Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.02

David Taylor, The Greek and Roman Stage.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 1999.  Pp. viii, 88.  ISBN 1-85399-591-6.  $16.95.  

Reviewed by Ariana Traill, University of Colorado at Boulder (
Word count: 1469 words

This is a six-chapter general introduction to Greek tragedy, Old Comedy and Roman Comedy, with illustrations, questions and activities for students, and short annotated bibliographies of secondary sources in English. It is comparable in scope to E. Simon's The Ancient Theatre (English tr. Methuen 1982), but written for a more junior and less academic audience, and it includes more textual material. The series "Inside the Ancient World", which has published two other titles by the same author, serves UK students preparing for their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams in the areas of Classical Civilization and Classical Studies. These replaced the older O-level (more academic) and CSE (less academic) exams in 1988, and are normally written at age 16. Because the present reviewer is not familiar with the specific requirements of these exams, this review will limit itself to a more general assessment of the book as a high school text for American students in their sophomore or junior year.

The book has two main objectives: to provide basic handbook knowledge of ancient theater and to pique students' interest in the subject by describing, in a very vivid way, the experience of an ancient performance. It would nicely supplement the reading of plays in translation in theater studies and literature classes, as well as classical civilization courses, but does not presume it. The first chapter covers sources for the study of Greek drama and its origins and religious context, with brief introductions to the major dramatic forms and the three tragedians (the latter are too short to be much use, and most of the space is taken up by photos). There follows an imaginary account of the preparations for the first performance of Antigone in 442, including the duties of the choregoi, selection of actors and judges, and seating the audience (chapter 2). Taylor (henceforth T.) answers practical questions (how much did tickets cost, what exactly did the choregos have to pay for, how were plays "advertised") and spins an engaging narrative out of the efforts of Sophocles and "Bion" (the possible name of Sophocles' choregos in 448-71) to win the first prize in the competition. Chapter 2 sets readers up for the story of the performance in chapter 3, where T. takes us through the events of the play, imagining the different reactions of the audience, author and sponsor, as well as the concerns of the actors, particularly the tritagonist ("Dicaiarchos") who plays four different roles. T. uses Dicaiarchos' quick changes to illustrate the effects of the three-actor rule. This chapter is very effective in conveying the book's central point that ancient dramas need to be understood as performances, not just texts.

Chapter 4 set the mood for the Lenaia with an excerpt from Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo. The rest is factual information about Old Comedy: acting, costumes (not omitting the phallos), and types of humor, illustrated with examples from Clouds (the play is given in summary). T. gives short shrift to Menander in the last two paragraphs, asserting that his work cannot be judged properly because his plays, with the exception of Dyskolos, are not complete enough to be acted. Terence fares little better in the next chapter: he is still the sophisticate who bored his audiences, although this notion has been effectively challenged.2 Here T. covers the basics of Roman comedy, moving quickly through phlyax and Atellan farce to the circumstances of production at Rome. A few features of Plautus are illustrated with summaries of Mostellaria and Miles Gloriosus (the latter is too compressed -- it collapses the two main female parts in the play). The sixth and final chapter links the construction of theaters and amphitheaters at Rome to an increasing taste for sensationalism in theatrical displays. T. briefly introduces pantomime and concludes with a survey of major works influenced by Greek and Roman drama since the Renaissance.

T. uses some well-worn but effective techniques to interest his readers. The fictionalized account of the first performance of Antigone is rather successful, although the book's blend of fiction and history -- "backstage crews" alongside the Athenian Victors' List -- will not be to everyone's taste. T. moves from the familiar (words like spectator, theater, and hypocrite) to the unfamiliar (the words' original meaning and context). Most of the popular references cited for this purpose will be lost on audiences outside the UK, where "The Vicar of Dibley" (a television program), "pop festivals at Glastonbury", and "lyrical football commentators" who use words like protagonist and catharsis are presumably familiar. There are also a few, but not many, purely British idioms (e.g. "fancy dress" for costume). Efforts have been made to stimulate interest in the book's many images: one comic vase scene is presented as a puzzle (p. 60 fig. 28, with solution p. 82); an anecdote from Frogs (Dionysus' appeal to his priest, line 297) precedes a photograph of the priest's seat. One would like to see greater efforts to make these images informative. Vase paintings are presented along with inscriptions as "evidence" in the first chapter, but students are not given the information to treat them as such since they are told nothing about the medium, iconography, or even date of the artifacts pictured. There is no hint, for example, that the priest's seat (mentioned above) was built four centuries after Antigone, or that the sculptures labelled "Aeschylus", "Sophocles" and "Euripides" in the first chapter are anything but realistic portraits of living sitters. Most of the interpretive work in this text is already done, and it is hard to see how the book would allow students "to form their own judgement on the issues raised" (one of the purposes of the series, according to the back cover), without additional material. Questions about the themes of Antigone at the end of the third chapter (p. 40), cannot in fact be answered without reading the play, and the same is true for a number of the questions at the back of the book. These are usable, if not particularly imaginative ("discuss the topics raised by reading or seeing the play Antigone" is particularly disappointing) or, in every case, age-appropriate ("compare (with illustrations) the costume of a clown with that of a Greek comic actor" will hardly appeal to 16-year-olds). The book as a whole is written at a level suitable for general high school use, and perhaps for advanced middle school students.

There are some factual errors. On p. 59 T. has confused mime with pantomime (which he describes correctly on p. 71); the comparison of ancient mime with the modern mime of Marcel Marceau is false and misleading. The stone seats in the theater of Dionysus were not built "shortly after" (p.15) the first production of Antigone but a century later. In the vase painting fig. 30, p. 64 (British Museum F 189) the figure on the left (probably the slave, not the son of the old man on the right) is holding a situla, not an oil-lamp, in his right hand (and a fillet and phiale, not a tambourine, in his left3). Domitia was supposedly divorced, not banished (p. 71), for her affair with the pantomime actor Paris (Suet. Dom. 3), and Martial's epitaph for him (it is not one he "had composed for himself") calls him the "glory and grief" (decus et dolor 11.13.5) of the Roman theater. T. translates only "the glory of the theatre". The absence of Aristotle's Poetics from the discussion of the evidence for the origins of Greek theater (pp. 3-4) is a serious omission. Bibliographic notes could be more informative. It would be helpful, for example, to mention that Csapo and Slater's The Context of Ancient Drama is a source book, with a well-annotated bibliography of its own (and a much more recent one, though less comprehensive, than the two cited4). A few items are dated (one questions whether R.C. Flickinger's The Greek Theater and its Drama (University of Chicago Press, 1918) is "still very useful"). The section on comedy should include A.S. Gratwick's chapter on "Roman Drama" in CHCL Vol. II.1 (CHCL Vol. I heads the section on tragedy), and it is a surprise not to see either D. Konstan's Roman Comedy (Cornell, 1983), very readable by non-specialists, or, in view of T.'s emphasis on performance, N. Slater's Plautus in Performance (Princeton, 1985). It is also a surprise to see no information on either audio-visual or web-based resources in a book intended for high school use. One final note on production quality: the numerous black and white photographs are adequate (with the exception of 7 and 23, which are out of focus), though not to be compared with those of R. Green and E. Handley's comparably priced Images of the Greek Theatre (Texas, 1995). Sketches and plans (specifically 1, 2, 8, 13, 14, 20) are not attributed.


1.   J.S. Traill, Persons of Ancient Athens (Toronto, 1995) Vol. 4, #266595. The name is restored. T. overstates the facts in calling him "a sponsor who, we know, worked with Sophocles a few years earlier" (p. 16).
2.   Holt N. Parker, "Plautus vs. Terence: Audience and Popularity Re-examined", AJP 117 (1996) 585-617.
3.   R. Green and E. Handley, Images of the Greek Theatre, University of Texas Press, 1995, p. 55, fig. 29; A.D. Trendall, Phlyax Vases, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, No. 19, 2nd edition, 1967, no. 39; The Red-Figured Vases of Paestum, British School at Rome, 1987 p. 159 no. 280, pl. 103a-b; A.D. Trendall and T.B.L. Webster, Illustrations of Greek Drama, Phaidon Press, 1971; M. Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theater, Princeton University Press, 1961, p. 141, fig. 517.
4.   Both in the New Surveys in The Classics series (Oxford University Press): T.B.L. Webster, Greek Tragedy (1971); W.G. Arnott, Menander, Plautus, Terence, (1975).

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