Wednesday, December 7, 2011


David Kawalko Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 288. ISBN 9780292723948. $55.00.

Reviewed by Marcel Lysgaard Lech, University of Copenhagen (

Version at BMCR home site

In this study, Roselli analyses the theatrical audiences from the fifth century to the early Hellenistic era. His "provincializing"(p.12, see my note 1) approach is interdisciplinary and takes its methods from Theatre Semiotics, Social History (topics such as gender, ethnicity and social status), Performance Studies and Reception Studies, all framed by an slight Marxist colouring (class, working-class are recurrent words).1 Roselli argues against the "Athenocentric" readings of the dramatic texts which focus on drama as an ideological (viz. democratic) tool "validating Athenian civic society (p. 7)," and against a "Hellenocentric" view that while seeing drama within a wider cultural frame as the Attic drama was disseminated throughout the Mediterranean world, nonetheless ignores the non-Greek spectator.

This book is of great value to the study of classical theatre, but I have certain reservations regarding some of the methods and conclusions of the book. Some are matters of simple disagreement, but on others matters, it seems to me that as consequence of his interdisciplinary approach, Roselli becomes too superficial. This results in expressions like "doubtless" where doubt ought to be present, e.g. by which eisodos a dramatic chorus would exit.2 Here he follows Revermann's hypothesis,3 which belittles the fiction of the play in comparison with the metatheatrical effect (the final exit in Plutus seems to counter that thought). At p. 54 he claims that "comedy did embody the values of the urban poor," which is an unnecessary simplification of the comic worlds; Dicaeopolis is not urban (his household must be extra mural in order to celebrate the Rural Dionysia there) and is nowhere depicted as outright poor. Roselli simplifies not only the many voices in the comedies, but also the social hierarchies of fifth- century Athens. If the ideologies and values are so clear cut as Roselli claims, why would Critobulus, an elite youngster, love comedies so much?4 Nonetheless, I welcome his attempt to get rid of the dogma of the civic body.

Roselli analyses the admittedly sparse evidence available to us and argues for a better use of the anecdotal evidence, since "the merits of individual testimony, no matter how late, have to be weighed against the broader set of evidence on a case by case basis." (6) This approach, in my view, is jeopardised by the fact that, as Roselli himself shows, a certain part of the evidence concerning the ancient theatre is basically "anti-theatre." Nothing suggests that the Athenians as a collective ever thought likewise. Of course, some did not care about theatre, while others such as Plato came to disdain theatre for philosophical reasons.

The book consists of five chapters. In the first chapter, Roselli establishes the theatrical dialogue between audience and performers. There are some good comments on the judges and their relationship with the spectators, but I find it hard to see how Roselli has countered any of the approaches, which he criticises, when he claims that "the exercising of the audience's role as arbiters in political gatherings and more informal social contexts was closely related to the role it played in the theater." This seems to me to echo the famous Nothing to Do with Dionysus publication's view on the "civic body," and I find it difficult to believe that the spectators could not differentiate between the different social events. Furthermore, if the audience was as heterogeneous as Roselli argues (e.g. p. 81), his politicising of the theatrical event and the audience's authority seems unwarranted.5 Since Roselli argues that a satyric chorus somehow reflects the audience, which is drinking at the festivals, it is odd that he does not discuss Philochorus' testimony on drunken audiences (FGrHist 328 F171= Athen. 11. 464F).6 This evidence, together with the apolitical fact that the audience pays for admission (p. 101), speaks against this notion of a "heavily politicized" (p.192) audience.

Roselli admits that "there is clearly more to drama than educating and giving good advice," but nevertheless the fiction of the plays do not appear in his discussions and metatheatricality and self-referentiality – the darlings of post-modernity – become the central means for the performers to engage with the audience. However, since all the plays, tragedies and comedies alike, offered performed fictions, not just metatheatrical breaks of illusion, I had expected that a study of a theatrical audience would tackle the question of how the different strata might have responded (differently?) to the fiction.

The second chapter revises the latest archaeological results on the ancient theatres, and Roselli's hypothesis of an unofficial audience space above the official theatron is possible indeed. Instead of having one homogenous audience (the civic body) as the Athenocentrics deal with, Roselli proposes a three-in-one model (elite – working-class - poor), where the place of seating defines the spectator (p. 81). However, I am not convinced that his unofficial space would be noisier7 than the official theatron, just because the audience there was the "lower-class and noncitizen, even servile, mob (p. 86)" and not under the power of the rod (p. 74). We have enough evidence to show that the rod- bearers (pace Plato's nostalgic wish, Laws 700c) did not beat down anyone who uttered a sound in response to the performance. In fact, such response was, as Roselli argues, vital for the 5th-century Attic drama (p. 29). Moreover, the argument of the tripartite audience becomes a bit incoherent, since he at times argues that the theatron is working-class (pp. 113-4), while at the same time filling up the audience with the well-off women (p. 174) and the rowers of the navy (p. 29)8: Elsewhere this group, the poor (p. 115), would be, for economic reasons, be confined to the unofficial space (p. 74; p. 85). That does not chime with Acharnians (162-3).

Chapter three on the economics of the theatre and the theorika is very interesting and well-argued, though the metatheatrical reading of Frogs 141 (pp. 100-101) did not convince me; in order for this to work among the spectators, an ad hoc theorika, as Roselli argues was the norm in fifth century, would also have been stipulated for this festival. However, this festival was the one where the financial burdens of the war forced the city to arrange synchoregic liturgies, and this, it seems, speaks against a stipulation of theorika that year. In this chapter, Roselli overlooks an important element in his discussion: was the number of competing comedies reduced during the Peloponnesian War, with the result that the festival was one day shorter?9 If so, that would have had a major impact on the income for the theatropolai. I missed a discussion on this subject. As Roselli turns to the Hellenistic age, he argues on the basis of Aristotle's assertion that, as the plays became more ethical – rather than political – as in the fifth-century (clearly an ideal here), the audience became more passive, since aesthetic engagement counters an active political engagement (p. 110). Again this seems to be quite simplistic.10 How does Roselli think the revivals of old tragedies and comedies fit into this scheme? Next, Roselli argues that the Hellenistic age was far more theatrical (fake?) than the fifth-century (p. 109-110), while failing to notice the resemblance between Pericles (p. 94), Nicias (p. 151) and Demetrius (p. 110). They all use theatre as a means to "capture" the Athenians.

In chapter four, Roselli discusses the number of non-Athenians in the theatre and convincingly argues that "xenoi were present in Athens throughout the year and around for all the festivals" (p. 125) and thus may have been spectators and performers. Roselli argues that the "City Dionysia was invested with more pomp and ceremony, the Lenaia and the Rural Dionysia were major and important festivals where top talent performed," but he ought to have taken the case of Plato Comicus' fourth place into consideration (K-A, test. 7), since it seems to speak against his claim.

In chapter five, Roselli takes up the hotly debated question of women's attendance at the dramatic performances and finds it likely that they were present. But, since he sees the entire theatrical experience as a political (or nearly so, p. 192) event, he reluctantly argues that most elite woman stayed home while their poor sisters went along to the theatre to join the vulgar mob there. Furthermore, he argues that women's presence at the theatre was a contentious issue in the comedies (as in Plato). Is it not possible to turn the question upside down so that the issue is that women stayed home alone with the opportunity to act like an Euripidean Stheneboia or Phaedra (this is how I read Birds 796, pace Roselli p. 178)? Roselli's reconstruction of Skenas katalambanousai (Ar. frg. 487- 503) as a fundamentally metatheatrical play did not convince me, since the reason why we have these fragments at all is that they were of interest to the later commentators and scholiasts, not from a fictional point of view, but for what they might say of the contemporary performance. Thus, fragments have a tendency to include names of famous persons, including actors and poets, theatrical machinery etc. Occasional metatheatrical references do not make the entire play metatheatrical!

I found one misspelling, "sate" for "state" at p. 26. Generally, I missed the Greek text in the larger quotations.

Despite my reservations, I learned a lot from Roselli's book, especially concerning the theorika, the non-existence of 5th-century tribal seating (a much needed and persuasive discussion is offered here, pp. 81-85), non- citizens in the theatre and much more. Some of it is relatively old news, but in this book it is all collected, translated and often put to interesting "new" uses. I applaud Roselli's for his light and unpretentious prose.


1.   Perhaps reflecting his use of Chakrabarty, D. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton. 2007. I think that Roselli could have benefitted from the works of McAuley, G. Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. Michigan, 2000; Sauter, W. The Theatrical Event: Dynamics of Performance and Perception. Iowa City, 2000; McConachie, B. Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre. New York, 2008.
2.   On page 165: The City Dionysia was doubtless the creation of the sixth-century Athenian tyrant Peisistratus (my italics).
3.   Comic Business: Theatricality, Dramatic Technique, and Performance Contexts of Aristophanic Comedy. Oxford, 2006. (pp. 114-18).
4.   This passage is conflated into "Athenians up early to see comedy" p. 207, n. 6. The reference should be to Xen. Oec. 3.7, not 3.8. Roselli argues against taking the individual experience of theatre into account (p. 3), but to base his study on the account of elite authors, individuals, is nonetheless to do exactly this.
5.   On page 31: "defining the authority of the audience's voice was itself a political gesture."
6.   Merely alluded to at p. 184.
7.   On page 78: "Unofficial viewing spaces allowed for unregulated enjoyment." Nowhere does Roselli consider the enjoyment of the audience, and it seems that he has his difficulties releasing himself from the constraints of Plato's criticism of the "mob" and at e.g. 174: "Women from poorer households who were familiar with the "vulgar" world of the masses in the agora doubtless were present in larger numbers at unofficial viewing areas."
8.   On this passage in Knights, see my "The Knights' Eleven OARS: In Praise of Phormio? Aristophanes' Knights 546-7" CJ 105 (1).
9.   This is indicated by his claim that Clouds came "third" (32, no source claims this), p. 226 n.56 he talks of five days, while on 227 n. 60 he talks of three days.
10.   e.g. Le Guen, B. Les Associations de Technites Dionysiaques √† l'Epoque Hell√©nistic (2001 Nancy) I: 61.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.