BMCR 2020.08.33

A cultural history of theatre in antiquity

, A cultural history of theatre in antiquity. Cultural history of theatre, volume 1. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. x, 254 p.. ISBN9781472585691 €85,50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The cultural history of theatre in Antiquity (meaning Greek and Roman civilisations) is the first volume of a collection of six books that explores the cultural history of theatre from a chronological (since Antiquity) and thematic point of view (each volume contains the same ten chapter headings). The focus of this work is not on the literary interpretation of the ancient theatrical texts, but the exploration of the networks of production, circulation, and knowledge of Greek and Roman theatres.

In the introduction, Revermann, the editor of the volume, contextualises the book in its field, the cultural study of Graeco-Roman theatre, and highlights what is new in its approach. He states that the primary fresh perspective of this book lies in the analysis of the Greek and Rome theatres in conjunction with one another, avoiding treating them as isolated historical experiences. This approach is not entirely new, however. The companion edited by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton also joined the Greek and Rome theatres together.[1]

In the first chapter, Revermann examines the frameworks that enabled performance in Graeco-Roman theatre. He describes the functioning of festivals, discussing ceremonies that took place before the plays, the jury selection and the voting procedure for the best performance, as well as the size of the audience and the choice of Chorus. He points out features that characterise these frameworks, such as competitiveness between producers of theatre (enablers, actors, dramatists, chorêgoi), privatisation of theatrical frameworks, in which performances occurred outside public festivals, and the non-purely economic character of the ancient theatre. Then follows a very informative outline of the institutional development of theatre in classical Athens and republican Rome. The choice to present this outline in the first chapter proved to be very helpful for the reader because other contributors refer back to this institutional arrangement from time to time.

Sean Gurd’s contribution stands apart from the other books’ chapters. He is the only one who places a question mark right next to the chapter heading, as well as offering a piece that is almost entirely dedicated to classical Greek theatre. Gurd’s main argument is that Greek drama was non-functional because it was separated from its social context. Rather, the imaginary world of tragedy explores tensions between wealthy or powerful individuals and the civic collective. Specific arguments made by Gurd to defend his case, however, are not entirely persuasive. For example, the small number of performers in ancient comedy and tragedy would be an indicator of the non-functionality of drama, as Gurd argues (40-41), only if we assume that the number of performers measures the social relevance of theatre. Nevertheless, I do not see why we should reduce the social functions of drama in such a way. Despite being sceptical about the social functionality of ancient theatre, Gurd ends up asserting that the tragic representation of aristocrats would be “a kind of democratic delegitimation of a real historical class with a tendency to enjoy disproportionate amounts of power and influence” (45). This idea seems quite similar to other scholars who firmly defend the social function of Greek tragedy, such as Richard Seaford. Therefore, the reader finishes this chapter wondering why Gurd insists on the non-functionality of drama. Furthermore, the democratic delegitimation of the aristocrats is difficult to reconcile with Gurd’s previous statement that the institution of democracy did not alter the tragic form (43). Therefore, Gurd’s presentation of the social function of theatre in classical Greece is rather idiosyncratic and overlooks the leading debaters of this issue, such as Jean-Pierre Vernant, Froma Zeitlin, and Richard Seaford. Hanink’s exploration in this volume (190-2), of the contrast between Greek and Roman culture regarding the social function of theatre, seems a better way to structure the analysis of this subject.

Ruffell’s contribution focuses on the role of women in ancient theatre. She notes the absence of women in theatre production, except in mime and pantomime of the Roman period. Concerning the women’s attendance in theatre, she contrasts the more explicit information from Roman sources with ambiguous evidence concerning the women’s role as consumers in Greek theatre. In the central part of her chapter, Ruffell addresses sex and gender in an impressive number of Greek and Roman dramas. There is always a risk of just summarising the plot of plays when one only has a few pages to cover such significant ground. Ruffell avoids this problem and offers insightful remarks on individual plays, such as Euripides’ Hippolytus and Sophocles’ Trachiniae. Certain aspects of Ruffell’s interpretation, however, are debatable, such as her idea that “Dionysus exacts vengeance on Thebes” (59) or that the women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Assemblywomen aim to “replace democracy with a female-run communist utopia” (58). In Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysus exacts vengeance on Pentheus, the impious king of Thebes, and on his ruling household rather than on Thebes. Besides, there is not, in my view, any attempt to replace the male political regime with female communism in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

Wiles, in one of the most innovative chapters in the book, demonstrates that our understanding of ancient theatre is improved when we take into account how the ancient audience conceived the physical environment of their theatres. Taking the ancient theatre of Thorikos as an example, Wiles conjectures that spectators could have connected Antigone’s exit to the cave in Sophocles’ Antigone with the existing chamber in the ground plan of the theatre in Thorikos. This idea is an exercise in imagination, of course, because we do not know if Sophocles’ Antigone was performed in Thorikos. In any case, this line of thought can broaden our interpretation of ancient theatre by incorporating the wider spatial environment which encompasses actors, spectators and the stage.

In the fifth chapter, Hadley approaches ancient theatre as a mobile art-form which circulated in various locations across the Mediterranean. He envisages drama as “the fundamental expression of Greekness in a colonial Mediterranean context” (85). Against the Athenocentric approach to Greek drama, Hadley argues in favour of a remarkable dramatic performance tradition outside Athens. He states that we need to understand the impact on the reception of a work of art caused by a change in medium, which he calls “remediatization”. Despite his methodological concerns, Hadley seems too confident that a ceramic vase can illustrate a specific tragic scene. In doing so, he aligns with Oliver Taplin and other scholars, such as Johanna Hanink, who also has a chapter in this volume under review (see pages 183-4). They approach the relationship between the written text and the visual arts from a rather logocentric perspective. It is tempting, indeed, to deem the ceramics of Magna Graecia an illustration of the presence of Greek tragedies in other parts of the Mediterranean, confirming the circulation of this form of art in the fourth century BC. The price to pay for this, however, is minimising the differences between the semiotic codes of painting vases and tragic plays. Hence, Hadley’s case depends on whether or not we read these vase-paintings as evidence for theatrical circulation outside Attica.

Revermann’s second chapter examines “the process (intellectual, emotional, evaluative) with which ancient audiences, of whatever description, made sense of theatre” (104). He explores the prevalent ranges of responses to the ancient theatre in Antiquity. He discusses the well-known interpretative community of philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, as well as the less discussed Lucian’s treatise On the Dance. He concludes this chapter by addressing how the Christian interpretative community viewed theatre.

Lightfoot’ s contribution investigates theatre as a business. She examines the funding of drama and professionals involved in it. Lightfoot interestingly discusses the evolution of producers’ lifestyle in Antiquity, including the emergence of artists’ guilds in the Hellenistic period and their expansion in Roman times.

Sells’s chapter discusses how theatrical genres of Antiquity used their unique repertoire to turn relevant cultural themes into types of plots. He explores, for instance, the “nostos” (“homecoming”) in Greek tragedy, stating, “the nostos provides an excellent dramaturgical vehicle for highlighting tragedy’s concern with events of the past in the context of present problems” (145). This plot, Sells argues, was also useful for tragic playwrights to examine related topics, such as female transgression or marital unhappiness. He also explores how other forms of theatre represented female and divine agents according to each genre’s characteristics.

Möllendorff’s contribution is dedicated to the technological aspects of ancient theatrical performance. It is well known how difficult it is to grasp the principles of ancient stagecraft due to the lack of explicit stage directions in the surviving plays. As a result, the actual use of machines, scenery, props, and masks has to be evaluated mainly using the theatrical text itself. Möllendorff is especially helpful in contrasting and comparing tragedy and comedy regarding the semiotic significance of the crane and the ekkyklêma, the two most relevant ancient stage technologies (he lists the occurrences of these devices in Greek tragedies and comedies on page 221, n. 35). The use of the crane made it possible for divinities, for instance, to appear on a higher plane than the space of human performance, whereas the ekkyklêma was able to show the audience a previously interior tableau through a rolling platform. Möllendorff interestingly argues that one of the primary functions of the tragic ekkyklêma was to sum up an interior event and display it as a result. Hence this device was used in tragedy to visually concentrate and make present an expansive and evanescent event that issues from the interior of the skene-building. Comedy, by contrast, used these stage technologies, Möllendorff states, as a way to parody tragedy or to invert the tragic conventions related to the use of stage machines. In Aristophanes’ Acharnians, for instance, the use of the ekkyklêma appears as a single scene, in contrast to tragedy where the presence of the ekkyklêma is carefully developed to prepare on-stage characters and spectators for what will come. Although Möllendorff does not mention it, I think it is worthwhile to add that we do not have any certain ancient visual representation of these stage machines. Likewise, we do not have any archaeological remains of these objects. Nevertheless, based on the theatrical texts, we can be sure that they were present on the ancient stage.

Hanink’s chapter aims to “survey how knowledge about the theatre was generated, preserved and transmitted in Graeco-Roman antiquity” (181). She discusses the work of ancient scholars mainly from the late fourth to first century BCE, showing how crucial they were in the transfer of Greek theatrical knowledge to Rome and, consequently, to us. Through this type of “archival” memory, Hanink is also interested in identifying evanescent modes of transmitting cultural memory of theatre in Antiquity. She labels this type of embodied practice as “repertoire”, and she finds evidence of the transmission of theatrical knowledge from person to person and in “informal” reperformances, such as the presentation of Euripides’ Telephus in Aristophanes’ Acharnians. Moreover, Hanink contrasts the more significant interest that the Greeks show in preserving their knowledge of theatre with the Roman context, where the elite had doubts about the social relevance of the theatre and the status of the personnel involved in its performance. In doing so, Hanink demonstrates that the social function of the theatre was deeply connected to these arrangements in which the memory and knowledge of theatre were transmitted.

The five ancient forms of theatre (tragedy, comedy, satyr play, mime, pantomime) are coherently defined in several parts of the book. Certain disagreements between the authors, however, could have been explored further. For example, Gurd holds that the audience did not substantially influence the judges in Greek drama (40), whereas for Revermann the judges did consider the acclamations of the spectators (14). Hadley starts his contribution with the telling sentence, “Drama, a quintessentially Athenian creation” (83), but Revermann localises two starting spots for Greek drama, Athens and Syracuse (7).

To sum up, this book surely makes a significant contribution to the study of the theatrical experience of ancient Greeks and Romans. The chapters are written in a style that makes reading effortless and include copious bibliographic recommendations in the endnotes. Scholars from classics, theatre history, or performance studies can find fresh and compelling interventions in this collection.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Cultural History and the Theatres of Antiquity, Martin Revermann
1. Institutional Frameworks: Enabling the Theatrical Event, Martin Revermann
2. Social functions? Making the Case for a Functionless Theatre, Sean Gurd
3. Sexuality and Gender: Off-Stage and Centre-Stage, Ian Ruffell
4. The Environment of Theatre: Experiencing Place in the Ancient World, David Wiles
5. Circulation: Theatre as Mobile Political, Economic and Cultural Capital, Patrick Hadley
6. Interpretations: the Stage and its Interpretive Communities, Martin Revermann
7. Communities of Production: Pied Pipers and How to Pay Them; or, the Variegated Finance of Ancient Theatre, Jane Lightfoot
8. Genres: Drama and Its Many Unhappy Returns, Donald Sells
9. Technologies of Performance: Machines, Props, Dramaturgy, Peter von Möllendorff
10. Knowledge Transmission: Ancient Archives and Repertoires, Johanna Hanink


[1] M. McDonald; J. Michael Walton, The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, Cambridge 2007.