Sunday, September 22, 2019

Declassifying ancient Greece

Here's a podcast to which to have a listen:

Ancient Greece Declassified. A set of interviews of field experts in ancient Greece, conducted by Dr. Lantern Jack. No idea if that's his actual monicker. I've just listened to two good discussions:

12: The Comedy of Democracy with Edith Hall - a witty, wise British classicist who presents her view of Aristophanes's work and its relation to the polis.

06: What is Greek Tragedy? with Rush Rehm - thoughtful overview with a Stanford prof who has directed Greek plays.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hall, Fo, and theatrics of role and story

I'm reading a group of essays by Edith Hall concerned with Athenian theater, and came upon this:
In the twentieth century, theatrical roles became a notoriously
politicized issue. At the Moscow Art Theatre a hundred years ago,
Constantin Stanislavski focused on the actor’s conviction in the
naturalistic realization of a role. But his critics always urged that
this school produced self-regarding actors, who erected a wall be-
tween themselves and the voyeuristic audience: quintessentially
bourgeois theatre. Brecht insisted that the actor destroy the role
in order to present it as a manufactured entity, enabling the maintenance of critical distance. And for Dario Fo, acting means ‘recounting’: the actor must find the story rather than the character. Fo has urged that inherent in ‘the people’ is a collective dimension different from the individualizing tendencies of the bourgeoisie; this consciousness is supposedly expressed in ‘popular’ entertainment
forms that require actors to enter into dialogue with the audience,
rather than to display themselves for inspection.

The above is from Hall's The Theatrical Cast of Athens, chapter 1, where she addresses the question of which is primary, role (character) or story (plot). Hall's frame of reference is wide, and reflects decades of attention to the theater of Athens and well beyond. (And I'm grateful that she posted a free digital version of her book to

I especially like her inclusion of Fo, whose Mistero Buffo I was privileged to witness in Florence in 1973.

Words fail to convey what Fo, using a public street, did there. To adapt Hall's mini-taxonomy (because it helps), one might describe it as Fo's finding a way to combine the vivid individuation of Stanislavski with an overlay of gestures, expressions and comments aimed to include the spectators in the scene. This connection opened the "fourth wall" (parabasis) to us, reminding us of both our genre awareness as an educated audience, as well as of the distance of history. We were at once the captive crowd on the streets of medieval Fireneze or Siena, and the 20th century latecomers, acutely conscious of the "collective dimension" undreamt of without the dialogic mimesis of Fo's genius.

Dario Fo

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

British Museum to revisit Troy this fall

The legend of Troy has endured for thousands of years – an epic tale of conflict, passion and tragedy. Tread the line between myth and reality in our major autumn show. #Troy Myth and Reality opens 21 November.

On this Athenian drinking cup Achilles sits withdrawn and angry inside his tent,
heavily wrapped in his cloak, as two heralds lead away his prize, the enslaved woman Briseis. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

We demand accountability from politicians. We should demand it from voters, too.

from the Washington Post

By Matthew A. Sears

Matthew A. Sears is an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick.

May 20 2019

Government accountability is an idea that draws bipartisan support: calls for more transparency and oversight of politicians and bureaucracies go over well with voters. But what about oversight of the people who put them in office? Democracies give power to the people — does anyone hold the people responsible for this power?

Not really, and that has long been a problem. Since its beginning in ancient Greece, democracy has faced a crisis of legitimacy when the people have not been held accountable for their exercise of sovereignty, allowing elites to dismiss democracy as mob rule. Today, defending our democracy begins with taking responsibility for votes cast at the ballot box each year.

Those discontented with democracy in Classical Athens certainly thought that the people, demos in Greek, did not often take responsibility for their exercise of power, or kratos (the two words from which we get demokratia — “people power”). As a consequence, many of the most famous and influential ancient sources on Greek politics can be read as decidedly anti-democratic.

Thucydides — the historian of the Peloponnesian War, and an exiled elite who was no fan of democracy — criticized the people after Athens suffered horrendous losses in Sicily in 413 B.C.: “The people were angry with the politicians who had urged the expedition, as if they themselves hadn’t voted in favor of it.”

more here. . . 

Friday, April 05, 2019

The death of King Agamemnon

πολλῶν πάροιθεν καιρίως εἰρημένων 
τἀναντί᾽ εἰπεῖν οὐκ ἐπαισχυνθήσομαι.  

Much have I said before to serve my need 

and I shall feel no shame to contradict it now.  1372-73

These are the opening words spoken by Clytemnestra as the palace doors open, and the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra move forward so the entire arena of spectators in the theater can see what's happened.

Works spoken καιρίως -- "to serve my need" in Smyth's translation -- are the specialty of the rhetorician -- words twisted to the service of one particular moment and willed intent, then discarded as mere words.

ὡς μήτε φεύγειν μήτ᾽ ἀμύνεσθαι μόρον
ἄπειρον ἀμφίβληστρονὥσπερ ἰχθύων
περιστιχίζωπλοῦτον εἵματος κακόν

That he should not flee nor keep off the end, 

an endless net around as to fish
I threw round, fatal wealth garment.

Here I twisted Smyth's translation to track more faithfully Aeschylus's highly packed lines. Most translators "unpack" the sense to a more familiar order. Here's how Smyth actually put it:

Round him, as if to catch a haul of fish, I cast an impassable net—fatal wealth of robe—so that he should neither escape nor ward off doom

There's no claim here that mine is better. The more of Smyth I see, the more I appreciate his tenacity.

I've created a play on words that is not in the original - where mine says:

    . . . nor keep off the end, 
an endless net . . .

I wish it were there, because the word that I render as endless is apeiron, i.e., ἄπειρον -- the word used by the philosopher Anaximander to invoke the unbounded. The Infinite.*

A few lines earlier, Clytemnestra spoke of
the contest of an ancient feud, pondered by me of old,
οὐκ ἀφρόντιστος πάλαι νείκης παλαιᾶς ἦλθε  1377-78
Twice she uses πάλαι -- "ancient" -- the quarrel is ancient, as is, more literally, her "not unmindfulness" of it.

Clytemnestra weaves her much pondered words around the dead Agamemnon and his prophetess-slave. They are rich, dark, unbounded, like the deed she takes credit for. Indeed, she's so plain in her desire for all to know "I did this" that the contrast with her earlier veil of lies and misdirections can be unsettling. After what we just learned, how can we trust anything she says, including her proud "confession"?

I don't want to get into an endless debate about "did she or didn't she?" --- the point here is that by negating everything she's said up to now, and then coming straight out with unequivocal statements, Clytemnestra jolts us into an awareness, a distrust of predication that lingers even as she claims to speak the truth. This is fitting, that with the king lying dead before our eyes, the truth from now on comes wrapped in a rich, infinite garment from which there is no escape for fish or king.

No wonder the chorus wonders:
We are shocked at your tongue, how bold-mouthed you are,  
θαυμάζομέν σου γλῶσσανὡς θρασύστομος
If Cassandra is doomed to speak truth that will not be taken as true (as Simon Goldhill astutely notes), Clytemnestra's marvelous mouth, after ending the prophetess's speaking, cannot be disbelieved. In speaking, she undoes the possibility of speaking truth.

*ἄπειρος (B), ον, (πεῖραρπέρας)
A.boundless, infinite, “σκότος” Pi.Fr. 130.8; “τὸν ὑψοῦ τόνδ᾽ αἰθέρα” E.Fr.941ἤπειρον εἰς . ib.998; of number, countless,πλῆθος” Hdt.1.204; “ἀριθμὸς πλήθει” Pl.Prm.144a; “τὸπλῆθος” Id.R.525a, al.; “εἰς τὴν ἀδικίαν αὐξάνεινId.Lg.910b; “χρόνος .” OGI383.113 (i B.C.): Comp. “-ότερος Mete.17.15τὸ . the Infinite, as a first principle, Arist.Ph.203a3, etc.; esp. in the system of Anaximander, D.L.2.1, etc.; but τὰ ἄπειρα individuals, opp. τὰεἴδη, Arist.Top.109b14, cf. Metaph.999a27, al.; ἄπειρος, opp. πεπερασμένος, Ph.202b31εἰς ἰέναιπροϊέναιἥκειν, etc., APo.81b33Ph.209a25EN1113a2, etc.; [“γῆ] ἐπ᾽ ἄπειρονἐρριζωμένη” Str.1.1.20; also, indefinite, “ὕλη” Stoic.2.86.
2. in Trag., freq.of garments, etc., in which one is entangled past escape, i.e. without outlet,ἀμφίβληστρον” A.Ag.1382; “χιτών” S.Fr.526; “ὕφασμα” E.Or.25.
3. endless, i.e. circular, δακτύλιος a simple hoop-ring, = ἄλιθος (Poll. 7.179), Arist.Ph.207a2; cf. ἀπείρων (B) 1.3. Adv. -ρωςθρυφθῆναι into an infinite number of fragments, Id.Pr.899b16.

Friday, March 15, 2019

National Geographic piece about Delphi

Pythia - The Delphic Oracle with laurel leaf

Nat Geo has a fine story this month about Delphi, the navel of the Earth -- worth a look given that The Eumenides, when we get to it, opens with a long speech of the Pythia, followed by the appearance of Apollo. The article echoes the opening of that play, though it has a variant on the genealogy of the presiding deities of the site:
. . . this impressive spot in central Greece (about 100 miles northwest of Athens) was originally sacred to Gaea, mother goddess of the earth, who placed her son Python, a serpent, as a guard for Delphi and its oracle. Apollo, god of light and music, slew the serpent and took over the site for himself. Priestesses who served Apollo there were called the “Pythia,” named in honor of Gaea’s vanquished son. Throughout the classical world spread the belief that these priestesses channeled prophecies from Apollo himself. (Read about the science behind the Delphic Oracle's prophetic powers.)  NatGeo

The opening of The Eumenides offers its own genealogy of the site, beginning with the striking description of the Earth as πρωτόμαντιν - the first prophet:

πρῶτον μὲν εὐχῇ τῇδε πρεσβεύω θεῶν 
τὴν πρωτόμαντιν Γαῖανἐκ δὲ τῆς Θέμιν
 δὴ τὸ μητρὸς δευτέρα τόδ᾽ ἕζετο 
μαντεῖονὡς λόγος τιςἐν δὲ τῷ τρίτῳ 
5λάχειθελούσηςοὐδὲ πρὸς βίαν τινός
Τιτανὶς ἄλλη παῖς Χθονὸς καθέζετο
Φοίβηδίδωσι δ᾽  γενέθλιον δόσιν 
Φοίβῳτὸ Φοίβης δ᾽ ὄνομ᾽ ἔχει παρώνυμον
λιπὼν δὲ λίμνην Δηλίαν τε χοιράδα
10κέλσας ἐπ᾽ ἀκτὰς ναυπόρους τὰς Παλλάδος
ἐς τήνδε γαῖαν ἦλθε Παρνησοῦ θ᾽ ἕδρας
πέμπουσι δ᾽ αὐτὸν καὶ σεβίζουσιν μέγα 
κελευθοποιοὶ παῖδες Ἡφαίστουχθόνα 
ἀνήμερον τιθέντες ἡμερωμένην
15μολόντα δ᾽ αὐτὸν κάρτα τιμαλφεῖ λεώς
Δελφός τε χώρας τῆσδε πρυμνήτης ἄναξ
τέχνης δέ νιν Ζεὺς ἔνθεον κτίσας φρένα 
ἵζει τέταρτον τοῖσδε μάντιν ἐν θρόνοις
Διὸς προφήτης δ᾽ ἐστὶ Λοξίας πατρός

The Priestess of Pythian Apollo

First, in this prayer of mine, I give the place of highest honor among the gods to the first prophet, Earth; and after her to Themis, for she was the second to take this oracular seat of her mother, as legend tells. And in the third allotment, with Themis' consent and not by force, [5] another Titan, child of Earth, Phoebe, took her seat here. She gave it as a birthday gift to Phoebus, who has his name from Phoebe. Leaving the lake1and ridge of Delos, he landed on Pallas' ship-frequented shores, [10] and came to this region and the dwelling places on Parnassus. The children of Hephaistos,2road-builders taming the wildness of the untamed land, escorted him with mighty reverence. And at his arrival, the people [15] and Delphus, helmsman and lord of this land, made a great celebration for him. Zeus inspired his heart with prophetic skill and established him as the fourth prophet on this throne; but Loxias is the spokesman of Zeus, his father.

Another article offers Some prophecies of the oracle