Monday, October 6, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Graham Ley, The Theatricality of Greek Tragedy: Playing Space and Chorus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. 240; halftones 5, line drawings 14. ISBN 978-0-226-47757-2. $40.00.
Reviewed by Mary-Kay Gamel, University of California, Santa Cruz

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in submitting this review.]

This book focuses on two aspects of the performance of Athenian tragedy which, as the author notes, are central to the understanding of this dramatic genre. Each discussed in a long chapter, these are the playing space and the chorus, in particular the singing and dancing of the latter.

Ley consistently seeks to distance his version of ancient performance from contemporary ideas about drama. Athenian tragedy was "a kind of performance that is substantially unfamiliar to us" (x) which was not "straining in some way to reach the present" (6). Ley focuses on practice, since "nothing can be presented in any theater that is not practical when performers, objects, action, and space are involved" (47), but the only practice that matters to him is the original production conditions. He praises Ewans' research through practice and criticizes Taplin for his "anachronistic" concept of "stagecraft," especially his focus on entrances and exits (2-3).

Overall Ley tries to reorient the discussion of tragedy in three important ways. First, he stresses the role of the chorus (which he always calls choros) rather than that of the individual characters (whom he calls "actor/characters"), arguing that "the substantial function of the original, separate performer" was to address the chorus. Later developments, he believes, provide a "gradual amplification of a choric form of performance, not a move away from it" (7) since "the singing and dancing of a choros were a sufficient satisfaction in themselves" (9) and "The situation and state of the choros, expressed in song and dance, provides the core of the tragic experience" (202).

Second, Ley focuses on the orchestra rather than the skene. The latter appeals to modern scholars, he believes, because its "frame" accords with modern performance conditions but he believes the central feature of the ancient playing space, "physically and in conception, is the space in which a choros sings and dances" (8). He finds strong connections between dithyramb and tragedy, since the former was "the defining choros of the democracy" which represented the new tribal structure of Athens (173) and united "the orchestra and theatron on behalf of the Athenian polis in honor of Dionysus" (8). He puts much emphasis on the circle--of performers, not of the playing space, since what happened inside was far more important than its outline (8)--and connects the circular form to democratic institutions.

Third, Ley thinks spoken dialogue has been given too much precedence over song and dance (which he calls choreia) and that the distinction between these modes has been overemphasized. He refers to the Greek playwrights as "composers" and thinks the text of a Greek tragedy should be understood "as a vocal rather than just a semantic script." He distinguishes between different modes of vocal delivery and correctly points out that translations "are often unconcerned to differentiate" between these modes (85).

Ley's attempt to redefine and tighten the terms of discussions of tragedy is thorough. He consistently downplays the influence of individual playwrights, because "the notion of personal poetry . . . so dear and so essential to the modern tradition" is less important in the ancient world (130). At times this emphasis seems forced, for example when he says about the conclusion of Eumenides and the transformation of the Furies into protectors of Athens: "Dionysian composition, and the powers of the Dionysian festival, are here at their most confident" (195), as if the artistic and political ideology of Aeschylus had nothing to do with this conclusion. He focuses on general trends, not variations, seeking a "degree of regularity . . . in the repeated use of similar conditions for composition and presentation" (8) and frequently uses terms such as "familiar" "long-established" "unexceptional." He critiques cultural and ideological preconceptions both ancient (especially Plato's ethical and political concerns) and modern (such as "Oriental softness" [139] or Wiles' semiotic and structuralist analysis) and even objects to the term "lyric" for choral odes because the lyre was not used in tragic performances (84).

The bulk of the first chapter (9-111) consists of discussions of what would now be called "blocking," i.e. how Ley thinks the chorus and actors of various plays would have moved in the orchestra. He gives special attention to altars, tombs, and vehicles, presumably because these are alternatives to the skene as foci of attention: "the altar, tomb, or shrine contributes strongly to a definition of the space essential to the action in which it is involved" (63) and "a material construction is a potential reference point in a way in which a space is not" (45). In general he argues that the chorus is the center of the play: "the choros is the addressee of the characters almost constantly" (17) and "the playing space is defined . . . by the presence of the choros within it" (18). He acknowleges that in Oresteia Aeschylus introduces innovations, such as a third actor and perhaps the ekkuklema, but insists that "continuity is what matters" (25) since the playwright "is demonstrably more interested in playing with the new resource in its effects on the playing space than in substantially changing the theatricality for which he composes" (33).

For readers who know these plays intimately, the first chapter will be the most important part of the book, and it is indeed very valuable. Oresteia receives the most attention and there are many thoughtful comments, such as those on how the opening of Eumenides might have been staged; the discussion of vehicles and of Oedipus at Colonus are also excellent. Other plays receive only a page or two. This chapter, however, is likely to be inaccessible to anyone except specialists. The text contains almost no quotations at all, though line numbers are cited; Ley admits he is thinking of a "reader with a script in hand" (182). Another difficulty for nonspecialist readers is that Ley rarely offers an interpretation of the meaning and effect of the blocking he proposes. The few times he does make me wish for more. For example, at the end of his analysis of Andromache's scene in Trojan Women, which he calls "extraordinarily powerful," he argues that Andromache descends from the vehicle in which she is brought in to sing and dance with her mother even though there is no mention of a descent in the text. He comments that "the lack of reference to a descent can be explained by the lack of its ultimate significance: it is, brutally, no more than a moment in her passing on to slavery, deprived of all she ever had" (82). Pointing out that Prometheus uses anapaests, which imply movement, he suggests that composing anapaests "for an actor/character who has been violently placed in a position in which he cannot move may be an impressive, performative effect" (86). Had Ley offered more such interpretations, this chapter would have been greatly enriched.

Whereas many other commentators focus on dramaturgical novelty, especially in the case of Euripides, Ley focuses on continuity throughout his discussions of Sophocles and Euripides. "The way the playing space was defined and exploited until the Oresteia was completely acceptable to one if not two generations of composers and spectators" (45). "Close analysis of these scenes and sequences from the tragedies after Aeschylus confirms the continuity of composition for the full ground of the playing space" (111).

Ley's discussion of blocking is illustrated by ten diagrams, as well as three drawings, which I find out of scale. Though the diagrams are useful, they are still inadequate, and their inadequacy marks what seems to me a tremendous problem for scholars working in performance studies: the use of the two-dimensional print medium to discuss a phenomenon which exists in four dimensions. An electronic medium which permits moving images would be far more efficient and effective in conveying Ley's analysis, and he acknowledges as much: "the "full extent [of movement] . . . is something that silent and static diagrams and drawings cannot do" (204). It is past time for performance studies scholars to develop a medium which can more effectively communicate the full range of our ideas.

The second chapter offers an extended discussion of non-dramatic choroi and a brief one of dramatic choroi (including, despite the book's title, satyr play and comedy, as well as tragedy). Arguing that because of its pitch accent ancient Greek is "already musical," Ley stresses the prominence of music in Greek culture, "understood throughout Greek antiquity as an emphatic and delightful manifestation of the rhythms of words or physical movement" and doubts "whether any purely spoken poetry existed in the archaic and classical periods" (134). He argues for the close collocation of music and dance, suggesting that molpe may mean both song and dance, pointing out that in Theogony the Muses both dance and sing (121) and arguing that there is no reason to assume that choroi of singers in the Homeric hymns did not dance (123). Noting the absence of written notation, he argues that songs were composed and transmitted orally and aurally, and that the Athenian dramatic choroi were taught by ear (135). He stresses the importance of commissions "from a community or those who were accepted as representing it" (128) and thinks "when the compositions are for choroi they are undoubtedly commissions" 129, but he does not consider the politics of song which has been so effectively discussed by Kurke and others. At the end of the chapter he returns to the dithyramb and calls it "the defining choros of the democracy . . . [which] represented the new tribal structure of Athens . . . authentically Dionysian . . . [with] a history stretching back before tragedy" (173).

In the very brief Conclusion, Ley characterizes his book as "a review of different kinds of evidence" (206). The bibliography is extensive, but not excessive. In the second chapter especially he offers thoughtful and effective evaluations of other scholars' views about ancient Greek music and dance, including scholars both well-known, such as Calame, Scott, Webster, and Wiles, and lesser-known (at least to me), such as Lillian Lawler and Germaine Prudhommeau. These discussions bring up important general points, such as the late and questionable sources on the "reversal" of choreography (172), and the problem pitch accent offers to the question of strophe/antistrophe structure ("responsion"): getting "the accentual inflections in the words corresponding consistently is a matter of extreme difficulty" (169). He concludes the chapter with an overview of the role of the chorus in satyr play, comedy, and tragedy. Here again he seeks general answers--comic choruses involve themselves in aggression, tragic choruses don't--while acknowledging the difficulty of finding such answers: "no interesting descriptive statement . . . will apply without exception to all eleven of Aristophanes' surviving comedies" (189).

This is an important and useful book. It raises important questions, such as "How would a combination of movement and gesture (cheironomia) of the indicative or semiotic kind be set in reverse, rather than simply repeated? What exactly is the relation between movement and gesture in Greek dance? Is there any distinction to be made between combined movement and gesture in Greek terms and our own modern sense of choreographic design?" (172-3). Its focus, however, is willfully, almost perversely narrow. Ley avoids or barely mentions important aspects of theatricality such as performers, costume, ritual, politics, and audience (the drawings show an empty theatron!). Perhaps he chose to do so because he discusses some of these in his introduction to Greek theater,1 but such a narrow focus limits the value of this study. This narrowness is especially unfortunate given the author's broad knowledge of drama beyond that of ancient Greece; he has published two books on theater theory.2

Ley acknowledges our desire to experience the theatricality he evokes ("the sound we want to hear" [144]; tragic composition is "an art that aims to realize exciting opportunities for singing and dancing" [203] and "what we need . . . is an aesthetic sense of movement" [205]). He hopes "that readers might feel able to draw their own conclusions . . . , to disagree with mine, or feel encouraged to pursue their own researches or practical explorations" (206). Yet he focuses relentlessly on limitations, uncertainty, lack: "the sad fact is that we know very little of the music for tragedy" (147); "All of the approaches face great difficulties, and it may not be possible to extract much from them that encourages confidence" (205). Of course the limitations on the ancient evidence are dismaying, but Ley disavows several ways to enhance his readers' understanding. Only rarely does he interpret what evidence there is; he rejects considering theatrical traditions such as No and Kathakali which have certain analogies to Greek drama; and there is not one reference to how later productions stage the dramas he discusses, not even productions such as Ewans', which are consciously trying to do research into ancient performance conditions through practice. David Wiles' book, which makes use of all three of these approaches, offers a far broader and more engaging discussion of the theatricality of ancient Greek drama.3

Finally, I believe that Ley's insistence that "the theatricality of Greek tragedy deserves to be appreciated on its own terms" (206) is wrongheaded both theoretically and practically. There is no way a twenty-first century person--no matter how learned, no matter how earnestly trying to be "objective"--can understand a phenomenon from an earlier time "on its own terms." In an important passage illustrated by examples from the ancient Mediterranean world, Fredric Jameson argues that our understanding of history is always dialectic, oscillating between Identity and Difference: "If we choose to affirm the Identity of the alien object with ourselves--if we decide that it is more or less directly or intuitively accessible to us--then we have presupposed what was to have been demonstrated, and our apparent 'comprehension' of these alien texts must be haunted by the nagging suspicion that we have all the while remained locked in our own present. . . . Yet if we decide to reverse this initial stance, and to affirm the radical Difference of the alien object from ourselves, then at once the doors of comprehension begin to swing closed and we find ourselves separated from the whole density of our own culture from objects of cultures thus initially defined as Other from ourselves and thus as irremediably inaccessible."4 Therefore we cannot, he believes, "conclude that a 'value-free' and henceforth 'scientific' historiography is capable of freeing us from the binary opposition of Identity and Difference, and of piercing such ideological representations in order to replace them with an 'objective' account of the realities of the ancient world. Perhaps, on the contrary, we need to take into account the possibility that our contact with the past will always pass through the imaginary and through its ideologies." In insisting on the absolute Difference of Athenian tragedy in performance Ley has rendered it inaccessible to the great majority of readers.


1.   Graham Ley, A Short Introduction to Ancient Greek Theater, revised edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
2.   Graham Ley, From Mimesis to Interculturalism: Readings of Theatrical Theory Before and after 'Modernism', Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999; Jane Milling and Graham Ley, Modern Theories of Performance, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001.
3.   David Wiles, Greek Theatre Performance: an Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
4.   Fredric Jameson, "Marxism and Historicism," The Ideologies of Theory, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988): 148-77.

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