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  • Ruins: Classical Theater and Broken Memory. Theater: Theory/Text/Performance by Odai Johnson
  • Krishni Burns (bio)
Odai Johnson. Ruins: Classical Theater and Broken Memory. Theater: Theory/Text/Performance. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2018. Pp. IX+348. $85.00

Ruins: Classical Theater and Broken Memory offers a comprehensive history of ancient theatre, from its earliest incarnation in fifth-century Athens to its lingering existence in the Christian world of late antiquity. Odai Johnson places ancient theatre within its historical context in order to explore its sociocultural significance. The work paints historical periods in broad strokes, but Johnson manages to touch on all the relevant sociocultural movements while still incorporating engaging anecdotal evidence. For example, Johnson analyzes an apocryphal story about the playwright Eupolis's murder at the hands of Alcibiades (85–87). The story is rarely noted in the study of Athenian comedy, but Johnson gives it full consideration as part of the mythos of Athenian drama.

As well versed as Johnson is in the historical material, he occasionally misses more recent trends in classical scholarship. Much of his discussion on the relationship between theatre and religion is based on scholarship of the 1980s and early 1990s. Johnson situates his discussion of Roman theatre in a problematic model of Romanization, the theory that Rome imposed its culture onto all of its conquered territories and eradicated their former culture. The model is product of nineteenth century colonialists' wishful thinking and has been thoroughly discredited by the archaeological record. Johnson also falls into the common trap of reading his textual sources uncritically. He assumes that Socrates is sincere in Plato's Apology when he cites Aristophanes's Clouds as the true reason that he is on trial for corrupting the youth (77–79) and assumes that a crowd's horrified reaction to a performance of Nero is meant to be a sign of the crowd's lack of sophistication, not the Emperor's bad acting (183). Such readings are possible, certainly, but unlikely to have matched the authors' intent. [End Page 120]

Even so, Johnson's extensive knowledge of the historical context of ancient theatre makes this book an asset to scholars. Scholars of the history of theatre and European literature, particularly English theatre, will find this book especially helpful. Classicists may be disappointed by the lack of textual support and readers interested in performance may find more contextual information than they need. In the right hands, it might make a good textbook for a class on the history of ancient theatre.

The most distinctive thing about Ruins is its pessimistic theoretical frame. Johnson assesses ancient theatre in its many forms by focusing on what has been lost or deliberately excised from the genre. He encourages the reader to look at the surviving remnants of theatre as a kind of ruin of the original genre, a memorial to its own vanished greatness. The approach is occasionally hard to keep in the forefront of the mind, especially when Johnson is discussing periods with a vibrant 2000-year history of artistic and literary significance, such as fifth-century tragedy. It also disregards the significance of performance, treating ancient plays as static historical texts.

Despite its limitations, the approach does offer unique insights, even when it seems least applicable. Johnson points out convincingly that our lauded jewels of classical tragedy were nowhere near as emotionally moving as the historical dramas that were banned early in theatre's history (chapter 2). The argument forces the reader to reassess the importance that we have placed on ancient theatre in a way that is similar to David W. J. Gill and Michael Vickers's revolutionary theory that Greek painted pottery was a cheaper alternative to metalware in Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery. Just because we place a high value on ancient art today does not mean that it had the same significance in the past.

One final observation about the book as a whole: it is extremely well-written and engaging to read. The language is beautiful, evocative, and occasionally shocking. Thanks to the book's chronological structure, its internal narrative is easy to follow. Occasionally, though, Johnson's prose becomes a little...


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pp. 120-123
Launched on MUSE
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