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  • Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens by David Kawalko Roselli
  • George Kovacs
Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens. By David Kawalko Roselli. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011; pp. 302.

In Theater of the People, David Roselli refines our understanding of the audience and the complex social, cultural, and political dynamics generated through theatrical spectatorship in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries bce. In five chapters, he considers Athenian notions of audience and theatre participation, the evolution of the theatron (seating space), and the social fault-lines that ancient playwrights either exploited or avoided. Roselli reassesses familiar evidence and brings new witnesses to bear, compiling a docket of archival sources that will surely become foundational for future studies of the Athenian civic landscape.

Roselli’s primary agenda is “the restoration of marginal and subordinate members of society to [our understanding of who constituted] the theater audience” of ancient Athens (199). In this, he is largely convincing. Athenian spectators came from a variety of demographic strata, differentiated along lines of financial, civic, and social status. Rich and poor, citizen and metic, male and female: all of these categories produced an audience that could be notionally unified (when it served the dramatist’s purpose), but was just as often factious. These different groups, he maintains, could exert real influence on the performance before them by cheering or booing, leaving or staying.

Roselli divides his study into five chapters, plus an Introduction and an Epilogue. Chapter 1, “The Idea of the Audience and Its Role in the Theater,” considers three vectors of theatrical participation: mutual celebration—the efforts of dramatists to solicit audience favor by linking positive events in and out of the world of the drama; influence—the ways in which audiences could react to and affect productions; and self-definition—how theatre audiences were understood by the Athenians themselves. In chapter 2, “Space and Spectators in the Theater,” Roselli addresses issues of theatre size (following recent trends downsizing previous estimates to about 6,000 individuals) and outlines potential spatial arrangements not only within the formal theatron, but also the unofficial viewing spaces above it. Contentious here will be his claims that, as theatre became more popular in the fourth century, theatra (seating spaces) were physically enlarged to deprive unofficial spectators of viewing space and thereby create a more homogeneous and less democratic viewing audience. Chapter 3, “The Economics of the Theater: Theoric Distributions and Class Divisions,” brings into focus the institution of theorika, a distribution of state funds to facilitate theatrical attendance. Here, Roselli argues that ad hoc theoric distributions in the fifth century, enacted by individual politicians, were replaced by an established Theoric Fund, institutionalized in the state budget in the fourth century. Both forms of distribution could be converted into political capital by enterprising politicians. The Theoric Fund, Roselli argues, existed for a much shorter [End Page 141] time (ca.350–323 bce) than previously supposed and grew in its purview to include more than theatre tickets, becoming an influential dispenser of state monies—hence its cessation in the turbulent years of the late fourth century.

Chapters 4 and 5, “Noncitizens in the Theater” and “Women in the Theater Audience” respectively, approach their declared topics more indirectly. Roselli’s tactic is similar for both: to consider more broadly the activities of noncitizens and women in the Athenian polis, and to extrapolate from their involvement in theatre-related activities his conclusions about the theatre audience. With regard to noncitizens, for example, he traces their increasing involvement in the affairs of the polis and in rituals connected to the theatre, such as the pompê (procession) that opened the annual City Dionysia. Noncitizens also participated in theatrical productions, serving as chorêgoi and musicians, and many poets of the fourth century were non-Athenian. With regard to women, Roselli rightly dispenses of the tired image of the stay-at-home Athenian wife, confined to domestic quarters at all times. Women were involved in all levels of public life, from ranking priestesses to common laborers, and although an ideal of the confined wife may have existed for the aristocratic elite, it was...


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pp. 141-142
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