Wiles, David. Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning

Cambridge University Press, 1997.
ISBN 0 521 46268 1 (hdbk) price: £35.00 (US$59.95)

Reviewed by C. W. Marshall
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Ten years ago, David Wiles published an article in Greece and Rome critiquing Simon Goldhill's Reading Greek Tragedy. Sadly, it was not included in an anthology of articles from Greece and Rome on Greek tragedy, although Goldhill's response to Wiles opens the volume (1). With Tragedy in Athens, Wiles extends and deepens his very thoughtful examination of the context of Greek tragic performance. This is a valuable and thought-provoking book, with many useful insights for those who consider ancient performance.

The opening chapter (1-22) sets out the methodological programme for the book, using Taplin's Greek Tragedy in Athens (OUP, 1978) as a starting point. The choice is a canny one for Wiles: Taplin is the most respected authority on tragic production, and Wiles makes a very good case for Taplin's undue emphasis on the written word. Aggressively, perceptively, Taplin is established not as a paradigm for excessive concern for stage, but as a logocentric proponent of the page, since Taplin's criteria for determining stage action all ultimately need to be demonstrated in the text. Wiles instead seeks to find meaning about performance from the theatrical space itself. Even if readers do have difficulties swallowing all of Wiles' claims (and some surely will), he is asking good questions, and providing interesting answers. Some argumentation is circumstantial (as he notes, e.g. on 206) but much is persuasive.

Wiles' initial discussion draws on the work of many non-classical structuralists who have discussed stage dynamics (Lotman, Lefebvre, Ubersfeld). Those familiar with Wiles' Masks of Menander (CUP, 1991) will be prepared for his structuralist agenda. Some undergraduates will find this heavy going, which is a shame, because there is much here that could benefit them. The choice of Greek Tragedy in Action over the much more rigorous Stagecraft of Aeschylus (OUP, 1977) slightly weakens Wiles' approach: the stated reason is that in Greek Tragedy in Athens 'many aesthetic and ideological assumptions latent in The Stagecraft of Aeschylus become overt' (5). Fair enough, perhaps.

The book draws examples from all the extant tragedies, and some fragments, often with bold insight. Well over a dozen neat, tidy explanations appeared that I have filed away to share in the classroom. The final chapter (207-221) returns to Taplin and to methodology. Wiles is creating 'a more satisfactory theory of reception' (208), one which allows for metatheatrical reference and anachronism in tragedy, which Taplin's approach does not. I agree with both of these conclusions, though the structure of the argument Wiles presents often involves interesting decisions. For example, Wiles allows for direct audience address by a tragic actor, in many of the places others have suggested for it. He denies it, however, in the prologue of Oedipus Tyrannus, where Calder had originally argued for it in Phoenix 13 (1959), 121-129 (cf. 214-215). He accepts the principle, but denies the particular instance most would accept.

Chapter 2 (23-62) discusses the Theatre of Dionysus as a performance space. A play performed here 'lent meaning to the space' (62; subsequent chapters demonstrate the reverse is also true). A contrast is established between 'Apolline' (which is to say human, ordered) theatres such as Epidauros and the more disorderly 'Dionysiac' theatres such as the deme theatres at Ikarion and Thorikos. These are presented as small, multi-purpose spaces which privilege the divine audience housed in a temple over a human one, whence the unusual rectilinear form of orchestra. The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens resolves this tension: unlike the deme theatres it is meant specifically for theatrical performance (like Epidauros) while remaining divinely oriented. The orchestra is circular, but in some ways functions as if it were rectilinear: there is no fixed line (fourth wall) demarcating a separation between actor and audience, since the audience surrounds much of the performance space, and sees itself. The skene is then a temporary construction that encroached into the circle, perhaps an innovation by an individual playwright for his tetralogy in a given year (perhaps Aeschylus in 458?). This is a nice refinement, and creates the strong lateral axis that Wiles will show to be central to understanding performance meaning. Comparison with the modern practice of British directors (Peter Hall, Peter Brook; later chapters refer to the productions of Barker, Reinhardt, Mnouchkine, and the new Globe Theatre) complements the discussion and Wiles makes a strong case for the role of architecture in catharsis.

Chapter three (63-86) argues persuasively that tragedy was performed with the 'Focus on the centre point' of the orchêstra, that is the thymele. This obviously draws greatly on the work of Rehm, and chapter nine (187-206) extends this discussion to an examination of how painted pottery represents stage sanctuaries. Wiles concludes that, for all intents and purposes, there was no'stage' in the fifth-century theatre. This claim will meet objection, and in some way seems to be meant as a hyper-correction to Taplin's emphasis on entries and exits: the centre is more important than the edge (Taplin does doubt the existence of a stage at Greek Tragedy in Action 183 n. 3, however). Wiles is right that most crucial action will take place at or near the centre of the orchestra. This does not mean that there cannot be some form of stage, which I am reluctant to abandon. Wiles accepts that 'a flight of steps lending an illusion of mass to the skene' (64) might be permitted. I would suggest, for example, that the operation of an ekkyklema (the existence of which Wiles rightly accepts as early as the Oresteia) might be facilitated on a grooved wooden surface, i.e. a stage (though on 176, 'steps would make the operation of the eccyclema [sic] harder to envisage'; not really) (2). The relevance of other stage locations are defined with relation to the centre point. In a valuable discussion on Children of Heracles (191-195) it is seen that the stage represents a synthetic and schematic version of Marathon. The relationship of space is important, and is specific to the medium, as is shown with a comparison to a vase painting of the play (LIMC 'Herakleidai' 2), where again medium controls message. Various vases representing Telephus in tragedy and para-tragedy could also have been mustered in support of the importance of the thymele.

From this centre extend structural axes that inform an audience's understanding of a tragedy. Wiles is insistent that it is the ancient audience's perspective that needs to be recovered (see the important methodological note on 85-86). The first is the East-West 'horizontal' axis, discussed in chapter six (133-60). This corresponds to audience left (where the Odeon with its sun-orb on its roof is, and where the sun rises, which often represents 'wilderness') and audience right (where the temple is, more or less, and often represents 'civilization'). A very good case is made for the importance of the Odeon as part of the audience's sight-lines (54-57, 140-141), and that the Odeon, built in the 440s, would be planned with regard for the adjacent theatre. The directions where the eisodoi lead are always significant for Wiles, and 'it is predominantly upon the horizontal plane that theatrical signs need to be organized' (133). This presents a bold shift in many ways (though not quite a volte-face). Often when I discuss tragedy in the classroom, I draw an orchestra, skene, and eisodoi, and I say something like 'Obviously this diagram is left-right symmetric.' Wiles has convinced me that this need not be so: Athens had cultural notions privileging an entry from the left (= stage right; a vocabulary difficulty not adequately resolved) as do we, and Wiles believes playwrights took advantage of them: 'every Greek tragedy creates a coherent topography framed around a binary east/west opposition' (156). His best specific example is Oedipus at Colonus (146-151) where a synthetic Colonus is represented schematically. Wiles rightly assumes a backstage run from one eisodos to the other by an actor to facilitate changes of location in Ajax and Eumenides (142).

The vertical axis, which includes access to the skênê and can therefore be seen in terms of 'Inside/Outside' (chapter seven, 161-174) as well as above and below (chapter eight, 175-186). The 'upper' register corresponds to the divine, and is situated down stage, extending through the audience to the Acropolis; the 'lower,' bestial register passes through the skene and on to the sacrificial altar where the smell of dead animals may still linger (59). A natural extension includes notions of the Underworld and therefore death with the skene. I do not believe that the example of Ajax necessarily bears this out. Wiles believes the ekkyklema withdraws a living Ajax and returns with a dead one: 'The skene is neither tent nor grove but the House of Death'(165). But if Tecmessa appears with the corpse, the equivalence is shattered. There is no need for 'an aesthetic balance' (164) between two uses of the wheeled platform, and it is not quite right to say 'The same sword is responsible for both scenes of carnage' (164; the play's ancient title emphasizes the whip Ajax initially appears with, for example). It is not sufficient for Wiles to claim a 'logical reconstruction of the staging' (164) without reference to other solutions, especially that of S. P. Mills, 'The Death of Ajax,' CJ 76 (1980), 129-135. In other plays, the axis does work: the slope of the theatron probably does represent Cithaeron in Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oeta in Philoctetes. The relation of the mechane to the axis (180-186) is also problematical, though, since gods appear 'on high,' which will appear further along the direction 'below' from the perspective of a raised audience. Still, the discussion of these axes is very informative and helpful for an understanding of tragic stage action. Both axes are clearly shown in figure 9, on page 57, to which more reference could productively have been made.

In the remaining two chapters (87-132) Wiles discusses the contribution and function of the chorus within his scheme. It is here that Wiles is at his most circumstantial. The first claim is that the choreography of choral lyric is, in part, recoverable: 'It is a reasonable inference, given the unity of dance and song, that the choreography of strophe and antistrophe was precisely identical' (96); 'By analysing choral odes in this way, seeking to find which elements are repeated in the antistrophe and which are not, we can distinguish how much is represented mimetically' (97). These claims still depend on culturally conditioned analysis, but Wiles builds a much better case than might be expected. The examples he uses are the three passages that A. M. Dale had denied could be given identical choreography: Bacchae 977-1010, Hecuba 923-942, Ion 205-236. Wiles' analysis is very suggestive, but it is not always easy to see what sort of action he is imagining, especially in his analysis of the parodos of Iphigeneia in Aulis (105-112; though the plan on 111 is very helpful). Further, the words and actions of the chorus help define the organization of performance space: 'In Greek tragedy it is principally the job of the chorus to effect spatio-temporal transformations'(114). This claim is supported with reference to Seven against Thebes, Medea, Hippolytus and Women of Trachis. There is much in all of these discussions that is of note, especially with Medea, where the insights are particularly acute (121-125). What the performance space represents is fluid, and is always defined by the chorus.

I was particularly struck by the implications of this for Women of Trachis (129-132), which I present in a reduced form. The epode of the parodos (lines 131-140) establishes Zeus as responsible for his children. This gives the thymele an association with Zeus that will last through the play (with regular reinforcement), including through Heracles' long, pained lyric at the play's end. The apparent absence of Zeus in this and previous scenes is false, because Zeus already permeates the stage. This, and the fact that Heracles is to be removed to the (audience) right and not into the skene (associated with Hades), argues for his eventual apotheosis. This is as good a case as I have found for this interpretation. It is not without problems, still. First, it flies in the face of (my admittedly subjective understanding of) Heracles' character. Second, it accepts the authority of the chorus, which in this play is regularly, notoriously, offering the wrong emotional interpretation of the previous episode. Third, it denies that reference to Zeus' presence might be ironic, which I would say is certainly the case with the play's last word, for example.

Other interpretations run like threads through the fabric of the book. Realistic scene-painting for any play is completely denied (fair enough), but 'The purpose of scene-painting was to create out of transient materials the illusion of a stone monument' (161). This ties well with Wiles' understanding of a temporary skene encroaching on the orchestra. Occasional insights into acting (51, 77) complement the picture presented of the chorus' mimetic action. Not all examples will convince: doubt remains about Persians (78-79), Women of Trachis (132 n. 31), Philoctetes (153 n. 73), Heracles (182), Euripides' Suppliants (184-186; what happens to the harness when the door closes?), and Sophocles' Electra (202-204). Prometheus is apparently Aeschylean (81 n. 86); Pirithous is Euripidean (165 n. 16), but nothing is said about the authorship or date of Rhesus (156-158). Euripides' Electra is firmly dated to 413, on uncertain evidence (162 n. 9; this affects the discussion on 170 and 183 n. 22). Some issues are ducked (the Phrygian 'issues' from the skene in Orestes, 170, for example), and typographical errors are few; these are quibbles, though. Wiles presents new and exciting insights into tragic performance in this creative book, and he offers many good solutions to individual passages: Medea (122), Hippolytus (105), Rhesus (156-158), Seven against Thebes (197- 200); the list could continue.


(1)Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (CUP, 1986). Wiles, 'Reading Greek Performance,' Greece & Rome 34 (1987), 136-151. Goldhill, 'Reading Performance Criticism,' Greece & Rome 36 (1989), 172-182, reprinted with bibliographical note in Greek Tragedy, ed. Ian McAuslan and Peter Walcot (OUP, 1993), 1-11.

(2) I have discussed the advantage of having some stage structure for the parodos of Aristophanes' Frogs, at EMC/CV 15 (1996), 251-265. Wiles sees the ekkyklema as a means of restoring to the audience's sight the full circle of the orchestra which the skene has (temporarily) cut off (162). This is really nice.

C. W. Marshall
Memorial University of Newfoundland

(Toph Marshall was teaching at Concordia University in Montréal when he wrote this review.)