Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.62 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.62

Nikos G. Charalabopoulos, Platonic Drama and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge classical studies.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xxi, 331.  ISBN 9780521871747.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Emily Wilson (

The title is a provocation: Nikos G. Charalabopoulos presents Plato as the author not of “dialogues”, but of “drama”, which was, he argues, seen as a fourth dramatic genre in antiquity, designed to be performed in quasi-theatrical fashion, and was performed both by Plato’s immediate followers and by many others throughout antiquity. The book, based on the author’s Cambridge PhD thesis, is divided into four chapters: “Setting the stage”; “The metatheater of dialogue”; “Performing Plato”; “Plato’s theater”. The evidence is laid out clearly, although the writing style is not lucid. “Performance” is a popular buzz-word in the contemporary academy, suggesting a more vibrant, lively tradition than mere dead words on a page.1 It is quite likely, as many scholars have suggested, that Plato used performance of his dialogues as a teaching tool in the Academy.2 But there is very little evidence of any specific kind for ancient performances of Plato. Charalabopoulos takes us on an interesting journey through the issues, but he struggles to make a compelling case.

The first chapter focuses on the constitution and arrangement of the Platonic corpus. Charalabopoulos sensibly insists that the standard modern taxonomy is only one possible arrangement among many. Ancient readers worked with several alternatives, including groupings into trilogies and tetralogies. He also argues that we should be less preoccupied with issues of authenticity: in the case of several of the doubtfully-attributed dialogues, there may always be a very fine line distinguishing the “genuine dialogues from later additions” (p. 16). But authenticity of a different kind remains important: Charalabopoulos justifies his focus on reception by suggesting that it will produce a more authentic reading of Plato’s own intentions, enabling the “recovery of the integrity of the Platonic dialogue”. He claims that it is not “improper” to use Plato for our own particular agenda, but only if “the reading will bring us closer to Plato and not vice versa” (sic). Charalabopoulos seems to believe that the study of reception is valuable only insofar as it can help us recapture the original meaning of the text.

The second chapter discusses Plato’s antecedents in the dialogue genre, including other writers of Socratic dialogues, and Sophron’s mimes. There is no discussion of whether the Platonic dialogue might be influenced by any non- dramatic genres (such as historiography or oratory). Charalabopoulos provides a fairly useful map of how different Platonic dialogues may seem to engage with different dramatic genres, including satyr plays and comedy as well as tragedy, ending up with an analysis of the ending of the Symposium, where Socrates’ victory over the tragedian, Agathon, and the comedian, Aristophanes, can be read as presenting the Platonic dialogue as the “ultimate drama”.

Charalabopoulos goes on to discuss “dramatic qualities” in the Republic and the Laws, arguing that the challenges offered to the tragic poets in these texts suggest that there are “intrinsic affinities” between the work of drama, and that of the Platonic “philosopher-poets”. The discussion struck me as convincing only insofar as it reproduced the standard scholarly picture, which acknowledges both a relationship and a gap between the Platonic dialogue and the traditions of drama. Where Charalabopoulos strikes out on his own is in trying to close that gap, and here he is much less convincing. In Laws book 7, the Athenian argues that the Laws itself provides a model for a better kind of school text book than the standard curriculum, in poetry or prose (811c-812a). 3 There is an inset debate between the Athenian and the tragic poets, who beg to be allowed into the city and get a pretty frosty reception. The Athenian’s response is that the law-maker-magistrates themselves are already “poets of the best and most beautiful tragedy” in their whole state (politeia); the poets’ thunder has been stolen by the legislators. Charalabopoulos argues that this passage does not simply trump or reject traditional forms of drama, but invites comparison between the two types of tragedian. Moreover, he assures us, “the Athenian needs tragedy” (p. 101, italics his). The precise meaning of this is unclear to me, but it seems to be connected to the claim that the Laws is composed “as a self-reflective performance piece”, which is designed to be not merely read, but acted out. All of this goes much too far towards erasing the Athenian’s obvious hostility towards actual tragedy.

The third chapter argues that Plato’s dialogues not only draw on drama, and are friendly to drama, but were actually performed in antiquity. This is a suggestive claim, and perfectly possible, but there is a real lack of evidence. Charalabopoulos tries to use Aristotle’s Poetics to link Platonic dialogue with stage drama, but the connection is very weak. The treatise of Demetrius, On Style, is more promising evidence, but is also far later (first century BCE). Demetrius discusses the beginning of the Euthydemus and comments that its style is more suitable for an actor (ὑποκριτῇ) than for “written letters” (γραφομέναις ἐπιστολαῖς). This suggests, as Charalabopoulos notes, that Platonic dialogues were seen as texts “intended for performance”, although it surely does not follow that they actually were performed, either in the fourth century or the first (let alone tell us anything about what kind of performance it might have been). It would have been extremely useful at this stage of the argument for Charalabopoulos to look sideways at the reception of drama in this period. Fifth-century tragedy was often encountered through private reading, not public performance: for instance, there is the vivid account in Dio Chrysostom of his experiences reading Aeschylus’, Sophocles’ and Euripides’ versions of the Philoctetes side by side, and imagining the plays’ performance in his mind (Discourse 52). In this context, the references in Demetrius to the actorly qualities of Plato’s dialogues are inconclusive evidence for whether or not Demetrius had actually seen them performed: they suggest only that he is able to imagine a performance (which is, again, not very surprising).

The second half of the chapter discusses the “pragmatics of publication”. Charalabopoulos reiterates the scholarly truism that most literature in the fifth and fourth centuries was experienced through “oral presentation” as well as (or instead of) through private reading, but suggests that this was true in particular ways for Plato’s dialogues. He begins by discussing the testimony in Diogenes Laertius, which includes a couple of references to Plato reading out his own work (DL 3.35 and 37). Charalabopoulos does not deal with the fact that these passages are, on the face of it, evidence against the idea that the dialogues were composed for anything like theatrical performance, as opposed to reading by a single lecturer (in however exuberant a fashion). Charalabopoulos then discusses the opening section of the Theaetetus in which the text of the subsequent dialogue is read aloud by a slave. Charalabopoulos concludes, quite reasonably, that “reading aloud” was a normal mode of presenting a prose dialogue in the fourth century. But there is a long distance between reading aloud, by a single (servile) speaker, and actual theatrical enactment (with multiple speakers, movement, props and so on); these possibilities are different again from multi-part readings by philosophy students for their own edification. None of Charalabopoulos’s evidence proves anything about the latter two possibilities. The argument is directed at straw people when he insists that individual reading was probably not the “exclusive means” for encountering Plato’s dialogues in the fourth century BCE. Whoever said it was?

In the fourth and final chapter, Charalabopoulos promises to evoke “the unknown story of Plato the playwright”. He discusses five pieces of evidence: a statue group which seems to represent Socrates as a Silenus (hence linking him with “the world of the theater”); the ancient taxonomies of Plato’s dialogues, which include groupings in trilogies and tetralogies; allusions to performance in sympotic contexts, in Plutarch and Athenaeus; a papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus (POxy xiii 1624) which may possibly suggest markings for performance; and the mosaic representation of Socrates in the House of Menander (from the fourth century CE). Charalabopoulos acknowledges that his evidence is miscellaneous and its implications debatable, but he goes on to use it to construct a case for an ancient perception of Plato as a kind of dramatist. In fact, the papyrus evidence is very flimsy, and the first two pieces of evidence (the statue and the taxonomies) do nothing more than suggest that ancient readers picked up on Plato’s obvious interest in drama. They do not show us anything about any actual performances. Linking Socrates with Silenus only takes a quick read through the Symposium; it obviously does not require one to have seen a theatrical production of any Platonic dialogue.

The most interesting part of the chapter, and indeed of the book, is the discussion of the passages of Plutarch and Aristaios that form our most substantial evidence for the performance of Platonic dialogues in antiquity. In the Sympotic Questions, book 7, Plutarch evokes a party-time conversation in which one guest suggests they should get rid of the usual entertainers, and instead introduce a “form of entertainment recently imported to Rome”, namely performance by slaves of the “lightest” of the “dramatic” Platonic dialogues. It is clear from the passage that the practice is controversial. Charalabopoulos gives a helpfully detailed and nuanced account here, arguing that Plutarch’s own position is left deliberately opaque, but that both this passage, and the following discussion of types of musical performance, suggest that the possibility of performing Plato could be seen by Greeks of this period as a way to “reaffirm an alternative Greek cultural discourse in the context of foreign rule” (p. 214). Charalabopoulos then goes on to discuss a passage from Athenaios composed almost a century later, which reports the practice of having cooks come out of the kitchen carrying food and reciting lines from Plato. He quite rightly emphasizes that this is a completely different kind of dramatized Plato from that described in Plutarch: it is not a complete performance, with gestures, but simply the evocation of individual lines, presumably to add a layer of cultural cachet to the dinner- party atmosphere. Charalabopoulos follows his discussion with a highly speculative suggestion that all these dinner- party practices may go back to performances at the Platonic Academy itself, perhaps in celebration of Socrates’ birthday (a tradition that would then have survived intact for some five hundred years . . .). Well, maybe it did; or perhaps not.

The final piece of evidence is the mosaic of Socrates, in the House of Menander. This has been well discussed by Eric Csapo, along with the Menander mosaics which accompany it.4 Csapo argues that these images are markers of status; they do not provide good evidence for performance of Menander in this house, or any kind of private theatrical performance in the period. The same is even more obviously true for Platonic dialogues. Charalabopoulos seems to be aware of Csapo’s work, but does nothing to take it into account, and still asserts that this mosaic is evidence for “the longevity of the tradition of Plato performances”. Sadly, it isn’t: the case is just not proven.


1.   The tendency to privilege speech over writing is questionable, and was questioned most famously by Derrida in Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena, and Writing and Difference (Paris, 1967). One of Derrida’s key exhibits is Plato’s Phaedrus.
2.   A good discussion of all this, along with analysis of the ways in which Plato’s dialogues both are and are not like theater, comes in Ruby Blondell’s The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues (Cambridge, 2002), especially Chapter 1, pp. 1-52; Blondell includes useful further bibliography on the relationship of Platonic dialogue to Greek drama.
3.   A more compelling recent analysis of this passage is Susan Sauvé-Meyer’s “Legislation as a tragedy (on Laws VII. 817b-d)” in P. Destrée and F.-G. Herrmann, edd., Plato and the Poets (Leiden / Boston, 2011).
4.   In Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater (Oxford, 2010).

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