A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater by Graham Ley
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991. 103 pp. Paper
US $6.95
ISBN 0-226-47760-6

Modern productions of Greek tragedy--and indeed the entire modern concept of tragedy--got off to a bad start. Among the writings of the Florentine Camerata, whose members attempted to revive Greek tragedy and hence created opera, is an essay entitled 'Discourse on how Tragedy should be Performed.' It begins by enjoining would-be producers of tragedy to reflect on the techniques of the ancients, and offers such prescriptions as,

'When you want to perform a tragedy, the theater ought to be more magnificent and ornate than that for a comedy...adorned with lovely architecture, full of statues. The stage should be rich and well- designed, fitted with splending, beautiful, hanging lamps.' (1)

The author is already violating his own injunction to pay attention to practices of antiquity, ignorant of or ignoring the fact that the Greeks themselves were quite happy to produce comedy and tragedy in the same acting area.

Centuries after the Renaissance, the distorted views of the Florentines, which relied all too heavily on Aristotle and Pollux, had become firmly entrenched. When Howard Paul and George Gebbie published The Stage and its Stars, Past and Present in 1890, they quoted at length a description of Athenian performance in which Pollux seems to have eclipsed Aristotle entirely and there is no sign of the fifth century beyond a brief listing of tragedians' names:

'To increase their height the tragic performers wore the cothurnus, a sort of buskin with high soles and still higher heels, which compelled them tow alk with a measured and sounding tread; and a top-knot of hair or toupee (ongkos) suitable to the age and condition of the character represented. A corresponding breadth of figure was produced by means of padding. Thus equipped, the tragic hero seemed a giant as compared with ordinary mortals.' (2)

Serious students of ancient stagecraft have all long-since brushed aside such misconceptions like cobwebs. But the image conjured by our scholarly predecessors continues to haunt us. Visions of hordes of extras, larger- than-life characters, stilted acting, and obscure ritual significance terrify many university theater departments, and many young actors, into believing that Greek tragedy is far beyond their own resources. And textbooks on theater history and even theater architecture provide so compressed a version of the development of Greek drama that the resulting picture of ancient theater is not much more enlightening than that presented by the Florentine Camerata. Many courses on Greek literature in translation ignore the performance aspect of Greek drama altogether.

But accurate information about the performance of fifth-century tragedy and comedy is making its way into forms less daunting than Pickard- Cambridge's Dramatic Festivals of Athens. Iris Brooke's 1962 Costume in Greek Classic Drama and Oliver Taplin's 1978 Greek Tragedy in Action are still extremely useful books. But new interpretations of the small and sometimes dubious body of evidence about Athenian theatrical practice are proliferating at a rapidly-expanding pace. In order to keep future generations from having to unlearn centuries of obsolete misconceptions, we need new introductory works which incorporate cutting-edge scholarship and can help lay better foundations for future work in the fertile zone where classics and theater overlap.

Graham Ley's A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater is an admirable example of such a work. Beginning from the premise that 'for the reader of what was originally a performed work, some attempt should be made to indicate te original performance conditions' (p. 1), Ley provides a discussion of Greek theater in the fifth century which is not only impressively comprehensive but eminently comprehensible. Clear language and clear diagrams guide the reader through the structural and functional similarities of the Pnyx and the Theater of Dionysus, the organization and funding of the dramatic festivals, the basics of costumes and masks, the prevalence of animal costumes in comic choruses, and so forth. Ley acknowledges the many uncertainties and controversies about such things as the shape of the TDA without entangling the reader in details of scholarly debate.

All Greek is transliterated, with a glossary of Greek terms on p. 77. The plates are well-chosen, well-presented, and follwed by an explanatory commentary. The diagrams, drawn especially for this volume by Richard Mazillius, present clear, uncluttered, and critically-important visual support for the discussion of theatrical topography. The bibliography is divided into subsections for easier reference and consists primarily of works which are not only in current use but also accessible to the Greekless reader at whom his own book is aimed.

The most striking inclusion in the book, however, is the final section, on translation and adaptation. Very few undergraduates-- indeed, very few non- classicists--hear anything more enlightening about the English texts which face them than 'It's better if you read it in Greek.' Directors and playwrights with PhDs and successful careers have been known to regard anyone who reads Greek with an almost superstitious awe. The idea that a translation might be biased never enters their minds. Most translators, and those who write their introductions, seem unwilling to admit that what they are doing is interpreting; published versions of Greek plays rarely so much as acknowledge that the stage-directions which they present are the translator's, not the dramatist's.

Ley presents eight versions of the opening lines of Agamemnon which range from the scholarly through the poetic to Tony Harrison's script for the British National Theatre's well-known 1980 production. Rather than claiming that one style of translation is more legitimate than another, Ley emphasizes the fact that translations do and should vary according to their purpose. A playable script may not serve a student grappling with Aeschylus' Greek for the first time. The translation included in Fraenkel's commentary is not meant for an actor. Adaptations of Greek plays are not treated as desecrations of the original but are presented as a form with its own kind of authenticity and a real place on the stage.

Graham Ley provides an introduction to Greek Theater which is designed to lead the reader to pursue further acquaintanceship with the form on his or her own. Anyone faced with Athenian tragedy or comedy for the first time, in or out of the classroom, would do well to start with A Short Introduction to Greek Tragedy.

(1) Giovanni Bardi (?), 'Discourse on how Tragedy should be Performed,' in Claude V. Palisca, The Florentine Camerata (New Haven 1989), p. 141.

(2) The Stage and its Stars is being reprinted serially as the first several issues of Revival--Theatrical History Revisited, a quarterly magazine. The quotation (Witzschel, translated by Howard Paul, edited by T.K. Arnold, London, 1850) comes from Revival Volume 1, Number 1 (1993), p. 13.

Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
Department of Classical Studies
The University of Michigan

Sallie Goetsch will be a Visiting Fellow at the University of Warwick for the Autumn of 1994.