The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault [A Review]

All of Mary Renault’s novels set a high standard for historical fiction. The Mask of Apollo is no different. In it, Renault depicts a turbulent period of Greek history, when the forces for democracy and autocracy clash. By telling it through the eyes of an actor, Renault also evokes the lost world of Greek theatre.

Cover image of The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault

With an actor for a father, Nikeratos grows up around the theatre. As a child, he helps his father backstage and even performs in a few roles for children. But while his father is respected for his craft and provides for his family, it is Nikeratos who possesses a true gift for acting though yet undeveloped.

“The theatre is in your bones,” he used to say to me. “You have the open face. […] The artist flows into the mask the poet offers him; only so will the god possess him. I have seen you, my dear, when you have not seen yourself. I know.”

With his father’s death the family is in danger of falling into poverty. At the funeral, Nikeratos meets Lamprias, another actor and one who owed his father money. Unable to repay his debts, Lamprias has a proposal for Nikeratos – to join his company, go on tour, earn some money and learn his craft.

Nikeratos has a puritan streak. Though the golden age of Greek theatre ended before he was born, he yearns for its return; for a time when the commercial interests of the sponsors were less of a factor, when audiences were knowledgeable and the plays of the great writers were more popular. Amongst the kit for Lamprias’ company, Nikeratos finds a discarded mask of Apollo, perhaps fifty years old. Unlike the masks actors currently work with, which are made to be used and discarded, the mask of Apollo is a piece of great craftsmanship, a relic from the golden age, made to last.

‘Just put me back,’ he said, ‘in the glowing age of Perikles, and dose me with Lethe water, to unknow what I know. Once men deserved such gods. And where are they now? The bled to death on battlefields, black with flies; or starved in the siege, being too good to rob their neighbours. Or they sailed off to Sicily singing paeans, and left their bones there in sunken ships, or in the fever swamps or slave quarries. If they got home alive, the Thirty Tyrants murdered him. Or if they survived all that, they grew old in dusty corners, mocked by their grandsons, when to speak of greatness was to be a voice from the dead. They’re all gone now; and here are you and I, who know just what became of them. What will you do with that mask, Niko, when you have it on?’

During a performance at Phigaleia, the Oligarchs attack the town. The actors keep performing their play during the battle, not just because the show must go on, but because the soldiers would not likely attack them mid-performance; if they flee they would be more likely to be killed. Nikeratos is due to come on stage at the end of the play, as Apollo. He dons the mask, takes the stage and, in the mayhem, forgets his lines. But he recalls a rousing speech of Apollo his father has made him memorise. He gives a powerful performance, which spurs on the towns soldiers to defeat the Oligarchs.

I touched the mask for luck, saying ‘Help me through this, Apollo, and I’ll give you something’; there was no time to think what. Then I swept up the ramp, striking my lyre.

From the top I could see a proper battle. About half the citizens were now armed, if only with knives or cleavers. There were spears and swords too, serious business. To stand up here, mouthing away unheard, seemed stupid in an actor, and undignified in a god. I raised my arm, in the pose of Pheidias Apollo, and cried out, ‘Victory!’

It is a lucky escape, not the last he will experience. Increasingly, Nikeratos feels that Apollo is watching over him.

As the years pass, Nikeratos is becoming known. He is getting good roles in successful plays. But he knows he must keep evolving and challenging himself and avoid being typecast. His puritanism remains, though his mentors urge him to be practical and understanding of the political situation. But Nikeratos can’t abide politics. Athens’ recent decision to ally with Sparta, seemingly out of jealousy at Thebes’ rise, irritates Nikeratos.

‘Dionysiois, the ruler [of Sicily], is a despot and the friend of despots. He governs with spies. He plunders temples. He has sold Greek cities to the Carthaginians. He is allied with oligarchs everywhere. He lends troops to the Spartans. To hate him, therefore, is the password of a democrat. […] But we, my dear Niko, are artists and grown men; and nobody is listening.’

But politics is something no one can escape. After another performance, with Nikeratos again playing Apollo, with his life again in danger, he gets the attention of Dion – chief envoy of Dionysios, the tyrant ruler of Sicily – and Dion’s friend, the Athenian philosopher Plato. Dion and Plato are impressed by the young actor and soon Nikeratos is invited to perform in Dionysios’ capital of Syracuse. The play will be one written by Dionysios himself with Nikeratos as the protagonist.

Dionysios is one of the most powerful men in the Greek world. His tyranny is tolerated, even appreciated by his people, because he protects them from the Carthaginians. The Syracusans reason it is better to live under the protection of a tyrant than be enslaved, crucified or burned alive by the Carthaginians. He and his people are great patrons of the theatre as well.

But when Nikeratos arrives in Syracuse, Dionysios is dead and the city is on edge. Dionysios’ son and heir, Dionysios the Younger is wholly unprepared for rule. It might be best for Sicily for Dion to usurp the heir and rule in his stead but that would be a dangerous ploy and Dion has no thirst for power. Instead, Dion suggests asking Plato to tutor the young heir, prepare him for rule and even sway him to their more democratic, liberal brand of politics. But this is also a dangerous strategy, time is not on their side, vicious rumours, hostile to Plato and Dion, are spreading amongst Syracuse’s largely mercenary soldiers and the young tyrant may not be so easy to manipulate.

This is the volatile situation Nikeratos now finds himself in. Though he would like nothing better than to pursue his career, Nikeratos is increasingly drawn into the power dynamics in play; between Dion, Dionysios, Plato, the mercenary army and the looming threat of Carthage, sometimes as a witness, sometimes as a pawn, sometimes as a player himself.

‘Take care, Niko, how you shrug off public business. One day it may concern you whether you choose or not.’

The Mask of Apollo is the fourth of Mary Renault’s ancient Greek novels I have read – after The Last of the Wine, The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea. It is, again, different from the others, showing her versatility and breadth of knowledge. Told from the first-person perspective of the actor Nikeratos, it is, essentially, two stories. The first is of Nikeratos’ life; his coming of age, journeys and adventures, loves and escapes from death; and the life of an actor in this period of the ancient Hellenic world, the theatre and the stories told there. The second, which Nikeratos is witness to, is the revolution in Sicily following the death of the tyrant Dionysios the Elder and the ensuing power struggle between his son and heir, Dionysios the Younger, and his chief envoy Dion and other factions.

The first thing that needs to be shared, as is always the case with Renault, is the great knowledge she brings to her ancient Greek novels. Renault was an ancient Greek as Charlotte Mendelson says in her Introduction. But more impressive is the subtlety with which she wields this weapon. At no point do you feel like you are reading the author’s research notes. All of it is artfully infused and relevant with no hint of the superfluous. It is no wonder that contemporary historical novelists – Hillary Mantel, Madeline Miller and Emma Donoghue among them – love Renault. Some parts I especially loved reading was of Hagnon, a man who works with theatre companies to paint skenes, craft masks and build machines, inspecting the antique mask of Apollo; the descriptions of Syracuse and the fortified old city of Ortygia when Nikeratos first visits; and the funeral procession of Dionysios the Elder.

Historians and readers who may be fussy about historical facts (like me!) are also appreciative of Renault’s prudence. In the Author’s Note, she shares for the reader some of her source material, which aspects of the novel are taken from classical records, which are inferred and which are fictional. For example, for Dion she relies chiefly of Plutarch who, in turn, relied on Timonides and Philistos; for Plato, she relied on his surviving writing and letters. Some of the fictional characters are purely imagined but their names are taken from surviving records of prominent real actors of the period. She also shares a short list of books she used for her research.

No part of Greek life has aroused more scholarly debate than the techniques of the theatre. Literary accounts are late and conflicting, contemporary accounts casual. In a novel one has to choose between rival theories on such matters as the use and form of the machines, and the height of the stage above the orchestra. […] It is certain however that three men sustained all the speaking roles in every tragedy, the extra, if there was one, being almost wholly mute; and that the actors somehow achieved the amazing versatility required.

From the Author’s Note

Renault, who was born in London, spent most of her adult life in South Africa where she felt she could write freely on homosexual relationships and her books have enjoyed a strong gay readership ever since. While, in the previous novels of hers that I have read, I felt this was only a minor aspect of the story, in The Mask of Apollo it has a larger role. In the second half of the novel, Nikeratos is in a long term relationship with Thettalos – a fellow actor. A younger man, Nikeratos identifies his gift for acting and takes Thettalos under his wing. As the years go by, the relationship must adapt as Thettalos becomes a leading man in his own right, a position they cannot both occupy together. Their relationship is not a marriage, however, and neither are completely faithful to the other, though, not without some guilt. The love they have for each other does come through and is felt by the reader.

In any story that contains intertextual material, the reader can’t help but wonder what the author is playing at (no pun intended). In the volatile climate in Syracuse, some of the plays in the novel are used to make a statement to the audience. Elsewhere, the characters in the novel reflect and analyse the plot, characters and motivations in the play and how it relates to their own situations. Some of this was clear to see, some of it went a little over my head. Most of the plays referred to and described in the novel are fictional – not based on actual plays from ancient Greece – but that does not mean Renault is not using them to send a message.

My criticisms of the book are few and minor. I enjoyed the first half more than the second. In the first half I was swept away by the world Renault placed me in, was caught in the drama and rapid action of the moment, and she continued to surprise me with clever turns of the plot. In the second I felt less assured of where the story was going, of what was still to be resolved. Renault does well at manipulating Nikeratos’ story so as to allow him to believably be a witness of key events for us; there were only a couple of instances where I felt this stretched credulity a little.

Perhaps surprisingly, for a novel first published in 1966 and set in the 4th century BCE, I found the second half of The Mask of Apollo to be very relevant to our times. Having read in recent years books like On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple by Maria Misra, The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani and also watching the MAGA movement in the US as well as the regression of democracy in other countries; the precariousness and fragility of democracy is a message in this novel.

The Mask of Apollo is set in a world that is not ready for the ideas of Plato and Dion. When you have the threat of Carthage hanging over you, civilians would trade their freedom for the security offered by a tyrant. Using mercenaries, well-paid by tyrants, to provide that security puts the means of violence in the hands of those who have an interest in perpetuating tyranny. Dion’s rivals for rule in Syracuse reject the social contract that requires them to act in good faith; they are not above using propaganda, populism, hypocrisy and their own lack of principles to their advantage and turning public opinion against Dion. The dilemma faced by Dion, as it was for leaders in the 20th century and today, is whether they must use undemocratic methods to defend democracy and weaken its enemies, as some would urge them to do, or whether this would inevitably become self-defeating.

At the next assembly, when the dead were scarcely buried and the prisoners just ransomed from Ortygia, Herakleides proposed that Dion should be offered the title of Supreme Commander with full powers. It was the old office of the Archons. Dion neither agreed nor refused, but left it to the people. The gentry and the middle citizens were for it; the commons, led by his friends, cheered Herakleides’ bigness of heart, and voted him back to the rank of admiral, with equal status.

[…] ‘Thundering Jupiter!’ he groaned. ‘The man is not fit to take a grain-fleet across the straights. How did Dion not stop it?’

‘How could he? He has forgiven Herakleides solemnly, in public; he has refused supreme power on principle. If he’d opposed it, he’d have looked suspect both ways.’

‘And Herakleides knew it. Dion should not have let him live.’

‘He said to me once, “A state is the sum of its citizens. If they have all renounced their private virtue, how can they build a public good?” Surely it is true.’

[…] ‘Try, Niko, to think of him as a man trapped not by the baseness in his soul, but by its magnanimity.’

‘I do. It comes easily to an actor. Tragedy is full of it.’

Nikeratos is not sheltered from this either. The theatre industry is not self-sustaining – its fans are mostly poor, without the sponsorship of the wealthy it would be too expensive for fans to enjoy and it is mostly the tyrants who fund the industry to keep their civilians happy and promote themselves. But Plato and Dion are not supporters of art for art’s sake – they believe in art that serves a purpose or models good behaviour. All of this complicates the political feelings of those in the industry.

I still have a few more of Renault’s ancient Greek novels to read and I plan on getting to them soon. When I finish, she will be my most-read author and if I enjoy the rest as much as I have enjoyed those so far, she will thoroughly deserve it. Her strengths are her world-building, based on a strong foundation of history; her imagination and creativity in filling the gaps without betraying that respect for history; her crafting of stories with great drama and turns of plot; and the seamlessness of her writing despite a reliance on a variety of sources. All of this was evident in The Mask of Apollo as it was in her other novels. The Mask of Apollo ends with a sense that the turbulent period Nikeratos lived through is coming to an end and points quite directly to what is coming next; a new era for both the Greek world and as the subject for Renault’s following novels.

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