BMCR 2007.04.69

Comic Business: Theatricality, Dramatic Technique, and Performance Contexts of Aristophanic Comedy

, Comic business : theatricality, dramatic technique, and performance contexts of Aristophanic comedy. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiv, 396 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations. ISBN 9781429469913 $115.00.

It has now been thirty years since Oliver Taplin published his landmark study of Aeschylean stagecraft (The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, Oxford 1977). I can still remember the excitement it generated, although as a graduate student at the time of its appearance I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate its significance. Taplin’s fundamental message was simple enough, even if it hit like a bombshell: let’s not forget that Greek drama was performed in real space and time, and that our texts came into existence first and foremost in the service of event and spectacle. Further, although we have lost so much of what contributed to the performative occasion (music, costumes, props, to name a few), the words themselves can still tell us much about what an actual production might have looked like. Taplin himself focused on entrances and exits in Aeschylus, and took as his guiding principle that all significant action in a Greek play could be extrapolated from the text. In the intervening years, Taplin’s overarching protreptic has gradually been internalized by scholars of the Greek theater, though even he has come to modify the early rigidity of his approach. Indeed, looking back, it seems a little incredible that anyone even in the late 1970’s would have needed such a pointed reminder that Greek drama was actually once real theater, with all that entailed. It may also seem incredible that it has taken so long for anyone to do for Aristophanes and Old Comedy what Taplin did for Aeschylus and Greek tragedy, given how much fruitful scholarly attention has been paid in recent decades to the interaction between the two genres at the Athenian dramatic festivals.

Martin Revermann’s excellent book, Comic Business: Theatricality, Dramatic Technique, and Performance Contexts of Aristophanic Comedy, confirms the old cliché that good things are worth waiting for. This is a truly significant work—expansively erudite, yet accessible and lucid throughout—not just because it is the first sustained study of Aristophanic dramaturgy, but also because it charts so thoroughly the relatively recent evolution of “performance studies” as a sub-discipline that owes as much to anthropology, sociology and psychology as to literary fields, and offers a clear picture of what such an approach has to offer the study of ancient drama as a whole. The first half, in fact, provides a historical introduction to performance studies as a discrete methodology and should be required reading of anyone interested in dramatic genres of any period. These chapters are cogently arranged to walk the reader through the main issues that performance studies have addressed over the past few decades, and by the time we get to the second half—a detailed analysis of three representative plays of Aristophanes (Clouds, Lysistrata and Wealth)—we have a clear sense of both the virtues and limitations of such an approach.

If one had to ascribe a manifesto to performance studies, it might well be summed up in these remarks from Revermann, early in the book (p. 50): “. . .during a performance everything matters: every sound, every movement, every spatial arrangement, every prop, everything a character says or does. Nothing is insignificant. Theatre audiences. . .are continually floating in a sea of meaning.” From this premise, scholars have constructed elaborate taxonomies and typologies of theatrical significance, drawing on such fields as semiotics, sociolinguistics and proxemics (the study of gesture and physical interaction) for their organizing principles and categories. Revermann is thoroughly steeped in these discourses and methodologies, and helpfully illustrates the theoretical portions of the book’s first half with numerous examples from Greek drama, and some even from other traditions, such as Japanese traditions. By the end of Part I (“Issues”), then, an entire set of analytical categories and categories has been laid out before us, and virtually every conceivable aspect of Greek drama emerges laden with significance in one way or another, whether we are considering grand things such as the spatial organization of performance space in its relation to the physical positioning of the audience, or more specific features of the theater, such as costumes, props or the modulation of voice.

One of the many admirable qualities of the first half of the book is Revermann’s honesty about an assortment of problems that arise when one privileges a “performative” approach to the analysis of Greek drama, and of Aristophanes in particular. If one really wants to move beyond textual cues as a guide to performance, and begin looking to extra-textual, even extra-dramatic forms of evidence, whether material (archaeological, art historical) or abstract (cultural, philosophical), what are the limits on our speculation? Given the fact that, in Revermann’s words, “performance criticism of ancient drama will never be an area of certainties” (p. 62), how do we forestall interpretive chaos? Revermann sets out a few guiding principles (pp. 62-64) which are sober and sensible, if not especially novel. They amount, when all is said and done, to an updated, more refined version of Taplin’s approach: first, though we should not adhere to the “significant action” hypothesis too rigidly, texts can and do tell us a great deal about what’s happening on stage; and second, if we speculate about a given scenario that is neither indicated nor disproven by the text (Revermann adopts Karl Popper’s principle of “falsification” here), we must remain attuned to what Revermann calls the “theatrical imaginary” of fifth-century Athens, that is, “the set of theatrical codes, conventions, contexts, and practices which can be reconstructed from the textual and archaeological remains of the period.”

These methodological remarks are foundational for Revermann’s study, but he devotes a separate chapter (3) to two more circumscribed problems, one of which leads him specifically to Old Comedy. The first question has to do with the relationship between our extant texts and the original performance, since if our texts do not represent an actual performance fairly closely, it would be pointless to use them as evidence for performances to begin with. The second question is an old chestnut—whether or not Aristophanes is typical of the genre; did his “rivals” (Cratinus, Eupolis, Platon, etc.) write comedies that looked like Aristophanic comedy? As a whole, this is an extremely useful chapter, providing essential reading for all students of Greek drama, not just Old Comedy. Revermann walks us through the sorts of things everyone wants to know but is (sometimes) afraid to ask: how comfortably can we assume that our transmitted texts reflect original performances, or at least “master-scripts,” given what we know about the re-performances that became standard after the fifth century, about rehearsal practices, actor-troupes and their potential effects on a text, or about the exportation of Athenian comedy to other venues around the Mediterranean. Revermann synthesizes well the copious recent scholarship on all these issues, and concludes with as much conviction as the evidence will allow that our texts—both comic and tragic, although Revermann discusses the two genres separately, sensitive to the different methodological problems they each present—are by and large “authentic” and “reflect an advanced stage of a play’s evolution in which the experience of at least one production. . .under competitive conditions is already incorporated into the script” (p. 95). On the question of how generically typical of Old Comedy Aristophanes was, Revermann is similarly upbeat, concluding that his oeuvre, while distinctive in some respects (for example, his integration of tragedy “at the lower levels of subplot and diction” p. 106), was not especially revolutionary and can, in fact, be regarded as quite representative of its genre. The usual caveats are invoked (a miniscule sample of textual evidence being certainly the most glaring and serious), but Revermann thinks we can speak meaningfully of “Aristophanes and his rivals” as a group. The list of features that Revermann concludes were shared by all or most poets of Old Comedy at the “macro-level” is not especially surprising (e.g., grotesqueness of costume, scatology, busy proxemics, various structural markers of the plays, and so on), but, if he is right that they characterize a discrete genre, then it becomes easier to generalize about performance issues from our main representative of the genre, Aristophanes.

Chapter four, “Applying Performance Criticism,” explores some these shared generic features in greater detail, beginning with a general discussion of the theatrical space of Old Comedy and followed by sections on gesture, arrivals and departures (Revermann’s updated version of what used to be called “exits and entrances”), the nature of Athenian audiences and their interaction with the performance. This chapter is especially suffused with the disciplinary discourse of Theater Studies, with much talk of space and semantics, proxemics, chorality, Goffmanian framing, and so forth. I had mixed feelings about the results, however. To be sure, one could not ask for a more learned and thoroughly au courant scholarly treatment of these topics, and it is difficult not to be impressed by Revermann’s command of methodological tools and models with which most classicists have only a passing acquaintance. But when stripped of their updated, now more interdisciplinary, scholarly presentation, many of the conclusions sound quite familiar. Do we really need Bakhtinian chronotopes, for example, to establish the significance of the fact that the Greek theater was an “open-air, daytime, environmental theatre with no artificial lighting” (p. 111)? And is it not commonly accepted and often noted that Athenian drama “makes an enormous appeal to the imaginative power of its audience. . .” and “calls for ‘big’ acting: elaborate and carefully executed gestures, a resounding voice, and well-coordinated movements. . .” (p. 113)? Further, as a final example, I doubt that anyone would find the conclusion of Revermann’s discussion of comic ugliness particularly surprising, that when poets of Old Comedy “deviate from the ubiquitous pattern of ugliness,” such non-ugly characters take on considerable significance (p. 159). The problem seems not so much the theoretical models themselves as the question of what they can tell us about Old Comedy which, in essence, has not already been articulated by means of more traditional approaches. To put this another way: it is, to be sure, interesting and useful to think about Athenian drama from an abstract perspective and to analyze its components according to theoretical models that connect it to other traditions. If nothing else, this offers a shared theoretical framework and technical vocabulary, and a potential for productive comparative work. I was often struck, however, by how many of Revermann’s examples, adduced to illustrate various abstract points, seemed like the kind of things that commentators have been quietly discussing for years in the course of a dutiful exegesis of the Realien of the Athenian theater. Scholars have, for example, often puzzled over the orientation of choral entrances or exits, the topography of the theater of Dionysus and the cultural semantics of its monuments, or worried about such things as props, costumes and scenery. There is much to admire in Revermann’s totalizing endeavor, and this, I think, is where the main contribution of his study lies; I am often left wondering, however, whether performance studies has in any fundamental way changed the way we think about Old Comedy.

I found myself asking this question especially in the final three chapters, each of which examines a single Aristophanic play—Clouds, Lysistrata, and Wealth—in the light of the theoretical and methodological foundations of the preceding chapters. For the most part, these chapters are structured around classic problems, familiar, again, from commentaries, experiences in the classroom or even from producing the plays for the stage. Chapter 5, on Clouds, for example, analyzes the opening scene of the play, set at dawn, in which Strepsiades lays out his financial problems, the staging of the phrontisterion, the appearance of Socrates, the nature of the chorus, the agon, and the famously problematic ending. The chapter on Lysistrata (Ch. 6), discusses the question of Lysistrata’s identity, the staging of the Acropolis, and problems associated with the play’s ending; and, in the case of Wealth (Ch. 7), Revermann focuses on issues of chorality, proxemics, costuming and props. These chapters represent a milestone, insofar as they are the first systematic study of these plays from the perspective of stagecraft and performance. They are learned and judicious, and could only have been written in a post-Taplin era that has internalized the importance of conceptualizing Greek drama as poetry written first and foremost for performance. It’s the payoff that wasn’t always clear to me. A few examples are in order.

Revermann is no doubt right to regard the initial appearance of Socrates in Clouds, suspended on high and pontificating about scientific matters, as one of the “most complex and interesting moments of Aristophanic theatricality” (179; though his remarks at 193 seem perhaps a little too zealous: “As regards complexity of visual meaning, Socrates’ arrival is second to no other stage business in preserved Greek drama”). Revermann’s analysis of this famous scene highlights some of the frustrating aspects of applying performance studies to ancient texts, where our evidence is so limited: on the one hand, if there are clear indications in the text of stage business (Socrates is unquestionably suspended in the air, for example), such features may help us interpret the play (e.g. the visual experience of Socrates aloft will suggest intellectual haughtiness, etc.). But just as often, our texts do not oblige us with concrete evidence about the sort of things we’d like to know about—costumes, props, gestures, etc.—and in these cases our speculation about such matters necessarily presupposes a certain understanding of the play. In other words, while we hope that performance studies will enhance our understanding of a dramatic work, the reverse often turns out to be the case: it is the dramatic work as we already understand it as a text that enables us to envision it in a hypothetical performance. This is why it often happens, I think, that a performance studies approach to Greek drama seems like it’s corroborating what we’ve perhaps always suspected about a play from a textual encounter with it, rather than bringing something radically different to the table. It is instructive in this regard to return to Revermann’s discussion of the opening of Clouds. Revermann makes much of the “visual meaning” of the early scenes; Socrates is suspended on a kind of rack (not a “basket,” as Revermann points out, p. 188), and a whole chain of symbolic associations arises. Socrates aloft is a haughty, arrogant Socrates, hubristically, even blasphemously, contemplating what belongs to the gods (196). How do we know this? For one, the text tells us as much, as Revermann points out, with its emphasis on the verb periphroneo and hyperphroneo (both implying intellectual superiority and arrogance) to describe Socrates’ activities. In this scene, at least, the text guides the way the scene might have been staged and suggests what the effect of the staging will be.

One other example from Revermann’s chapter on Clouds may illustrate better this type of interpretive trajectory—from text to performance and back to text—and how complex the logic can become. In puzzling over what the chorus of Clouds looked like in the play, Revermann finds himself resisting, rather than appropriating, what a character actually says about a point of staging: Strepsiades claims, 343-44, that the chorus members had noses, but Revermann is rightly troubled by the claim since Strepsiades had just said that the Clouds looked nothing like women, so we should not expect them to have any human features at all, including noses. In any case, noses in comedy tend to be associated with comic ugliness, as Revermann points out, which would also not square well with the otherwise solemn demeanor of the chorus. Revermann’s own speculation, however, is instructive: “There may. . .be a case for assuming that the cloud-goddesses were not comically ugly, but beautiful. . .This would facilitate and support the point made by the ending, when the clouds turn out to be venerable supporters of traditional piety. . .” (203). The only argument we can make here, he seems to be urging, is one that relies on a traditional understanding of the play as text. It would be really exciting, of course, to find out somehow that the chorus really was fitted out in some over-the-top way, so that we could then say that a specific aspect of staging had forced us to re-think the fundamental way in which we interpret their role throughout the play. Those who have argued that the allusion to noses in 344 might be an obscene double-entendre (cf., e.g., Brown 1983, O’Regan 1992, 169n22, Guidorizzi-Del Corno 1996 ad loc., oddly not mentioned by Revermann)1 open up the possibility of new interpretive strategies, although O’Regan’s conclusion is the boldest: “the vulgar humor and possible gestures by the chorus and Strepsiades would. . .indicate the distance of this play from the chaste and verbal first Clouds. . .” This may be a very small point in the staging of Clouds, but it illustrates well the problem that Revermann (and anyone analyzing Greek drama as performance) must continually face: should we speculate about aspects of the play’s performance and allow this to inform our understanding of the text, or should we only speculate about such aspects when it won’t violate our prior understanding of the play’s “meaning” as already worked out from the words of the text?

Some of the most interesting moments of the book occur when Revermann manages to combine both approaches, such as in his discussion of the ending of Clouds, where Strepsiades attempts to burn down Socrates’ phrontisterion. The problems are well known: is the scene funny or not? Is the violence more tragic than comic? Does the play end in bleakness or hilarity? Revermann wants to have it both ways, and his analysis of the scene’s stagecraft makes his argument very appealing. While paying due attention to the farcical elements of the scene, which would imply all sorts of physical and vocal cues not represented in the text, he puts special emphasis on one visual marker of stage action in particular, namely, line 1478, where Strepsiades addresses a herm to beg forgiveness and ask for advice on how to proceed. Revermann notes the function of the herm here as a “defender of established religious practice and the locus of popular thought” (234), and argues that the visual semantics of Strepsiades’ encounter with the statue imply a distinct critique of Socratic intellectualism without necessarily detracting from the comic flavor of the scene, violence and all.

Revermann’s treatment of Lysistrata and Wealth in the final chapters is similar to that of Clouds—for the most part he takes up standard questions about each play and sees whether any progress can be made if we consider them from the perspective of performance studies. Sometimes the answer is negative, as in the question of whether Lysistrata was intended to evoke Lysimache, the historical priestess of Athena Polias. Here Revermann has to conclude that a connection between the two women is simply not “inscribed in the play” (243), although he allows that it might have been felt, but left to the discretion of a producer to decide whether to activate it somehow in performance (or re-performance). Lysistrata affords an excellent example, on the other hand, of how space can be deployed to reinforce a play’s dominant themes. Revermann speaks of the “sexualization of space” that occurs when the women occupy the Acropolis, pointing out that, although “the sex strike plot does not feature verbally from the parodos until 706 [it] is visually present throughout, embodied by the Acropolis as a sexualized space that is closed up and defies penetration” (253). Wealth is, of course, our latest Aristophanic play and as such reflects the evolving performance practices of the fourth century, most notably a diminution in the chorus’ role, in the amount of explicit obscenity, and in political topicality. Revermann focuses on such issues in his analysis of this play, and, perhaps because of the very fact that it looks so different from Clouds or Lysistrata, his discussion of chorality, arrivals and departures, and the theatrical effects of proxemics is particularly satisfying. The book ends with a series of useful appendices on topics of perennial interest: on “comic business” in non-Aristophanic Old Comedy (chiefly a discussion of Cratinus and Eupolis), on the question of authorial stage directions (negatively answered), on whether the second version of Clouds was intended to be performed or read (Revermann favors the former), and a discussion of the performance time of comedies (basically 90-120 minutes).

Despite the methodological conundra that I find inherent in a performance studies approach to ancient drama, Revermann’s book is certainly one of the most significant studies of Old Comedy to appear in decades, even if it occasionally ends up highlighting the limitations of its own theoretical premises. The first part, in particular, has as much to say about tragedy and Athenian performance culture in general as it does specifically about Aristophanes, and with its emphasis on the nuts and bolts of actual performances in real time, it will complement well the recent spate of studies that focus on the politics and cultural ideologies of Athenian drama. Particularly commendable is Revermann’s unpretentious, often jaunty, prose. His scholarship is meticulous and erudite, but everywhere his writing exudes real excitement—Revermann clearly enjoys theater and is a deeply reflective theater-goer, and this makes for a remarkably engaging study.


1. C. Brown, “Noses at Aristophanes’ Clouds 344?” QUCC 14 (1983) 87-90, D. O’Regan, Rhetoric, Comedy and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes’ Clouds (Oxford 1992), and G. Guidorizzi and D. Del Corno, Aristofane Le Nuvole (Milan 1996).