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Theater 30.3 (2000) 131-133

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A Pragmatist's Tour of the Greek Theater

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

Classical Greek Theatre: New Views of an Old Subject . by Clifford Ashby. 1999: University of Iowa Press

IMAGE LINK= This is an enthusiast's book. Clifford Ashby sets out to examine a number of traditional views concerning ancient Greek theater, and, as his subtitle indicates, he also intends in most cases to refute them. He begins with a rapid survey of the literary evidence, emphasizing the well-known fact that we have only a tiny fraction of all the plays that were written and produced during the fifth-century high point of Greek drama. There survive complete tragedies by only three playwrights, and even for these the statistics are sobering. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were remarkably prolific, producing a total of some 273 plays among them, yet they have not been generously served by the contingencies of preservation, which have kept for us only 36. The works of all the dozens of other tragic poets exist only as fragments or as titles. A similar situation obtains with respect to old comedy, of which we have only eleven complete plays, and all by the single playwright Aristophanes. All the other plays by his contemporaries, many of whom he derides by name, are gone.

Ashby is quite correct in asserting that what is lost vastly outweighs in quantity what remains. I think he goes too far, however, in declaring that "these surviving scripts, chosen more for literary than theatrical values, offer a distorted view of typical Athenian dramatic fare." A small sample, when handled with care, is not necessarily deceptive or distorting. More to the point, despite the bluff and reassuringly commonsensical tone of Ashby's claim, his only supporting argument is to insist on the difference between reading and seeing a play; he has coined the term dramateurs to label "individuals who hold in high regard only the literary aspects of the theater" (his emphasis). He numbers among the latter Aristotle and Plato. Few people today would maintain that reading a play and seeing it performed are equivalent experiences, but Ashby does not give any further nuance to his distinction between literary and theatrical values, nor does he explain the implicit assumption that such values must conflict with one another. Finally, there is no reason to assume that typical Athenian dramatic fare was substantially different from what has passed down to us. This little instance is representative of some of the book's less persuasive aspects, as it relies more on nicely phrased assertion than on analysis.

Ashby is on firmer ground (no pun intended) when he considers the physical remains of the ancient theaters. He is interested in some of the realia of production and performance. Subjects include the shape of the orchestra, the location of an altar within the theater, the stage building (or "scene house," as Ashby calls it), stage machinery, the geographic orientation of the theater space, the starting time of ancient performance, and the rule that for ancient tragedy there be only three speaking actors. The book concludes with an account of Ashby's own production of Euripides' Ion. The [End Page 131] illustrations throughout are drawn both from scholarly sources and from the author's own photographs, and his whole presentation is informed by a personal, somewhat antiquarian approach.

The progression of the argument in most of the chapters--indeed, in all the chapters on the physical layout and equipment of the ancient theater--can be summarized as follows:

1. there is some commonly held belief (e.g., that the orchestra was usually round, that an altar stood in its center),

2. but this belief is based on late or insufficient evidence (especially as provided by the Roman architect Vitruvius and the Roman-era lexicographer Pollux),

3. which can be shown to be misleading by a scrutiny of the surviving theaters and by the application of pragmatic or comparative criteria,

4. so that the aforementioned belief must be sharply curtailed or abandoned entirely.

It can certainly be useful to clear away outdated...


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pp. 131-133
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Archived 2005
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