BMCR 2015.01.04

Athenian Tragedy in Performance: A Guide to Contemporary Studies and Historical Debates. Studies in theatre history and culture

, Athenian Tragedy in Performance: A Guide to Contemporary Studies and Historical Debates. Studies in theatre history and culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. x, 185. ISBN 9781609382315. $45.00 (pb).


During the last decades, specialists of Athenian tragedy have paid increasingly more attention to the performative dimension of classical plays, which are not studied as mere texts anymore, but put back into their context of performance. The scarcity of ancient sources has forced scholars to make up elaborate and sometimes fragile arguments to reinforce their theories of tragic performance. The main aim of Powers’s book is to examine the way in which those interpretative arguments are built by scholars despite the lack of evidence. The title of her book, however, is somewhat misleading, since she does not really provide ‘a guide to contemporary studies and historical debates’ about the performance of Athenian tragedy but instead asks her readers to jump deep into the many cracks that remain in our knowledge of this topic. Looking at a series of unresolved issues that have attracted much debate among specialists, Powers examines the ways in which those scholars tried to ‘go around’ the lack of evidence provided by ancient sources in order to attain a better understanding of ancient tragic performance. In the six chapters of her book, Powers pays special attention to various historiographical and methodological problems she identifies in those theoretical attempts, and provides her own analysis of each particular topic she addresses by taking Euripides’ Bacchae as a case study.

The first chapter deals with theatrical space. After a short introduction, Powers choses to limit her investigation to the question of the playing space. She focuses on both the physical playing space (the shape of the orchestra) and the fictional space (the fictive space in which the play takes place), as well as on the relationship between those two spaces. Her historiographical exploration mainly deals with the works of Wiles ( Tragedy in Athens, 1997) and Ashby ( Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject, 1999). Powers shows how their debate about the shape of the orchestra is influenced by their own experience of theatre practitioners and by their own training and methodologies as historians. While Ashby, who defends the idea of a rectangular orchestra, mainly focuses on archaeological evidence, Wiles also considers cultural, religious, and political elements in order to show that the orchestra must have been of a circular shape. Powers pinpoints problematical elements in their works such as ‘the influence of cultural and individual perspectives on historical assumptions, arguing by analogy, assuming the ideal case, and using theatre practitioners’ instincts to interpret historical performance conditions’ (p. 12). She focuses on a few crucial points of the debate about the shape of the orchestra of ancient theatres and shows that the arguments used by Wiles, Ashby, and other scholars, do not allow to provide a definitive answer, since they always depend on personal assumptions rather than on an objective examination of ancient evidence. After this review, Powers finally comes back to the Bacchae in order to provide her own analysis of this question. But instead of examining the same problem (what was the shape of the orchestra?), she addresses the question of the fictive space. The relation between her review of other scholars’ work and her own analysis is thus not entirely clear: Powers aims here at showing, mainly through an interpretation of the literary text, that one of the exits/entrances of the stage was supposed to lead to places characterized as ‘other’, and that Euripides challenged, in his play, this notion of ‘otherness’ by the way he used the opposition between the two exits.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the question of the audience. As in the previous chapter, Powers limits her investigation to a specific unresolved problem: did women attend dramatic performances? After summarizing and criticizing the positions of Henderson (‘Women and the Athenian Dramatic festivals’, 1991) and Goldhill (‘Representing Democracy: Women at the Great Dionysia’, 1994) she aims at showing how the idea that no women attended the performance of Bacchae limits the interpretations of the play. In her survey of previous scholarship, Powers identifies several methodological difficulties: the fact that scholars tend to use analogy as an argument, the use of arguments e silentio, the treatment of the audience as homogeneous, and the division of history into artificial subsets (centuries) which are treated as coherent entities. Roselli’s point of view (in Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens, 2011) is also examined and Powers shows that his idea of an audience divided into several ‘target groups’ is not detailed enough to allow the understanding of individual responses. In the last part of this chapter, Powers focuses on the ‘dressing-up scene’ in the Bacchae (vv. 912-976). Here again, the link between the question of the presence of women in the audience and her exploration of this particular scene is not immediately clear: she does not come back to the original problem before the last page of the chapter. Powers’s analysis of this scene is mainly based on another critical survey of previous studies, this time by Foley, Seaford, and Ormand. In Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, H. Foley argued that Dionysos and Pentheus wore similar costumes in the ‘dressing-up scene’, so that the audience could perceive a reference to the ritual tradition. Powers explains that this interpretation implies that the audience responded in a uniform way to the performance of a scene. Moreover, she points out that Foley’s reconstruction of this scene, and especially the similarity of the two costumes, is not the only possible one. Seaford in his 1997 edition of the play also explains that the audience would have understood in this scene a reference to Dionysiac ritual, rather than detected comic undertones. Once again, Powers thinks that one has to take into account the diversity of the audience’s responses and some spectators could well have perceived some elements as comic. In ‘Oedipus the Queen’, Ormand had demonstrated that the scene has to be read without the lens of modern ideas about gender identity and sexuality. He argues that the cross-dressing that is staged in the ‘dressing-up scene’ does not relate to notions of sexuality. For the third time, Powers puts into question this interpretation because it does not mention possible alternative perceptions of the scene among the spectators. The crucial point of the author is thus to highlight that all those studies are flawed by the idea that the audience was homogeneous. Powers, however, does not really provide further information: she merely asks questions and imagines that the interpretation of the scene could be enriched by taking into account the (still not proven) presence of women among the spectators.

In the next chapter, Powers deals with choral performances. She emphasizes three main methodological problems in previous studies. She first identifies a tendency to attribute too much credit to ancient sources (both textual and iconographical) and to infer general truths from the few extant examples although we only have access to a limited percentage of the whole production. The second problem lies in the two-dimensional reading of dance: Powers points out that both ancient sources and modern scholarship only depict choruses’s dances as static, frozen-in-time phenomena whereas they were characterized by movements in a multidimensional performative space and time. Powers also highlights the way in which biased sources are used: ancient sources (e.g., on the so-called New Music) are never purely objective description of a historical truth but intellectual constructions informed by contemporary ideological debates. Finally, she examines cases where cause and effect relationships are reconstructed but are no more than a fiction, such as in the case of the relation between the decline of the choruses and the appearance of ‘new music’. While it is possible that those two elements were indeed linked —although other elements might have influenced the decline of the choruses— the idea that there existed a clear cause-effect relationship between them might merely stem from the tendency of historians to reconstruct a narrative chain linking objective facts in order to understand historical processes. Powers then focuses on the debate between Gould and Goldhill on the question of the chorus’s authority. She explains that their disagreement stems from the dual nature of a play (text-performance). Gould focuses on the fictive world while Goldhill emphasizes the historical context during which the performance took place. Each interpretation thus merely depends on the elements taken into account by the respective scholar. Finally, Powers presents her own ideas about the chorus of Bacchae : thanks to an examination of the theme of sophrosune in the play, she argues that the maddened menades contrasted with a peaceful chorus. Her analysis mainly focuses on textual elements, through which she aims at reconstructing the — allegedly calm and controlled— choreography of the chorus of Asian women. However, she acknowledges that her vision is also influenced by her own experience of modern re-performances of the play. In this last section, Powers does not come back to the question of the authority of the chorus (or to any other points she highlighted in the previous pages of the chapter) and her analysis does not allow the reader to reconcile Gould’s and Goldhill’s points of view.

The topic of chapter 4 is performance style. After a short reminder of the scarcity of ancient sources dealing with this subject, Powers choses to built her discussion around two articles: Csapo’s ‘Kallipides on the Floor-Sweepings: The Limits of Realism in Classical Acting and Performance Styles’ (2002) and Green’s ‘Towards a Reconstruction of Performance Style’ (2002). Powers’s aim is, as before, to highlight historiographical issues present in the discussion of ancient performance style: through a rather quick and superficial assessment of the two articles in question, she pays attention to the problematical use of modern terminology to describe ancient style, to the use of dualisms and disclaimers, to the fact that scholars infer general truths instead of specific historical elements, and to the use of comedy in analyses of tragedy. While she vividly criticizes those methodological strategies, she acknowledges on several occasions that there is no better way of doing. She then comes back to the dressing-up scene in order to emphasize how much our ignorance of performance style impedes our knowledge of the possible political message of the play. She concludes that previous interpretations of the play only generate partial truths, which generate new interpretations again, in a seemingly endless process.

In her fifth chapter, Powers focuses on costumes and properties and puts into question the idea that Dionysos’s appearance was effeminate. By surveying the works of several scholars on those topics (Csapo, Milanezi, Wyles, Llewellyn-Jones, Blundell, Ley) she again addresses a set of methodological problems. The first one is the use of iconographical sources without having access to the original vases. The author takes the example of the Pronomos vase. Only few scholars have had access to the original vase and many interpretations are based on mere two-dimensional reproductions of it. Those reproductions necessarily influence the examination of the scene depicted on the vase and lead to misguided interpretations, as had already been highlighted by Lissarague (in Taplin and Wyles (eds.) 2010). According to Powers, a firsthand access to iconographical sources is thus critical. Next comes the tendency to use preconceived ideas in order to describe ancient reality: scholars’s interpretation of costumes depicted on ancient vases are, for example, influenced by what they already know of ancient costumes and by the vocabulary employed in previous descriptions of those costumes. The risks inherent in using comic sources in the study of tragedy are again addressed in this chapter on the basis of a short assessment of the mutually exclusive opinions of Csapo and Milanezi about Euripidean rags: are the reference to these rags in Aristophanes evidence of real ancient costumes or mere literary topos? (Powers does not provide answers to this question.) The anachronistic use of film theory (in, for example, Llewellyn-Jones’s comparison of the artificial idealisation of the female body in modern films and in Athenian art), the use of reductive dualities (genders), and the methodological error of inferring generalities from the small percentage of ancient sources that are still extant are also addressed by the author. The final part of the chapter is devoted to the study of Dionysos’s appearance in the Bacchae. Here, Powers shows how pre- existing interpretation influenced subsequent ones. As several studies depict the character of Dionysos as effeminate, it has become the dominant opinion. Powers shows that it is not necessarily the right one, and that the interpretation of the play could be enriched by staying open to other possibilities.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to gestures and masks. After a very short introduction, Powers choses to build her examination around a limited number of existing studies. Taplin’s The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (1977) allows her to highlight the discrepancy between actors’ gestures and the evidence provided by the texts. Powers also uses Green’s ‘Towards a Reconstruction of Performance Style’ (2002) to address the potential differences between visual and literary sources in the representation of gestures. Problematic cross-cultural analogies are also examined through Llewellyn-Jones’s ‘Body Language and the Female Role-Player’ (2002). To Powers’s eyes, the comparison between Athenian theatrical gestures and Japanese Kabuki proposed by Llewellyn-Jones does not offer a more relevant model through which Greek classical performance could be examined than the modern western paradigm: both are equally flawed. Wiles’s and Meineck’s (2007 and 2011) studies on masks are then assessed by Powers who acknowledges the value of their respective approaches while also emphasizing their shortcomings: according to her, Wiles relies too much on his contemporary experience, and Meineck, who uses new neurosciences theories to assess the effects masks could have on spectators, develops interpretations which are too dependant on modern theories that are evolving with extreme rapidity. The last pages allow Powers to review hypotheses made by other scholars (Wiles, Foley, Seaford, Dodds, Seidensticker) on the comic and ritual components of the dressing-up scene. Here, she pinpoints problems such as circular arguments (gestures explained by rituals, and vice versa) and the risky temptation to reconstruct authorial intentions.

The fact that this book lacks a conclusion is symptomatic. Despite her own disclaimers at the beginning of her study, the reader is left with the feeling that Powers destroyed the tiny bridges patiently built by specialists over the cracks left in our knowledge of the topic, without providing real alternatives to the solutions they had proposed. Often, if not always, her own interpretations suffer from the same flaws as those she just pinpointed in other scholars’ works, and are self-avowedly not more compelling than previous ones. However, Powers’s analyses are often new, original, and thought-provoking. The idea of having a fresh —and somewhat exterior, since the author is not herself a classicist— look at the historiographical and methodological problems that occur in the works of specialists of ancient performance is a good one, and the author must be thanked for drawing the attention of the reader on those points. However, one may wonder who, among the many specialists quoted by Powers, was not already aware of the problems she highlights. As she herself acknowledges, there is often no other choice for scholars but to use inadequate linguistic tools to describe ancient evidence, to look at fifth-century phenomena through modern lenses, and to imagine ways to go around the lack of sources if they want to improve their knowledge of the past.