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MLN 118.4 (2003) 1098-1101
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Florence Dupont. L'Orateur sans visage: Essai sur l'acteur romain et son masque. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000, 245 pages.
It is not an uncommon belief among scholars of Ancient Rome and of rhetoric that, in Rome, the actor and the orator were comparable figures, who trained together, and at times even taught one another: eloquence and theater are seen as similar activities because they shared techniques to interact with an audience.
In L'Orateur sans visage: Essai sur l'acteur romain et son masque, Florence Dupont reveals the origin of this belief: it is based on brief passages of Macrobius, Plutarch and Valerius Maximus which imply in vague terms that Cicero and Roscius, the great comedian, were friends and collaborators. These authors suggest that Cicero, the younger man of the two, learnt the part of his art that deals with gestures from Roscius and that the two of them competed in the art of improvisation, an essential skill for their respective fields. For example, they would compete in the exercise of elaborating upon maxims. A maxim is a "complete and autonomous assertion which expresses in a striking way a general idea" (24). It is grounded in a common culture. Cicero and Roscius would decide on one and while the former would amplify it with words, the latter would act it out physically. It is thus easy to describe this commonality between the two arts thanks to the rhetorical notion of actio, the delivery of a speech (actio is one of the five activities of rhetoric, the others being invention, disposition, style and memory).
In L'Orateur sans visage, after numerous works on Latin Theater, Florence Dupont grapples with demonstrating how mistaken this notion is: eloquence and acting are culturally "heterogeneous" (48) and cannot be put on the same level. Her project is to understand the specificity of the Roman actor and theater via a detour through rhetoric and the orator. This is an original approach: more often than not, Roman drama is studied as a step in the evolution of drama between the Greek and the French classical theater of the seventeenth century. But this, too, according to the author, is a misconception: Roman theater is not in continuity with Athenian drama, nor does it presage any drama to come. In order to make this point, Florence Dupont depicts the cultural life of Ancient Rome. By the by, she gives us a lesson in reading, patiently reconstructing the wide contexts in which the comparison between Cicero and Roscius appears and showing how misleading these texts can be when read carelessly. Thus she recreates the cultural conditions of the Roman theater and rediscovers an essential fact concerning the status of the actor: he is necessarily a pariah.
In Rome, a story performed on stage was perceived as a "lie" (152) for a simple reason related to the Romans' low opinion of actors. Namely, for a word to be considered true, it must be spoken by someone whose authority guaranties its truth. Now, the actor delivers speeches of which he is not the author and moreover, he lacks the auctoritas which produces fides (trust) [End Page 1098] between a speaker and his audience. So not only are mythological stories performed on stage known to be false, they don't even offer an illusion of truth, since those who tell them, the actors, have no identity. Hence the pleasure derived from the representation was purely esthetic; it did not come from mimesis or the identification of the spectator with the hero, but from wordplay and puns, such as maxims, and sometimes from the music that accompanied them.
To perform, the actor wore a mask that deprived him of his identity and emphasized his voice. The mask indicated the emotion that he was supposed to represent and gestures that went along with it. This motus animi did not burst from his inner being but from the mask that represented it. He was like a super-puppet exploring one emotion and reconstituting...