Theater and Society in the Classical World.
Edited by Ruth Scodel.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Reviewed by Richard Jones
P.O. Box 298, Etna, NH 03750-0298, USA.
Reviewing this book is frustrating, largely because any comments are ultimately reduced to a good-news/bad-news scenario. The good news is that this collection of essays, delivered at a conference at the University of Michigan held under the joint auspices of the Institute for the Humanities and the Department of Classical Studies, contains few if any chapters unworthy of publication. Indeed, many of the contributors (e.g. P.E. Easterling, Helene Foley, and T.G. Rosenmeyer) are at the top of their profession, and their respective chapters here give ample evidence why this should be so.
The bad news is that this book is rather less than the sum of its parts. Part of the problem is the title. Perhaps, approaching the book as I do from the perspective of one who comes to the classics
through theatre rather than vice versa, I am being overly sensitive on this point. Still, it seems to me unconscionable that a book which contains the phrase 'theater and society' in its title should include more essays which discuss neither theatre (i.e. performance, as distinct from dramatic literature) nor society than those which discuss both. This is, in short, largely (just) another book of dramatic criticism. While there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, one suspects that the title would have been different were theatre-society relationships not a 'hot-button' issue in the field (and indeed in all of theatre history and performance studies).
Another problem in terms of the book as a whole is the very broad range of topics: not only a wide expanse of Greek and Roman drama, but even an essay on the performative nature of early Christian martyrdom! Ruth Scodel's introductory comments notwithstanding, there is little thematic, topical, or methodological coherence to the book; coupled with the fact that the apparent
intended audience for most of the essays is almost exclusively scholars in a particular sub-field, the volume becomes less useful to any individual reader. (I hasten to add that the flip side of this observation is also true: that the breadth of topics and methodologies may make the book more appealing to, say, graduate libraries.)
Finally, there seems to have been little attempt even to make the various essays look the same. There are, for example, three different styles of scholarly apparatus employed in this single volume. While many authors (or the editor) seem fastidious about translating every scrap of non-English usage, there remain one or two essays which abound in untranslated Greek and (especially) Latin, largely but not exclusively in the notes.
All this said, however, the true measure of any collection of scholarly writings is the quality of the essays themselves...
Reviewed by Richard Jones