- Performance and Identity in the Classical World
Who is the real person behind the mask? More disturbingly, is there a real person behind the mask at all? These are some of the antitheatrical anxieties of ancient Greece and Rome that Anne Duncan reveals in Performance and Identity in the Classical World, an exhaustively researched and eminently readable study that takes a roughly chronological tour from Athens at the end of the fifth century bce, through the Roman Republic, and into the early Empire.
Although some scholars have questioned the capacity of the ancients for self-reflection, Duncan finds inspiration in the inscription at the oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself”—which presumes a self to be known and a capacity for inner scrutiny (5). While searching for evidence about the way mimesis shapes the self in dramatic plays and fragments, as well as texts of rhetoric, philosophy, and biography, Duncan found one of the most interesting source materials in the tradition of theatrical anecdotes, which she asserts have been underutilized in performance studies by classicists. She acknowledges the difficulties inherent in using anecdotes (which may well be fictional), but emphasizes that they can illuminate a society’s cultural beliefs because “they offer evidence of what the writer thought his audience would believe to be possible” (18). Duncan aligns herself with those New Historicists who would argue that the anecdote has been ignored “because it disrupts traditional historical narratives,” noting that anecdotes “can allow the voices of those usually silenced to emerge, however briefly” (19). She suggests that such evidence is useful if it is investigated in terms of the author’s agenda and in its discursive context, and she places the anecdotal tradition in the realm of “popular performance theory” (19), presenting an alternative history to texts written by and for the elite.
Duncan begins in late fifth century bce with the playwright Agathon, who became closely identified with his texts and was depicted as a character in other playwrights’ works, positing that he was anxious about the integrity of the self. She convincingly positions his depiction in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai as an exploration of gender essentialism versus constructionism, and analyzes this through the lens of James Davidson’s revision of the Foucauldian model of sexual behavior in classical Athens. This section introduces what will become a compelling, but also sometimes problematic, trope throughout the book: that nonactors in the ancient world can represent attitudes toward acting and mimesis if they display character traits such as inconsistency, mutability, or a tendency toward deception. Duncan suggests that unlike other playwrights, whose depictions were consistent with the plays they wrote, “Agathon is depicted as changeable and indeterminate, rather than having one fixed style. In this way, Agathon represents the emerging figure of the actor, rather than the older figure of the playwright: he seems to have no single self, no coherent identity” (26).
Duncan’s study of the fourth century bce begins with the rivalry between the orators Aeschines and Demosthenes, when the two men utilized popular contemporary stereotypes about actors against each other as oratorical strategies. Particularly interesting is her analysis of the way both men “dwell on perceived gaps between appearance and reality as a sign of deceit, and both try to use the body as the ground of a sincere, consistent self” (59). The author has done an exemplary job of revealing and amending a “blind spot” in some earlier scholarly discourse surrounding the two orators: Aeschines has been labeled “histrionic,” presumably because he was a former actor, while Demosthenes has been labeled trustworthy, honest, and sincere—a reputation he may not have deserved.
Duncan also considers the ways in which stock characters in fourth-century comedy, who share a proclivity for pretending, dissembling, and lying, may have been equated with actors in the Greek and Roman imagination. Her argument that the Greek alazon (“imposter” or “fraud”) and the Roman parasitus, as well as prostitutes such as the Greek hetaira and Roman meretrix, were attitudinal stand-ins for the actor, offers a nuanced reading of...