Staging, Actors, Masks
Hellenistic terracotta statuettes of actors

Aristotle tells us that Sophocles introduced the art of skenographia, “painting on the skene,” which probably meant the use of large painted panels hung on the front to the stage buiding to indicate the setting for a particular play. Since the stage building would sometimes represent a palace, sometimes a temple, and sometimes even a cave or a farmer's hut, such painted panels would have helped imaginatively evoke the dramatic setting (for more information, see Roger Dunkle's discussion of skenographia). Other special effects were created with the help of two pieces of stage machinery known to have been used in the fifth century. The ekkuklêma was a large platform on wheels that was used to represent interior tableaux. For example, when Orestes dramatically threw open the doors of the palace to reveal the slain bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the audience would not have been able to see inside the stage building, so the two bodies were wheeled out on the ekkuklêma, and the audience understood that they were supposed to be viewing an interior scene. The mechane was a large crane which could swing a platform containing one or more actors from behind the stage building up over the heads of the actors and chorus, creating the illusion of flying. The earliest known use of this device was in Euripdes’ Medea (431 BCE), when Medea flew off with the bodies of her children in a dragon-chariot supplied by the sun-god. The Latin expression deus ex machina (“the god from the crane”) refers to inferior playwrights’ practice of suddenly having a god fly in to resolve all the difficulties of the plot, but clever dramatists could use the crane very effectively without marring the unity of their plays, as indeed Euripides did in Medea.

carnelian seal ring--actor with mask

An actor was called hupokritês, meaning “answerer,”suggesting that the first actors were thought of as answering the chorus. All actors were, of course, adult males, generally seasoned professionals. Although early plays required only two actors, by the time of the Oresteia (458 BCE) three actors were needed for tragedies, and by 449 BCE the leading actors of each of the three sets of tragic performances competed for an acting prize at the City Dionysia. Since each tragedy had more than three speaking roles, the actors played multiple parts; this was made easier by the wearing of masks and the nature of the dramatic costumes.

One major characteristic of tragic costume seems to have been long, closely fitted sleeves; another was elaborate patterning and embroidery. Both of these characteristics are evident on this detail from a fourth-century vase, which may depict a scene from Euripides’ lost play Oineus. At least some tragic actors wore the kothornos (Latin cothurnus, called “buskin” in the Renaissance), a soft-soled, calf-length boot with turned-up toes that sometimes had lacings; note the right-hand actor pulling on his boot in this painting from a fifth-century Attic vase. Indeed, the comic poets made a political joke out of the fact that these boots could be worn interchangeably on either foot. The Pronomos vase, dating from about 400 BCE, provides some of our best evidence for dramatic costuming and masks. The vase depicts a “back-stage” celebration at the end of a satyr play, presumably the victors in a dramatic competition; it also depicts and names the Theban aulos-player Pronomos, who is also shown in dramatic costume, presumably because he had to be in the orchestra throughout the play. This drawing represents the full scene. On the left side, we can see the satyr chorusmen in their wooly loincloths with horse tails, artifical phalluses, and bearded, snub-nosed masks; the costume and mask of a tragic actor can be seen in the figure of the king. On the right side are more chorusmen, Herakles (whose tragic costume is augmented by the lion skin, quiver, and club traditionally associated with this hero), and Silenus, leader of the satyr chorus, with an all-over wooly white costume and mask with long white beard.

mosaic detail--tragic maskAs is evident in the Pronomos vase, tragic masks were not oversized or distorted; including the attached wig, they covered the entire head, with openings for the eyes and mouth. They were made of light-weight materials such as stiffened linen, leather or wood and were painted in a realistic fashion. Some later written evidence suggests that satyr masks were painted with reddish skin, male masks had brownish or yellowish skin, and female masks had white skin. Masks of young men like the one at the left were beardless; men in their prime had full beards and brown or yellow hair; old men were depicted as balding, with long grey beards. Hair color distinguished young and old female masks, and hair length was also important—long hair was typical, while “half-shorn” wigs designated women in mourning and closely cropped wigs indicated female slaves. Certain special masks were occasionally used for dramatic impact; for example, Oedipus may have worn a special mask after his blinding, and Aeschylus’ chorus of Furies certainly wore masks that suggested their monstrous appearance. The mask with an exaggerated peak of piled-up hair over the brow (called an onkos), as shown in this small terracotta mask or this mosaic from Pompeii, was a late Hellenistic and Roman feature.

cameo of pipes player and poetGiven the structure of the Greek theater, acting was akin to dancing in that broad gestures and body posture and movements were very important. And of course the actors had to have excellent voices, with clear articulation and good breath control. Although much of the actor's performance was spoken dialogue, he sometimes sung lyric solos. Music was very important in Greek tragedies. Solo songs were accompanied by a stringed instrument, the lyre of Apollo, while the rest of the play was accompanied by the double pipes, the aulos associated with Dionysus; the Roman cameo at right shows a seated poet and a aulos-player. Unfortunately, almost no fifth-century Greek music has survived; however, with a sound card and midi player, you can still hear modern renditions of the fragmentary remains of on Stefan Hagel's ancient Greek music site.

September, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
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