BMCR 2008.01.40

The Theatrical Cast of Athens. Interactions between Ancient Greek Drama and Society

, The theatrical cast of Athens : interactions between ancient Greek drama and society. 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 (xi, 481 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780191516436 $115.00.

Table of Contents

The purpose of this book, or better this set of papers (with the exception of ch.2 and 3, the various chapters have been published [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12] or delivered as lectures [4, 11] between 1987 and 2007) is defined by its subtitle ‘Interactions between Ancient Greek Drama and Society’. Through a series of loosely connected and heterogeneous chapters devoted to tragedy ([ch. 3, 4, 10], satyr drama [ch. 5], comedy [ch.6, 8, 11], but also dithyramb [ch.9], legal oratory [ch. 12] and ethnic and national identity [ch.7] in which different theories or methodological approaches have been used eclectically’, as she herself acknowledges (p. 3), E. Hall reacts against any simplistic relationship between the fiction represented on stage and the world inhabited by its spectators’ (p.2) and attempts to illuminate ‘the complicated dialectic between the infrastructure underlying theatrical fictions and the impact they had on society’ (p.3).

In the introduction and the afterword she clearly defines her theoretical background. In the introduction, she acknowledges her debt to performance criticism (Russo and Taplin), but also to theorists and historians of the ancient theatre: Sifakis, Stephanis, Green, Handley, Wiles, Wilson, Csapo and Slater. The afterword also refers to a wide array of theoretical work on ethnicity, reception and gender, which comes as no surprise. In 1989, E. Hall contributed a major work on ethnicity with Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Greek Tragedy and she is still much interested in the topic, as demonstrated not only by chapter 7 (an update of the issues and bibliography of her first monograph), but also by chapters 8 and 9. Hall’s use of reception studies (her expertise in this field has been recently demonstrated by the books she wrote or edited with O. Taplin [ Medea in Performance 1500-2000, Oxford 2000] or F. Macintosh [ Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914, Oxford 2005]) is judicious, as exemplified by her treatment of Aeschylus’ Persians : while acknowledging that contemporary performances ‘have inevitably coloured attitudes to the play’, she concedes that ‘ a clear view of what was going at the time [of the first performance] is not necessarily enhanced by studying subsequent cultural adventures’, before concluding ‘Yet the two perspectives… can be mutually illuminating’ (p. 220). This is, for instance, the case when she uses a university production of the Thesmophoriazusae, in which the Scythian Archer becomes ‘an uneducated black policeman ‘to ‘reveal the full extent of the ancient comedy’s ethnocentrism’ (p. 253). Last but not least, the influence of gender studies is pervasive. It is visible not only in the chapters devoted to ‘Childbearing Women’ (3) or ‘Visible Women’ (4) or aggressively male character such as the satyrs (5) but everywhere. However the unity of the whole remains questionable despite the efforts made in the introduction and even more in the afterword to establish connections between the various chapters. This is the reason why this review will discuss them separately

Chapter 2 ‘The Theatrical Roles of Athens’ illustrates the circulation of roles within the ancient imagination by looking at several different ways in which the concept of enacted roles bridges the real and fictitious world. Artemidorus’ interpretations of dreams of acting, Platonic criticism of the dangers of impersonation in the Republic, anecdotes concerning ancient actors using real experience to perform more convincingly their roles, and the influence of the actors on the fictitious parts written for them are successively used to demonstrate the influence of fiction over reality. This demonstration is complemented by a survey of the impact of role-playing in existing dramas (tragedies as well as comedies) culminating with the Bacchae, where ‘nearly every role entails either disguise, costume adjustment, or delusional misperception of another character’s identity’ (p. 54). A comparison with Aeschylus’s earliest tragedies, which feature no internal acting, suggests that this may well have been an innovative development ‘ (p.54).

Ch.3 ‘Childbearing Women’ starts from the apparent inconsistency between the silence of our sources on pregnancy and birth and their frequent display on stage. It is much indebted to gender studies and psychoanalysis as demonstrated by the conclusion: ‘by theatrically playing the pregnant ‘other’, the fears surrounding birth were processed’ (p. 97). But in order to make her point E. Hall sometimes goes too far. For instance, when she suggests, after N. Loraux, that odunai, which may be used for labour pangs, but is never applied to them in Euripides, always suggest an analogy with them, or when she posits that ‘childbirth was perceived as a familiar—even conventional—plot pivot in both the tragedy and the new comedy of Athens’ (p. 85), given, as she honestly acknowledges, that ‘not a single Greek play staging childbirth survives in its entirety’ (p. 85).

In Ch. 4 ‘Visible women: Painted masks and tragic Aesthetics’, the author indirectly addresses the question of mask (which has been the focus of a colloquium, R. Grisolia and M. Rispoli, eds., Il Personnagio e la Maschera, Napoli 2005, not quoted in the bibliography) by looking at the passages where characters are compared with works of visual arts ‘a topic which ‘has attracted much critical interest since the early 1990s’ (p. 104). She correctly points out that the majority of poetic figures compared to artworks are female, but sometimes draws far fetched conclusions, for instance when she interprets ‘characters who actually voice artwork tropes…as attempting to control their fates’ (p. 136). The illustration by some quotes from Euripides’ Hecuba (p. 138) is clearly marred by a mistake: ll. 192-3 do not belong to the Hecuba, but to the Trojan Women. Ch. 5 ‘Horny Satyrs and Tragic Tetralogies’ is an attempt to define the meaning of the satyr play as closure of the tragic tetralogy. According to E. Hall, ‘Satyr drama offers the insurance of a reaffirmed sense of unindividuated masculinity based in libidinal awareness in order to protect against the painful’ feminine’ emotions which tragedy has unleashed’ (p. 169). Indeed, sexual allusions abound in satyr drama, but I wonder if it is necessary to add to the obvious ones some others which seem to me far fetched. To give but one example, I am not won over by the argument that there is a sexual double entendre in the lines 179-187 of the Cyclops, which portray Helen falling in love with Paris ‘when she glimpsed the man with his embroidered baggy trousers around his two legs and a golden chain around the middle of his neck’ ‘for the neck in Greek suggests an erect penis, and the baggy trousers may therefore imply testicles’ (p. 148). It is also true that women are conspicuous in tragedy, but to talk about ‘the femininity of tragedy’ (p. 159-165) is, perhaps, exaggerated. The demonstration that this femininity of the genre is ‘deeply implicated in its banishment by Socrates’ (p. 163) is not entirely convincing, for Socrates only says that ‘all lamentation by men of note…should be excised’ ( Rep. 397e).

Ch.6 ‘Female Personifications of Poetry in Old Comedy’ is an invitation to ‘take more serious note of feminine literary abstractions, even if Old Comedy, as opposed to early seventeenth-century English court masque, in which actors physically impersonated poetic abstractions, only uses verbal personifications of poetic productions. But the suggestion that ‘there seems to have been an exciting species of Old Comedies…in which female figures representing Poetry or Music…were with some regularity involved as characters ‘ (p. 179) is only supported by an inference drawn from a commentary on a play of Aristophanes which may be the Geryatides‘ (p. 179)

Ch.7 ‘Recasting the Barbarian’ is an update of the issues and the bibliography presented in this monograph. Under the influence of postcolonial studies and books such as H.L. Gates Figures in Black (New York and Oxford 1987), A. Grosrichard Structure du serail (1979 translated into English in 1998 with the title ‘The Sultan’s Court): European Fantasies of the East, London and New York) and E. Saïd ( Orientalism, London 1978), she puts more emphasis on the crucial part played by imperialist ideology in the construct of the barbarian ‘Other’. She also draws attention to recent papers such as I. Moyer (‘Herodotus and the Egyptian Mirage’1) and J. Haubold, (‘Xerxes’ Homer’2), in which barbarians are seen as active agents and participants in the production of Mediterranean and Near Eastern culture’ (p. 194) and points out some topics deserving more consideration, such as the barbarian slaves or ex-slaves who attended the performance of the plays. Last but not least she stresses ‘the role of gendered thinking in the construction of ethnic difference’ (p. 212) and contends that ‘ by drawing a parallel between male and female and the relationship between Greek and barbarian, Greek ascendancy over non-Greek cultures was ‘naturalized’ and thus legitimized’ (p. 214).

Ch. 8 ‘The Scythian Archer in Thesmophoriazusae‘ proposes a interpretation of this character which combines sociology (the play is ‘the most important source for the Athenians’ view of their corps of archers, the Scythian state owned slaves in charge of police in Athens’ p.226) and literary criticism (it is a comic response to … the villainous barbarian monarch in Euripides’ innovative escape plays’ (p. 227) is altogether well argued and convincing. But some parallels are forced, such as ‘the transformation of ‘the ‘other’ female world of the Thesmophoria festival into an analogue of the barbaros ge in which Euripides loved to set his tragedies and ‘an exotic locale’ (p. 242).

Ch.9 ‘Drowning Act: the Greeks, Swimming and Timotheus’ Persians.’. Starting from a demonstration of ‘the ability to swim … as a reason for ethnic pride’ (p. 257) in a wide array of societies (Assyrian sculptures, the Bible, Roman myth and history, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism), E. Hall looks at swimming in ancient Greek authors (pp. 263-70) in order to demonstrate that ‘ The poetic image of a barbarian, forever frozen in his drowning moment in Timotheus’ classic song’ has a direct antitype in the Greek cultural imagination’ (p. 285).

Ch. 10 ‘Singing Roles in Tragedy’. Given that ‘insufficient attention has been paid to the relationship of tragedy’s aural form…to the society which produced it’ (p. 318-9), this chapter explores the politics as well as the aesthetics of tragic solo singing and concludes that it is affected by social status (it is usually reserved to the members [or former members] of the elite ), gender and ethnicity(females and barbarian males are often given song, but adult Athenian males, with the exception of Theseus in Euripides’ Hippolytus, do not sing lyrics). The conclusion stresses the remarkably inclusive character of tragedy, a which assimilated other genres inherited from other parts of the Greek speaking world (a feature already well demonstrated in 1985 by J. Herington’s Sather Lectures Poetry into Drama), and rather daringly interprets it as ‘imperialism expressed on the level of genre’ (p. 319).

Chapter 11 ‘Casting the role of Trygaeus in Aristophanes’ Peace‘. ‘This chapter argues that Trygaeus’ role represents ‘the art of socially useful comedy; as such it includes…a fascinating range not only of theatrical roles…but of poetic genres’ (p. 321). After locating the hero in his sociological and historical surrounding, it proposes an analysis of his name which stresses not only his identity as ‘vine-grower’ (from trugan‘to gather a crop’) but his associations with satyrs, Dionysos and the genre of trugoidia. After N. Slater,3 E. Hall points out the importance of audience participation and the self-reflexivity of a play ’emphatically related to the here and now of the theatre of Dionysos’ (p. 336). She also suggests seeing the play as ‘a fictive compression of the experience of a day at the Dionysia’ (p. 339), beginning with tragedy (the prologue of the play is a parody of Euripides’ Bellerophon) followed by an imitation of satyr-drama (the hauling of Peace is modelled on satyric prototypes). Choral lyric comes also to the fore in the conclusion of the parabasis and Epic is used both by advocates for war and peace when they replicate the Contest of Homer and Hesiod in the second half of the play. Accordingly the conclusion privileges the association of the hero with the art of poetry as a whole.

Chapter 12 ‘Lawcourt Dramas: Acting and Performance in Legal Oratory’. This chapter is chiefly concerned with developing the analogy between actual trial and drama. As opposed to former scholars mostly interested in ‘the influence of legal practices on the drama’ (p. 385), E. Hall aims to demonstrate that, conversely, drama influenced forensic speech. She is not content with showing (pp. 369-74) the importance of delivery for speeches (a topic which recently came to the fore of rhetorical studies as demonstrated by the papers of Sonkowsy, Fortenbaugh [quoted p. 356-7] and Gotteland4[not quoted]). She draws our attention to some ‘dramatic scenes’ staged in the courtrooms (e.g., the wounded Miltiades brought on a stretcher to his trial p. 361 or the story about Phryne modelled on the episode of Helen revealing her breasts to Menelaus in order to save her life p. 362), to the influence of audience reactions on the jurors similar to the noises of theatrical audience (p. 364), a fact to be better explained by the existence of the common model of the ecclesia. But the search for analogies goes sometimes too far. I don’t see any reason to attribute to theatrical masks and costumes the importance given to facial expressions and clothes in oratory. The use of mythical paradeigmata is not necessarily to be interpreted as a consequence of the influence of theatre, and I don’t think that the call to the jurors as avengers in Lysias 13.1 is ‘an attempt to turn the trial into an emotionally satisfying revenge tragedy’ (p. 386).

To conclude, this book which puts together many innovative interpretations and displays an astonishing wealth of readings in every field (demonstrated by the daunting ‘consolidated bibliography’ of more than 50 pages) is indeed suggestive, but the demonstrations it proposes are not always convincing.


1. JHS 122 (2002), 70-90.

2. In Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium eds. E. Bridges, E. Hall and P.J. Rhodes, Oxford 2007: 54-63.

3. Spectator Politics: Metatheater and Performance in Aristophanes, Philadelphia 2002: ch.6.

4. La Sirène et l’Enchanteur: portraits croisés de Démosthène et d’Eschine, REG 119 (2006/2), 588-608.