Theatre and Society
Review by Keith Sidwell
St. Patrick's College
The Roman Theatre and Its Audience by Richard C. Beacham London, Routledge, 1991; paperback edition 1995
Theatre in Ancient Greek Society by J.R. Green, London Routledge, 1994; paperback edition, 1996
These books are not hot off the presses, but have earned their quick reappearance as paperbacks by their favourable reception as hardbacks. Their new form - and more accessible price - brings them before a potentially much wider public. Are they worth the attention of this new audience? My answer in each case is a resounding "Yes!".
Beacham divides his book into six chapters and a "Postlude". In the first he treats the evidence for early Roman theatre. In the second, he discusses Plautus and (via a look at Caecilius) Terence. In the third he deals with the evidence for and reconstruction of early Roman temporary stages and in the fourth he takes us through Plautus' Casina as he produced it himself on a reconstruction of one of these early stages. In chapter five he moves on to tragedy, mime and pantomime and in chapter six takes the story of the stages and performances down to the end of antiquity. The "Postlude" relates the way in which the texts of Plautus and Terence were combined with Vitruvius and archaeology to produce the mistaken interpretation of the ancient stage that created the proscenium-arch theatre. The discussion is well-paced and informative throughout. The highlights, however, are those areas where Beacham himself has done his own fundamental research, namely the chapters on the stage itself and its use as the space in which Plautus was produced and the influence of what were thought to be Roman models on the Renaissance and post-Renaissance stage. Here the use of the visual evidence along with a range of sources including the dramatic texts themselves makes for something closer to a thrilling than a merely informative read. I certainly found the interpretations he offers of wall-painting evidence at Pompeii and elsewhere convincing in respect of the form of the early, temporary stage. Also convincing are his remarks about the siparium ("curtain"), which was let down to reveal architectural and other painted scenes and drawn up to allow them to be changed. His experimental model seemed both to show what can be seen in wall-paintings and actually to work in practice.
Green's work on the visual evidence for ancient theatrical production has for a long time contributed substantially to the discussion (its most recent fruit is the collaboration with Axel Seeberg on the third edition of Webster's Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, BICS Supplements 50 and 51, Institute of Classical Studies, London 1995). So it is particularly good to have his views laid out extensively. He takes the story from the earliest period of Athenian theatre, right through the fifth and fourth centuries and devotes two chapters to theatre in the Hellenistic world. His final chapter looks at the Greek theatre in the Roman world, thus complementing the discussion of Beacham on the specifically Roman theatrical tradition. This is throughout a learned and well-documented discussion. There is, of course, much that is still uncertain, where a book like this simply has to take a position without full argumentation. The most problematic aspect for me is the bald assertion (pp. 29-30 backed up by n. 27) that the Getty calyx-crater showing two birds and a piper represents the Birds of Aristophanes. Green has not adequately explained why the left-hand bird wears a phallus which has the foreskin drawn back (or missing) while the right-hand bird has the glans decently covered by an elongated foreskin. There is nothing in the text of Birds which explains this. Csapo's recent discussion (Phoenix 47 ) makes it far more likely that these are the Arguments of Clouds. I think I would pick out as most striking and important the new evidence discussed in chapter two for the existence in Athens in the last quarter of the fifth century of a comedy of character-types. The terracotta figurines Green speaks about are the earliest visual evidence of a tradition which our literary evidence generally puts much later. We know from Aristotle's Poetics that Krates brought a new form of comedy to Athens from Sicily. Could these figurines be characters from his new import?
Both books are well-illustrated and generally well-presented. I have a few grumbles about typographic errors in Beacham which should have been caught in the earlier edition and on p. 172 his references to Apuleius' Metamorphoses are unfindable (the first is 10.29; the second is in any case mistranslated as though the construction were an ablative absolute and not two future imperatives with accusative objects). Nonetheless, I recommend both volumes to those with an interest in the fabric of the ancient theatre. If you can only buy one, though, get Green's book.