Did Women Sing in the Thesmophoriazusae?

By Z. Philip Ambrose
Department of Classics
The University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405
Tel: (802) 656-0649

Did Aristophanes use women to sing the chorus of this play? Or did still others play the Other?

Point of departure: I am persuaded that Sappho's revolutionary contribution was to make self-expression an explicit part of poetry, beginning a tradition in which self-expression has a certain feminine aspect. [See M. Skinner in Feminist Theory and the Classics, ed. N.S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin (New York, 1993)]. The whole and fragmentary remains of Greek tragedy (exclusive of satyr-plays) have an absolute majority of female choruses (about 57%), a majority found about equally in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In tragedy male poets do tend to express the self by playing the other, the female, especially in the chorus. Males normally played such roles in tragedy without persiflage or parody of female stereotypes. By this I mean that males played female roles in the male voice register. They did not normally use something like our counter-tenor to play such parts.

But to what extent was the real female excluded from participation in the theater? Even after the evidence for the mere presence of women in the audience has been widely discussed, Prof. Henderson's excellent study of the evidence (TAPA 1991) only comes to a cautious affirmation of that presence. As for performance, Bieber, while acknowledging the importance of the feminine in Dionysiac worship, declares flatly that 'the parts of the maenads and of other women were always played by men.' Winkler's contribution has been to assign such female roles to ephebes, and there is, I think, considerable merit to the notion that by playing and observing female roles, that is, by institutionalized cross-dressing, Athenian youths learned how to be Athenian men.

Yet the revisers of Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (1968), p. 153, accept Wilamowitz' view [on Lys. 1114] that naked women took walking-on parts in several plays of Aristophanes, including the girl at Thesm. 1175 ff. Henderson in his edition of the Lysistrata counters by arguing that male actors wore a female somation for such roles, with all body parts, depending upon age and maturity, clearly highlighted for the audience's delectation or titilation. [Henderson ad Lysistrata 1106-27, pp. 195-6, gives the literature on this controversy. One author argues that the weather would be too cold for nudity. If the weather was too chilly for naked females, however, why not also for nude males? And if the cold was a factor, couldn't women have worn female body suits?]

Vase paintings show women dancing. The beautiful Berlin vase by Hieron and Macron from 490-480, of the frequent type showing maenadic dancing about a statue of Dionysus, has been interpreted as representing the Lenaean festival and suggests that Bieber was wrong in writing in her 1939 edition that women never 'attained to the public performance of ecstasy'(p. 15), a sentence not reappearing in the second edition. The Pronomos vase of the late 5th or early 4th century has the painting most frequently cited for information about acting. Several years ago I was prompted by a student of Nancy Demand, a certain Shelley Kelly, to question the hesitation of Pickard-Cambridge (pp. 186-7) to identify as a woman the figure holding a woman's mask, seated next to Dionysus and Ariadne. The student suggested that the woman is an actor about to assume the role of a woman, of Hesione herself, if we are to think of this as a satyric Hesione. The same student pointed out as well that the other side of the Pronomos vase also has female personnel, maenads dancing with satyrs.

Surely women sang together (cf. Claude Calame, Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious and Social Functions, forthcoming 1994). Sappho composed songs for choruses of women; likewise Alcman for young Spartan girls. Athenian girls sang and danced in the rites of Artemis at Brauron and Halae and processed in the Panathenaia; women sang at the Adoneia, Thesmophoria, processed ritually in the Anthesteria, and participated in festivals. But not in the Theater of Dionysus? Why then do the tragic texts performed in that Theater so often represent women in chorus singing ritually?

Consider the final moments of Aeschylus' Eumenides, where at 1025 ff. Athena says:

'For may the eye of all the whole land of
Theseus come out, a glorious band
of children, women, and a troop of elder women...'

These 'women' form the propompoi who sing the exit ode of the play. In refrain wise they end each verse with a summons to the city to sing and rejoice:

'euphameite de, chorita.
Give praise, ye of the chorus!' (1035)
'euphameite de pandamei.
Give praise, throughout the city!' (1038)
'ololuxate nun epi molpais.
Let your joy resound in song!' (1042, 1047)

In his final note, ad 1047, Sommerstein writes: 'The singer or singers probably here again turn to the audience...and thus the Oresteia ends with a united cry of triumphant joy from over ten thousand mouths as all Athens hails the birth of a new era.' Now in this scene of audience participation, consider this paradox: Aeschylus, were he constrained by the convention that only males acted and sang in Greek drama, will have formed a chorus of male actors to play the parts of female children, wives, and old women citizens, who then exultantly call upon the audience to shout out with joy and to sing: if the audience contained women, as many think it did, our conventional view would hold that those women who could join in the processional vocaliter from the audience could not have done so sceniter without being obscenae! But if real women were invited by the singer of the role of Athena to form that procession, they would not have been Wilamowitz' naked hetairae, but Athenian politides!

Surely this was a grand moment in one of the grandest of all tragic productions. Not only grand, but rare! I would not for a moment want to use it to overturn the notion that males conventionally played the female roles of Greek drama. And the silence about any taboo against women actors is more than offset by the actual names of male actors and the absence of female names on the Victors Lists. As at length I turn to Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, we see internal evidence for this very convention. When, early in the play, Agathon comes out of his house dressed in woman's dress, he sings a hymn he has composed for a woman leader and a chorus of girls to the ancestral gods, Phoebus, Artemis, and Leto. It must have been one of those show-stopping opening numbers that a really successful play wants: With Agathon camping all the while, the parody comes to a peak at the surprise ending when the girls (whose part is for rehearsal purposes also sung by Agathon) sing 'And I honor Lady Leto, Cithara, the mother of hymns, with my male shout of praise, arseni boai dokimoi.'

What is this 'male shout?' Not, I think, merely a 'strong shout,' but rather a quite unique reference to the convention that males actually did sing in the male register the female roles. The reason Aristophanes highlights the convention here becomes clearer at 148 ff.: 'I wear this dress to accompany my thought./ For the poet must make a man for his dramas /Do what is necessary, and for them behave accordingly.' Citing Anacreon, Ibycos, Alcaeus, and Phrynichus, who dressed and walked as women, 161-165, Agathon talks like a woman. I suggest, however, that Agathon sings his own part in falsetto but when singing the part of the girls reverts for comic effect to the conventional manner of male actors who sing female parts in the masculine vocal register. It is to this incongruity that I think the reference to the 'male shout' is meant to draw attention. The result is both a marvelous sendup of the historical Agathon and a setup for what follows. Further evidence that Aristophanes' Agathon did use the female register comes in Euripides' description of him at 191- 2:

'You are fair of face, pale, shaven,
woman voiced (gunaikophonos), soft, lovely to look at.'

When he fails to persuade Agathon himself to plead for him with the women celebrating the Thesmophoria, he not only cross- dresses his kinsman Mnesilochus with Agathon's clothing, but instructs him to go further in imitation of Agathon at 266 ff.:

'Our man here is indeed a woman,
in form, at least; but if you speak, see to it that in your voice
you play the woman well and convincingly.
(...hopos toi phthegmati gunaikieis eu kai pithanos.)'

To which Mnesilochus replies, 'I'll try (peirasomai).' And try he does: As the women of the chorus make their entrance in a parodos hymn to Demeter and Persephone, Mnesilochus speaks loudly to his serving lady, Thratta, who may or may not be visible to the audience. Here Mnesilochus lets his gender guard down and inadvertently refers to Thratta as a doulos a slip through which Mnesilochus, intending to invoke the rule that slaves were not to be present at the Thesmophoria, actually alludes to the greater wrong, another male actor in female garb about to invade women's turf! One purpose of the alleged exchange is as a kind of deictic prologue to establish the Mnesilochus' gimmick: the gynaikophonia, the falsetto which he manfully strives to maintain, perhaps until at 765, almost alone just before the chorus reappear for the Parabasis at 785, he ponders Palamedes' invention as a means of escape. After the Parabasis, continuing to draw from a menu of Euripidean rescues, he reassumes the falsetto with the role of Helen at 862 ('Will you become a woman again,' demands the Crieress).

In despair he finally abandons his female voice at 925 ('Alas, poor wretch that I am, what ought I to do? Euripides: Hush!') just before the chorus turn from their farcical behavior and sing a pretty hymn, perhaps typical of the Thesmophoria, 947-1000. After this hymn, as his punishment proceeds, Mnesilochus gets a signal that he must play Andromeda to Euripides' Perseus. Since his tormentor is the Scythian and since by assuming also the character of Echo, he will cast the words of the Scythian back in his face, I think (but this is only a guess) that Mnesilochus does not use the female register for this and the final episode in which Euripides, now himself disguised as an old woman in saffron gown (1200), rescues Mnesilochus from the Scythian Archer. Before this final episode Euripides has already made peace with the women of the chorus, who in fact themselves help Euripides bamboozle the Archer out of his captive Mnesilochus and the dancing girl.

Why would Mnesilochus go to the trouble of singing in falsetto? You might say that Mnesilochus, following the example of Agathon's performance, never sees the incongruity between his falsetto and the male register of the actors singing the part of the chorus and the several single women. This contrast is simply part of the whole comic absurdity. And I should then stand down. Or you might let me go on to say that at this point in the play Aristophanes delivers a stroke of surprise: the Parodos brings into the theater women acting women, singing in the usual female register. It seems to me that with the other view the attempt of Mnesilochus consistently to respond to his pursuers and interrogators in falsetto while they speak to him in the male register would have grown wearisome. And the references to voice register would have to be explained away. We should not be in haste to explain away anything pertaining to the possible reconstruction of the musical content of drama.

Let us return to the last two odes of the chorus: The first, 947-1000, claims to be a hymn in the manner of the Thesmophorian rites to the Twain. Except for one obscure reference to a certain Pauson, there is no raillery against men and no trace of their earlier man-hating ways. Gone is the element of parody present in the hymn composed by Agathon at the outset of the play. One detail in this ode may follow up on the 'male shout' of Agathon's chorus: At 985-6 they sing 'But come, turn to another matter now with well- measured foot, sing piercingly the whole song (toreue pasan oiden).' This verb toreuein 'bore, 'pierce,' is derived from the word for 'lathe' and is normally used in reference to sculpture and metal-working. Could it not refer to the high-pitched female register in which the song is being sung? Compare ligus 'shrill' of a girl's chorus in Alcman, 14.30.

In the final ode, 1136-1158, the women continue their benign mood and call upon the goddesses to accompany them to their Thesmophorian grove where males are not permitted. In the opening lines of this ode they especially thank Athena, the chorus lover and hater of tyrants, and as the 'demos...gunaikon' (1145) they summon her to the Thesmophoria, which they have throughout the play treated in word and action as a political experience. [See for example at 325ff. the Crieress' announcement to assemble to the Council.] If I am right that women actors formed this chorus, this final ode takes on the character of a thanksgiving to Athena, the patron of women's choruses in general and guardian of the city, and their patron in this unusual intrusion upon the male space of the theater. In the final four lines of the play the chorus say that it is time for them to return home, i.e., where they're supposed to be, and in closing invoke upon themselves the blessing of the Thesmophorian twain.

I am certainly not here urging that Aristophanes has anticipated and even expanded upon the revolutionary educational and political role of women in Plato's Republic and Laws. At the end there is not a sign of a social revolution in sight, despite whatever surprises Aristophanes may have dealt the conventions of women's participation in the theater. Indeed, submission to the norms of male dominance would have been all the more emphatic, if citizen women sang these final lines. It is very likely that Aeschylus's Oresteia was reproduced in the 420's. If its closing procession did include in its band citizen girls and women, Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae only broke a convention that the old master had already bent.

The name I have used for Euripides' kinsman is very likely a late invention. But Mnesilochus, meaning 'He who is mindful of the band, of the ambush, of the army, of a group of citizens, and of childbirth' is especially suited to the problem I have posed for your consideration today. So I leave with another question: Were Mnesilochus and the Athenian audience ambushed by a band of militant citizens capable of childbirth? The plot of the play: a man intrudes upon female space, the Thesmophorion; the joke of the play: women intrude upon male space, the Theater of Dionysus.

This is an unsettling conclusion. Against it stand several obvious arguments: Why does no one make specific mention of female acting in general? Why does no one refer to the use of women in later references to this play? How would Aristophanes have made his request for a chorus? How would Aristophanes have introduced his chorus on the day of the Proagon? These I cannot answer. For the moment I would not even try to argue them away, simply for the sake of debate. I wish rather to leave what I have brought on the table until further clear evidence can remove or support it.

Philip Ambrose
The University of Vermont