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Review: The Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault

Vintage, 1988. 371 pp. $17.

I was born to the theater. My parents met in a high-school play on the eve of World War II; they named me, their second child, for a famous Shakespearean actor. I majored in drama in college, thinking I’d be a playwright, where I had the good fortune to study classical Greek theater with the late Peter Arnott. When he recommended Mary Renault’s novels as both scrupulously accurate and good fiction, I read The Mask of Apollo. I loved it.

Last week, I picked it up for another go-round, and again, I was enthralled. Nikeratos, an Athenian actor from the fourth century B.C.E., himself the son of an actor, tells his life story from the time he was a young boy, playing extras, to his career as a great tragedian. Since ancient Greek theater was religious rite, entertainment, social instruction, and political commentary rolled into one, that gives Renault a broad stage to work with, and she directs her drama with unerring skill. Fitting the religious aspect, Niko, as he’s familiarly known, keeps a beautiful theatrical mask of Apollo wherever he goes, through which he communicates with his favorite patron god about important life decisions.

Theater at Epidaurus (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Theater at Epidaurus (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

He needs all the guidance he can get. Greek theater is a demanding life, shaped by hardship, jealousy, low public taste, arrogant producers and stars, camaraderie, disappointment, temptations to alcoholism, gossip, and political intrigue. Has anything changed? When I first read The Mask of Apollo, I laughingly asked myself whether Renault had overheard my friends and me at our dining-hall conversations or visited our green room. Niko tosses off lines like, “Of course we were bypassing Corinth [on our tour]. Corinthians know what is due to them, and throw things if they don’t get it.” And when Plato, a character who appears often in the novel, wrinkles his nose at the character interpretations in Euripides, Niko can only reply, “But it’s such marvelous theater.”

If The Mask of Apollo were merely Niko’s career path, it would be entertaining, though unremarkable. But Renault reaches for more. Through his theatrical interpretations and diplomatic missions, Niko plays a political role, on and off stage. As religious practitioners, actors were nominally protected from harm, but Niko can never be sure that a tyrant (or usurper) will honor that rule. So when he gets involved in the grand experiment to install a philosopher-king at Syracuse under Plato’s tutelage, Niko must use his theatrical talent in various ways just to survive. The Mask of Apollo therefore grapples with a key question, whether philosophers should be kings (or vice versa); or, to put it another way, whether politics and ideal expectations can ever mix.

But the book also has much to say about art and who or what it must serve. As Niko tells a Syracusan leader he admires:


It means not setting oneself above one’s poet, nor being false to the truth one knows of men. When one can see that the audience wants the easy thing, or the thing just in fashion, and even the judges can’t be trusted not to want it too, for whom does one stay honest? Only for the god.


Niko understands that honesty in theater, as in life, is a precious commodity, and that it comes, when it does, in unexpected ways, sometimes. Peter Arnott taught me that, though not in his lectures–rather, on stage, of sorts. He performed Oedipus Rex (his translation, of course), using marionettes that he’d made himself. Imagine the artifice: a painted stage set scaled to puppets, obviously not human, and a black-curtained hood, behind which Professor Arnott spoke all the lines, in different voices.

Nevertheless, at the play’s climax, when Oedipus realizes he’s murdered his father, the hush that fell over us, the audience, brought awe, sympathy, and pity. And when the marionette Oedipus grabbed the scenery wall and gave it an agonized shake, a gesture daring us to laugh or break our belief in what we’d just seen, the pathos redoubled instead.

I’ll remember that moment forever, if I live to be a hundred.

Disclaimer: I own a much-loved copy of this book, on which I based my review.