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Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 563-564 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0030

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Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater is a collection of six essays, four of which began life as the Nellie Wallace lectures delivered by Csapo at Oxford in 2004, and all of which are organized around the theme of the actor’s image in (mostly Greek) classical antiquity. Image here is to be understood broadly, as Csapo’s chapters tour through depictions of actors on Greek vases and in other artistic media, discussions of the ancient actor’s status (his social image), and questions of performance and its “privatization” (the actor’s image as projected to his spectators). This is a marvellous book, and one which, beyond its strong Oxonian connections, is a fine example of the innovative approaches and methodologies that in the last decade or so have come to characterize a kind of Sydney “school” of Greek theater history. Csapo is particularly informed and judicious when it comes to the evidence offered by inscriptions; he is careful to consider the ancient material in its historical and social contexts (and so to avoid broad diachronic generalizations); and his work takes into account far more evidence than is to be found between the pages of dated collections of theatrical testimonia. Beyond all this, the book is an enjoyable read, and though it contains much that will interest veterans of Greek theater studies, the accessible prose and thorough argumentation should appeal to a wide audience.

The first two chapters (a kind of diptych) are devoted to what Csapo calls “theater-realistic art” in Athens and in the Greek West, respectively. These studies mark a departure from other recent work on theatrical iconography in that Csapo is concerned primarily with tracing the evolution of images that depict the actuality of performance (including its preparation and aftermath), rather than with linking tableaux portrayed on vases with particular scenes from particular plays. The many new conclusions that emerge are the result of a meticulous reevaluation—and careful social contextualizing—of the evidence. In the third chapter, Csapo then traces the early Athenian emergence of the actor’s profession. This subject is intimately tied with other important theater-historical problems (such as the chronology of Attic tragedy’s spread through the demes and beyond), and the arguments about actors entail a number of new and important conclusions about the early topography of the Athenian theater. Particularly noteworthy is the attention that Csapo pays to inscriptions related to demes, and the discussions here exemplify the fresh approach which he brings to old evidence, much of which has been “subject to prejudicial miscategorization” by scholars committed to a fantasy that the Great Dionysia had a “virtual monopoly on high-quality dramatic performance” (90).

In chapter 4, Csapo takes up the problem of “realism” in another sense by tracing the degree to which ancient playwrights portrayed their characters realistically, particularly in terms of ethnicity and social status (“performance realism” or “mimetic realism”). He argues that the varying extents to which dramatists (and those who acted their works) committed themselves to realistic representations of different cross sections of the population reflected real changes in Athenian society, as well as real conflicts between “aristocratic-hierarchic” and “democratic-egalitarian” mentalities. In the last two chapters, Rome then enters into the picture: in chapter 5 Csapo doubts that material representations of Menander and Menandrian scenes genuinely reflected performance culture in the middle to late empire; in chapter 6 he then sweepingly traces the development of “private” theater in Greco-Roman antiquity—although he is careful to emphasize that a hard-and-fast distinction between public and privately sponsored performance is elusive, given the amount of private support that went into such early and apparently “public” occasions as the Great Dionysia.

Much of the work in this book has seen light in Csapo’s previous publications; nevertheless, it is extraordinarily useful to have so much of his recent and innovative work presented in one place, where arguments and conclusions made about vastly different bodies of evidence serve to illuminate and reinforce each other. What is more, the abundant fruit of Csapo’s particular methods and approaches should be heartening to other historians of the ancient theater: this book amply demonstrates that, as...


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