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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 347-348
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Tragedy in Athens:
Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning
Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning.By David Wiles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. x + 230. $22.95.
David Wiles's provocative study of the spatial syntax of Greek tragedy offers a corrective to work that pays minimal attention to the architectural and topographical features of the ancient Greek theatre. According to Wiles, Greek performance space was not neutral or "empty" but resonant with spatial associations that were significant in fifth-century Athenian culture at large, as witnessed in the topography of the city itself. Wiles locates tragic performance in what might be called the panoptic frame of the Athenian audience, one that encompasses the city's built environment, both sacred and secular. He begins with the big picture (the ancient theatre sites), considers the plays' fictional spaces within this picture, and discusses the relationship between these and the "real" spaces of the city.
In arguing for a shift away from a script-based and toward a performance-based approach to Greek tragedy, Wiles begins and ends (chapters one and ten) with a less than generous appraisal of the work of Oliver Taplin, to whom he owes much. Like Taplin, he brings the discourses of archaeology, architecture, and philology into dialogue to get at the meaning of tragedy in all its complexity. The challenges to such a dialogue are numerous and Wiles is sometimes brilliant in tackling them. Given the state of the evidence, arguments about what actually happened in performance in the fifth century must necessarily be speculative. Wiles acknowledges the evidentiary problems but proves that such speculation can be productive even if he implicitly valorizes "authentic" performances; for example, when he discusses how modern directors do or do not recognize the spatial principles that guide his analyses. There is also a predictability in Wiles's structuralist method along with some indecision about the relationship of drama to democracy since ideology is not easily reducible to binary oppositions.
Wiles begins with a survey of the ancient theatre sites (chapter two). It is difficult to judge the archaeological evidence for the development of the fifth-century theatre, but Wiles shows how such evidence is as much a product of dominant assumptions as it is an accumulation of facts. But he sometimes falls prey to the sorts of entrenched assumptions he criticizes. For example, he maintains that "The function of theatre [in the fifth century] was to take citizens away from immediate political issues in order to explore the wider moral and religious context of those issues, and to view the human being outside the context of civilization" (36). But what Wiles's study shows is that theatrical space is uniquely embedded in the social, religious, and political space of the democratic polis, most notably in the relationship of the orchestra to its periphery. In chapter three Wiles says that when an actor stands in the center of the orchestra he assumes the "natural" position of the "democrat rather than the dictator" since it is the democrat's role "not to look but to be looked at" (68-69). This positioning of political subjects greatly enhances the meaning of theatrical space. But in what sense is the center more "natural" for the democrat (orator or ordinary citizen) than for the tyrant? Looking (and listening) are essential to participatory democracy in which citizens are defined by their attendance at speeches, sacrifices, processions, plays, etc. When generals and tyrants stand in the center of the orchestra, as they do in the examples Wiles cites from Plutarch, are they playing the democrat or usurping the role of the collective? Pericles stands on a "high platform" to deliver the famous funeral oration in Thucydides. Does he do so as a "first citizen" or would-be tyrant? In short, Wiles persuasively denies a hierarchical arrangement of theatrical space in which the actors perform on a raised stage above the orchestra, but he [End Page 347] does not clearly show how a focus on the "centre point" of...