BMCR 1990.01.10

Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context

, , Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. xi, 405 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 0691215898

The social, political and ideological context of Athenian drama is the topical and lively field to which this new collection of essays is devoted. In their brief introduction the editors sharply differentiate their project from those traditional studies of Attic drama which “ignore the multiple stylistic and generic interactions among types of plays,” and/or “close out the entire social context in which the plays took place” (3). Their interest, by contrast, is in the “extratextual aspects” of drama—satyr-play as well as tragedy and old comedy—and their project is accordingly to “look behind the masks and under the costumes and peer out into the audience, and investigate the various elements that went into a finished performance” (4). The contributors are not, of course, the first to concern themselves with such aspects of Greek drama (its political implications in particular have been much studied), but this kind of inquiry has taken on a new—and newly sophisticated—lease of life in recent years.

Six of the fourteen essays collected here are previously unpublished. Of these, François Lissarrague’s “Why Satyrs are Good to Represent” is a brief iconography of satyrs, which argues, surely rightly, for the generic independence of satyr-painting from drama, seeing both alike as “a means to explore human culture through a fun-house mirror” (235), or, as the editors more fashionably express it, “as iconography’s universal parodists, indulging in the play of signs” (8).

Two more papers address from conflicting perspectives the relationship of Aristophanic comedy to politics. Jeffrey Henderson (“The Demos and the Comic Competition”) argues forcefully that Aristophanic comedy is authentically political, and not merely a carnivalesque inversion of social norms. It is able to influence events by exercising the “‘fool’s privilege’… to express ideas that want a public outlet but that would be too disruptive if expressed otherwise” (273-4). James Redfield by contrast denies comedy any political effectiveness (“Drama and Community: Aristophanes and Some of His Rivals”). But Plato for one would have been puzzled by the claim that “Sokrates’ position in the city is not shaken by a representation of him as an eccentric ascetic who talks obvious nonsense, since he never claimed to be anything else” (334). In general Henderson’s carefully argued interpretation of the ancient evidence is more persuasive than Redfield’s provocative but often questionable reflections on the nature of comedy. He could have dealt more successfully, however, with the supposedly awkward fact that Cleon was reelected shortly after Knights won first prize—a fact often cited as evidence for the political ineffectiveness of comedy (cf. Redfield 334). Henderson is weak here—he considers the success of Knights a “latent indictment” of Cleon, and can only suggest that the demos’ attitude towards him fluctuated rapidly (299). But despite the fact that “ridicule must have been a factor in the play’s success” (299), the demos may on occasion have enjoyed a comedy without buying its political message. This does not, however, prove either that the author had no such message or that comedy is intrinsically ineffectual, as Redfield would have it (334).

Ruth Padel’s “Making Space Speak” offers an intriguing foretaste of her forthcoming book, In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self. She has much of interest to say about theatrical space, including a necessarily speculative reconstruction of the decoration of the tragic skene. The complex homologies she observes between the structure of tragic space and Greek conceptions of the self are not, as they stand, convincing, but an adequate assessment must presumably await the supporting context of her larger project. Niall Slater’s “The Idea of the Actor” is a worthwhile attempt to reconstruct from our scanty evidence the developing status of the Greek actor. It includes a useful reminder that there is no solid foundation for the common assumption that the state allotment of actors at Athens was introduced at the same time as the actor’s prize (391). Less persuasive is Slater’s suggestion that the increasing importance of actors was responsible for narrowing the canon of tragic plots.

To these five papers we may add Josiah Ober and Barry Strauss’s “Drama, Political Rhetoric, and the Discourse of Athenian Democracy,” which is substantially new, though based in part on sections of Ober’s book Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. The authors’ methodological observations on the interplay between dramatic and political rhetoric are interestingly applied to a number of poetical and rhetorical texts, including the Eccleziazusae, which they argue is not so much an inversion of established social norms as an extension of Athenian democratic principles which tests their limits.

All the remaining contributions have already appeared in print, in several cases more than once. Oddone Longo’s “The Theater of the Polis” is both the first and the oldest piece (it originally appeared in Italian in 1978). Among various insights into the communal context of Greek drama, it is surprising to find him repeating the old-fashioned view that “the ideological positions of the author… are explicitly displayed in the chorus” (19). David Konstan’s attractive essay, “An Anthropology of Euripides’Kyklops,” uses structural anthropology to provide a positive articulation of some of the differences between Euripides’ satyric treatment and the narrative of the Odyssey. A significant advantage of this approach is that it succeeds in understanding the satyrs themselves as central to the play’s meaning rather than grafted on by mere generic necessity.

The rest of the papers have all undergone varying degrees of revision. Simon Goldhill’s “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology” has been augmented by a dozen or so new notes and about a page of additional material. Nicole Loraux’s “Kreousa the Autochthon: A Study of Euripides’Ion” is an “abridged and slightly revised” extract from the English translation of her book Les enfants d’Athena.

The two editors are both, of course, represented. Winkler’s contribution is a revised version of “The Ephebes’ Song: Tragoidia and Polis,” his brilliant—if ultimately speculative—argument for an intimate association between tragedy and the passage from boyhood to manhood. Zeitlin’s “Playing the Other,” by contrast, argues for the intrinsic “femininity” of tragedy. This ambitious and thought-provoking piece brings out effectively the affinities between drama and several aspects of the “feminine” as constructed by classical Greek culture—specifically disguise, intrigue, suffering physicality, and the household. But given that men are, as Zeitlin acknowledges, so frequently undone in drama by “feminine” forces such as intrigue, further elucidation is needed of the sense in which “playing the other” offers “a fuller model for the masculine self” (85).

Zeitlin’s second contribution (“Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama”) would perhaps have been better omitted. It has already appeared not only in Italian but in a readily accessible English form (J. Peter Euben’s paperback collection on Greek Tragedy and Political Theory), and we are promised a fuller treatment in the future. The black-and-white dichotomy Zeitlin sees between Athens and Thebes is over-schematic and sometimes results in special pleading. For example, when Theseus in OC praises Thebes, she declares him simply wrong (167). The loss of Jesper Svenbro’s paper (“The Interior Voice: On the Invention of Silent Reading”) would also have been no hardship. His argument that tragedy influenced the development of silent reading is rife with improbabilities, and indeed seems to have failed to convince even the editors of this volume (9).

Nothing to Do with Dionysos? performs the useful service of uniting in one volume papers from such varied sources as Representations and JHS, which generally cater to rather different clienteles. The general quality of the contributions is high, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is unusually purposeful and cohesive for such a collection, and though every reader will of course disagree on particular points, the cumulative result is a powerful illumination of the social context of Athenian dramatic performance. The volume thus succeeds in capturing an exciting moment in a burgeoning field, and will serve well as a catalyst for expanding such interest still further. In sum, it is a timely volume. It is also nicely produced by Princeton, with a handsome dust-jacket, footnotes rather than endnotes, and only a dozen or so typos (I only noticed one potentially confusing one, on p. 112 n. 52, where Crito 50c3 appears as 503c). I was even resigned to passages of ugly transliterated Greek until I encountered the real thing in Henderson’s notes, which made me wonder why it could not have been used elsewhere. A combined bibliography would also have been helpful, obviating the need to hunt back within each article for complete citations. Despite these irritations, at 400+ pages Dionysus is a better deal than many recent books for its $45.00. But much of its value will lie in bringing these papers to a wider readership, and it will accomplish this better as a more modestly priced paperback.