Lysioidia: Transgendered Actresses/Actors in Hellenistic Theater

John H. Starks, Jr.

Agnes Scott College

Late in Athenaeus' encyclopedic symposium, discussion turns to dinner entertainment, especially numerous obscure, defunct song genres whose distinctive features are shared with Athenaeus' audience (14.620-621). Hilaroidia, magoidia, and lysioidia are particularly compared to each other and to the familiar tragoidia and comoidia in contrasts established by the musicologists Aristoxenus and Aristocles.  But while hilaroidia, serious paratragedy, and magoidia, usually suggestive, emasculated paracomedy, are specifically contrasted with regards to costuming, accompaniment, and actor characterization, the lysiode is left in limbo here, either identical to the magode (Aristocles) or identical to the magode in musical repertoire and everything else except one important distinction, the lysiode performs gunaikeia prosopa andreiois, 'female characters as males, or in male attire (Aristoxenus; also Eust. Od. 23.134).' The dramatic effect apparently required a specialized woodwind instrument and musician (Ath. 5.182c; 6.252e).

Three performers of lysioidia are identified in extant texts: Metrobius, a lover and 'principal advisor' of Sulla (Plu. Sul. 36); Antiodemis, a 'lovely chick,' 'halcyon of Lysis-song,' and 'plaything of drunken abandon,' admired by Antipater of Sidon (AP 9.567); and a female lysiode loved by the Epicurean Diogenes (Ath. 5.211c-d).

Women or men could sing these songs that deliberately blurred gender boundaries, certainly in costuming, and probably in lyrics and vocal register. Performers were to be young and alluring (Metrobius was performing way past his prime), probably type cast for gender ambiguity. The vocal timbre was likely countertenor/contralto, producing a sound and effect much like Julie Andrews' androgyny in 'Victor/Victoria,' a performance that I will briefly examine in this paper, along with references from other transgender films, such as 'Shakespeare in Love,' 'Stage Beauty,' 'Crying Game,' and 'Boys Don't Cry.' The roles and plots appear to have centered sometimes on comic adulteresses, pimps, and drunks (Metrobius is appropriately mentioned in the company of the comedian Roscius and the lead mime actor Sorix), though not necessarily in slapstick fashion. Illusion and delusion were key, and ribaldry might be expected. Antiodemis, described in typical male gaze language (cf. McClure Courtesans at Table 2003), offers a mesmerizing gaze of her own, erotically soothing music with playful touches, fluid, sensuous movement, and gentle charm that Antipater recommends as pacifying stimuli for belligerent Romans. In a lampooning designed by the Seleucid Alexander Balas, Diogenes' lover appears before the unsuspecting philosopher wearing a costume intended for Diogenes; the performance subtext suggests that Diogenes was watching his male impersonator girlfriend play him – he and others were, I believe, admiring the humor and performance of Diogenes 'himself' onstage.

Many theater historians, following Reich Der Mimus(1903), have lumped the lysiodes and similar singers under a generic heading of mime. While their actions and some roles are mimetic, the specific costuming and their distinctive performance style do not reflect the well-represented genre of mime, per se (also Leppin Histrionen 1992). The three performers mentioned above belong to the period 150-80 BCE when Romans were rapidly responding to cultural arts and entertainments of the Hellenistic courts; so, the heyday of lysioidia and its apparent disappearance from our sources coincides chronologically and programmatically with the earliest manifestations of pantomime, the most popular theatrical genre in imperial Rome - a popularity partially founded on a performer's ability to transgender believably.


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