Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece

Dionysus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece

Storm, William

DIONYSUS WRITES: THE INVENTION OF THEATRE IN ANciENT GREECE. By Jennifer Wise. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. 269 p.

When Aristotle identified spectacle and song as elemental in dramatic composition, and indicated that these two factors were of lesser importance than plot, character, thought, and diction, he was setting the stage for a discourse that has spanned centuries, one that continues to be productive of aesthetic and theoretical debate. Aristotle’s message seems obvious: theatrical art-or, in the sense of the Poetics, the art of the poet/dramatist– necessarily involves some combination of what is seen and heard along with the more strictly dramaturgical factors that go into the making of a play. It is understood, presumably, that what is seen and heard is meant to occur in the living moment of theatrical presentation, as opposed to in the mind’s eye-or ear-of the reader of a play’s text. Drama and theatricality co-exist, as it were, in performance. Together with this unity, however, Aristotle prescribes a hierarchy: while music is pleasing ornamentally, and spectacle will arrest our attention, such considerations are subordinate to the other four components, with the arrangement of events being paramount.

Yet Aristotle’s prescriptions-even concerning the marriage of poetic and presentational elements-are far from obvious; indeed, they are indicative of an array of complicated and often contradictory issues that speak to the fundamental nature and identity of theatrical art. What exactly is this hybrid of the literary and the performative? By what standard can one rank the visual or auditory in relation to the literary? Might it be argued, for instance, that the entire scenic sequence (muthos) of the Oedipus Tyrannus is orchestrated in service of one moment of sheer spectacle, the telos of the title character as represented visually in the blinded figure who stands at the side of his bereft young daughters? Or, is it the orchestration itself, as Aristotle would say, that is the soul of play-making?

The underlying questions are good ones, not because they are answerable in any objective or constant sense, but because they are evocative. They are connected to baseline aesthetic problems that relate directly to the nature and quality of mimesis in narrative and performative contexts, and to the essential differences between what is textual and what is enacted-the not so self-evident border between the written and the performed. The ongoing fertility of these issues is not surprising, given their centrality. The discourse has a lengthy history, but rather than exhausting itself over time it has instead become more intricate, particularly since the Romantic era. Even as theatre artists in the last century developed sophisticated means of producing elaborate visual effects, questions continued to be raised (for example, Charles Lamb’s and A.C. Bradley’s expressed misgivings about the staging of the storm scenes in King Lear) as to whether particular visual impacts would be best left to the imagination of the reader as opposed to the skills of the scenic designer.

In the twentieth century, theatre’s co-existence and progressive competition with other dramatic media intensified the investigation into its basic nature and characteristics. It was nearly a hundred years ago when Gordon Craig argued for a scenically founded theatre with a primary appeal to the eyes and ears. Craig’s conviction was that the ancient dramatist rightly knew that an audience comes first to see what will be enacted rather than hear what might be told. Later, Antonin Artaud’s impassioned manifestos were concerned to a large extent with identifying and promoting a theatrical style in primal and pre-literate terms; his “no more masterpieces” platform was an argument against the hegemony of written text-as directly opposed to the hieroglyph of the actor’s performative body.

Jennifer Wise is aware of the prominence of these issues and of their implications for a range of concerns in theatre history and theory, as well as for the history of written language. Although much of the recent discussion around the nexus of theatrical text and performance has occurred in the arena of theory, Wise’s book is not primarily a theoretical work. It is, foremost, a literary history that concentrates on the effect of the development of alphabet, writing, and various forms of notation, written exchange, and documentation on the period of Greek theatre’s major burgeoning in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. From her findings, she advances a number of conclusions, not only about the early history of drama in its Attic setting but also, more generally, about the connection of writing and performance. Her book is concerned in particular with charting the transition from the oral tradition of epic storytelling to the advent of written play texts, and with emphasizing the importance of this transition-especially by comparison with hypotheses about theatre’s origins that place Dionysian rites at center stage. Such rituals, of course, allow for Wise’s titular pun.

Theories that link Greek theatre’s origins to ritual are difficult to refute, at least in any categorical sense, especially if ritualistic practice is allowed sufficiently broad definition. Even if one rejects the (now widely discounted) ideas of the Cambridge anthropologists in this regard, including Gilbert Murray’s suggested alignment of ritual sequence and dramaturgical structure in tragedy, there remains plenty of ritual to go around, including Aristotle’s own attribution of theatre’s beginnings to the dithyramb, the choric ode to Dionysus. And, as both historical and theoretical annals testify, Dionysus himself has proven to be notoriously persistent in remaining implicated, in one form or another, in the birth of drama.

Nevertheless, Wise’s intent is to replace-or at least upstage-the idea of ritual with that of writing. By underscoring “non-religious” behaviors having to do with forms of literacy, her expressed aim is “to recover, for theatre history and dramatic theory alike, some of the evidence for the emergence of theatre which has been neglected as a result of a century-long enchantment with ritual” (p. 3). Her book has a generally lucid and straightforward structure, with major areas of investigation confined to four chapters that deal with, respectively, the impact of the alphabet upon stage presentation, especially in contrast with the oral, memory-based tradition of performance poetry; the relation of teaching and the “literate classroom” environment to means of retention and presentation, with particular attention to the actor’s function as well as the dramatist’s; analogies between courtroom and theatrical representations and structures of argument; and the position of theatre in relation to several other forms of written exchange, including the coins, letters, lists, and other documents that constitute some of the bases of cultural transaction.

Wise begins, in a chapter called “The ABCs of Acting,” by stressing the “special kinship between an alphabetical and a theatrical manner of making things visible” (p. 15), and offers some revealing perspectives on both visual and organizational relationships in this context. She is particularly interested in the ways in which advances in literacy and playwriting tended to coincide, and with how the former directly affected the discovery of possibilities in the latter. For Wise, literacy brings with it the enhanced ability of the dramatist to individualize character through written speech; it offers the basic value of seeing the whole of a work as a recorded unit (beginning, middle, and end, with all of the implicit interrelations visible and tangible); and it contains the inherent richness of a “new problematic of language” (as in the elastic connotative presence of “nomos” in the Antigone).

However, in celebrating the literate dramatist’s capabilities in written characterization, Wise may be diminishing the potential talents of the ancient bard/storyteller, particularly when it comes to the differentiation of character through imitation, vocal inflection, and physicalization-that is, through acting, even within an oral epic tradition. Her opening chapter’s alignments of actor, dramatist, and alphabet, at times evocative, ultimately reach a point of strain, with speculative claims for an “alphabetical” performance mode that seem forced: “It is distinctly possible that, having internalized the alphabet’s mode of representation, the inventors of drama were able to conceive of an ‘alphabetical’ representational style for performance too: as letters represent, so might the performer” (p. 62). Or, in further analogy: “Just as the alphabet represents speech by dividing the verbal world into a small number of repeatable visual shapes, or letters, so too does the dramatist proceed by dividing the storytelling words into a number of dramatic, visible `characters”‘ (p. 63). In terms such as these, the ancient theatre practitioner can come across as a strangely bloodless entity: “Rather than embodying in himself the locus and control center of a single unified poetic monologue, as did the bard or rhapsode, the performer in drama becomes, like a letter, an atomized element in a larger semiotic structure, a systematic collective” (p. 67). Frequently missing in Wise’s discussion is the sense of a mimetic spirit and artistry that is more aesthetically innate than verbally schematized in matters theatrical.

A similar difficulty is encountered in chapter 2 (“The Student Body”), as Wise sets up analogies between theatre and the classroom-namely, playwright/teacher and actor/ student. When her subject is the relation of writing and dramaturgy per se, she has pertinent arguments to advance, as in her discussion of dialogic structure and the advent of stichomythia. Much of the chapter is concerned, however, with the relation of text and performance to a mind/body dichotomy that seems overly precious in the context of theatrical art. By casting the body as “low” as compared to the “high” of the literary, and accentuating the tension between the terms, Wise belabors what is in fact a given-the corporeal being of the actor as an instrument and medium of communication, with physicalization and presence being implicitly neither high nor low but simply manifest in the representation of human character and action. The “high textual/low bodily polarity,” useful perhaps in regard to carnival, the grotesque, and types of broad comedy, lacks the breadth of application that Wise appears to suggest. Here again the line of argument is pursued to a breaking point, in this instance when she observes that theatre texts can lack the solidly reputable appearance of books in other disciplines: “. . . even theatre’s high texts are somewhat base, grotesque, ‘corrupted’ by traces of lower, material, bodily life” (p. 115).

The author is on firmer ground in chapter 3 (“Courtroom Dramas”) when she compares the centrality of theatre and court of law in Athenian culture, drawing useful correlations in the contexts of audience, argumentation, procedural and performative elements. Here the art of the dramatist is looked at in direct relation to a juridical atmosphere, and the author finds meaningful parallels regarding “prosecution, interrogation, and indictment” in court and on stage-with Athenian citizenry standing as witness to both sorts of public events. The emphasis is placed on agon, argument, rhetoric, and the careful balance of opposing views, and while the subject is by no means new, the treatment here is probing and insightful-particularly with respect to interrogatory exchange as a basis for scenic development. Alignments between judicial and theatrical judgments (the “verdict”) could be qualified further, however, especially in light of what dramatic tragedy often proposes as a highly ambiguous border between innocence and guilt.

Although her fourth chapter (“Economies of Inscription”) includes a somewhat eclectic mix, with desultory discussion of coins, lists, and other forms of notation, Wise gainfully focuses on the importance of letters and, implicitly, the stage characters who are able to write them, particularly in Euripidean drama. She emphasizes the qualitative difference between written and spoken exchanges, a contrast that relates to a varied range of dramaturgical considerations, from a character’s style and means of verbal expressiveness to the use of letters, sent or received, in the playwright’s fashioning of plot. The stage letter’s early ancestry is given a succinct analysis, with appropriate examples from Hippolytus and Iphigenia in Aulis.

Within much of its purview, Wise’s book is ably researched and documented, especially in matters pertaining to literary history and to the transition from the oral/epic tradition in Greece to that of a written drama. The book’s methods of argument are sometimes flawed, and there are instances where conclusions seem overly speculative or where too much is extrapolated from the evidence. Theatrical, as opposed to strictly literary, considerations go wanting in places, and a more thorough review of the various and competitive theories of theatre’s origin, including the range of contemporary discourse around Dionysian influences, would help to situate the author’s major lines of argument. Still, if read selectively, this book provides some valuable and welcome additions to the continuing discourse on the beginnings of theatre and drama, as well as on the convergence of these terms. By focusing on what simply could be assumed or taken for granted-the implications of writing words-Wise legitimately encourages some reassessments and offers a worthwhile perspective on a key phase in the history of literacy and performance.


University of California, Santa Barbara

Copyright Comparative Literature Fall 2000

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