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Ancient and modern

Sick of award ceremonies? So were the ancients

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

All over the world, from Armenia (the Silver Apricot) to India (the Golden Conch) and the UK (the Shaftas, honest), the film industry award season is in full swing — more than 100 festivals and ceremonies for weeping luvvies to hand out prizes to each other. It was ever thus.

Ancient Greeks, who from the 6th century bc invented the genres we know as tragedy and comedy, staged them in competitive annual festivals, all paid for by the richest men in Athens. As well as awards for the best play, there were prizes for best producer and best actor too (interestingly, the most famous Greek tragedy, Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, was beaten into second place by Philocles, otherwise virtually unknown). In the 3rd century bc an actors’ union was formed called ‘Artists of Dionysus’, though some replaced ‘Artists’ with ‘Toadies’. The actors naturally asked for freedom of travel by land and sea, and freedom from taxation and arrest. One Polus demanded the people of Samos grant him public acclamation, rights of citizenship, front seat at all games and a golden crown. They duly obliged.


A text ascribed to Aristotle said most actors were without principles and ‘being of low moral standards spend most of their time in outright self-indulgence or poverty’. Plato would approve. He took the view that this world is merely a shadow of the real world, and the work of philosophy was to enable us to get as close as possible to that real world, and therefore real happiness, as we could. For him, the arts were valueless for three reasons: first, they produced a mere copy of human life (‘a painter paints a cobbler: but what does he know of cobbling?’); this copy was itself an illusion (‘if you could make the real thing and the image, who would make the image?’); finally, they were morally depraved, encouraging bogus shows of emotions that were better restrained.

This criticism applies especially to the modern world, where thespians act out recent events involving their living participants. Imagine the confusion (‘Oi, Cummings! You were rubbish as that Cumberbatch’). Where will it end? Actors acting out the part of actors? (Coming soon! George Clooney starring as Gwyneth Paltrow!) One cannot discount it. Anything for an award.


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