to "scholars" (e.g. "Lamentably, scholars have yet to reach anything approaching a consensus about when Homer was 'alphabetized'" (31)). This orientation to the theatre historian produces an unfortunate irony: those who have the background to use the book safely are those for whom its usefulness is most constrained. But unless and until a Classicist decides to cover this same ground, Dionysus Writes will be a welcome, if flawed, synthesis of important material.

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