Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.29

Eric Dugdale, Greek Theatre in Context. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. viii, 200.  ISBN 9780521689427.  $25.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Panos Seranis, University of Mainz (seranis@uni-mainz.de)
Word count: 1375 words

Greek Theatre in Context by Eric Dugdale is the second book published by the Cambridge University Press in the new series Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts. Dugdale, alongside James Morwood, are also the general editors of the series. The book focuses on Athenian drama of the fifth, fourth and third centuries, comes in an attractive, user-friendly shape and is illustrated with pictures throughout.

This 200 page volume is divided into seven chapters whose aim is to shed light on the social, historical, political and cultural contexts of Greek theatre. In doing so, the author does not promise an exhaustive analysis but rather a general introduction that could open students' appetite for a more thorough reading, a list of which is provided at the end of the book, alongside a glossary of key terms.

All chapters contain information from ancient sources (all in translation), draw on visual resources, and include questions to stimulate and to provoke further discussion on the topics addressed in the book. Dugdale also makes use of extensive footnotes in order to make the text more accessible to his audience. Although not explicitly stated in the book (a significant omission from the introduction), the present volume is an effort to combine literature and civilization topics and to bring Greek theatre to life for high school and undergraduate students as well as the general public.

Chapter 1 focuses on the genres of performance (dithyramb, tragedies, satyr-plays and comedies), whereas chapter 2 situates the social context within which the plays were performed. Festivals played a significant role in the development of ancient drama and Dugdale rightly discusses them in some length. The third chapter in the book provides a closer look at the theatrical space and its significance for the theatrical performances. Dugdale discusses different types of theatres and their elements (wooden stands, stage, scene setting and scene painting, mechanical devices) to show how these contribute to the dramatic effect.

Chapter 4 revolves round the role of chorus in classical drama as a key element of the unfolding of the plot and the communication of meaning to the audience. Dugdale differentiates the role of the chorus in the different types of drama (old and new comedy, satire) and selects a number of extensive passages from Greek plays to show how the chorus engages with the characters and the audience through the visual and auditory spectacle it offers (costumes, masks, song and dancing). Dugdale is right to devote a whole chapter to the chorus, as for the modern reader this can be a distinctly foreign element of tragedy, since it is not one of the standard conventions of modern drama.

One of the most important elements of Greek theatre, the dramatic actors, is discussed in chapter 5. Dugdale's fresh approach deals with issues such as posture and dramatic silences, actors' entrances to and exits from the stage, supplications and prayers, to demonstrate how these add to the aesthetic effect of the drama plays in antiquity. He goes on to discuss non-verbal elements of theatrical performance, and he centers the argument on the use of masks and the creative possibilities they offer in depicting the characters and in conveying meaning. Dugdale discusses the practical advantages of wearing a mask and how masks have contributed to the formation of recognizable dramatic characters. Finally, Dugdale comments on the development of the acting profession and the recognition of its status.

Classical drama, as we know it, would not have been the same without the recognition and appreciation it received from the audiences of the time. This is the theme of the penultimate chapter of this book, where Dugdale discusses matters such as audience size and composition, seating arrangements and other social aspects of the Athenian theatre-goers. Theatre was not only a source of entertainment and Dugdale rightly explores the social and sociological implications of drama for the audiences of the classical era. He also emphasizes the audience's emotional involvement and response in giving Greek theatre its significance and value, and he highlights the dramatic conventions the authors have been using in order to attract and maintain the audience's interest and yield emotional responses to it. In this chapter Dugdale manages to bring out the central role of theatre in the Athenian society as a multifaceted cultural phenomenon. I also found interesting his brief sociological analysis of the different types of theatre-goers, which has a lot to say about the audiences of our time too.

Finally, the last chapter pays homage to the leading playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander) of Athenian drama, providing brief synopses of their lives, works and particular contributions to the advancement of theatre in antiquity. This chapter is perhaps the least stimulating in this book, mainly because of its descriptive character due to the material the author deals with.

Dugdale writes with wit and precision and knows how to address his audience and bring his subject to life. He also writes in a clear, jargon-free language which definitely contributes to the high degree of readability of this volume. Whenever he uses terminology, Dugdale provides full explanation in extensive footnotes, leaving no room for misconceptions. He is also not afraid of making references to, mutatis mutandis, modern-day parallels of key themes discussed in the book, which allow his audience, and the undergraduate student in particular, to draw from their own experiences in order to understand Athenian drama better.

In building his arguments, Dugdale makes extensive use of extracts from classical drama and other literary and non-literary sources. This is done to good effect, as it engages the readers in the reading activity and allows them to follow the arguments more clearly. It also familiarizes undergraduate students with a wide range of topics through the study of original texts, which may encourage students to have a closer look at the original for a more thorough study of a particular theme discussed in the book.

The illustrations are of high quality, although in one or two cases students cannot extract any valuable clues from the visual stimuli discussed in the book. On page 10, for instance, where Dugdale focuses on the Pronomos Vase, he asks his readers to draw likely conclusions from the fact that chorus members are labeled with the names of the actors while those playing the main parts bear the names of their characters. However, it is unlikely that any of the students can actually see this particular piece of information on the vase, so they can only imagine it. Finally, a full index of illustrations at the end of the book would have been much better than the notes on the inside title page.

D invites readers to reflect on the material he presents to them by setting a number of questions throughout his book, both at the end of chapters and in specific sections. Posing questions is one of the most useful elements in this book. Questions prompt students' critical and reflective skills, allowing them to make comparisons with today's theatre and take their thinking in deeper levels. Dugdale's questions are generally concise, clear and thought provoking. I felt, however, that there were times where the questions were rather leading ones and, in certain cases, more or less included the answer. To give an example, on page 67 Dugdale discusses a scene from Euripides' Bacchae (576-626) and asks:

How might this scene have been staged in a time before Jurassic Park and the era of computer generated special effects? The scene refers to many spectacular sights and sounds: was everything to be imagined, or do you think there was some kind of enactment of the god's epiphany through stagecraft (e.g. a drum roll for the earthquake, smoke ascending from backstage for the fire, the collapse of some stage scenery)?
From a pedagogical point of view, I believe that some questions could be improved in order to be more fruitfully used in university courses on drama.

Overall, Greek Theatre in Context is a valuable text for an introductory course in Greek drama. It is clearly and engagingly written and fulfills its aims, to provide the rich contextual framework within which Greek theatre is situated. Students will find it informative and stimulating and instructors will recognize it as a useful companion in their teaching.

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