BMCR 1995.09.17

1995.09.17, Panayotakis, Theatrum Arbitri

, Theatrum Arbitri: Theatrical Elements in the Satyrica of Petronius. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. Pp. xxv + 225. $60.00.

This good-looking book gets full marks for author, editor and publisher for production. The arrangement also is promising: the content of the Satyrica to be surveyed as seven adventures, approximating “acts,” and twenty-five episodes or “scenes,” each held up in sequence to a dramatic literary analysis with special reference to “theatrical elements.” The paradoxical effect of this combination of focus and iteration is to promote theatre and the mime as the dominant force shaping a work of “eccentric innovation in the area of literature” (p. x).

What seem in the offing is a mixture of Forschung and fun, the first from the requirement of a full-blown study of this sort to footnote and treat (as is done copiously if not always with profit) the analysis of predecessors, and the second because this is Petronius, and turning the Satyrica into a play for the stage is an idea for fun and fantasy, here only patchily fulfilled. But the intent and the argument of the book get into trouble in the writing. In scene after scene the author slants his language at the outset, to obtain from the reader in advance the kind of acquiescence that should come from evidence.

For example, at the beginning of P.’s Cena treatment (p. 52) he announces his intention of a systematic reading “from a theatrical point of view,” helping along its validity by asserting in the same sentence the dinner’s “obviously staged” nature. The “staged setting” and “theatrical intentions” (p. 64) of the Cena, he states, are certainly obvious to Encolpius at the outset. Less leading language could describe this as a recognizable attempt at a formal, proper dinner party ostensibly carefully planned and arranged to please the guests’ eyes, ears, imaginations and gustatory tastes.

Similarly, in the Quartilla episode, the paraphernalia marshalled by the priestess are called “theatrical props,” when they could quite easily have been lowly everyday items impersonating, ludicrously, objects of cult and ceremony. Quartilla herself, as P. must admit (p. 38), may not be taken from the stage. But this is not a problem: “Aspects of her persona are clearly theatrical,” and her “actions and speech indicate … clearly … histrionic behaviour.” Thus is the reader hectored on almost every page to fall into line with the analysis. The world’s a stage, as we know: while the theatre draws its material from real life, the converse is not necessarily true.

It is not that other borrowings are not considered here and there. There is the statutory nod to the influence of Greek romance, epic, satire, and even parodic realism: “It is almost impossible to say with certainty that Petronius modelled this scene [The Affair of the Cloak] focusing solely on real life, or on the theatre, or on satire, or on the Milesian tales. However, the choice of this specific theme, and the setting of the scene at this particular time, promise, before the beginning of the actual facts, an amusing and unexpected spectacle” (p. 22).

But this hopeful sign here (and elsewhere: for example, on the formative role of satire on the cena genre [p. 56]) of a balanced perspective is really only a scholarly feint. P. now proceeds to “accumulate” theatrical elements and identify “theatrical motifs” such as “recognition,” “hidden treasure,” and even “lupines,” and like-minded modern sources are enlisted to secure the interpretation. For example, to anchor the theatricality of the “obsessive prominence of the sexual content” (p. 31) he pushes Preston 1915 into connecting “the high degree of sexuality in the novel with the obscenity of the farcical theatre” (p. 32 n. 40). The source, whom P. quotes, goes only so far as to say that “the sex interest in the main narrative is incidental to a sort of rough phallic comedy” with a “tone” supplied by the “conventions of an impure type of farce.”

Rival analyses are seen off. Hubbard on the Cena as ring composition is “questionable” because of “far-fetched,” “unnecessary” parallels (p. 53). He is certainly inconvenient to the linear, cumulative pattern now holding the floor. Bacon, Rankin and Arrowsmith are not useful on the mimica mors of Giton (p. 127-8). And my own modest proposals of homosexual camp (p. 16 n. 58, p. 127 n. 17) seem subversive enough to be slightly misunderstood as they are despatched.

Hence the claim in P.’s conclusion (p. 196) of taking a “sensible” approach to furthering understanding of the Satyrica by applying “the literary attributes of the popular theatrical tradition moderately” is worth a quibble, unless one’s idea of moderation includes pounding in theatricality at every cue. P. sees his approach as the antidote to critics who use “imaginative interpretations which seek in a far-fetched manner to identify this text with something mere than it actually is: a sophisticated, scabrous book.” The first “adventure” well illustrates the difficulties. In the fourth line of his book, before the niceties of introduction, P. pours Encolpius into a theatrical mould by defining him as a rank rogue delivering a “hypocritical performance” for Agamemnon at the School of Rhetoric merely in order to impress him and thereby garner a free meal: “The theatricality of the scene can be demonstrated by means of the theatrical personae which the main characters adopt, their role-playing in the speeches they perform, and the exploitation of the subject in question as a typical source of entertainment in staged productions…. The hypocritical role-playing of Encolpius can be seen not only in his unscrupulous exploitation of edifying theories for mean purposes, but also … ” (p.3). Hold on a minute. Throughout this scene as it unfolds there is no obligatory notion of duplicity or hypocrisy, and no sense of Agamemnon as a meal-ticket. The evidence is fetched from the later taunt of Ascyltus (10. 1-2). He has a different perspective and character: bored, hungry, pragmatic, at odds with the uncool engagement of his partner. If anything, the later exchange confirms this: “You sneaked out of the seminar!” says Encolpius ( subduxisti te a praeceptoris colloquio). Someone else in this scene is a hypocrite, according to P. (“… a hypocritical performance by two rogues who sought, by making pompous statements clothed in grave academic cliches, to satisfy not their mental hunger but their physical one.”). Whether he is adding Agamemnon or Ascyltus, there are objections for both.

The next scenes, successively the flight through the brothel and the meeting up of the three lovers for the first time, are then pushed relentlessly through the theatrical prism. Giton too is basically a hypocrite (p. 11); the low-life detail is not particularly realistic (why not?): on the contrary, Petronius creates “his own theatrical world” (p. 10); the sexual stances of the lovers cast them as typical figures from the mime (p. 11), which for convenience P. lumps with the theatre. And so on. This reductive kind of analysis is to me quite depressing. No doubt it is all done brilliantly by Petronius, but the characters do become theatric cutouts and the incidents do lose their freshness. Consider this compensatory critique in summation: “… the author implicitly instructs [the audience] to regard the sexual escapades of Giton and Ascyltus at the expense of poor Encolpius as nothing more than pure entertainment” (p. 11). Yes, but realism is not inconsistent with entertainment nor necessarily message-inducing.

There is much industry here in the collection of the literature and in adducing plenty of new citations from the texts, to which the Bibliography and the Index of Passages attest respectively. The pity for me is that this breadth of coverage is not equalled by penetration; and the structuring of the discussions was an insuperable problem. Other readers will be readier to endorse a causal relationship between Roman comedy and the Satyrica in plot, themes, characterization, language, props. Certainly one concedes use of mimetic vignettes (as at 117.4 fl.) throughout. But with an exclusive performance orientation the Satyrica swallows whole the attributes of a comic sex novel. For P.’s interpretation to work he must prove what he assumes, that “the theatre” and “real life” are distinct to the point of mutual exclusion (see the quotation, cited above, from p. 22).