BMCR 2007.08.11

A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Revised Edition

, A short introduction to the ancient Greek theater. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. xii, 126 pages : illustrations, map ; 21 cm. ISBN 0226477622 $12.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

In an introduction and seventeen solid essays Graham Ley’s A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater, Revised Edition, addresses customary topics of early Greek performance such as audience, chorus, masks and the playing space, and variant topics such as puppetry, parody and adaptation. This revised edition has appreciable value to undergraduate drama majors and their instructors.

There are a few creative anomalies in this book. Terse, unnumbered chapter headings are slyly evocative. Descriptors of dramatists and performers (“The Writer and Actors”) have a contemporary echo, and an essay on stage blocking and proximity has a slightly filmic flavor (“Distance and Physical Action”). Other topics are succinctly titled Delivery and Parody. Perhaps a more didactic approach would seem less affected, but this is a studied, no-frills effort; and the modern nomenclature invites the enthusiastic student much as a chapter on “noir” or “the auteur” or simply “Hitchcock” would beckon the film major.

Ley’s lean glossy manual (the segment on scenography is only two pages long) is organized around the 5th century tragedians and Aristophanes, with a peculiar proviso with respect to the comic playwright, Menander. Ley begins his book with a pithy discussion of Greek dramatic forms and the august troika Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. He follows this thorough chapter with a reconstruction of the contests for Dionysus and the considerable layers of apparatus and bureaucracy that control it. Accordingly, these essays are entitled: “Greek Drama” and “The Organization of the Festivals.” Next, in a provocative chapter he identifies as “Lesser Dramatic Performances at Athens,” Ley examines the appearance of the Syracusan mime, Sophron, and the emergence of minor forms such as articulate puppets, mimes, pipers, and slave ensembles. Ley begins this discussion with a perfunctory disclaimer: “the evidence for forms of drama at Athens other than those supported by the state at the festivals of Dionysus is extremely interesting, but yields only the haziest of pictures” (10); following this qualification, Ley connects the cult of Dionysus with private performance beyond the reach of the state, an ancient fringe festival, so to speak. “His conjecture surrounding the cult of Dionysus and alternative gatherings is challenging, but on one occasion weakened by a laughable supposition: “Puppetry is also a theater of sounds, as well as actions and voices; it would be very surprising if farting were not involved” (11).

In my undergraduate years (the late 70’s) the text of choice for Temple University’s liberal arts theater program was James H. Butler’s The Theater and Drama of Greece and Rome. In 70 pages—about one half of the book—Professor Butler unpacked the progress of classical dramatic art in three meaningful chapters: origins and development; the viewing place; and production. Subdivisions of these areas included the basics: dithyrambs, tragedies, the chorus, stage machinery, masks etc. Everything the theater major needed was contained in a few practical lessons. Professor Ley has expanded on the Butler syllabus (and the original edition of this text) with a singular critical discussion, a drama workshop approach entitled: “Reading Texts as Scripts.” This essential chapter establishes a lexicon for would be directors and designers and synthesizes a number of dramaturgical ideas in the book. The theater-lab approach includes close-reading exercises such as “mapping”, “listing”, “deduction” and the “process of observation” (40). As introductory material goes this is fresh and exiting.

Ley’s second critical discussion, a more literary modality entitled “Translation and Adaptation,” compares seminal translations of Agamemnon (the Watchman’s speech), including Potter, Murray, MacNease [is this correct?], Lowell and the white-hot Robert Fagles. This chapter defines adaptation as a standard theatrical practice;1 that is to say, Seneca, Racine, and a host of modern dramatists are the new Greeks: “The history of adaptation is of considerable importance in relation to some theatrical cultures” (86). Now, everything the new theater major should experience—the disparity of language, the dynamics of character, the preeminence of action, and the tradition (and phenomena) of dramatic reinvention—is considered. These topics are logical points of departure from Butler and move the student from classroom to performance mode (an English course up on its feet) as a theater class should be. In this reader’s estimation these chapters “Reading Texts as Scripts” and “Translation and Adaptation” are vital, a summation of the Professor’s dramaturgical ideas.

Ley’s book offers a series of technical drawings that are simple and illuminating. Pen and ink renderings of the cavea and orchestra of the early Acropolis are contrasted with the later fifth century space. The schema also includes a cross section of these structures indicating temple, orchestra, cavea and Acropolis. Appropriately, in his very brief “Preface to the Revised Edition” Professor Ley thanks his illustrator, Tony Williams, for this new set of drawings (x).

Ley complements his diagrams with seven photographs of 5th century Attic and Sicilian vases. The imagery on these vessels depicts actors in various aspects of their craft—stage combat, choral ensemble, masked cockfights, acrobatics and backstage ritual. The kraters and pelikes are well chosen: their iconography is relevant to a number of discussions in the Ley text, a few of them recreate scenes from Aeschylus and the lost plays of Euripides, and all of them bear witness to the primacy of masks.

Ley’s plates are as good as any prints of classical antiquity can be in a small paperback edition. I would draw specific attention to a plate of an Attic red-figured pelike (Plate 2. “Performers/Actors Dressing”), which shows the liveliness of stage production—lacing of boots, changing costumes on-the-fly, with a mask nestled on the dressing room floor. Ley’s commentaries on the plates are as detailed and organized as they are informative.

The neatness and clarity of this revised package begins with the cover photograph by Vanni/ Art Resource and over-all book design by Alice J. Lee. As in a stage-setting for a Greek drama, an arresting grey-brown cover photograph of an ancient viewing space suggests permanence and grandeur (arguably, a subtraction from the iconographic design of the original version) but an excellent point of embarkation for eager students and their mentors. Also, the enhanced bibliography, filled with notes and collateral reading, is an improvement on the original volume and makes this a very serious companion volume that will serve theater departments and undergrads well.

Finally, Menander. Ley closes his introduction with a defense of his decision to exclude Menander from his study: “One final note: I have not attempted to include Menander, an Athenian comic writer who composed approximately in 320-290 B.C., because of the length of time that separates him from the period embracing the work of the other playwrights and because a study of his theatrical practice for that reason needs to be made independently.” The question for Prof. Ley is where will a study of Menander’s theatrical practice be made if not here? In what introductory volume would Menander appear? Considering the brevity of these essays, I think another few pages would be sufficient. The book is (after all) an introduction to the ancient Greek theater. And the timeline separating Aristophanes and Menander is only about sixty years. So, where is Menander’s place in the classical canon?


1. On his Exeter website, Ley refers to the early Greeks as adapters, and to Hamlet as a remake.