The Mask of Apollo ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Mary Renault’s 1966 novel, The Mask of Apollo, is historical fiction, based, in large part, on historical fact. The main character is Nikeratos (“Niko” to his friends), an Athenian actor who is relating the story in his first-person voice. Nikeratos is a fictional construct, but most of the other characters and incidents, including a very young Alexander the Great at the end of the story, are real.
The setting is Greece about four hundred years before Christ. Nikeratos, being the son of an actor, is born into acting. He finds success in his calling early in life and moves up through the ranks of desired actors. To me the most interesting parts of the novel are the descriptions of the stagecraft of the period, which, even by today’s standards, were very elaborate and sophisticated. Plays were the entertainment of the masses, instead of just the cultured few. Theatres seated as many as fifteen or twenty thousand people and plays often began before dawn, with the rising sun sometimes used as an effect in the play. Only men were allowed to act on the stage, so men played in women’s roles. People in the audience never saw the faces of the actors during a performance because they wore elaborate masks (mask-making was a craft in itself). Underneath the masks the actors spoke the lines the playwrights had written. The best and most successful actors became celebrated.
If Nikeratos’s life isn’t interesting enough as an actor, he becomes involved in political intrigue in Syracuse, a powerful Greek city state at the tip of the island of Sicily. Syracuse has been controlled by despots, first by Dionysius, and then after his death by his son, Dionysius the Younger. Nikeratos befriends Dion, a moderate politician and pupil of the philosopher Plato. (They never become “lovers” in the Greek sense because they are of different worlds, but there is definitely an attraction going on there.) Dion is trying to bring stability and democracy to Syracuse by teaching Dionysius the Younger about more tolerant forms of government. Dion entrusts Nikeratos to convey sensitive political documents between Syracuse and Athens. Plato and Dion attempt to restructure the government of Syracuse along the lines of Plato’s Republic, with Dionysius the Younger as the archetypal philosopher-king. Of course, things don’t work out the way they had hoped.
The Mask of Apollo is a readable classic, somewhere between pop fiction and literature. It’s plenty engaging enough, but for me the political intrigue began to grow thin and meandering toward the end of the book. History tells us that things didn’t end well for Plato and Dion, but the last hundred pages or so seemed kind of anticlimactic. It might have been gripping but isn’t. All in all, though, it’s an interesting and informative journey to the ancient world, an escape from the dreary times we live in.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp