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Inventing the Origins of Theatre History: The Modern Uses of Juba II's theatriké historia
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It is an Oedipal irony of theatre history that over the past half century some of its leading practitioners have begun their undeniably heterogeneous works with ritualistic invocations of the same text. This work is frequently taken to be the oldest in our field: the theatriké historia of Juba II of Mauretania (ca. 48 BC - ca. 23 AD). Composed during or just before the reign of Augustus, and written in Greek, the language of scholarship in the Roman world, Juba's text survives only as isolated quotations in a handful of late classical works. Its composition has been proposed more than once—and in more than one manner—as theatre history's founding moment.

In this essay I look at what we know about a text that despite—more likely, because of—almost total disappearance has been used to construct disciplinary myths of origin. In so doing I want to offer a more deeply excavated historicist reading of this early work of theatre scholarship: not to overturn, but to situate, modern rhetorical readings of it, thereby building up a stronger sense of a disciplinary past that can be put into an always new relation with the present. I argue that the context, composition, and reception history of the theatriké historia prevent us from confidently ascribing any foundational status within theatre history to that text or to its author, despite a continuing desire, at least on the part of some theatre scholars, to do just that. My contention is that in its modern afterlife, Juba's lost work has possessed a value as a placeholder for disciplinary myths of origins that is not historically warranted. Indeed, the more deeply we immerse ourselves in the documentary record the more it hinders the construction of straightforward and empowering narratives of disciplinary identity. This withdrawal from originating claims does not, however, result in the dismantling of our disciplinary identity but rather in the freedom for theatre scholars to see themselves as part of an endeavor that, although it possesses a history, does not need to begin that history at any precise moment or with any single person.


I start with three historians of the stage who, by claiming Juba as their disciplinary forerunner, encode a shifting set of historiographical and disciplinary positions. The first reference appears in the totemic compendium that is Alois Nagler's Sources of Theatrical History (1952). The second comes from R.W. Vince's essay "Theatre History as an Academic Discipline" in Interpreting the Theatrical Past (1989), the influential collection edited by Thomas Postlewait and Bruce McConachie. Lastly is Joseph Roach's introduction to the historiography section of Critical Theory and Performance (1992), a widely read volume edited by Roach and Janelle Reinelt, enlarged and revised in 2007. Though each citation of Juba is anecdotal and speculative, that does not disable the citations but instead gives them symbolic force, in that their purpose is not to document disciplinary practice but to mythologize it.

Here, in chronological order, are the relevant passages and my explication of them, in which I aim to show how each historian (necessarily) created Juba in his own image and, correspondingly, how each historian's approach diverged from that of his predecessors and successors.

The idea of collecting materials for a history of the theater is part of our classical heritage. The earliest attempt dates back to the time of Augustus, when Juba II, King of Mauretania, compiled his seventeen-book theatriké historia. The greatest single blow sustained by our field of learning is the loss of Juba's work.

. . . When King Juba was compiling his theatrical history, he had access to the primary sources of Greek and Roman stage practice. He must have had before him all pertinent source material, the disappearance of which is responsible for our groping in the dark when we try to investigate the theatre of antiquity. Juba must have read Agatharchus' own commentary on the design work he had done for Aeschylus; he must have been familiar with the treatises of Democritus and Anaxagoras on the use of perspective on the Greek stage; he must have abstracted the books on masks which Aristophanes of Byzantium had edited. The wealth of...

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