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  • Performance and Textuality in Aristophanes’ Clouds
  • Ralph M. Rosen

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

—Walter Benjamin1

During the fifth century bce Athenians honored the god Dionysus at two public events with ritual activity, political business, and public spectacle. The smaller of the two, the Lenaean festival, took place in the winter, and the City Dionysia a few months later in the spring.2 These festivals featured a number of musical and poetic events, but they are best known to us as the occasions for the performance of Greek tragedy and comedy.3 All Athenian dramatists composed their plays originally for a single performance at one of these festivals, competing with other poets for the honor of a prize.4 We have some information about the mechanics of these dramatic productions—the selection of poets, for example, or the training of choruses—but despite a relatively rich corpus of testimonia about the classical theater, one of the greatest mysteries remains how exactly we end up with a text of the performances. No author’s “autograph” manuscript, no “first edition” of a fifth-century play, has materially survived from classical Athens, and despite some evidence of an early textual tradition from papyrus scraps, we rely for our modern texts almost entirely on a manuscript tradition that begins only in the Middle Ages.5

The fact that the Athenian playwright was composing for a unique event, the festival competition, and not especially with an audience of readers in mind, has led many to question whether he had any concern at all for the survival of his work as a text. A formal text of the play, after all, need not have been necessary for a successful production. The dramatic poet at this time was in general directly involved himself in the production—distributing parts, attending rehearsals of actors and choruses, sometimes even taking on acting roles. How much actors were coached orally by the poet and how much they practiced from written parts is not well understood,6 but the evidence suggests [End Page 397] that the components of a play (spoken and lyric parts, instrumental accompaniment)7 were not assembled before a production into a textual artifact. What happened to the play when the festival was over? Indeed, what “was” the work at that point? Had it become a text, or was it just a collection of words housed in the memories of the poet and his performers?8

Obviously, if some sort of text of these performances had not circulated soon after their production, and if some form of text had not ended up in the hands of Hellenistic philologists and librarians, we would not have the editions we do today. Yet the crucial moment in which the poet’s words took on some sort of fixity remains a matter of great uncertainty, and even speculating about it inspires yet another set of questions, such as how poets of the period actually conceived of their “work,” how much authority or legitimacy they invested in “textuality” itself, whether they perceived the ontologies of text and performance as parallel or hierarchical, and what sort of relationships the poet had with his work and his audience.

In spite of the dearth of direct evidence bearing on such questions from fifth-century Athens, there is nevertheless at least one tantalizing case, namely Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds, which offers considerable insight into how poets conceived of their texts in this period. This work provides an unusual amount of information (or, perhaps, informative disinformation) about itself and the circumstances of its performance. As it turns out, the text of Clouds we now have was apparently a revision of an earlier version and Aristophanes felt moved to include some background to these revisions within the play itself. Since it seems unlikely that our revised...


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pp. 397-421
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