Bards, Rhapsodes and Stage-actors

by Ismene Lada-Richards

Homer, “the first among the tragic poets” (Pl. Rep. 607a 2-3); Homer, “the first master and leader of tragic poets” (Pl. Rep. 595c1-2; cf. Rep. 598d8); Homer, the “dramatiser” and creator of “dramatic imitations” (Arist. Poetics 1448b): Plato and Aristotle, who pronounced such literary judgments, would not have been surprised by the notion of a “theatricalised” Homer. For them, the link between Homer and the tragic poets extends far beyond the mythical subject-matter of their creations.

Homer comes very close to the tragedians by means of his narrative style. Rather than narrating his stories in the third person, as an omniscient narrator throughout, he very often speaks in the person of his characters, as if he were one of his characters. Just as a playwright fragments his own voice into the many voices of his dramatis personae, Homer's own voice is subsumed in the language of the many characters he introduces. Plato's discussion of Homer's mixed mode of narration -partly pure narrative and partly imitation- is in itself pervaded by theatrical concepts. In the first lines of the Iliad, Plato writes,

Homer himself speaks, and he does not attempt to divert our mind to make us think that the speaker is anyone other than himself. But after that, Homer speaks as if he were Chryses [the Apollonian priest] himself, and he tries his best to make us think that the speaker is not Homer but the aged priest. (Pl. Rep. 393a-b)

Speaking in the voice of someone else; speaking in a borrowed voice, as if you were somebody else; allowing yourself to become virtually “invisible”, while you fuse and merge with somebody “other” than yourself . . . This is not just what Homer does, in Plato's text; this is the professional calling of the actor. The actor who, in most European theatrical traditions, performs his role in such a way as to yield the impression that he does not merely act the character, but “is it, looks it, breathes it”. (W. Hazlitt, The Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, London 1930-4, vol. 12. p. 326, in admiration of the famous Italian opera singer Madame Giuditta Pasta) If, in Plato's view, Homer tries to persuade us that it is not himself who is speaking but his character instead, so does, par excellence, the ancient tragic actor: for the duration of the play, he acts as if he were the character he imitates; he invites the spectator to suspend his disbelief, allow the knowledge of his professional identity as Polus or Theodorus or Neoptolemus to recede to the background and accept him as if he were Oedipus or Medea or Antigone, the legendary characters themselves (see further I. Lada-Richards, “‘Estrangement’ or ‘Reincarnation’? Performers and performance on the Classical Athenian Stage”, Arion 5.2 (1997) 66-107).

More interestingly still, it was not only Plato and Aristotle who conceived of Homer's art as inherently dramatic. Generations of ancient critics- erudite scholars who commented on Homer's art from a staggering variety of viewpoints- know full well that Homer is very “good-to-think-with” in performative terms. In the voluminous writings of Homeric scholiasts there is no shortage of comments emphasising how perfectly theatrical entire scenes and episodes are -even those which would not have immediately sprung to our mind in connection with performability. On the description of Hephaestus working on his great anvil, in Iliad 18, for example, a scholiast remarks:

Homer has wonderfully moulded Hephaestus the moulder, as if he had wheeled him out (ekkuklêsas) on the stage (epi skênês) and had clearly displayed the forge before our eyes. (see R. Meijering, Literary and Rhetorical Theories in Greek Scholia, Groningen 1987, ch. 1, n. 80)

And, even beyond the tradition of pagan scholiasts and literary critics, I'd like to draw your attention to a Christian sophist, Choricius, writing and declaiming in the Palestinian city of Gaza in the time of the Emperor Justinian (6th cent. AD). In a most eloquent passage, Choricius reminds his audience of their experience as spectators of pantomime-dancing, where the dancer, as well as “enchanting” them with his art, tries to persuade them that “he does not merely imitate but is by nature (pefuke) the very thing he imitates (touto ho de mimeitai)”. And, to reinforce his argument, Choricius turns to none other but Homer. “So”, he says,

Homer too dances by means of his epics. Or are you unable to perceive that Homer gives the impression that he is whatever he wants to be? For in my case, at least, he carries away my imagination, and whether he impersonates (hypokrinetai) a young man from Aetolia or the old man from Pylos or anyone at all among the Achaeans and their opponents, it seems to me that I see the very man (auton horan moi dokô) whom he happens to be impersonating (hypokrinomenos) ... (Oratio 21. 1-2, p. 248 Foerster)

More than ten centuries after Plato, the quintessentially dramatic language of “becoming” and “being” someone else through impersonation (hypokrisis) is applied, once again, to Homer, who, on top of that, is paired-up with the most mimetic of all performers, the pantomimos-the man who imitates all.

Now, it is hard to dispute the fact that impersonation, understood as the full-scale and complete assumption of another person's identity by means of appearance-transformation, is the quintessence of drama. “A Description is only a shadow received by the eare but not perceived by the eye”, writes Thomas Heywood, the most important 17th cent. defender of the theatre and its actors. It,

...can neither shew action, passion, motion, or any other gesture, to moove the spirits of the beholder to admiration: but to see a souldier shap'd like a souldier, walke, speake, act like a souldier: to see a Hector all besmered in blood, trampling upon the bulkes of Kinges . . . . to see a Pompey ride in triumph, then a Ceasar conquer that Pompey . . . to see, as I have seen, Hercules in his own shape hunting the Boare, .. . as if the Personater were the man Personated . . . , (T. Heywood, An Apology for Actors, London 1612, sig. B3)

This is an experience unique to drama. Yet, Heywood would have been very much surprised to find out that Greek literary tradition does place tremendous emphasis on the ability of pure logos, speech un-aided by imitation, to conjure-up a realistic vision before the eyes of a listener. "As soon as the tongue has uttered his name, the listener's soul has immediately conjured-up his appearance, his hair, his soft dress, and ultimately the very man himself ...", (In Ioannem, Hom. 18 [Patrologia Graeca 59. 119]), says the Church Father John Chrysostom, anxious to demonstrate to his congregation the danger of even bringing up the mere names of pantomime dancers in one's conversation-let alone going to see them in person. Besides, literary criticism as well as rhetorical theory and practice are obsessed, one might say, with the ability of logos, whether heard or read, to turn the listener or reader into an eyewitness, a privileged spectator of persons or events. “To almost see the things narrated”; “to fashion spectators out of listeners”; “to converse with whatever characters the orator introduces, as if they were present” . . . : such are the standard expressions in literary and artistic criticism, rhetorical treatises and even historiography from the Hellenistic times and beyond. “Nobody who applies his mind to the speeches of Lysias”, writes Dionysius of Halicarnassus, “will be so obtuse, insensitive or slow-witted that he will not imagine that he can see happening the very actions which are being described, and that he converses with whatever characters the orator introduces, as if they were present (hosper parousin)” (Lysias, 7). As you can easily imagine, Homeric scholiasts, expert literary critics that they are, do not lag behind, but are keen to detect such deeply dramatic qualities in Homer himself: Homer, they say, “projects vividly everything that he imagines, so that his listeners are in no way at a disadvantage in relation to theatrical spectators”. (see Meijering, op.cit, 7.5.1)

But, there's also another issue at stake here- something that links together the stage actor, the bard, and the skilled narrator of stories in general. What I mean is the ability to see, or make the spectators see, things or persons that are not physically present and objectively visible. So, for example, the actor playing Orestes at the beginning of Euripides' Orestes is required by the tragic plot to “see” Furies invisible to the other stage-characters or the theatrical audience, in the same way that 18th cent. sources tell us that the famous actor Garrick, in the role of Macbeth, visualised the fictitious dagger so vividly that nobody saw him “trace the imaginary dagger previous to Duncan's murder without embodying by sympathy, insubstantial air into the alarming shape of such a weapon.” (F. Gentleman, The Dramatic Censor or Critical Companion, 2 vols. London 1770 vol. i. 108) Similarly, when Homer addresses one of his characters in the second person: “then, o swineherd Eumaeus, you said to him in answer. . . ”(Od. 14. 360) or “there, Patroklos, the end of your life was shown forth, | since Apollo came against you there in the strong encounter” (Il. 16. 787-8), “the dividing line between private imagination and public experience is at its weakest” (E. J. Bakker, “Discourse and Performance: Involvement, Visualization and ‘Presence’ in Homeric Poetry”, Classical Antiquity 12 [1993] p. 23) : the bard is so involved in his performance that in his eyes, his heroes are “present”. He converses with them face to face, as if they were here, as if they had a separate existence, and were impersonated by real actors in a fully fledged theatrical event. And there is actually a wonderful passage in a late Greek prose text, Heliodorus' Aethiopian Story, which focuses precisely on the very theatrical power of oral performance to create, ex nihilo, human “presence”.

An aged priest, Kalasiris, narrates to a younger man, Knemon, the adventures of his special charges, Charikleia and Theagenes, the protagonists of the novel. At some point, while he is still narrating, Knemon exclaims:

‘It's them!’ . . . ‘It's Charikleia and Theagenes!’.
‘Where are they? In the name of the gods, show me!’, implored Kalasiris, supposing that Knemon could actually see them.
‘They are not here, Father’, replied Knemon, ‘but your description portrayed them so vividly, so exactly as I know them from my own experience, that they seemed to be before my eyes.’
‘Such a sweet deception, such a pleasant mistake, Knemon! My heart was all aflutter when I thought you could see my beloved children and were telling me they were here.’ ” (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, 3. 4; transl. J. R. Morgan)

It is precisely this “sweet deception” that the Homeric narrative engineers for its listeners; Homer is “theatrical” in so far as he makes the absent present, and evokes his own characters so vividly that, to use an anthropological term, they may seem to enact “a genuine breakthrough in the performance”. (see Bakker, art. cit., 23)

Homer the impersonator, then; Homer who becomes somebody “other” than himself; Homer who, like a dramatist, enables us to “see” his characters, to “see” the action unfold ...
But, what about the professional performer of Homer in ancient Greece? What about the so-called rhapsode, the man who “sews together (raptei)” and performs them competitively all over the Greek world at state-sponsored religious festivals, such as the Panathenaic festival? If Homer could be conceived of as a dramatist, could the professional performer of Homer in ancient Greece be conceived of theatrically, as an actor?

We've got many beautiful vase-paintings of rhapsodes “in performance” but only one extensive literary narrative which can give us an insight into the peculiarities of their art. This narrative is Plato's little dialogue Ion. The protagonist, Ion of Ephesus, is a professional rhapsode, who travels around Greece reciting poetry and earns his living from the prizes he wins at rhapsodic contests; Ion's interlocutor is none other but Socrates, who explicitly pairs-up rhapsodes and actors: “you, the rhapsode and actor”, he addresses Ion. (Ion 536a, 532d; see also Rep. 373b7, Leg. 764d5-e2; Rep. 395a8; Leg. 658b7-c1, with B. Graziosi, Inventing the Poet, diss. Cambridge 2000, p. 28). It is, in fact, perfectly conceivable that, especially in the early days of Athenian theatre, the art of the stage-actor was greatly influenced by the art of the rhapsode. (see R. Cantarella, “L'influsso degli attori sulla tradizione dei testi tragici”, in Scritti Minori sul Teatro Greco, Brescia 1970, p. 145) As for much later periods, deeply into the Hellenistic world, we have good evidence that the same professional performers could be famous both in tragedy as well as in epic recitations.

So, let us see: in what particular ways does Ion, the reciter of epic poetry, resemble a theatrical actor, a stage-performer of tragic poetry? “Tell me, now, Ion, without reserve what I may choose to ask you,” says the Platonic Socrates:

When you give a good recitation and astound your audience most deeply, either with the lay of Odysseus jumping onto the threshold, revealing himself to the suitors and pouring out the arrows before his feet, or of Achilles charging against Hector, or some part of the sad story of Andromache or Hecuba or Priam: at those times are you in your senses? Or are you carried out of yourself, so that your soul is possessed and supposes itself to be present at the actions you are describing, whether they be in Ithaca, or in Troy, or as the poems may chance to place them? (Plato, Ion 535b-e)

To be imaginatively transposed into the centre of the performative world, among the very scenes you are describing: this is one of the distinctive qualities of truly inspired bardic song in the Homeric poems themselves, in so far as we can gauge from the “embedded” performances of professional bards like Democodus or Phemius. How nicely you have related the story of the Achaeans' homecoming- Odysseus praises Demodocus in the Phaeacian palace: “as if you had been there yourself or heard it from one who was” (Od. 8. 487ff). However, imaginative projection into the situations, the environement and the general conditions laid down by the stage-director is also an important element in acting technique. One of the two interlocutors in Diderot's Paradox on the Art of the Actor highlights those moments when, as a stage-performer, he forgets he is in the theatre and feels himself transported into the middle of Argos or Mycenae. (see F. C. Green, Diderot's Writings on the Theatre, Cambridge 1936, p 306) In fact, the kind of imaginative journey through a legendary past that Plato ascribes to his rhapsode, is more or less a fixture in European romantic visions of the actor's art. In periods where stage-acting is considered an expression of genius and inspired creativity, the actor's imagination is thought -and here I quote from the great actor Talma- “to transport[s] him back to the past and to enable[s] him to look on at the lives of historical personages or the impassioned figures created by genius ..” (Talma on the Actor's Art, with a Preface by H. Irving, London 1883, p. 13).

But let's move on with Plato's text, to look at what is perhaps the most eloquent rendition of artistic “subjectivity” that ancient performative discourse has bequeathed to us. Plato endows Ion with an almost “Stanislavskian” degree of empathy with his role, when he makes Ion confess to Socrates:

I will tell you without reserve: when I recite something pitiful, my eyes are filled up with tears; when something fearful or terrible, my hair stands on end with fear and my heart pounds. (Ion 535c)

Now, you may very well say at this point, in a Shakespearean way: this fictitious confession of a fictitious rhapsode does not hold “a mirror- up- to nature”, to the performative reality of rhapsodic performances, whether in Athens or anywhere else in the Greek world. We simply do not know -and never will- how much of his heart the rhapsode was prepared to pour into his recitations and how congruent his own feelings were likely to be with the feelings inscribed in his text. Fine. But it seems to me that this Platonic insight, exaggerated or not, as the case may be, dovetails beautifully with what little information we've got on ways in which the ancient actor's emotional engagement with his role could be conceptualised:

Ion who lives the emotional life of his characters and experiences the feelings of his characters is no different from, say, the late antique pantomime actor who, if we believe his funeral inscription, “shared in the passion” of the legendary figures he was called upon to incarnate in his dancing. (IG xiv. 1224) The fifth-century BC actor Phocion, who allegedly saved the defeated Athens from complete destruction by means of his heart-rending singing of the Euripidean Electra's lament at a private assembly of the victorious Peloponnesian generals (Plut. Vit. Lys. 15. 2-3) and the fourth-century BC actor, who enacted the Euripidean Merope “with such excessive passion” (sphodra empathôs) that he managed to move the cruel tyrant Alexander of Pherae to tears, (Aelian, Varia Historia 14.40; cf. Plut. Pelopidas 29.5) share with Ion, the rhapsode, the artistic ability to feel themselves “into” the consciousness of other people, to identify themselves with a variety of incarnated “others”.

Ion's empathic weeping with the pain of grief or trembling with the agony of fear is in perfect accord with Aristotle's, Cicero's, and Quintilian's admonitions to all public speakers that persuasiveness can only stem from genuine passion; totally submerged in the roles he incarnates, Ion resembles some of the actors Quintilian has in mind, performers so much irradiated with the passions they portray that they leave the theatre “still drowned in tears after the performance of some moving role”. (Quint. Inst. 6. 2. 35)

Now in most acting traditions of European theatre-production, one of the greatest skills of the stage performer resides in his ability to carry his spectators along with him, to irradiate their soul with his own passion. “If he was angry, so was you: if he was distressed, so was you: if he was terrified, so was you. He was an enchanter, and led you where he pleased”, reads one of the many obituaries for David Garrick, the celebrated 18th cent. Shakespearean actor (Whitehall Evening Post, 17 March 1779). There is a very special channel of communication between actor and audience which can only be sustained by the transfusion of emotion, the identity of shared feelings. So, Ion describes his own listeners as completely swept away with the tides of anguish swelling in his own breast:

I look down upon them from the platform and see them . . . crying and turning awestruck eyes upon me and yielding to the amazement of my tale. (Ion 535e)

His ability to play to the audience's hearts is not without parallel in the art of his contemporary tragic actors; the famous Kallipides, for example, was said to be exceedingly proud of his ability “to fill the seats with weeping audiences” (Xen. Symp. 3. 11), while in Theodorus' perspective the wonder of his art resided in his skill to make spectators “tearful and wailing” (Plut. Mor. 545f). Ion and his audience, then, are locked in a markedly performative discourse. But, apart from the performer-audience interaction, one further point of concern in western performative traditions is the “perfect” distance between impersonator and model on the stage: by what mechanism does one achieve a degree of likeness to one's model that is neither so fleeting and superficial as to be fragile, nor so overwhelming as to risk annihilating one's sense of separate identity. The heyday of nineteenth-century emotionalist acting, for example, saw a proliferation of theories on the actor's “double” or even “multiple” consciousness, arguing that a performer can be both fully absorbed in his role and in perfect possession of his critical faculties, on the alert for every detail of his method. There are many compartments in the actor's brain, writes the 19th cent. critic William Archer,

...and one of them may be agonising with Othello, while another is criticising his every tone and gesture, a third restraining him from strangling Iago in good earnest, and a fourth wondering whether the play will be over in time to let him catch his last train.” (W. Archer, Masks or Faces? A Study in the Psychology of Acting, London 1888, p. 150)

It is a very similar kind of multiple consciousness that the Platonic Ion sustains in the course of his performance. His artistic transformation is neither so all-encompassing that it might allow the part ‘to run away with him’ nor so superficial that it would prevent him from being filled with the passions he portrays. Ion cries and laughs with his characters, but, like the famous 19th cent. actor Tommaseo Salvini, he never stops watching his tears and his laughter: (see S. Moore, The Stanislavski System, London 1966, p. 83)

For I look down upon them on each occasion from the raised platform and see them weeping and casting fearful looks upon me and sharing in the amazement of my tale. And indeed I have to be exceptionally intent on them, for if I set them crying I will laugh myself because of the money I will get, but if I cause them to laugh, I myself will cry because of the money I will have lost. (Ion 535e)

Finally, a rhapsode's “involved” performance, such as we have it described in Plato's dialogue, has a bearing on one of the most persistent questions tangled up with theatrical representation: I mean the paradox whereby both actors and spectators experience real pain over sufferings which they know to be fictitious - as Isocrates puts it, they “weep over calamities fabricated by poets”. (Isocr. 4. 168) Ion is skilfully led to problematise the emotional and intellectual condition of the rhapsode who,

...adorned with wonderful robes and golden garlands, cries at sacrifices and festivals, although he has lost none of these things; or else stands in the middle of 20,000 friendly people, and yet he is trembling with fear, although no one is trying to rob him or do him wong. (Ion 535d)

It seems to me this is the same paradox that the late Greek poet Nonnus touches upon, when he talks of the strange and misplaced tears shed by pantomime viewers, “mourning the death of an imaginary Phaethon”. (Dionysiaca 30. 113-14) Ion's profoundly histrionic ability to become so submerged into his roles as to feel with the feelings of his characters even when deprived of the “motive and the cue for passion” is, as Hamlet would have thought, the quintessence of the acting disposition. Just as Plato's Socrates marvels at Ion's emotional turmoil which has no grounding in reality, Shakespeare's Hamlet is bemused by the stage-Player's ability to display signs of genuine anguish over “alien”, as Gorgias would say, “misfortunes”:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing?
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? (Hamlet, 2.2. 503-12)

I have virtually no time left, so I will only venture one closing remark that will allow me to go back to and end with Homer.

Irrespective of the way in which Homer was performed in later times, the epics themselves contain some of the most arresting images of “acting” embedded in the Greek literary tradition. For who can forget Odysseus and his proto-artistic skills in transformation -Odysseus who creeps secretly into Troy, “having disguised himself in the likeness of somebody else, a beggar”, (Od. 4. 246-7) or Odysseus who, back on his native Ithaca, is being theatrically transformed, as if by a producer/stage-director, into an elderly vagrant, in need of sustenance:

So, spoke Athene, and with her wand she tapped Odysseus,
and withered the handsome flesh that was upon his flexible
limbs, and ruined the brown hair on his head, and about him,
to cover all his body, she put the skin of an anccient
old man, and then she dimmed those eyes that had been so handsome.
Then she put another vile rag on him, and a tunic,
tattered, squalid, blackened with the foul smoke, and over it
gave him the big hide of a fast-running deer, with the hairs rubbed
off, to wear, and she gave him a staff, and an ugly wallet
that was full of holes, with a twist of rope attached, to dangle it.
(Od. 13. 429-38; transl. R. Lattimore)

King turned beggar for the purpose of deception, Odysseus will have to play the role of a beggar in his own palace in order to exact revenge. Appearance- transformation and behavioural pretence; a false, fake, counterfeit exterior, which hides and conceals a real, inner self: it seems that the Homeric Odysseus bears the indelible marks of an “artistic” personality.

And by no means is he in absence of good company! For even the famous 4th cent. actor Parmenon, allegedly an expert in the imitation of the cry of pigs, (Plut. Mor. 18c and 674b) would have been envious of the vocal repertoire of yet another histrionic character in Homer : Helen, the beautiful Helen, the very cause of the Trojan War. Mistress of mimesis, mistress of many voices and an expert in creating deceptive likenesses, Helen walks round the hollow ambush of the Trojan horse and calls by name each one of the best of the Danaans, making her voice sound exactly like the voice of each Greek man's wife. (Od. 4. 274-89) Unexcelled impersonator, a consummate actress before the art of stage-acting, Helen is perhaps the best example of the latent theatricality of the Homeric narrative, the best example of its unique ability to lend itself to performative reconstruction.

Dr Ismene Lada-Richards
Dept of Classics
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS