Thursday, February 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Karelisa V. Hartigan, Performance and Cure: Drama and Healing in Ancient Greece and Contemporary America. Classical Inter/faces. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. xiv, 124. ISBN 9780715636398. £14.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Dan Stahl, University of Missouri

[Table of Contents listed at the end of the review.]

In this slim but eclectic book, Karelisa V. Hartigan delivers what her title promises. Performance and Cure: Drama and Healing in Ancient Greece and Contemporary America considers the relationship between theatrical performance and individual convalescence in two contexts: the Asklepieion of Ancient Greece and the modern American hospital. As stated in the preface, this comparative study sprang from the question of why theaters "stand in or adjacent to the majority of ancient sanctuaries dedicated to Asklepios" (vii). To produce her answer -- drama can and did function as a means of healing -- Hartigan traverses the fields of several disciplines, among them archeology, medicine, theatre, and epigraphy. (That she divides a book of only 124 pages into five sections bespeaks the breadth of its scope.) The temporal and topical reach of this study sometimes occludes its central focus, but Hartigan offers a thoughtful argument that connects the past with the present in an innovative way.

That Performance and Cure forges such a link should come as no surprise, given its provenance. The book is part of the Classical Inter/Faces series, a subdivision of Duckworth that explores the interplay (inter/play?) between the classical and modern worlds. Previous installments have addressed topics as varied as gender1 and gardens,2 though theatre receives generous attention,3 as Hartigan's own contribution testifies. Two crucial questions confronting comparative studies such as these are (1) how much respective attention to accord the past and present and (2) how to situate one within the context of the other.4 Hartigan steers a middle course, as the segments into which she divides Performance and Cure indicate: Drama and Healing in Contemporary Medicine (I); Drama and Healing in Ancient Greece (II); Drama and Healing in the Contemporary American Hospital (III); Asklepios Beyond the Classical World (IV); and Conclusion and Epilogue (V). A summary of each section will furnish the basis needed to assess the book as a whole:

I. Drama and Healing in Contemporary Medicine

Hartigan first addresses the "interaction between body and psyche"5 with a view to illness (3). After two centuries of operating under an assumption of "the mind-body split set out by René Descartes," modern Western medicine, she argues, is returning to a more holistic conception of the self, reminiscent of Hippokratic thinking (6). "Recent studies in medicine . . . work from Hippokrates' statement that physicians are in error when they separate the mind and soul from the body" (5-6). For Hartigan, a recognition of the mind-body connection shapes the doctor-patient relationship. Again ancient thought parallels contemporary science. Plato (Laws IV. 720) advocates "an honest and caring relationship" between doctor and patient, just as recent placebo studies demonstrate the value of a compassionate physician (6). A subsection titled "Art and Medicine" develops the idea that drama can help to heal the sick. Aristotle's discussion of catharsis inevitably arises, a concept that Hartigan believes "has relevance to contemporary theatre as therapy" (13). Yet she takes care, here and elsewhere, to differentiate traditional Dionysian drama from that which allegedly played at the Asklepieia.

II. Drama and Healing in Ancient Greece

Easily the longest section (at sixty-two pages, it constitutes half of the book), Part II approaches its subject from several different directions. Hartigan first scrutinizes the mythical figure of Asklepios: his origins, his heroic status, his divine status, and his characteristic staff, often confused with Hermes' caduceus. Next comes a reconstruction of the healing process at an ancient sanctuary of Asklepios. Leaning heavily on Aristophanes' Wealth, Hartigan relates how a typical invalid slept overnight in the abaton and received a cure via dream. More daringly, she suggests that the priests of Asklepios performed a dramatic pageant in the evening "to prepare the patients to receive the dreams sent by the god" (29). The evidence which follows comes mainly from iamata, inscriptions at the sanctuary composed by the newly healed, and concerns the dreams rather than the pageants.

This section also contains a tour of important Asklepieia. The synopsis is not intended to offer an exhaustive catalogue6 but to prove a point. Every sanctuary except Trikka's includes a theater and/or odeion on or near the site. Hartigan argues that in Athens patients watched pageants at the Theater of Dionysus, thereby explaining the sanctuary's placement on the south slope of the Akropolis.

III. Drama and Healing in the Contemporary American Hospital

Here Performance and Cure returns to the present with an account of drama-based healing in Shands Hospital at the University of Florida. Playback Theatre, an acting troupe of which Hartigan herself is a member, interprets and performs the experiences of patients at Shands. "Seeing their story performed," she explains, "helps the patients to come to terms with it" (87). Hartigan compares this approach not to any elements of Asklepieian ritual, as one might expect, but to Homeric epic. The Playback technique of improvisation within a narrative framework harks back to Greek oral poetry. As Hartigan puts it, the "distinct forms which the troupe uses to play back a story's action . . . function for the Playback actors as do the formulas of oral composition for the epic bard" (82).

IV. Asklepios Beyond the Classical World

This section briefly compares Asklepios with Jesus and the healing saints of the Greek Orthodox Church. "Asklepios was the Greek divinity that most challenged Jesus," Hartigan contends, pointing to such parallels as their miraculous births and miracle cures (93). Asklepios' healing powers do not appear to have threatened Saints Kosmas and Damian, however. Many churches dedicated to the two saints arose near or on top of ancient Asklepieia, a sign not so much of displacement as "assimiliation" (97).

V. Conclusion and Epilogue

The closing pages seek to tie the disparate strands of the book together and at the same time entwine a new one. Hartigan concludes with an account of her own recent history as a hospital patient at Shands and beneficiary of Playback Theatre during her multiple stays. Such experience allows the author to testify personally to drama's capacity for healing.

With its attention to drama, healing, and antiquity, Performance and Cure engages three topics whose interactions have lately attracted substantial interest both in and outside the academy. (Avid BMCR readers will recall BMCR 2009.12.20, BMCR 2009.12.40, and BMCR 2009.12.42, and Hartigan herself notes that the recent literature on drama therapy is "vast" (83).) As a classicist and amateur actress, Hartigan brings to these issues an unusually broad perspective and, at her best, employs material from one sphere to illuminate another. The comparison drawn between the findings of recent placebo studies and the importance Hippokrates attaches to "the concern the physician must have for his patients" is just one notable example (8).

Sometimes the breadth of Performance and Cure works against it. Hartigan's dual purpose to "discuss how drama performed for patients was part of the ritual enacted at the ancient Asklepieia and how and why it assists in the healing process for the modern patient" suggests a certain symmetry between the two practices (ix). As many insightful comparisons as Hartigan does make between ancient and modern medicine, this central correlation deserves fuller treatment. To prove that "dramatic pageants" constituted an "important part of the healing process" at the sanctuaries of Asklepios requires more information about their nature and content (29). Hartigan speculates that these "mini-dramas" were comical (on the basis of some remarks of Athenaeus) and brief, but, because none of them has survived, one does not know "[w]hat was said in these plays" (29). Even if the reader accepts the claim that these pageants prepared invalids for a dream encounter with Asklepios, a significant discrepancy with the modern analogue remains. At the ancient Asklepieia, as Hartigan persuasively argues, the actual healing came from "the power of dreams" (28). With Playback Theatre it comes directly from the power of drama.

The organization of the book, like its content, deserves both praise and questioning. The five-pronged approach neatly delineates the diverse material addressed. By dividing four out of the five sections into subsections, Hartigan endeavors to keep her focus clear even as it changes. (Section I, for instance, moves from "The Relationship Between Mind and Body" to "Art and Medicine.") Another boon is the glossary near the beginning of the book. Its presence makes following Hartigan easy as she describes the topography of various Asklepieia and a patient's typical stay at one. Although Sections II-IV function for the most part as self-contained units, Section I explains the connections among them. While a discussion of their interrelatedness is certainly in order, its early placement creates occasional confusion. Such references as those to Asklepieian stelae and anathêmata (16) make more sense after their full treatment in a subsequent section. What may not make sense, even after finishing Performance and Cure, is the inclusion of Section IV. The relationship of Asklepios to Jesus and two Greek Orthodox saints, though interesting, does not have much bearing on the link between drama and healing.

Regarding format, Performance and Cure is in good health. Typos seldom appear, and only one may confuse the reader. (On p. 47, "twenty-first" presumably means "twenty-first century.") More vexatious are the occasional inconsistencies. One example: Hartigan employs the term tholos on p. 31 but neither includes it in the glossary nor defines it as a "round building" until using it again on p. 49.

These weak spots notwithstanding, Performance and Cure blazes a new trail for scholarly exploration. Hartigan does not make use of Jürgen W. Riethmüller's Asklepios: Heiligtümer und Kulte (2005), relying instead on a much earlier catalogue, Emma and Ludwig Edelstein's Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (1945). Data from the more recent compilation would surely aid our understanding of Asklepieian theatre. What Hartigan does provide seems pitched at a general academic (or at least thoroughly educated) audience, though comparativists may find her treatment more helpful than specialists. The new ideas she presents, however, would benefit from further development by scholars of any stripe.

Introduction 1
I. Drama and Healing in Contemporary Medicine 5
1. The Relationship Between Mind and Body 5
2. Art and Medicine 13
II. Drama and Healing in Ancient Greece 18
1. The Cult of Asklepios 18
The God 18
The Process 27
The Evidence 38
2. The Sanctuaries 45
Epidauros 45
Other Major Healing Sites 53
Regional Sites 59
Local Sites 69
Pausanias and Asklepios 73
Athens 74
III. Drama and Healing in the Contemporary American Hospital 81
Case Study: Shands Hospital at the University of Florida81
IV. Asklepios Beyond the Classical World 93
1. Asklepios and Jesus 93
2. Healing Saints of the Greek Orthodox Church 97
V. Conclusion and Epilogue 100,


1.   Doherty, Lillian E. Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth. London: Duckworth, 2001.
2.   Pagán, Victoria Emma. Rome and the Literature of Gardens. London: Duckworth, 2006.
3.   Most directly from Rush Rehm and Vassilis Lambropoulos.
4.  : At least one member of the series, David Konstan's Pity Transformed, evades these complications by keeping its focus on antiquity and leaving the interface to the reader.
5.   As applied throughout the book, the terms "psyche," "mind," and "soul" would benefit from explicit definition or at least categorization. Sometimes they seem to function interchangeably as contrastive complements to the body, as in "body and psyche," (3) "mind and body," (5) and "soul and body" (6). However, a statement such as "physicians are in error when they separate the mind and soul from the body" (6) suggests otherwise.
6.   For a comprehensive treatment one should consult Jürgen W. Riethmüller's mighty tome, reviewed in BMCR 2009.12.40.

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