By Naomi Weiss, author of Seeing Theater: The Phenomenology of Classical Greek Drama

The cover of Seeing Theater, thoughtfully designed by my late brother-in-law and artist David Palacios, offers a succinct visual encapsulation of the book and an interesting twist on the only surviving image in classical Athenian art of a theater audience.

The cover immediately draws our attention to one of the two media I discuss in the book: ancient Greek pottery. Vase painting is the only surviving visual archive contemporary with the plays themselves that offers traces of Athenian theater practice in the fifth century BCE. The stylized image of a krater or mixing bowl acts as a frame, within which we see concentric rows of rectangles, radiating outward, representing the seats in a Greek theater. In the center are two men sitting on chairs. One, older and bearded, looks straight ahead. His younger partner turns toward him as if to chat while also pointing out to something in front of them.

David’s drawing of this seated pair is based on a unique depiction of a theater audience painted on an Athenian chous or wine jug dated to roughly 420 BCE. On the jug, these two figures face a platform, on which stands a man in costume. A curved structure rises up from beneath the platform, possibly representing stage scenery. Pieced together from fragments, for a long time the jug was held in a private collection and could not be viewed in person. Now it is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, but the glaze is so eroded that we still rely on a combination of a drawing and four photographs, all published in 1935, for an understanding of the scene depicted on its side. Much ink has been spilled on what it shows: what play is being performed, what character the guy on the stage is playing, what the curved structure might represent. None of this can be determined with any certainty.

What I find much more interesting is the focus on theatrical spectatorship itself. Actors, chorus, musician, judges, and audience have been reduced to an exchange between a single performer and two spectators. The spectators have been variously identified as two judges, a judge with the chorēgos— the person who financed the production, a judge with the dramatic poet, or just regular audience members. Whoever they may be, the scene on the jug invites its viewer to position themselves alongside this pair—to look upon the actor and the physical properties of his performance space and perhaps also to wonder about what they might represent.

On my book’s cover, there is no stage platform or actor. The absence of a clear object of the two spectators’ attention communicates a central tenet of the book—that what and how we see is never straightforward. Greek tragedians and comedians alike repeatedly interrogate the viewing experience and, in doing so, interrogate theater’s mechanisms of representation. Drawing from the work of theater phenomenologists like Bert States and Stanton Garner Jr, I explore the slippage and friction between actuality and virtuality, presence and absence: plays, for example, that invite viewers to notice the disconnect between a prop and what it represents, or to see it in multiple ways at the same time; plays that prevent any identification of onstage spaces, bodies, and objects for a remarkably long time; plays that push against the bounds of representation altogether. By positioning the two figures within empty black space, the cover opens up the question of what their viewing experience might be. We become more focused on the younger man’s inquisitive look and pointing finger: What is he looking at? Does he see it in the same way as the older man does? Does he see anything at all?

At the same time, we could understand the younger man’s stance as a gesture toward the stylized rows of theater seats around them—to the audience. This pair of viewers have become, in David’s rendering, the objects viewed. They look out to the audience as the audience looks back at them. In this respect, the image refers to the scenes of staged spectatorship that recur across my book, where a character acts as an internal spectator, seeing with and for the audience as they observe what’s around them. Often, such figures act as viewers of the audience, prompting them to reflect on their own role within a play’s spectatorial dynamics. This is partly how audiences of classical Greek theater, as I argue, become part of the dramatic production, not just seeing theater but making theater.