BMCR 2000.06.30

Crossing the Stages: The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater. Syllecta Classica, Volume 10, 1999

, , , , Crossing the Stages: The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater. Syllecta Classica, Volume 10, 1999. xii + 282.

The articles in this volume represent a selection of papers presented at a conference held in Saskatoon in 1997, linked by a common interest in the performance and reception of ancient theater, although quite disparate in subject and approach. The result is a mixed bag, as might be expected, but thoughtful, stimulating, and well worth having. And the mode of publication — as a special issue of an established periodical — is to be commended for making the material available promptly on the shelves of many libraries, as well as to individuals at a very reasonable price. The volume has been carefully edited, although it lacks both index and bibliography.

In what follows, space permits only a brief summary of each article, together with occasional comments. The volume begins with a section on “Ancient and Modern Perspectives”, with two pieces on ideological issues for contemporary production and one on civic ideology as it might have been apprehended by the original audience of Attic tragedy. The lead article, ” Humani nil a me alienum puto : The Ethics of Terentian Performance”, is a version of the keynote speech given at the conference by Niall W. Slater, whose work on ancient comedy in performance is justly admired. Slater begins by raising the provocative question whether the ancient plays should be performed today, focusing on rape plots in the comedies of Terence and the challenges they pose to contemporary producers and actors. He does a good job of showing just how and why it is difficult with the best will in the world to reclaim plays like Hecyra and Eunuchus for production today, except by adaptation (rewriting to make our outrage part of the text) or the more metatheatrical approach of suspending the drama to have an actor step out of character and articulate a dissenting response to what is happening on stage (as was done in a performance at Emory). Slater does not approve of either of these approaches, but his own solution is, unfortunately, the least convincing part of his essay. He would encourage the audience to adopt “a worldview and set of assumptions not their own” by replacing the Terentian prologue with “a new and contemporary defense of the playwright and his ability to speak to us” (pp. 20-1), but this strategy depends on the view that Terence does indeed intend his plays to be disturbing in ways that are suspiciously modern and that Slater’s own careful analysis has failed to establish.

Mary-Kay Gamel’s “Staging the Ancient Drama: The Difference Women Make” approaches the same problem — the inscription of patriarchal values in ancient drama — from a different perspective. Gamel questions the need to think of productions of ancient drama as “revivals” designed to “replicate the meaning of these dramas in their original performance context” (p. 23), offering in place of the “museum” model that of a “laboratory”, where performances “test the various meanings a script can convey — in aesthetic, emotional, historical and ideological terms” (p. 26). She comments that a 1998 production of Aristophanes’ Birds by the Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, in which Athenian political and social concerns were replaced by current issues reflecting political and social commitments of the performers (e.g., immigration and tension between Latinos and African-Americans in California), is “far more Aristophanic in tone and effect than productions which keep the Athenian topical allusions” (p. 28). Gamel goes on to broach, in a particularly thoughtful and open-minded way, the implications for production of Greek drama with a feminist perspective. Much of the essay is devoted to the results of her own experience as producer and director of a series of “laboratory” productions, and both process and results, as she describes them, underline the point that there is no single or simple recipe for feminist stagings, or any other kind. Gamel’s productions aim simply to engage with issues raised in the original scripts so as to produce a powerful and immediate effect on the audience, and she reports that at times the results seem true to the ancient script’s meaning in its original context, at times not. Sometimes the questions raised about representation of gender and gender relations have led to surprising results (as when student actors convinced her, against current feminist orthodoxy, to play the ending of the Alcestis as a joyful reunion on both sides), sometimes they led to self-conscious distancing and destabilizing effects (as when, in a production of Eumenides pointedly called The Furies and set in the American fifties, the Furies change from “beatnik black” to “sweetheart dresses, white gloves, and high heels” [p. 40] to signal their acceptance of Athena’s offer, and announce their conversion in lyrics to the tune of “God Bless America,” against a projected backdrop of the Statue of Liberty).1 This lively and important article contains much for those who are interested in the production of ancient drama, but also for those who teach these texts in translation, to think about. Gamel will go a long way toward convincing even skeptics to rethink the concept of “authenticity.” Surely it makes sense at times to introduce meanings the script could not have had for its original audience in order to bring the spirit of ancient drama alive for audiences today.

Geoff Bakewell’s ” εὔνους καὶ πόλει σωτήριος / μέτοικος : Metics, Tragedy, and Civic Ideology” differs from most of the papers in this collection in not being about either performance or later reception of ancient drama. Instead, Bakewell makes a well-argued case for considering the status of Eurystheus, in Euripides’ Heraclidae, as a metic to have political significance. He aligns Eurystheus with the Erinyes of Eumenides and the Oedipus of Oedipus at Colonus as figures who demonstrate that metics are vital to Athens’ well-being. In this feature of these plays, he sees a way for tragedy to function ideologically (and educationally) as a force for unification, by presenting the incorporation of outsiders into civic life as necessary to the success of the community as a whole. Bakewell concludes by reminding us of another metic whose blessing of Athens is particularly relevant here. Dionysus Eleuthereus, the presiding deity of the dramatic festivals, is himself “arguably the archetypal immigrant” (p. 64), a fact recalled each year as the ephebes bring his cult statue into the center of the city in joyful procession.

The second and longest section of the volume, entitled “Stage and Stagecraft,” is a suite of six articles devoted to ancient performance and performance space. Stephen Scully enters the debate about the stage of the fifth-century theater with a two-part piece, “Orchestra and Stage in Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus and the Theater of Dionysus.” The first part rehearses the case for a (slightly) raised stage, a matter about which, as he rightly observes, our scanty and inconclusive evidence allows no certainty. Nevertheless, Scully carefully points out the flaws in David Wiles’s recent argument for a single acting area encompassing skene and orchestra.2 I am less sure than Scully that the chous from Anavysos illustrates a theatrical stage, but he is right to point out that such evidence as we have (fifth- and fourth-century vase paintings from the Greek West, hints in the the language of the plays and of the ancient critics) make a raised stage more rather than less likely. The second part of Scully’s essay emphasizes two distinct “voices” — the individual confident in human ability to find solutions and track down the truth (Attic dialect, iambic trimeter, polis perspective), the collectivity hoping for divine aid and favor (Doric dialect, lyric meters, “perspective which evokes a vastness of landscape that dwarfs the orderly boundaries of the city” [p. 77]). After the play’s peripety, Oedipus and the chorus trade vocabularies and spatial orientations, and the blind king’s invocations of Cithaeron invest the wild space beyond the polis with the terrible meaning of his lived exprience. Scully wisely does not attempt to make this analysis depend upon his view of orchestra and stage in the Theater of Dionysus, though he does suggest that the division of voices he observes responds in some measure to the dual spaces of the theater that he envisions.

Donald J. Mastronarde’s “Knowledge and Authority in the Choral Voice of Euripidean Tragedy,” a close relative of an article published in Italian,3 emphasizes factors that distance the internal audience of the chorus from the external audience in the theater, demonstrate limits of knowledge and understanding, and in general weaken choral authority. While acknowledging that such elements are not new to Euripides, Mastronarde shows how in many respects he carries them further than his predecessors, frequently choosing to represent marginal groups (women, slaves foreigners), often making them less engaged emotionally in the action than is typical of his predecessors. None of this of course is particularly new or startling, but it is good to have it set out with such care. New to this version of the essay, and particularly valuable, is a brief examination of the complex mixture of involvement and withdrawal, authority and fallibility in the chorus of Andromache. The Euripidean chorus, even more than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, withholds the comfort of an ethically and emotionally reliable voice, extending the unsettling multiplicity of perspectives that makes his plays so disturbing.

The next two papers concern ancient performance practice in Roman comedy. C. W. Marshall’s “Quis Hic Loquitur: Plautine Delivery and the Double Aside” draws on experience producing and directing masked, outdoor productions of Plautus to show how masks may have affected delivery in general and to elucidate in particular a characteristic comic routine in which one character suddenly becomes aware of the presence of another. Marshall clearly recognizes that what worked on stage for him (or didn’t) in no way prescribes what Plautus himself must have done. Nevertheless, practical experiment in the theater, when backed as it is here by historical and philological learning, can undoubtedly be helpful in fleshing out and testing theoretical possibilities. And Marshall is surely right to emphasize the farcical aspect of Plautine theater that textual analysis, less attuned to visual and gestural humor, characteristically overlooks.

Timothy Moore, in his important article “Facing the Music: Character and Musical Accompaniment in Roman Comedy,” raises the difficult question of how the music worked dramatically. Accepting the definition (first propounded by Bergk and Ritschl) of diverbia as passages in iambic senarii spoken unaccompanied and cantica as passages in all other meters performed with accompaniment by the tibia, and without worrying the question of the mode of performance of cantica (song, recitative, rhythmic speech), Moore attempts to describe a “grammar of accompaniment” (p. 133) that will account for the playwrights’ practice in dividing their scripts into accompanied and unaccompanied portions. He is remarkably successful in this enterprise, suggesting a number of (sometimes competing) factors that influence where accompaniment is or is not used, and patterns that tend toward inertia or change in the status of accompaniment. Not surprisingly, in addition to factors connected to generic traditions, plot, and structure, characters most closely associated with the pleasure principle (e.g. young lovers) tend to be accompanied; those who oppose them, not. Similarly, music tends to be connected to lack of emotional control, lack of music to exposition and control of the plot. This analysis should prove helpful not only to other students of Roman comedy, but also to those involved in stage productions.

Eric Csapo’s “Performance and Iconographic Tradition in the Illustrations of Menander,” itself helpfully illustrated, treats one example of the iconography associated with ancient theater with exemplary care. Csapo investigates the origins and function of the well-known Menander mosaics from Mytilene, dated to the late 3rd or early 4th c. C.E., and concludes that they have nothing to do with performance in the theater at that time or with a particular passion for classical drama on the part of their commissioner. These mosaics, Csapo argues, represent above all the house owner’s aspirations to be seen as a person of class and culture. They stem from an iconographic tradition which can be traced back to the 4th c. B.C.E. Csapo argues that their immediate source will have been a copybook and that their peculiarities over against earlier versions of particular scenes can best be explained by aesthetic choices (e.g., balance among the groupings of panels), a concern probably already reflected in a complex tradition of copybook variants. As a corollary, variations cannot be used as new information for the reconstruction of the plays, as is sometimes done. Evidently, there is much that must remain specultive in Csapo’s reconstruction of this corner of cultural history, but his case seems to be as strong as the evidence allows.

Richard Beacham is interested in a very different sort of visual material: virtual imaging of ancient theatrical spaces. “Reconstructing Ancient Theater with the Aid of Computer Simulation” takes us on a rather breathless tour of a number of projects and prospects that use new technology to reconstruct ancient stages and auditoriums in “virtual three dimensions.” There is much that seems attractive and useful here, but Beacham’s claims at times appear somewhat extravagant. It is easy to see that visualization of ruined theaters (especially one like the Theater of Pompey in Rome that can no longer be seen whole at all) could be aided by well-conceived computer graphics, especially the kind that permits a virtual “walk through,” allowing the relation of spaces to be perceived as if one were inside them, environments to be seen successively from different angles, and so on. Just how all of this “promises to revolutionize … theater-based research” (p. 193), however, remains unclear. And Beacham’s suggestion that visitors at ancient sites, ” instead of finding themselves staring disconsolately at a pile of inarticulate ruins and rubble, might instead be able to access a computer-based “kiosk” and see the site resurrected in all its eloquent former glory before their eyes” (p. 194, my italics) has the virtual trump the real too completely for comfort. Nevertheless, the “virtual museum,” complete with sophisticated graphics, audio that reconstructs acoustical properties of the original site, background information and interpretative material, and available not only on site, but in CD-ROM and on the net is certainly an exciting prospect, and to judge from the elaborate international effort that Beacham describes, one that we shall soon be able to experience for ourselves.

The last section of the volume consists of four papers that consider various aspects of “Modern Production and Adaptation.” Robert C. Ketterer considers the uses to which Senecan dramatic elements are put in two 18th c. operas based very loosely on the figure of the Roman statesman Sulla, Handel’s Silla (libretto by G. Rossi), an opera written for a private performance in 1713, and Mozart’s Lucio Silla (libretto by Gamerra) written for Milan in 1772. Ketterer argues convincingly that the elements he considers Senecan in Handel’s libretto look back unexpectedly to the somewhat old-fashioned operatic dramaturgy of the 17th c. By contrast, Ketterer suggests, the rather different Senecanism of Lucio Silla is linked to musical and dramaturgic innovations of this early Mozart opera, and by partaking of a certain strand of late 18th c. morbidity anticipates the darker moments of romantic opera.4

In “‘A New Athens Rising Near the Pole’: Canada and the Greek Exemplum 1606-1954” Moira Day provides an account of classicism as a force in Canadian culture, although performance and reception of ancient drama have a relatively small role here. What does emerge clearly from her account is an aspiration to cultural parity with other nations that is clothed now in Greek or Roman, now in Shakespearean garb. Thus, we learn of such events as the performance of a French neo-classical masque as early as 1604 — Canada’s first drama — in which Neptune promises the colony a bright future and presides over the offering of gifts by natives (played of course by Frenchmen speaking sub-Racinian verse). Day also describes in some detail the ways in which Athenian drama (along with Shakespeare) is repeatedly held up by cultural critics as well as theatrical practitioners as an ideal to which Canadian drama of the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th c. should aspire. In the end, however, despite Day’s conclusion that “‘Athens’ as an idea was to prove a brew of considerable potency for over 300 years in Canada” (p. 258), it is hard to judge from her presentation how significant a force it may have been.

Ruth Hazel’s “Unsuitable for Women and Children? Greek Tragedies in Modern British Theaters,” provides a fascinating reflection on contemporary uses of Antigone and Medea on stage, and in classrooms as well, where these texts are now not only considered suitable, but are required for high school completion and for the increasingly female student body of undergraduate humanities courses. Hazel provides a lively overview of recent British productions of Medea, largely produced by women, often with a feminist point of view and foregrounding race as well as gender issues. She also surveys recent productions of Antigone and describes the ambitious “Antigones Project,” set in motion in 1992 by Wendy Greenhill of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Greenhill’s idea was to have six groups of youngsters between fifteen and twenty years old, working with professional writers and directors, develop through workshops and improvisation their own versions of the Antigone story. Settings varied from pre-Christian Scotland to Cornwall in the 23rd c., and all were publicly performed at Stratford during a single weekend. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hazel’s discussion is her nuanced treatment of the politics of this new wave of engagement with Greek drama in professional, amateur, and pedagogic theater. In the end, she emphasizes the variety of interpretations now possible above all as an indicator that these plays are not just for an intellectual or social elite any more. Therein lies hope for the future.

Finally, as an appropriate tail-piece to the collection, David Gowen’s “Cross-Referencing the Stages” offers a brief description of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama now being assembled and organized at Oxford University. This will combine a repository and a database to constitute a unique resource that will surely facilitate research on the rich history of contemporary production and performance.


1. Those who have seen Professor Gamel’s oral presentation of this material supported by video clips from her productions will regret that no stills were included among the volume’s illustrations.

2. Tragedy in Athens (Cambridge 1997).

3. “Il coro euripideo,” QUCC n.s. 60.3 (1998) 55-80.

4. A few small errors in the quotations from the libretti and their translations should be corrected. Pp. 225-6: “Pretendono … i numi” should be “do the gods demand” or “expect,” not “pretend.” P. 229: “Seguasi … il tuo consiglio” means “let your advice be followed,” not “give me your advice.” P. 230: in the penultimate line of the Italian, read, “vol a” for “vol o,” and translate, ” fly and help ….” P. 233: in line 5 of the Italian, read “serra” for “ferra.”