Real People in Historical Fiction

The Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault: I’ve read and enjoyed books by Renault before, so reading The Mask of Apollo felt very much like sinking back into a comfortable armchair: Renault’s style and voice were both familiar to me. I have to say though that The Mask of Apollo now probably ranks as my favorite out of her books.

The narrator is a fictional character, Nikeratos, who was born to the theater and lives his life as a traveling actor. His success is closely linked to Dion of Syracuse, brother-in-law to the tyrant Dionysios and friend to Plato. Dion is charismatic, honorable and educated: to the eyes of Plato and his Academy, as well as Nikeratos himself, he is the embodiment of the philosopher-king ideal. Dion’s chance to implement the principles of Plato’s political philosophy comes when Dionysios dies and his son, Dionysios the Younger, takes the throne. Plato is invited to Syracuse and wins the favor of the young ruler; unfortunately, the intention to influence the tyrant to institute rule of law is sabotaged by power struggles and Dionysios’ own jealousy of Dion.

I emphasize the politics, but what drew me into the story was Nikeratos’ everyday life in the theater. The aesthetics of Greek theater seem rather alien to my modern eyes: there’s a point when Nikeratos and his fellow actors learn that the Etruscans put on performances without wearing any masks, and they think the idea is radical and even a little obscene. Three actors share the burden of multiple roles in the play, with the help of extras (who don’t speak) and the chorus. The actors, while not being considered entirely respectable, do take their profession quite seriously, and performing a play is in a way a religious ritual. The devotion that Nikeratos shows towards theater is his guiding moral code, and his faith in the power and demands of his art is symbolized in the eponymous mask.

As Nikeratos observes the drama that unfolds around Dion, Plato and the young Dionysios, he brings an actor’s psychological insight that these characters lack. Dion, Plato and the other philosophers of the Academy believe in promoting their ideas through rational argument; Nikeratos knows however that the best way to move an audience is through emotional appeal. Plato and Dion debate the morality of an art form that shows gods and men at their worst—as bestial slaves to their passions—while also acknowledging that theater also shows men as heroes, ideals to which the ordinary man can aspire. Nikeratos though knows better: the dualism is at the heart of theater itself, and it is perhaps Plato and Dion’s inability to recognize human weakness that becomes their own downfall in the end.

The tragedy of this novel is also dual. First, there is Dion himself, who as tragic hero succumbs to the fatal flaw of his pride. Then secondly, the perhaps more poignant tragedy comes at the end, when Nikeratos meets Alexander, many years after Plato’s death, and recognizes in the boy the potential for the philosopher-king that Plato hoped for. The novel ends by saying, “No one will ever make a tragedy—and that is as well, for one could not bear it—whose grief is that the principals never met.” And I think indeed, Renault succeeded in writing that tragedy: Plato and Dion as heroes who are undone by the failure of their ideals, bringing personal disaster to them both, with Nikeratos’ role as chorus and commentator.