- The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama
Ever since the heady days of Cambridge Ritualism in the early twentieth century, classical scholars have been drawn to the question of the origins of Greek drama like moths to the proverbial flame. The evidence is absurdly inadequate - scattered, ambiguous, contradictory - yet the subject remains irresistible, doubtless because it confronts some of the most profound and mysterious of human activities. Why do people impersonate other beings to create alternative narratives and realities that we call drama? What relationship do these performances have to apparently cognate practices of religious ritual? Aristotle pondered such questions for Greek drama in the Poetics, but his discussion, [End Page 346] invaluable as it is, was more tantalizing than definitive. As the introduction of Csapo and Miller's excellent and timely volume notes, there has been a striking resurgence of interest in the ritual origins of Greek drama over the past 30 years, but no comprehensive, synthesizing study since the days of Pickard-Cambridge and Else.
Part of the problem has been that the discussion has broadened considerably over the past century to include more subdisciplines and methodologies than a single scholar could be expected to control. The most obvious merit of this volume, therefore, is that it draws together scholars with expertise in philology, archaeology, iconography, and the social sciences, but its more striking achievement is the way in which the editors bring these scholars into productive dialogue with each other. Csapo and Miller have taken scrupulous care to signpost how all the parts of the volume interact with one another: their lucid, comprehensive introduction offers a succinct précis of what lies in store, and Richard Seaford's contribution, placed last in the volume, successfully synthesizes the earlier chapters, while offering his own theories of how the developing money economy in sixth-century BCE Greece encouraged the secularization and 'formalization' of ritual that eventually led to tragedy.
The book is divided into three main sections, the first two of which concern the Greek iconographical and textual evidence; the third contains three comparative essays (on ritual drama in ancient Egypt, ancient Japan, and medieval Europe) that are fascinating in themselves, though necessarily somewhat less continuous with the chapters on specifically Greek topics. The contours of the debate about the ritual origins of Greek drama have not changed radically over the years, and the evidence has become no less intractable, so the topics addressed by the individual chapters are familiar and perennially contentious. Part 1 is concerned primarily with the iconographical evidence of Greek 'komasts' - figures of dancing men, usually padded to make them look fat and grotesque - found especially on Corinthian and Athenian vases of the sixth to fifth centuries BCE. The associations these figures seem to have with Dionysus and Dionysian ritual are legion: we find phalloi, wine, processions, and possible connections with dithyramb and Dionysus himself. Fine essays in this section take us through this thicket of evidence, and, despite the fact that certainty on most points continues to elude us, the detail and scholarly rigour with which the material is presented, not to mention the high-quality illustrations, will be well appreciated.
The second section is also heavily iconographical in orientation and confronts more directly the most complex question of how ritual might have become secularized, mimetic narrative. Here we find uniformly excellent essays, among them chapter 8 on Aristotle's testimony in the Poetics [End Page 347] (D. Depew, who argues from Aristotle for an evolution of tragedy out of hymn), chapter 9 on Attic vases with dancing satyrs and their possible connection to early dithyramb (G. Hedreen), and chapter 10 on Corinthian komasts as possible precursors to Greek dramatic genres (M. Steinhardt).
The intriguing foray into dramatic practices of other ancient cultures in section 3 does not really help wring more from the Greek evidence presented in the earlier chapters, but it does help clarify the broader terms and categories at stake and...