Friday, May 25, 2018


Rush Rehm, Understanding Greek Tragic Theatre. Second edition (first edition published 1992). Understanding the ancient world. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xi, 173. ISBN 9781138812628. $44.95 (pb). ISBN 9781138812611. hb.

Reviewed by Manuela Giordano, Università della Calabria (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

In a thriving time of general introductions on Greek tragedy, Rehm's Understanding Greek Tragic Theatre stands out as a non-conventional account of tragic theatre, making it lively reading for scholars and students alike.1 In this volume, Rehm presents a coherent and fascinating reading of Athenian tragedy and theatre as part and parcel of a "performance culture", a working definition that Rehm had the merit to put to good use before, as he reminds his readers, it became a cliché on fifth-century Athens.2 This new edition differs but slightly from the first: Rehm keeps the same structure but polishes the style, enriches the references and makes minor additions, except from new paragraphs on the chorus (pp. 65-69), on "prophecies, dreams, oaths and curses" (p. 74 f.), and on satyr play (p. 83 f.).

The book is divided into two main sections: Part I, The social and theatrical background, and Part II, Exemplary plays. The first part opens with "The performance culture of Athens", which frames tragic theatre in the wider context of Athenian culture, in which tragedy was "one kind of performance among many" (p. 3). Throughout different venues, Rehm maintains, the main events in ritual, political and familial spheres expressed the same dynamic between those who acted and those who watched the action: theatre thus mirrored the main socio-political practices of Athens, at the same time allowing the Athenians to reflect on those practices. In what follows, Rehm surveys the main public settings in Athens where the dynamic actors-spectators was paraded: the political arena (Assembly, Council), the law courts, religious events (most pointedly sacrifices and processions), and family life, weddings and funerals.

A digression on panhellenic festivals follows — whose coherence with the main argument could however be considered questionable. The rather long section on the performance of the Iliad and Odyssey at the Panathenaea seems similarly divergent. Rather than a reappraisal of Homeric recitations as performance, this part turns out to be a standard reaffirmation of the major role Homeric poems played as a genre, and their influence on tragedy in both form and content. On this account, no mention is made of the Cyclic poems, which were a main repository of tragic plots, as we know from the titles of lost tragedies and from the fact that Sophocles took inspiration for his entire production from the Cycle.3

Chapter 2, "The festival context", narrows the focus from the overall context of performance to the festive performance of the City Dionysia. Before tackling the festival per se, however, Rehm declares that the question of the origins of tragedy is "inexorably" raised by its very association with Dionysus. The conflation of "origin" and "context" is, however, hardly inescapable: such an argument confuses different levels of investigation, that of the festival's antecedents, a diachronic level, and that of its context, by definition a synchronic level, as Vernant noted long ago. Nearly half of the chapter, therefore, departs from the festival context of the City Dionysia to survey Dionysiac worship, maenadism, cross-dressing associated with Dionysiac festivals and the tormenting questions regarding Aristotle's testimony on tragic origins. A well-informed, lively review of the programme of the festivals concludes the chapter.

The third chapter, "Production as participation", deals with the different subjects and procedures involved in the production of tragedies, from the archon eponymos to the multifaceted function of the choregoi, the liturgists who sponsored the festival. The versatile role of the playwright is smartly outlined. Rehm starts from the interesting note that each of the three main tragedians initiated a family tradition — from Euphorion, Aeschylus' son, to the anonymous son, or nephew, of Euripides who posthumously directed the tetralogy including Bacchae— and proceeds to analyse the palette of functions that defined the playwright- didaskalos: teacher of the chorus, director, choreographer and music composer. There is a fine hypothetical reconstruction of the work involved in setting up a tetralogy with the same chorus and in the learning process that went on in the rehearsals, including a constant exchange of ideas. This leads Rehm to the challenging assertion that "the notion that the text and lyric metres that have survived were ever purely those of Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides seems extremely unlikely" (p. 28). The chorus would have undergone a whole series of shifts from play to play, contributing, as much as the actors, as illustrated by the different role played by the chorus in the Oresteia and the lost satyr play. A brilliant analysis of actors, audience, and judges concludes the survey.

Where did the tragic performances take place? Chapter 4 "The theatre of Dionysus" finely answers this question by investigating the spatial context of tragedy, beginning with the first venue for tragic performances, the agora, whose centrality for Athenian public life bespeaks of the importance of the dramatic events that took place there. Rehm tentatively explains the move from the agora to the Southern slope of the Acropolis by tragedy's increasing popularity, surmising that it may have coincided with organization of competitive performance — ca. 501 BCE in the reconstruction he offered in chapter 2. 4

Most appropriately, Rehm spells out the necessity of clearing from our imagination classic clichés about ancient theatres, and successfully integrates a reconstruction of the earliest theatre of Dionysus with a discussion of the most common (mis)conceptions. No pre-established template governed the theatre's shape, which was instead very flexible and adaptable — a space rather than a built-up area, we may add; no permanent backdrop wall supporting an elevated stage for the actors: "we are left, then, with a trapezoidal orchestra area, backed by a wooden façade with a central door, fronted by a row (prohedria) of stone seats and then wooden bleachers, with two side entrances into the orchestra between the seating area and the façade" (p. 38). Rehm understands the relative material poverty of fifth-century theatre by the richness of the "other" scene, the one wrought by the "the strongest of theatrical forces", the imagination of a well-trained audience; on the other hand, he emphasizes the outdoor, public venue of the theatre which enhanced the audience's involvement and the awareness of the collective and public nature of the event. This factor is fittingly opposed to the inward-oriented character of modern theatre: "bred as most of us are on a drama of interiors, with the world collapsing to the size of a living room, a television screen, a computer monitor, or a hand-held device, we easily forget that Greek theatre took place in the open air" (p. 43). This aspect is acutely linked to the use of masks, a polysemic device — or "convention", as he has it — that, among other things, reveals the voice as the main driving force of ancient theatre and as an apt and open canvas for the spectator's imagination.

In the last theoretical chapter, "Conventions of production", Rehm takes pains to make clear that theatrical conventions are culturally dependent: what seems artificial or "conventional" to an external observer, for a participant in that culture is normal and appropriate. Consistently with this not self-evident premise, Rehm reframes most conventions of tragedy in a novel perspective, and reviews the basic constituent parts of tragedy, from tragic acting to deus ex machina. A major section is dedicated to the chorus, where Rehm engages in the debate on the identity and function of the chorus, whose function he interprets as a multi-faceted and open vehicle of theatrical material to be shaped by the playwright. The case of satyr drama as a convention whose purpose is to bring tragic competitions to a close seems less successful, not only because comedy followed the tetralogy, but also because viewing satyr drama as such reduces its queer and baffling Dionysian dimension to an ancillary function. Moreover, what little has survived of satyr dramas hardly allows us to make any generalization.5

Part II, Exemplary plays, analyses in detail six tragedies: Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy (chapter 6), Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus (chapter 7), Euripides' Suppliant Women (chapter 8) and Euripides' Ion (chapter 9). The survey and reappraisal of these plays is certainly interesting and worth the reading; many suggestions and new approaches emerge from their careful scrutiny, as in the emphasis on the audience's point of view. The case of the spectators' split vision in the prologue of the Eumenides is a clear instance, where the audience sees both the suppliant Orestes surrounded by the scary chorus of sleeping Furies in the orchestra, and the Pythia delivering her tranquil prologue, unaware of their presence. Attention is commendably drawn to the historical context of the plays' performance, as in the interpretation of Ion, who became a potential victim of the empire that he somehow fathered as well as a hopeful symbol for the same empire.

Partial disagreements and shortcomings do not diminish the riches on offer in this book, which has the merit of developing consistently along basic interpretive guidelines: the tandem forces of performers' spoken word as the true protagonist of the scene, and the imagination through which the audience constructs the scene for themselves; the agency of living, socially-engaged people involved in the production of tragedies, from the performers to the audience; the exhortation to the readers to distance themselves from modern, etic, assumptions about theatre and a re-orientation toward the different, emic perspective of fifth-century ancient Greeks, which ultimately proves a nice lesson in method.

In conclusion, Rehm offers a fresh and engaged look at the dynamics of Athenian tragic theatre, whereby tragedies are considered 'occasions' within a social context, rather than isolated aesthetic products and Rehm's hope that "the reader … catches some sense of the excitement of engaging Greek tragedy on its own terms" (p. viii) may prove rather well-founded.


1.   For a brief overview of recent publications see L. Swift, BMCR 2017.07.45.
2.   For a socio-political approach on Greek tragedy see J.-P. Vernant, P. Vidal-Naquet, Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece, Brighton 1981 (ed. pr. Paris 1972), a groundbreaking study; also the essays in the unsurpassed introduction P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, Cambridge 1997, particularly P. Cartledge, 'Deep Plays': Theatre as Process in Greek Civic Life, 3–35; P. Vidal-Naquet, Le miroir brisé. Tragédie athénienne et politique, Paris 2002. On performance culture S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, Cambridge 1999.
3.   Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, 7. 277a = Radt test. 136. For the importance and performance of the Epic Cycle in Athens see L. Sbardella, Cucitori di canti. Studi sulla tradizione epico-rapsodica greca e i suoi itinerari nel VI secolo a.C, Rome 2012.
4.   On the ikria and their crash in 499 BCE, a disaster our sources connect to the necessity of finding a new space — eventually the theatre of Dionysus, see Athenian Agora III, nos. 524–528; on the space in the agora as a theatron see M. Giordano, Out of Athens. Ritual Performances, Spaces, and the Emergence of Tragedy, in G. Colesanti, M. Giordano (eds.), Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture. An Introduction, Berlin and Boston 2014, on which see F. J. González García BMCR 2017.11.05. See also E. Csapo, "The Earliest Phase of 'Comic' Choral Entertainments in Athens. The Dionysian Pompe and the 'Birth' of Comedy", in S. Chronopoulos and C. Orth (eds.), Fragmente einer Geschichte der griechischen Komödie, Heidel¬berg 2015, 66–108, at 82, 99–101 with note 143, who provides a thorough the sources and points out that "there was indeed what might have been called a 'theatron' in the Greek sense, but not a 'theatre' in ours", 100.
5.   On satyr play see recently M. Di Marco Satyrikà. Studi sul drama satiresco , Lecce 2013 and R . Palmisciano "Dramatic Actions from Archaic Iconographic Sources: the Domain of the Satyrikon" in G. Colesanti, M. Giordano (eds.), Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture. An Introduction, Berlin and Boston 2014, 107-127.

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