Making a song and dance of Athens

Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy

June 9, 2000

What a performance... as we say, meaning either "wow!" or "didn't they make a mountain out of a molehill?" Happily, our reaction to the collective performance under review must surely be of the "wow!" variety of performative utterance. The editorial team that brought us Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (1994) has repeated its success.

In July 1996, 30 scholars gathered by invitation in Cambridge to discuss and debate "Performance Culture and Democracy: The Case of Athens". Fourteen of them have survived the cut to grace this publication. The essays are grouped in four sections. "Performance" features in the title of each. The other significant performative terms are: drama, rhetoric, visuality and, inescapably, ritual. State (in the political sense) and citizenship complete the septet of main signifiers.

The boom in performance studies of ancient Greece has two obvious sources.The first is an endogenous development within classical studies stimulated largely by the work of Eric Havelock in Toronto, itself influenced by Marshall "the medium is the message" McLuhan. The other is a combination of exogenous intellectual developments - J. L. Austin's showing "how to do things with words", Judith Butler's gendered performativity, the influence of Erving Goffman, Victor Turner and Mikhail Bakhtin within contemporary cultural studies - somewhat haphazardly and fortuitously entering the theoretically receptive mainstream of classics. Simon Goldhill's programmatic as well as prefatory "Programme notes" ably address the relevant theoretical issues in a lively and accessible way. The contributors, intentionally, do not always sing from quite the same hymn sheet.

Oliver Taplin's opening essay questions whether Athens was "so exceptionally a performance culture" as Goldhill, for example, has maintained. Though accepting as a given the importance to both ancient participants and modern students of the time-bound cultural context, he also looks to account for the non-local and the non-temporal in the appeal of Greek tragic drama.

Peter Wilson intensively explores the role in performance of the reeded and normally double-piped wind instrument called aulos. Not only was it "the model of musical multiplicity", driving hundreds of choral performances throughout Athens annually, but it was demonstrably also perceived as alien and threatening.

From manufactured instrument to human instrument: Edith Hall's nuanced contribution is an exercise in historical ethnomusicology. Tragic song and metre, which may appear matters of form and technique, are shown to be inseparable from the sociology of tragedy, and so of the city of Athens.

Claude Calame, a noted authority on pre-classical choral poetry, looks at the performative voice of the chorus in tragedy, reopening the debate on the puzzling and even shocking "why must I dance?" of the chorus of Sophocles's Oedipus the King .

Pat Easterling shifts the focus from the 5th century to the 4th and from tragic actors and chorus members in the theatre to public orators in the assembly and law court. She accomplishes this deftly by way of Aeschines, who had himself metaphorically trodden the boards before literally mounting the podium to confront, most famously, Demosthenes.

Froma Zeitlin offers a multimedia approach. The performance of utopia in the plot of Aristophanes's comic Assembly Women is her chief subject, but she finds room for discussion also of Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy and of the Parthenon, all within a broadly feminist frame of interpretation.

Jon Hesk grabs readers' attention, rhetorically, with a quotation from Hansard (1996) before proceeding to explore with great subtlety the 4th-century orators' metadiscursive rhetoric of anti-rhetoric. Andrew Ford also positions himself on the orators' rostrum and considers how they "read", that is manipulated for their own self-serving purposes the words of Homer, who served as a common point of cultural reference.

So far we have been in the Athenian public eye. Sitta von Reden and Goldhill, in their joint article, remove us from the point of Athenian democratic performative interaction into the relative privacy of a Platonic dialogue. But only to "out" Plato himself, as one engaging edgily with the politics as well as the philosophy of performance in a less than straightforward anti-democratic or authoritarian way.

Athena Kavoulaki introduces the fourth and final section with a study of Athenian processional ritual, especially that of the "all-Athenian" Panathenaea festival. Her conclusion that it could modify and even subvert as well as uphold communal ideals sits well with Michael Jameson's sensitive treatment of the multi-dimensionality and multi-functionality of Athenian religious performances ranging from the most spectacular to the least showy.

Finally, both Robin Osborne and Francois Lissarrague treat democratic Athens's epigraphic habits, the former concerned primarily with the public sphere of inscribed decrees, the latter more with the cups and pots that were inscribed for private consumption with the hooray-word kalos , "beautiful" (in the masculine). The Cambridge symposium thus ends with the Athenian. Vive la différence .

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, University of Cambridge.

Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy

Editor - Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne
ISBN - 0 521 64247 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 417

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