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.

5. Conclusion

The two most obvious features of classical drama neglected by this Part in general are the agôn and the strophic/antistrophic divisions of choral odes. Both of these features of Athenian drama show similarities in the form of point ~ counterpoint to the capping phenomena that we have explored on a smaller scale. Where the agôn presents two often irreconcilable sides to a central issue, and choral responsion between strophe and antistrophe can be organized around a key term or theme, we may detect a later development of capping. But we must be careful here. The agôn and choral responsion are not forms of capping as such, and in any case they show too many independent developments often peculiar to individual authors so as to deserve no more than a mention in this study.

We are on firmer ground to establish that the connective techniques employed in Aeschylus’ stichomythiai, Euripides’ Cyclops, Aristophanes’ stichomythiai, the Certamen, Plato’s Euthydemus, and Theocritus’ Idylls can be paralleled in tragedy, antiphonal lament, and, as we shall see, live sympotic games and rhapsodic performances. In all of these instances, we are dealing with speech or recitation forms that are driven both by the constraints of the genre (e.g. epic hexameter, elegy and skolion, lament) and by extemporaneous speaking and improvisation. In all cases cleverness, wit, punning, innuendo, ridicule, riddling—many of which are subsumed in German scholars’ use of the term Schlagfertigkeit—are sought, rarely in themselves but more often with an ulterior purpose in mind. However, in the case of drama and Plato’s dialogues, we are dealing above all with the representation of improvisation, which brings us to formulate a significant point.

Why do tragedy, Old Comedy, and Platonic dialogue, let alone Theocritus’ Idylls, stage “live” competitive, improvised performances? I think we must look to a Greek ideal of competitive poetic performance that reaches from a professional level to that of everyday life. Let me stress that I am not claiming an “objective,” tangible ideal with definite contours that can be attributed to an individual or an institution; rather, I am attempting to take account of the larger picture to which all of this gaming seems to point. For example, in the remaining Parts of this study we shall see that there is a great deal of evidence that in contests of μουσική ‘art over which the Muses preside’ the audience’s judgment of victory turned on the ability of performers to improvise to a greater or lesser extent as a way of making a performance relevant and more responsive to the demands of that audience. Carefully crafted, extremely clever speech is prized in many forms throughout Greek literature and culture, and drama provides a direct display of this for Greek audiences. But in drama, especially comedy, and Theocritus, the conceit is that this competitive performance “ideal” can also be demonstrated through “ordinary” dialogue by nonheroic characters. In both cases, ambiguity, imprecision, or lack of attention to meaning create liabilities—for the plot within drama, and by implication for real life outside it. Tragic and comic stichomythiai demonstrate the difficulties of controlling meaning through language especially well. The Euthydemus further illustrates the comedic consequences for sophists of what it means to control or lose control of meaning in language, and these consequences are self-consciously explored. Moreover, in all of these instances one party to the dialogue guides the meanings elicited, and seeks through competitive engagement and ridicule either to persuade the other party to do something or, at the least, to maintain their own superior position. But these examples also attest by means of the ever-present potential for σκώμματα ‘jokes’ that such control of meaning, in principle at least, is impossible for any speaker completely to maintain.