Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reasoning: Iconography of Greek Theater #7, Jeffrey Rusten

Jeffrey Rusten spoke next. He is a professor at Cornell and he specializes in Thucydides as well as working on Greek comedy and tragedy. The most memorable quality about Rusten was his earnestness; he seemed so sincere in his attempt to persuade the audience of the importance of the Phanagoria Chous. It was nice to see a scholar not only passionate about his ideas but who so vehemently tried to convert his audience.

Rusten presented on the importance of an attic chous, a type of small vase, found in Phanagoria on the Black Sea. The vase is from around 400 BCE and is currently housed in the Hermitage State Museum, Talman collection ΦΑ869.47, and is currently in a box in the basement. It was discovered in 1869 in a Ukranian village and a line drawing was published five years later. Part of the reason it has taken me so long to post this is that I cannot seem to find an image of the pot on the internet anywhere. This, of course, actually backs up Rusten's claim. If anyone knows of an image, and could send it to me or post it in a comment, that would be great.

Jeffrey Rusten claims that this is a unique chous which provides important information for the study of Attic comedy, but has unfortunately fallen under the radar of almost all modern scholars. This vase has spent a lot of time in storage and has, according to Rusten, not appeared in scholarship since 1981. His passionate and sincere argument in his talk was that the chous should not be ignored.

The chous is 9.5cm high and shows a surprising five figures and five masks which is paralleled on no other vase of this size. It depicts three actors, one in costume and two in comedy undergarments, and two aulos players in full stage attire. Obviously since there are only three actors, there should only be three masks, but instead there are five. This adds to the incredible symmetry of the vase, where the three center players are framed by the two aulos players who are all facing a center character.

Aside from the costumes which are symbolic of comedy, the central figure sits on a bedroll and carries a twisted staff which indicates that he is a traveler, a character commonly depicted on comic vases. Rusten explains that two of the masks are undistinguished, one is comic, one is tragic, and one looks like a Zeus mask. The scene seems to be taking place backstage, but leaves open a number of questions as to what play it might represent (if it represents a specific scene) and why the vase was found so far from its point of origin.

I thought that Rusten made a persuasive case for the importance of the vase, and I hope that more scholarship will be written about this fascinating depiction of comedy.,

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