Democracy and the ancient Greek theatre Interview with Edith Hall

AncientGreeks_pb.inddAthens, 472 BC: the tragedian Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, staged a trilogy including the lost Phineus and Glaucus, and a tragedy with a striking title, the Persians. Few years before, the Greeks forced Xerxes and his army to retreat from Greece, and this event had strong consequences, shaping the common Hellenic identity. Aeschylus, master of surprise, decided to offer to an audience composed by his fellow Athenian citizens a play set at the court of the Great King, in Susa, in the very moment in which the terrible news of the Greek victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis arrived. The Athenian citizens who fought against the Persians were attending the performance, the same men who gradually would find themselves exercising a power that expanded well beyond the borders of their city, leaving a legacy which has come to us, influencing our history.

In Athens the power was in the hand of the citizens, who gathered in the assembly in order to take decisions on law, domestic and foreign policy, to declare war or to ratify alliances. The orators made their public speeches on the Pnix, the hill located west of the Acropolis and visible from there, while the men discussed in the agora, in the streets and in their homes. But it was in the theatre that the delicate and yet incredibly steady balance of the democratic system was refined. The theatre was the place of “seeing” (theaomai), but also of reflection, of thinking, a place where a citizen could elaborate the impulses coming from the observation of something that was never entirely unknown, but that was always in direct dialogue with him, the citizen-spectator, and with the context in which he was living, the polis. In this respect, the theatre was a key element for the self-awareness of the community, which, through tragedies and comedies, was called to question its own political, cultural and moral dimensions, exploring the limits and admiring the virtues. Thematising and analysing topics of primary importance as well as more immediate issues, the theatre was also the natural complement of the assembly: those citizens attending a performance in the theatre were also in charge of making essential decisions. In the frame of Western world’s modern democracies, the theatre has lost this dual relationship with the citizen, both of entertainment and education, that was so dear to the Greeks. New forms and places, real or virtual, of thematization and debate are making their way, reaching an increasingly broader public. But are we sure that these new realities are truly the legitimate heirs of what the theatre had represented for the Athenian democracy?

We will try to answer this question in this interview with Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at King’s College London and a specialist in ancient Greek and Roman performance culture and reception of ancient Greece and Rome1.


Dear Professor Hall, we are very glad to host you in this issue of Leussein. To start, I would like to ask you to briefly introduce the historical context in which ancient Greek theatre developed, as well as the performative context of the plays?


Theatre as we know it was invented in classical Athens. It actually started under the political system of the tyranny of Pisistratus. It is important to remember that it was not necessarily inherently democratic. However, almost all the thirty-two tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the eleven comedies of Aristophanes that we can entirely read were composed and performed under democracy. Aeschylus’ Persians, the most ancient of them, was staged in 472 BC, and by then Athens already went through the reforms of Clisthenes and was indeed a democracy. To fully understand the texts that we can thoroughly read, we have to imagine a democratic citizen audience very similar to the men who assembled together in the assembly at the Pnyx hill, plus their guests and foreign allies. Anyway, it was pretty much the same people constituting the ekklesia, meeting on a different rock. Their collective identity was already determined as fellow citizens. I think that, although some scholars, in particular Peter Rhodes, have recently insisted that we have to remember that tragedies were very often put on stage, for example, by the Sicilian tyrants and the Macedonian rulers, the canonical classical Greek tragedies and comedies are all democratic. It is much important to remember to whom they were written for and for what events they were written for. Theatrical performances in Athens took place during festivals, particularly the Great Dionisya. These festivals were of course religious, but they had a profoundly secular aspect and played a central role in shaping the common ideology of the polis. In the context of these festivals, the theatrical performances were funded by the state, which is a really crucial element. The most expensive component was the chorus, which required perhaps nine months of training of twelve people with an extraordinary number of costumes. There was a public tax or liturgy, called choreghia, on rich volunteers who undertook the duty of financing a dramatic production. This is something almost impossible to imagine today. It would be as if the citizens of London would be perfectly happy to have part of their taxes allocated to finance the basic costs of annual drama competitions going on for days, and, at the same time, the Royal family and other prominent and wealthy aristocrats would fund the really expensive part of these competitions in order to pursue public popularity, then assembling all together to watch these plays. I think that it is really admirable the idea that the entire state comes together both to be entertained and to learn something through theatrical performances. If we consider the plays in this context, we can pull out different meanings from them.


Focusing on the audience, was there any difference between the audience of tragedy and that of comedy?


As far as we know, there was no difference in the audience. For example, in the Great Dyonisia the same people watched the three tragedies and the satyr play in the morning, went out for meal and a lot of wine, and came back to see the comedy in the early evening. Some people think that women were more likely to be allowed to see the tragedies than the comedies. I think there are arguments for that. For example, the high priestess of Athena might well had turned out from the Acropolis to see only the tragedies. But apart from that, it was the same audience. There was not a distinction like the one existing today between people attending opera at the Royal Opera House and people going to watch the musicals staged, for example, at the Lyceum Theatre. There was not a difference in seriousness between tragedy and comedy. Indeed, I think that both tragedy and comedy were absolutely serious.


What was the level of alphabetisation of the audience? How many spectators were able of fully understand and adequately reflect on the contents provided by the plays?


Scholars argue constantly about how many people in the audience of Athenian citizens, some of whom were probably semi-literate sailors from the Piraeus, could understand how great a part of a play. There is a famous passage in Aristophanes’ Frogs where it is said that “everyone has got a text these days and understands the clever stuff” (vv. 1109-1114). It could actually be a joke about how expensive books are, but it is very significant the fact that in this passage, the chorus is commentating on the intellectual calibre required to understand the jokes in that particular play, many of which really are about the nicety of meter or quite refined criticism of theatre in terms of its emotional effects on people. I am of the opinion that the Greek tragedians did aim particularly to stretch their audience philosophically. There has been a very big, and I think unfortunate move with the current popularity of Greek theatre in performance to emphasise the ritual aspects or, if you like, the primitive aspects of this sort of traditional choric dance elements, thus downgrading how much the tragedians owe to the Sophists, how much they owe to the Socratic insistence on the importance of epistemology, that is the difference between knowing something for sure and having an opinion about something, a distinction that can be perceived play after play.


Since in Athens the men watching the performance of a tragedy were the same who took political decisions, what kind of influence a tragedy could have exerted on them?


What particularly interests me in this respect is the process of deliberation (to boulesthai), since we have a number of plays where the characters bring on the disaster through bad decision making, and actually bad dianoia, that is how Aristotle calls the representation of the intellectual process. The classic example is in Sophocles’ Antigone, where we see Creon, the ruler of Thebes, on his first day of power taking precipitately bad decision after bad decision, without listening to good, disinterested counsellors, without doing all the things that Aristotle in the third book of Nicomachean Ethics says a man has to do to take a good decision. In the end of the play Creon, holding the body of his son Haemon, who he killed indirectly through his bad deliberations, actually says “it was my dysboulia” (v. 1269), blaming himself for his ill decisions. If you actually trace the use of the bouleuma stem, the boule is the council made of 500 men over thirty years of age who had to listen to the most complicated evidences of finances, international diplomacy, warfare, construction projects, and have to understand them. Probably every Athenian at least once during his lifetime had been a member of this council, and he had to set aside all other activities for a whole year to devote himself to settle this complicated matters. I would really love every voting member of my nation state to be able to spend a whole year listening to this kind of education, and I think the tragedy did help Athenian citizens to learn especially how to deliberate properly. This can be seen, for example, when Thucydides shows the Athenians making impulsively very bad decisions over Mytilene and then regretting them: they did reconvene the assembly the next day and they did overturn their previous decision, recognising that they took it too much in a rush. So I think we have got a complete synergy between the process of decision making in the city and watching these Bronze Age characters, who were all kings and leaders, deliberate badly in the theatre. I would love to see today anything like this moral instructiveness. This could sound really pompous, but in fact if you make a good play, this can be instructing and hugely entertaining as well, as was for example the Antigone. I would love this kind of ethical workout, as I see it, being heard by audiences in the cinema today.


I would like to focus again on the performative context. As you said, tragedies and comedies were performed in an official context, the city’s festivals, under the overall direction of the state. These festivals also played a very important role in staging/shaping the common “ideology of the polis”. What kind of control the state exerted on the plays? Was there any risk of censorship?


Unfortunately, we are very short of hard data on this. It does appear that every playwright who wanted a chance of performing at the oncoming festivals, which was a huge thing even if you didn’t win and we have a lot of anecdotes of anger when a playwright didn’t get chose, submitted some kind of proposal to the archon eponymous, a top magistrate who also had to decide who was going to be allocated in the chorus. I suppose that someone could say that there was room for corruption and bribery in this process. On the other hand, I think that the Athenian citizens were so passionate about theatre that they wouldn’t really handle any funny business. There was clearly a great sensitivity about that. For example, judges were democratically selected by lot, not voted. I think there was a sufficient level of public hostility toward corruption.

I am quite sceptical about how far the whole script had to be written out a year before, when the archon had to make the choice. We have elements in the texts we got that can suggest that the author could have modified them later on. Once a tragedy was selected and the playwright was given his chief actor and all the three actors by the archon, there was probably room for the playwright to express his disappointment to have to work with a certain actor. Euripides clearly wrote for specific actors. Some of his roles involve a lot of choral cheering singing, other roles don’t; in fact, we have very masculine women. But he couldn’t have actually known who he was writing for before he gets allocated his actors. Therefore, after he had one of his trilogy selected for the performance, he most probably adjusted his play to conform to the qualities of the actors.

As it regards the risk of censorship, I really don’t know how far a playwright could get around it with a script introducing an insult for example to Pericles. Anyway I think that if you didn’t do anything like that, if you didn’t say anything that didn’t conform with general sensibility, you would probably have got booed very hard. So in this sense the tragedian is put on trial by public sensibility. The comic codes, of course, did change this particular aspect. It is the very nature of comedy. The events referred in the play, normally took place very soon before the performance, as we can see from traces in the texts where very recent cases of corruption are mentioned. Most famous in this sense is the case of Aristophanes and Cleon, who was one of the most prominent politicians at the time: they claimed to hate each other and were also from the same deme, that of Kydathenaion. Aristophanes had an absolutely great success at the Lenaia festivals in 424 BC with the Knights, a play full of direct, strong attacks on Cleon, accused of bribery and corruption. One could imagine that Cleon public image would have been negatively affected by this representation. But guess what? Cleon was re-elected strategos few weeks later. The relationship between these two men is a real puzzle, because they hated each other, but they certainly used each other for their career. We know that Cleon was in the audience of the Knights, because a line wouldn’t make sense if he was not there; but Aristophanes maybe didn’t know even the night before whether Cleon would have attended the performance of the Knights, as he actually did. With comedy you have a very live, organic development. This is particularly clear in the Peace, which was staged at the Great Dionysia of March 421 BC, just few days before the Peace of Nicias was ratified, and the play is all about the hope atmosphere for peace. Aristophanes couldn’t have possibly written this comedy in its final form before the winter solstice. So I think that comedy is really exciting from this point of view.


In your recent book Introducing the Ancient Greeks, you identify ten characteristics, ten qualities that, altogether, distinguished and defined the Ancient Greeks. One of them was that they were suspicious of authority. To what extent this attitude can be detected in the tragedies and in the comedies?


You can see this kind of suspicion everywhere. Before these cultural media of tragic and comic theatre, it can be seen in the myth, which was already there. One of the constant features of many of these myths is the precarious position of those holding power, the presence of unstable government. In myths such as that of Prometeus there are rebels everywhere. There are so many myth systems that have constant polis cues! The very nature of the polis, whatever the polis is (the entire universe or the small village where you live), is collectively unstable and the idea that it could be unsettled is always present. The interesting thing in my opinion is that in tragedy those in the audience are democrats (even if some of them are not democratic in their political belief, they have to accept that the majority are) watching bronze age tyrants and kings screwed up. Part of this in tragedy can be a pleasurable justification of Athens’ own political system. Athenian citizens can see things going terribly wrong in Bronze-Age Thebes dominated by tyrants. But there is a sharp fraud in this: the chorus, composed by people of lower classes, always survives: the city goes on while the rich don’t. We can compare this sort of dynamic with people reading magazines about celebrities who are unbelievably rich, but have endless divorces, recurring always to plastic surgery, with children dying of drug overdoses; they sit there with their low income, and they feel pleasure about the rich suffering, and that is tragedy.

On the other hand, I think that Greek comedy is actually unbelievably refreshing. I can’t see any comic today daring to do to David Cameron what Aristophanes did to Cleon. You would find this in alternative theatre on the fringes, but you will never find it in the National Theatre, funded by the state and by rich people and performed at the presence of the people mocked in it. Aristophanes throws all these corruption charges against Cleon, very strong ones about stealing money and bribery, very strong allegations which if most of the people would have believed them to be true, he couldn’t have survived. It is a real trial on those who were elected, performed through comedy. This was an integral part of the political process, which is difficult for us to achieve today. In the UK we have Private Eye, and its editor, Ian Hislop, takes it with huge seriousness that we have to have public satire to keep these guys holding power in line. He has brought down several people this way. I would like us today to have a tax on everyone who can afford it to go towards funding the best satirist in the land to do the most savage comedy, and then to have a rich man running a tax-evading company to fund the chorus. Thinking in these terms one can realise what kind an achievement it was Aristophanes’ comedy.

In antiquity, this kind of comedy disappeared after the rule of Demetrius of Phalerum in Athens and the advent of the Macedonians. In the Roman period, in fall 215 AD, Caracalla went all the way to Alexandria, because he was so angry that the Alexandrians had put on comic theatre attacking him, and he killed five thousand of them because they had mocked him in the comic theatre. The Alexandrians interestingly used myths to ridicule Caracalla. One of these myths was that of Oedipus, because there were rumours of an ambiguous relationship between Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna. And they used also to go around making out that he thought he was Alexander or Achilles because he was very short. They used this sort of high myths and they got punished in a very horrible way.


In this issue, Corrado Cuccoro outlines in detail the main features of Plato’s thought about theatre. What kind of relationship was there between the phenomenon of theatre and the development of political theory?


The experience of theatre definitely exerted and influence on the development of political theory. Plato clearly recognised what an incredible psychological impact the theatre could have. In the Laws he talks about the political power of the theatre as being a real problem. He sadly gets Socrates to the conclusion that the politeia cannot tolerate that kind of mimesis, and he challenges anyone to show that the theatre not only can give pleasure (ēdonē), but that it is also useful (ōphelimos), because the pleasure alone is not enough. Sitting at his feet was Aristotle, who in the Poetics says that actually theatre is useful, because it educates even the non-philosophical people and has emotional benefits as well. Socrates, or better “Platocrates”, since we have not direct evidence that Socrates himself didn’t like theatre, even as he does underlines the incompatibility between the theatre and the politeia, is holding room for a rebuttal.

I think that what Plato really hates is mob-rule of any kind and he is deeply politically class-aware. In Laws (701a) he uses the word theatrokratia, the dictatorship of spectatorship, referring to the rule exercised by the mob (ochlos) that decides what is best. It is actually more about intellectual oligarchism than about aesthetics. In this respect, Aristotle, who attended Plato’s lectures, very carefully says in the Poetics that everybody can learn from theatre. Elsewhere, in the Politics, he also says that on some things like art, the opinion of the mass is better than the opinion of the single. He uses the analogy with a public feast in which everyone brings a different dish, resulting in a better banquet than the one provided at one person’s expense, that is to say that the overall product would be greater than the sum of its parts. Despite defending slavery, I think that Aristotle was very aware and open-minded about the intellectual potential of the working class.


What can be considered today the heir of the ancient Greek theatre?


I’m afraid that these days in terms of making mass ideology the analogy with the theatre in classical Athens must be found in the movies and in some TV shows, and it makes me very sad to conclude so. Today in the UK, maybe less than 10% of the people have ever attended art theatre performances. It thus has become a sort of intellectual élite art form, which has little to do with the making of the common ideology. On the contrary, film-makers are perfectly aware that they can change world ideology through their films, which reach a vast majority of the population. In this sense, I do believe that Hollywood film-makers are deeply irresponsible and this actually needs to be curtailed. Today many producers are morally irresponsible and happy to be so. There is for example a huge issue with the trivialisation of history in movies. If you think about films like 300 or 300: Rise of an Empire, they are absolutely war pornography. I’m sure that none of these movies would have actually passed the scrutiny of a hypothetical contemporary archon or of an international panel of democratically elected archontes, appointed to decide what is actually worth making. On the other hand, luckily, there are film-makers that perfectly understand that art can be both useful and pleasurable, for example Ridley Scott. None of his movies, from Thelma and Louise, to G. I. Jane, or even The Gladiator, is morally tacky. They are absolutely entertaining and at the same time they have a real moral authority: you can always learn something from each of them. So it can be done. Movies can be hugely pleasurable and at the same time educational. But how often do we see that? Not often at all.

1 Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King’s College London. Her main research interests include also Ancient Greek Social and Intellectual History, Ancient Greek literature and Ethnicity, gender, and class. She has published many monographies, including:

  • Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1989;
  • The Theatrical Cast of Athens: Interactions between Ancient Greek Drama & Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006;
  • The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey, I. B. Tauris, London 2008;
  • Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2010;
  • Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind, W. W. Norton & Company, London 2014.

She coedited many volumes, including:

  • E. Hall – F. Macintosh – O. Taplin (eds.), Medea in Performance 1500-2000, Legenda, Oxford 2000;
  • E. Hall – P. E. Easterling (eds.), Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002;
  • E. Hall – F. Macintosh (eds.), Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1600-1914, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005;
  • E. Hall – S. Harrop (eds.), Theorizing Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural History, and Critical Practice, Duckworth, London 2010.

Edith Hall wrote several articles, published in international scientific journals and volumes. She is Co-Founder of the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama, at the University of Oxford and Chairman of the Gilbert Murray Trust. For further information:

Si è laureato in Storia greca presso l’Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano nel luglio del 2012, con una tesi dal titolo “Rappresentanza proporzionale e organizzazione militare negli ethne della Grecia classica”. È Dottore di ricerca in Storia antica presso l’Università degli Studi di Roma "Tor Vergata", con una tesi sulla nascita e lo sviluppo di formazioni militari d’élite nella Grecia classica, ed è stato Visiting Research Student presso il dipartimento di Storia dell'University College London (UCL). È Cultore della materia di Storia greca presso la facoltà di Lettere dell’Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano. Insegna presso scuole secondarie superiori di Milano e provincia.

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