- Memory on Canvas: Commedia dell’Arte as a Model for Homeric Performance
When Albert Lord began the introduction to the work in which he would synthesize and analyze the material that he and his teacher, Milman Parry, had collected in the South Slavic world, he stated that “what was needed most in Homeric scholarship was a more exact knowledge of the way in which oral epic poets learn and compose their songs” (1960:3). For Parry and Lord, their knowledge came from the performances of the guslari, the traditional singers of heroic material, both Muslim and Christian. In the songs of such guslari as Salih Ugljanin, Sulejman Fortić, and especially Avdo Medjedović, the two saw what they believed to be a convincing parallel with what appeared to be the compositional techniques of Homer—the use of basic building blocks of standardized elements such as “the formula” and “the theme.” These, however, were just that: basic blocks. A poor, inexperienced, or mediocre singer could take a traditional story in skeletal form, and, with the aid of the blocks, flesh it out into at least a modest entertainment of a few hundred lines. A talented singer could go far beyond that, making elaborate songs of several thousand lines or more.1 This was clearly not simply a matter of memorizing and then performing—although a singer in training would indeed tend to learn blocks.2 Instead, it was a matter of combining such blocks with spontaneous creativity at the moment of performance to make something new that was both traditional and improvised simultaneously.
The application of the South Slavic analogue to Homer was the next step (Lord 1960:141–97) and, for many years, the South Slavic poetic arena has supplied scholars with a working model for better understanding the traditional processes at the core of the Iliad and Odyssey. At the same time, although this work has gone a long way toward Lord’s goal of providing “a more exact knowledge of the way in which oral epic poets learn and compose their songs” (1960:3), there is still a great deal to learn about how those who sang these songs actually performed them. What we have of Homer, after all, is something very far from the work of Avdo, coming as it does at the end of an oral tradition that began with the initial creation by aoidoi, passed into the later performances by rhapsodes, and ended in the collecting and reworking of material by later generations of scholars.3 But what would an actual performance have been like if Parry and Lord had been able to record it as they had recorded those songs of the guslari?
The aoidoi who appear in Homer, Phemius and Demodocus, are not much help here. Phemius is first seen in the Odyssey singing an unspecified song for the suitors (Od. 1.155) and then, at a later moment, is reported to have performed something about the homecomings (Od. 1.325–27) before also possibly playing the equivalent of dance music at the evening’s end (Od. 1.421–22). This is useful for understanding repertoire, but not for understanding performance of that repertoire, and the same is true for Demodocus among the Phaeacians (Od. 8.73–82, 492–520).4
One thing that we can learn from the work of these two aoidoi is that—as if already aware of Aristotle’s dictum (Poetics:1456a) about trying to cover too much heroic territory in a tragedy—they focus upon a single topic for their songs. It is not clear which of the many homecomings Phemius chooses, but Demodocus sings about the Trojan Horse in a performance so convincing that Odysseus bursts into tears (Od. 8.492–534).5 This situation accords well with the South Slavic material, which also is a corpus formed primarily of narratively independent songs, though with nothing quite so long and complex as the Iliad or Odyssey.6 We have further hints for such discrete narratives in the surviving book titles of the Iliad:7 both in Plato’s Ion, where Socrates, conversing with Ion the rhapsode, uses episodes from the Odyssey to illustrate a...