BMCR 2003.06.38

Spectator Politics. Metatheatre and Performance in Aristophanes

, Spectator politics : metatheatre and performance in Aristophanes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. x, 363 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0812236521 $59.95.

1 Responses

Spectator Politics is a rich and imaginatively conceived study of the self-referential nature of Aristophanic comedy which envisions, often in precise detail, the original production of eight comedies in chronological order. Slater employs a reception analysis that privileges this ur-performance, despite the incontrovertible fact that we are imprisoned in the twenty-first century with only scant and unsatisfying reports of any original performance or audience reaction. The contest for semiotic priority between that single original enactment of classical drama and a text which seems transcend any historical specificity informed a famous debate between David Wiles and Simon Goldhill over a decade ago.1 Slater has clearly aligned himself with Wiles in his focus. I have seen my fair share of recreations of ancient drama — and when it is done well one gets the sense that a dramatic script is a magic seed that grows into something entirely different, but potentially wonderful, every time it is performed. Yet Athenian Old Comedy was created for a single site-specific occasion, and in order to apprehend as much meaning as possible we do well to understand it in the context of its original production. It is of course the nature of Old Comedy to use political humour (and this is what makes it less accessible to non-specialists), but according to Slater it is precisely this political impulse that is at the heart of a unique form of self-reflexivity.

The scholar who taught us how to appreciate metatheatre in Roman comedy declares here that Aristophanes’ theatrical self-consciousness exceeds anything in Plautus, although the source of this self-reflexive impulse in Greek Comedy is entirely different from that of the later genre. Slater has developed an interpretation of metatheatre from discussions of Renaissance drama which he outlines in his introductory and self-explanatory first chapter, “The Naming of Parts”. The term “metatheatre” has gained considerable currency, if not complete acceptance as a theoretical model, among contemporary scholars thanks to the work of Charles Segal, Mark Ringer and of course Slater himself. Metatheatre, for anyone who has somehow missed out on this discourse, connotes a self-reflexive inclination whereby the text of a drama enunciates its status as a dramatic enactment by means which include the play-within-a-play, references to costuming, props and other dramatic appurtenances, acknowledgment of the presence of the audience and any device which breaks the dramatic illusion. Slater describes this as renegotiating the contract with the audience, and his first chapter is devoted to itemizing Aristophanes’ self-conscious naming of terms. What is fresh here is the relationship between these metatheatric devices and the larger political purposes of the theatre of Aristophanes. By working through the selected plays, Slater makes a strong case for the development of the comic poet’s techniques and his strategy of using metatheatre as a device to uncloak the deceptive performances of demagogues and politicians. The theatre of Dionysus thus becomes paradigmatic for the law courts, the ekklesia and the demos at large.

Such a hypothesis, decides Slater, requires a thorough investigation of the concept of the actor, for an audience must have a pretty sophisticated conception of role playing in the theatre if they are to understand it as a symbol for role playing in the assembly. The nuanced and informed second chapter reviews the evidence for the development of the trade of acting from the poet performing in his own plays to a professional group of craftsmen, several of whom are named in various sources. This is one of the few chapters that might have benefited from a plate (the book is illustration-free), specifically the discussion of the representation of acting in the visual arts. And, notwithstanding the valuable and informed elucidation of theatrical practices provided by this interesting introduction, it is a very intense read which in the final analysis is not absolutely essential background to the eight essays that follow, each of which can stand alone on its own terms.

The main project henceforth is to examine Aristophanic comedies with respect to how their performance would create and manipulate a theatrical space which could be equated with other Athenian public spaces, and how the comic characters within that space reflect on their ontological status as actors in a way that provokes the fifth-century audience to recognize the manipulative performances in the democratic institution at large. The conflation of theatre and civic institutions thus has a didactic function in that it serves to instruct the audience in their reception of demagoguery and political chicanery. Characters such as Dicaeopolis and Philocleon enter the drama as spectators themselves but learn how to become actors. Their newly acquired agency consequently serves as instruction for the passive spectator in his role as a citizen of Athens. Slater reconstructs a staging for the Acharnians that highlights this evolution, suggesting for instance that the actor playing Dicaeopolis could have defined the demarcation between audience and drama by making his first entrance from the audience itself, and delivering his first speech to the assembly from the orchestra which thus becomes the Pnyx. And by introducing a parody of Euripides’ Telephus Aristophanes teaches the citizens of Athens to read through the role playing and costumes of the drama to become “critical ‘readers’ of the texts that others present before the assembly.” (60) Similarly Slater reads Knights and Wasps as representing an evolution from passive spectator to active performer. For his treatment of Wasps, Slater welds Bowie’s reading of Philocleon ‘s ephebic maturation to Winkler’s idea of the ephebic chorus to theorize that Philocleon is transformed from spectator to a rejuvenated choral performer.2 He goes on to imagine a production of Birds in which the entire civic space of the theatre, and by extension the polis itself, becomes ensconced within the bird city; the audience is invited to grow beaks (479) and wings are dispensed from baskets, just like stage properties.

The treatment of Thesmophoriazusae is wonderful and should rank as one of the most insightful essays on this most self-reflexive of comedies. The impetus for the dramatic action is a deliberative assembly that has, according to Slater, come into being as a result of an eisangelia, a summons issued by the ekklesia, in this case the demos of women, who, having determined that Euripides is guilty of plotting against their demos, are about to debate his penalty. Yet the assembly of women distort the democratic processes essential to the operation of democracy; for instance they interfere with the process of free speech and the right of an accused citizen to defend himself when they deny Euripides a chance to respond to their charges, or to propose a counter-penalty. Slater’s keen nose catches a whiff of the recent oligarchy in the restrictive character of the women’s demos; Aristophanes’ representation of Euripides and even Agathon is not so much a critique of their poetry as it is of the suppression of all the voices, even and including the tragic poets, which contribute to democratic equality. Unfortunately Slater was not able to take into account Laura McClure’s recent complementary hypothesis that the women’s assembly invites the audience to compare the crafty speech of the women with the slick demagogues of the city at large.3

Similarly the analysis of Frogs suggests that aesthetic commentary is working in the service of political concerns. Like Dicaeopolis, Dionysus develops into an active spectator and in turn teaches the audience by example; Aristophanes thus continues his programme of educating his audience in the civic arts which can lead to an enhanced political agency. Hades becomes a symbol for the theatre, cost of admission: two obols, where an evaluation of tragic performances takes place. Again this chapter is full of original reflections and insight (especially regarding the revival of Aeschylean drama for contemporary political concerns).4

In his analysis of the Ecclesiazusae Slater urges us to read linearly without anticipating the scene at the end which seems to dilute the women’s successes. His careful tracking of the possible reception of an original audience recuperates the impact of the women’s new communistic regime. The rehearsal scene functions to politicize the theatre and to emphasize the role playing that takes place in the ekklesia. There are some astute insights here on the title of the play, the role of the young woman ( a citizen, not a whore, points out Slater) who competes against the old woman in the lyric contest of the second half, and the nature of the women’s utopia.

Slater’s theory doesn’t fit Lysistrata (or is it the other way round?), and Wealth is dismissed with a few lines in the short concluding chapter. These omissions should give us pause since they suggest a lapse in Aristophanes’ equation of politics and theatre. Lysistrata is overtly political and I would have been interested to hear why Slater thinks the poet abandoned his formula here. This is arguably his most famous play and it seems a bit odd that a book that will undoubtedly rank among the most important studies of ancient comedy should not have anything at all to say about it. Clouds is a more understandable omission. Still one has to wonder (assuming that Slater is right about the political purpose of Aristophanic metatheatre) why Aristophanes did keep using the same theatre/political life homology in the eight plays. The final chapter does summarize and contextualize this political metatheatre, but it might have been more convincing if each chapter stated how Slater perceived the historical development of the device.

I have a few other reservations. For instance at no time does Slater address the relationship of the text as we have it to the performance witnessed by the Athenians. I felt vaguely uneasy when he claimed that a deictic at Acharnians 705 indicated that Euathlus, the prosecutor of Thucydides was in the theatre (61). Would Aristophanes have known this before the production itself; did he consider it enough of a likelihood to include the reference; or did he revise his post-production text somewhat?

It is a reviewer’s duty to make such criticisms, and I shall leave it at that. It is this reviewer’s pleasure, however, to say that Spectator Politics is a welcome contribution to Aristophanic scholarship: original, well-informed and well-researched and, not the least of its virtues, amusingly written. The old dikasts of Wasps are likened to “couch potatoes” who can’t think of anything better to do; about the flute girl who contributes to the resolution of Thesmophoriazusae Slater mischievously suggests, “Where high art has failed, lap dancing succeeds” (179). There are references to the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Weird Al Jankovic, the Three Stooges and other contemporary cultural touchstones, in addition to comparanda from high culture: the play between fictional and real boundaries of Ecclesiazusae, for instance, is illuminated by a parallel from Tom Stoppard (213). Finally I should note the user-friendliness of Spectator Politics. Recondite arguments (with the exception of the second chapter) are confined to the footnotes where they are fully explained; there is a comprehensive index locorum, and good general index (its last item being the aforementioned Weird Al). This book seems to reflect the twinkle in its author’s eye on almost every page, a fitting tribute to a timeless master of comedy.


1. See Wiles, David “Reading Greek Performance” G & R 34(1987) 136-151, and Simon Goldhill’s response, “Reading Performance Criticism” G & R 36 (1989) 172-182.

2. Bowie, A.M. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 and Winkler, John. J. “The Ephebes’ Song: Tragoidia and Polis.” in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context ed. John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, 20-62.

3. McClure, Laura Spoken Like a Woman Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, 230.

4. This chapter was evidently written before Ismene Lada Richards produced her detailed survey Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.