Peter Jones

Have actors always been self-indulgent?

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Golden Globes, Baftas, Emmies – here we go again with the annual rituals of self-worship to which actors are so addicted. The ancient Greeks are to blame: they staged plays in competition, with awards for best plays, producers and actors. Their worldwide luvvies’ Guild, formed in the 3rd century bc, was called ‘Artists of Dionysus’ – some replaced ‘Artists’ with ‘Parasites’ – and lasted hundreds of years. Its last recorded title (under the emperor Aurelian) was suitably modest: ‘The Sacred Musical Travelling Aurelian Great World Guild of the Artists of Dionysus.’

They were very popular. One festival at Delphi attracted 251 Artists, including 40 from Corinth, 29 from Athens, 57 from Boeotia, 11 from Asia Minor and ten from the Black Sea. Big names flourished. Polos, a top luvvie, demanded from the people of Samos public acclamation, rights of citizenship, access to the council for anything he wanted, front seat at all games and a golden crown (the Samians put up a huge inscription to that effect). Different Guilds clashed with each other: Corinthian Artists claimed the right to exclude Athenians from some events.

Always on the lookout for perks, they found that the equally humble Guild of Athletes paid no taxes! (A letter from Marc Antony ((33 bc)) to ‘The Crowned Sacred Victors of the Whole World’ re-affirmed that tax-free right, together with their existing rights: no military service, a truce during games, the right to wear purple, and so on.) When the Artists joined them, bogus Artists naturally flooded in, causing the emperor Diocletian to restrict that exemption only to members who had won three crowns in major competitions.

Not surprisingly, performers had a reputation for arrogance and bad behaviour. The pseudo-Aristotelian Problems asked ‘Why are Artists of Dionysus mostly without principles?’ It answered: ‘Their profession does not encourage reason and wisdom, and most of their life is spent in either rank self-indulgence or poverty, conditions always productive of low moral standards.’ Actors? Surely not!