Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.23

Erasmo on Cowan on Erasmo.   Response to 2005.07.53



Response by Mario Erasmo, University of Georgia (merasmo@uga.edu)

I am grateful to Bob Cowan for his review, in particular for finding the central thesis of the development of tragedy from theatre to theatricality fascinating and for finding well handled key sections that deal with the notoriously difficult period from the late Republic to the early Empire: the staging and re-staging of fabulae praetextae, the opening programme of Pompey's theatre, Varius' Thyestes, and the theatricality of Neronian Rome. I am, however, disappointed by his dismissal of smaller sections dealing with the earliest tragedians and by his questions on methodology illustrated through selective citations that distort the aim and argumentation of key parts of my book. Especially egregious is his ignoring of the statement that I give in my Preface (xi), regarding my use of fragmentary sources:

A word about the evidence. Reconstructing aspects of Roman culture can be difficult with the best of evidence, and the problem becomes magnified when dealing with scant production notices of plays and fragments from tragedies that survive because of chance references or due to their interest to lexographers. In essence, the evidence is a limited sample of the already partial extant fragments. I follow the evidence by examining those plays whose fragments are numerous enough for analysis or for which we have details concerning original or subsequent productions. I make cautious but informed attempts to reconstruct the cultural contexts of tragic performances for their significance to Roman culture in general, realizing the dangers involved in under or overstating the available evidence. My analyses must remain suggestions that I hope will form the basis of further discussions, not conclusions.

I cite my approach at length to respond to Cowan's criticism that I am at once too careless and too cautious in extrapolating information from fragmentary evidence as though unaware of the inherent danger. Cowan furthermore criticizes the quality of the (available) evidence without suggesting where we should look for further information. The length of chapters reflects the availability of evidence: the first two chapters, dealing with the earliest tragedians, are much shorter than the remaining chapters that comprise the majority of the book which Cowan finds the most successful but comments on the least. These later chapters focus on the (meta)theatricality of tragic productions and texts under the late Republic and early Empire, where I reintroduce the plays of Ennius and Accius, in particular, in discussions of re-staged (or attempted restaged) versions and as allusive referents. I do agree with Cowan that the proofing should have been sharper, but none of the examples he cites affects the argumentation of my central thesis. Often, however, Cowan corrects a number of my translations with an assurance that the fragmentary texts, in many places, cannot guarantee.

Although I explicitly state that my book focuses on the evolution of tragedy to metatragedy and the cultural importance of theatricality on and off the stage, Cowan calls for a discussion of tragedy of Livius to Accius as literature and as theatre (an outdated separatist approach to dramatic texts). Furthermore, Cowan does not situate my discussions of metatheatre and semiotics among important recent studies of Seneca by Ferri, Kragelund, Littlewood, and Schiesaro (which I was unable to incorporate due to the production schedules of our books) that focus on aspects of performance, self-representation and theatricality relevant to my book. Strangely, of the two works on tragic fragments that Cowan cites as good studies, he admits that he has not read one (footnote 1).

Cowan is correct that I hope my book generates discussion, even disagreement, on the (meta)theatricality of Roman tragedy so it is all the more disappointing that he contributes too few of his own views.

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