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  • Ancient Greek and Contemporary Performance: Collected Essays by Graham Ley
  • Lauren Friesen
Ancient Greek and Contemporary Performance: Collected Essays. By Graham Ley. U of Exeter P, 2014. Cloth $109.00. 284 pages.

The collected essays by Graham Ley cover a wide selection of topics, although each one is focused on the challenges of staging Greek drama for contemporary audiences. The essays were initially published in a variety of journals from 1983 to 2011 and their content reflects his dedication to investigate this vital subject. The book differs from many others on Greek drama that focus on classical staging conventions (Peter Arnott, Greek Scenic Conventions, 1962) or thematic elements (Edith Hall, Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun, 2011). Peter Arnott's Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre (1989) is a helpful companion piece to Ley's studies. But in contrast with Arnott's analysis of the audience response, Ley focuses on performance conventions in both the ancient contexts and contemporary adaptations.

Graham Ley is Professor Emeritus of Drama and Theory at the University of Exeter. He is also a director and served as the dramaturg for the landmark, nine-hour production of John Barton's Tantalus. I mention this because Ley is deft [End Page 132] at working in both artistic arenas: writing dramatic criticism and staging highly regarded dramatic productions.

Ley's investigations result in new approaches to previously held perspectives. In chapter 1, he begins with a complex analysis of the Greek term for actor hypokrites and locates its meaning as the performer who is engaging the chorus. He challenges the meaning that many have assumed, that the term meant "answerer" as the character who reacted to the Chorus. Instead, Ley posits that the performer who plays a character initiates the action and the chorus responds to that initiative. This shift intensifies the language of the character and creates a new and heightened level of tension between performer and chorus. This tension, for Ley, is the linchpin for how the plays were performed and their potential for contemporary staging. He places the actor in the middle of the orchestra, contesting the commonly held assumption that the character acting areas were limited to the skene or adjacent to it. A diagram illustrates Ley's understanding of this staging principle (73). Chapter 1 prepares the reader for three others that examine the role of the chorus and the relationship between characters and chorus.

The subsequent chapters also delve into problems of interpretation and staging. Ley provides a well-reasoned approach to Aristotle's Poetics and suggests that while he was indebted to Plato for his main concepts, Aristotle differed greatly in how he understood the evocative value of performance. Aristotle differed from Plato by emphasizing catharsis as the primary effect of a production: the purging of evil. Ley advances Aristotle's assumption that drama has to do with cognition, ethics, and psychology, and therefore is not, as Plato emphasized, merely a pseudo imitation of an imitation. In contrast to Plato, Ley emphasizes that, "Drama is something to be known, not merely practiced, and to be knowable it needs to be identified or fixed in best practice" (139). Here Ley relies heavily on J. L. Austin's theory of speech-acts, which augment his view that performances rely on the tension in the script and not merely in physical action. As with Aristotle, Ley emphasizes that drama is only known when it is experienced in production. The strength of this work is that Ley provides evidence that the meaning and value of productions vary according to contexts. This is an effective argument against staging productions in order to remount the original and, instead, Ley challenges production companies to connect each work to their own context. Thus, according to Ley, theatre is a bridge between the contemporary production and its historical antecedents.

Chapters 8 to 14 analyze Greek theatre in contemporary global contexts, although his attention is primarily on productions in western cultures. His analysis includes Heiner Müller's experiments in Berlin, Peter Brook's empty spaces, Richard Schechner's use of ritual, and Asian (Bharatamuni and Zeami Motokiyo) rhetorical approaches to performance. Ley, as an advocate, examines how Greek theatre...


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