Panel description

SCS 2021 Virtual Annual Meeting, Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Panel organizers: Al Duncan (The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Anne-Sophie Noel (École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, HiSoMA, )

Panel speakers: Krishni Burns (University of Illinois, Chicago), Al Duncan, Marianne Govers Hopman (panel chair/discussant, Northwestern University), Anne-Sophie Noel.

Held on Zoom (via the SCS meeting platform) at (U.S. Central Standard Time): 9:00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m., Tuesday, January 5, 2021.


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 When thinking about ancient performance, “we must also feel the presence of the audience: not only because every sound and movement is, ultimately, directed at them, but also because their shared experience is part of the play as a whole.” (Taplin 1978: 3).

It is a truism to observe that Oliver Taplin’s pioneering works marked a sea-change in the scholarly approach to ancient theater. But whereas Taplin established a critical awareness of the audience as a central tenet of understanding ancient performance, the specific means, modes, and mechanisms by which that audience should be understood have been left comparatively underdeveloped. Some renewed approaches to “spectatorship” (i.e., the theatergoer’s contribution to, and experience of, performance) have routinely emerged, but their relative merits and relations have been insufficiently discussed. Forty years after Taplin, and following Martin Revermann's 2006 study on “The Competences of Theatrical Audiences,” we would like to reassess ancient spectatorship. Growing scholarly recognition of, for instance, the diverse sociology of theatrical audience (Roselli 2011), the ‘presences’ of audiences beyond the theater (Kohn 2013), and the cognitive underpinnings of theatrical experience (Meineck 2018), highlights the need for synthetic dialog about the emergence of a critically “emancipated” spectator (Rancière 2008).

 The seminar thus proposes fresh critical strategies to investigate textual, material and archaeological evidence related to ancient Greek and Roman audiences in a transhistorical perspective.


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 Al Duncan's opening talk, “Is Oedipus Ugly? Deliberative Spectatorship at Colonus,” takes incommensurate descriptions of Oedipus’ personal appearance as a case study for exploring the complex ways theatergoers resolve conflicting verbal reports about the visible stage. Drawing upon work in cognitive humanities, the paper considers how spectators tacitly, yet collectively, establish what linguist Herbert Clark (1994) calls “common ground” regarding theatrical aesthetics. Suggesting that verbal inconsistencies trigger deliberative spectatorial processes in drama generally, the paper argues in particular that debate over the hero’s appearances early in the drama lays the foundations for the subsequent assessment of his value and “benefit” (ὄνησις, 288) to Athens.

 In “Performing ‘deep intersubjectivity’: spectatorship in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae,” Anne-Sophie Noel draws on performance studies combined with “Theory of Mind” to read the narrative of the events taking place at the Assembly (372-477) as a “scene about the observation of observations” (Butte 2004: 59), offering an inbuilt commentary about spectatorship. External viewers are proposed a challenging cognitive task, which the paper analyzes in terms of “deep intersubjectivity,” a concept borrowed from George Butte to describe how films, literature, or theatre can create “multi-layered representation of consciousness.” Building this “deep intersubjectivity” contributes, the paper argues, to destabilizing the political meaning of the play.

 In the final talk, “Sharing Spectatorship with the Divine: Watching as Worship at the Ludi Megalenses,” Krishni Burns focuses on the experience of spectatorship in Republican Rome. Theater was introduced into Rome as a Hellenizing element in constructed religious festivals that required the participation of a cult image as spectator. The paper uses an anthropological approach to spectatorship, i.e. the dual consciousness of play and performance, to reframe the act of spectating as a religious act that split the spectator’s attention between aspects of production and the play itself (Gaylord 1983: 136-7; Turner 1986: 140). The paper posits that conscious inclusion of a divinity in the spectating collective drove the audience to be hyper aware of the play’s outer frame, the venue and technical aspects of the production, which in turn caused the audience to be highly critical of production quality and performance choices.  


Clark, H. (1996). Using Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hardwick, L. (2013). The problem of the spectators: Ancient and modern. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement, 11-26.

Hedreen, G. (2007). Involved spectatorship in archaic Greek art. Art History, 30(2), 217-246.

Kohn, T. (2013). The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Loraux, N. (1999). La voix endeuillée, essai sur la tragédie grecque (NRF essais). Paris: Gallimard.

Rancière, J. (2008). Le spectateur émancipé. Paris: La fabrique éditions.

Revermann, M. (2006). The competence of theatre audiences in fifth-and fourth-century Athens. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 126, 99-124.

Roselli, D. K. (2011). Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens. University of Texas Press.

Ruffell I., “Audience and Emotions in the Reception of Greek Drama,” in O. Taplin, M. Revermann, P. Wilson, Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin, 37-58.

Taplin, O. (1978). Greek Tragedy in Action. London: Methuen & Co.



Long abstracts

“Is Oedipus Ugly? Deliberative Spectatorship at Colonus”
Al Duncan (The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Is the eponymous hero of Oedipus at Colonus ugly — and if so, what makes him appear as such? This paper studies how Sophocles’ final play frames the theatrical spectatorship of its protagonist in order to underscore the drama’s central thematic concerns. Drawing upon close-readings as well as insights from the cognitive humanities, including joint attention (Duncan), the paper argues (1), that Oedipus’ personal aesthetics are less determinate than most scholars (e.g., Jebb, Van Nortwick) have hitherto assumed and (2), that in embodied and material production, conflicting verbal reports about the hero’s appearance trigger a collaborative and dialectical response as theatergoers seek to resolve the propositional ambiguity and establish of what psycholinguistic Herbert H. Clark (1996) has called “common ground” for continued conversation. Such “deliberative spectatorship” — based not only upon theatergoers’ shared visual attention but also upon incommensurate verbal evidence from the play — parallels and ultimately reinforces play-internal debates over the hero’s value that are thematically central to the tragedy (Burian, Hesk). In short, the “problem” of the Oedipus’s personal aesthetics offers an exemplary case for shedding light on how the collective processes and epistemologies of dramatic vision interacted with other sensory modalities (Noel, 2019) and broader considerations of value in Attic theater.

Oedipus at Colonus opens when the titular hero, a self-proclaimed “blind, old man” (1) enters from the wings, leaning upon his daughter for support. When the Chorus of Coloneans discover Oedipus profaning the grove of the “dread-faced” (δεινῶπες, 84) Eumenides, they proclaim this man to be, like the divinities themselves, “terrible to behold, terrible to hear” (δεῖνος ὁρᾶν, δεῖνος κλύειν, 141). In both the eyes and ears of the Chorus (their synesthetic response is suggestive), Oedipus embodies his awful fate. He is the antithesis of the celebrated Athenian ideal: the young, athletic, civically embedded and religiously pure man whose kalokagathia, “beautiful goodness,” elides distinctions between personal appearance, social class, and moral probity. Positioned at the opposite end of such spectrums, Oedipus naturally attracts a wide range of negative descriptions. Not only is he “terrible” (δεινός, in the passage above and passim) but also “wretched” (ἄθλιον, 222), “ill-fated” (δύσμορος, 224), etc. In addition to such holistic descriptions, Oedipus is also specifically presented as — I know no better word for it —ugly. His mutilated face is “unlovely to behold” (δυσπρόσοπτον εἰσορῶν, 286), his whole form (at least according to one manuscript reading) “misshapen to see” (δύσμορφ᾽ ὁρᾶν, 327).

And yet, the personal aesthetics of the hero are neither as simple nor as definitive as these descriptions first suggest. Moments before the Chorus’s arrival, an Attic “Stranger” chancing upon Oedipus deems him “noble, at least to an onlooker” (γενναῖος, ὡς ἰδόντι, 71). This initial description of Oedipus’s appearance, so at odds with what later seems to become an aesthetic consensus, raises a host of interconnected issues that are crucial to our understanding of ancient spectatorship. Why, within a span of minutes, might Oedipus be described as both “noble” and “terrible” to behold? How might communities of spectators (play-internal, play-external, or perhaps even both in unison) resolve this apparent contradiction? And why are personal appearances, described by a diverse array of characters and repeatedly underscored (as seen above) by the vocabulary of vision, used to establish Oedipus’ character when tragic characters typically resist such explicit aesthetic assessment?

Although it resists offering simple answers to such questions or proposing specific “solutions” for a production (many are feasible), by attending the collective cognitive processes which continually underpin dramatic spectatorship, this paper ultimately proposes that this seemingly offhand (and even off-base) comment by the Attic Stranger is, in fact, strategically timed.  The aesthetic ambiguity this character introduces early in the play primes theatergoers for the collective deliberation and decision-making that lie at the heart of this — and arguably every — tragedy.

 Works Cited

 Burian, P. 1974. “Suppliant and Saviour: Oedipus at Colonus.” Phoenix 28:408–429.

 Clark, H. H. 1996. Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Duncan, A. C. (Forthcoming). “Seeing together:  Joint attention in Attic tragedy.In Minds on Stage, edited by I. Sluiter and F. Budelmann.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Hesk, J. 2012. “Oedipus at Colonus” in Brill’s Companion to Sophocles, edited by A. Markantonatos, pp. 167–189.  Leiden: Brill.

 Jebb, R. C. Sophocles. The Plays and Fragments. Part II. The Oedipus Coloneus. 3rd ed,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Noel, A.-S. 2019. “What do we actually see on stage? A cognitive approach to the interaction of visual and aural effects in the performance of Greek tragedy.” In Classics and Cognitive Theory, edited by P. Meineck, W. Short, and J. Devereaux. London: Routledge.

 Van Nortwick, T. 2015. Late Sophocles: The Hero’s Evolution in Electra, Philoctetes, and Oedipus at Colonus.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


“Performing ‘deep intersubjectivity’: spectatorship in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae
Anne-Sophie 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 the 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 with 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 unavoidably 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 rehearsal of the women (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 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. Another important effect consists in destabilizing the political meaning of the play.


 Butte, G. (2004). I know that you know that I know: Narrating subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie. Ohio State University Press.

Butte, G. (2017). Suture and Narrative: Deep Intersubjectivity in Fiction and Film. The

Ohio State University Press.

Clements, A. (2014). Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae: philosophizing theatre and the politics of perception in late fifth-century Athens. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Compton-Engle, G. (2015). Costume in the Comedies of Aristophanes. Cambridge University Press.

« Des « théories de la vision » à l'« anthropologie du regard » : nouvelles perspectives de recherche ? », Cahiers des études anciennes [En ligne], LI | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2020. URL :

Donelan, J. F. (2015). Evidence for and against audience-actor contact in Aristophanes (Pax 877-906, Ach. 257-83, Thesm. 659-87 and Nub. 275-355). Classical Quarterly, N. S., 65(2), 518-529.

Jay-Robert, G. (2014). La vision comme moyen d’accéder à la connaissance et au pouvoir: manipulation du regard chez Aristophane. Cahiers des études anciennes, (LI), 21-44.

Jay-Robert, G. (2015). Les subtilités de l’écoute chez Aristophane. Pallas (98), 73-88.

Jay-Robert, G. (2016). Au spectacle avec Aristophane: regards échangés et métathéâtre. L’Antiquité Classique, 85, 19-35.

Mauduit, Ch. (2004). Culture théâtrale et goût du public d'après les comédies d'Aristophane. Bulletin de l'Association Guillaume Budé, 1(1), 82-108.

Mauduit, Ch. & Saetta Cottone, R. (2014). Voir ou entendre: faut-il choisir ? Cahiers des Études Anciennes(51), 45-73.

McConachie, B. (2008). Engaging audiences: A cognitive approach to spectating in the theatre. Springer.

Revermann, M. (2006). The competence of theatre audiences in fifth-and fourth-century Athens. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 126, 99-124.

Revermann, M. (2017). “Interpretations. The stage and ist interpretative communities”. In Revermann, M. (ed.), A cultural History of Theatre in Antiquity, Bloomsbury, 103-119.

Robson, J. (2017). Humouring the masses: the theatre audience and the highs and lows of Aristophanic comedy. In Grig, Lucy (ed.), Popular culture in the ancient world, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 66-87.

Slater, N. W. (1997). Waiting in the Wings: Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 5(1), 97-129.

Slater, N. W. (2002). Spectator politics: metatheatre and performance in Aristophanes. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Villacèque, N. (2019). Spectateurs de paroles: Délibération démocratique et théâtre à Athènes à l’époque classique. Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Telò, M. (2016). Aristophanes and the cloak of comedy: affect, aesthetics, and the canon. University of Chicago Press.

Zeitlin, F. I. (1999). Aristophanes: the performance of utopia in the Ecclesiazousae. Performance culture and Athenian democracy: 167-197.

Zunshine, L. (2007). Why Jane Austen was different, and why we may need cognitive science to see it. Style, 41(3), 275-298.


Sharing Spectatorship with the Divine: Watching as Worship at the Ludi Megalenses
Krishni Burns (University of Illinois, Chicago)

            When the Romans incorporated the Mater Deum Magna Idaea into Roman civic religion in 204 BCE, they deliberately introduced theater games into her public festival, the Megalensia. During these games, the audience experienced the play not only as a theatrical event, but also as a form of religious communion.

            The Ludi Megalenses had to take place in the sight of the goddess’s cult statue. The games’ earliest iteration was held in front of the Magna Mater’s temple on the Palatine hill (Cicero De Har. Resp. 12.24). The audience sat on the steps with the temple doors behind them open to provide the cult statue an unobstructed view (Goldberg 1998, Manuwald 2001, Marshall 2006). Later, when the temple complex was remodeled, the games moved to the Circus Maximus directly below. The temple’s podium was increased to the unprecedented height of 8.4 meters, (27.5 feet) and the temple’s pedimental sculpture was replaced with an image of a sellisternium to maintain the line of sight (Hanson 1959, 14-15, 82-85, Pensabene 1985, 182). These architectural innovations suggest that watching the Ludi Megalenses with Magna Mater was essential to the festival. 

            In the Greek world, the goddess was honored through mystery rites. Theater offered a way of collectively engaging in a conceptually similar form of worship. Theater itself is experienced within two frames: the outer frame of the production, and the inner frame of the play itself. When actors perform, they create a liminal space where they are both themselves, i.e. actors, and the characters whom they portray (Turner and Schechner 1986). Spectators participate in that liminal space by accepting the actors’ dual identities, willfully suspending disbelief for the space of the performance (Gaylord 1983). Through the dialogue of belief between actor and audience, the secondary world of the play is created (Moore 1998). When the audience includes the Magna Mater, she becomes part of the audience’s collective.

            Because the act of spectating together was an act of worship, Roman audiences at the Megalensia must have been thoroughly enculturated spectators. High audience literacy in theatrical convention allows spectators to correctly interpret and accept the conceits necessary for complete engagement (Bennett 1997). At the same time, Megalensia audiences must maintain their consciousness of the outer frame of the performance, so as to retain their awareness of the goddess sharing their spectatorship. That hyperawareness would have ensured a deep investment in the excellence of production quality and a critical reception of the quality of the performance. Faults in performance and flaws in production would have been nefas, and might necessitate a repetition of the rite.

            Physically sharing viewership with the Magna Mater made the Ludi Megalenses an alternate plane of existence in which the goddess and her worshipers share an experience (Knowles 2004). When Roman audiences watched the Ludi Megalenses together with the Magna Mater, not only did they enjoy a good show, they also shared a moment of communion with their goddess.


Bennett, Susan. 1990. Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception. New York: Routledge.

Gaylord, Karen. 1983. “Theatrical Performances: Structure and Process, Tradition and Revolt.” In Performers & Performances: The Social Organization of Artistic Work, edited by Jack B. Kamerman, and Rosanne Martorella, 135-50. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Goldberg, S. M. 1998. “Plautus on the Palatine.” The Journal of Roman Studies 88: 1-20.

Hanson, J. A. 1959. Roman Theater Temples. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Knowles, Richard Paul. 2004. Reading the Material Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Manuwald, Gesine. 2011. Roman Republican Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, C. W. 2006. The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Timothy J. 1998. The Theater of Plautus: Playing to the Audience. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Pensabene, Patrizio. 1985. “Area Sud-occidentale del Palatino,” In Roma, Archeologia nel Centro, vol. 1: L’area Archaeologica Centrale, 179-212. Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma. Rome: De Luc Editori d’Arte, S. R. L.

Roller, L. 1999. In Search of God the Mother: the Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Turner, Victor Witter, and Richard Schechner. 1986. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.




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