Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

15. Conclusion

In sections 1–4 of this Part, I outlined the range of verse types including hexameters, elegiacs, iambics, skolia, and previously composed (lyric and iambic) passages by dramatic poets recited with or without improvisation at sympotic gatherings. There the focus was on the competitive social matrix of élite aristocrats that motivated these performances, especially in the context of symposia whose often-stated purposes of mirth, celebration, and social exchange overlay the more pragmatic aims of men who were in competition with, and highly suspicious of, one another. As a result, sympotic verse competitions of various kinds thus operated on more than one level: they were certainly a test of παιδεία ‘education’ through παιδιά ‘play’ in some respects, but they were also opportunities to sound the depths of fellow symposiasts. Participation in these poetry games forced every symposiast to reveal something of himself and his beliefs. But when fueled by alcohol and the constant pressure to outperform other symposiasts, the competitive format occasionally encouraged a participant to strike more deeply at the heart of his adversary’s true or at least truer feelings. This revelatory power of competitive performance was dangerous enough in itself, but became worse if it issued in the physical confrontations that sometimes resulted in violence or death.

In sections 6–9 I examined a range of poetic testimony attesting to hostility on the part of symposiasts toward rhapsodes. If we had to judge only on the basis of this testimony, we might conclude that sympotic opposition to rhapsodes was both ideological and formal. But the formal opposition is less than clear. Of course rhapsodes perform epic while symposiasts perform smaller segments of poetry. However, there are grounds to suppose that some of the technical features of sympotic performance are scaled-down versions of what we find among rhapsodes. It is time now to make that case. In what follows, I single out four features in particular: 1) responsion, by which I mean the ability of one performer to sequence his poetry with that of his competitor in a live performance; 2) improvisation, which refers both to the coining of “new” poetic expressions from scratch and of refashioning traditional poetic material in a novel way; 3) punning, riddling, and insinuation through poetry—in other words, exactly the range of means by which symposiasts and dramatic performers of stichomythia, as we saw in Part I, sought to overcome an adversary; and especially 4) verse enjambement, the means by which the verse of one performer is connected to that of another. We are about to see all of these performance features at work in the technical repertoire of rhapsodes.