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Ghosts, cross-dressing and puny gods: Towards a conceptual frame of spectating comic khoroi

Hanna Golab

Princeton University

Gregory Nagy’s theory of poetic mimesis as a ritual embodiment of ideal personae (e.g. Nagy 1994, 1996, 2013) has proven to be extremely valuable for understanding not only the performative aspects of ancient Greek poetry, but also the strong ties poetry had to ancient theatrical dramas. This model, however, has little that is specific to say about the experience of audiences. In my view, more may be said on this subject, and one should also take into account the different modes of spectating. Thanks to Lucian’s description of a failed choral performance (Lucian, Philopseudes 32) we can see that the willing participation of spectators was necessary for the successful execution of a comic khoros. This paper thus seeks to refocus our attention on human (as opposed to divine) audiences of various comic performances. I will argue that while the experience of spectators is crucial to any re-evaluation of choral genres, it is especially important in the case of carnivalesque genres. Ludic performances such as the Athenian Dionysiac pompai, the Epidaurian hymn to the Mother of Gods, or Doric caricature khoroi (Csapo 2013, 2015; Wagman 1995) relied on the audience’s ability to recognize the discrepancy between myth and its ludic transformation within the experience of the performance. Otherwise, what was grotesque and comically transgressive would have become monstrous and sacrilegious when embodied and made present in the ritual space. This distance between audience’s knowledge about what is represented and its representation by the performers empowered the ludic khoroi, allowing them e.g. to create normally unacceptable grotesque personae and to mock the audience with impunity. In the words of Julia Walker, such spectators are at the same time ‘inside’ the narrative fiction and ‘outside’ observing its techniques (Walker 2006; McConachie 2008). My analysis will show that this theatrical competence of discerning mythological reality from performance reality was also a necessary component of other ritual comic performances such as Kabeirian dramas, phlyax plays and theatrical comedies at large. From iconographical evidence we can deduce that they often represented mythological narratives in a burlesque fashion (Walsh 2009, Sonnino 2014). Among the themes appearing on comic stage we find e.g. the disturbingly popular scene of rape of Kassandra in the temple of Athena at Troy, but instead of having Ajax as the sacrilegious perpetrator we see Kassandra, with her hair tied up in a peculiar bun, who is about to molest the terrified hero holding onto the Palladion. Such contrast between common knowledge of the myth and its staged metamorphosis was a significant source of entertainment. This Bakhtinian topsy-turvy world would not have existed without audience’s awareness of the two contrasting perspectives.

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

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