All entries for Monday 18 October 2004

October 18, 2004

Visual Resources – Staging the Eumenides

1. Working in pairs, review a selection of images from the Web Resources page.

i. Is it possible to determine whether the ancient vase paintings are depictions of theatrical performances, or of the myths upon which the plays are also based?

ii. In the light of your response to i. above, how significant may ancient vase paintings be as evidence for ancient theatre practice?

The vases seen depicting mythical scenes through the above link would seem to be the artist's own interpretation of the myths (handed down from generation to generation). We have come to this conclusion because the vases show women (who did not perform in the theatre at this time), and do not show performers wearing masks, which was the theatre practice at the time. Another factor contributing to this conclusion was that the vases depict scenes of violence between Orestes and Aegisthus. Although this is very true to the legend itself, violent scenes were largely performed off stage in Greek Drama. Finally, these vases were made in 510–500 BC. The Oresteia, which is the legend that these vases are depicting, was in fact written around 458 BC. There would therefore have been no performances to base the image on; only stories. These vases therefore seem to show the myth, rather than the theatrical performance of the myth.

However, it would be fair to say that the artists would probably have been influenced and informed by theatrical performances, because before the myths were simply narrated rather than acted out in a real form.

2. View digital visualisations of the 5th-century Theatre of Dionysus in (a) the swimming pool - Greek Drama Gallery, and (b) the Theatron Module.

i. The 4th century B.C.E. Phlyakes vases from the south of Italy show temporary wooden stages which we believe are similar or identical to those that would have been used for comic performance in the 5th century B.C.E. How adequate or appropriate would such a stage have been for the performance of tragedy in the 5th century B.C.E., in particular the Eumenides?

ii. Where could Klytemnestra, Apollo and Orestes have performed in the opening scene of the play?

iii. Where could the chorus have performed?

The Phylax stage (see below for picture) is surprisingly small and would create a very intimate performance (despite the outdoors setting).

I think that it would be very interesting to see how the chorus would be incorporated onto the set, as the stage looks quite cramped, and only adequate for 5 or 6 performers. However, it was common for the Chorus to perform in the orchestra (dancing place), leaving the stage open for the main three protagonists.

It is important to note however that Phylax stages tended to be used more for comedy than tragedy. The stage is more intimate and the windows seen as part of the skene (seen in the picture below) will provide excellent opportunities for comedy situations e.g. characters over-hearing something.

The opening scene between Apollo, Kltyemnestra and Orestes takes place in the inner shrine, and could easily take place in the orchestra. I think it would be effective if the performers were on the ground with the audience, looking onto the stage as if a shrine.

3. In Theatron, explore the model of the Theatre of Dionysos, which represents the theatre as it may have been during the Lycurgan period (338 - 326 B.C.E.). Compare and contrast its stone skene with the wooden Phlyakes stage.

i. What possibilities and limitations for performance does each type of scene building allow or impose?

ii. The action of the Eumenides is set in three locations. What are they?

iii. How might these scene changes have been staged?

The limitations of both of these theatres are obvious. The Dionysus stage offers a huge space for extravagant chorus and grandiose scenes. However, it is obvious by using the Theatron and going to the top row of the huge theatre space that the audience is going to find it very difficult to see or hear any of the action.

The Phylax stages, in contrast, offer audience space for only fifty or so members compared to the thousands in Dionysus, and the performance may be more powerful for the audience, due to their proximity to the action. However, the small stage will not allow many performers or props to be used.

The 3 Eumenides Settings

1 Temple of Apollo, Delphi
2 Inner shrine
3 Acropolis

I believe the scene changes would be very limited, with performers simply going off stage, and perhaps small changes in scenery. However, I think the main indication of a change of scenery would be through the chorus' descriptions.

4. Traditionally, it has been assumed that the theatrically 'strongest' position for an actor was directly in front of the central doors of the skene. Recently, however, in Tragedy in Athens, David Wiles has argued that, for Athenians, the most symbolically potent position was the centre of the orchestra. Explore both of these theories by considering the 'binding scene' in the Eumenides

i. What kinds of spatial and choreographic relationships between theatre, spectators, actors and chorus, could have been established in each case?

ii. How might different spatial relationships have affected the meaning of the scene, or the characterisation and status of the characters and chorus?

By performning directly in front of the central doors of the skene, I feel the action (in this case – the 'binding scene' from the Eumenides), would be very distant from the audience and the emotion and movement involved in such a scene would be lost. However, in the centre of the orchestra (which is the centre of the whole theatre) the audience would be a lot closer to the action and the performance would be more alive.

5. Where are the best and worst seats in the 4th century theatron? Why?

i. How did the physical conditions of spectatorship for ancient Athenian audiences differ from the usual conditions of spectatorship in a conventional theatre building today?

ii. Do these differences suggest a fundamentally, or merely superficially different theatrical experience?

iii. Read the short note on Greek Audiences, and the longer text by Csapo and Slater. How might a style, or styles, of performance have evolved in response to the scale and sight-lines of the theatre, and the nature of the spatial and emotional relationship between Athenian spectators and performers?

iv. Might different parts of the theatre have demanded different styles of performance?

v. How might the style of choral performance have differed from that of the character actors?

W.B. Stanford makes the interesting point that, unlike today's segregated theatre seats, the Greeks would have been tightly packed together:

"If someone beside you sobbed or shuddered or trembled, you would feel it directly, and a wave of physical reaction could pass like an electric shock through all your neighbours... mass emotionalism flourishes in compact crowds of that kind"

This would help create a really emotional, fundamental atmosphere within the theatre. It would be impossible to escape the communal emotion in such a tightly packed audience and this would heighten the overall experience of the performance.

It is clear that performing in different areas of the theatre would require different skills. The use of such techniques as vocal projection and gestures would have been of upmost importance (considering the size of the theatres e.g Dionysia could hold up to 20,000), and these techinques would have had to be adapted for various situations and locations.

The Chorus would generally represent the voice of the masses. They would perform in tandem and would often use song and dance to convey their feelings to the audience. The character actors on the other hand were individuals that spoke on their own and that demanded their own stage space.

This professional and concise review, brought to you by Gethin Jones and Jack Howson

October 2004

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