Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.22

Peter D. Arnott, Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. viii, 203.  ISBN 9781138430785.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by N. J. Sewell-Rutter, Oxford, UK (

Preview (2002 edition)

This account of Greek theatre as drama for performance is newly reissued almost thirty years after the author’s death in 1990. There was no pressing scholarly need to make the book available again, but it has a place on undergraduate reading lists and in the hands of interested general readers and theatre practitioners, who will appreciate Peter D. Arnott’s depth of theatrical experience. However, the book must be used and recommended for these purposes with caution, as we shall see.

Public and Performance is not a dense scholarly monograph: the endnotes run to only five pages and there is a one-page bibliography of key works on dramatic performance as things stood when the book was written in the late 1980s. The presentation is accessible and the style readable and literate: this is the work of a cultivated writer. For example: ‘It is no more arbitrary for Creon to appear when he is called for than for the flute to appear in a given bar of a Mozart sonata.’ (p. 185)

A short Introduction sets the tone, emphasising that the theatre within which the Classical playwrights worked was different from standard modern playhouses in form and layout, and that this is a crucial factor in the interpretation of ancient plays: ‘[P]ractising playwrights work from a basis of practical stagecraft. They write for the kind of playhouse they know…’ (p. 1). In 2018 this is not a new insight, to be sure, but it is a truth that instructors generally utter on day one of a Greek drama course.

Arnott proceeds to consider, in successive chapters, the citizen audience and the role of the chorus; visible and audible aspects of acting and performance; the central place of debate and dialogue on the Attic stage; ‘place and time’ in Greek plays, with due suspicion of ‘the Unities’ as once understood; and, finally, the distinctive dramatic conception of character as something that works, in ancient plays, inseparably from the context and flow of the plot.

These chapters blend general remarks about context, theatricality and performance with readings or fragments of readings of the tragic and comic texts themselves. The orientation and general information sections require more caution than the play readings, which are often very successful and show a profound and nuanced awareness that the comedians and tragedians wrote for real performance, not the study.

Arnott’s habit of minimal footnoting will often frustrate the reader, especially the beginner, as for example at the very beginning of Chapter 2 (p. 44):

About the selection and training of Greek actors we know little. They were almost certainly not full-time professionals. Although actors were paid for their festival appearances, opportunities for performance were limited. In Athens, the major dramatic festivals occupied only three weeks of the year…

These nobly sweeping statements are quite unreferenced. The beginner is immediately set wondering how much is the ‘little’ that we ‘know’, and whence we ‘know’ it. After another moment’s thought, she will wonder if we are still talking about the Classical period of Athenian theatre, or whether there were never professional ‘Greek actors’. A judicious educator will be able to prompt discussion to fill these rather large gaps, particularly in a tutorial setting. Indeed, this reviewer has himself put the book on reading lists, but with a note to the effect: ‘use with care’.

The chapter on ‘Debate and Drama’ (pp. 105–131) is among Arnott’s most successful: it traces the ‘argumentative instinct’ and legalistic form typical of these plays through the Oresteia and Medea. The learner is left with a strong sense that there is something fundamentally agonistic about the art form, as there is about Athenian life in the midst of which the plays were performed.

Arnott is also useful, and once again quite unfootnoted,1 on the ‘needless problems’ generated by historical misapplication of the ‘Unities’, particularly that of place (Chapter 5, at p. 132). ‘If we look at the plays, instead of what people have said about them, a very different pattern appears.’ (p. 133) The settings for dramatic action are sometimes shifting and sometimes, as in Aeschylus’ Persians, rather vaguely defined, an ambiguity that playwrights may ingeniously exploit. In Euripides’ Bacchae, just how ruinous is the palace after the earthquake, the effects of which appear to fade out conveniently after the dramatic coup (pp. 140–1)? The learner is also well shown that the Unity of Time breaks down under scrutiny ‘in both subtle and more obvious ways’ (p. 148), with particular reference to OT and Antigone. We have all known people, whether students or members of the public, who believe that the tragedians observe the ‘Unities’. If they are to be deprived of their innocence, a reading of this chapter might let them down helpfully and gently.

The final chapter, ‘Character and Continuity’ (pp. 162–92), addresses the tricky question, very much alive in the late 1980s and early 1990s, of how Attic drama conceives and works with character.2 Arnott’s answer is (essentially) that character works fluidly, according to the demands of plot and situation, most markedly so in Old Comedy. ‘Logic, consistency and psychological unity are things the modern actor looks for…’ (p. 183). The book has no Conclusion, so its last sentence is the last of this chapter: ‘The tragic character, no less than the comic, adapts himself to his immediate environment.’ (p. 192)

In conclusion, the reappearance of this flowing and rather enjoyable work offers nothing of great moment to scholars today, and it is not a flawless guide for the learner. But it will be of some use to those involved in theatre, as well as to instructors at various levels and their students. Public and Performance may be circumspectly recommended, even in 2018, as an introduction to the theatricality of ancient plays for non-specialists.


1.   The endnotes to Chapter 5 are, with no exceptions, bald references to lines of the primary texts themselves.
2.   C. B. R. Pelling (ed.), Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature (Oxford, 1990), is of the same vintage as Arnott’s book.

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