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Material Ghosts: Recycled Theatrical Equipment in Fifth-Century Athens

Al Duncan

What happened to fifth-century theatrical costumes and properties after their initial production? This paper surveys the textual evidence of a market for theatrical materials in fifth-century Athens and sketches out some of the practicalities and ramifications of such an exchange. Specifically, it considers how the theatrical reuse of tragic equipment from past performances—what Marvin Carlson (2001) has labeled “ghosting”— would have constituted a unique form of paratragedy which could claim not only semiotic reference to, but also phenomenological identity with, the parodied model. The cross-generic recycling of such objects as Euripides’ ragged costumes would have consequences for the material aesthetics of Athenian drama, demonstrating that the very same object could be appropriate to the aesthetics of both tragedy and Old Comedy while performing different functions in each genre.

Athenian theatrical costume was a specialized form of dress resistant to repurposing. Nevertheless, the hire of such objects has been dismissed as “out of the question” (Wyles 2011: 45). To be sure, major dramatic festivals were known for sumptuous display (Wilson 2000), leading to speculation that new costumes were fabricated for each performance. But after accounting for the religious dedication of costumes from victorious performances (Green 1982), a full two-thirds of tragic and four-fifths of comedic costumes outlived their initial production. Given the frequency of Attic dramatic festivals, stockpiles of these expensive specialty items would have been quickly amassed. By the third century professional himatiomisthai or “costume-renters” (IG 12(9).207.22; SIG 424.85) were employed to address this logistical problem. But how did fifth-century Athenians handle their surplus of specialty theatrical clothing and properties?

Long after their two hours’ traffic on stage, costumes held enduring value as material objects. Dicaeopolis’ borrowing of beggarly costumes and properties from Euripides at Acharnians 393-479 famously, if fictitiously, demonstrates how old theatrical costumes might have exchanged hands and been repurposed. Less well known is a scholion on line 1312 of Aristophanes’ Wasps which reports that the tragedian Sthenelus sold his theatrical gear (skeuē) when he fell upon hard times. Similarly, the unknown speaker of Lys. 21.4 notes that he spent a large sum as a comedic chorēgos “including the dedication of skeuē”—a specification that suggests in dedicating the gear he incurred an opportunity cost, since these items could no longer be sold. There is uncertainty regarding what items, precisely, the term skeuē denotes in each of these contexts. However, it is clear that in fifth-century Athens, theatrical equipment was something to be exchanged and reused, whether begged and borrowed or bought and sold.

Marvin Carlson has written that, across cultures and times, theater is obsessed with a phenomenon he calls “ghosting” which occurs when a certain theatrical object such as a prop or costume “moves through new and different productions” thereby contributing “to the richness and density of the operations of theatre… as a site of memory” (p. 4). A recycled stage item has the power to recall a poet or actor’s earlier oeuvre, “haunting” the stage with material ghosts of past productions. But when placed in another’s hands, the same object can become a powerful tool for homage and/or parody.

Carlson’s idea of a haunted stage provides useful ways to think about the afterlife of theatrical gear. Classical Athens, which Carlson’s work does not directly address, provides a particularly interesting case study. Since victorious skeuē were dedicated and removed from circulation, recycled costumes came from losing productions. Though rich in theatrical memory, ghosted stage objects were also monuments of failure on the Greek stage. The theatrical equipment of frequent losers at dramatic competitions, such as Euripides, would be most liable to appear second hand—possibly explaining why Aristophanes unfairly singles out Euripides’ penchant for rags. Indeed, ghosted tragic costumes may have had a vibrant and aesthetically charged afterlife on the comic stage, from the ugly rags of Acharnians to the handsome Aegisthus of the so-called “Choregoi Vase.”

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Objects and Affect: The Materialities of Greek Drama

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