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  • Comic Business: Theatricality, DramaticTechnique, and Performance Contexts of Aristophanic Comedy
  • Froma Zeitlin
Martin Revermann . Comic Business: Theatricality, Dramatic Technique, and Performance Contexts of Aristophanic Comedy. Oxford University Press. xii, 396. US $115.00

The brilliance of Aristophanic comedy has never been in dispute. Zany plots, wicked satire, political invective, and shocking obscenity mix with flights of soaring lyric and imaginative schemes that refigure reality and gleefully subvert everyday conventions of decorum in the service of Dionysiac freedom – at least for the brief time of the dramatic festivals in Athens. Revermann's lively and informative study of this greatest of comic poets makes us keenly aware that a script is only the first step in any theatrical production, and nowhere more so than in the case of the competitive environment in this democratic city, where poets are rivals and success depends on the management of every type of theatrical technique: costumes, props, stage machinery, configuration of stage movement, and visual signs (to name only a few). Drawing on the methodologies and conceptualizations of Theatre Studies, as this field has evolved over the last years, Revermann's objective was to 'pin down, analyse, and contextualize the professionality, the rationale, the logic, the manipulative elements behind what, at first sight, seems to be theatre of almost bewildering anarchy and confusing, if tantalising, absurdism.' In the process, he offers an invaluable introduction to this theatrical approach with specific reference to Greek drama (tragedy included). In no way, however, does he neglect the textual and philological aspects of more conventional readings; he confronts head-on such tricky problems as the 'authenticity' of a given theatrical script in the light of re-performance of plays in the late fifth century, and the vexed question of Aristophanes as a typical representative of the comic genre altogether.

After a section in which Revermann applies performance criticism to the examination of such elements as space, proxemics (the study of gesture and physical interaction), the characteristics of comic 'ugliness' in costumes and masks, and the relations between a performance and its audience, he turns to three case studies for closer analysis. Two of these are well known: the Clouds (that lampoons Socrates and his so-called school, the Thinkery), and Lysistrata, the favourite of anti-war movements in staging a women's strike for peace ('make love, not war'). [End Page 212] The third, Wealth (or Ploutos) is a late comedy that turns on the economics of desire and poses a different set of problems to the interpreter regarding its apparent anomalies.

Several appendices on specific issues round out the book. No one could doubt the valuable service that Revermann has rendered to the study of the ancient theatre. Every page shines with some previously unconsidered insights as, for example, variations in the role and significance of the doorkeeper (who controls entrances and exits) or the visual functions of the carriers, who bring on the numerous props on which the comic business often depends. Revermann's painstaking efforts to decipher the stage machinery needed to hoist Socrates in the air or to resolve the question of Lysistrata's possible historical identity are only a few of the issues that meet with judicious examination. At the same time, Revermann refreshingly acknowledges the limitations of his approach, which is to compile 'the set of theatrical codes, conventions, contexts, and practices which can be reconstructed from the textual and archaeological remains of the period.' While the principles are sound, much must remain speculative, he admits, given either the scarcity or ambiguity of the evidence. One could go further: does the application of the technical apparatus of performative criticism add a layer of interpretation to reach results that could be attained by other, more conventional, means? Or more explicitly, do Revermann's readings in his case studies substantially alter our received ideas about these plays? The answer is no, to some degree, but as for a heightened awareness of the numerous details, large and small, that are necessary to make a play into a living event, the answer is a resounding yes. For the value of this study lies not only in learning to recognize the value-laden components of the theatrical...


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