BMCR 2004.11.10

Ancient Voices. Modern Echoes. Theatre in the Greek World. Exhibition Catalogue

J. R. (John Richard) Green, Nicholson Museum., Ancient voices, modern echos : theatre in the Greek world : exhibition catalogue. Sydney: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney, 2003. 81 pages : color illustrations ; 30 cm. ISBN 0909602166 AUD $39.95 (pb).

This attractive catalogue documents a special exhibition on Greek theatre at the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney. The use of lavish full color illustrations for every object and, in the case of vases, the consistent provision of multiple views makes this a visual treat. J.R. Green with F. Muecke, K.N. Sowada, M. Turner and E. Bachmann offer a publication that is a testimony to the unusual strength of the Nicholson in theatre-related objects and the broadmindedness of its curators in their inclusive outlook of what constitutes pertinent material. The importance of a catalogue on objects relating to the ancient theatre is well expressed by Green, who remarks in his acknowledgements that “an exhibition devoted to a topic so central to the culture of the Greeks and to their self-definition needs no justification.” [6] In addition to providing a permanent record of a transient entity, the catalogue is a vehicle permitting the editors to present something of the university’s work at the site of the ancient theatre at Nea Paphos on Cyprus. Excavation at the site began in 1995 and is anticipated to conclude after one or two more seasons’ work. The catalogue is also an appropriate tribute to the work of A.D. Trendall, former Chair of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Sydney and once Honourary Curator of the Nicholson, and A. Cambitoglou, who established a section of the Museum devoted to the exhibition of material related to theatre. Their substantial contributions to the study of the ancient theatre are well represented in their numerous publications on the subject and in their acquisitions that form such an important part of the museum’s permanent collection. Today, Green is one of the handful of experts on the subject internationally. While many of the entries documented in the catalogue have a publication record. 13 of the 45 objects included in the catalogue are hitherto unpublished. Together, they contribute to the overall picture of ancient drama, raising questions about the context of such pieces and their social significance.

The catalogue begins with an introduction to Greek drama by Muecke, which provides a concise discussion of the plays, poets and ancient festivals. [8-12] The survival of literary evidence, Tragedy, the nature of the chorus, Satyr play, Old and New Comedy each receive an overview. Muecke, observing that the extant fragments survive as a result of taste, selection, and accident, introduces the vital fact that the incomplete record of both the literature and the objects compromises our understanding of ancient drama. This introduction, while aimed to be intelligible to the general reader, is still well worthwhile for anyone to read, as the bibliography provided is impressively comprehensive.

The next section, by Green, is entitled ‘Ancient Theatre: Context and Performance’ and refers to the objects in the exhibition. [13-20] The range of material is broad and includes wine vessels designed for the symposium, inexpensive terracotta figurines, bronzes, glass plaques, marble sculpture and personal trinkets. As well, this section considers the ways in which theatre conditions changed through time and place during the 1000 years of Greek drama. For example, from the early 3rd century BC, actors, musicians and other performers formed themselves into Guilds or Associations, making performance art a profession and thereby standardizing the skill. The physical setting and aspects of theatre architecture are also taken into account. Perhaps the single most significant issue that Green raises about the theatre and its associated objects, whether those objects are for use in an actual dramatic production or decorate items used in daily life, is their ubiquitous nature. These objects were not restricted to the elite but were bought by the community at large and so indicate the prevalent place theatre enjoyed at many levels of society. A context for theatre within the society from which it developed is detailed and the significance of that context is related back to the exhibit’s objects. For example, the connection between the performance of drama and religious ritual is central to the discussion. Green states that specific objects in the exhibition demonstrate that actors came to be seen as followers of Dionysos and were regarded as members of his personal retinue. The use of masks and their ability to transform the known person into something other is articulated and Green likens the effect of wearing a mask as parallel to Dionysos’ ability to transform human personality through wine and drunkenness. Particularly striking is the conclusion that images of the principal mask types found their way into common usage, often decorating everyday objects such as drinking vessels or jewelry. The fact that many such objects were inexpensively mass-produced in a mould confirms that theatre was an integral part of the daily experience of life and not strictly a festival occasion.

The next section of the catalogue, also by Green, is devoted to the site of the theatre in Nea Paphos, made the capital of Cyprus when the Ptolemies had authority over the island, where a team from the University of Sydney is shortly to conclude their excavation work. [21-26] The highlight of the section is a finely executed model of the theatre by Stephanie Blake and Jeff Stennett (Fig. 2). A detailed plan of the excavations at the theatre (Fig. 4) and a description of the building’s construction phases provide the context for a particularly significant find, an inscription from the architrave, dating to the time of Hadrian.

The catalogue proper illustrates objects ranging in date from the late sixth century BC to the middle of the second century AD. [27-81] The pieces are not arranged according to type or chronology but thematically: the ‘World of Dionysos,’ ‘Satyr Play,’ ‘Comedy,’ ‘Tragedy,’ and ‘Theatre Images in Daily Life.’ Thus the catalogue belongs to the new genre of thematic exhibitions that feature an aspect of ancient social life as their subject rather than a particular myth or the work of a specific painter. Past thematic exhibitions include Jenifer Neils’ Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (1992-3) and Ellen Reeder’s Pandora’s Box: Women in Classical Greece (1995-6). This trend continues today in Coming of Age in the Ancient Greek World: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past by J. Neils and J.H. Oakley. Another theatre-related catalogue, documenting an exhibit in Munich, Die Geburt des Theaters in der griechischen Antike, was published in 2002. Each of these publications was a major touring catalogue, whereas Ancient Voices: Modern Echoes is much less ambitious in scope, making its scholarly achievement all the more impressive, especially as this was a small exhibition in a university gallery for the use of the local citizens. The sorting of the objects into the categories outlined above works well, allowing the curators to explore the relationship the objects have to both drama and daily life. Each photograph is accompanied by a comprehensive discussion of the formal characteristics of the piece and a bibliography, at times brief, and at other times exhaustive, depending upon the nature of the available documentation. Within the discussion of particular pieces interesting concurrent issues are raised, such as food and its consumption in the ancient world, the appearance of Herakles in comedy, and the grotesque. Whenever such a digression is introduced, an appropriate bibliography is provided within the text.

Pride of place is given to a red-figure calyx krater, from Taranto and dating to the 340s BC, which depicts a scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (Cat. No. 1). This exceptional piece is under-published and receives deserved attention here. In general, there is a paucity of vase paintings derived from the work of Sophocles. Euripides and Aeschylus appear to have been more popular and find greater representation in art. This makes the appearance of a vase highlighting a scene from the Oedipus at Colonus all the more significant. The better known and very important work by the Tarpoley painter (Cat. No. 12) depicting chorusmen preparing for a satyr play also deserves mention for both its excellent illustration — a close-up of the chorusmen and the reverse of the vase are included — and for its extensive bibliography.

Perhaps the most crucial concept in the catalogue is the commonality of the experience of theatre in the ancient world. The objects introduced here reveal that the same attitudes and ideals were held by the community as a whole, without distinctions of class and affluence. The catalogue concludes with two objects revealing that Greek drama continues to be pertinent to the contemporary world: a costume from a modern production of Euripides’ Medea, designed by Angus Strathie, and a mask of Oedipus, designed by Yoshi Tosa for a 1970 production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. This catalogue is a most welcome contribution to the field of ancient drama, and its interest is by no means restricted to those specifically interested in theatre, but more generally to anyone interested in ancient society and culture.