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Burning Down the Fifth-Century Stage

Daniel Anderson

Cambridge University

In this talk, I look at specific evidence for the staging of the final scene of Clouds II, and discuss interpretative implications of possible stagings. There is now a significant body of scholarship arguing that Clouds II was written in order to be staged (Revermann 2006: 326-32, Biles 2011: 167-210, Marshall 2012), and there has been important work on staging of the final scene in particular (Kopff 1977, Harvey 1981, Revermann 2006: 224-6). Nevertheless, comparatively little has been said about the mechanism behind the burning σκηνή, and contrasting positions have so far been stated rather than argued.

The talk will review all instances of the trope of the burning σκηνή-building in fifth-century Greek drama (Ar. Nu. 1497, E. Or. 1619-20, Tr. 1274, 1295-6, Phaeth. 252-69 D, cf. E. Ba. 622-6). Drawing on this primary evidence, I will then argue for three possible mechanisms that might have been used to create the effect: 1) some sort of localized pyrotechnic display from the windows or roof, involving visible fire, as is suggested by the use of ladders in Clouds II, and perhaps by Ar. fr. 234 (Revermann 2006: 225); 2) the production of smoke within or behind the σκηνή, as is suggested in particular by the evidence from the Phaethon; 3) the full-scale destruction of the wooden backdrop (Wilamowitz 1921: 165), which would account especially well for the fact that the burning of the σκηνή occurs most often at the end of a play (Clouds II, Orestes, Troades).

It is possible that the illusion of fire was evoked in different ways across multiple plays, in particular that the explicit reference to smoke without fire in Phaethon might indicate an exception to normal staging technique. The σκηνή itself seems to have been first used towards the end of Aeschylus' career (Taplin 1977: 452-9), and its institution is connected to the development of a variety of new staging possibilities (windows, roof) and theatrical technologies (ἐκκύκλημα, μηχανή), which themselves open up new conceptions of stage space. Innovation in the use of the σκηνή is an important part of this story: the burning of the σκηνή was one especially innovative use of this focal-point of theatrical effects.

Both Wilamowtiz and Revermann mention the risk of fire to the temporary wooden structure, although they each use this observation as evidence for a vastly different conception of the mechanism behind the burning stage set. No doubt the risk of fire was also keenly felt by an ancient audience (Dover 1968: lxx), and this may help account for a handful of performance moments in which there is the threat of a conflagration without any follow-through (Ar. Nu. 543, Lys. 310, 1218 with scholium, E. Ion 974-5). This genuine risk of destruction to the set also helps us to recognize the symbolic dimensions of the burning of the σκηνή. The destruction of Socrates' Thinkery functions on one level as an act of physical violence against the theatre, in revenge for the poor reception of the earlier, failed version of the play.

The burning σκηνή was an important threatrical effect in the fifth-century. Even if Clouds II was never actually staged, the imagined performance of the play's ending is still integral to our interpretation of the play, and tells us something about the symbolism of the ending that the text alone does not. I see Aristophanes as deeply ambivalent about the performance of Clouds II after the failure of Clouds I, exploiting pre-existing staging possibilities to craft an ending for the play with a strongly anti-theatrical resonance. While it is not altogether clear from the script whether Aristophanes would have chosen to stage a localized conflagration (cf. l. 1502 οὗτος, τί ποιεῖς ἐτεόν, οὑπὶ τοῦ τέγους;) or a full-scale destruction of the σκηνή-building (cf. ll. 1494 πολλὴν φλόγα, 1505 κατακαυθήσομαι), any imagined rendition of Clouds II ends with visual cues threatening destruction to the very theatre in which it plays.

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