Review of “Tragedy in Performance” – Michael R. Halleran

pages 198-214 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

For everyone who’s wondered how the stage and physical spaces of the ancient Greek theatre were set up, Halleran’s essay is a great place to start. His essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Theatrical Space,” “Actors and Chorus,” “Conventions,” “Stage Properties,” and “Gestures and Silence.” Here is a summary of the main points from each of the sections.

Theatrical Space

Moderns are used to reading ancient Greek tragedies. Texts of tragedies, in the ancient world, however, were rare: ancient were more used to watching drama in performance. Drama itself means “something done.” To understand ancient tragedy, it follows that we should understand how and when it was staged.

Ancient tragedy was performed at the City Dionysia, a springtime festival that honoured Dionysus. Each year, three dramatists would be selected to stage four plays: a tragic trilogy connected by mythological elements or three separate, unconnected tragedies followed by a boisterous satyr play. Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia, for example, was followed by a satyr play called Proteus that dramatized Menelaus’ homecoming after the Trojan War and spoofed his brother Agamemnon’s tragic return.

Plays were staged at the Theatre of Dionysus, an outdoor theatre that sat between 15-20,000 on seats carved into the south face of the Athenian acropolis. The semicircular “theatron” or seating area carved into the Acropolis encompassed another space, the “orchestra,” a circular space in front of the seating 70′ in diameter where the chorus would sing and dance. Behind the orchestra was the “skene” or stage building. Since most tragedies revolved around royal families, the skene would often represent a palace. The stage building was a rectangular structure elevated 3′ from the ground and rising 12′ high. It was 35′ in length and 15′ deep.

Two long ramps on either side of the skene called “eisodoi” led to the stage building. Here, actors could make their way to the stage by walking on the ramp between the stage and the theatron. Since the eisodoi were close to 60′ long, grandiose entrances from stage left or stage right were possible.

Finally, there were two additional stage devices for special effects: the “ekkyklema” and the “mechane.” “The ekkyklema,” writes Halleran, “was a wheeled platform that could be brought forth from the opened doors of the skene to reveal an interior scene.” The mechane was a crane that carried characters aloft. Plays employing deus ex machina ending would use the mechane to stage the sudden arrival of the god.

Actors and Chorus

Greek tragedy employed three actors who would (primarily) speak their lines on the skene. The actors would wear a full-length robe (chiton), an outer garment (himation), a linen mask, and flat-soled shoes or boots. Doubling, or the use of one actor to play multiple parts, was common, and could lead to intriguing possibilities: for example, in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, the male actor who plays Deianira (Heracles’ wife) could poison Heracles, and then come back in the next scene as the poisoned and dying Heracles.

In counterpoint to the actors on the skene, Greek tragedy also employed a chorus, who would sing their lines in the orchestra. Halleran disagrees with those who see the chorus as a superdramatic entity commenting on the action, citing plays such as Aeschylus’ Suppliants where the chorus of suppliants takes part in the action. For Halleran, the distinction between actor and chorus is that actors used the language of “declamation, explanation, debate and argument, while the sung verse of the chorus was the language of evocation, imagination, fractured narrative, and highly charged images.” In the interplay and tension between the actors on the skene and the chorus in the orchestra Greek tragedy generates its particular excitement.

Conventions

Enjoying the show involves a willing suspension of disbelief. Many elements of theatre are highly artificial, from men playing womens’ roles to characters speaking in verse. While comedy likes to poke fun at its artifices, tragedy prefers to maintain the “fourth wall” of drama. When tragedy does break the fourth wall, however, the affect can be profound. At line 896 of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, when it seems as though the oracles of the gods were failing, the chorus asks “Why should I dance?” This metatheatrical line breaking the fourth wall is astounding, as the chorus at the moment is, in real life, performing a dance in a religious festival. Their threat to quit the dance unless the oracles of the gods ring true reminds the audience that they are watching a chorus who are both actors and fellow citizens. If Dionysus is not real in real life, there is no reason to dance, either on stage or in life.

Stage Properties

The stage of Greek tragedy–by today’s standards–has an uncluttered, sparse, and open aesthetic. The simple qualities of the ancient stage allowed ancient playwrights to powerfully focus the audience’s attention on whatever happened to be on the stage. Common stage properties were: corpses (Ajax in Sophocles’ Ajax, Alcestis in Euripides’ Alcestis, and Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus), a weapon (Heracles’ bow in Sophocles’ Philoctetes), altars (the various suppliant plays), and buildings (a palace in Aeschylus’ Oresteia or a house in Euripides’ Alcestis).

The ancient stage gave an incredible concentrated power to the drama. Halleran, for example, discusses how Ajax’ corpse (Ajax impales himself on his sword midway through the play) stays on stage the whole play. Thus, while the other characters argue over the good and bad qualities of Ajax, his corpse is in plain view. In the end of the play, it is predicted that the death of Ajax will lead to the creation of a hero cult. But, seeing that Tecmessa and Eurysaces, during the play, already take refuge at his corpse, the play intimates powerfully that the hero cult of Ajax is already begun. There is power in the archaic simplicity of the stage properties of Greek tragedy.

Gestures and Silence

Halleran concludes his study of tragedy in performance by examining two extra-textual elements of performance: gestures and silence. The gesture of supplication–touching the supplicated’s knee and chin from an inferior position–often provided an impetus for a dramatic turn of events. Euripides writes memorable supplication scenes in both Medea (when Medea supplicates Creon to delay exile a day) and Hippolytus (when the Nurse supplicates Phaedra to reveal her secret).

“Characters on the stage but not speaking,” says Halleran, “can be lost on the page but not in the theater.” Aeschylus was so fond of this technique that he was satirized for it: Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, is plainly visible but silent as Agamemnon comes home to Clytemnestra. Cassandra’s presence is a foreboding presence, since she knows (being a prophetess) the tragedy that will shortly unfold. Sophocles too uses this technique to great effect in Oedipus rex: Jocasta is silent while the Shepherd and the Messenger unravel Oedipus’ identity. While they uncover the truth, Jocasta figures is out as well, and her silence testifies to just how bad the situation has become.

Thoughts

Sometimes, with all the talk of the connections between ancient Greece and modernity, it’s easy to forget about how much has changed in the two-and-a-half millennia between then and now. Halleran’s essay on tragedy in performance is a good reminder that those were different times. Yesterday: open-air theatre, masks, choruses dancing in the orchestra, theatre as a religious service, simple sets, limited special effects, dying (usually) not dramatized on stage, concentrated focus on singular stage properties, theatre for all citizens, frequent doubling of actors, maximum three actors on stage. Today: indoor theatre, theatre as entertainment, elaborate sets, many special effects and lighting, dramatic dying scenes, theatre for elites, many characters on stage, busy stages, (usually) no chorus.

Halleran mentions a peculiar convention of Greek tragedy: death is usually not dramatized on stage. It usually takes place offstage. I wonder if this convention arose because Greek tragedy, as part of the ancient liturgy, was conceived of as a show that is put on for the gods? That is to say, they imagined that they gods would also be watching (Halleran notes that the Temple of Dionysus would have been in plain view beyond the skene) and, since the gods (at least the Olympian gods) distanced themselves from death, they, as a gesture of goodwill to the gods, spared them the sight of death? I’ll leave you with this conjecture. It is an interesting conjecture since the dying scene, as we know from modern drama, is quite dramatic. There must have been a reason why they did not take advantage of it.

Author Blurb

Michael R. Halleran is Professor of Classics and Divisional Dean of Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Washington. He is the author of Stagecraft in Euripides (1985), Euripides: Hippolytus, with Translation and Commentary (1995), and numerous articles and reviews on ancient Greek literature and culture.

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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

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