BMCR 1995.03.02

1995.03.02, Bartsch, Actors in the Audience

, Actors in the audience : theatricality and doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. Revealing antiquity ; 6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. vi, 309 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780674003576. $37.50.

This book encompasses a great deal more than its enigmatic title suggests. In the course of five chapters, the author explores two models that are adduced to shed light on the demise of sincerity, on the way in which language itself and personal conduct adjusted to the loss of freedom during the first century of the Roman empire. The first of these models is “theatricality”, that is, the need for the subjects of the emperor, and even at times the emperor himself, to act out a script in dealings with each other. Survival by those close to the emperor, especially those in the senatorial class, often depended upon guessing the correct attitude that should be adopted in responding to the emperor’s conduct in the political sphere and on the domestic scene as well. The second model, “doublespeak”, concerns the insincerity of the literary artist, and it is viewed as a natural response of the author both to the lack of freedom that existed under the more tyrannical of the Roman emperors and as a natural complement to the audience’s increasing role under the empire in determining the “meaning” of a text by hunting for concealed criticisms of the regime. The first three chapters concern primarily the first model, whereas the fourth and fifth chapters (about equal in length to the first three) concern primarily the second.

The author deliberately dispenses with an introduction, preferring instead to let the chapters speak for themselves, as she informs us in her preface. Chapter one, we learn from the preface, ultimately inspired the title of the book as a whole and grew out of an earlier version which had been given as a talk. Some of the anecdotal features which must have made this a very engaging lecture still remain. To begin with, we are invited to mark a radical change in the audience’s relation to the emperor in the theater when the emperor himself, Nero, took the stage. Previously audiences in the theater had occasionally protested conditions and reacted to imperial policies, but when the emperor began to perform as citharoedus and a stage-actor, members of the audience, especially those belonging to the senatorial class, found themselves compelled to “act” out their approval and appreciation of the emperor’s performance. B. points, for instance, to the way in which Dio describes the reaction of the audience to Nero’s Greek tour in terms that recall the roles of actors. Building upon modern social theory which sees performance as an element in relations between persons of unequal power (as discussed recently, for instance, by Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance [1990]), B. directs our attention to the way in which Tacitus in the Annals applied the paradigm of acting not only to the reaction of the audience to Nero’s stage performances but also to everyday events as well. In contrast with the portrayal in Suetonius and Dio, we find a greater element of theatricality in Tacitus’ treatment of such incidents as the reaction to Nero’s murder of Britannicus, to his murder of Agrippina and to his punishment of Julius Montanus. On the other hand, B. also perceptively observes that at times Tacitus appears to have been misled by his own paradigm according to which the “actors in the audience” were required to follow a script laid down by the emperor. As she points out, Tacitus seems not to allow for the gullible side of Nero that we find revealed in Suetonius and Dio who show the emperor at times actually taken in by the flattery of his courtiers rather than cynically pulling the strings that controlled the actions of those around him.

Chapter two considers the extent to which there may have been “leakage” between reality on the one hand and dramatic fiction on the other. The ancient sources themselves were conscious of this intriguing possibility of fiction on the stage having its counterpart in reality, noting, for instance, that Nero played such roles as Orestes, Alcmeon, and Oedipus and that he committed in real life many of the same crimes for which these fictional characters were noted. B. points to the arrangement in Suetonius who reverses historical fact by reporting first Nero’s acting roles, then the murder of his mother, and finally the graffiti that commented on the murder by likening Nero to two mythical matricides. Sensibly, however, B. does not see this as necessarily deliberate distortion on Suetonius’ part so much as perhaps a convenient grouping of his material. In this same chapter B. calls attention to the popularity of “fatal charades” in the Neronian period, “fatal charades” being the term coined by Coleman ( JRS 1990) to describe the execution of criminals who were forced to act out mythological roles (e.g., Icarus, Orpheus, and Hercules) that entailed a real, and not just a fictional death on stage. Here surely we are witness to the two-way traffic between the stage (fiction) and real life that was very much a part of the Neronian age, although in this chapter the discussion veers somewhat from the “actors in the audience” theme.

Chapter three brings us squarely back to the “audience”, but now the emphasis is on the active role of this audience in detecting a subtext in the author’s words. In this chapter, we begin to make the transition to the second paradigm, that of doublespeak, but for the time being the focus is still mainly on the audience, not the author. B. argues that under the empire the audience came to assume the initiative in discovering a hidden message, one that the author dared not make plain because he was living under a tyrant. Attention is drawn to the way in which political comment in the theater differed under the republic. Whereas under the republic it was more often the actor (or sometimes the author of the play) who turned a line or passage into a commentary on the current state of politics, under the empire the audience was in a better position to indulge in criticism of the regime because there was safety (and anonymity) in numbers. It was the audience, therefore, who took the lead in discovering a subtext, and this in turn led authors often to adopt the expedient of protesting against reading a hidden meaning into their words. The result could be wheels within wheels, or a B. calls it , a “chinese box effect”, since the more an author avowed his loyalty to the regime and expressed praise of the emperor, the more the audience looked for innuendo, so meaning was always receding to deeper and deeper levels.

Chapter four turns away from the audience and considers the intent of the author to subvert the apparent meaning of his own text. To my mind, this chapter is the most valuable in that it offers a new and challenging interpretation of two apparently contradictory texts by bringing to bear some of the themes found in the earlier part of the book. One of these texts is Tacitus’Dialogus de Oratoribus concerning which readers have been hard pressed to explain the seemingly irreconcilable positions adopted by Maternus in his two speeches, and indeed why it is that the first speech, on poetry, has any place in a dialogue about the decline in oratory. On the one hand, Maternus first argues that poetry (particularly his domain of dramatic poetry, which ventures to criticize the regime) is superior to contemporary oratory, which has degenerated into a mere tool for greedy advancement (clearly referring to the delatores). On the other hand, in his second speech he presents the decline of eloquence as an inevitable consequence of the lack of contentiousness which has been banished by peace and prosperity under the auspicious rule of Vespasian. B. partially accepts Luce’s solution of the contradiction between these two positions (each speech making the “best case” that can be made in a debate), but she introduces a new element by seeing the first speech as the signal which should alert us to read the overt praise of Vespasian’s regime as a false message. According to B., the author deliberately subverts the import of his own words, and he does so not by employing irony, whose message is intended to deceive no one, but by resorting to doublespeak which conveys one meaning to the emperor and his supporters and quite a different meaning to the opponents of the regime. B., who accepts Murgia’s dating of the Dialogus to the reign of Nerva (vs. AD 102), argues from the insincerity of the praise of Vespasian’s regime, under which the delatores of the Neronian period continued to flourish, that we are to read into this work a comment on the parallel that existed with the reign of Nerva under whom a similar tolerance was enjoyed by the Domitianic delatores. She goes on to suggest that in the light of this discovery we should have a fresh look at the first-person praise in Tacitus of Nerva and Trajan in the Histories and Agricola.

The second half of this ambitious chapter proceeds to show how this same approach may unlock the meaning of Juvenal’s Seventh Satire which begins by promising a blooming of the arts thanks to the patronage of Caesar but in the second half paints just the opposite picture of grim neglect and hackneyed productions. Once again the paradigm of doublespeak suggests a new and revealing way to make sense of these two apparently contradictory halves of the poem.

In the final chapter, B. brings to bear all that has been revealed about the use of acting and doublespeak under previous regimes to highlight the dilemma facing Pliny when he wished to convey sincerity in his Panegyricus. So much of what Pliny says had been said on earlier occasions, insincerely in praise of tyrants, that Pliny was forced constantly to try to forestall the notion that his words were to be interpreted as having a subtext. Borrowing Scott’s distinction between “public” and “hidden transcripts” (the former being the “scripted” truth that is imposed by the propaganda of the dominant party; the latter being the real truth that is liberated from this propaganda but must remain discreetly concealed as a subtext), B. tries to show how Pliny struggled to make it appear that these two transcripts had become one under Trajan. The constant risk in offering praise was that just the opposite message would be conveyed to an audience that was accustomed to look for concealed criticism, often embedded in the most abject flattery. This final chapter provides a logical conclusion to the book as a whole, which is rounded out with three brief appendices (on the “Cena Trimalcionis” and on two topics related to the discussion of Maternus in chapter four), end notes (82 pp), bibliography (16 pp), and index (5 pp), but chapter five comes as a bit of an anticlimax after the masterly fashion in which the knotty problems in the previous chapter were so adroitly addressed. However, the shift in the concluding chapter from the problematic to the more straightforward task of interpretation is thematically appropriate.

The book is not without the inevitable typos that escape the eyes of even the most careful proofreaders: e.g., “nave” for “naive” (p. 19); “not to mention [out of] the roles …” (p. 40); “death [as?] theater” (p. 55); “imperante Nero[ne]” (p. 202, 2nd occurrence); “effectof” [sic] (p. 288). More troubling to this reviewer was the fact that the spine of this Harvard U Press book broke at pp. 150-51, despite careful handling. One has to wonder how library copies will fare.

However, to conclude on a positive note, I heartily recommend this book to readers who have an interest in Roman historiography and literature of the early empire and more generally to any reader who has an interest in how language may be shaped by its response to the suppression of freedom. Not all of the views expressed by B. will win ready acceptance, but the beauty of her presentation is that she invites us to reconsider familiar texts and historical episodes in a new and interesting light.