Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2003—2004 Forum on Belief
Assistant Professor, Classical Studies
Like Truth: Lies, Deceit and the Suspension of Disbelief in Ancient Drama
Fifth-century rhetorician Gorgias remarked that in tragedy, "the deceiver is more just than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the undeceived." More than a witticism, Gorgias's reflection on dramatic deception would seem to indicate its valorization as a kind of wisdom: the tragedian is a propagator of "just" deceit in which the audience is "wisely" deceived. Tragedy, then, wields the ambiguous moral and epistemological power of generating multiple beliefs in the audience.
This year at the Forum, Wilson will work on a book-length study of the dramatic representation of lying and deceit that takes as its central point of departure the premise that the traditional interpretive contrast between "truth" and "fiction" in ancient drama is too stark. Wilson will approach the question of fictionality—and these intermediary states between belief and disbelief—from a metatheatrical perspective, arguing that deception as represented in drama draws attention to the larger deceptions of the theatrical experience. The inclusion of lies may serve many purposes, from the undermining of the audience's belief to the very reinforcement of its belief in the main narrative, which may seem the more convincing for containing and distancing itself from internal falsehoods. Wilson will seek to show how ancient drama demonstrates a self-conscious awareness of the multiple kinds of belief generated by the theatre, and the role that deception plays in their generation.