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Performing ‘Deep Intersubjectivity’: Spectatorship in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae

Anne-Sophie Justine Noel

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon

“More than most plays, the Ecclesiazusae negotiates the conditions of its own reception with its audience” (Slater 1997:96). In this talk I explore this proposition in a fresh way combining performance studies with a cognitive approach drawing on “Theory of Mind” and George Butte’s concept of “deep intersubjectivity” (2004; 2017).  

In the “second prologue” ((372-477), Chremes narrates the events that have just taken place at the Assembly: led by Praxagora, women (dressed up as men) have made citizens vote for a gynecocratic regime. Although an off-stage space, the assembly thus functions as a parallel theatrical stage. The external audience has access to it only through the mediatization of the male gaze: spectators can look at how Chremes and the other men attending the assembly looked at the play-within-the-play performed by the women. The displacement of this show to an off-stage space allows for deeply focusing the attention on the process of spectating itself. I therefore read this sequence as a “scene about the observation of observations” (Butte 2004: 59) which brings an inbuilt commentary about the activity of spectatorship.

In contrast to the treatment of the audience onstage in Thesmophoriazusae, where it is clearly depicted as “unreceptive” (Compton-Engle 2015) if not “diseased” (Telo 2016:63), I argue that Chremes’ interpretation presents a cognitive challenge to the spectators of Ecclesiazusae. In being taken in the women's performance Chremes misinterprets Praxagora's speech and gestures – and as such, he exemplifies the collective male delusion in front of the female show. However, his erroneous inferences at times shed light onto potential shortcomings in the female performance itself – such as when he identifies the disguised women as young pale shoemakers (385), whereas these wanted to resemble respectable old men. To some extent, Chremes therefore correctly (although unwillingly) spotlights some weak points in the women’s physical and rhetorical preparation – which is also in line with what has been witnessed earlier during the truculent women's rehearsal (116-284).

The process of spectating is thus reflected as a multi-layered act of judgement: Chremes is not a bad male spectator of a good female show, neither a good male spectator of a bad female show, but the truth is more nuanced. The “observation of the observations” encourages the viewers to demystify men and women alike: they can recognize men’s credulity and failure to unmask the women, while identifying errors in women’s thinking and behaviour that could (should?) have jeopardized the success of their political enterprise.

I explore to what extent this challenge can be expressed in terms of “deep intersubjectivity,” a concept forged by George Butte to describe how films, literature, or theatre can create “multi-layered representation of consciousness,” such as when a character perceives the reaction of another character to a first character's mental state. In this scene from Ecclesiazusae, the external audience is drawn into this web of “mutually exchanged consciousness” (Butte 2014:27): spectators are led to think that men make false assumptions about women who think they are being efficient, although they (at least partly) ineffectively respond to men’s political expectations. The scene therefore presents a “recursive levels of multiple embedded states of mind” (Zunshine 2007:144), a phenomenon so far mostly studied as a feature of storytelling in modern culture.

In Frogs, Aristophanes appealed to well-trained spectators who could appreciate “refined stuff” (τὰ δεξιά, 1109-18; Revermann 2006: 119-120). In Ecclesiazusae, the performance integrated the spectators’ training: Chremes’s narrative could increase spectators’ awareness of the complexity of processing multiple levels of gaze and mental states embedded within each other. A corollary effect, the paper finally argues, consists in destabilizing the political meaning of the play.

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New Approaches to Spectatorship

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