Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
Departments of Classics and Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Klaus Neiiendam could equally well have called his book Acting in the Art of Antiquity. Despite his claim in the Foreword that his iconographic study is intended to provide a clearer impression of acting techniques in antiquity (beginning with the phlyax farce and continuing through Byzantine profane theater), the bulk of the work is devoted to the presentation, rather than the analysis, of the evidence. The reader must follow Neiiendam from vase to vase (or diptych to diptych in the case of Byzantine theater), sifting through images and impressions and pausing occasionally to disagree with his descriptions of the scenes presented in the commendably numerous illustrations. (The 'nymphs' in Figure 7, Pollux's categories of masks notwithstanding, look more like black Africans than 'hideous old hags' (p. 30).)
Interesting nuggets of interpretative conclusions do appear in the verbal and visual conglomerate of the amply-referenced text. Neiiendam points out that the South Italian phlyax vases, unlike 'theatrical' renderings by Attic painters, are concerned with the production and stage action rather than the underlying myth and therefore provide better evidence for stage practice. On the basis of this evidence, he aligns phlyakes with Old and Middle Comedy in terms of masks, costumes, and acting style. (An interesting observation in light of such works as Oliver Taplin's Comic Angels, which argues for the export of Old Comedy from Athens to Sicily.) He then goes on to excavate further details of that style as represented in the paintings, interpreting the presence of baskets, ladders, and trays of food with reference to commedia dell' arte and David Garrick.
The conclusions set out on pages 54-62 provide a remarkably comprehensive picture of these productions of plays whose scripts, if they existed, are lost to us. Neiiendam posits a raised stage, but a low one, similar to the stage booths of the Middle Ages in its temporary nature but nevertheless following the conventions of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, with a single inward-opening door. (Neiiendam is firmly in the 'one-door skene for Old Comedy' camp.) Mythological subjects, particularly the adventures of Herakles, seem to predominate (suggesting, though not to Neiiendam, a connection between phlyakes and satyr-plays), but there are also timeless scenes (such as that in Figure 5, of a miser clinging desperately to his hoard) which found their way into Plautus and Moliere.
The acting style which emerges from the vases is very much that of the commedia, down to lazzi with ladders and baskets. Pages 57-61 illustrate 21 varieties of broad gestures used to convey emotion, while such scenes as the birth of Helen from the egg (Figure 19) suggest that the actors employed full-fledged mime when appropriate. Read in conjunction with John Rudlin's Commedia dell' arte: An Actor's Handbook (reviewed in Didaskalia 1.3) or other works on commedia, the first section of this book provides a fairly thorough guide for the modern would-be phlyax-actor.
The second section, 'Comedy and Tragedy', is less illuminating, and consists primarily of a comparison of the masks in Roman mosaics and frescoes with those listed by Pollux. This exercise does at least serve the purpose of reminding us that while Pollux is not much help with regard to fifth-century theater, he was providing an accurate description of something. Neiiendam's conclusions about the acting style of New Comedy and Hellenistic tragedy are unexceptionable but neither new nor particularly penetrating; readers interested in the acting style of this period would do better to turn to David Wiles' The Masks of Menander. Some of the frescoes are so unclearly reproduced (or perhaps so badly preserved) that they fail to either illustrate or support Neiiendam's arguments. And while his correction of Webster's interpretation of the second tragic fresco in the 'Casa di Publio Casca Longo' in Pompeii has merit, far too little of the painting remains to justify the decisive conclusion that this is a representation of Iphigeneia in Aulis 1419- 23.
The third section relies more on literary than on iconographic sources. The discussion of mimes and the advent of professional actresses is interesting for the reader with no previous knowledge of Byzantine theater (sacred or profane), but the actual examination of the diptychs of Consul Anastasius (517 C.E.) reveals primarily that theater of any kind was not as popular as horse racing, animal combats, or acrobatics and juggling. The depiction of the extremely physical and violent comedy of unmasked mimes tallies with the quotations from John Chrysostom, while the tragic players wear costumes even more distorted than those of their Pompeian counterparts: the outlines of their platform shoes are clearly visible under their long robes. Although the visual evidence which he presents does not seem to expand very much on written testimony, Neiiendam makes a convincing case (contra Cyril Mango) for the continued performance of mimes in Constantinople 'possibly until the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453' (p. 125).
The English of Jean Olsen's translation occasionally falters, particularly in the third section, and the frequent sentence fragments contribute to the impression of aimlessness which Neiiendam's descriptive exposition creates. The non-specialist reader may prefer to read the Conclusions (pp. 128-34) first, in order to understand what this impressive assemblage of evidence is about, though the reader who has diligently followed the discussion from the outset may find them too-precisely repetitive. The ultimate conclusion, that the mimes of antiquity formed the basis for the modern European art of acting, seems despite its likelihood to have been tacked on at the last minute in an attempt to increase the book's reference and relevance. Yet the illustrations alone would make this a valuable book in spite of its lapses, and the contribution to our understanding of phlyax farce and its performers makes it well worth reading.
University of Warwick