Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bryn Mawr Classical Review :: Theater of the People

Theater of the People
By David Kawalko Roselli
Buy It Now
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.19
David Kawalko Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 288. ISBN 9780292723948. $55.00.

Reviewed by Marcel Lysgaard Lech, University of Copenhagen (

In this study, Roselli analyses the theatrical audiences from the fifth century to the early Hellenistic era. His “provincializing”(p.12, see my note 1) approach is interdisciplinary and takes its methods from Theatre Semiotics, Social History (topics such as gender, ethnicity and social status), Performance Studies and Reception Studies, all framed by an slight Marxist colouring (class, working-class are recurrent words).1 Roselli argues against the “Athenocentric” readings of the dramatic texts which focus on drama as an ideological (viz. democratic) tool “validating Athenian civic society (p. 7),” and against a “Hellenocentric” view that while seeing drama within a wider cultural frame as the Attic drama was disseminated throughout the Mediterranean world, nonetheless ignores the non-Greek spectator.

This book is of great value to the study of classical theatre, but I have certain reservations regarding some of the methods and conclusions of the book. Some are matters of simple disagreement, but on others matters, it seems to me that as consequence of his interdisciplinary approach, Roselli becomes too superficial. This results in expressions like “doubtless” where doubt ought to be present, e.g. by which eisodos a dramatic chorus would exit.2 Here he follows Revermann’s hypothesis,3 which belittles the fiction of the play in comparison with the metatheatrical effect (the final exit in Plutus seems to counter that thought). At p. 54 he claims that “comedy did embody the values of the urban poor,” which is an unnecessary simplification of the comic worlds; Dicaeopolis is not urban (his household must be extra mural in order to celebrate the Rural Dionysia there) and is nowhere depicted as outright poor. Roselli simplifies not only the many voices in the comedies, but also the social hierarchies of fifth- century Athens. If the ideologies and values are so clear cut as Roselli claims, why would Critobulus, an elite youngster, love comedies so much?4 Nonetheless, I welcome his attempt to get rid of the dogma of the civic body.

Roselli analyses the admittedly sparse evidence available to us and argues for a better use of the anecdotal evidence, since “the merits of individual testimony, no matter how late, have to be weighed against the broader set of evidence on a case by case basis.” (6) This approach, in my view, is jeopardised by the fact that, as Roselli himself shows, a certain part of the evidence concerning the ancient theatre is basically “anti-theatre.” Nothing suggests that the Athenians as a collective ever thought likewise. Of course, some did not care about theatre, while others such as Plato came to disdain theatre for philosophical reasons.

The book consists of five chapters. In the first chapter, Roselli establishes the theatrical dialogue between audience and performers. There are some good comments on the judges and their relationship with the spectators, but I find it hard to see how Roselli has countered any of the approaches, which he criticises, when he claims that “the exercising of the audience’s role as arbiters in political gatherings and more informal social contexts was closely related to the role it played in the theater.” This seems to me to echo the famous Nothing to Do with Dionysus publication’s view on the “civic body,” and I find it difficult to believe that the spectators could not differentiate between the different social events. Furthermore, if the audience was as heterogeneous as Roselli argues (e.g. p. 81), his politicising of the theatrical event and the audience’s authority seems unwarranted.5 Since Roselli argues that a satyric chorus somehow reflects the audience, which is drinking at the festivals, it is odd that he does not discuss Philochorus’ testimony on drunken audiences (FGrHist 328 F171= Athen. 11. 464F).6 This evidence, together with the apolitical fact that the audience pays for admission (p. 101), speaks against this notion of a “heavily politicized” (p.192) audience.

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