Thursday, March 3, 2011


Bernd Seidensticker, Das antike Theater. Beck'sche Reihe 2496. München: C. H. Beck, 2010. Pp. 127. ISBN 9783406587962. €8.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Letizia Poli Palladini, Liceo-Ginnasio 'Giovanni Meli,' Palermo, and Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA (

Version at BMCR home site

The aim of this book is to provide a general account of the practicalities of ancient theatre, both Greek and Roman, such as organization, architectural design, stagecraft, audience and reception. The author addresses anyone who, while visiting ruins of an ancient theatre, may have questions about what happened in such venues, but he also addresses contemporary theatre practitioners who may be curious to learn how their ancient equivalents used to work. This means having in mind a literate audience, although not one confined to specialists in the subject. Chronologically, the book focuses on classical Greece and on republican to imperial Rome, because theatre thrived over those periods and because we possess better evidence for them. Earlier, later and intermediate times are also, if more succinctly, considered, so that a coherent picture is given of ancient theatre as a manifold and yet unified phenomenon. Seidensticker, in addition to his many important works on ancient drama, with this contribution has achieved an undeniable success thanks especially to his far-reaching expertise, thoroughness, firm grasp of the sources, and incisiveness. The production of the book is very accurate1 and the great number of pictures (39) enhances its persuasiveness.

The 'Introduction' (pp. 7-10) defines the scope and goal of the book, introduces the kind of evidence available, and justifies the disproportion between the two parts (Part 1 'The Greek Theatre,' pp. 11-81; Part 2 'The Roman Theatre,' pp. 82-122) as owing to the larger presence of Greek drama in modern theatres.

Part 1 deals with origin and development of theatre (pp. 11-16); the real working of theatre ('Der Theaterbetrieb'), i.e. the Dionysia with their dramatic contests (pp. 16-20), and the organization and financial support behind it (pp. 20-22). It also discusses the Theatre of Dionysus in the fifth century (pp. 22-32), spectators (pp. 32-37), theatrical agents, i.e. authors, actors and chorus-members (pp. 37-45), staging, i.e. costumes and masks in the three classical dramatic genres (pp. 45-61), stage-properties and machines (pp. 61-69), and delivery, i.e. acting, dancing, and musical accompaniment (pp. 69-81).

Part 2 is first dedicated to theatre in republican Rome: its origin and development (pp. 82-85), its functioning, i.e. festivals with a theatre programme (pp. 85-89), their organization and financial support (pp. 89-90), theatrical buildings (pp. 90-93), audience (pp. 93-95), agents, i.e. authors, producers, actors, musicians (pp. 95-99), aspects of staging such as costumes and masks, props and machines, and lastly music (pp. 99-106). Imperial Rome is likewise considered with regard first to theatrical buildings, organization and financial support (pp. 106-113); secondly to performances (pp. 113-121) of tragedies and comedies, and of new, cognate genres (pantomimus, tragoedia cantata, 'Kitharodie,' mimus); and finally to the end of ancient theatre (pp. 121-122).

A 'Bibliography' follows (pp. 123-127), articulated in two parts so as to mirror the structure of the book. The abundant literature is selected according to importance up to the 1990s, after which the bibliography is more generous in order to give an up-to-date picture of the field. Titles are further arranged under headings such as 'General,' 'Sources and pictures relating to theatre,' 'Origin and development' etc., in strict keeping with the sections of the book. Acknowledgment of the sources for illustrations closes the work on p. 128.

As far as method is concerned, Seidensticker applies a solid blend of historical, philological (in the Continental sense), archaeological and dramatic criticism. In the notorious dispute over the value of verbal clues for the reconstruction of staging, he sides with those who believe that significant action used to be mirrored in words (pp. 46, 61).2

A particular merit of this book can be seen in Seidensticker's ability to strike a balance between the demands of popularization and those of scholarship, while dealing with the numerous controversial issues that surround the study of ancient theatre. He never plunges the reader into the minutiae of individual disputes, but constantly and firmly distinguishes among likely views, possible solutions, and frankly unsolvable problems that must remain open until further evidence turns up. His account is never bogged down by preconceived opinion: e.g. when he deals with the earliest shape of theatron and orchestra in the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, he is ready to accept the conclusion recently reached by most archaeologists that they must have been rectilinear. In fact, Seidensticker pays constant attention to archaeological and iconographical sources no less than to literary ones. The illuminating treatment of pantomimus and mimus for imperial Rome comes out of a similar historically conscious and prejudice-free approach. I would also praise the sensibility of many of his stances: e.g. fifth-century Athenian women apparently were not forbidden to attend dramatic festivals, but in fact many of them may have been kept at home by their fathers or husbands (pp. 33-34). See also the acute remark (p. 121) that Christian opposition to theatre was not in the least a battle against the obscene and irreverent or even blasphemous mimus.

The general reader may appreciate that quotations show up in moderate number and are always translated, well contextualized and to the point, while the specialized reader may rely on the correctness of all of them, as proved by double-checking. The inconsistency that can be found in some introductory works, i.e. the coexistence of exactly referenced with vague quotations, is here reduced to a bare minimum.3

I have very few objections. One concerns the link between Pisitratus, the beginning of dramatic productions at the Dionysia, and Thespis' tragic performance in 534 BC (pp. 11, 14). A re-examination of the Marmor Parium (FGrHist 239), section 43 (= TrGF I DID D 1.43 = ib. 1 [Thespis] T 2) has shown that it provides evidence only for Thespis' tragic activity about 534 BC, wherever that may have taken place, possibly in the Attic countryside (his native demos of Icaria is a good candidate); and that the addition 'in the city,' usually taken as a clue to the foundation of the City Dionysia, is Boeckh's untenable supplement.4 Secondly, when the author deals with the theatre of Dionysus (pp. 22-32), he should report on the difficulties relating to the earliest setting of tragic performances in Athens (somewhere in the agora) and the chronology of their move to the southern slope of the acropolis.5 Thirdly, the statement (p. 75) that in that theatre the chorus used to enter into the singing and dancing place through the eisodos placed at the right hand of the audience—presumably based on a rigid interpretation of Poll. iv 126—cannot be accepted for the fifth century.6 Finally, on p. 90 it would be helpful, and consistent with the kind of information provided in Part 1 (p. 21), to go beyond the vague mention of Roman officials responsible for different festivals with dramatic performances, saying who precisely supervised what (i.e. the aediles curules were concerned with the ludi Romani and the ludi Megalenses, the aediles plebis with the ludi Ceriales and the ludi Plebeii, the praetor urbanus with the ludi Apollinares).7

To conclude, this book can be recommended not only to the general public, but also to a more specialized readership inside as well as outside the German-speaking area.


1.   I could spot only few misprints: p. 76 read schémata; p. 78 read phorbeiá; p. 107 read 'ausspeien;' on p. 43 either by misprint or lapsus the chronology given for Phrynichus is one century earlier than it should be.
2.   Pp. 46, 61 cf. O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus. The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy, Oxford 1977, 28-39; contra e.g. M. Revermann, Comic Business: Theatricality, Dramatic Technique, and Performance Contexts of Aristophanic Comedy, Oxford 2006, 46-65.
3.   Add these references: p. 12, Plut. Mor. 364d, 365a; p. 81, Arist. Probl. 922a 1-20.
4.   W. R. Connor, 'City Dionysia and the Athenian democracy' C&M 40 (1989) 7-32, especially 26-32.
5.   J. Travlos, Pictorial Dictionary of Athens, New York and Washington 1971, 537; H.-J. Newiger, 'Zwei Bemerkungen zur Spielstätte des attischen Dramas im 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr.' WSt n.s. 10 (1976) 80-92; F. Kolb, Agora und Theater, Volks- und Festversammlung, Berlin 1981, 20-61; R. Rehm, The Play of Space. Spatial Transformation in Greek Tragedy, Princeton and Oxford 2002, 43-44.
6.   Eisodoi were used, at least in fifth-century drama, without any fixity as ways to and from off-stage places as defined by the play itself: see e.g. Taplin, Stagecraft, 449-451, V. Di Benedetto/E. Medda, La tragedia sulla scena. La tragedia greca in quanto spettacolo teatrale, Torino 1997, 12, D. Wiles, Tragedy in Athens. Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning, Cambridge 1997, 133-135.
7.   W. Beare, The Roman Stage. A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic, London 19643, 162.

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