October 22, 2004


Using Roman Wall Paintings (frescos) as 'Evidence' for Traditions of Staging in Greece.
These Roman frescos from Pompei were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. around 500 years after the plays of Aeschyus, Euripides and Sophocles were first staged in Athens. They depict myths that were the subject of 5th-century Athenian tragedy, and that continued to be represented on the Roman stage, both in revivals of Greek plays, and in later plays written in Latin.

1. Consider the depictions of mythological scenes:

i What are the main similarities and main differences between the way in which the death of Pentheus is depicted in this fresco and in Euripides' Bakkhai? (Use an online text of the Bakkhai if you do not have your copy to hand.)

In some ways the image is similar to the depiction of Pentheus' death in The Bakkhai, as the image shows the character being dismembered by a group of women wearing vine leaves in their hair and carrying the thrysuses of Dionysos. However, in the play Pentheus is murdered by his mother alone and ripped savagely into many pieces, whilst in the above fresco he is being over powered by a number of women.

ii. Compare and contrast the way in which the death of Iphigenia is depicted in this fresco with how it is recounted in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and/or in Euripdes' play Iphigenia at Aulis.

Aeschylus suggests in his play Agamemnon that Iphigenia was killed as a sacrifice in front of the fleets setting off for Troy and then strung from the masts of one of the ships. The above fresco also shows the princess being taken as a sacrifice, but it does not show the public nature of her death or give any indication of a ship or the beach on which she was meant to have died.

iii. Why do you think the similarities and differences which you have identified may exist?

Playwrights in this period may have tried to create dramatic impact with more horrific accounts of these characeters' deaths. Also, the images on the frescos would have been designed to be aesthetically pleasing, whilst the depictions of death in plays would have been designed to be realistic.

iv. On reviewing your responses to the above questions, how useful do you find these Roman frescos to be as evidence for traditions of tragic performance in 5th-century Athens?

In some ways the frescos are useful, as they depict the myths that tragic plays were based on. However, the images to not give evidence of contemporary tragic performance styles; such as the use of masks and energetic dancing.

2. Examine this mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompei.

i. What different types of masks can you see?
There are five different masks in the picture, one of which is framed with vine leaves to depict the God Dionysos. The other masks appear to depict other tragic characters.

ii. What do you think is going on in this scene?

The characters in the image appear to be performing a tragedy or preparing for a performance.

3. Look at the masks in these frescos depicting actors, and those in the Pronomos Vase.

i. What differences can you discern between the 'tragic' masks depicted in the frescos and the vase?

The tragic masks depicted in the frescos are less life like than those in the vase. The artist responsible for the frescos has emphasized the wooden nature of the masks and the dimensions of the faces are disproportionate; the noses appearing much too large for the rest of the face. However, the masks in the pronomous vase are of a lighter, skin colour and appear to have real hair and eyes etc.

ii. Why might the masks be different?

The frescos would have been designed by roman painters after ancient greek plays had been absorbed into their culture, and as a result, knowledge of the detail used in greek masks would have been lost. Also, as the pronomous vase was designed as a celbration of the theatre for the Dionysos festival one year, the artist responsible would have taken pains to make the representation of the masks as complimentary and life like as possible.

iii. Why do you think the ancient artists (and viewers) might have been so interested in depictions of actors and masks?

Theatre was central to ancient greek culture as it was a way of teaching citizens about contemporary issues as well as an important social event. The masks worn by actors in this period were closely linked with helmets and battle; another preoccupation of ancient greek culture.

4. Consider this painting from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.

i. Is it similar or different in subject to the vases considered in Q.3 above?

The above painting features theatrical masks like the other frescos we have looked at, but the facial expressions on the masks are much more detailed, exploring the sorts of emotions that contemprary playwrights wished to invoke in their audiences.

ii. What do you think the purpose of such paintings might have been?

Such paintings may have been designed to chronicle and celebrate contemporary theatrical conventions.

October 15, 2004


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?


It is difficult to be entirely sure of what the paintings are depicting, but it is likely that they portraying myths rather than plays because there are no references to contemporary theatrical conventions in the paintings such as masks. Also, as mythology was central to ancient greek culture, it is likely that a variety of art froms would have been used to depict it.

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

As ancient greek theatre was based almost entirley on mythology, the vase paintings show scenes that might have been created on stage. The paintings also show great physicality, reminiscent of the energetioc dancing of contemporary plays. However, the paintings include images of women and live animals, neither of which would have been seen on stage, so they cannot be entirely relied upon as evidence of ancient theatre practice.

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

To use the Theatron Module:

go to >Delivered Applications >Viewers >Cosmo Player, and double-click on the Cosmo Player icon
still in Delivered Applications, go to: >Applications >Theatron, and double-click on the Theatron icon in the right-hand window.
Password: UOW_UKIPA
Once inside Theatron, see the Phlyax stage in the 'Temporary Stages' section.
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?

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?

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?

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?

6. Taking into account your findings in the above explorations, suggest one or more ways in which the voting scene, and the final hymn by the Women of Athens have been staged in the Eumenides

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