BMCR 2011.04.11

Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater

, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. xiv, 233. ISBN 9781405135368. $119.95.

It might have been expected. Eric Csapo, the most innovative and stimulating iconoclast among historians of classical drama, has produced a book which includes ‘Icons’ in its title. ‘Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater’ is based predominantly on a series of lectures given in Oxford in 2004. It elaborates on previously published, and widely acclaimed, work and adds much that is new. It will delight scholars and students alike.

In the first two chapters Csapo examines the representation of theatre in realistic art in Athens and in the Greek West. ‘Realism’ is usefully defined (page 2) as ’the choice of specific, historic or everyday life scenes that are familiar to the artists and their patrons and treated in such a way as to offer the impression of the familiarity of lived experience’. General conclusions to be drawn from this detailed study are that in Athens depictions of choruses, both tragic and comic, predate depictions of actors, and that the choruses appear on marble reliefs and large expensive sympotic vessels while actors, mostly comic, are found on small inexpensive choes or terracottas and only from the 430s on. In the West it is only around 400 BC that vases with dramatic subjects begin to appear. Surprisingly Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides inspire the vast majority of tragic scenes while the so-called Phlyax vases are rightly seen to represent Attic comedy, a number being identified with known plays by Aristophanes. Despite the need for choruses for these plays there are virtually no images of choruses in Western Greek art, which is almost entirely focussed on the actors. As usual Csapo’s scrupulous attention to the details of the evidence have led to some unfashionable but undoubtedly correct conclusions.

In Chapter 3, an expansion of a previously published article, Csapo convincingly establishes the case for widespread theatrical activity outside of Athens from the mid fifth century onwards. He moves on to examine the epigraphic, literary and archaeological evidence for the development of the acting profession in the fourth century. After considering a number of inscriptions found outside of Athens and usually taken to refer to performances in that city itself, he demonstrates once and for all that these inscriptions refer to performances at celebrations of the Rural Dionysia. They are part of a general spread of drama into rural Attica in the fifth century. A table of known and suspected venues for drama from ca. 440 to ca. 370 BC (p. 102) illustrates developments outside of Attica. He argues that professional actors could earn a profitable living and enjoy great popularity before the end of the fifth century and that in 386 BC we see evidence of a corporate identity developing when ‘tragic actors’ introduced old plays into the festivals. This is a foretaste of the subsequent corporate activity of the associations of Technitai of Dionysus. This is a welcome correction to the commonly held view.

In chapter 4, also previously published, the author argues that Aristotle’s criticism of Kallippides for ‘representing lower class women’, Aristophanes’ contest between Aeschylus and Euripides in the Frogs, representing on the one side conservatism, lofty themes and high-flown language and on the other, modernism, everyday life and everyday speech, and Aristotle’s contrast between Sophocles’ portrayal of individuals ‘as they should be’ and Euripides ‘as they are’ all show a trend to more realism in both acting and production as the fifth century progressed. He cites examples from Old Comedy to prove that vocal mimicry was part of the actor’s art in the late fifth century and became increasingly common down to the fourth century. Conversely the tragic poets’ use of speech to differentiate between Greeks and non-Greeks did not increase over the years as Aeschylus used barbarisms to distinguish the speech of foreigners much more frequently than later tragedians. Yet the speech of foreigners was clearly differentiated from that of Greeks in contemporary Old Comedies. The use of speech to distinguish between social classes again shows that the trend to realism was not consistent. In Aeschylus and to a lesser extent Sophocles colloquial speech is associated with lower class individuals while Euripides uses it for both high and low class characters. Thus his practice was less ‘realistic’ than that of his predecessors. On the other hand while Old Comedy did not normally use speech to distinguish between social classes Menander was particularly adept in doing this, another sign of the trend towards realism in the fourth century, a trend also seen in masks and costumes. Not everyone will be convinced by Csapo’s explanation of the anomalies in the progress towards realism.

The focus of Chapter 5 is on the mosaics showing scenes from Menander and whether or not they reflect performances in the Roman Empire. Csapo argues that they do not. Indeed Green has shown that most performance imagery can be traced to a series of Hellenistic paintings in the early third century BC (cf. n. 41). Csapo surmises that the domestic theatre art of the mosaics merely reflects the owners’ display of their liking for elite culture. Evidence for private performances of drama is found no later than the first half of the second century AD and in any case both the size of the rooms where the mosaics are found and the expense involved rule out performances put on by the owners. Finally the author argues against the claim that changes in costume reflect changes in the performance tradition, pointing out that where known scenes are found on consular diptychs of the sixth century the ‘hats’ worn by the actors do not reflect a change of costume but the artists’ misunderstanding of the traditional tragic onkos. The arguments are very persuasive.

In the final chapter Csapo sets out ‘to sketch a brief history of the privatisation of theatre from Classical times to the Early Roman Empire’. He points out that even public theatre performances were partially financed by private individuals, choregoi, agonothetes, monarchs or aediles; hence the difficulty of labelling performances public or private.

Dinner parties saw the beginnings of private theatre in Greece. In late fifth century Athens songs and speeches from the stage were added to the usual musical entertainment at symposia but the major impetus came from the Macedonian court entertainments of Archelaus, Philip and Alexander. Many of these were designed to mark not religious celebrations but personal achievements, and dramatic competitions celebrated victories, weddings and funerals. The intimacy of the symposium of classical times gave way at the Macedonian court to royal banquets lasting for weeks and involving thousands of guests. Musical entertainment was provided and on occasion this included tragedy and comedy. The example of Philip and Alexander in founding ‘private’ festivals and cultivating theatrical performers was followed by the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and Plutarch claims that even Hyrodes of Parthia put on a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae at a royal betrothal.

The Romans became acquainted with private theatre and Greek festival culture at the victory celebrations put on by the victorious generals of the second century BC. Aspiring Roman politicians also traditionally found it necessary to lavish money on spectacles at both the public ludi and private munera. Public and private banquets were also a means of attracting electoral support although the distinction between them is often blurred. There is no evidence for theatrical entertainments in Rome for the ‘whole people’ until Flavian times. Despite this, in the Greek cities of Priene in the first century BC and Acraiphia a century later public banquets paid for by private individuals could accompany public theatrical entertainment.

In the Latin West private resources played a large role in public performances because the majority of theatrical performers were owned by private individuals, including the Emperors. They performed both at the public festivals and, at least from the end of the second century BC, at private dinner parties. Many of the wealthy erected stages in their houses for this purpose, some even built actual theatres where ‘it is often only the restriction of the audience to invited guests and the provision of a really good meal that allows us to distinguish it (private theatre) from public theatre’ (p. 189). Cicero demonstrates very clearly that the public theatre was a political arena where the actors worked the audience in favour of or against rival politicians. This meant that aspiring politicians needed to cultivate ties with actors who could advance their cause, the ultimate bond being ownership. The emperors, lavish in their entertainment at banquets, even developed a whole administrative department to oversee the scenic shows in which their slaves and freedmen appeared.

Csapo argues that the production of private drama from the third century BC on usually had a political purpose. It coexisted with public theater in the Roman world in a culture of patronage whereby ‘private and public munificence purchased fidelity and service’. In fact private theatre for invited guests, accompanied always by dinner, may well have been more politically effective than public theatre. The reviewer has one lament, that no definition of ‘private theater’ was provided for this discussion comparable to the definition of ‘realism’ in Chapter One.

No scholar of the ancient theater can afford to ignore the arguments put forward in this stimulating and exciting book.