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Coroplastic Commemoration of Performance: Dramatic Identity and Viewership in Ancient Corinth

Justin Dwyer

University of British Columbia

Despite limited evidence, recent scholarship on Corinthian theater has addressed the architectural development of its Hellenistic theater (Scahill 2015) as well as its role in the transmission of drama between the Greek mainland and West (Green 2014); however, the city’s distinct theatrical identity, shaped by its dramatic conventions, spectators, and cultural impact requires scholarly attention. As a means of improving our nebulous understanding of Corinth’s theatrical identity, an analysis of its figurines could be tremendously valuable because they capture an otherwise fleeting spectator experience of a particular performance context.

Looking at the Late Classical coroplastics of Corinth, this paper presents a diachronic and contextual reading of these objects with an eye towards understanding the drama represented, the spectators, and their collective impact. Understanding how Corinthians consumed dramatic performances through its material memory demonstrates more clearly than ever before how Corinth was an active agent in producing drama, rather than a passive participant in a narrative dominated by Athens. The value of theatrical figurines for understanding wider dramatic practice and contexts has been laid out by T.B.L. Webster’s landmark editions on dramatic monuments (e.g. MMC3, MNC3). His research has been masterfully developed by J.R. Green, Eric Csapo, and others. This paper engages with their work on several levels and builds on it in sketching the outlines of a synthetic dramatic identity of Corinth.

Above all, the analysis of these figurines confirms the presence of a distinct theater tradition at Corinth which maintained a competitive relationship with Athens rather than a dependent one. First, this paper establishes that Corinth had a longstanding and independent performative culture. This culture had foundations in myth (e.g. Arion, Hdt. 1.23-4) and is suggested by the fact that Corinthian komast depictions (8th cent.) predate those of Athens by at least a century. Xenophon also confirms that Corinth was hosting its own dramatic competitions at least as early as the fourth century (Hell. 4.4.3). The figurines of Corinth bolster the notion of a distinct theater tradition by their clear attempt to brand Corinthian drama. Looking for example at the figurines’ masks, a unique but consistent Corinthian style emerges (e.g. ringed eyes with indented pupils) which not only identifies the figure as Corinthian, but also unmistakably determines they are not Athenian. These figures suggest a spectator demand to preserve and display a definitively Corinthian performance tradition. This is not to say that Corinth did not also embrace and perpetuate Athenian drama (see Green 2014); this paper contends instead that Corinth kept the traditions separate.

This paper next examines the stock characters and dramatic circumstances represented by these figurines. They help demonstrate not only the preservation of a separate Corinthian tradition, but also the popularity of particular dramatic tropes among a Corinthian viewership. The fact that there are both Late Classical comic Herakles figurines (e.g. MF 1527, MF 5264; Corinth) and stock soldier figurines (e.g. T 1062, T 1055; Corinth) speaks to an early fourth-century transition in Corinth that coincides with the transition in Athens rather than follows it. This study also considers how Corinthian spectators might view these characters differently, considering non-Athenian mythical traditions and the contemporary socio-political situation in Corinth (e.g. Herakles and soldiers in a time of Macedonian ascendency).

A contextual examination of these figurines reveals that several may have formed sets (as with the so-called New York Group), which in turn give a more complete picture of the performance tradition. The depositional patterns of these figurines in votive contexts also indicate an advanced awareness by spectators of the theater’s relationship with local cult activity.

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Theatre, Performance, and Audiences: Ways of Spectating in Antiquity

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