The Mask of Apollo
by Mary Renault
""There is a book of Plato's I read once--yes, truly, I read the whole of it. It was a supper party where they made speeches in praise of love. I dare say you know it?'
'Yes,' said Speusippos. 'Yes, I have read The Symposion once or twice. I reread it yesterday.'" (p 236)
Historical novelist Mary Renault was born Eileen Challans in Forest Gate, England, on this day in 1905. She is best known for her novels of Ancient Greece and studied at Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien was one of her tutors.
I love her historical fiction and this is the first of her novels that I read. At the time I already had begun to acquire a passion for ancient Greece from a wonderful Latin teacher in high school. Luckily for us in addition to teaching us Latin our teacher imbued in us an interest in learning about everything classical that grew for me into more reading and led me to the discovery of Mary Renault and her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. The story of The Mask of Apollo involves the world of live theater and political intrigue in the Mediterranean at the time.
The narrator, Nikeratos is a successful professional actor, and Renault vividly evokes the technologies and traditions of classic Greek Tragedy. With detailed recreations of what might have been involved in the staging of a theatrical production of the time, she describes the music, scenery, mechanical special effects devices, and especially the practice of the three principal actors sharing the various roles in a performance, along with authentic gossip involved in these casting decisions.
Nikeratos, is an invented character, but real historical figures such as Dion of Syracuse and Plato make appearances. It is Renault's seamless blend of real historical characters within her fictional stories that makes her novels come alive for me. I even sometimes think, being an inveterate play-goer, what would it be like to pray or prepare a sacrifice for the success of the play before-hand. Some plays could use the help. I would recommend Mary Renault's novels of Ancient Greece to anyone who has an interest in our classical Greek heritage.
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