What do you see when you read a Greek tragedy?

Mainade_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2645Maybe you have read one, or many; maybe you have even written a paper about Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, or Euripides’ Trojan Women. But what do you really know about what these plays looked like when performed on the stage? Chances are, not very much.

Partly, that is because of the limitations of our evidence: we don’t have any DVDs of ancient performances. In fact, we don’t even have ancient stage directions: the directions written into the plays that you read in class in translation are all added by modern editors and translators. We have pictures painted onto vases and other dinnerware and trophies that show actors in their masks, and many that tell the stories of particular mythological figures who had plays written about them: Helen of Troy, Agamemnon, Cassandra, Ajax, Theseus. But these cannot help us to reconstruct the actual plays, of course: they can chiefly give us a sense of what the public thought of the story, and what they thought it was “teaching.” We


can look at ancient Greek theaters — almost every little Greek mountain town had one — but this does not tell us how exactly the actors and dancers and singers used the space, or what they did to get their share of applause. But partly, it’s a problem of perspective: when we read Greek plays in our high school or university, we are often encouraged to think of them as “classics” — that is, as pieces of literature to be read silently, pondered alone in our rooms, and drained for their wisdom — not as scripts. And yet, they are scripts! How can we learn to “see” them as written directions for a performance?

First, a careful reading of the play entails a look at entrances and exits of characters in the drama. The tragedies were performed in broad daylight, with no curtain to hide the set or actors before they entered the stage area. This means that every character, including the Chorus, has to enter the stage from one of three entryways: from stage right (usually designating “the countryside”), from stage left (usually designating “the town center and harbor”), or from the skene building doorway, up center on the stage and representing “indoors” or (depending on the play) “inside the palace.” Every Greek theater has entrances in these areas. For an in-depth look at the entrances and exits in ancient Greek plays, Margarete Bieber’s detailed 1954 article in the American Journal of Archaeology, “The Entrances and Exits of Actors and Chorus in Greek Plays,” is very helpful.

Next, it is always useful to remember, while reading an ancient Greek tragedy, that the variety of characters was restricted by a peculiar convention that all speaking roles were covered by only three actors (two in the earlier period). These actors were all male, and were called literally the “first,” “second,” and “third” actor (protagonistes, deuteragonistes, and tritagonistes). This has several results for the plot and appearance of a play. Most obviously, no more than three speaking parts will be on stage at the same time. [IN PROGRESS!]

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