Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.27

Clifford Ashby, Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject.   Iowa City:  University of Iowa Press, 1999.  Pp. xix, 191.  ISBN 0-87745-641-0.  

Reviewed by Thomas H. J. U. Talboy, Centre for Ancient Drama and its Receptions, University of Nottingham (
Word count: 1536 words

'Classical' conjures up a different meaning for each of us, but we probably can agree on some general dating. Ashby's examination of theaters varies from archaic to classical to Hellenistic to Roman. This may be a by-product of a research method that Ashby describes: "a much deeper understanding [of the sites] can be gained by spending time at the primary source." (xv) Thus, it seems that 'Classical' is used more as a generic term for 'the ancient world' than a specific period.

The title of Ashby's book raises expectations that some significant new conclusions about the Greek Theater are to be expounded. Unfortunately, much of what is presented seems merely a repetition of evidence, and Chapter 3 is essentially a reproduction of Ashby's now 11-year old article, "The Case for the Rectangular/Trapezoidal Orchestra" (Theatre Research International 13 (1988) 1-20). While that article was valuable for the presentation of material, it would be hoped that the same discussion included here would have led to more definite conclusions or some further insight into the evidence. Here, problems emerge that suggest an inaccurate historical picture, and shifting uses of terms are sometimes difficult to follow and they may well mislead.

A reference to Demosthenes is misidentified (126, fn. 12: 54-5 instead of 74-5), and though that may be a typographical error, it is embedded in a discussion concerning whether performances began at dawn, which suffers from somewhat anachronistic assumptions such as that "[starting later in the day] fits the almost-universal pattern of sleeping-in on holidays. [A] later time for arising on the days of tragic competition is likely. Given the comfort-loving, even hedonistic, traits of the Classical Athenians, Philochorus' account better fits the occasion than does the more rigorous early-rising version." (119)

Ashby sometimes seems to have overlooked scholarship that should have been available to him and would have helped to solidify some of his discussions, or to provide viable alternative explanations. In Chapter 3, Ashby discusses the shape of the orchestra and concludes that "a final judgment may never be reached," (40) but he seems to overlook important scholarship presented by Egert Pöhlmann. Indeed, while Pöhlmann is listed as the editor of a work cited in Chapter 6, he does not appear in Chapter 3 at all. Pöhlmann's "Die Proedrie de Dionysostheaters in 5. Jahrhundert und das Bühnenspiel der Klassik" (Museum Helveticum 38 (1981) 129-146; reprinted in Studien zur Bühnendichtung und zum Theaterbau der Antike, Egert Pöhlmann, ed. (Frankfurt am Main 1995) 49-62) is of significance, and certainly Ashby would have been able to consult the original publication. In Chapter 5, Ashby treats the 'scene house' and in his discussion he uses the performance of the dithyramb as evidence for the shape of the performance space (though this would seem to fit better in the chapter on the orchestra.) Ashby anticipates the important question whether the size of the circular dithyrambic dance may have influenced the shape of the orchestra in the fifth century Dionysos Theater in Athens, but he shies away from applying the evidence in that way. Indeed, Ashby does not seem to know of the 1997 article by Armand d' Angour ("How the Dithyramb Got Its Shape." CQ 47 331-351) which would be valuable on this point. In Chapter 7 Ashby has a discussion of the orientation of theaters that is reminiscent of David Wiles, Tragedy in Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), a work that appears in his bibliography, but is not referred to in the body of the book. The evidence suggested for the orientation is perhaps of interest to those of statistical minds, but it fails to convince one that there were conscious choices to orient theaters so that audience members could avoid direct sun. Indeed, if anything, the diagrams show the contrary, that the orientation points are all over the compass. (Naturally the question should arise: Are all these 'theater' sites really theaters?) This discussion however, is apparently to prepare for the next chapter discussing the time of performance.

Ashby spends some time criticizing other writers' uncritical obeisance to, and unquestioning repetition of previous scholarly conclusions. Chapter 10, "Validation by Authority: Margarete Bieber's Comparisons of Hellenistic and Roman Theatres," attempts to break free from reliance on sometimes mistaken statements and Ashby's conclusion that "this discussion [shows] how easily the ruminations of recognized authorities can be transformed into canonical utterances," (145) is well taken; this is, indeed, a thrust of the whole book. In Chapter 11, "Validation by Repetition: The Menander Reliefs," Ashby again wants to make the point that "tentative speculations ... have metamorphosed into historic fact." (162) Ashby is troubled that "tentative speculations [are] elevated to the status of 'fact' by nothing more substantial in the way of evidence than being frequently cited." (147) Here his own interpretation of the pieces, "the seated person in these two reliefs is not a playwright but an actor studying the mask of the character he is to play next[,]" (157) is interesting and is legitimately drawn from evidence that seems to have otherwise been dismissed. Elsewhere, however, his own strictures might possibly be turned against himself.

In Chapter 12, "Validation (and Discovery) by Experiment," Ashby attempts to put to some use certain aspects from the rest of his book by presenting a restaging of Euripides' Ion, which among other things Ashby argues should be performed as comedy. In this discussion, he wishes to apply several points that, while not necessarily satisfactorily addressed elsewhere, are 'proved' here, namely the use of the 'double-hung pulley system' for the mechane, and other points introduced only here: the comic performance, the extensive use of the third actor and comic business within the play itself. Whereas he has shown distrust of repetition of authoritative statements ("reverence [for authority must] be tempered with skepticism" (145)), he shows a wholesale acceptance of the generally accepted opinion regarding the three-actor rule and falls prey to circular argumentation on some points. He attempts to show how the three-actor rule proves itself by being applied to the texts of extant tragedy, though he does not address comedy. A discussion of vocal similarities loses its strength when Ashby concludes that "the playwright relied upon a vocal palette of differing pitches and qualities ... For this, he needed three distinctive voices." (131) The circularity is obvious. Once again, the question of what he wishes to apply the evidence to is raised when he speaks of "the almost-total adherence to [the three actor rule] over a long period indicating a contest with rigged guidelines and procedures." (137) Clearly, he is addressing performances at the Theater of Dionysos in Athens, but once again, the shift from the general to the specific is not always made clear.

It is difficult to see how this book can displace the older, comprehensive works like those of Pickard-Cambridge or even how it really challenges their positions. Some conclusions leave the reader wanting more without much insight into where to find an answer, as for example, Ashby's light discussion of the ekklyklema, and his minimal but harsh attack on the periaktoi. Ashby's conclusion is simply that "the Greeks undoubtedly opted for the simplest and easiest solutions to their shifting problems" and "as shown in the discussions[,] the writing of Vitruvius and Pollux are too often provably wrong to be used as bases for scenic reconstruction. The demands of an outdoor situation and the absence of camouflage for technical contrivances make simple devices the more likely." (94-95)

Ashby's seemingly unguided reliance on iconographic evidence leads him into a difficult position. In Chapter 5 he accepts a direct correspondence between the paraskenia as represented on two fourth-century vases and the Athenian theater of the fifth century. These images, he says, "no longer need to be dismissed as south Italian eccentricities. Rather, they are tributary theatres modeled after ones found in their mother country." (73-74) The constant shift from the theater in Athens at any specific time to the theaters throughout the 'Greek world' is not always clearly identified; the apparent political implications of "tributary" and "mother country" suggest an imperfect grasp of Greek history; and a conclusion is drawn regarding performance in Athens (at the Theater of Dionysos) but without regard to the date of the performance (except for one note about performance during the Peloponnesian War).

Given all that, Ashby should be praised for his willingness to say something that we could all say once in a while, "I still cannot answer with any certainty the riddle of Epidauros' complete circle.' (xiii) He likewise should be welcomed as a participant in the quest for understanding Greek theater, bringing as he does "the advantages that come from a life spent working in the many crafts involved in theatre production [and] the staging of a play." (xv) Ashby concludes with a very welcome statement that "the stage is seldom utilized as a laboratory to test historical suppositions." (179) I am all for staging ancient drama and for testing theories of the ancient theater but am always wary when we do so because, among other things, as Ashby himself says in the preface, "theatrical practices of one era can[not] be automatically transferred to another." (xviii) This, I think, should be a constant caveat in this pursuit.

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