Niall W. Slater, Spectator Politics: Metatheatre and Politics in Aristophanes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Pp. x + 363. ISBN 0-8122-3652-1. US$59.95; UKú42.00.
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
This is an excellent book, lively, thought-provoking, full of insights -- a book that will stimulate discussion for many years, both on the broad sweep of Aristophanic comedy and on its meaning, especially its political import. Equally it will generate scholarly heat on the many insights that it offers into stage- management, direction, and the significance of particular words, lines, and actions in the plays. Without doubt it will become a sine qua non of Aristophanic scholarship.
I want to make all these points up front because I have a number of concerns about the book and some of its arguments. But those concerns are to be viewed in the light of the stimulating variety of ideas that the book throws up. It is an exciting move forward in Aristophanic scholarship; it is likely to be as influential as Dover's book was in its day, or the commentaries of Sommerstein on Aristophanes (both of which it leans on heavily), in that it develops new fields of criticism deriving from Slater's earlier book on Plautus.[]
The book focuses on the role of metatheatre in Aristophanes and the unwillingness of Slater to accept that it was purely a technique for parody. He sees it as a much more -- a powerful strategic weapon in Aristophanes' theatrical bag of tricks and one that can be persuasively coupled with the long-standing debate over the poet's politics -- whether 'conservative or democrat, satirist or clown, even subversive or agent of repression' (preface, p. ix).
The first chapter of the book is devoted to metatheatre and its role. Here Slater states that 'a central contention of this book is that Aristophanes believes that teaching his audience to be aware of, and think critically about, performance, both in the theatre and elsewhere in the life of the city, is a matter of vital importance to the Athenians. His ambition for comedy to rival tragedy as a teacher of the people is intimately related to precisely this self- consciousness about acting and stage technique in which his comedy is so rich' (p. 5). He goes on to argue (pp. 6f.) that Aristophanes uses metatheatre as a means to critique a certain type of politics, namely 'spectator politics', where the demos views the activity as a kind of spectator sport but itself plays little part in it and refuses to become involved. By the use of metatheatre, the poet opens up to the gaze of the audience the techniques and goals of theatrical performance and thereby provides a message about how they should view politics. Slater maintains (p. 10) that peculiar to Aristophanes is the claim of a teaching function for comedy and he criticises tragedy for neglecting that crucial duty. A necessary part of his argument is naturally the question of whether Aristophanic comedy was illusory or non-illusory, which he discusses well.
Chapter 2 reviews the emergence of the actor and how that affects performance, since, arguably, the audience is now conscious of the actor qua actor and the performance therefore as a performance. Green has shown that on vase depictions tragic actors are shown as 'real', while comic actors are shown as 'actors',[] which Slater takes as evidence of the view of the comic audience to a performance. The 'Choregus vase' is held up (p. 34) as a good example of the technique. While this is undoubtedly true, the contest of tragic actors preceded that of comic ones, and one might have thought it too would have affected the way tragic audiences viewed what they saw on the stage.
The remaining chapters of the book are devoted one to each play of Aristophanes (with the exception of the Wealth which is dealt with, surprisingly, in a brief paragraph in the final chapter, 'Reprise -- And Coming Attractions', pp. 235-39) and provide a detailed discussion of the staging of the plays in the light of the metatheatrical techniques that Slater concentrates on and the political line he pursues.[] These detailed reviews are argued with an attention to performance, both stage and cultural, that makes it both refreshing and original. Far too many books on Aristophanes forget that the plays were performed on the stage, and, with the famous exception of Frogs, probably only once.
Reception-based performance criticism lies at the heart of this work and Slater argues that Aristophanes uses this to persuade his audience to cease being passive consumers of spectacle to become active participants in politics. This concern with the state of politics has considerable resonance with contemporary issues in the USA, and in a sense then, Slater follows on from the Black Athena, feminist and other re-interpretations of the ancient world in the light of modern preconceptions. As a concept this is unproblematic -- every generation needs to re-interpret the ancient world in the light of its own concerns and such interpretations have brought a wealth of new insights. However, two questions here are troublesome. The first is why we have so little evidence from the ancient world that the spectators did indeed view Aristophanes' plays in this way or acted on them and second, why we need to view Aristophanes as having a single political line to push throughout all his works. A priori one might have thought that a lifetime of writing, apparently unsuccessful in its political purpose, since he had to keep repeating the point (even if in new and pleasing ways), might have led him to try something different. The case Slater makes is indisputably a good one, but not wholly persuasive.
Further, it leads to some questionable argument. On the Thesmophoriazusae to give one example, there is an excellent discussion of the problems associated with Mnesilochus' address (lines 466ff.) and how it is to be interpreted (pp. 163ff.). Slater wants to argue that not only parody of the Telephus lies behind the speech, but that Aristophanes wants to call to mind his own previous version used in the Acharnians so as to argue that Mnesilochus' speech is more than just a joke but has serious intent. Yet we have a period of fourteen years separating the productions, a whole range of lost plays by Aristophanes himself, not to say all his competitors and, indeed, a different audience. It is difficult to believe that he could be referring to his earlier production and expecting the audience to recognise it. Indeed, Slater himself later recognises the difficulty of the argument when he dismisses a suggested recollection of Eupolis on the grounds that it lies twenty years earlier and any visual allusion could only be familiar to an older generation of audience (p. 187). Even more problematic is the suggestion that the 'we are alone' of line 472 might spark a reminiscence of Ach. 504 where the words are repeated. This is to forget how tiny a selection of the plays have reached us.
Or take the Frogs. Slater concludes his otherwise excellent discussion of the play, with the following words: 'Moreover, spectatorship, as Aristophanes has been arguing from the Acharnians on, is not a purely passive pursuit, but one which requires the right kind of active contribution. One can hardly say that Dionysus becomes a successful performer in the first half of the play, although he does improve his skills. In the second half, however, he does finally master what is required of him to become a successful tragic spectator (Slater's emphasis), and in doing so models that behavior for the rest of Athens' (p. 206). The argument is challenging but ultimately, to this reviewer, an unsatisfactory explanation of the end of the play because it places too much emphasis on the connection between the role of Dionysus and the audience and too little on the play itself.
But these are small quibbles in a book overflowing with ideas. The individual plays are considered in a wealth of detail, a multitude of insights and a great deal of judicious discussion of earlier scholarship. There is something new on every page and while views will differ on the value of each of the myriad of suggestions (for excellent comments on Frogs see p. 182 on the Frog Chorus, p. 183 for Dionysus, p. 185 for the equation of the theatre with Hades and the audience as underworld inhabitants, p. 186 on the Lenaea, p. 187 on the use of anapaests, p. 189 on Theramenes, and so on), they all drive one back to re- read and reconsider the text as a theatrical document and challenge the arguments that Slater makes.
This is a book that is almost as inventive as the work of Aristophanes himself. It is a must for all interested in fifth-century BCE theatre where the wealth of ideas will provide stimulation for Aristophanic studies for many years to come.
[] K. J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (London 1972); Alan H. Sommerstein, The Comedies of Aristophanes (Warminster 1980-2001); Niall Slater, Plautus in Performance: The Theatre of the Mind (Princeton 1985); second edition published as Greek and Roman Theatre Archive Vol. 2 (Amsterdam 2000).
[] J. Richard Green, Theatre in Greek Society (London 1994) 16-48, esp. 40.
[] Of these chapters, those on the Acharnians, Wasps, Birds, and Ecclesiazusae have appeared in article form elsewhere.