BMCR 1996.09.25

Stage directions: essays in ancient drama in honour of E.W. Handley

, , Stage directions: essays in ancient drama in honour of E.W. Handley. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement ; 66. London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London School of Advanced Study, 1995. vii, 160 pages. ISBN 9780900587771.

Festschriften are always awkward creatures to review. Quality is often uneven, the scope too restricted or too general, and the individual contributions can vary from intense interpretations of specific texts to more general overviews with little that is new. Successful Festschriften are rare—exceptions that come to mind are Owls to Athens (for Dover) and particularly Greek Tragedy and its Legacy (for Conacher). The volume under consideration is a collection of 13 articles on Ancient Drama in honour of Eric Handley, a major player in the study of comedy in this century, author of the thoughtful and valuable study on “Comedy” in vol. I of the CHCL, and whose edition of the Dyskolos is still the best available. It is appropriate indeed that this volume in his honour appear as a BICS supplement given Handley’s immense contribution to that institution.

The papers cover a wide area. Topics range from the padded dancers of Corinth (Seeberg) to Roman drama in the late republic (Jory); some focus on close studies of particular texts (Sidwell, Griffiths), others handle more general themes (Dedoussi, Easterling). Some tackle the literary side of ancient drama (Davidson, Barlow, Segal), while others deal with the recent vogue of drama as depicted on vases of the 4th century (Dearden, Trendall, Green). Nothing on papyri, however, that other source of new dramatic material, with which Handley had much to do. There is certainly an international flavour—contributions from scholars in the U.K., Eire, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand (curiously, none from the U.S. or Canada—we can consider Erich Segal effectively “translated” to Wolfson, Oxford).

This volume certainly lives up to the archetype of the Festschrift. Taken together, the articles are a mixed lot, in several cases not really breaking very much new ground or dealing generally with topics on a large scale. Two longer papers (Sidwell, Green) stand out in the collection, and here we do get some new and exciting material, although in Sidwell’s case I confess that I can’t agree with very much of his thesis (see further below). Segal and Sifakis likewise raise new points for consideration, and with Sifakis (like Sidwell) I found myself disagreeing with much of what I read. Comments on the individual papers follow; as I feel much more comfortable with the literary pieces, these will occupy more of my review.

A. Seeberg (“From Dancers to Comedy” 1-12) is somewhat heavy going, especially for one not readily familiar with the Corinthian padded dancers. The question at issue is whether the “komasts” on such vases belong in any way to the pre-history of comedy, and S. does make a good case for these vases containing scenes of symposia and representing people that are “a negation of the symposion code” (3). Like the characters of comedy they are ugly and “outsiders”. He argues further that vases with many such dancers represent not a private symposion but a public festival, and it is here that the link with comedy may lie—on p. 9 he suggests the Rural Dinoysia as that link. On p. 6, however, his relation of the padded komos to the “chieftain class” and thence to Athenian politics of the 480s is speculative and not convincing. One can imagine reasons for the institution of comedy in 487/6 that have little to do with the crisis of the 480s. He observes that the comic actor comes later on vases and thus comedy for many decades may have depended more on choral performance than on actor-driven plots, but his supposition of “Aristophanic comedy without actors” (8) seems quite unfounded. S. ends with a digression on the “foreign look” and why it might occur on these vases—could not the “Oriental influence” be due to the Eastern overtones of Dionysos as much as to foreign sources for the vases?

I found G.M. Sifakis’ piece (“The one-actor rule in Greek tragedy” 13-24) less than persuasive. His theme is the three-actor “rule” of tragedy—leaving comedy aside (here see Henderson, MacDowell and now Marshall) 1—and he makes the following claims: (a) three-way dialogue is rare in tragedy until the 420s, (b) Sophokles introduced the third actor for reasons other than the creation of three-way dialogue, and (c) the “evolution” of tragedy ceased at a point when three actors could play all the roles—for Aristotle ( Poetics 1449a) it was fully-grown. So far so good. But it is his conclusions about the actors’ roles and status that fail to persuade: (d) “the protagonist was recognized as the only player of a tragedy”, (e) each of the three protagonists performed one play of each playwright—”each actor did not perform the plays of one poet” (17), (f) the second and third actors were merely assistants who played a very second fiddle to the “master actors”, (g) the first actor could play parts of other roles, especially if the scene was a good one (e.g. in Antigone the protagonist would play Antigone throughout and then Kreon’s last scene (“the concluding song is protagonist stuff” [20]—S. seems to believe that singing with or without the chorus could be done only by the protagonist), (h) “knowledgeable spectators (and the judges) could keep track of the protagonist under his different disguises” (21), and (i) vocal delivery “must have been conventional, precluding realism … the personal timbre of voice would be veiled to a large extent”.

Much of what S. bases his argument on may be true for the fourth century (see IG ii 2 2320 for the sharing of protagonists—which in fact only tells us about two years in the 340s), but I am convinced that he has wrongly extrapolated backwards from the mid-4th c. when the cult of the actor was at its height and assumed that such was the case in the 5th c. But was that necessarily so? If early poets did act in their own plays, a regulation about sharing actors would have brought about an intolerable conflict of interest—can one seriously imagine Aeschylus in 468 playing for the young Sophokles? Trilogies such as the Oresteia would lose much dramatic effect is actors were exchanged after each play—that the same actor plays Agamemnon and Orestes contributes to the tragic dilemma of each; even more compelling is the fact that the same actor plays Kassandra, Pylades, and Apollo. For Pylades and Apollo, and for Orestes and Agamemnon, voice is important, and S. ignores the places where this can be used to effect. And are we to believe that Klytaimestra would be played by a different actor in each play? (I assume that the “lesser” actors would follow their protagonist into each play). Nor does S. take enough account of plays with more than one major role. He does deal with Antigone and the ever-present discussion who is the hero (for him which part did the protagonist play?). But Kreon does dominate the play more than S. allows. Antigone may have her prologue, her great confrontation, and her kommos, but Kreon has an equally good scene with the guard and an even better one with his son, and he remains on stage (on view) throughout. Rather than pull his role apart looking for plums for the super-actor, I would prefer to assume that Sophokles had two first-rate actors for this play. Look also at LB where a “second actor” plays Elektra, the Nurse, Klytaimestra, and Aigisthos. We can infer a very talented actor with an expertise in women’s parts. I have a problem with his contention that only a protagonist would sing; look at Ion where both Ion and Kreousa have monodies, and, unless we want the same actor playing Ion and Kreousa, we must assume that both actors in that play sang.

Three papers on tragedy follow, and all can be recommended. First J. Davidson (“Homer and Sophocles’Philoctetes” 25-35) sets various themes and elements of Sophokles’ late play against similar ones from the Odyssey. Others have explored before certain of his points in common: Lemnos/Ithaka, the cave of the Kyklops/caves and shelter in the Odyssey, the motif of sleep, the theme of the bow, the maturing of Telemachos and Neoptolemos, but D. wraps all the elements together into a most persuasive whole, and although his overall conclusion may have been to some degree anticipated by Stanford and Knox, it is very much to the point: “Sophocles’ purpose in evoking the Odyssey so consistently would appear to be to highlight the ironic perversity of Odysseus’ mission to Lemnos and his alienating behaviour in the course of it” (35). On p. 27 (on islands) he compares the description of Lemnos to that of the Kyklopes’ isle; he could have added the creature that each contains—in Homer Odysseus knows not what creature lives there, in Sophocles he does. The contrast is that much more pointed. On the following page he alludes to Segal’s treatment of Philoktetes and the Kyklops, but he could have done more with this. But this was an enjoyable and worthwhile study, the footnotes rich in bibliography.

S.A. Barlow (“Euripides’Medea : a subversive play?” 36-45) finds this tragedy “subversive” as “upsetting from the root of expected reactions and/or generally accepted notions” (36), and locates this subversion within the character that Euripides has created. Specifically our expectations about Medea are constantly being challenged and overthrown, e.g. we hear of her fury from the Nurse and the Tutor, we hear her rage offstage, but the Medea who enters is anything but what we expect. By marrying Jason she has become a “Greek wife”, but in her scene with the chorus she challenges the Greek male way in which (all) women are viewed. Her note on 410-430 (40) is particularly good. B. argues that although Medea skilfully exploits Jason’s stereotypical views on women in their scene at 869ff., Euripides neatly subverts this in Medea’s great scene (1022ff.) when Medea cannot discard these views so easily herself. At the end of the play, “the cliches are back” (45) and sympathy has been transferred from Medea to Jason, but “the identification was there for a large part of the play and therein lies the subversion”. When B. wonders “Is it really so that no Greek woman could have done what Medea did?” (45), one immediately thinks of Prokne in Sophokles’Tereus, which several critics have seen as pre-dating and influencing Medea. B.’s essay will be on the reading-lists for both drama-in-translation and women-in-antiquity courses.

Finally E. Segal (“‘The Comic catastrophe’: an essay on Euripidean comedy” 46-55) explores a theme which has attracted considerable recent attention, “Euripidean appropriation of Aristophanic elements” (46).—to those cited in n. 2 add Cartledge 20f., Bowie ( Aristophanes) 217-25. S.’s thesis is that Ion belongs to 412 and thus Euripides’ three tragedies at the Dionysia of 412 were Ion, Helen, Andromeda (“Euripides’ great innovative season” [49]). Knox had already put forward the view of Ion as comedy; S. deals with Menelaos in Helen as a comic alazon and finds for Andromeda (at least what we have of it) a “bourgeois feeling” (53). I would be happier if S. had announced an intention to seek Euripides’ appropriation of comic elements, since the parallels work better with later New Comedy (see 49, 52) than with Aristophanic Old Comedy. For Menelaos S. needs to consider the persona which that character was developing in the 5th c., that of an ineffectual and swaggering bully (see Andromache, Orestes) and the portrayal in Helen may arise from what Euripides was doing elsewhere with him. The miles gloriosus can be found in Aristophanes (Lamachos and the xouthos hippalektryon—see Storey JHS [1995] 184), but is as old as Archilochos (fr. 114 West). S. tends to over-emphasize the comic elements of these plays at the expense of the serious themes (e.g. Apollo and patriotism in Ion) and makes them rather more comic than they are. He lays too much stress on the date (412), seeing in these tragic plays an intended reaction to the sombre events of 413 and in Eupolis’Demoi (accepting the traditional date of 412) a comedy like Frogs, “a dream of spring, rejuvenation, healing”. S., like many other recent critics, here tends to make comedy more serious than it in fact was.

Keith Sidwell’s piece (“Poetic Rivalry and the Caricature of Comic Poets: Cratinus’Pytine and Aristophanes’Wasps“, 56-80) is one of his recent studies on “poetic rivalry and appropriation of comic material” (57), for which his essential thesis seems to be that nothing in Old Comedy is to be taken at face value. A thorough examination of S.’s arguments and conclusions is beyond the scope of this review. I will try to reduce a lengthy argument to its essentials and indicate where and why I take issue. His other studies have dealt with Aristophanes and Eupolis, but his concern here is for “a less-spoken battle, that between Aristophanes and Cratinus”. After summarizing the Aristophanic allusions to Kratinos and the testimony for the metatheatrical nature of Pytine (423-D), he makes the following points: (a) “the adulterous, senile, smelly, drunken and incontinent Cratinus was the result of several different prior attacks by rival comic poets” (61)—S. takes a while to get to this reasonable conclusion; (b) these “attacks involved representation of the poet on stage in caricature”; (c) the original attack may have been the work of Eupolis (before 425); (d) the figure of Demos in Knights may be based on the comic caricature of Kratinos; (e) the comic poets themselves “are potential stage characters” (64) and the plays are difficult to interpret without the lost prior comedies; (f) “a favourite ploy of his [Aristophanes] was to satirize rivals by presenting his plays as though by another poet—for this S. has coined the term “paracomedy”; he has argued elsewhere that Acharnians was presented as if it were a comedy by Eupolis; (g) that Wasps is a “para-Cratinean play” of this sort (67); (h) that Philokleon “is Cratinus” and Bdelykleon probably stands for Eupolis; (i) that political aims are also operating, Kratinos being pro-Kleon and pro-Hyperbolos; and (k) that Peace is also a para-Cratinean play and the phalakros at v. 771 is Kratinos, not Aristophanes. S. also along the way suggests that Cl. 560-3 can be taken to mean that Clouds was a parody of Kratinos’Horai (“you will seem to be well disposed to my second ‘seasons'”, i.e. my re-working of Kratinos’ play of that name).

I must confess that there is a certain exciting logic to S.’s arguments, and I would not rule everything that he says out of court. Hubbard has shown that there is a good deal going on intertextually among the plays of Aristophanes, and it is a short step to include plays of other comedians. Nor do I disagree about poets appearing as characters; Pytine was not unique and I shall argue elsewhere that in Eupolis’Autolykos both Eupolis and Aristophanes were dramatis personae. I am quite prepared to believe that Ach. 5-8 refers to a scene from comedy and ready to entertain the possibility that the play was by Eupolis (rather than by Aristophanes), but not S.’s conclusion that the audience will at that point realize that everything that follows is to be taken as if this were a play by Eupolis. But my principal concern is that S.’s paracomedy is far too subtle for such a public genre as Old Comedy; when Aristophanes is being even slightly indirect, he usually telegraphs the joke (e.g. Wasps 38 of Kleon).

Some specific concerns. Does S. actually mean (59) that Kratinos had previously used a chorus of Acharnians (hence the “me” of v. 1155)? In what comedy? On. p. 61 he argues for caricature by stage appearance, but verbal jokes can build up an equally effective stereotype (e.g. Kleonymos and his shield). Much of the monstrous n. 27 really belongs in the text. On p. 66 S. takes Cl. 549 as indicating only one attack on Kleon and is thus “counter-factual”, but the comedian is talking of demagogue-comedies (of which Knights was the first and only Aristophanic instance). The business of Kratinos, Philokleon, and Demos being old men and thus related is something of a red herring; most comic “heroes” are old men. But I will admit that seeing Philokleon in the light of Kratinos in Pytine is intriguing, especially given the anti-drink business at Wasps 1251-5. But we need not go so far as identifying Philokleon with Kratinos. The attempt to see Kratinos as pro-Kleon and pro-Hyperbolos seems most implausible to me, as is his argument that Kratinos’Nomoi is the play “behind”Wasps (72)—with the same chorus in S.’s view. On p. 75 he sees Eupolis’Noumeniai (425-L) as “a market play” and thus Bdelykleon’s comment about selling the ass at the new-moon [market] means that “Bdelykleon represents Eupolis”. This is extremely tenuous (see my note in Prudentia 1991 for other thoughts on Noumeniai). The paper as a whole is full of such ‘deductions’ from the comic text, and would require much more space to undertake a proper examination and refutation. Needless to say, I am not convinced.

Another triad follows, this time with the connecting theme of the phlyax -vase. C.W. Dearden (“Pots, Tumblers, and Phlyax Vases”, 81-6 + 2 plates) begins with the entertainment in Xen. Symp. with emphasis on the girl dancing and juggling on the potter’s wheel (7.2-3). He cites evidence from Plato ( Euthyd. 294e) and two vases from the 4th c. which D. argues show a female acrobat (without a mask) performing in a theatrical setting in front of a phlyax-actor. D. develops Sandbach’s thesis that Old Comedy did at times use genuine female dancers, rather than men dressed as women, that the dancing-girl at the end of Thesm. provides such an instance, and that these vases reflect such performers, unmasked but with “an identifiable role within the play” (85). It was not readily clear to me whether “the play” of the concluding paragraph was Thesm. or some 4th-c. phlyax -comedy; there is nothing in the Greek of Aristophanes’ play to support a dance on the potter’s wheel. The possibility of nude female figures in Aristophanes has been studied by Zweig and Taaffe. 2

A.D. Trendall contributes a short piece (“An Apulian Bell-Krater depicting the mask of a white-haired Phlyax”, 87-91 + 3 plates) on a new bell-krater (“the Fleischman krater”) with a large phlyax-mask on its reverse, unusual in the size of the vase since most vases with phlyax-masks are choes and much smaller. T. assigns this to the Chevron Group (third quarter of 4th c.) in which a seated woman (the obverse) is quite common but the large mask (“of the old man with white hair and longish beard” [89]) and examines three other vases that might shed light on this krater.

Finally J.R. Green (“Theatrical Motifs in Non-theatrical Contexts on Vases of the Later Fifth and Fourth Centuries” 93-121 + 8 plates) provides the other major paper in the volume. His subject is vases with masks on them, “where masks are shown as accessories within a figured scene” (94), and elucidates further their function in the scenes portrayed and the consequences for the community for which the vases were produced. G. proceeds by region. For Apulia the bulk of such vases involve Dionysos in three sorts of motif—the formal banquet of Dionysos, less formal settings (in both the mask hangs in the background), and Dionysos handling the mask. The theatrical connexions are either satyr-play or comedy (the mask is frequently the old man’s mask from comedy). Here a new and splendid bell-krater (“the Cleveland vase”) is presented (plate 8a-e), where two “actors outside performance” (103) celebrate the gift of the vine and of wine before a superb head and shoulders view of the god. G. discusses also vases from Lucania, Syracuse, Campania, and Paestan; in the latter he shows how the actor has become an attendant of Dionysos equivalent to the maenads, satyrs, Silenos etc.—”Dionysos through the theatre brings happiness and escape from the mundane, and so does his wine that was placed in these large vessels” (109). G. concludes with the Procession of Ptolemy from the 3rd c. ( ap. Ath. 196ff.) where theatrical elements have become part of the standard imagery of Dionysos. His conclusions (119f.) about the material are: (a) that the mask is more than a piece of stage equipment; it is “an independent entity … a symbol of the theatrical world”, (b) that the actors take on a role beyond the theatre; they become part of the retinue of the god in all his celebrations, and (c) that these celebrations are not separate from the performance but a continuation of the same festivity. With one or two exceptions the plates reproduce the ancient vases remarkably well, and the whole is probably the lead piece in the volume.

The final quartet has to do with New and Roman Comedy. C. Dedoussi (“Greek Drama and its Spectators: conventions and relationships” 123-32) wanders rather generally over certain aspects of the scenic performance of Greek Drama, principally from the viewpoint of Menander, although tragedy does get an occasional look-in. Her thesis seems to be that “there was nothing like the dramatic illusion in ancient Greek theatre” (125), and that conventions like entrances, asides, monologues need no “realistic” explanation; rather in both tragedy and comedy performers were well aware of the presence of spectators. She explains the presence of addresses to the audience in comedy and their absence in tragedy by the “worlds” of each—”tragedy = far past, comedy = present” (131). I remain unconvinced. Tragedy developed as a genre set in a different world from that of its audience, where any notice taken of the spectators would have struck a foreign note, and comedy (the later genre) could well have consciously taken another route, i.e. rupture of the illusion. Some points of contention: (a) on p. 127 she cites Poetics 1449b12 for the action within a single day, but Aristotle is talking about tragedy, not comedy; (b) on p. 129 the addresses in Aristophanes are not as frequent as D. suggests and large sections of some comedies proceed on the level of the action (parabases excepted, of course); (c) on p. 131 n. 41 she argues that in Miletou Halosis and Persians the distant setting substitutes for the distance of time—but dramatic reasons could also explain this; setting the play in enemy territory is just good drama; (d) on the same page n. 43 she quotes Taplin with approval that “fifth-century Athenians did not share names with the character of heroic myth”; have a quick look at LGPN II under Nestor, Telephos, Antilochos, Neoptolemos.

A. Griffiths (“The Chiton under the Pallium: two Greek jokes in Roman comedy” 133-38) examines two passages ( Casina 125; Adelphoe 573-9) arguing that in both cases a Latin pun is derived from a Greek original. For the latter he suggests that the false directions given to Demea hark back both to the directions given by Herakles to Dionysos at Frogs 127ff. and to the description of Hades on the Orphic lamellae with Menander as the intermediary. The former seems reasonably convincing although I would point out that comedies about the underworld were not restricted to Frogs (e.g. Aristophanes’Gerytades; Pherekrates’Krapataloi, Metalles); the latter depends on whether sacellum can really represent krene in the Greek.

E.J. Jory (“Ars ludicra and the Ludus Talarius” 139-52) investigates the actions of the censors of 115 B.C. “who banished artem ludicrum from the city except for the Latinum tibicinem and the ludum Talanum“. His argument is that ars ludicra means professional performances, and that their removal had financial implications (145). For the corrupt ludum Talanum. he rejects ludum Atellanum and reads ludum talarium which he suggests was “an Italian type of distinctively apparelled song and dance performance” (150). J. concludes “what the censors were doing was banning from the stage full-scale professional dramatic entertainment, above all comedy and tragedy, the origins of which were not Roman but Greek” (151).

Finally Pat Easterling provides the coda to the volume (“Menander: loss and survival” 153-60). Her paper derives from the second part of a 1991 seminar on the survival of Menander (for which Eric Handley in the first part had appropriately provided the types of evidence available). She tackles the question “why the work of a writer so transparently successful and so widely influential throughout the period of antiquity should have been lost after about the sixth or seventh century AD” (153). E. refutes the “currently influential view” that Menander failed the test of pure Atticism, and seeks an answer in the gnomai for which Menander (she could have added the pseudo-Epicharmea) became famous. People came to see Menander as the source of such gnomai rather than as a living dramatic poet. A further contributing factor might be Christian moral attitudes in which the sexual element underlying New Comedy might not have been welcomed.

Thus a mixed bag of articles, of which the “tragic triad” (Davidson, Barlow, and Segal) and Green on vases with masks will be of the most use to students and professional scholars. That Eric Handley is one of the very few scholars who could review the whole volume properly suggests that it is a suitable tribute to him.

  • [1] Henderson ( Lysist. 1987) xlii-xliii; MacDowell ( CQ 1994); and Marshall ( CQ forthcoming). [2] B. Zweig in A. Richlin (ed.), Pornography and Representation, (Oxford 1992); Taaffe, Aristophanes and Women, (London 1992) 99-102.