Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.31

Mary Louise Hart, The Art of Ancient Greek Theater. Exhibition Catalogue.   Los Angeles:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.  Pp. viii, 168; illus.  ISBN $50.00.  $9781606060377.  



Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University (jxn4@case.edu)

[Getty Villa: Exhibition “The Art of Ancient Greek Theater” (August 21, 2010-January 3, 2011); Symposium “Artists and Actors: Iconography and Performance in Ancient Greece” (September 24-25, 2010); Performance of Sophocles’ Elektra (September 9-October 2, 2010).]

A recent September weekend at the Getty Villa in Malibu showed off what this major cultural institution does best—a Gesamtkunstwerk consisting of an international art exhibition accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, a two-day scholarly symposium, and a newly commissioned production for its intimate outdoor theater. This year’s focus on Greek theatrical performance has been a long time in the planning, but it has paid off mightily in these complementary events and publication, which serve to direct our attention to the specifics of staging, props, masks, costumes, the chorus, troupes, audiences, prizes, furies, satyrs, and of course phalloi, so central to the cult of Dionysos. With the exception of janiform portrait busts of Aristophanes and Sophocles and two small-scale images of Menander in the exhibition, this project does not foreground the poets or their plays; rather it is the material culture influenced by the theater that is the focus of this exhibition, its catalogue, and symposium. To cite just one example of how these various constituent parts intersect and illuminate one another, a paper entitled “Theorizing Props” by Martin Revermann (University of Toronto) analyzed the role of stage objects like the supposed ash urn of Orestes which was so visually apparent in the Getty’s production of Sophocles’ Elektra (brilliantly directed by Carey Perloff of the American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco), and which in turn echoed the numerous vases in the exhibit that once served as funerary offerings, in many cases for non-Greek natives of Southern Italy, as elucidated in an illuminating paper delivered by Tom Carpenter (Ohio University). It is a daunting challenge to summarize all aspects of this ambitious enterprise and to credit adequately its numerous contributors, so this review will concentrate primarily on the exhibition and catalogue.

What strikes one immediately about the exhibit and its publication is the collocation of theatrical imagery in objects presented together here for the first time. So, for example, one can view in a single vitrine several Attic and South Italian vases representing scenes from the Oresteia. Likewise the two major Lucanian vases from Policoro and Cleveland (provenance unknown) illustrating the climax of Euripides’ tragedy, Medea’s dramatic escape in her snake–drawn chariot, are exhibited together enabling one to compare and contrast the similar iconography. In the comic realm two juxtaposed South Italian vases featuring a goose (alive on the Boston krater, dead on the one in New York) represent two scenes from the same lost play of Attic Old Comedy. Because of its now improved relationship with the cultural ministry of Italy, the J. Paul Getty Museum was able to acquire for this show the two roughly contemporary, magnificent volute kraters featuring the god Dionysos with a theatrical retinue: the name-vase of the Attic Pronomos Painter from Naples with no less than thirty figures, and that of the Lucanian Karneia Painter from Taranto. (If for no other reason it is worth going to this non-traveling show just to admire these two vases which can here be viewed close up and studied in the round.) With its elaborate costumes, masks, satyrs, tripods and aulete named Pronomos, the eponymous Naples vase naturally figured prominently in many of the symposium presentations, especially that of François Lissarrague (Centre Louis Gernet, Paris) who demonstrated the artist’s play between the real and the imaginary in the satyric realms.

As might be expected major portions of the exhibition and catalogue are devoted to the two genres of Greek theater, tragedy and comedy. A third major component deals with the act of performance and its contexts. Thus at the very beginning of the exhibit (and on the website) one is treated to color photographs of extant Greek theatres from Sicily to Cyprus as seen through the masterful lens of Hans Goette (DAI, Berlin). The prolific theater historian and translator of Greek plays, Michael Walton (University of Hull, UK) provided both a fitting prologue to the exhibition catalogue and a satisfying epilogue to the conference proceedings. His introductory essay explores the origins of Athenian drama and traces its development from Thespis to the end of the Peloponnesian War with special consideration for its staging within the rituals of Dionysos. His suggestion that Thespis invented acting by donning a mask presages his second essay on paraphernalia and staging. Here he investigates the ways in which the mask defined the actor’s identity, notably in the plays where he might have to assume as many as six different roles because of the restricted number of actors, and the importance of gesture. Masks are pervasive throughout the exhibit and were the subject of C.W. Marshall’s (University of British Columbia) paper, in which he argued for a reduced typology of types from the forty-four described by Pollux. Walton’s essay reminds us of the messages conveyed visually without the necessity of speech in such moving tableaux as Agamemnon’s exit on the blood-red carpet in the first play of the Oresteia or the entrance of Hektor’s dead son on his father’s shield in Trojan Women. A third substantial essay turns to comedy and the fourth century with an examination of Menander, the Lykourgan theater in Athens, and the stock characters of New Comedy.

The second part of the project deals with tragedy and its related component, the satyr play, which provided the comic relief of the tetralogy. Lissarrague has contributed three essays to this section, not surprisingly one on the satyr play itself, one on erinyes or furies, and an introductory essay on “Visuality and Performance.” Included is a papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus (now in the British Museum) which preserves a portion of Sophocles’ satyr play Ichneutai. In the exhibit one can don earphones and hear the passage in both the original Greek and an English translation. The producer of the exhibit and editor of the catalogue, Mary Hart has contributed a section on the iconography of tragic representations. She calls attention not only to the distinctive features which characterize theater imagery on vases (elaborate costumes, boots, furniture, scenery, mechane) but also to the portrayal of un-staged episodes recounted in messenger speeches which obviously had a profound effect on artists. In his symposium paper Ralf Krumeich (Universität Bonn) warned viewers to make a distinction between images ‘of’ tragedy and those ‘in the guise of’; Athenian vase painters were not so much interested in depicting plays as in demonstrating the active involvement of young citizens in the social and religious life of their city.

Hart has also written on pre-dramatic choral performances, the most heterogeneous section of the exhibit and catalogue. Vases identified as depicting choruses range from an Attic black-figure komast cup with padded dancers of the early sixth century to the Kleophon Painter's red-figure bell krater with five men and an aulete grouped around an ivy-bedecked maypole of the late fifth century. Oltos’s famous psykter in New York with the armed dolphin riders was the starting point of Barbara Kowalzig’s (University of London) wide-ranging paper which traced archaic song culture throughout the Mediterranean via maritime trade routes. It is most fortunate that the Logie amphora by the Swing Painter from Christchurch with its unique stilt-walkers was loaned to the show, as the recent earthquake there heavily damaged two-thirds of the collection. Because most of the vases assembled in this section feature an aulos player, they are identified as choruses, but what they may have to do with Dionysos is far from certain. The Siana cup in Amsterdam, for instance, with what looks to be competing groups of dancers in distinctive dress on the exterior has a Panathenaic-type Athena on the interior and given its date (c. 560 BC) could be related to some early aspect of her festival. And where some see masks, others might see the idiosyncrasies of a vase painter (as on the Basel Mannerist column krater with its pyrrhic dancers).

Part III of the exhibit and catalogue is devoted to Athenian Old, Middle, and New Comedy and especially the South Italian genre known as phlyax, for which the material and textual evidence varies. Comic scenes were shunned by Athenian vase painters, but enjoyed a huge popularity in Apulia and Paestum. Martine Denoyelle (Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris) has tackled the topic of phlyax farces and their representations on vases; she notes some interesting details like the non-comic bystander, the temporary wooden stages indicative of local productions, and the reworking of tragic themes. Among a rich collection of nine comic vases on display a highlight is that from Bari showing the birth of Helen from her egg, the topic of Alan Shapiro’s (Johns Hopkins University) conference paper. Shapiro has also contributed an essay to the catalogue on terracotta figurines of masked actors from the least well known phase of Attic comedy, Middle Comedy. While these actors still wear the paunch and dangling phallus of Old Comedy, the New Comedy figurines abandon this cumbersome costume. Another diachronic change noticeable in this exhibit is the assumption of the onkos or tall mass of hair over the forehead in tragic masks of the Hellenistic period.

If there is a spiritual exarchos of this project it can be found in the scholar Oliver Taplin (Oxford University), author of numerous illuminating studies of “pots and plays”. While he did not contribute to the catalogue (alas), his scholarship pervades it, and the conference benefitted from his insights on traveling troupes of professional actors and their pervasive influence on the ceramicists of southern Italy—leading to the intriguing speculation that the Pronomos krater may have been commissioned in Athens by an ancient, native Italic resident of Ruvo di Puglia, the find spot of this famous vase. To view Greek theater history from a non-Athenian perspective and to consider the role of non-Greeks in the choruses of professional Greek troupes are refreshing approaches to this ever-expanding topic.

One can easily mention well-known objects that could or should have been included in the Getty exhibition, although all of them are illustrated in the catalogue. One misses several key pieces in Würzburg such as the famous Gnathian sherd with the middle-aged stubble-cheeked actor holding his mask, the unique skenographia fragment, or the amusing krater with the parody of the Thesmophoriazousai. Difficult to obtain would have been the two unusual Attic choes, no doubt related to the Anthesteria: that formerly in the Vlasto collection (now National Archaeological Museum, Athens) that shows an audience watching a farce of Perseus on stage, and another in the Hermitage known as the Phanagoria Chous from its source on the Black Sea. Fortunately this delightful but relatively unknown vase which features five comic performers was the subject of Jeffrey Rusten’s (Cornell) presentation which involved a detailed iconographic analysis.

This reviewer’s only real quibbles are with the design of the catalogue. The light font on the white page tends to strain the eyes. Although there is much color, many objects are illustrated only in black and white. The six captivating figurines of comic actors in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for instance, would show off their charms far better in color. Disappointingly only one side of most vases is illustrated, even if the opposite side involves theatre and/or is discussed in the entry. And this reviewer found the reproductions of some photos in lime green as section headings particularly unaesthetic, perhaps appropriate for southern California, but for ancient Greece—όχι!

With only 33 of the probable 297 dramas of the great tragedians surviving, and a mere 14 Attic comedies, it is no surprise that the material evidence is essential for a fuller understanding of Greek drama. In toto the various component parts of this investigation of Greek theater have demonstrated how drama was a synthesis of all the arts, with its theater architecture, painted scenery, sculpted masks, rich costumes, choral music and dance, and poetic performance. The Getty exhibit under its able organizer Mary Hart has served up a multi-faceted feast that has managed to convey beautifully the complexity, the magic and the relevance of ancient Greek theater.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Archives
Books Available for Review
BMCR Home
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 10:09:25, Tuesday, 12 October 2010