Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.37

Angela Maria Andrisano (ed.), Ritmo, parola, immagine: il teatro classico e la sua tradizione. Atti del Convegno Internazionale e Interdottorale (Ferrara, 17-18 dicembre 2009). Dionysus ex machina.   Palermo:  Palumbo Editore, 2011.  ISBN 9788860172228.  e-book.  

Reviewed by Alessandro Iannucci, University of Bologna–Ravenna (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes to the author and the editors for the delay of this review.]

This volume publishes the proceedings of an international seminar organised by Institute of Advanced Studies of Ferrara University, a research facility where junior and senior researchers from different fields of study enjoy the opportunity to confront each other and discuss ideas in an international environment. As highlighted by the editor A. Andrisano in her brief foreword, this scenario is a necessary requirement in order to turn a varied topic into a shared research objective through different approaches and methods. The book also aims at overcoming the traditional subdivisions of each discipline, as well as the orthodox criticism established by specialisation. This meta-disciplinary approach is perhaps the only way to give an answer to the urgent demand for accountability and social relevance presented to classical studies and to the humanities as a whole.1 The subject matter of the volume, the ancient Greek theatre as a performing art, seems to be a profitable occasion for taking up this significant challenge within the contemporary context of classical studies. Theatre itself is a research frontier between academic criticism and intellectual engagement: enacting a text in the ‘continuum present’ of a performance makes categories such as ‘ancient’/‘modern’ or ‘classic’/‘contemporary’ almost unnecessary. Dramatic work can certainly be defined and studied as an abstract intellectual entity, or through the use – albeit temporary – of critical categories such as ‘author’ or ‘genre’, or again through a process of historicization. But the play itself exists mainly in its stage expression and is displayed through the physical means of theatre performance, underpinned by sound and vision, which is defined in its turn by the audience’s empathetic decoding.2

Such is the critical and methodological approach of the editor’s opening essay and of the fourteen papers which cover the main fields of research on ancient Greek drama: music, dance, formal dramatic structures, comedy, tragedy, Epicharmus and the so-called “Doric comedy”, pantomime, intertextuality between tragedy and comedy, ancient criticism and exegesis, staging and reception of theatrical texts from ancient literature to contemporary cinema.

This rich material is organised in three sections reflecting the title of the book itself: “Ritmo”, “Parola”, “Immagine”. The opening chapter by the editor A. Andrisano explains the meaning of these key words in theatrological research through a thorough analysis of the agon in Frogs, a metatheatrical text par excellence. Aristophanes’ interest in, and explicit reflection on, stage communication, and his continual analyses of the modes of dramatic writing, actually focus on these three elements, which in turn form the key points of the Aristotelian exegesis of the theatre. Rhythm, word and image are inextricably intertwined within dramatic performance, as this analysis shows: the agon itself should now be considered not as a simple exercise in ‘literary criticism’ but as an exact representation of the communicative forms and opportunities of the ‘stage word’ consisting of dance, cadence, music, dialogue, gestures, narrations and iconographical codes, whether openly represented or merely suggested. This working hypothesis, documented and proved on the basis of Aristophanes’ ‘poetics’ (a significant if undeclared hypotext of Aristotle’s Poetics) is fully verified in the subsequent essays.

The section “Ritmo” explores themes such as the prevalence of music (in its ritual origins) over spoken language in the definition of a communicative code characteristic of the tragic space (P. Judet de la Combe), the evolution of tragic dance rhythms in late Hellenistic pantomime (I. Lada-Richards), and Lucian’s On Dance examined as evidence – caricatural and ironic as always – of the debate on tradition and its cultural forms in the Imperial era (M.- H. Garelli).

“Parola” is a broader and more articulated section comprising the allusive potential of weighty words in performance (E. Firinu); Epicharmus’ theatrical treatment of Heracles (G. Piva), and his often overlooked use of the chorus, as suggested by an analysis of Aristotle’s sketch of the history of drama in Poet. 1449a.9-25 and 1449a.37- b10 (X. Riu); a redefinition of the connections between comedy and tragedy and of the rivalry between Euripides and Aristophanes – a theatrical rather than poetic issue, as suggested by the title but not extensively by the arguments of the paper (R. Saetta Cottone); questions of genre and the mimesis of political life in Aristophanes (Ch. Orfanos); an interesting and previously unrecognised comic pointe in Aristophanes fr. 487 Kassel-Austin, built on the peculiar stage use of a lekythos (C. Boccaccini); several notes on the reception of Attic comedy in the papyrus tradition (S. Perrone) and in some neologisms in modern Greek (F. Sampino); and finally a well-grounded analysis of possible stage hypotexts for the Dido episode in Vergil’s Aeneid (A. Fogli).

Two essays in the section “Immagine” supplement the study of the reception, or more correctly of the long-term tradition, of classical theatre. The first deals with ancient – specifically Etruscan – settings in Lawrence Alma- Tadema’s stage design for the staging of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus by Henry Irving, commissioned in 1879 but staged only in 1901, in London (B. Arbeid). The second analyses the narrative, ideological and ethical structures of Lars von Trier’s Medea, a 1988 production based on a 1965 script by Carl Theodor Dreyer (M. Iacopino).

A research tradition initiated in the second half of the twentieth century and now widely prevalent has definitively modified our approach to classical theatre. Beyond the transmitted texts – and the indispensable research on the circumstances and consequences of such transmission – it is now impossible, if not misleading, to ignore the elements of spectacle, dance and scenography, as well as the actual reception of ancient drama in contemporary theatre and cinema.3 This valuable book, focused on these performative elements and the tradition of exegesis and rewriting, represents an important outcome of such a research perspective. The book highlights some fundamental points which make it stand out from other more traditional approaches based on ‘classical’ authors and genres. In particular, it takes into account theatrical elements, such as Epicharmus and “Doric comedy”, that have been wrongly regarded as ‘peripheral’ and often examined without an effective focus on performance aspects. It also focuses on cross-genre characterizing, for example in Euripides’ later works, rather than on a traditional taxonomy which is probably valid only for earlier fifth-century Attic drama. These elements of innovation are closely related to a re-reading and a strong reassessment of Aristotle’s Poetics as a reflection on theatre and ancient staging techniques, rather than on the values of literary theory or aesthetics which traditional Renaissance-founded scholarship has laid out and still promotes today.


1.   Cf. D. Lanza, Interrogare il passato. Lo studio dell’antico tra Otto e Novecento (Roma, 2013), pp. 9-14.
2.   Due to its shared research perspective I recall a previous work edited by A. Andrisano, Il corpo teatrale fra testi e messinscena. Dalla drammaturgia classica all'esperienza laboratoriale contemporanea (Roma, 2006). The topic of the “corpo teatrale” as a tool and requirement for empathy between the performer and the audience is now studied also in neurophysiology, after the discovery of the so called ‘mirror neurons’, by V. Gallese’s research group; on this see V. Gallese, Il corpo teatrale: mimetismo, neuroni a specchio, simulazione in Culture Teatrali 16 (2008), 13-38, and on the physiology of mirror neurons, V. Gallese, L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, G. Rizzolatti, Action recognition in the premotor cortex , in Brain119 (1996), 593-609; G. Rizzolatti, L. Fadiga, V. Gallese, L. Fogassi, Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions , in Cognitive Brain Research 3 (1996), 131-141; L. Craighero, I neuroni a specchio (Bologna, 2010).
3.   On this topic the bibliography is particularly wide, but note the reflections of B. Marzullo on the performative aspect of ancient drama, for instance in the articles now reprinted in the section Scaenica in B. Marzullo, Scripta minora I, ed. A. Andrisano, V. Casadio, M. De Marinis, M.P. Funaioli et al. (Hildesheim, Zürich, New York, 2000), 261-394.

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