Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.27

George W. M. Harrison, Vayos Liapis (ed.), Performance in Greek and Roman Theatre. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 353.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. vii, 590.  ISBN 9789004244573.  $252.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher B. Polt, University of South Florida (


For modern scholars of ancient drama, attention to performance seems so obviously fundamental to a fuller comprehension and appreciation of theatrical literature that we might expect the topic to have been an essential object of study from the start and to have been so thoroughly examined by now as to leave little untouched. But Harrison’s and Liapis’ volume demonstrates clearly how complex and difficult the issue — and even the very definition — of “performance” is, how far we have come in our understanding of it in the last half-century, and how much more still needs to be done. Originally conceived as a volume on opsis, a term that encompasses all non-verbal components of ancient theater, the final product ranges even more widely by addressing such topics as rehearsals, the culturally-encoded expectations of Greek and Roman audiences, and the influence of various theatrical genres on each other and on fields outside drama proper. Despite the collection’s broad scope, the individual papers hang together well and regularly return to similar sets of problems. Trying to figure out Greek and Roman performance is like watching a fast-paced play from the restricted-view seats of the nosebleed section, and while reading I often felt that the individual authors were inviting me to change places and sit near them for a slightly better look at the same stage from another part of the theater. Some readers will find some seats more rewarding than others, but on the whole this is a diverse but pleasingly cohesive collection that greatly expands our view of ancient performance.

The introduction by Liapis, Harrison, and Panayotakis will no doubt prove the most useful to the greatest number of people, offering a review of literature that is refreshingly accessible and lucid for non-specialists while still delving into some of the most significant contributions and debates about ancient performance over the last fifty years. On the Greek side, major topics include what the audience could or could not see, what it needed to visualize on its own, and how that impacts the experience of plays; rules and norms concerning actors, especially the “three actor rule” and the role of the chorus; the mechanics and symbolism of space (inside and outside the theater), blocking, props (especially masks); and the use of iconography from the visual arts to reconstruct ancient performance practice. The Roman side overlaps with the Greek survey (in props, space, etc.), but also examines: Roman theatrical architecture and scenery; genres other than tragedy and comedy; Roman adaptation/translation of Greek material; music, meter, and actor improvisation; and new theatrical directions in the Empire, especially the question of whether or not Seneca’s plays were performed. The editors succeed in outlining the growth and trajectory of modern studies of ancient performance, but they are also careful to point out contentious areas where debate remains fierce. This chapter should become a standard starting point for those venturing into ancient performance studies for the first time, but even those acquainted with the field will find it an excellent resource for clear outlines of major issues and carefully chosen bibliography.

The rest of the volume is divided into five main groupings. The first, “Opsis, Props, Scene,” takes a broader view of performance by focusing on the theory and history of visual elements in the ancient theater, with special emphasis on Greece. Sifakis and Konstan tackle the question of Aristotle’s notoriously slippery views on opsis, both arguing that these were not inconsistent or negative as others have claimed. Sifakis approaches the problem by considering both Aristotle’s intent in writing the Poetics, which he argues centers principally on plot-construction and not full dramatization, and the state of knowledge about performance in ancient Greece, which he suggests would not have been deemed a techne in Aristotle’s day and thus, while an important element of tragedy, was outside the scope of any theoretical work on the art of poetry. Konstan’s argument is more precise and persuasive, using Aristotle’s own definition of tragedy as a representation of a complete action to demonstrate that opsis can be used successfully if fully integrated into the larger movement and symbolism of a play. He concludes by suggesting tentatively several tragedies for which the visual can be seen to support the play’s overarching praxis. Revermann’s and Tordoff’s chapters offer analyses of stage props in Greek (and other) theater traditions, the former drawing on theater semiotics broadly to discuss common qualities shared by props, the latter offering a partial catalogue of actors’ properties in the plays of Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander. Revermann’s discussion of ways in which the interpretation of props depends on the audience viewing them, both within and from outside the play, is particularly interesting, and Tordoff’s careful examination of the varying definitions of “prop” highlights well how fluid and nebulous objects seen on stage can be. Tordoff also uses his data to examine several plays’ “rates of materiality,” that is, how many physical objects there are in a play relative to the number of verses it contains, and draws some interesting conclusions about how generic expectations affect and are affected by prop usage. Small’s chapter offers a brief but useful survey of textual evidence about skenographia, as well as an interesting discussion of ancient views on perspective and optics.

The second section focuses on Greek tragedy, with the first three chapters on Aeschylus, whose reputation for utilizing visual effects was strong in antiquity. Podlecki surveys Aeschylus’ extant and fragmentary plays and suggests points where such effects would have been likely and in line with the author’s later reputation for visual spectacle. Most of his suggestions seem plausible, though sometimes he takes the text of the plays perhaps too literally, and it would be fruitful to temper such analyses by considering whether visual effects are described because they actually occurred on stage or precisely because they did not and the audience was asked to imagine them instead.1 Meineck explores how Athenian topographical features visible from the Theater of Dionysus, in particular the colossal statue of Athena Promachos on the Acropolis, might have affected the audience of Aeschylus’ Eumenides. He argues persuasively that the play and this new monument worked together to signal Athens’ rebuilding and he perceptively examines ways in which ritual processions as cultural viewing practices informed how Athenians saw their environs in the theater. Three chapters by Bakewell, Fletcher, and Ketterer offer sensitive and thorough readings of several thematically central props: Bakewell for Athena’s decisive ballot in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Fletcher for Philoctetes’ bow and Ajax’s sword in Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Ajax, and Ketterer for the skene, altar, and statue of Artemis in Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians. Wyles’ chapter likewise examines a significant stage property, Heracles’ costume in Euripides’ Heracles, but traces its influence beyond that play into later literature and visual arts, and eventually into ancient culture broadly as an icon of power and divinity. Liapis closes this section with a detailed analysis of the Rhesus, which he shows abounds in unusual staging issues and visual effects.

Three papers on Greek Old Comedy form the third grouping, which again covers a wide range of topics. Rusten’s chapter examines a single fragment of Cratinus’ Thracian Women (fr. 73 PCG), which he argues does not prove that Cratinus brought Pericles on stage as a character, but rather reveals the playwright’s cleverly indirect method for lampooning political figures without naming them. Marshall’s and Ley’s chapters take a broader approach, the former contributing to long-running scholarly discussions of the so-called “Rule of Three Actors,” the latter taking up the issue of what actors, choruses, and affiliated stage artists needed to do in order to prepare for performance. Marshall and Ley bring seasoned practitioners’ eyes to their respective questions, and their analyses of demands on actors and logistics of theater business are especially insightful.

The papers in the next section, on Roman drama, include several areas that have been relatively underserved by modern scholarship. Cowan’s chapter suggests some ways to think about visual allusions in drama, drawing on Greek theater, which is comparatively well preserved, to analyze how Roman tragedies might have engaged with other plays “intervisually.” Much of his chapter is admittedly and necessarily speculative, but it offers a useful starting point for approaching this question. Franko’s chapter reexamines the games sponsored by L. Anicius Gallus in 167 BCE, at which (much to the chagrin of Polybius, our source for this event) the Roman general ordered his Greek theater artists to cease their well ordered and choreographed performances and engage in a farcical mock battle. Franko argues persuasively that Anicius’ decisions were in keeping with the carnivalesque spirit of Plautine comedy and draws from this bizarre event interesting conclusions about differences of expectation in Greek and Roman comic audiences. Beacham’s chapter reads the Roman house as theatricalized space, examining how owners and visitors interacted with and viewed domestic spaces as they moved through the “staged” private and public areas of a home. Beacham offers a detailed and lively walk through the house, which he supplements with many effective photographs and 3D reconstructions of ancient spaces. Dutsch’s chapter examines how Romans viewed gesture as a form of non-verbal but communicative language, drawing primarily on Quintilian’s discussions of the matter. She also investigates where the line between gestures appropriate to the orator and those suitable only to the theater was drawn, presenting a nuanced reading of several key points of contact between stage performers and public speakers. Petrides’ and Hall’s chapters take up Roman pantomime, the former examining how Lycinus in Lucian’s On Dance, one of our best (albeit highly problematic) sources for the genre, perceives pantomime relative to Classical tragedy, the latter tracing the development of pantomime in part from Greek tragic theater and offering an overview of the history and experience of the genre.

The final section, titled “Integrating Opsis,” represents the least cohesive grouping of papers, but as individual contributions they offer interesting perspectives on several topics related to ancient theater more broadly. Kovacs’ chapter provides a careful analysis of the cultural associations of the aulos and various types of lyra, both musical instruments used in the theater in ancient Greece. He also demonstrates that, while auloi would have been preferred for stage music for both practical and symbolic reasons, lyrai probably appeared on stage as significant props in Greek theater. Finally, Van Steen’s and Macintosh’s chapters explore visual aspects of the modern reception of Greek drama, the former in one specific recent production and the latter in the development of performance a century ago. Van Steen discusses the aftermath of Matthias Langhoff’s 1997 production of Euripides’ Bacchae, which employed unusually gory visuals and an unflattering depiction of Thebes, bucking the traditionally conservative and classicizing approach to Greek tragedy in modern Greece. Van Steen analyzes why the modern Greek audiences generally found the production distasteful, pointing out conflicts between Greek tradition and self-perception on the one hand and postmodern foreign theater values on the other. Macintosh investigates late nineteenth and early twentieth-century “sculptural” approaches to acting, focusing especially on the performers Jean Mounet-Sully and Sarah Bernhardt, but also touching on Lillah McCarthy and Isadora Duncan, among others. Macintosh surveys fascinating material and shows how Classical Greek sculpture and vase painting informed the stage practice and aesthetics of the day.

The volume on the whole is meticulously edited, remarkably free of typographical errors, and contains numerous helpful black and white photographs.


1.   Cf. P.D. Arnott (1962), Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century B.C. and N.C. Hourmouziades (1965), Production and Imagination in Euripides: Form and Function of the Scenic Space, both discussed briefly in the editors’ introduction.

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