ANCIENT GREEK AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE: Collected Essays

by Graham Ley

University of Exeter Press (2014) h/b 270pp £70 (ISBN 97880859898911)

The essays assembled in this collection straddle a period of over thirty years and cover a wide and often unrelated range of topics. Divided into four sections, each with an introduction contextualizing the essays within a personal odyssey through academic research and practical dramaturgy, all are written or co-authored by L. (himself one of the editors of the Exeter ‘Performance’ Series). The first seven deal more-or-less with Greek drama, the remaining ten with theatrical theory and performance from the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in a triad of essays focusing on contemporary black, minority and ethnic (BME) drama in the UK.
Classicists interested in the practicalities of classical performance will find much to engage them in L.’s exploration of Greek staging based on his own experimental productions in the Antipodes. He not only argues convincingly that 5thC BC actors performed in the orkhêstra rather than on the skênê, but writes cogently about the chorus, as well as considering the broad diversity of people who must have been involved in productions at the Dionysia, from costume-makers to crane-operators. Even in ‘Greek’-related essays, however, there is much that will be of real value only to specialists. This ranges from an attempt to define the word hupokritês (‘actor’) by studying the use of the word hupokrinesthai in Homer and Herodotus, to a comparison of Aristotle’s Poetics, Bharatamuni’s Natyasastra and Zeami’s Treatises, and a closely argued essay on ‘Performance and Performatives’, referencing a comprehensive body of previous critical literature.

The second half of the book belongs on the shelves of Theatre Studies. Here L. dissects notions of modernism and post-modernism, ponders adaptation and is enthusiastically discursive on British BME theatre companies. Alongside essays, L. includes examples of his reviews and assessments of the work of other academics and practitioners. These tend to be characterized by an unattractively combative tone, which makes for uncomfortable reading, whether the discussion be about books, articles or people.

This, then, is a book not only of two halves but of many fragments, only some of which will appeal to the general (or even specialist) classicist. Its writing is at times withering, at times closely-reasoned and at times oddly sweeping: ‘In the case of Greek tragedy, with the discursive embodiment comes a critical state of emotional consciousness that cannot and will not exist without it. People do not think and act like Athenians without Athenian tragedy; they think and act like Spartans.’

David Stuttard

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