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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.18 Jennifer Wise, Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Pp. 280. IS ! 0801"#"$99. %#9.9$.

&evie'e( )y &o*er +ravis, University of Connectic,t -travis.,connv/.,conn.e(,0


Word count: 2527 words

The haphazard treatment given to the operation in and effect on Athenian drama of the 'literate revolution' ( ric !aveloc"'s term# in Archaic and $lassical %reece springs& ' thin"& from two separate an(ieties a)out drama itself* +n the one hand& the eternall, self-renewing de)ate a)out drama's origin and what& if an,& effect that origin should have on our understanding of the genre urges caution in ma"ing an, assertion that could actuall, )e disproven ), new evidence (as opposed to those m,riad assertions that cannot )e falsified#. on the other hand& the performative nature of theatrical representation and the significance of the irretrieva)l, lost original modes of performance urge caution in constructing an, argument a)out such seemingl, evanescent phenomena* /ennifer Wise's Dionysus Writes is to her (and m,# "nowledge the first e(tended treatment of oralit,0literac, issues in what she& a theatre historian& )roadl, terms 1%ree" drama*1 Dionysus Writes should )e welcomed as a )oo" that fills a gap on the shelf )oth of ever,one who studies the Athenian theatre as dramatic and literar, performance and of ever,one who studies oralit, and literac, in Ancient %reece* As with man, such gap-fillers& there are several draw)ac"s to the )oo"& which result mostl, from its more or less pioneering status. and li"e man, pioneers Wise is at times ill-e2uipped to meet the wide range of challenges she faces* The ground of %ree" literature in general and Athenian drama in particular seems new to her& and for this reason the )oo" can occasionall, )e downright irritating for the $lassicist reader* The author's "nowledge of %ree" is cursor,& and at times the use of evidence indeed seems dangerous& to the point that there are certain sections ' would advise students and non-$lassicist scholars (the greater part& it would seem& of the intended audience# not to read without first ingesting& as antito(in& more )alanced treatments of& for e(ample& ritual in traged, or Aspasia as logographer or the state of our evidence a)out the anakrisis. 3evertheless& and at times despite undenia)le clumsiness in her use )oth of $lassical sources and of $lassical scholarship& Wise ma"es her more or less revolutionar, point a)undantl, clear& that Athenian drama is fundamentall, conditioned ), the development of writing in Archaic and $lassical %reece* The a)ove formulation represents what ' will call the 'wea"' form of her argument* 4,

2 main 2uarrel with the )oo"& )e,ond m, irritation with the author's failure to )e a $lassicist& a condition that ' am sure would have prevented her from writing the )oo" at all and thus left our gap unfilled& is that ver, often that wea" and cogentl, argued form gives wa, to an unnecessaril, polemical 'strong' form: that 1Theatre *** owes its existence to the alpha)et1 (5. emphasis in original# -- that writing and writing alone (as opposed especiall, to ritual# can e(plain the e(istence of drama at all& period: the sort of argument students of Athenian drama "now ver, well& the unified field theor, of the theatrical genre* This strong argument produces the )oo"'s most choler-inspiring moments& as when Wise dismisses the entiret, of 5eaford's Reciprocity and Ritual in a single footnote (221n11#& sa,ing that his reliance on Bacchae demonstrates the untena)ilit, of his position* Those who propose %rand Theories should have more respect for their %rand Theorist comrades& and although 5eaford does ma"e much of Bacchae& to sa, that his entire ma6estic edifice rests upon it is a gross misrepresentation* Wise's rough treatment of the 1ritual h,pothesis1 in her introduction and conclusion is )oth understanda)le and unfortunate: understanda)le )ecause theatre historians have made so much of the $am)ridge ritualists that the ground needs to )e cleared in Theatre !istor, for a stud, li"e Wise's. unfortunate )ecause& 2uite apart from the short shrift she gives more recent& much more sensitive $lassicist treatments of ritual and traged, li"e those of %oldhill and 5eaford& ), dismissing the role of ritual in drama so firml, (1Th7e8 comple( relationship )etween m,th and ritual was not grasped ), the advocates of the ritual origins of theatre& and as a conse2uence the, were una)le to see theatre in its earliest da,s for what it was: a species of stor,-telling whose ritual associations were onl, circumstantial1 (229##& Wise unnecessaril, creates a flaw in her argument: she is forced ), her complete re6ection of ritual origin to ignore completel, the religious significance of Athenian drama which& treated more sensitivel,& would perhaps provide an important corollar, to her argument* :etween introduction and conclusion come four chapters& one each on ($h* 1# the relation of literate drama to the alpha)et itself (1The A:$s of Acting1#& ($h* 2# Athenian literate education (1The 5tudent :od,1#& ($h* 9# the literate Athenian lawcourts (1$ourtroom ;ramas1#& and ($h* <# %ree" writing practices (1 conomies of 'nscription1#* ach chapter is preceded ), one or two m,sterious epigraphs from figures as diverse as 5tanislavs"i and =lato and ), (even more m,sterious# an illustration ), the author& seemingl, in the st,le of Attic >ed- (or& in one case& :lac"-#?igure vase-painting& depicting an imaginar, scene that& if authentic& would illustrate the importance of writing to %ree" culture* ('ndeed it re2uired some wor" to determine the identit, of the artist* Wise is credited on the dust-6ac"et with the cover illustration& of ;ion,sus reclining in a )oat 7with vine as in the !omeric !,mn8& reading 7presuma)l, uripides as in Frogs8& which also appears as the illustration preceding the )oo"'s $onclusion& )ut ' could find no attri)ution for an, of the other pseudo-vase-paintings*# $hapter 1 presents the evidence for drama's dependence on alpha)etic literac,& )eginning from @allias' Grammtik Theria and the a)undance of references to writing and reading in Athenian drama* =age 17& note A ma, prove the most useful

9 item in the )oo" for the $lassicist: there Wise enumerates the B1 allusions to writing she uncovered )oth in e(tant dramas and in the dramatic fragments* ?rom drama's o)session with writing Wise moves to a historical surve, of what she sees as a transition on the one hand from oral to written and on the other from epic to drama* !er notion of a shift from epic to drama& which she seems to derive from (what seems to me# a misreading of !erington& informs the entire in2uir, and represents one of the dangers ' alluded to a)ove* The idea she adopts as an a(iom& that drama too" the place of epic in the cultural life of %reece& leads to man, of the more strident formulations of the )oo"& which paint drama as a sort of evolution from epic that ), means of the technolog, of literac, creates a new& more e(citing genre* ?or e(ample& we find Wise placing much weight on her argument that& 1?rom a strictl, chronological perspective *** it is )e,ond dispute that the emergence and swift poetic hegemon, of drama coincided with the advance of the alpha)et in %reece1 (2<#* The wea" form of her argument as it comes through in this first chapter is nevertheless convincing to the e(tent that the reader can su)stitute a notion of 1poetic difference1 for the author's idea of 1poetic hegemon,*1 Wise argues cogentl, that whatever view we ta"e of the genesis of the te(t of !omer& the demonstra)le growth of literar, protocriticism in& e*g*& =herec,des and Cenophanes indicates that a fundamental shift has ta"en place in the culture's attitude toward the traditional orall,-transmitted m,thic material* And although Wise seems to )e unaware of the difficult, of assimilating the mass of 1heroic stories1 with the te(tualization of !omer (not least )ecause the tragedians so scrupulousl, avoided the !omeric stories as we "now them#& she ma"es the ver, telling point that drama relies for its effect on a revisionism of m,th that can arise onl, from a te(t* To round out this argument& Wise ma"es another important point& that epic recitation& whether ), )ard or rhapsode& is highl, professionalized where dramatic performance is ), (more or less# amateur performers who can memorize their parts from a te(t* !ere ' felt the insufficienc, of reference to the chorus& with which Wise seems uncomforta)le& )ut the drawing of the chorus from the population of the demes onl, strengthens this argument a)out amateurism* $hapter 2 is an e(tended comparison of Athenian sophistic education and Athenian drama to the end of esta)lishing drama as a sort of 1em)odied1 school& )ridging speech and writing& which is resistant to the sophists' new ideal of the written* As the previous sentence indicates& there is too much going on in this chapter& which vacillates )etween the theatre and =lato& )eginning from an uncritical reading of ;iogenes Daertius' anecdote a)out =lato's recusal from traged,* Wise's central point& that philosoph,'s grappling with the mind-)od, dialectic in terms of te(t and speech& "nown to us especiall, from the haedrus& has an important and pro)lematizing corollar, in the same pro)lem in literate drama& is ver, well ta"en and worth, of much further wor"& )ut that point is to m, mind somewhat o)scured ), the unnuanced discussion of what Wise calls literate education& for e(ample when in a sort of thought e(periment she encourages the reader to imagine Aesch,lus reciting 5appho for his teacher (7B#* There is also a great deal of comparative and theoretical material (especiall, concerning :a"htin's heteroglossia# that seems to ta"e more awa, from the argument than it gives*

< $hapter 9 adds an important element to the ongoing discussion of the similarities )etween the theatre and the di"asterion: the parallel importance to each of& respectivel,& written m,th and written law* Again& Wise seems right in her central argument here& that the agonistic nature of )oth t,pes of performance gives rise to a 1pragmatics of performance1 that not onl, must have determined the meaning of drama to its audience& )ut which we can see reflected in individual dramas& most nota)l, !umenides& a )rief reading of whose voting scene )rings the chapter to its clima(* A )etter understanding of Athenian law and procedure might have helped greatl,. Todd's and $ohen's wor" (with none of which& it seems& Wise is familiar# on the nature of su)stantive law and of elite legal performance o)viates a large chun" of this chapter& or at least complicates it greatl, -- Wise's point& which at first seems fairl, compelling& that ), the offices of written m,th drama is a)le to put its characters on trial in the same wa, a citizen )rings a graphe& needs to )e much more carefull, argued now that we have a firm grasp of the private nature even of pu)lic prosecution and the lac" of real codification until a later period than the wor"s Wise is primaril, engaged in discussing* Di"ewise& to use Aspasia logographos as proof that the di"asteria admitted a pluralit, of voices 6ust as the theatre did is& ' thin"& to ta"e the wrong end of the stic" -- the argument would )e a ver, useful one made the other wa, round& that women's voices were ventrilo2uized in )oth performance-spaces& )ut would not fit with Wise's larger point& that isegoria is a literate phenomenon that enfranchises ever, literate person* The ill-named $hapter < (1 conomies of 'nscription1# seems at first to )e a)out monetar, economies& )ut shifts its focus almost impercepti)l, to the literate structures created ), literal writing& which Wise calls 1the %ree" information econom,1 (1B2#* The lac" of section headings throughout the )oo" is frustrating& )ut in this chapter it )ecomes nearl, un)eara)le& as the reader struggles to follow the shifting argument* Wise's argument here is that the structure and su)stance of Athenian drama echo not onl, the theatre's various monetar, conte(ts -- most nota)l, the pa,ment of tri)ute on the first da, of the ;ion,sia and the theoric fund -- )ut also the conte(ts of writing elsewhere in %ree" culture -- most nota)l, 1spea"ing o)6ects1 (dedications and funeral stelai# and ostra"a* This is another important point& which is again o)scured ), Wise's su)stituting theoretical and comparative material for nuanced discussion of the evidence for these cultural practices. her overinterpretation of the evidence for the theoric fund is the most stri"ing e(ample (17E-BF#* :ut& as the $onclusion demonstrates& the classicist reader is to a large e(tent an uninvited guest at a Theatre !istor, part,& desperatel, tr,ing to hide his hands )ehind his )ac" so that no one sees his involuntaril, wagging finger* 'f the une(plained reference to the "uem #uaeritis trope in the previous chapter (luc", for me ''m a medieval liturg, )uff# did not serve to indicate that& the sweeping theatrical conclusions Wise draws certainl, do* Athenian drama& Wise thin"s& when properl, understood& tells us two ver, important& universal things a)out drama and theatre: 1that from their inception& theatre and drama were structured according to the same set of social and poetic principles and therefore cannot )e descri)ed as two separate art forms. and that we can no longer accept those theories which portra, literac, and literac, practices as peripheral to& let alone destructive of& the art of the stage1 (219#* 't is at least ver, heartening for a student of Athenian drama to see that a real theatre

5 historian sees such continuit, )etween the various discrete moments of the Western dramatic tradition& not to mention& ), the implication of her li)eral use of non-Western comparative evidence& the even more discrete moments of the world dramatic tradition& and that Athenian drama still holds such pride of place* :ut the wholl, theoretical nature of the chapter ma"es the student of Athenian drama uneas,& too& since Wise's argument that drama deconstructs the written0oral& te(t0performance& high0low& literar,0non-literar, dichotomies is& on the one hand in its sustaina)le& wea" form& self-evident -- that's what drama and theatre do& after all -- and on the other& in its strong form& )ased largel, on the most pro)lematic& least 6udicious& worstsupported s"ein of her argument in the )oo"& that the importance of literac, to Athenian drama entirel, o)viates the influence of ritual* Wise writes ver, well and e(plains difficult theoretical concepts 2uite clearl,& in general without oversimplif,ing* Although her incessant use of 1for1 to introduce sentences and an occasional )it of unearned evangelism are less attractive conse2uences of her passion for the su)6ect matter& that passion elsewhere produces reall, memora)le formulations li"e& 17:8ecause it is not 6ust actors )ut all literates who are afflicted& and )lessed& with th7e8 te(t-)od, dialectic& it would seem that drama's a)ilit,& rare among the arts& to stage and interrogate this dialectic should )e one in which all mem)ers of a literate culture retain a significant intellectual and ph,sical investment1 (215. emphasis in original#* Gnfortunatel,& though& the )oo" is full of t,pographical errors& including one which has $reon )ringing the citizens 1under the ,ol"1 (<B#. there are also man, small errors in the footnotes* To reiterate& the )oo" is not intended primaril, for $lassicists& as is perhaps most tellingl, evidenced ), Wise's fre2uent 'us vs* them' references to 1scholars1 (e*g* 1Damenta)l,& scholars have ,et to reach an,thing approaching a consensus a)out when !omer was 'alpha)etized'1 (91##* This orientation to the theatre historian produces an unfortunate iron,: those who have the )ac"ground to use the )oo" safel, are those for whom its usefulness is most constrained* :ut unless and until a $lassicist decides to cover this same ground& Dionysus Writes will )e a welcome& if flawed& s,nthesis of important material* >ead Datest 'nde( for 1EEE $hange %ree" ;ispla, :oo"s Availa)le for >eview :4$> !ome

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