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.

Introduction: Toward an Understanding of Greek Poetic Contestation

Denn weshalb soll Niemand der Beste sein? Weil damit der Wettkampf versiegen würde und der ewige Lebensgrund des hellenischen Staates gefährdet wäre.

Why should no one be the best? Because then competition would end and the eternal source of life of the Hellenic state would be jeopardized.

Nietzsche, Homer’s Wettkampf 1872

The purpose of this study is to offer a detailed examination of the competitive performance of Greek poetry from the late archaic to the classical period. Its central argument is that the basic response pattern called “capping” is a pervasive competitive performance technique common to tragic and comic stichomythia, dramatic representations of lament, forms of Platonic dialectic and dialogue, the sympotic performance of elegy, skolia and related verse games, as well as the rhapsodic performance of epic. [1] Capping can be defined as follows: usually between two but sometimes more speakers or singers, one participant sets a topic or theme in speech or verse to which another responds by varying, punning, riddling, or cleverly modifying that topic or theme. [2] Sometimes antithesis of thought and/or diction results, sometimes complementarity and continuation. The speakers and singers continue the response pattern until one opponent is outmatched. Outmatching can occur because no response is forthcoming, or because the response given breaks the theme, or because it is just not considered by the participants or audience to be witty or impressive enough.

Although capping phenomena occur within a wide range of Greek poetic genres, this study does not claim that all such genres are reducible to capping. Two of the most characteristic features of archaic choral lyric and Attic drama, for instance, the strophic/antistrophic responsion of choral odes and the thematically responsive ἀγών ‘contest’ in drama, share properties with the more basic game of capping but are clearly more complex entities. Neither is treated in the present work. Instead, this study concentrates on linking and responsion strategies between smaller units of verse, between individual verses, and within single verses themselves as defined by metrical periods. Based on a comparison of the ways in which verses can be linked together by characters in tragic stichomythia and lament, by symposiasts, by representations of improvised verse contests in comedy, and by rhapsodes, I argue for a structural correspondence among these verse forms. This occasionally leads to some counterintuitive findings. For example, despite the long-standing intellectual hostility of symposiasts toward rhapsodes, sympotic verse contests are very similar to rhapsodic techniques in respect of strategies for linking verses together, sometimes through enjambment, sometimes through parataxis. Indeed, epic hexameter, stichomythia, and dramatic lament all share the specific structural feature of participial enjambment. This suggests that we are dealing with a wider-spread, inherited form of poetic gaming that is not restricted to any one poetic or performance genre.

Improvisation is a crucial feature of the competitive gaming explored in this book. By “improvisation” I mean the recomposition of both traditional and invented material at the level of diction, formulae, phrases, particles, and so forth, rearranged in a novel way during a live performance. [3] The ability of a live performer to cap his adversary with a verse—whether we are concerned with the rhapsode, symposiast, or the more complicated situation of the tragic and comic actor, who performs live on stage but enacts a representation of a real performance imagined off stage—while keeping in step with the theme and meter at hand and at the same time producing puns, riddles, ridicule, depends among other things upon improvisation. But for improvisation to be successful it must operate within culturally and socially specific parameters, which in turn provide the guidelines for evaluating the success of a given performance. For Greek society in particular, by discovering these cultural and social parameters we can better answer the question of what it means to compete poetically in a society saturated with poetry. We must offer some account of how hexameter and iambic verses from earlier poets are recycled in symposia generations later, not always as a demonstration of one’s παιδεία ‘education’ but sometimes for the sheer cynical and wicked fun of needling an adversary. Or of how, in this kind of atmosphere, improvisation and humor at the wrong time occasionally resulted in death, while such repartee at the right moment could absolve one from a punishable offense. Accordingly, we shall come to realize that to tell a fellow symposiast that he is a fool is all well and good, but to insinuate it through the recitation of an iambic verse from a known tragedy, with its own narrative implications relevant to the present context, is characteristically Greek.

This brings us to a word on methodology. The recent scholarly interest in performance studies has produced, in some quarters at least, revolutions in thinking both about competitive performance and about how Greek texts such as the Homeric poems or the Theognidea came to look the way they do. [4] The thrust of these recent studies is different from the interest in performance by an earlier generation of scholars, whose view of performers and audience tended to be reconstructed exclusively from Greek poetry itself. [5] This approach is not to be discarded. However, in the context of the present study it needs to be supplemented with comparative anthropological and sociolinguistic research from non-Greek cultures to illustrate some of the basic patterns in competitive dueling and ritual insult games. [6] This research on ritual insult and dueling offers points of comparison and difference with respect to the relationship between the competitive speech-acts and the socio-political institutions that structure and give them meaning. Some of this research is highlighted within the main body of this study, while more of it is reserved for the footnotes and Appendix II. We can make one important point here, however, that has relevance to this entire study. In social contexts that promote ridicule there is always a set of external, “ordinary” rules of polite discourse and social interaction that can be suspended, inverted, or otherwise modified during the joking encounter. There is also a set of internal rules that govern the individual encounter between parties—for example, what sort of insults and sarcasm are appropriate, whether the parties presume the insults to be true, and so forth. In order for a game of ridicule to happen, the external rules must essentially be “violated” by mutual consent of the “players.” Then the internal rules take over, providing the means by which the players are judged for victory. In all the Greek examples to be studied, we shall have to take account of these external and internal rules of discourse, and of how they are transformed by poetic competition.

The heart of the study is divided into three parts, which focus respectively on competitive verse formations such as stichomythia found in tragedy, Old Comedy, Platonic dialogue and Theocritus (Part I), sympotic performance (Part II), and rhapsodic performance (Part III). Through an examination of many individual passages and scenes, I hope to outline the main varieties of Greek competitive performance and to recover something of the exuberance of actual performances. In Appendix I, I examine the evidence for ancient Greek ritual αἰσχρολογία ‘obscenity’ among women, offering a culturally relevant although indirect point of comparison for the main types of poetic contestation explored in this study. I reserve for Appendix II three examples of ritual insult from three disparate cultures—modern Guyana, eighteenth-century Paris, and modern Indonesia—that illustrate the cultural salience of competitive speech-acts. These examples are not meant to be exemplary for ancient Greece, and I am certainly open to the charge of not being comprehensive in my coverage since most cultures have competitive poetic contests of some kind. Instead, the examples are intended to sample the range of this important comparative research and to illustrate how a given competitive verbal game acts as a vehicle for the expression of social, cultural, and political concerns.


[ back ] 1. Although not termed such by the author, an important contribution to Greek poetic capping is Merkelbach 1956. On the theme of competition in Greek poetry in general, see the fundamental article by Griffith 1990.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Wallochny 1992:19.

[ back ] 3. Fundamental here is Hammerstaedt 1996.

[ back ] 4. Parks 1986 and 1990, Martin 1989, Nagy 1996, and Goldhill and Osborne 1999. My own contribution to this discussion has taken the form of two articles (Collins 2001a and 2001b) that provide the basis for Part III.

[ back ] 5. E.g. Gentili 1990. A similar approach, with more nuanced interpretations of audience, can be found in Stehle 1997.

[ back ] 6. In addition to individual works cited throughout this study, I have found the following especially helpful: Gossen 1976, Bauman 1977, Garrioch 1987, Brenneis 1988, Bowen 1989, Hanks 1989, Bauman and Briggs 1990, and Riu 1999:237-42. For a review of earlier literature on verbal dueling through 1976, see Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 1976:205-06.